There are two kinds of believability in science fiction. The first is internal, does the story make sense in its own fictional reality? The second kind asks if the concepts in the story are believable in our reality? In this essay, I’m concerned with the second kind. I believe all science fiction readers have built-in bullshit detectors that vary in accuracy depending on the science they know. To complicate the problem, none of us know the real potential of science and technology.
Last year I started gorging on science fiction short stories. I’m reading stories from the last two hundred years, jumping around from decade to decade in no particular order. This is giving me a sense of what every generation feared and hoped for the future. What I discovered, and should have predicted but didn’t, is that every era has the same hopes and fears, they just apply their current science to their speculation. However, over time we accept the reality of what science teaches us while still wildly speculating about what science could still discover. It’s a form of neverending hope.
Those reading space operas today no longer expect futures where Dick Seaton hurls galaxies at his enemies, but they do believe our minds will be easily transferred between bodies (human, alien, artificial beings), virtual realities, machines, and spaceships. Every generation wants to go where no human has gone before, to escape the limits of mortality, and create what’s never been imagined.
When we’re young we’re willing to believe almost anything. However, the closer we get to knocking on heaven’s door the more we disbelieve. Aging means education and experience, lessons that define our boundaries of believability.
I’m almost finished reading The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois that collects 38 science fiction short stories first published from 2002-2017. It’s giving me a great overview of what 21st-century writers think what might be possible in the future. The trouble is, I doubt most of what they dream will come true.
One of the most popular science fiction themes of our time is brain downloading. Essentially, it’s a psychological replacement for accepting Jesus and attaining everlasting life. Sure, getting downloaded into a robot, clone, or artificial body is as entertaining to read as magically getting turned into a dog or cat, but my bullshit detectors start clicking loudly when science fiction acts like Harry Potter.
Science fiction shouldn’t be let’s play make-believe. There’s a huge difference between what if and if this goes on. Just because we can imagine it doesn’t make it possible. In recent decades some science fiction writers have pulled away from faster-than-light travel. And time travel is a much less popular plot device in serious science fiction. Yet most science fiction readers and writers ache to zip around the galaxy at whatever magical warp factor makes the story work, or escape a plot conundrum with a bit of time travel.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m 67 or reading science fiction for sixty years, but I’m now craving bullshit free SF stories. I now consider most stories labeled science fiction to be fantasy. Some writers even claim that science fiction is merely a subgenre of fantasy. I believe, or want to believe, that real science fiction is separate from fantasy. That science fiction is a genuine cognitive tool for speculating about what might be possible.
Yesterday, The Guardian ran “‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?” by Sarah Ditum. It’s another report about how literary writers sneer at science fiction even when they use its storytelling techniques in their work. Every few years essays like this appear, and science fiction fans get in a snit. The reality is published science fiction is not a successful publishing category and ambitious writers don’t want to get pigeonholed into our genre. It’s perfectly understandable. However, the cognitive tool of writing science fiction is very successful, and literary writers want to use it from time to time. Ian McEwan has just published Machines Like Me that is obviously science fiction. He wants his science fictional speculation taken seriously, thus the reason why he’s avoiding being classified as a science fiction writer. It sounds like Catch-22, but then the Yossarian’s Catch-22 meant something real too.
What some science fiction fans don’t understand is the average person might have better SF bullshit detectors than we do. It’s somewhat analogous to religious true believers being angered by skeptics who reject their truth out of hand. Faith in anything tends to disable bullshit detectors.
What I’m saying is either my age or my study of science fiction has made me a skeptic in my faith in science fiction. In other words, I’m becoming the Bart D. Ehrman of my religion – science fiction – by studying its history.
James Wallace Harris, 4/19/19
4 thoughts on “The Limits of Believability in Science Fiction”
Well, James I have to admit that in my old age I’ve become something of a skeptic of science fiction myself, though on a more personal level. After 55+ years of considering myself a science fiction fan, I’ve discovered that I wasn’t. Not really. Your essays are partially to blame. Plus, after reading the story reviews Rich Horton posts on his site, I seem to find so many of those stories to be weird, or silly, or weird and silly. And yet, they’re all science fiction. It seems that I never knew science fiction at all. As I’ve mentioned before, I almost never read SF short stories, and even when it comes to novels, I’ve not read much more than a dozen of the greatest 100 science fiction books on any list. Whole decades of of SF seem to have slipped by without me noticing. It is rather weird discovering that you’re not what you thought you were. What I am, I guess, is an escapist adventure story fan. Science fiction merely provided an exotic background for those adventure stories. But in truth, a story set in 1848 India provides just as alien and exotic background as in any science fiction. Well, at least one that I would read. So, while our disconnects with SF are different, I think I know a little how you feel.
And I think that I agree with you on your second point. “Science fiction” is used by publishers as a marketing tag to get the book put on the shelf next to books that the publisher thinks are similar, and will appeal to those customers. A literary fiction author’s readers aren’t going to look for his book in the science fiction section, so it makes no sense to call it science fiction. Science fiction is what(ever) it is. There is no need to apologize for what it is, or rush to defend it. I always go with Duke Ellington’s observation: “If it sounds good, it is good.” If you enjoy science fiction, it’s good.
Where could I find a list of true science fiction novels?
That’s a good question. The trouble is everyone defines science fiction differently. Even so-called Hard Science Fiction isn’t always very scientific. But this Google search offers several lists to try.