Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Derek Spohn, May 31, 2017.

  1. Derek Spohn

    Derek Spohn New Member

    Hi,
    I'm new to this forum and I'm trying to get a feel for what the forum's overall view on science fiction is. Some of my friends have told me that I have a relatively strict view of what constitutes science fiction. If it's not based on real science, or if it contradicts known science, but uses science fiction as a backdrop then I usually call it Science Fantasy. For me, this includes Star Wars because of how easy it makes faster than light travel seem and because the force is never explained. It also includes Star Trek because it makes almost every species look human save for a few minor differences in facial features and usually nonhuman species have only one one or two cultures/ governments. Does anyone else on this website feel this way? Is this a minority view point? I've found it a struggle to find people who are interested in more accurate, detail-oriented science fiction such as this.
     
  2. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Hi @Derek Spohn, and welcome to the forum!

    Can you maybe give some examples of books you've read that conform with what you think of as science fiction?
     
  3. Derek Spohn

    Derek Spohn New Member

    Sure. Here are some examples of books I've read that I really liked.
    Arkwright by Allen Steele
    Live Free or Die by John Ringo
    Anything by Ben Bova
    Anything by Larry Niven
    Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Puppet Masters, Starship Troopers, Farmer in the Sky, etc. by Robert Heinlein
    Anything by Arthur C. Clarke
    Anything by Isaac Asimov
    The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
    Voyage from Yesteryear by James P. Hogan
    Mars Crossing by Geoffrey Landis
    Anything by Kim Stanley Robinson
    The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
    And as far as the original writers from the late 19th/ early 20th century go, I'm much more inclined to Jules Verne than H.G. Wells because H.G. Wells has people walking on the moon without space suits. Things like that. I prefer to think of science fiction as a means to inspire people to build a better future through technological/ scientific progress rather than just as a way to entertain people. Not that there's anything wrong with entertainment.
     
  4. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I understand that your preference for the science in science fiction. That is also one of my preferences. But I think you're excluding a huge body of literature that is as much science fiction even if it lacks the 'hard' scientific or technological emphasis. I think that at it's most basic, science fiction is imagining alternate scenarios by introducing some change or tweak that doesn't currently exist, and then following through with the consequences in as logical a manner as is feasible (at least, in the author's mind). This change or tweak can come in two basic forms - the scientific/technological, or from the very wide sociological spectrum which can but doesn't have to be grounded within an s/t framework.

    As Vernor Vinge has so often said, science fiction is scenario-planning that presents a range of alternatives, 99.9% of which will never come true and are probably too fantastic and just pure entertainment, but they at least present indicators for us as a society to point to when changes might occur so that we have some bare inkling of the direction towards which we could head. Asimov said that the whole world was shocked and horrified and taken completely unawares with what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki...except for those few thousands of people who read the science fiction pulps in the 1920's and 30's with stories about nuclear fission and its applications. They were not surprised. That's from a technological perspective. And then you have Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, both of whose works have stood as markers for the trend in vanishing liberties of a populace, and it's been argued that these books have played a major role in preventing outright tyranny in the 20th century because they were so widely read in the west and the markers their books identify have been absorbed into our social consciousness. That's from the sociological perspective. Both are equally science fiction.

    You can be a hard-liner and only consider science fiction as true SF - and I think you definitely do have ample justification in thinking so since this is fiction that ultimately came about because of the unbelievably rapid changes and the attendant benefits/dangers scientific and technological progress has brought us since the ongoing experiment that started with The Enlightenment - but then you're also missing out on a lot of great SF works that can be as visionary in their speculation as any mind-blowing work of hard SF. Although, David Brin has claimed that it's the hard SF readers who really build and rule tomorrow, not fantasy readers, and I think he's right to a large extent.

    By the way, Clarke wrote some science fiction that was almost fantasy. Against the Fall of Night is basically a fairy tale and should be read as such, and even his enduring classic Childhood's End is more fantasy and mysticism than hard SF. And the only really true hard SF work that Asimov wrote was The Gods Themselves, but even there the speculation is pretty damn wild, and based on theories that are untestable, so not strictly within the purview of the scientific method.

    I think that The Forever War is a perfect example of an SF work that achieves balance between the two spectra.

    Science fantasy to me are works like Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom cycle, or Jack Vance's Dying Earth sequence of stories, or Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy, or more recently, Peter Newman's The Vagrant.
     
