In the book reviews I’ve been writing recently I have been applying some very specific ideas about the nature and scope of science fiction, particularly in contrast to other genres such as fantasy, mystery, and horror. I have not hesitated to describe some works found in SF anthologies as defective SF, as non-SF, or even as anti-SF.
It is not fashionable these days to be so normative about any kind of artistic form, let alone SF. The insistence that we should embrace diversity is constant, even if it means giving up having any standards at all. In a genre like SF where the core traditions include neophilia and openness to possibility, the argument for exclusive definitions and hard boundaries seems especially problematic.
I think it is an argument very much worth making nevertheless. This essay is my stake in the ground, one I intend to refer readers back to when (as sometimes happens) I’m accused of being stuck on an outmoded and narrow conception of the genre. I will argue three propositions: that artistic genres are functionally important, that genre constraints are an aid to creativity and communication rather than a hindrance, and that science fiction has a particular mission which both justifies and requires its genre constraints.
(Some parts of this essay are excerpts from earlier related writing.)
First, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It’s two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.
This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany’s observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.
Genre is functional. I’ve already described how genre conventions help artists and audiences communicate. Another obvious way is that genre categories reduce search costs in the market for art by helping artists signal about their production and giving art consumers a language for requesting what they want. This is a benefit to both artists and the audience.
Genre has a more subtle function as well – it assists creativity. Meaning relies on context; the frame defines the picture. Usually, artists do their best work when grappling with and using the constraints of a genre or artistic medium rather than attempting to abolish them. “Back to zero” sounds brave, but tends to produce art that is flabby, self-indulgent, and vacuous.
A genre can be seen as a conversation among its authors and readers (what postmodernists call “shared discourse”). As in every long running conversation, a genre tends to develop internal themes, motives, and a shared history. Works that are disconnected from the main conversation may be seen by people in that conversation as outside of the genre even if they fulfill many of its thematic and structural requirements and seem like they ought to belong “in” to outsiders.
For historical and contingent reasons which would be worth an essay in themselves, the conversational aspect of the SF genre has been exceptionally important relative to other fiction genres. SF works are often written as implicit or explicit replies to other works. Authors and fans cultivate a detailed awareness of how works are situated in the conversation. This makes analytical and normative analysis of the SF genre both more fruitful and more contentious than it would be otherwise.
Now we will require the following definition of science fiction (due in its most developed form to Gregory Benford): that branch of fantastic literature which affirms the rational knowability of the universe, and has as its most particular reader experience the sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way.
Benford’s definition of SF implies that SF stories must have important structural features in common with murder mysteries, and a reason crossovers between these two genres are so often successful. In both forms the author is required to play by the rules of rational deduction. The writer wins the game if the reader reaches the big reveal without having anticipated it but with the realization that the solution is correct; the reader wins the game if he or she gets to the truth before the author’s reveal.
The author plays fair by leaving open the possibility that a sharp enough reader can win, the work is judged as much or more by how well and how audaciously the author plays the game more than by conventional literary criteria. Within discussion of the SF genre (though not to my knowledge among mystery fans) “the game” has the specific meaning of this dance between author and reader.
What distinguishes an SF story from a murder mystery isn’t the absence of murder but the presence of at least one premise in the story that is fantastic, e.g. counterfactual or even impossible. There’s a convention in SF called the “one-McGuffin rule”; you’re allowed one impossible premise per story, but FTL travel doesn’t count.
Larry Niven is famous for this prescription: “Make one change to the world as it is now, and then explore the ramifications of that change – but don’t mess with anything else.” Similar definitions go back to the beginnings of modern SF, as invented by John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein in the 1940s. They are not really adequate; good SF can change lots of things about its settings. The “don’t mess with anything else” should be read as “keep your secondary world rationally accessible to the reader” in Benford’s sense.
Note the absence in this analysis of any reference to the obvious stage furniture of genre SF – spaceships, robots, aliens, time travel, and the like. These things in themselves do not an SF story make; when the structure underneath them violates the core promise of rational knowability you get what is at best defective SF and at worst a sort of anti-SF which informed readers of the genre are likely to receive as willfully perverse.
One of SF’s central impulses is to extend the perimeter of the rationally knowable, sweeping in not merely unknown places and times and aliens accessible to science but also motifs and images that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. The evolution of SF can be charted as a steady widening of that perimeter – to other planets, beyond the solar system, to other times and alternate histories, then to technology-of-magic and possibilities even more estranged from the world of immediate experience.
