My Science Fiction Can Beat Up Your Science Fiction

I admit, this entry was inspired by the most recent in a series of articles about science fiction getting ‘real’ as opposed to being fantasy with science fiction trappings (I’m looking at you NPR). But I think this really harkens back the old hard SF versus “soft” SF versus using SF as a literary mode debates. In fact, it’s as old as some of the genre’s founding documents.

Both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrote about travels to the moon, but while Verne stuck strictly to the technology of the time, Wells brought his protagonists to the moon using Cavorite, which can negate gravity and, as yet, is undiscovered. Verne took Wells to task for this, asking if he could show the wondrous material which blocked gravity.

Wells wasn’t that interested in detailed realistic plans for reaching the moon. He was interested in what he would find there, and how he could relate it to life on Earth. (Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant. has a lovely take on this.)

The fight between ‘show me the blueprints’ and ‘I’m trying to talk about colonialism’ continues today. We’ve added another layer to it with the debate between so-called ‘hard’ sciences (engineering, material sciences, physics) and soft sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology).

It’s something I’d expect a stereotypical Dad to go on about, “Forget one of them girlie degrees in a hippy science with trees and shit. Get yourself a real job, with like an electrical engineer. Or one of them guys who makes jet fighters!”

All these debates, discussions, ‘sudden trends,’ all boil down to the same fight in my view.

“I like SF. This is my view of what science fiction should be: If it doesn’t have the following elements, well it’s pseudo-literary-fantasy nonsense and doesn’t belong.”

Or, put another way, “Hey, they’ve got a keyboard on stage! That’s not real rock & roll!”

I have my own personal definition of SF. For me, SF is a literature discussing the impact of change in our world, using ideas and speculation as its toolkit, and thoughts of what could be as its materials. It still is the literature of “What If?” but the style is what comes after the “What if?”
What if we could mine the asteroids? Great question. What about the ones you ask afterwards?

  • How would it be done? What would be the technical requirements? (traditional hard SF)
  • What would be the impact on the global economy when wealthy nations can get their resources from space, and pull out of developing countries? (a soft SF approach)
  • What would one of these remote asteroid miners be thinking about as he watches a drone destroy a worldlet? Is he imagining some greater civilization doing the same with planets? (Space opera. Or Literary SF depending on the tack you take. Or a poem!)

Fantasy takes the tools of What If, of ideas and speculation, but applies it to what was or what was dreamed about in the past as its materials. “What if the War of the Roses happened in a world where magic was returning, slowly, and people ignored a great threat in the north?”

I think you may know that one.

When we have these articles about “Big thrusting spaceships are back!” and such, we’re basically redrawing lines in the sand from old debates. And those old debates honestly boiled down to the same boring argument: “This type of story is better than others, because it’s the type I like.”

But it’s not. It’s just different. Check out just one of the many Best Of lists out there: Barns & Noble’s best of SFF of 2015 There’s a variety out there, from hard SF to more fantastical notions of the future. And we should celebrate and promote that variety.

To mangle Voltaire, “I may not enjoy your style of science fiction, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to enjoy it.” And I’d rather talk about the vast variety of SF out there than rehash the same partisan debates and weaponized nostalgia.

Unless you’ve got a good story about weaponized nostalgia… I’d be in for that.

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