What Is “Science Fiction?” Hugh Howey and Peter Cawdron Chime In

by on March 3, 2013

in Entertainment

"2001 A Space Odyssey" by Arthur C Clarke 1What is SCIENCE FICTION?  Where should the limits of science end and fiction begin?  Does fiction alter the reality of science or should science stay hard-core and true to its nature?  Should sci-fi never bend rules or can it take a fanciful step in one direction of another to make a successful story or franchise?  After checking out the various perspectives here, please chime in to the conversation and let us know what you would consider to be the category or genre of science fiction.

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Over the years I’ve encountered lively conversations with work peers about what is “science fiction?”    Many of my work peers come from backgrounds steeped in logic and science and hold PhD’s and other lofty, unpronounceable degrees in many disciplines.  But there is an interesting commonality amongst them and it’s their insistence on what science fiction works should be.  (Side note: It’s amazing to talk to folks who aren’t sucked in by popular lore or without an agenda about climate warming!  But that’s for another day.)

"The Time Machine" by HG Wells 1For my peers the term science fiction seems pretty clear-cut.  It’s a piece of written fiction that has science in it, and more often than not, the science had better be accurate and real.  If the story doesn’t stick to the real premise of the STUDY of science, then it’s fodder.

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Science fiction is also often referred to as “sci-fi,” unless you’re a network that wants a term that you can brand and copyright, then you get creative and buy “Syfy” from someone who coined it for their blog many years ago.  That’s kind of a cool success story for all involved, but that tale is also for another day.

I’ve always considered the term of science fiction to embody the word fiction.  For me, it’s fictional and hence, when a writer bends the rules of science, so be it.  I’ve never questioned it and continue to enjoy the stories as they develop.  I also look at how science is addressed in sci-fi franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica.  It’s science fiction.  Right?  But there are definitely some rules being bent, broken or fantasized in these franchises.

USS Enterprise from "Star Trek" TV SeriesUnder IMDb* Star Wars is labelled as Action / Adventure / Fantasy / Sci-Fi.  I started to wonder about that but then considered the use of “The Force” within the franchise.  Thus I accept the term fantasy being applied to this franchise.  But a quick look at Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica and I see that these franchise entries are labelled as Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi.  No fantasy.

Despite the fact that these three franchises have technology that moves their ships around at faster than light speeds, beam people around the cosmos and what not, I don’t see a generic use of the term fantasy to label them?  Or is moving at “warp” speed a sound scientific premise that’s just taken a step beyond what we are capable of?

"Iron Man" by Marvel ComicsWhen is the line or distinction drawn as to what’s sci-fi and what’s not?

This is when I lean on the term fiction in the phrase.  And if a franchise uses science-based premises to extend the science within a story way beyond what we can truly achieve, isn’t that the fictional part of science?  Or should that then be considered a sci-fi-fantasy genre?

*PLEASE take note that I am not using IMDb as an end-all of reference to this issue. It was an interesting resource and I was curious how the entertainment industry-minded folk see this issue.

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If you take a quick look at a Google search for “definition of fiction” you get:

Prose literature, esp. short stories and novels, about imaginary events and people.
Invention or fabrication as opposed to fact.

Synonyms figment – invention – fabrication

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If I do the same for science fiction, I get

Fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes…

Synonyms
sci-fi

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"A Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert A Heinlein 1If I were to hang my end-result on Google, I see that fiction is “Invention or fabrication as opposed to fact” and that science fiction is “imagined future scientific or technological advances.”  If I were to stick to my perspective on the fiction part again, I see the terms of invention, fabrication versus the sci-fi reference of imagined.  Under sci-fi, the imagined technological advancement seems to echo the invention or fabrication reference.  Am I seeing this correctly?

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Now me, being who I am, I know that my opinion is NOT the end-all for anyone.  I’m not that sane to begin with!  So I reached out to a few authors I’ve been lucky enough to have some association with.

