1940-03 Astounding p122 bw

Norman Spinrad’s latest “On Books” column has caused some minor controversy, although I’m not sure why since everything in the column seems reasonable to me. Although I tend to like modern short science fiction more than he does. I do agree that the science fiction genre has been diluted with too much fantasy. I wish there were two completely separate genres. I’m also bothered by the fact that many younger readers don’t seem to distinguish between real science fiction and fantasy science fiction.

I found this statement by Spinrad the most interesting:

It tells us that fantasy has long since come to dominate SF. It tells us that many or perhaps even a majority of these SF writers do not have the education or indeed the inclination to learn the difference between science fiction and fantasy and to dish the result out to a populace that has more than enough confusion about the difference between reality and magic already.

It got me to thinking about the meaning of science fiction. To be able to distinguish science fiction from fantasy requires a precise definition of each. Too many have tried that for me to consider jumping into the fray. But I have thought of another angle of attack. What is the purpose of each?

Right now science fiction and fantasy seem to be fairy tales for older readers. And for these readers fantasy has a flavor of the past and science fiction has a flavor of the future. And if this is their sole purpose then it hardly matters if writers distinguish between the two. Especially if editors and readers are only looking for entertaining stories.

Since Spinrad is criticizing writers for not knowing the difference between science fiction and fantasy I must assume he believes there is a difference. I know I do, but are we deluding ourselves if no one else does?

There is an interesting aspect of this problem. The SF/F genre is the only genre where short fiction is thriving, still being bought by editors and read by readers. Would-be writers are attracted to its paying markets. What could be happening is hordes of writers looking to get published see this and have decided to its easier to get acceptance letters in our genre, and even get paid. They feel this market requires fantasy and science fiction elements in their stories so they add them. I’m guessing Spinrad feels these new writers don’t know the genre or its history and thus are just making stuff up that they believe is science fiction. Spinrad also feels they don’t know traditional storytelling techniques.

I’m an MFA dropout. Twenty years ago I took many creative writing courses and workshops but didn’t finish my degree. At the time my professors tried to steer us away from writing genre stories. The emphasis was on getting published in literary magazines. The MFA was a terminal degree for teaching in higher education, so the focus was on getting a job at a university. Being published in literary magazines counted towards an academic job. My courses promoted literary writing techniques, and these are different from genre story writing. I believe many SF/F writers in recent generations have taken MFA courses and that has influenced their writing style, and changed the genre.

There are practically no jobs for creative writing majors, even though the degree is promoted as a pathway into teaching. I’m guessing that’s why we’re seeing an influx of these writers into our genres. And for the most part, they didn’t grow up reading science fiction and fantasy magazines. However, that’s not their fault. Nor do I have any problem with them using our genre as an outlet for their creative hopes.

However, should science fiction be anything people want to write and call science fiction, or should it have a purpose? In 2004 DARPA created the Grand Challenge offering a million-dollar prize for the first autonomous vehicle to travel its predefined course. That was a very definite purpose. Science fiction doesn’t have such a highly focused purpose like DARPA’s, but does it at least have a vague purpose? One that goes beyond fairy tales for grown-ups.

I believe H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein felt it did. Yet, describing that purpose is as difficult as defining science fiction. Science has the job of describing reality. But the term “science fiction” isn’t storytelling about describing reality. Ironically, that job belongs to literary fiction. Science fiction has taken on the job of trying to describe what science cannot yet describe but should eventually. To confuse the issue science fiction often speculates about possibilities that turn out to be impossible. Science fiction’s apparent purpose to explore territory science hasn’t but hopefully will. Fantasy doesn’t even go near this territory, nor does it try.

Good science fiction should be a cognitive tool for philosophically guessing what we might find in reality. Science fiction is fictionalized thought experiments. Whether science fiction is told using old-fashioned storytelling structures, or in newer MFA literary styles doesn’t matter. The real purpose of science fiction is to present philosophical insights into the event horizon between what is known and what is not.

