Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy

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

  1. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I don't think Benford is necessarily classifying all of SF as hard SF, but he is hinting that that particular spectrum lies at the root of what distinguishes science fiction. "The working th[r]ough of consequences" still applies to any story you're telling, but the basis of working through those consequences from a real-world scientific, or naturalist, framework is unique to SF and not a common feature of other types of fiction.

    I started off playing Devil's Advocate with the OP, but now I seem to be defending his position! Anyway, I accept and love the whole spectrum of science fiction from its hardest to its softest ends.
  2. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    Then you have the more prosaic (and loaded) distinction between "SF" and "Sci-Fi" (which is discussed on another thread). That's when the discussion crashes and burns under the weight of pop-culture perception of the genre. Sci-Fi = spaceships. Fantasy = wizards and systems of magic (preferably both, found at some school/training facility). A lot of pro writers I talk to have gotten past that hot mess; they write either what the publisher thinks they can sell or, if they're more established and have a brand platform, write what they want, within reason. Mostly. How they personally describe their work as SF or F beyond the query pitch is really genre-neutral. You'd be surprised how many brand-name writers still have to sell their new material to their agents and/or publishers, and they're not always successful.
  3. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I really do damn Ackerman for ever having introduced 'sci-fi' into the popular vernacular. But that's me.

    When I think of science fiction, I'm not the strict hard-liner who believes that only science fiction is true SF. I think of SF as encompassing the entire spectrum of stories the genre has to offer - from the hardest SF (à la Egan or Dr. Forward) to the softest spectrum, which includes stories focusing on a wide range of sociological topics, anthropology, economics, politics, psychology, pure adventure space opera, etc., and even up to science fantasy like Vance's Dying Earth sequence with its elements of bona fide, non-explicable/-rational 'magic'. This has been my response and almost continued stance to the OP's assertion.

    But I do understand where the OP is coming from.

    I consider hard SF - that extreme end of the spectrum in the genre that attempts to ground its stories in a real-world rationalist and scientific framework - as the backbone of the genre, because it is the main distinguishing feature of SF when you get right down to it. That doesn't mean I disparage SF that isn't 'hard'. Quite the opposite. Some of the most beautiful and poetic stories in the genre are those that are the very opposite of 'hard'. But 'hardness' is the one element in a set of elements in the genre of science fiction that does not really tend to overlap with elements in any other genre of fiction. Thus, it's a feature that distinguishes. I think the OP's stance came from this perspective. In the issue of distinguishing SF from other fiction, I agree, this is a valid point. With regards to only SF of this nature being true SF. I absolutely disagree.
  4. bzipitidoo

    bzipitidoo Regular Member

    I prefer plausible SF. Of course a setting millions of years in the future is so far out it's extremely difficult to make any guesses that will turn out correct. But if the story has nonsense we know is impossible now-- violations of the Laws of Thermodynamics, or Perpetual Motion, extremely improbable lucky events to bail out the heroes, magic dressed up in a SF facade-- then that spoils it no matter how good the writing and characters. As for FTL, well, seems likely it's not possible. FTL is seriously overused, and I'd definitely like to see less of it. Then there's my pet peeve, Time Travel. All these strike me as pushing into Science Fantasy.

    For examples of the implausible, the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was very disappointed at the way the story veered into religious mysticism at the end. Was very good up to that point. In the edition of Childhood's End I have, Clarke added a forward apologizing for making the pseudoscientific nonsense of so-called paranormal abilities a central theme in the story, explaining that at the time it was written, people took those ideas more seriously, but still, he acknowledges he shouldn't have fallen for it. Still a good book, and seeing that it could have been written with a different mechanism for connecting to the "Adults", I can forgive that element.
  5. Dtyler99

    Dtyler99 Well-Known Member

    Well, there's plenty of plausible SF out there, the question is, is it good SF just because it's plausible? Methinks not necessarily. In fact, the maxim applies that 95% of SFF is dreck and we're always searching for that last 5%. Unfortunately, we can get tangled up in semantics over "good" and "plausible." I will say, however, most plausible SF I've read puts the SF at center court, while characterization, motivation, stakes, and outcomes take a back seat. I stopped reading Asimov when he declared, "The science in SF is more important than the characters or the story." [paraphrase]

    I recently read Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, which is entirely plausible, in fact demandingly so (sorry, Boreas!). But the story is in relentless service to plausibility rather than the characters, their stakes, and their outcomes and it left me cold. That is not to say it can't be done (cf. KSR's Mars Trilogy).

