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:
|Describing the possible||Describing the impossible|
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.)