Why the deep norms of the SF genre matter

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.

180 thoughts on “Why the deep norms of the SF genre matter

  1. First, s/1040s/1940s/.

    Second, I agree with the point that “…the author is required to play by the rules of rational deduction,” but I disagree with “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.” How strongly do you make this claim? Do you mean only (emphasis mine) such works with a foreseeable big reveal qualify as SF? I suspect I misunderstand what you wrote.

    Third, at what time does your definition of the SF genre begin to hold? 1939? Why? Does earlier work (Wells, Stapledon, Shiel, Verne) meet your standard? Does work outside the tradition of Campbell and Heinlein (Verne, Lem, Strugatsky, Dick) meet your standard?

  2. >How strongly do you make this claim?

    There are any number of works of SF that are (I think rightly) considered important parts of its canon despite being clumsy and poorly executed in literary terms, on the grounds that they introduced large and important ideas into the genre. Some time back on this blog a regular pointed out Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as an example. It’s talky, badly paced, the prose is at best serviceable, and most of the characters are barely developed at all. But none of this matters very much, because the idea is the hero.

    >Third, at what time does your definition of the SF genre begin to hold?

    The systematic development of what I have called the “deep norms” dates from John W. Campbell’s accession to the editorship of Astounding in 1939. But the Campbellian revolution didn’t happen in a vacuum; to understand where Heinlein and Campbell were coming from it’s very helpful to read Rudyard Kipling’s With The Night Mail (1912), which I think can justly be called the very first work of hard SF, and Kim (1901) which though not SF appears to have been the locus of invention for the technique of indirect exposition that Heinlein would later develop into one of the SF genre’s central devices.

    >Does earlier work (Wells, Stapledon, Shiel, Verne) meet your standard?

    Sometimes. Wells, Stapledon, and Verne (and for that matter E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack Williamson, and the very early Murray Leinster) were in various ways precursors who partly developed the rules of the SF form and can be regarded as historically attached to it in spite of the fact that much of their work was defective by later standards.

    In some cases (Smith, Williamson, Leinster) they were able to adapt to the Campbellian revolution and there is internal evidence in their writing that they willingly adopted its deep norms as their own. I think Wells, who lived to see the Campbellian revolution happen, would have done likewise had he not lost interest in SF well before then; it is not a very long step from some of his more carefully-thought-out short fiction to the Golden Age.

    It is probably pointless to try to project how Verne would have responded to the Campbellian challenge to up his game, since he died in 1905. Likewise Shiel who abandoned proto-SF themes after 1902 (though of course both Verne and Shiel had influence on later writers within the SF genre).

    >Does work outside the tradition of Campbell and Heinlein (Verne, Lem, Strugatsky, Dick) meet your standard?

    I’m not familiar enough with Strugatsky to say for sure, but my impression from secondhand accounts is that much of it probably would.

    Lem and Dick are trickier cases. Lem I think is best understood as a fabulist who used the imgery of SF in a kind of bricolage that has nothing particularly to do with SF genre concerns. I like the Cyberiad and his tales of Pirx the Pilot a lot, but they have more in common with Jorge Luis Borges than SF proper.

    Philip K. Dick was…even more problematic. He wrote sound genre SF by the rules when he was sane, and increasingly bizarre anti-SF as he went increasingly insane. I’m sorry to say that overall I think his impact on the genre was destructive: I’m particularly unhappy with the fact that outsiders frequently seize on his crazier work as model of what SF should be.

  3. I think you’re mistaken about how readers see the field. Golden age sf included van Vogt, Bradbury, and a little later, PK Dick, and I think you’re the only person who says they’re not science fiction.* Also, while New Wave and cyberpunk have gone out of fashion, they were each part of the genre for a while.

    It may be interesting that including a mystery plot in science fiction was so non-obvious that Campbell and Asimov had to argue out the possibility (Asimov was in favor of the combination, Campbell didn’t think it could be done) for The Caves of Steel (1954).

    My tentative definition of science fiction is that it’s stories which require science-flavored elements. Not necessarily actual science, but somehow science-y. I’m not sure how to explain why psi feels more science-y than magic.

    I have no idea how to define science fiction in a way that excludes techno-thrillers and Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (a memetic novel about a doctor with a scientific idea).

    *I’ve seen a filk song probably from the sixties, about Bradbury being depressing. I’ve never heard it performed.

  4. >I think you’re mistaken about how readers see the field.

