What is Science Fiction?

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What is Science Fiction?

#1  Postby lpetrich » Jun 24, 2019 2:00 am

First, fiction in general is some artistic presentation, like literature, where at least some elements are invented by its creators. The invented elements are usually foreground elements like the main characters, but background elements like technologies can also be invented.
  • Mundane fiction - background all non-fiction
    • Present-day fiction
    • Historical fiction
  • Speculative fiction - background has fictional elements
    • Alternate history
    • Utopias, dystopias, post-apocalyptic stories
    • Science fiction
    • Fantasy, supernatural, superheroes
Some genres of fiction, like romance, mystery, and horror, cross these boundaries.

Now for science fiction. It is rather hard to define, because at one end, it fades off into fiction with present-day technology, and at the other end, it fades off into fantasy. Grading Science Fiction for Realism has a spectrum.
  • Present-Day Tech: technothrillers, "Shuttle Down" by Lee Correy
  • Ultra Hard: Jules Verne, "2001: A Space Odyssey" except for the aliens, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert Heinlein
  • Very Hard: Cyberpunk like Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" and William Gibson's "Neuromancer" with "jacking in" computer-brain connections
  • Plausibly hard: Arthur C Clarke's "Rama" series, "2001" aliens
  • Firm: Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and robot stories
  • Medium: Frank Herbert's "Dune" series
  • Soft: much of "Babylon 5", the more plausible bits of "Star Trek"
  • Very Soft: much of "Star Trek", "Star Wars"
  • Mushy Soft: superheroes, giant monsters, "Dr. Who", fades off into fantasy
Another axis of hard vs. soft is nuts-and-bolts vs.sociological science fiction.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#2  Postby lpetrich » Jun 24, 2019 2:55 am

This is commendably precise: Writer's Guidelines - Contact Us | Analog Science Fiction

We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley's Frankenstein without the science and you'll see what I mean. No story!

The science can be physical, sociological, psychological. The technology can be anything from electronic engineering to biogenetic engineering. But the stories must be strong and realistic, with believable people (who needn't be human) doing believable things–no matter how fantastic the background might be.

Definitions of science fiction - Wikipedia has a big collection of them.
  • John W. Campbell, Jr.. 1947. "To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made."
  • Theodore Sturgeon. 1952. "A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content."
  • Frederik Pohl. 1968. "Someone once said that a good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. We agree".
  • Isaac Asimov. 1975. "Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology."
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#3  Postby lpetrich » Jun 24, 2019 3:03 am

Isaac Asimov himself once wrote an essay, "Future? Tense!" ("From Earth to Heaven") where he wrote
Do you see, then, that the important prediction is not the automobile, but the parking problem; not radio, but the soap-opera; not the income tax but the expense account; not the Bomb but the nuclear stalemate? Not the action, in short, but the reaction?

One of my favorites is IA's "Sally", a story about self-driving cars where manual driving was rather controversially outlawed as needlessly dangerous. Also, the important thing about IA's robots is their following IA's Three Laws of Robotics, not their having positronic brains. Having positronic brains is a future-tech detail, and an unworkable one at that. But the Three Laws of Robotics are important as safety mechanisms, and they often feature in discussions of AI ethics.

He also has some amusing examples of how not to write SF. He imagines someone writing about cars in the 1880's:
There could be the excitement of a last-minute failure in the framistan and the hero can be described as ingeniously designing a liebestraum out of an old baby carriage at the last minute and cleverly hooking it up to the bispallator in such a way as to mutonate the karrogel.

"The automobile came thundering down the stretch, its mighty tires pounding, and its tail assembly switching furiously from side to side, while its flaring foam-flecked air intake seemed rimmed with oil." Then, when the car has finally performed its task of rescuing the girl and confounding the bad guys, it sticks its fuel intake hose into a can of gasoline and quietly fuels itself.

Does any of that look familiar?
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#4  Postby Fenrir » Jun 24, 2019 3:47 am

Gah, Asimov's three laws were his worst mistake. Totally unrealistic.

I agree with your quote of him above though.

"Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology."

I'd go a bit further and say SF explores the human condition by taking a group of people (a whole society or just one), changing something, and seeing what happens.

Blade runner isn't about replicants or dystopian civilisation. It's about what it means to be human. The change it that not all are born, some are made.

Neuromancer isn't about the internet or AI. It's about empathy and human interaction. The change is that tech allows immersive access to information.

Surface Detail isn't about hell or talking spaceships. It's about humanity, or inhumanity, ymmv. The change is to a post-want society.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#5  Postby scott1328 » Jun 24, 2019 4:06 am

There appears to be grave misunderstanding of IA’s purpose in his Three Laws. They were gedankenexperimenten. They were a deconstruction of the “robots always turn on their masters” trope. They were not intended to be realizable; merely idealizations: suppose you could build robots that followed these incontrovertible laws? Asimov wrote many novels and short stories about his robots and the Three Laws. Many of these are mysteries often about how a human has come to some harm (apparently) caused by a robot. In each of these mysteries it is always the case that some loophole in the Laws was exploited. His later novels went to some length amending or discrediting the Laws.

