Saturday, July 02, 2005

What is SF?

Recently I've been reading Orson Scott Card's Writer's Digest book on writing science fiction, and I found his lengthy discussion on "what is science fiction and fantasy?" to be fascinating. First of all, what do you call the fields of science fiction and fantasy? Apparently, most science fiction writers cringe at the term "sci-fi." This seems rather silly to me, but I think my attitude is more because of the lack of shared background with the established writing community. From the way it was explained to me, sci-fi is the cheesy, low-budget, plot-light lasers-and-rockets stories that were from all accounts really, really bad. I think the reason why I don't find the term sci-fi to be a perjorative is 1) I personally have never heard it used by anyone as such, and 2) I actually liked those cheesy stories. No, I don't write in that style, but I like lots of things that I wouldn't (or couldn't) write. Still, the vast majority of writers in the field loathe the term, so we really shouldn't use it. I've always thought that the majority members of any given culture has the exclusive right to name it.

Ben Bova, if I recall correctly, defined science fiction as any story that would fall apart without the key element of science within it to support the plot. While I don't know that he's ever actually said this, I infer from this definition that any kind of "non-literary" fiction that doesn't depend upon real science is fantasy. That works pretty well, but what about time travel stories? Are they science fiction or fantasy? Kip Thorne has shown some interesting ways to have practical time travel, so these tales are just beginning to fit under Bova's definition. Were they fantasy before?

Damon Knight was somewhat less helpful: "Science fiction is what I mean when I point at something and say 'That's science fiction.'" Thanks, Damon. Card points out that this definition isn't as bad as it seems on the surface. Knight is a professional and has been for years, so the vast experience he has gained in that time allows him to correctly identify science fiction, even if he can't tell you how he knows. Still, that doesn't help us rookies!

Card neatly side-steps the debate by prefering to talk about "speculative fiction." His definition is fairly simple, yet remarkably powerful: Any story about a world which doesn't exist is speculative fiction. Any story about the future meets this test, as the future doesn't yet exist. Any "past" story that contradicts the known present is speculative fiction, as is any story with magic and elves. The only distinction he draws between science fiction and fantasy is the publishers' catagorization: if the speculative fiction involves metal and plastic, it's science fiction; if it involves wood and dirt, it's fantasy. The so-called "modern fantasy" novels (magic in the "real world") break this rule for the publishers -- they'd be fantasy -- but still pass Card's test for speculative fiction. It's also pretty handy that the abbreviation "SF" could stand for a wide range of possible definitions!

Card also brings up an interesting dilemma that hadn't occurred to me before. What if you want to write both science fiction and fantasy novels? In many bookstores, these are shelved in completely separate sections of the store. Suppose you have made your name writing fantasy and have a number of fantasy books published, but yo've recently written a science fiction book. Your fantasy fans aren't going to see your new book, so they aren't going to know to buy it. Science fiction fans have never heard of you, so they probably won't buy your book either. As a result, you're left with a possibly excellent book that is quite hard to sell. What's the answer to this problem? Card doesn't know, and after much thought, I don't either. Once you start down one path, are you forever barred from the other?

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