Having advanced this definition of SF, I’m now going to make a temporary concession to people who consider it too narrow by relabeling what it covers “classical SF”, or cSF. Those with a little historical awareness of the field will recognize that the classical period began in 1939 with Robert Heinlein’s first publication under John W. Campbell, the then-new editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
Almost anyone with any exposure to SF will recognize that much but not all of what is popularly labeled SF is cSF. The question I will address in the remainder of this essay is: why should we consider cSF normative? What grounds do we have for regarding a work that claims to be SF but is not cSF to be defective SF, non-SF, or anti-SF?
One reason is historical. Previous attempts to abandon the deep norms of cSF while preserving its stage furniture and surface tropes have not aged well. The “New Wave” of the late 1960s and early 1970s was spent by the early 1980s. Later insurgencies within the field, notably the cyberpunks of the late 1980s and early 1990s, retained cSF’s assumption of rational knowability (and all that followed from it) even while trying to radically transform the genre in other ways.
The reason beneath that history is reader response. SF doesn’t exist in a vacuum; people who want fantasies or Westerns or romances know how to find them, and in general the kind of person who can be attracted by the way SF is packaged (spaceships and other high technology on covers, etc.) wants rational knowability and wants to play the kind of game with the author that is characteristic of cSF, even if he or she is not very introspective about that desire and not very good at the game yet.
This is why SF readers – even inexperienced ones – often experience violation of the deep norms of cSF as a kind of dishonesty or malicious subversion. They can tell they’re being cheated of something even if they don’t know quite what. Forty years ago this feeling was often articulated against the New Wave by complaining that its works were “depressing” – which was true, and remains true of a lot of defective SF and anti-SF today, but doesn’t get at the actual root of the problem.
Correspondingly, most of the demand for non-classic SF comes not from readers but from critics/authors/editors (people who think of themselves as tastemakers) who are bent on imposing the deep norms of other genres onto the SF field. Such people are especially apt to think SF would be improved by adopting the norms and technical apparatus of modern literary fiction, itself a genre which developed not long prior to modern SF in the early 20th century but which has preoccupations in many respects diametrically opposed to those of SF.
One reliable way to spot one of these literary improvers in action is unending complaints about the low standards of characterization that the majority of both SF readers and writers consider acceptable. If you scratch a person making this complaint you’ll generally find someone who doesn’t realize that, while characters may be required to give an SF story emotional life, the idea is the hero. SF readers treat emotional realism as optional because the experience they really crave is Benford’s rational knowability and conceptual breakthrough (though they may only dimly understand this themselves).
(How do I know this is what SF readers want? Why, I look at what sells and what lingers on best-of lists. Within SF – and only within SF – big-idea stories with flat characters both outsell and outlast character studies decorated with SF stage furniture. This was already true at the beginning of the classic period in 1939, it remained true even at the height of the New Wave in 1971 or so, and it continues to be true today.)
The more conscious variety of improver at least dimly understands the deep norms of cSF but thinks they should be subverted and deprived of their authority in favor of something “better”. In this view SF readers don’t really know what’s good art and need to be educated away from their primitive fondness for linear narratives, puzzle stories, competent characters, happy endings, and rational knowability. It’s not caricaturing much to say that the typical specimen of this type thinks the only good conceptual breakthrough is an unhappy one.
One reason to vigorously assert cSF as a norm to which anything labeled SF should aspire is simply to defend the genre conversation on behalf of the readers from the well-intentioned (or not so well-intentioned) meddling of the improvers. Thus, wherever SF is discussed among actual readers you tend to find exhortations like “Science fiction should get back in the gutter where it belongs!” When you hear that, you can be sure the speaker doesn’t think SF ought to become an apologetic imitation of literary fiction (or any other genre).
I think the reader-response theory of SF norms (confirmed by the historical record of what fans value and what they have rejected) would be a sufficient reason, even today (2014) to hold SF to the standards of cSF and consider failure to meet them a defect. But there’s a reason that I think tells even more strongly than that.
SF has a mission. There’s a valuable cultural function that SF, alone of all our arts, is good for. SF writers (and readers) are our forward scouts, the imaginative preparation for what might come next, the way we limber up our minds to cope with the unexpected future. SF is not just the literature of ideas, it’s a literature of thinking outside the box you’re in, one that entwines escapism with extrapolation in ways that are productive for both ends. At SF’s best it provides myths and role models for people who want to make the world a better place in a way no other art form can really match.
That, ultimately, is why we should assert the norms of classic SF – because they are an instrument tuned for and by SF’s futurological uses. What this does for the people who read SF is help them imagine and create better futures for all of us.