Roundtable Discussion #1: So what is Science Fiction, anyway?

Republibot 3.0
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Theoretically, the Republibot website is all about asking questions, and following them through to the answers, whether we like the ones we get or not. Sometimes the questions are big and lofty like “What is the nature of the good?” and sometimes of less abstract value, like “Are The Flintstones a ripoff of The Honeymooners?” Either way, though, the truth will win out in the end. For this reason – and also because it’s really easy to do, and fills up a lot of space quickly – we here at REPUBLIBOT present: The Roundtable!

Question # 1: There are a surprising number of things in life that are commonplace, but have no real definition. Recently we found out that "Planet" didn't actually have a fixed definition until the IAU slapped together a pretty poorly-thought-out one. Likewise, there's no solid, specific definitions of "Continent" or "Subcontinent," rather they fall in to the Supreme Court definition of "Obscenity" which basically is "I know it when I see it." So in your opinions, what *is* Science Fiction, anyway?

REPUBLIBOT 1.0: My understanding has always been that the "real" definition of Science
Fiction is literature in which science plays an integral part in the story – meaning that if the scientific conceit that is used was removed, the story would not be able to stand. Having said that, it seems that the common definition is anything that has a spaceship or laser gun somewhere in it, such as Star Wars which is actually, in execution, much more sword and sorcery fantasy than what the average person would expect from real Science
Fiction.

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: What he said. Although the definition seems to expand whenever some
discipline gets added to the science tent, I like to stick to the 'harder' sciences. Sociological skiffy is interesting, but only if there’s some hard science behind whatever situation generates the sociological crisis. Maybe we can refine this to a more Campbellian definition: "Science fiction speculates on the future implications of present science or engineering." This does not include 'Alternate Universe' stories though...

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: So what? You’re excluding Alternate Universe stories from the SF Genre? I disagree with that. I also disagree with the definition of SF as presented above - if we take REPUBLIBOT 1.0's definition of what SF is, then pretty much that includes at least half the Hardy Boys novels. I mean Chet Morton was always slapping together some gadget - a rocket-powered bicycle that used Model Rocket engines he bought from the store - that kind of thing. Also, if we follow REPUBLIBOT 1.0's definition of SF then any story involving the Apollo Program even tangentially ("There's a soviet spy who wants to
blow up a Saturn V") is automatically SF simply because it integrally involves some big science. I don't think that's the case. I agree that the Science aspect has to be integral in the story, but I don't believe Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is SF simply because it's fictional, and because medical science is at the heart of the show.

I think the science or technology involved has to be (A) plausible and (B) something we haven't actually done yet. So when Jules Verne wrote about submarines, that was science fiction. When *We* write about submarines, it's merely slice-of-life or, at best, a "Techno-thriller." But not SF.
Obviously, though, there's some lattitude between "Hard" and "Soft" SF. I mean, Ray Bradbury is as soft as they come, but no one's going to argue that "The Maritan Chronicles" isn't brilliant.

REPUBLIBOT 1.0: Whoa there, Nellie – It is not *my* definition, it is just the definition
I hear most often to try to narrow down what Scifi is, having said that if a Hardy Boys novel had them a rocket-powered bicycle then yeah, that would probably qualify. I think though, it would probably be better to say the story is dependent upon a futuristic extrapolation of current scientific trends. Of course, as trends change and we move or get passed by, we get left with a lot of stuff that no longer qualifies. My opinion then is SciFi
takes place starting tomorrow and into the future and contains at least one fantastical element – either based on a hard scientific principal, but not necessarily hardware centric. Fantasy includes magic, regardless of when it is set (Midi-Chlorians not withstanding).

Ray Bradbury has always been an interesting enigma I agree – but I think we can agree that what he writes is more art than genre.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Sorry. Didn't mean to accuse you of anything.

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: It doesn't necessarily even need to be future-bound. Steampunk (as a genre, not a fashion statement) has Welles and Verne-esque retro-skiffy as the main set dressing....

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Wait, wait, wait, Welles and Verne were both writing “The day after tomorrow” kind of fiction – stuff that took place in their own very, very near future. Generally their books took place in the year they were published in. Just because it’s our own past doesn’t change the fact that it was their future when the books were written.

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: I don't believe that science fiction is necessarily futuristic. Advanced, yes... futuristic, no.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: I agree. I'm just pointing out that your two examples were both writing futuristic fiction

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: I would actually argue that Andromeda Strain is very much science fiction, even though it was firmly using present science. Yeah, my point was more about Steampunk, which is, I suppose, technically retrofuturistic/alternate history...

