|Nightfall by Isaac Asimov|
To quickly illustrate that we live surrounded by unsatisfactory definitions of "science fiction" I need go no further than arm's length: to my copy of the American Heritage Dictionary.
|One source for the Mythology of Science Fiction|
Here is what Isaac Asimov wrote about the role of prediction in science fiction: "There is a general myth among laymen that, somehow, the chief function of a science fiction writer is to make predictions that eventually come true."
most people will remain confused
about the meaning of "science fiction"
In the previous millennium, the American Heritage Dictionary was one of the books that I carried with me to college. Luckily, my first semester I had an English professor who was scientifically literate (his particular interest was literature about evolution). In that English class, we read only science fiction stories. Just read a dozen randomly selected science fiction stories and you will know that the American Heritage Dictionary was wrong to single out prediction of the future as "especially" characteristic of science fiction stories.
Fortunately, "prediction" has been removed from this definition of science fiction. There are two intriguing new additions in the 2014 definition: "cinematic genre" and "fantasy". Here is their definition of the fantasy genre: "A genre of fiction or other artistic work characterized by fanciful or supernatural elements."
|Predicting the future of|
cinematic science fiction:
more sword fights!
I went off to college the year that Star Wars hit the Big Screen. For millions of people who have never read a science fiction story, Star Wars provides their working definition of science fiction. However, Star Wars is at best an extremely fringe example of cinematic science fiction. To understand science fiction as a literary genre, it helps to look back through time, past the recent film-making era, to the historical origins of the genre.
|Asimov's positronic robot stories|
Science Fiction Defined
Many readers and writers of science fiction have tried to define what constitutes a science fiction story and how such stories differ from those in other literary genres such as fantasy (a list of definitions).
Carl Freedman has argued that Mary Shelley's story Frankenstein is an example of science fiction that predated use of the term "science fiction". However, there is no doubt that Mary wrote her story after being challenged to create a horror story. I would classify Frankenstein as an anti-science fiction story with fantasy and horror elements. Writing science fiction is a social endeavor and a science fiction author needs to exist within a group of scientifically literate people and be writing so as to please readers who understand science and who are concerned with the issue of how technology shapes cultures.
Science fiction stories function as social constructs that arise out of a particular shared understanding of the world that exists between a distinct group of writers and readers. To write a good science fiction story you should have an appreciation for science and the power of technology to change human societies.
Science fiction as a literary genre could not exist until after the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. After the arrival of the late modern era, there was a large well-educated audience for fiction that is based on rational speculation rather than the more free-formed approaches to story telling that came before. By "free-formed" I mean not constrained by the type of knowledge of the natural world that is obtainable only by scientific study of nature.
4 Science Fiction Examples
1) Asimov's short story Nightfall contrasts scientific understanding of the universe with pre-scientific belief systems such as religion. The plot of Nightfall explicitly involves the science of astronomy and a specific scientific prediction. That prediction is based on mathematical calculations that allow foreknowledge of an impending eclipse-like event that will throw an imagined world into darkness; a sudden darkness that will trigger social collapse on a planet with many suns. Asimov asks us to imagine the psychological impact of sudden darkness on a planet where almost always it is day.
|The End of Etenity|
4) In his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, Asimov imagined that the existence of time travel might result in a kind of technological and evolutionary stagnation of the human species. If we had the power to go back into our past and prevent catastrophes like nuclear wars, would we create a "safe" but technologically stagnant future for Humanity?
|Data and Einstein|
These four examples (above) illustrate speculative fiction stories that were written by a trained scientist (Asimov) who purposely avoided writing magic and horror into his stories. Instead, Asimov's stories began with a culture of science and a milieu of technological change and then Asimov added in new imagined science, technology and resulting social changes. Asimov's stories can be viewed as thought experiments exploring social changes that might rationally be imagined to occur as a consequence of the imagined science and technology advances.
|Locus of fear: amygdala|
The Engines of Cognitive Experience
amygdala in order to provoke experiences such as fear in readers. Patients such as S.M. who have damage to their amygdala cannot respond correctly to social cues such as a fearful expression on another person's face.
Another sub-cortical brain structure, the caudate, plays a role in producing feelings of surprise and expectation violation when we witness magic. Writers of horror and fantasy stories long ago learned how to engage readers in fiction by crafting tales that activate sub-cortical brain regions like the amygdala and the caudate.
|A Hollywood cheap trick:|
the amygdala allows us to recognize
fearful facial expressions.
