Charlie Stross’s post “Why I Hate Star Trek”
has already gotten a lot of attention—as I’m sure it was designed to—so anything that I say about it is probably repeating something said elsewhere. So I’ll spare you.
However, it did leave me wondering where the boundaries of science fiction ended and speculative fiction began. To some extent, this is a meaningless debate. No matter what we call it, it will still be shelved in the same section of the bookstore, and that’s the most important arbiter of genre in the business. So remember that little dose of reality while I meander through the following.
My short story “Outside the Standard Deviation” was science fiction by Charlie Stross’s definition. (Whether it’s any good at that is a question I’ll leave to the reader, but I’m fairly confident of the genre it would be slotted into). It asks a question about the nature of the universe and attempts to answer it. By this definition, the fact that it uses SFnal tools—von Neumann machines and artificial intelligences and traveling to other stars--to answer that question aren’t as important as the fact that it asks the question at all. It’s the question, not the tools, that make it fit this definition.
Yet a lot of what I write and read doesn’t fit the definition. My current project is an SFnal refracturing of the story of Gautama Buddha. The fact that it’s a different perspective on a story that already exists means, almost by definition, that it doesn’t necessarily have to take place in the future. Some of it (though not all) already
took place in the past. The remainder could just as easily take place in the modern day as in the future.
Frank Herbert’s Dune
consciously borrows the forms of feudal societies and transposes them onto an interstellar civilization eight thousand years beyond us. Those old politics that drive Dune
. Many of the science fiction tropes that underlie those politics—the Kwisatz Haderach propechy, the spice, telepathic space pilots—are either quasi-religious or ridiculous even by the standards of the day in which Dune
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game
, problematic though is it
, similarly focuses on politics above its SFnal elements. The nature of the buggers, the space station, the interstellar war, and so forth, to the story of a child soldier that could have been told in the present day. The story’s most interesting prediction is an early imagining of what, in real life, became the blogosphere—but that isn’t what drives the story. It’s a sidenote, a tool, not the plot’s motivator.
still science fiction? Yes, and damn anyone who says otherwise.
That strong response aside, though--why do I call it science fiction?
I sure hope it’s not just because the genre offers so many gee-whiz gadgets, though I can’t make any promises on that score. The gadgets are awfully entrancing. And shiny.
I’m interested in the patterns of history, in studying human behavior on a broad spectrum from its beginnings to its potential futures. I think many of those patterns will repeat more than we think. Or more than we’d like
to think. If that’s my current project’s only SFnal prediction, then so be it.
I think something more is at work, though.
Other worlds, whether they're constructed using fantasy or SFnal tropes, should be like mirrors. Reversed or distant or distorted, they show us something about ourselves that we didn’t realize was there. Sometimes the distortions show us more than the real thing.
I didn't believe in the future Stross constructed in Glasshouse
. But I enjoyed reading it anyway--hopefully for some
of the reasons he intended.