What is "Science Fiction" Anyway?

(Also read by me in Podcast Episode #33)

I’ve been reading more science fiction recently, and realized that for all that I identify as a science fiction and fantasy reader, I’m really mostly a fantasy person.  I just haven’t read all that much science fiction, and I’ve bounced around a lot rather than really settling into a genre enough to feel like I understand it.  But this year I’m going to read the shortlist for the Clarke Awards, which honors the best Science Fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom in the last year, so everything first published in 2015.  Which by strange quirks of eligibility rules means that Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which was first self-published as a Kickstarter project and was nominated for as best debut novel in 2014 for the Kitschies, another UK-based genre award, is now on the shortlist for the 2016 Clarke Awards which, again, honor the best books first published in 2015.  We live in strange and interesting (and dare I say science-fictional) times?

I’m kind of breaking a rule here, because when I started Cabbages & Kings, I promised myself that the topic that would be off-limits would be awards-stuff.  I wanted to talk about books, not the endless conversations that swirl around science-fiction and fantasy awards and communities. That little note about Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (which I’ve read and enjoyed) is as close to award neepery as I plan to get, I promise.  I am, though, going to have Maureen K Speller back to talk about the Clarke Award shortlist, along with Megan of the blog From Couch to Moon.  We’re going to read the six books shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year and talk about them, hopefully before the award is presented in August..  And probably talk about whether and how these represent the science fiction field (in the UK at least) as it stands, and maybe even what science fiction is.  There’s some value in awards that can provoke discussion and consideration of books, after all.  I’ll have a link to the shortlist in the show notes, but the books in no particular order are: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers, Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, Iain Pears’ Arcadia, Europe At Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, which I dearly hope can be read without first reading Europe in Autumn, Way Down Dark by J P Smythe, which is a little tough to get in the US, so if you want to read along go find this soon, and Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, who’s been on my “to-try” list for a while, so that’s a plus.

Anyway, discussion to come.  Thinking about the award, and my general uptick in reading science fiction recently has made me wonder a bit about what even is science fiction anyway.  I think drawing genre definitions is usually a fool’s game, and I don’t plan to hold all of these books to this particular standard, but I do actually have a very clear idea of what I hope for when I settle in to read a “Science Fiction” novel.  I’m looking for a moment of clarity that either unsettles my understanding of “how the world works”, or makes concrete a vague notion I have about how the world works and how that constant would look different in an entirely different setting.  

A few examples: The first is from Larry Niven’s Ringworld.  When the characters are first learning about the ringworld, Niven explains for those in the audience with an evocative passage that starts with a candle and a thin strand of thread wrapped around it.  The candle grows to the size of a sun, the thread to the Ringworld itself, and (at least for me), suddenly the immensity of space, the engineering required to create a project like the Ringworld, and the size of the area to be explored all snapped into focus.  This is still a moment I remember when I’m thinking about scale and how changing scale can entirely redefine a problem, or the world.

The second example comes from another older science fiction novel, Hal Clement's Heavy Planet. Here, Clement imagines a very dense elliptical planet with much higher gravity than ours. The inhabitants explore the planet as a way to describe what such an environment could be like, and how (again) our perspective would be fundamentally changed - the notion of a fall of a body-length, even for creatures measured in inches and adapted to such gravity, as an instantly lethal fall, for instance. And their changed ways of interacting with the world.  Clement wrote an essay where he suggests basically that this kind of science fiction, which I think of as “thought-experiment sci-fi” is a game between the author and the reader.  Can the author construct a world sufficiently rigorous that the reader cannot find an inconsistency? Can the reader anticipate the future developments the author will introduce?

(I’ll note that many of these books have holes big enough to drive a truck through when other sciences such as sociology or anthropology are brought to bear.  An easy and accurate complaint is that many of these stories were not only sexist but privileged physics and chemistry above other sciences based on some pretty sexist notions.  But I still enjoy these sorts of thought-experiments which take the laws of nature as best we understand them and apply them to an entirely different environment.)

C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner has a very similar “moment of recognition” for me, but this one isn’t related to physical laws at all.  In Foreigner, a small community of humans lives on a planet dominated by the alien Atevi, whose physiology, community and emotional connections to each other are built in part around systems of allegiance.  That is, recognizing someone’s authority over an area, or over yourself, has physiological effects, kind of like romantic love in humans.  And there’s a crucial moment in the first book where the human character is feeling human emotions, and the alien reminds him that while her behaviors may look superficially like human reciprocity, her *feelings* are more closely akin to the aesthetic pleasures of eating a good meal.  I hope I’m not mangling too badly this scene I last read in high school, but much like Heavy Planet gave me a sense that gravity in a planet with wildly different mass would produce a wildly different environment, Foreigner was a moment of recognition that our behaviours and feelings, and the ways that we interpret the behaviors and feelings of others are a complicated interaction of social conditioning and physiology, and not nearly as universal as we might think.

I could probably go on. There’s a delightful moment in Steerswoman where a character reasons out low-earth-orbit satellites from first principles, and even though many of Ken Liu’s stories aren’t necessarily “science fiction”, most have a moment of unexpected recognition within them. The point, though, is that when I think of science fiction, what I think of are those moments of recognition.  Moments that remind me there are real universal realities that our earth and society are just a very fragile specific manifestation of, and that things we may assume are universally applicable are highly contingent on the specific events and environment that have led us here.  I like those moments of recognition.  I don’t think they’re necessarily useful in defining the boundaries of the genre, and I don’t expect all of the books in the Clarke shorlist to be catering to that expectation, but it is something I bring to the table when I think about “Science Fiction”