What is science fiction?
Perhaps no more loaded question about the genre exists. Everywhere from fanzines to forums, newspapers to Facebook, in 280-character tweets to long-form essays, no other topic in science fiction generates such fervent and fevered discussion.
What makes Star Trek science fiction while Star Wars is not, and vice versa? Why did French literature critics exclude Jules Verne from the genre, while other critics argue just as fiercely for his inclusion. Why is the Gothic novel Frankenstein so controversial in its inclusion in the genre? Why was C. S. Lewis so dismissive of conventional stories merely set in the future? Why did Edmond Hamilton say of Ray Bradbury, “What he was writing was not science fiction, but it was so damn good that it had to be included in science fiction.”?
These arguments around the nature of science fiction focus on excluding what is not science fiction rather than answering the question on everyone’s mind. If any compromise is found, it is around the unconvincing statement that we “know science fiction when we see it”.
The decades of chatter about the subject refute this.
In broad strokes, the contending theories can be generalized as such: science fiction is a system or science fiction is a setting. As a system, science fiction is speculative, exploring the unknowns of humanity and science through the examination of a writer’s chosen starting conditions, and then using logical and sound principle to extrapolate the consequences into the wild unknown. As a setting, science fiction is simple: the future, however that may be imagined and however far into the future it may be imagined. This may be merely five minutes to five eternities from the present.
Systemic science fiction mythologizes itself as the Sibylline gospels of the future, both in the social and technological realms, yet is aghast when the rockets, flip phones, tablets, and ansibles are remembered while the messages and warnings are forgotten. This reduction of system to setting, of teachings to toys, incites a frustration in authors. Who remembers Fahrenheit 451 as a warning against television, as Ray Bradbury intended it to be? Meanwhile the firemen and the ways to preserve cultural artifacts pop up again and again in popular discourse and even movies such as Equilibrium. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and Psychohistory are remembered, and are even developed into being, while Susan Calvin and Golan Trevize are familiar only to enthusiasts. Settings resonate with readers more than logical puzzles of conjectured consequence–and their warnings.
Yet there is something empty to the idea of science fiction as a mere setting. Even the future five minutes from now must be imagined from an initial set of starting condition–the present. So, in crafting the setting, the author must already do an extrapolation into the unknown to complete the worldbuilding. And even that extrapolation requires an initial set of circumstances to be built from. After all, what is the future going to be like in five minutes? How is it different, and how does that change the story? So setting requires system, which in turn must be informed by setting in a sort of chicken and the egg conundrum.
So, instead of system or setting, science fiction is both in a sort of yin and yang that, once again, pleases no one. Attempts to divorce the two have failed. Readers reject as science fiction those serials and adventures that create a technological wonder as a MacGuffin only to return the series at the end to its initial starting point without consequence–as often found in thrillers inspired by Doc Savage, James Bond, Remo Williams, and a host of other detectives, agents, and heroes. And periodic attempts to remove the trappings of a future setting from science fiction, to leave behind a “pure” speculative fiction, have gained no traction outside of groups of fannish malcontents. Merely stating that a science fiction story combines setting and speculation may be technically correct, but it may also be as unconvincing as “we know it when we see it.”
What is unarguable is that science fiction concerns the future.
But what is the future? After all, the future by itself is an incomplete setting, as the technological trappings continue to shift wildly as the technology of the present has. Not only that, but the question arises of whose future? So the peoples, languages, and cultures in science fiction stories need some base material to start the spree of conjecture and consequence that uphold the adventures. So it comes as no surprise that, to round out their worldbuilding, science fiction authors have turned to the common settings from other literary genres.
The Byzantine Empire and the barbarian kingdoms for Foundation. The Russian steppes for Dune. The chinoiseries of China, Japan, India, the Fertile Crescent, and the French Foreign Legion. Ruritanian Romances. The army regiment, shifting in service from personal World War II style-memoirs with Starship Troopers and The Forever War to Black Hawk Down tales of the unit and regiment in Galaxy’s Edge: Legionnaire. Even the Amazon adventures of Sir Percy Fawcett have fueled the great speculative engine of science fiction, and not merely out of one writer’s curiosity, as the explorer’s exploits also inspired stories in the adventure and hero pulps.
So, as literary fiction has borrowing ideas from science fiction, science fiction has borrowed settings from contemporary literary genres to become the backdrop for speculation about the future. So, over the next few months, let’s examine alongside science fiction’s most beloved stories, the settings that inspired them. Not only that, but connect these stories and their settings to the various literary and popular fashions of the past two centuries, including those in romances, pulps, non-fiction, and even the storiless playgrounds of tiki and steampunk.
Please join this trek across imagination’s frontiers.