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  5. Derek Spohn

    Derek Spohn New Member

    I've never read Against the Fall of Night. I was thinking more along the lines of Rendezvous with Rama, The Songs of Distant Earth, and The Fountains of Paradise. And I guess not everything by Asimov, but definitely his robot books and the Foundation books before the Mule came along. What I mean by Science Fiction is fiction in which some aspect of future technology/ science is so integral to the plot that the story would fall apart without it. I think that's how Ben Bova and co. define it, too. To me, when elements of Science Fiction and Fantasy are combined, it feels like inconsistent world building. That's interesting to me that Vernor Vinge would have a view like that about science fiction considering that he's so detail oriented in his own writings. Do you mean that he says it's okay to write science fiction in which the science is completely written off and to sell it as entertainment?
     
  6. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Hi @Derek Spohn!
    I enjoy Hard Sf and Space Opera as long as they push me into a scientific and sociological scenario, which awake in me a strong sense of wonder.

    Perhaps, what provokes this digression in Science Fiction is the vagueness in the definition of what is considered Space Opera.
    By not inferring strictly from science, SO relies completely on the mystery, on the epic adventure, on the quest far beyond and, most importantly in my opinion, on the sociological setting along with, ideally, the metaphysical deductions. These inferences can blow someone’s mind away and leave the reader with an idiotic look. I love it when this happens: e.g. The Last Leyend of Earth by A A Attanasio.
    The problem is when a story lacking all of the previous gets labeled as SF just because it is set in space.

    In my view, sociological and technological/scientific scenarios are intimately linked. However, I’m unclear about this egg/chicken type of dilemma. Does technological and scientific development challenge our society, veering it into a different path or, on the other hand, our curiosity in exploring and pushing beyond our established ethical boundaries and personal morals trigger the scientific development? What do you think?

    Very interesting point, the problem I have is that most science within this genre, in practical terms, is created based on fantastic concepts as they couldn’t realistically derive from science itself, perhaps conceptually but not empirically. At least, this is what I have read, as I’m not someone with a science background…
     
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  7. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Yeah, that's a good definition for one major strain of SF. But there's another major strain that deals entirely with societal effects due to changes in politics or social attitudes or some calamitous event that has very little to do with science, but which is equally science fiction.

    I also like another definition that Arthur C. Clarke uses, which is very fluid and in many cases gets more to the essence of things than any formal definition: "Science fiction is something that could possibly happen, but often you hope it won't. And fantasy is something that couldn't possibly happen, but often you wish it could."
    I don't think he was making statements to the effect of what's okay or not okay with regards to calling something science fiction. To me, it's understandable that Dr. Vinge, as a former professor of mathematics and computer science and as someone who thinks about and deals almost exclusively with near future situations and the idea of the singularity, would view science fiction as scenario-planning. That's really what a lot of futurists do, from Clarke to Vinge to Stephenson. Since most of these guys have backgrounds in science, that would be their toolkit when approaching such stories. That doesn't mean it's the only way to approach them.
    Yes, I agree! They are linked. As Fredrik Pohl said, "science fiction is not about the automobile, but the traffic jam." One of the main points of SF is to examine the new and unexpected effects technological or scientific advances can have on either the individual or on society. A lot of the impetus for this exploration comes from fear as much as it does from optimism. Actually, I'd say more of it comes from fear. I think that pure curiosity is unconstrained and without a particular value judgement attached to it most of the time. But the results of that curiosity can throw up unexpected problems: practical, moral and ethical. And then you have to contend with how best to apply those effects, if they even should be applied in the first place. This is why what we call science fiction is the most significant literary force to emerge over the last 150 years, and it really is the literature that defines the 20th century and will continue to define us in the future (until the supposed singularity, that is, after which nothing is guaranteed). Newer techniques & processes in technologies and avenues in various scientific disciplines are being developed or opening up faster and faster, producing changes at such unbelievable speeds that no once can keep pace with it. When something new comes along, and as we as a society are just getting around to grappling with the moral ramifications of this new thing, that something else comes along and either supersedes or negates it, in either case bringing forth a whole new set of ramifications to contend with. Which literature can keep pace with such developments but SF?
     