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: I agree, I’m just saying that the examples you chose…eh, nevermind. I’m being pedantic. Sorry.

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: Anyway, this sort of brings up a distinction that I'd like to make.... Rocketships and la-Zar beams are trappings- set dressing. That doesn't necessarily make it science fiction. Some element of science MUST be essential to the plot. The late, great Michael Crichton (to my knowledge) didn't really set any of his novels in the future, but a good chunk of them REQUIRED science or engineering in order to tell the story. THAT's science fiction.

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: In fact, I don’t think JG Ballard ever wrote a story that didn’t take place on earth, now that I think about it…

Question #2: I was talking with a friend of at least average intelligence lately, and started defining various shows he likes as SF. He got really upset with me, saying stuff like "Lost isn't science fiction." I pointed out that it's got time travel and teleportation and flash gordony superscinece. A few days later we were talking about the X-Files, and he again got defensive and said the show wasn't SF, despite the fact that it prominently featured Aliens. The hird and final straw was when I described "The Prisoner" as SF, and he got really upset and said that it wasn't, despite the fact that it featured cloning, mind control, telepathy, technological resurrection, and artificial life forms. "Well none of that is sci-fi," he said, "Sci-fi is like space ships and shit, and it's not on earth." Obviously, he's wrong and provincial about the whole thing, but that raises an interesting question: what *Isn't* SF? What should we exclude from the genre, or consider relatively off-limits?

REPUBLIBOT 1.0: I guess my question is, if those shows aren't SF by the popular definition of the word, then what the hell are they? There actually seems to be a fairly heated discussion going on amongst main stream authors on whether or not their work is genre or not. Books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy which by all objective measures would be considered science fiction is generally defended as being allegorical and not genre, but true literature (whatever that is). Michael Chabon himself has weighed in on this in defense of genre fiction as being valid expressions of literature
(http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2008/08/michael-chabon.html). I think we should just call it like we see it, if the book is about a post apocalyptic world and the main protagonist is trying to walk across the wasteland to protect his child and avoid the broken down humanity of the other survivors in order to build a new civilization – well that is Science Fiction. It is solidly genre and if that bothers you, then you are probably
a liberal and spend way too much time pontificating on how it is the government's responsibility to take care of the little people since they aren't smart enough to do it themselves…

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: You know, I probably should disagree with you guys about something, but so far....If it doesn't explore the ramifications of science (or a scientific discipline) in a framework that is consistent within it's mileu and with our current knowledge of the scientific disciplines, it ain't science fiction. How's that?

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Fair enough. I think more than my friends' ignorance as to what is and isn't SF, there's a very high pretension factor. For geeks like us, it's inconceivable as to why Atlas Shrugged or The Road or anything by Vonnegutt wouldn't be considered SF - they obviously are - and Vonnegutt himself called his stuff SF dozens of times. But there are those who see SF as a mongrel of fiction, mere genre work no more worthy of consideration than Louis L'amore westerns or Nurse Romances. They don't consider it literature. And since they don't, authors - or their agents and publishers, anyway - have to bend over backwards to pretend a fish is actually a chicken, so to speak. If they don't, it could ruin their client's ability to be taken seriously. Which, of course, just perpetuates the whole problem. But the line between SF and non-SF is a hard one to find, if it even exists.

REPUBLIBOT 1.0: Really, why does there even have to be a line? Why can't it all be
literature? Is it just another way for the literati to set the playing field and rise themselves above the din of the rest of us poor unenlightened masses? It is like PETA is trying to tell us that genre fiction is inhumane and are running around throwing ink on any one that tries to write it proudly. Me – I love it all, unless it is self-important and pompous and
comes across as being preachy to us poor uneducated apes down here in the pit…Gimme Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze over most anything on the list of "real literature award winners".

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: I think we’re getting a bit off track here, more in to what is literary criticism than what isn’t SF, but Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish SF writer, said that criticism existed to differentiate between Literature and mere fiction. "Crime and
Punishment," he said, is really just a detective story, but obviously it's more than that. So Doc Savage is great on it's own merits, but if you're looking for a thing of timeless beauty in addition to those merits, you might need to keep looking. Literary Criticism exists to provide signposts to help people find what they're looking for. Take me: I read practically nothing but trashy SF novels, but I do tend to keep track of which ones are
artsy, which ones are hard science, and which ones are 'soft' SF. And I guess which ones are just flat-out stupid.