    If I were, the Hugo nominations and winners would look quite different than they do. This is not a point that we are arguing in a vacuum; there’s plenty of evidence about what sells to SF readers, and I had it very much in mind when writing about reader response in the OP.

    >Golden age sf included van Vogt, Bradbury, and a little later, PK Dick, and I think you’re the only person who says they’re not science fiction.

    Huh? I didn’t say a word about van Vogt or Bradbury. I wouldn’t dream of trying to exile van Vogt from the genre; a lot of his work was rather bad, but he was clearly trying to conform to the deep norms of the genre even when he wasn’t being very good at same. As for Bradbury, I don’t see how (for example) Fahrenheit 451 could be regarded as anything but genre SF. Admittedly a lot of his short stories are better understood as poetic fabulism.

    >Also, while New Wave and cyberpunk have gone out of fashion, they were each part of the genre for a while.

    I noted in the essay that cyberpunk retained the deep norms of classic SF. And most of my point about New Wave is that its attempts to subvert the genre’s deep norms failed. The “New Wave” work that has stood the test of time (like The Left Hand of Darkness, or Stand on Zanzibar) was thematically and stylistically experimental but with 40 years distance from it we can see that these actually continued the Campbellian project in fairly straightforward ways.

    >I’m not sure how to explain why psi feels more science-y than magic.

    Oh come on, that’s easy. The implication of “psi” is that of a rationally knowable universe. The writer uses psi tropes to signal that he is trying to conform to the deep norms of SF, as opposed to simply writing fantasy with equivalent magical elements.

    >I have no idea how to define science fiction in a way that excludes techno-thrillers and Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (a memetic novel about a doctor with a scientific idea).

    Can’t say about Arrowsmith, not having read it, but technothrillers are easy too. What they generally lack is conceptual breakthrough – they use the expository techniques of SF to induce less challenging reader experiences. The exceptions sometimes cross over into the domain of near-future SF. A good test for this is whether the author is playing the game, dropping enough clues that the reader might get to the big reveal before the author does.

  5. What I found “flabby, self-indulgent, and vacuous” was this long winded treastie that boils down to “what I like is REAL SF and that stuff you like isn’t”.

    It’s the same annoying position taken by professors that teach “science fiction and fantasy” courses (and never mentally been within 1000 miles of a con) to define the genre to their own snobby biases.

    If I were to call anything “anti-SF” it would be the anti-technology stories (the good guys the primitive natives, the bad guys the guys with spaceships) from authors like Norton.

    Even then that crap is still part of the genre.

  6. I think your repeated use of “rational knowability” is crucial to the discussion. It’s nearly tautological, because “rational knowability” is pretty much the definition of “science”. If a writer delivers a universe that is not knowable via rational means, he’s not doing science fiction. (And that’s why I think HPMOR qualifies as SF instead of fantasy.)

    Arguably, a better name for SF would be “Technological Fiction”. Most of what SF covers isn’t the discovery of new/different science; it’s Niven’s exploration of the ramifications of when that science becomes usable tech that affects how people live. I think it resonates so well with us because we’re living in a time when new technologies have transformed societies (railroads, automobiles, airplanes, The Pill, microprocessors, …) within the span of a generation.

    Consider how many movies set just a few decades ago have as a plot point the inability to reach someone by telephone to provide critical information, ignorance of which leads them to take action with tragic/comedic results. The ubiquity of cell phones makes that far less believable in ordinary circumstances (sure, if you’re in the Nebraska Panhandle you might not get any bars on your cell phone, and if you let your battery run down….)

    Tech Fiction says “we know technology changes societies; let’s see if we can guess how future tech will do that”.

  7. >“what I like is REAL SF and that stuff you like isn’t”.

    Um…I like a lot of stuff that isn’t “real SF” – Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad, for example. Or defective pre-Golden-Age space operas and planetary romances like the Barsoom books. I just refuse to be confused about what these works are actually doing. It’s my job as a critic and scholar of the field to know better than that.

  8. Nancy wrote:
    “My tentative definition of science fiction is that it’s stories which require science-flavored elements. Not necessarily actual science, but somehow science-y.”

    No, there is another category that neither you nor Eric has discussed so far: science fantasy. This category includes not only obvious examples like Star Wars, but also worlds closer to SF such as Star Trek. (There is nothing rationally knowable about the Star Trek universe, where doubletalk generators can always be modified on the spot to set up or solve the key plot tension, and then they vanish in the next episode.)