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2017
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  8. Safari Bob

    Safari Bob Well-Known Member

    Society and technology (or technology and what it means to society) seem, to me, to be the crux of SF even if it is presented in such was to be counter-cultural, such as Cyber Punk. For me, I tend to wonder more if "dystopian" tropes are more of the fantasy genre than SF. Certainly 1984 is comprised of technology that could happen--and was futuristic when written--and it certainly served as a cultural critique. But was the technology central to the story..? Hmm... One of my favorites is A Canticle for Leibowitz and it is generally considered SF. Certainly technology and society are at the center of that book.
     
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  9. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    A Canticle for Leibowitz is in my top 5 favourite SF works of all time! Absolutely that technology and society are central to the story, but as metaphorical themes (esp. for the technology bit) rather than the nuts and bolts of something scientific be central to the story. I absolutely consider it science fiction, but it fails @Derek Spohn's main criterion. As do works like Le Guin's The Dispossessed, or Octavia E. Butler's Patternmaster, and many others.

    Another reason I love ACfL is its emphasis on religion. One of my favourite themes is the conjoining of religion and science fiction, and I especially have an affinity for good stories with Jesuit priests.
     
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  10. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    In my opinion, 1984 is SF as in a political dystopian story, in which the technology serves its purpose as a mass communicator in order to manipulate collectively with a ubiquitous surveillance. The 1984 technology might come across as archaic by today standards but this wasn’t the case when Orwell wrote it.
    1984 is well ahead of its time and its elements are so ingrained in our current society that we are not even aware of it anymore. Concepts such us: Big Brother, Room 101, The Thought Police, Doublethink and many others.
    Orwell’s understanding of the terror of power was distressing to read because of its bottomless pessimism. Amazing book nevertheless.

    Funny you mentioning this. I have just reconciled myself with Endymion precisely because of this.
     
  11. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I don't see why they must necessarily be inconsistent. Or, at least, this is where suspension of disbelief comes into play. In Jack Vance's Dying Earth sequence of stories, the setting is so far in the future that the sun has expanded into its Red Giant phase. And not only are humans still around (and the Earth for that matter!), but there is a fusion of some technology and bona fide magic. I'm not talking Clarke's third law here where the magic has rational explanations as some form of ultra sophisticated tech that is beyond the understanding of the local populace (but still able to be utilised), but fantastic elements that have no basis in any rationality. I mean, the fact that humans and the Earth itself survive the sun's expansion is ludicrous enough, but it's a setting that is our primary timeline (not some fantasy or secondary reality) and includes actual magic as one of its features. But if you take it for what it is without attempting to impose a rational framework within which the story can be fit, it all works pretty splendidly. That's why I think of this as an actual work of science fantasy as opposed to, say, The Book of the New Sun tetralogy by Gene Wolfe. People often cite Wolfe's work as science fantasy because it is presented with an ostensibly fantastic veneer, but TBotNS is 100% science fiction. It just utilises one of SF's very well established tropes (a trope well familiar even before the category fantasy market took off in a big way): that future scenarios are presented in very-low tech, almost fantasy-like terms, but as the story progresses you find hints and clues that build an exceedingly rational framework. There is no actual fantasy or magic elements in these stories. And if something does seem fantasy-/magic-like, a simple invoking of Clarke's third dictum banishes such illusions.

    @Diziet Sma, I think in hard SF, the scientific extrapolations can be quite extreme without being fantasy. A lot of Gedankenexperimenten that good hard SF does has its roots in certain scientific theories that are currently untestable, usually because technology hasn't advanced enough to be able to do the experiments or make the observations that might confirm or negate certain hypotheses. So, already, such stories go beyond the ambit of the scientific method, but the point is to be able to speculate and ask "what if it were true, and what then would the effects or ramifications be?" In some cases, the root from which such speculations arise are so wild that it's considered impossible to test with any sort of feasible technology in the near or even relatively distant future. They then become examinations of philosophical tracts. That's the case in Asimov's The God's Themselves which utilises certain of the hypothetical results assuming string theory were true, and that's impossible to test so it's more philosophy than science. Same thing in elements of Neal Stephenson's Anathem...the whole novel is predicated on the first philosophical principles of Plato's Ideal Forms, and that's extended outward to the idea of...well, I won't say for spoilers. None of these ideas are testable, but that doesn't make these novels any less 'hard SF'.