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: Bleh. The debate on "But is it Art?" is down the street, on the left. Do you like it? Then it's a good read. Or view. I like trashy 'Destroyer' novels. Not literature, predictable but fun.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Ok, we’ll save a discussion of whether or not literary criticism is valid for another day, but answer me this: Ok, so in your mind, what things are expressly *not* science fiction?

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: Sword and Sorcery (and yes, Virginia, that includes Star Wars) That's a loaded question, by the way.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Of course it is, what’s your point?

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: Strictly speaking, anything with FTL travel isn't Science Fiction- because there are very few farflung theories that allow it, and it looks like there is a speed limit on the universe.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Ah. Good point. Faster Than Light travel is totally a cheat. In fact, relativity says that going FTL would require more energy than the universe itself contains, so it's impossible. That said, none of us really raise an eyebrow when people use that particular cheat or end-run around it (say Hyperspace Jumps or what not)

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: In this, the Queen song "39" is better science fiction than the whole Star Trek canon.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: [laughing] That would be more surprising if Trek had ever been interested in science at all. You need to review that song for our “Science Fiction Music” feature, by the way…

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: So FTL is magic. Time Travel, similarly, because most time travel mechanisms require an FTL element. And when we say that an element requires "hand-waving", isn't that a callback to the wizardry that we eschew?

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: So does using FTL relegate the story to fantasy? I mean, if you allow superphotonic speeds, are you essentially letting in wizards and dragons and demons named "Fatumpsh, the Cheerful, Wandering Fornicator?" Or is it just a convenient plot device to allow the action to take place. Very few SF stories are actually *about* the engines, after all…

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: As one possessed of an engineering mindset, I throw around terms like "inobtanium" and "ludicrous speed" as a joke.... but if we are strictly speaking, if it is mathematically impossible, it's not science. If it's not science, it can't be used in stories that we call "Science Fiction" Which is why I have started using "Speculative Fiction" when talking about fantasy with scientific trappings.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Fair enough, but how rigorous does the science have to be in a story? If I'm writing an evolution story that's all about how biology followed a different path on another world, then I'm not concerned w/ the ships at all, they're just a vehicle - excuse me, a plot device - to get my protagonists to a fictional location so I can tell my story. So does that mean that my story isn't SF?

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: I don't know. If it's set dressing, then I guess we can 'hand wave' it away. Thing is, we can get to the point where we point at one story and say "That, there, is science fiction", and beyond that, there be dragons. There exists inherent to the form a sort of reductio absurdum.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Good enough for me. Moving on…

Question # 3: Is there a hard-and-fast line between fantasy and science fiction? Star
Wars, for example, is an SF/Fantasy hybrid. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or no big deal?

REPUBLIBOT 1.0: No big deal, it is all good, this is just semantics – but again, Star Wars is not a hybrid, it is Fantasy.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: I'd agree with that, but the SF elements are too prominent to be ignored, even if they are just window dressing. Or what about Frankenstein? Is Frankenstein an SF novel? I'd say yes, but you could argue just as well that it's gothic horror, or both, or neither.

REPUBLIBOT 1.0: I'd say that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is definitely Science Fiction
– especially when it was originally written. I think the movies though kind of make it hard for people to see it in that light today. Is this the problem do you think? Great SciFi Literature has been compromised by Hollywood adaptations and completely mongrelized the audience's expectations?

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Yeah. Part of it is the restriction of the movie format - you can spend a hundred pages yammering on about the Ice Cave in Frankenstein (Which is totally SF, btw, I agree) but you can't really spend half your screen time doing that, so things get condensed and flensed down. No one will ever film Heinlein's Puppet Masters in anything like its original form simply because the entire cast is completely naked through the second half of the book, and you just can't do that in a movie. Even a fairly literal adaptation of a classic SF novel like Disney's great "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" took a lot of liberties with the plot and characters to make it "Timely." I don't think we can take that too personally, though. I mean, they can't even manage to do a literal adaptation of *any* James Bond novel, and those are way, way easier.

REPUBLIBOT 2.0: Frankenstein, definitely science fiction. It extrapolated the science of the day into a new situation, and the science was absolutely essential to the plot. Had Frankenstein been a wizard instead of a mad scientist, the novel would not have the same impact.

And that’s it for this week. Thank you for checking out our discussion. Please stop by again next week when our discussion will be “John Cassavetes: Brilliant Visionary Filmmaker, or Just Jerking Around?”

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