    I get why plausible is a worthy thing (and is in fact a subset of "hard" SF). I just think the bookshelf of good works in that vein is pretty narrow.
  6. irrlicht

    irrlicht Regular Member

    I used to feel like that. To me, SF had to be believable in some way or I just couldn't get absorbed by it. It still fills me with a strange sense of elitist excitement when I read a story that is very strictly hard-sf, but I moved on a little from that. When I was younger, even Larry Niven bothered me, because some of his ideas seemed too out-there for me. Then I read Simmons' Hyperion. I hated it at first (trees as spaceships? Preposterous!), but decided to force myself through it and about halfway in realised I really liked the story. From that point on, I've been a little more lenient on the SF I consume.
    But I can still absolutely understand why one would prefer plausible stories.
  7. bzipitidoo

    bzipitidoo Regular Member

    Implausibility is just one way a story can be bad. There are certainly many other ways.

    When I was talking of plausibility, I meant a fairly narrow version of no gross violations of scientific fact. But it can encompass so much more. Like, forms of government. If you think about it, it can be rather jarring for an SF story to have medieval governments-- monarchies, empires with one guy as The Emperor ala Star Wars and Foundation. But when you're looking hard at the hard science, it can be easy to overlook social implausibilities. Lot of stories such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 feature dystopian societies in which the vast power of futuristic technology has been harnessed to monitor, spy upon, brainwash, and force conformance from everyone. Yet another is Malthusian fear fests such as The Mote in God's Eye.

    Scary, and some of those are great stories, but how likely are they, really? Can oppressive societies last? It is as Kirk said to Spock in Mirror, Mirror about the illogic of maintaining power through terror. It doesn't work for long. It eventually breaks down. It's weak and it falls right over like a house of cards if some external pressure is applied, rather like what the main character in A World Out of Time said about water control empires, barbarians at the gates, etc. People used to fear all kinds of supernatural nonsense too such as ghosts and spirits, before greater knowledge and better education put paid to most of that. Now we know diseases are not caused by evil spirits, or divine punishment for sinning, they're caused by pathogens or genetic problems or other rational, natural factors.

    Perhaps a larger problem is not the ongoing evils of an oppressive, controlling society, but the dangers of too much destruction being wreaked when they eventually fail and a revolution breaks out. Never mind the rest of the world, how many US citizens would like to nuke Washington D.C., knock off the entire US Government in one strike, all 535 Congresspersons, the Prez, the 9 Supremes, most of the Federal bureaucracy, and think that'd make the world a better place? Plenty. Good thing that nuclear bombs don't grow on trees.
  8. irrlicht

    irrlicht Regular Member

    An interesting point! I would argue modern day China is a grand experiment, so to speak, in testing how long-lived an opressive regime can be. That said, if we look at history, the longest-lasting form of government has been the feudal empire. Democracy is still pretty young and might be on the way out, with the recent western trend towards populist Nationalism.

    Politically speaking, the smaller the country one administrates, the more stable the administration can be. Feudalismis more effective in compartmentalising areas, since the local duke or landed aristocrat has full control over his lands and merely owes fealty to the king should he want something. Supposing a huge polity, like a space empire, this makes perhaps more sense than federalism and gigantic bureaucracies.
  9. bzipitidoo

    bzipitidoo Regular Member

    I should remember that so far, no government has lasted more than a few centuries. That includes China. Can't assume democracy is immune. A big problem is corruption. Another is staticity. And as you say, populist nationalism and large size are factors too.

    I continue to wonder how it will be socially possible for us to engage in centuries long space missions, such as sending out sub light speed gigantic generational colony ships that might well be destroyed by a rebellion among the inhabitants before it can reach its destination. Sending a probe just to Alpha Centauri is a daunting prospect. 40 years travel time at a velocity of 0.1c may be doable in the near future, but such a probe couldn't do more than take a very brief look at the stars before flying past, unable to slow enough to enter orbit. 800 years travel time at a velocity of 0.005c would take so long that back here on Earth, the nation that launched it may no longer exist when it arrives, and its communications will fall on deaf ears. At the velocity of the Voyager 1 and 2 missions, Alpha Centauri is ~70,000 years away. Hard though it would be, it may be easier build a probe rather than a society that will last such an incredible length of time.