    Also, I think that one of the major differences between hard SF and anything else that's 'softer' - and by softer I mean stories focusing on various sociological topics, anthropology, psychology, economics, politics, etc., and up to and including science fantasy or outright fantasy - is that hard SF typically has a cool, detached, distant tone to it. Because the point of hard SF is often philosophical puzzles and thought experiments, it is far more analytical than emotional. A perfect hard SF novel would include a good level of emotional resonance to balance out the higher level of cerebral engagement, but that's very, very rare. I find Alastair Reynolds does this better than most, especially as he's gotten better and better at writing over the years, but the balance between tones in his novels is still skewed to the more cool end of the spectrum.
     
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  12. Safari Bob

    Safari Bob Well-Known Member

    I love The Book of the New Sun but I never thought of it as Sci-Fi; the memories via cannibalism seemed too fantastic. But it is a heck of a fantasy series (to me).
     
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  13. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Okay that part was weird. It just seems like fantasy because of its dream-like atmosphere and almost Odysseus-like quest to reach the distant city of Thrax. Then you have Severian himself, whom you can trust about as much as you can Charles Kinbote. The layers of literary puzzles and allusions and religious motifs also makes it feel less science fiction, but for me it's SF despite riffing off from Jack Vance's Dying Earth setting.
     
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  14. Safari Bob

    Safari Bob Well-Known Member

    The religious/Catholic symbolism does create a space for the ritualistic consumption of flesh but the capricious feel of fate/destiny does trend more towards Odysseus. I haven't read Vance, yet, but the writing is superb. If I could write like that...
     
  15. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Yes, exactly right!
    My recommendation would be to pick up his Demon Princes pentalogy. Short, easy and fast to read, and the main character is a future analogue of Edmond Dante. Vance is one of the most uniquely stylistic prose writers I've ever come across. I think in many ways, more than half the pleasure is in reading his construction of sentences, the various turns-of-phrases, and all underscored with this light whimsy that's very appealing. I'm recommending these because they were the first of Vance's works I read, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. For stand alone novels, I'd say go with either To Live Forever or Emphyrio. I've read some of his short stories as well, and the one I remember most vividly is "The New Prime" from his collection Eight Phantasms and Magics.
     
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  16. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    You know my Hard SF experience is rather limited: G. Bear and A. C. Clarke. I guess then Bear must be rather unusual because his Forge of God and Anvil of Stars drew as much from science as from the emotional interaction with characters. I look forward to finding out whether this is an exception to the rule or not when I continue reading Bear’s books.
     
  17. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Here's a post that ties directly into this discussion.

    Some ruminations by one of the Killer B's, Dr. Gregory Benford, on what distinguishes science fiction from other literary endeavours: Journey to the Genre's Core (originally written/published 1984).
     
  18. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Wouldn’t it be a mistake trying to isolate the SF singularity as a genre?
    The characteristics of a genre are not what really creates it. I tend to think it is the other way round it: the genre as an organic representation outlines what its main characteristics are.
    For example, I’m thinking of the Epic literary genre as an original long narrative poem but also used to label some novels. It includes the oral and written tradition. It deals with legends and myths also with histories, animal stories, and religious tales as well as moral theories. If I wanted to “journey to its core”, I’m pretty sure I would geld it.
     
  19. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    I like the term speculative fiction to encompass the realm of SFF (and fringes), but it's a squishy word and outside the writing community, hasn't really caught on.

    The Benford piece is an interesting read, particularly 30+ years later. It shows how incredibly far the entire SFF category has come. In that interval, so many sub-genres have entered the realm that classifying "SF" as hard science, as Benford does, is laughable. Hard SF makes up very little of the total commercial publishing output today. I think, however, the salient statement of the article comes at the end:

    That’s what gives these stories quite a bit of their power. The working th[r]ough of consequences, ever mindful of what he know of the world, doesn’t merely introduce “novelty..."

    What he's saying is what nearly all good speculative fiction writers working today know: Hard SF, Fantasy, or Science Fantasy, whatever sub-genre: make your world building consistent and stick to the rules. That's all the reader wants.
     
  20. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I think Benford was thinking about the possibility of hard SF being the 'core', the backbone, of science fiction (something that I largely agree with, if not completely). And it seems to be in response to an assertion by Damon Knight - more famous as a critic than a writer, and founder and first president of SFWA - that the essence of SF is as philosophical fiction, and I know a lot of people who would agree with that, too. I don't think Benford's article was any kind of strict delineation, just some uncategorised thoughts on the matter. It ties into @Derek Spohn's original assertion of science fiction being more properly SF than those works that don't have as solid a basis on our real-world rationalist perspective.
     

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