In other words, the stories act as a reductio ad absurdum.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#6  Postby lpetrich » Jun 24, 2019 5:52 am

I've seen the Three Laws slammed as impractical, and it must be conceded that they assume a lot of background knowledge, like what qualifies as a human being and what qualifies as unacceptable harm.

But as broad principles, the Three Laws can be interpreted more broadly as Three Laws of Tool Design.
  1. A tool must not harm its users or allow them to be harmed.
  2. A tool must do what its users want it to, except when doing so violates the First Law.
  3. A tool must keep itself in usable form, except when doing so violates the First or Second Laws.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#7  Postby Greyman » Jun 24, 2019 7:36 am

lpetrich wrote: Having positronic brains is a future-tech detail, and an unworkable one at that.
Meh, writing in a time of vacuum-tube-based computers, having robots operated by independent "electronic brains" seemed implausible. Obviously computers in the distant future of 2001 will be the size of entire city blocks unless some esoteric physics is introduced to hand wave away the necessary miniaturisation.

lpetrich wrote:Isaac Asimov himself once wrote an essay, "Future? Tense!" ("From Earth to Heaven") where he wrote
Do you see, then, that the important prediction is not the automobile, but the parking problem; not radio, but the soap-opera; not the income tax but the expense account; not the Bomb but the nuclear stalemate? Not the action, in short, but the reaction?
"And, isn't sanity really just a one-trick pony anyway? I mean all you get is one trick, rational thinking, but when you're good and crazy, oooh, oooh, oooh, the sky is the limit." - T. Tick.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#8  Postby Alan B » Jun 24, 2019 8:30 am

What is Science Fiction? Simples. Creationism! (With very little science...).
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#9  Postby tuco » Jun 24, 2019 10:03 am

Not a Trekkie this Kheper, I guess ;)

What I find let's as a disappointing argument is that Star Trek is very soft sci (fi) because:

Soft: A number of unscientific themes - e.g. aliens as anthropomorphic "furries", handwavium disintegrator guns, Alien Cultures and psychology all extremely uniform, and so on. However, still retains story consistency.

Very Soft: As above but either even more unscientific elements (humanoid of the week, lifeless planets with beathable atmosphere, etc), and story with less consistency


that is, at least in my opinion, a matter of convenience rather than science. S/he could dispute wormholes, warp drive (oh FTL is hard sci-fi ok), sub-space communication, replicators, transporters, inertial dampers or holodecks but s/he has humanoid of the week and breathable atmosphere.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#10  Postby Fenrir » Jun 24, 2019 11:36 am

Star trek is space opera, not proper science fiction. MacGyver with glittery paper clips.

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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#11  Postby Matt_B » Jun 24, 2019 11:56 am

I think Asimov's worst mistake was attempting to link up several of his disparate fictional universes with some very contrived and corny novels later in life. The early robot stories are among his very best work though. If I had to pick just one Asimov novel it'd probably be The Caves of Steel.

As for Star Trek, I'll grant it a harder position on the spectrum than Star Wars but that's about that.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#12  Postby lpetrich » Jun 25, 2019 2:22 am

Fenrir wrote:Star trek is space opera, not proper science fiction. MacGyver with glittery paper clips.

How so? What do you consider space opera? "Proper" science fiction?
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#13  Postby Fenrir » Jun 25, 2019 3:45 am

lpetrich wrote:
Fenrir wrote:Star trek is space opera, not proper science fiction. MacGyver with glittery paper clips.

How so? What do you consider space opera? "Proper" science fiction?


Space opera is a standard adventure story set in space.

Star wars (a new hope) is space opera. It's a bog standard fairy tale. Brave knight rescues fair princess locked in tall tower from evil giant. In space.

Space opera can be great, i'm not panning it, but it can lack the deeper questions that I like about harder sf.

Where harder sf ends and space opera starts is a huge grey zone and up to personal taste imo.

Example: The Uplift War, David Brin. It's an adventure story set in space and on exotic planets with spaceships and aliens and battles and stuff. It's also an exploration of agency and self and paternalism and what defines sentience. Most of the representatives of humanity are chimps and gorillas and dolphins and they aren't there for colour, they are the story, the conflict is just a backdrop.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#14  Postby tuco » Jun 25, 2019 10:58 am

That does not explain why Star Trek is supposed to be space opera. Star Wars sure.

The Uplift War is, as far as I googled, a trilogy. It's not 20 episode series spanning over 7 seasons and in this sense and for more fitting comparison, we could talk just about the movies. Are the movies soap opera too?

As for asking deeper /coughs/ questions. Star Trek is essentially a moral opera set in utopistic future with a strong emphasis on cooperation, non-violence and to a lesser extent non-interference. It explores social issues like sexism, feminism, racism, and militarism or even lets say less pressing issues like suicide, AI non-humanoid ethics, and various dilemmas connected to time travel for example. It was not until Deep Space 9, I think, that interpersonal conflict was given more attention while Discovery went full emo soap imo.

I can only repeat, how so is Star Trek space opera? Or perhaps better yet, out of different Star Trek movies and series, which ones are space opera and which are not?