The trouble is most “science fiction” writers, past or present, have taken these speculations and created fun fantasies. Star Wars is the perfect example. Star Wars has no extrapolation or speculation. Basically, Star Wars borrowed most of its themes and icons from Isaac Asimov, ones Asimov first created for speculative SF. Star Wars turned real science fiction into Disneyland fun science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It has a different purpose.

Part of the problem Spinrad complains about regarding not distinguishing science fiction from fantasy is most science fiction readers who read only fiction marketed as science fiction can’t distinguish serious science fiction from fun science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Anything that calls itself fantasy isn’t even part of this discussion. I am not worried that fantasy sells more than science fiction. It does bother me a little that fantasy is shelved with science fiction, but that’s only an inconvenience. It is more annoying that some magazines and anthologies want to package them together, so half the content I purchase isn’t wanted. But my real problem, and I think Spinrads’s too, is serious science fiction is being rejected by society totally embracing fun science fiction.

For most of its history, science fiction has had the reputation of being that silly Buck Rogers stuff. There were a few writers and editors that wanted science fiction to have more validity. Even today there are writers that use both science fiction and fantasy to express serious philosophical insights and worries. What’s even more ironic, is real serious science fiction often gets stripped of its label science fiction and reclassified at literature, such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison escaped the whole problem of defining science fiction by rejecting the label completely.

Like I said earlier, Spinrad and I might be suffering from a delusion, and so were Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, and Heinlein. That’s one reason why I’m reading and researching old science fiction. Were these guys on to something, or were they crazy, or boosting their egos with fantasies of self-importance? Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding suggests they were egomaniacs using science fiction to make their lives significant. But I don’t know. In all those old pulp stories there’s a glint of gold. Was it fools gold or the real gold?

James Wallace Harris, 11/6/19


11 thoughts on “Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?

  1. But is Star Wars science fiction after all? I’ve always been inclined to think that it is. Of course, it may not be the most vital part of science fiction, or the kind that you and I like the most, but that doesn’t disqualify it completely. Science fiction is diverse—you can’t see it as just one narrow thing.

    I would justify Star Wars as science fiction by saying that it speculative content is that civilizations such as those in the story may well exist (or may have once existed) because of what we know about the vastness of the universe. The Death Star and the X-wing fighters are technological creations, not magic. We are given a context in the known universe within which such things may exist; such things may have happened.

    Of course, the “science” and technology in Star Wars are all wrong, in countless respects. Space battles won’t ever really resemble Spitfires and Messerschmidts duking it out in the London skies of 1940. But it doesn’t matter. The science and technology of Star Wars may be the veriest handwavium, but that is enough for membership of the category. If we insist on demonstrably accurate and realistic science for science fiction, we’ll have to throw out too many of our most beloved works.

    Fantasy, of course, is different. Fantasy needn’t bother to establish a setting or background that can be placed in the known world. Fantasy has the luxury of saying “Once upon a time …” and then just making stuff up. Of course, I oversimplify. I have to; I don’t want to write a whole essay of my own. I’m like Damon Knight. I trust my instinct. The margins of science fiction are quite expansive, and we should have a welcoming attitude as far as category labels are concerned. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to like everything equally.

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    1. Didn’t Star Wars begin with a long time ago in a galaxy far far away? Isn’t that the same as once upon a time?

      To ask if something is science fiction I think we should see where the story speculates or extrapolates. And it doesn’t have to be about the hard sciences, social sciences and the soft sciences count too. Aren’t all the science fiction elements cribbed from the past? The only new thing I can spot is lightsabers.

      But isn’t everything in Star Wars borrowed? Doesn’t Star Wars feel like its a homage to every 1940s pulp out there – the science fiction ones of course, but the pirate stories, the westerns, the historical romances, the air pulps, and so on. I recently saw a short film describing the Top Ten Westerns of all time. The first 9 were a brilliant review of exceptional westerns. For the number one spot they picked Star Wars. At first, I was offended, being a big fan of westerns, but they convinced me that Star Wars had all the elements of a great western.

      Doesn’t Star Wars really descend from Sir Walter Scott than H. G. Wells or Hugo Gernsback?