    A general complaint I have about many stories is that they are too pat. Characters understand each other and co-operate much better than is realistic, and plans run into snags less frequently than in real life. Sadly, much SF entirely overlooks most social issues, just ignores the very difficult problems they can present. Wasn't it Einstein who said politics is much harder than science?
  10. irrlicht

    irrlicht Regular Member

    But does it really include China? Yes, there were different dynasties, but what we would call the deep state nowadays, the administrative systems and the heads who man it, did not change in 2000 years in China.
    From 221 BC to 1912 AD, give or take, the Chinese bureaucracy suffered some reforms and slowly became more meritocratic, but while dynasties changed every couple hundred years, the system stayed the same. It was always a Confucian bureaucracy with a slowly more predominant examination system to replenish its ranks, following codes and taxation laws that didn't change much. From the Qin dynasty in 221 BC until the beginning of the Tang in 618 AD, even the law didn't really change and the Tang reforms lasted all the way to 1912 in a form so unchanged they were still using precedence cases and in many cases the same sentences from the Tang code.
    On the other hand, I admit I'm arguing against my own point here, since China wasn't a feudal system anymore. One interesting question is what we really see as a continuation of one system. It can be hard to draw the line. In Europe, we can say "until year X, the Romans ruled, then the barbarians came", but how much did really change for people there immediately? There's even some legal continuity all the way from ancient Greece to now, although much more changed than in China for instance.
    Also, sorry for derailing this discussion.
  11. bzipitidoo

    bzipitidoo Regular Member

    There's always the problem of definition. What constitutes the fall of a government? If the old government functionaries, from the big cheese down to the lowest paper pusher are all swept out, but the new occupants make only very minor changes to the rules, is that a revolution? Or, if there's a big change in rules, such as a switch from monarchy to communism, but the low level functionaries stay on, is that a revolution? Does there have to be violence? Social movement is incredibly complex, composed as it is by millions of people who are acting at least somewhat independently through sheer lack of communication, so that even the most slavish lap dogs eager to do the bidding of the powerful still must think for themselves at times. Asimov's idea of Psychohistory, that crowds of people can be modeled similarly to gas clouds, is utter nonsense of course, but in the times it was written, the idea that the universe might be deterministic, that "God does not play dice with the universe", was fashionable.

    I think I found the book that drove me away from SF for a decade through its horrible plotting that depended upon getting lucky at trillions to one or worse odds. It was Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, which I read when I was a youngster, maybe in 7th grade. It is a children's book, but it was too ridiculous for me to take even at that age. Setting aside the problem of putting anti-gravity properties in something as extremely low mass as paint, it features their anti-gravity mechanism getting stuck in the "on" position, and they helplessly head to interstellar space, doomed. But by the most freakishly improbable luck, they encounter Saturn and bounce off it just right to head straight back to Earth! However, they realize that they are still doomed because they will simply bounce off the Earth when they reach it, unless they can turn off the anti-gravity device. Not seeing any way to do that, and seeing nothing better to do they get out their stringed instruments and play music. (WTF? Why were stringed instruments on board?? Oh, right, the launch was an accident, and the instruments were meant for a ceremony. But, but, how could an accidental launch happen and succeed, aren't there tons of redundant checks and all kinds of preparations? That's Far Out Space Nuts silliness of the food service guys pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" when loading meals for the astronauts.) And then, in a blatant violation of "in space no one can hear you scream", vibrations from the music travels through space and unsticks the anti-grav control. They are saved! Arrgh! I mean, yeah, children's books are dumbed down, but that was too much. That was the implausibility that motivated me to abandon SF until college. I switched over to fantasy not least because there isn't any bad science in it to get upset about.
  12. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    I frankly don't understand how you can have this point of view and think that something like Ringworld as an example of something based on science, or Starship Troopers as anything but SF as backdrop. Star Wars fails to explain the Force much like Ringworld fails to explain what a ring would be made of. But they both depict science, engineering, alien biology, trade, politics and conflict in a reasonably realistic fashion.

    I'm much more of a SF fan than Fantasy, but the distinction you are drawing completely alludes me. I personally prefer the kind of SF where the rules of the world play a significant role in the course of the plot, but it is hard to think of an SF novel that doesn't require some hand-waving to succeed in being science fiction rather than "modern day thriller" or the equivalent medical, mystery or military story.

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