---
edit: mind that I dont really care about this:

Fenrir wrote:Star trek is space opera, not proper science fiction. MacGyver with glittery paper clips.

[/snooty pompous git]


I lol at pompous gits so I do not feel the need to defend my favorite show against them. I am just curious how you arrived at the conclusion.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#15  Postby lpetrich » Jul 02, 2019 10:18 pm

Fenrir wrote:
lpetrich wrote:
Fenrir wrote:Star trek is space opera, not proper science fiction. MacGyver with glittery paper clips.

How so? What do you consider space opera? "Proper" science fiction?

Space opera is a standard adventure story set in space.

So Star Wars would fail Analog's test -- without the science in it, the story would not exist.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#16  Postby lpetrich » Jul 03, 2019 5:26 am

A related question is what was the first science-fiction story on record. I nominate the story of Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology. They use technology, making wings out of wax and feathers. Daedalus warns Icarus to be careful not to fly too low or too high. But Icarus loved being able to fly, and he decided to fly higher and higher. He got too close to the Sun, and that melted the wax of his wings. His wings fell apart and he fell to his death. So the story explores certain human consequences of this technology. Not just the car, but also the traffic jam.

The next one I feel fairly confident about is Johannes Kepler's "Somnium" ("Dream"), about going to the Moon, including looking back at the Earth.

A famous early 19th cy. one is Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus", and the genre starts to take off in the late 19th cy.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#17  Postby scott1328 » Jul 03, 2019 1:33 pm

lpetrich wrote:A related question is what was the first science-fiction story on record. I nominate the story of Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology. They use technology, making wings out of wax and feathers. Daedalus warns Icarus to be careful not to fly too low or too high. But Icarus loved being able to fly, and he decided to fly higher and higher. He got too close to the Sun, and that melted the wax of his wings. His wings fell apart and he fell to his death. So the story explores certain human consequences of this technology. Not just the car, but also the traffic jam.

The next one I feel fairly confident about is Johannes Kepler's "Somnium" ("Dream"), about going to the Moon, including looking back at the Earth.

A famous early 19th cy. one is Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus", and the genre starts to take off in the late 19th cy.

Larry Niven and Poul Anderson viewed Dante's Divine Comedy as renaissance science fiction. So much so they wrote a fan fiction about it Inferno
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#18  Postby tuco » Jul 03, 2019 4:50 pm

Cool.
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#19  Postby lpetrich » Jul 03, 2019 7:45 pm

I'd say that Dante's Divine Comedy is fantasy rather than science fiction, but it is still speculative fiction.

"Science fiction" often gets used as a synonym for "pseudoscience", meaning fictional science. But there is more to be said. SF in pseudoscience
Let's discuss some of the more common themes that appear in 19th century fantastic fiction. These include:
  • Lost civilizations
  • New animals, both found and made
  • Mechanical life -- robots and androids
  • Visitors from other planets
  • Visits to other planets
  • Time travel into the past
  • Suspended animation or time travel into the future
  • Invisibility
  • The fourth dimension
  • Coexistent worlds
  • Vibrations
  • Energy
  • Parallel worlds
  • Detachable "mind"
  • Reality as mental image
  • Civilization as periodic
  • We're property

Many of these themes are familiar from more recent science fiction. However,
Early 20th century science fiction writers did not add that many new themes. The four most often encountered are:
  • The atom as a little solar system -- or, our solar system as a gigantic atom
  • Matter transmitters
  • Space warp, hyperspace, star drive, hyperdrive, wormholes
  • ESP, psychic powers, psionics

SFers did not anticipate some prominent technologies, it must be noted. Computers, for instance -- essentially disembodied robot brains. They started appearing in SF stories only after the first electronic digital ones were built. The Internet also. Who anticipated some generalized data network?
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Re: What is Science Fiction?

#20  Postby lpetrich » Jul 03, 2019 7:59 pm

This article also mentioned science fiction in religion.
  1. Mormonism isn't very science-fictional. Its sacred books read like additional Old-Testament books, though a very good male Mormon gets to create his own planet and become that planet's god.
  2. Theosophy is somewhat more. Its founder, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, composed much of her writings by plagiarizing Eastern religious texts, but Theosophy also included lots of the SF of the day.
  3. Scientology is rather obviously science-fictional. Its inventor, L. Ron Hubbard, had even been a science-fiction writer.
A rather obvious case of SF in pseudoscience is in UFOlogy. UFOlogists' favorite hypothesis for "true UFO's" has been the extraterrestrial-spacecraft one, but some UFOlogists have proposed parallel universes, time travelers, and breakaway civilizations. All straight out of science fiction.

That explains why UFO abductions and the like get attributed to ET's rather than to demons, and why UFO contactees report ET's rather than angels, even though they sometimes look very angelic. :D

Themes : Pseudoscience : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia

Pseudoscientific ideas have a rather different spectrum in sf than outside it. For example, pseudo-medicine is probably the richest (pun intended) area of pseudoscience, being the region that attracts the most frauds as opposed to sincere theoreticians, yet pseudo-medicine is rarely encountered in sf. ...

At a more fundamental level, one might make a case that sf has contributed more to the pseudosciences than they have contributed to sf.
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