Out of this world

Amazing Stories June 1947 (public domain)
Future transport as envisaged in Amazing Stories June 1947 (public domain)

Another week, another update to the creative writing classes I attend where we look at literary genres: this last week we looked at Science Fiction. And already we’re in difficulty. Is it ‘science fiction’ (where the emphasis appears to be on science), ‘sci-fi’ (which already looks rather passé as an abbreviation, and is often used in a derogatory sense), ‘SF’ (which seems to be the preferred acronym), ‘speculative fiction’ (which is less constrictive, encompassing elements which may otherwise be counted as fantasy) or ‘SFF’ (=SF+fantasy, an acronym which seems to have had its day)? I’m going to use SF, but you can read it how you like.

Let’s start with what it’s not, as popularly perceived. It’s often regarded as the antithesis of fantasy, perhaps differentiated in a table somewhat like this one:

Science fiction Fantasy
Describing the possible Describing the impossible
Non-religious Myth
Social commentary Fairytale


But anybody with half a brain (even one in a bell jar) can see flaws with these assumptions. So-called ‘soft SF’ often, despite using pseudoscientific language, sometimes describes what is never possible (such as Ursula Le Guin’s ansible supposedly allowing instantaneous communication across the universe). Some fiction in this genre can be very religious in its broadest sense, asking big questions about Primal Causes or critiquing current orthodoxies (as I think Frank Herbert’s Dune novels try to do). And some writing — I’m thinking now of Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor series — cheerfully mixes up ‘possible’ aspects of SF (a large planet colonised by humans in the distant future) with magic, the classic ‘impossible’ attribute of classic fantasy. A plague on both these houses: I’m rooting for creative fiction that doesn’t necessarily travel down well-worn paths.

With such a large and disparate genre we can’t do much than quickly romp through the history of SF, from antecedents like Plato’s Critias (which introduced Atlantis), through classic 19th- and early 20th-century fiction (Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde, Jules Verne, H G Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs) to the innovative magazine Amazing Stories (which began publishing in 1926). So-called ‘hard SF’ dealt with exciting scientific and technological possibilities only (Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero for example), but there were visions of a dystopian future such as Nineteen Eighty-Four which only incidentally used possible technologies.

The forties and fifties are regarded as the Golden Age of SF, but the genre has fragmented massively since then, with sub-genres such as cyberpunk, steampunk (Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines), alternate history (Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle), alternate universes (Dick’s Ubik perhaps) and comic SF (Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy being perhaps the epitome of this type).

Scratching the surface then, and indubitably simplistic, but enough to show that SF is not just about BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) or just for enthusiastic Whovians and Trekkies. After all, if it has attracted highly regarded writers like Doris Lessing, Margaret Attwood, David Mitchell and Salman Rushdie it shouldn’t deserve the disdain that literary snobs used to heap on it. (And may still do for all I know.)


18 thoughts on “Out of this world

  1. Well said! I think here you have clarified once for all why SF is the preferred way of calling it, even though many talk now of speculative fiction, which is anyway something broader. A question: which one of cyberpunk authors have you discussed in class ( apart from Gibson?)

    1. Thanks for confirming my understanding of SF, Stephen — I have to say the tutor only used the term sci-fi, never SF, leading me to suspect she wasn’t an aficionado of this genre. Cyberpunk? This was only mentioned in passing in class, and I myself haven’t knowingly read any, let alone Gibson. What would you recommend for a first foray?

      1. I think you’re right about your tutor not liking SF a lot…! Re: cyberpunk, I would certainly start with Neuromancer, by Gibson, the first of its kind. For something recent, try Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan. I have written a short description of both on my blog (under Fiction-SF snippets) if you want a quick summary.

        1. Thanks very much, Stephen, Neuromancer seems to be the often-cited template, so I’ve no excuse now not to try it; I’ll certainly check your snippets for this and Morgan’s novel.

  2. What always amazes me is how the snobbism about SF goes both ways. It happened with Ishiguro’s Never Let me go – how dare he write SF (He’s doing it again with his latest of course – how dare he write Fantasy (having read it, it’s only fantasy in passing though)). So it’s not just literary types being snobbish about what they perceive as ‘genre’ fiction. Although I don’t have time to read much SF these days, I still love it and all its off-shoots, and hope that the term ‘speculative fiction’ can help bridge the gap a little?

    I would recommend you start any exploration of cyberpunk with Gibson’s Neuromancer — he is the Daddy of the sub-genre after all.

    1. Thinking that a writer ought to stick to ‘their’ one genre is like assuming that a person has to always wear the suit, casual wear or uniform in which they first appeared in public — ridiculous really. I wonder if this attitude is more prevalent in the UK where there seems to be a prejudice against diversifying, a sort of jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none prejudice. Though I suspect this is starting to change.

      Thanks for the recommendation, Annabel. This is certainly the Gibson title I keep coming across in discussions!

  3. As a self confessed book snob, I admit, I love the genre, it done well. Many writers of SciFi are very articulate and entertaining. Arthur C Clark wrote some mind bending short stories. Many Scifi writers ask their readers to question social norms and to look closely at the human condition.
    I have to admit, I tried Neuromancer twice. I could not get into it. My hat is off to Annabel for enjoying it. I love Steampunk, but will leave Cyberpunk on the shelf.

    1. I’m not an SF fanatic but I do like to read the occasional novel in the various sub-genres, Sari, whether hard or soft, comic or speculative. I will give Neuromancer a go sometime, but perhaps not just yet — just too much to catch up on at the moment.

  4. Ursula LeGuin has long pondered the SF/Fantasy divide. See a recent discussion with her about this at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6253/the-art-of-fiction-no-221-ursula-k-le-guin
    Also, check out notes on a discussion between her and Margaret Atwood at http://io9.com/5650396/margaret-atwood-and-ursula-k-le-guin-debate-science-fiction-vs-realism
    I love LeGuin’s point that “all writing is by definition ‘literary’, except that some is better than others.”
    Someday I may write something comparing the ideas in LeGuin’s Intro to Left Hand of Darkness (find it here: http://theliterarylink.com/leguinintro.html) to those in Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories (find it here: http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf), to end with a statement stolen from Peter Schickele (originally in reference to music): If it sounds good it IS good.

    1. Thanks for these links, Lizzie; I occasionally visit Le Guin’s own site where she posts regular updates and links, but these look extra special, especially the discussion between her and Atwood. Look forward to your comparison post!

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