They were Hugh Howey, author of the Wool franchise, the Molly Fyde collective of stories and other great pieces of work.  Hugh is presently overseas on a huge book tour supporting Wool, as it’s evolved from a New York Times Best Seller indie e-book to a hardback/paperback novel!  At the time of this writing, Wool is the #3 best selling sci-fi book on Amazon. (Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo Saga))  His journey is an inspiration to follow.  There could be plans for Wool to become a major motion picture, with Fox and Ridley Scott having acquired the movie rights to the story.

My other author is someone who Hugh had recommended and that’s indie author Peter Cawdron, who has written such wonderful books as Anomaly, Monsters, and the Galactic Exploration series.  Peter can take lofty scientific principles and make them pretty easy to digest in a story.

Both authors have entertained me for endless hours, as their stories captured my imagination and took me to places I thoroughly enjoyed being in.  AND both authors were gracious enough to take the time from their busy schedules to answer my questions, and I feel like I’ve collected two fascinating perspectives to add to this conversation!

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Hugh Howey:

Hey Bruce, I’m happy to weigh in:

If the genre of science fiction were relegated only to those stories that followed the precepts and findings of the hard sciences, I fear we wouldn’t be left with a single entry. Perhaps a few would exist today, but would they stand the test of time? Would they be 100% accurate hundreds of years from now? Thousands?
Interview with 'Wool' author, Hugh HoweyScience changes. That’s the beauty of it. There are worries among cosmologists that the laws of physics have changed slightly over time, with numbers and relationships we take to be “constants” possibly more akin to variables. In a realm of shifting sand, I find it difficult to adopt a hard stance for the genre. What seems fantastical today might have serious underpinnings years from now, only to be disproved once again. If the infinite universes theories are ever borne out, Tolkien may deserve a place among the SF greats. There will have to be a planet with elves and dwarves at odds with one another.
Which is why I think the descent into semantics is a silly one. It smacks of professors arguing over equations that have no practical application. Science fiction is something you know when you see it. Advanced technology, the future, aliens, spaceships, dystopias, time travel — the features jump right out at you. Anyone attempting to shoulder Star Wars over to the fantasy camp does a disservice to both genres. Until we’re sure midichlorians exist nowhere in the infinite universes, that is.

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Peter Cawdron:

Bruce,
Although we have a broad category of Science Fiction, distributors like Amazon divides the genre into a number of loosely defined subcategories.
  • Adventure
  • Alternative History
  • Anthologies (which really is a style of story rather than a theme)
  • Cyberpunk
  • Dystopian
  • High Tech
  • Military
  • Series (I’m not sure why Amazon yet again mixes styles with themes)
  • Short Stories (here it is yet again)
  • Space Opera
  • Steampunk
"Anomaly" by Peter Cawdron, a book reviewPersonally, I’d do away with Anthology, Series and Short Stories as this can be explicitly stated in the product description and doesn’t relate to the type of story at all. It’s interesting to note what’s absent from this list, Hard science fiction.
Genres are loosely defined in that a writer may blend multiple genres in one story, but generally speaking one particular theme dominates above the others. Science Fiction isn’t science, but it is science applied to fiction. Sometimes this is rigorously applied, as in Pushing Ice by Alistair Reynolds or (<- Amazon links ->) Anomaly by Peter Cawdron,where the authors take known scientific principles and projects them into future scenarios. And yet the speculative nature of these books is still very much fiction. They could be described as “what if?”
At other times, science is a backdrop to fiction, one that could be easily interchanged with fantasy. Star Wars, as an example, is space opera as the story does not depend on science. Lightsabers could be swapped for swords, planets for countries, and the Force for magic, and all without losing any of the key elements of the story. In the same way, Lord of the Rings could be adapted as space opera, with orcs becoming aliens, Middle Earth becoming a spiral arm of the galaxy and the one ring becoming some technological marvel alien species are warring over. So there’s a lot of fantasy in science fiction, but its conveniently glossed over with a veneer of sciency stuff (for lack of a better word).
Cyberpunk, steampunk and alternative histories can go either way, some are alternative backdrops for fantasy stories, others are quite disciplined and extend concepts in a plausible manner, again following the “what if” scenario through to its conclusion. Dystopian is a fascinating concept for its disconnect between science and society. In dystopian stories science may or may not have progressed, but society has failed, and so dystopian stories tend to follow more of the “what if” scenario than merely being fantasy against a different backdrop.
In recent years there’s been a reboot of Star Trek and the story has jumped the rails, switching from a scientifically discipline space opera in the William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy days to action/adventure. Under JJ Abrams we’ve seen Star Trek change its focus. To boldly go where no man has gone before has been replaced with the swashbuckling adventures of yesteryear, and the bridge of the Enterprise could well be the bridge of the Concorde, with Eric Bana’s Nero being a reincarnated Blackbeard.