      Not only does Star Wars borrow from the pulps, it borrows from 1940s movies too. Aren’t Hans Solo and Princess Leia characters really just new roles for Errol Flynn Oliva De Havilland?

      The trouble is it’s really hard to come up with new science fiction speculation. The era of H. G. Wells and Astounding in the 1940s grabbed all the good ideas first. And the sad thing about Campbell and Heinlein is most of their speculation was about superpowers humans will probably never have. They both hoped we’d become so much more than we are, and I seriously doubt it. Heinlein did a lot of speculation and extrapolation about social change and politics too. His Future History stories were quite creative even though all his speculation turned out to be wrong.

      Most of science fiction’s big success rests on space travel and robots. And we really don’t want to be right about alien invasions and end-of-civilization stories. And science fiction continues to play catchup with computers and networks. A lot of stories today depend on brain downloading and uploading, which I believe is about as likely as time travel and FTL.

      I think Heinlein knew science fiction was running out of steam when he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. I think Heinlein at the beginning of the 1960s was like his hero H. G. Wells at the beginning of the 20th century – what can I imagine now?

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  2. Does science fiction have a purpose? Yes. It is to tell a story that entertains readers. The operative word is “fiction.” If one wants real/serious scientific speculation about the future, reading non-fiction would likely be a better choice. The broader the canvas of fantasy/speculative fiction/science fiction, is, the more choices everyone has to find stories that appeal to them. What’s wrong with that?

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    1. Chuck, for most readers the purpose they seek is entertainment. And nothing is wrong with that. But my reading of SF history suggests some writers had other purposes in mind for their fiction. I believe Heinlein wanted to inspire the space industry in the 1950s with his stories for kids. I think many writers in the early 1940s wanted to promote the idea humans could transcend limited ways of thinking. Often science fiction writers want to warn readers of futures we’re heading towards we should avoid. I believe SF writers are now promoting transhumanist hopes to people who might become scientists who will invent their dreams for them.

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      1. You’re right James– many sf authors have and continue to use the genre to explore serious topics with their stories. There are many ways of engaging and entertaining readers, and raising serious questions and exploring pressing issues about our future is certainly one very good way.

        I think, however, that your title could be rephrased as; “Does Science Fiction Have A Mission?” Was it designed by its early editors for a specific mission – for example; to promote scientific and rational progress? And if so, is it still on track? Some authors clearly believed it was, but do they represent in numbers, or influence, the critical mass in science fiction back then, or now? I’m not widely read enough in sf to know the answer.

        I think that what annoyed some people about Norman Spinrad’s rather rambling article, was that it came across as an old man yelling at the kids to get off the grass – from a park bench. It’s not his grass, nor is science fiction his. Fantasy rose and passed science fiction in popularity decades ago. It was science fiction’s market to lose, and it was authors like Spinrad who lost it. He can’t blame it on fantasy writers infiltrating sf organizations, or editors trying to stay afloat by following market trends. Tastes change, and so some types of science fiction have faded. Oh, well. Static science fiction would be a dead art.

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  3. Trying to create a hard definition of science fiction,seems to be a Chinese puzzle.I cite three novels, “The Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe, “Mythago Wood” by Robert Holdstock and “Ferve Dream” by George Martin, as examples of SF that contain large quantities of fantasy elements, but defy being classified as fantasy.This is because they’re also concerned with social and psychological themes that are found in modern science fiction.

    The two realms can therefore be made compatible.In this case though, it seems that making a clear definition of them is difficult, because they are much murkier than what they might have been thought to have been.

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    1. I don’t think writers should be limited by having to meet any genre definitions. They should write whatever they want. I just wish there were lots of precise labels to help me find the kinds of books I want to read.

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  4. In one way, Science Fiction is a thought experiment. We looks at technologies that haven’t been developed yet, or societies that might happen, and apply outselves to it. How will humanity fair against or using new Technologies, or in certain settings. what are possible outcomes. So, yeah, it serves a purpose.

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  5. If you are looking for a genre that can entertain and at the same time feed you with knowledge, Science Fiction is for you. Sci-Fi novels will bring your imagination to the future — giving you a glimpse of what may happen in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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