"Science fiction is knowledge fiction" -Theodore Sturgeon
|Cortical areas used for visual imagery.|
In The End of Eternity, Asimov asks readers to imagine a society composed of time travelers. The protagonist of the story, Andrew Harlan, is a Time Technician who can alter the course of historical events on Earth by "stepping into history" at any point in time. One of the "what if?" games of the imagination that Asimov plays with readers is to ask us to imagine what would happen if Harlen traveled in Time and saw a "copy" of himself.
|The invention of Eternity.|
Skepticism and Wonder
|The Demon-Haunted World|
In the case of Nightfall, I was never convinced that people (even aliens) would react to darkness in the way described by Asimov. However, Asimov was playing the "science fiction game" and he created a science fictional thought experiment. Asimov himself did not think that Nightfall was among his best science fiction stories, but it did help make him famous and launch his literary career.
|Robots in Space|
The culture of science fiction assumes that readers will skeptically examine science fiction stories. Fans of science fiction expect interesting ideas and questions to be raised and discussed within science fiction stories. If an author of a story has no interest in science and has no new ideas to offer and instead resorts to literary trickery, then science fiction fans can reject such stories and label them as "pseudo-science fiction".
|Cortical regions important for reading|
Another feature of Asimov's science fiction is a large amount of dialog. It has been shown that while reading stories that contain dialog, brain regions involved in predicting the behavior of other people become activated. Science fiction provides readers with particularly demanding "what if?" puzzles in which we must imagine person-to-person discussions within an imagined technological/social setting. We each get to judge if the author has presented a sensible and interesting story.
|A brain following rules: orange cortical regions are active.|
Fringe Science Fiction
Jack Vance is an example of an author who had very little interest in the boundaries between literary genres. I don't mind calling his Alastor Cluster, Cadwal and Demon Princes series "science fiction" even though Vance's novels have a quite different character than stories like Contact and The End of Eternity.
In the fictional universe created by Jack Vance, science and technology are not very intrusive. Vance had no training as a scientist, so this should be no surprise. Vance's main "use" for science was in the area of imagined spaceship propulsion: Vance needed easy travel between planets that would allow him to take readers on adventures among the stars. As an experienced world traveler, Earth alone was not large enough for Vance's imagination.
|A billion years of stasis|
I credit Vance with one of the great science fiction concepts: the Institute. The Institute is devoted to the control of scientific research and the pace of technological change.
I find it fascinating that Asimov found his own ways to prevent rampant technological change in his fictional universe. In his Foundation stories, Asimov depicted very little scientific and technological change during the thousands of years during which Humanity spread through the galaxy. Daneel did not allow human nature to be changed.
Non-Literary Science Fiction
|Ma and Pa science fiction marketing|
If you put a Scientist in a Horror Story does that Make it Science Fiction?
Carl Freedman set a low bar for status as a science fiction story. He made the claim that if a reader can believe that something like the scenario described by an author might possibly happen, then we are in the domain of science fiction. Specifically, if you can imagine a scientist going into his garage some day and magically animating dead body parts then that makes Frankenstein a science fiction story. Of course, if you imagine a wizard magically animating dead body parts then that would be fantasy.
Sorry, but I don't buy Freedman's argument. Mary Shelley wrote a horror story and then more than a century later some historical revisionists started trying to claim that she invented the science fiction genre. I also would not trust an English professor to tell me at what point in the past the human species came into existence.
|Hollywood magic: Watson today, Ava tomorrow.|
Picture an 18-year-old of today who hears about Watson and then writes a story in which a scientist goes into his basement and creates an "artificial man" by stitching together a copy of Wikipedia and a few billion internet search results. You'd end up with something like Ex Machina and a couple of million other 18-year-olds who have no problem imagining that Apple, Inc. could soon create an artificial intelligence like Ava. That kind of thinking sells movie tickets, but it is not scientific.
As a novel, Frankenstein was written in the Gothic literary genre. Inserting a scientist or a spaceship or a robot into a horror story does not magically transform that horror story into a science fiction story.
"Gothic horror novels are science fiction in reverse"
Broad vs Narrow
|"[Science fiction is] the attempt to deal|
rationally with alternate possibilities in a
manner which will be entertaining."
I have a very pragmatic reason for adopting a narrow definition of science fiction. I don't enjoy other literary genres such as fantasy and horror where rationality is compromised. I can understand why people who don't mind letting go of logic and reason might prefer a broader view of what constitutes science fiction.
People with training in science learn to appreciate and apply narrow definitions, so to some extent my preferred definition of "science fiction" must be expected to conflict with pop culture world views that flourish among the scientifically illiterate. And that's fine with me.
Related reading: Recursive Science Fiction
More commentary on The End of Eternity
Time warp 2010: comments on science fiction and fantasy
Commentary on anti-science fiction by Steven Lyle Jordan
Skeptical Readers by M R Mortimer
Science fiction writing considered as a disease
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