In the case of Star Trek, the change of focus need not be bad, that’s really up to the fans to decide, but the story has changed. No longer are we in awe of discovery, no longer are we interacting with new and exotic cultures, becoming caught up in alien intrigues we barely understand. Instead, we have Mission Impossible in space. Now, I love a heart-pounding, adrenalin-pumping chase scene as much as the next person, but I’d hoped for more variety with the reboot. Perhaps the next installment will take us somewhere we haven’t been before.

And a misnomer about hard science fiction is that its hard to read. It could be, but it shouldn’t be. Hard sci-fi was popularized by the late Michael Crichton in stories like Jurassic Park and Timeline. With our recent cultural focus on pop-sci (popular science), with scientists such as Stephen Hawkins and Brian Cox opening up the wonders of the universe to the general public, there’s the potential for Hollywood to follow suit and provide some thoughtful movies rather than a roller-coaster ride. Hard sci-fi movies like Contact have shown the public will respond to intrigue over gun fights at the Martian OK corral.

-Peter

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And thus, presented for your intellectual digestion, are a few perspectives on what science fiction can be seen as.  We all have different opinions, and I’d love to hear yours!

www.hughhowey.com

thinkingscifi.wordpress.com

About 

I've been writing newsletters since 1999. I've worked for some great sites over the years and have had my work focused on by major networks and radio stations. Now I've been focusing on the entertainment consumer angle on mostly the sci-fi, fantasy and action genres of TV, movies and books. Mostly.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

O. Pagan March 3, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Interesting points; the discussion about classifying these types of literature reminds me of the fact that nowadays the frontiers between the traditional branches of science are blurred. It used to be that you could study say, biology without thinking about chemistry or even (gasp!) mathematics. Not anymore. As Mr. Howey rightly said, science changes, so I think that also happens with our beloved SciFi. Just think that in Jules Verne’s time, many of his writings were considered fantasy indeed.

That said, I am convinced that science must provide the true inspiration even if only implicitly (and I am fully aware that I am preaching to the choir here). I have even found parallels between science fiction and the science that I have direct experience working on (I am a practicing scientist). I have written a couple of blog posts on that (shameless plug)…

I also completely agree with Peter when wishing for more thought-provoking science fiction. We need that; further, I think that this is one of the main purposes of science fiction.

Nice discussion, keep them coming!

Full disclosure: I am a fan of Peter’s writing… I have never read Mr. Howey’s work, but now I intend to… (:-)

Bruce Simmons March 3, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Hey O. Pagan, don’t ever worry about preaching to a choir ’cause every now and then, someone not of the choir will also be perusing a piece and the comments associated.

After you check out the Wool series (STAY AWAY FROM THE PREQUEL until after you’ve read the silo series), let me know what you think! (My own shameless plug… clicking on the Hugh Howey link here will take you to my reviews of his works.)

-Bruce

Brian Wells March 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

A lot has been said about stories that could be set in different settings, with or without science, and the stories would not change to any significant extent. And we can argue until the end of time how hard the science must be. But to me, a good science fiction story is one that can’t be told without the science element. If you remove the science, and the story can’t survive, then you have a good, thought-provoking science fiction story. Otherwise, if the science isn’t transformative, if it doesn’t enable the reader to think thoughts that she otherwise wouldn’t think, then what’s the point?

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