    The term science fantasy is not original with me. I know that David Gerrold used it, and it may pre-date him. I would define it as stories that use science-flavored elements as background while incorporating tropes from fantasy. Pure fantasy is harder to define once you get away from the high fantasy of Tolkein and his imitators, but it’s definitely distinct from science fiction and mostly distinct from science fantasy.

  9. NIgel:
    “What I found ‘flabby, self-indulgent, and vacuous’ was this long winded treastie that boils down to ‘what I like is REAL SF and that stuff you like isn’t’.”

    But that’s not what he said. The essay would be better summed up as, “What SF fans like best is REAL SF and that stuff that the literary avant garde likes isn’t.”

  10. >Arguably, a better name for SF would be “Technological Fiction”.

    I disagree, because there are some important edge cases about which this would be misleading (anyway, more misleading than “science” is). One is the technology-of-magic story. Another is the more SFnal grade of alternate-history fiction.

  11. “One reliable way to spot one of these literary improvers in action is unending complaints about the low standards of characterization”

    Yes! It took me a while to figure it out, but I now consider reviews that complain about this to be indicative of a good read. Greg Egan reviews suffer from this and his stories are chock full of “sense of conceptual breakthrough”. I think I’ve always known that this is what I was looking for (I tell people I like “ideas-y” SF, and self-consistent world-building, too). This analysis reinforces my view.

  12. Thank your for this. I’m not completely convinced. But whatever.

    I have question: where does Doctor Who (modern ones at least) Star Wars, and similar fit?

    I call these “Science Fantasy”, internally inconsistent, but with façade of Science Fiction. (I note that this term is used, according to Wikipedia, for fantasy using the methods of science fiction. I prefer my definition.)

  13. >The essay would be better summed up as, “What SF fans like best is REAL SF and that stuff that the literary avant garde likes isn’t.”

    I cannot overstate my debt to Samuel Delany for having pointed out that SF has to be understood as a style of reading, rather than as merely as a style of writing. It was a tremendously productive insight.

  14. >I have question: where does Doctor Who (modern ones at least) Star Wars, and similar fit?

    I think Dr. Who is almost always describable as science fiction – the assumption of rational knowability is generally important in the background – but in the past it has often been extremely bad science fiction in which the game is being played poorly. Standards seem to me to have somewhat improved in the reboot.

    It’s harder to excuse what goes on in Star Wars, where (especially in the earliest films) the worldbuilding is anti-rational. I too use the label “science fantasy” for this stuff. I note, however, that as with Dr. Who Lucas seems to have tried to turn in a more SFnal direction later on. I recall reacting to the the introduction of “midichlorians”as a feeble attempt to recover some SF cred.

    What you report Wikipedia calling “science fantasy” is what I would call “technology-of-magic”.

  15. >Yes! It took me a while to figure it out, but I now consider reviews that complain about [weak characterization] to be indicative of a good read.

    Ah, there speaks the archetypal SF fan. You’re not alone, and it’s people like you who will keep the special virtues of the genre alive.

    I view providing people like you with a language in which to articulate what they want, so they can keep getting it, as an important part of my job (as a critic).

  16. >(There is nothing rationally knowable about the Star Trek universe, where doubletalk generators can always be modified on the spot to set up or solve the key plot tension, and then they vanish in the next episode.)

    I think cases like this are better analyzed as bad science fiction than science fantasy. Star Trek characters believe their universe is rationally knowable, unlike Star Wars in which Jedi teaching is a sort of bastardized mysticism-of-the-week that is fundamentally anti-rational.

  17. [T]o understand where Heinlein and Campbell were coming from it’s very helpful to read Rudyard Kipling’s With The Night Mail (1912), which I think can justly be called the very first work of hard SF…

    How would you rate Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing (1893)? It starts as an ironic very-Biercian horror-mystery about an invisible monster…but ends it with a scientific-rational reveal that’s at least a first cousin to what you’re talking about.

  18. >Where on this spectrum do we find works like John Fowles’s “A Maggot?”

    Ah, that’s a good question. A Maggot appropriates some tropes of SF to the ends of literary fiction. It’s not rational knowability that Fowles is going after.

  19. “I view providing people like you with a language in which to articulate what they want, so they can keep getting it, as an important part of my job (as a critic).”

    I’m pretty sure my own Amazon reviews will be drawing on this essay, so job done.

  20. I had almost listed Star Trek as an example of science fantasy. But I’ve never actually seen any, so I can’t comment…

    But I have to say that within Dr Who, because anything can and does change (i.e. it is not internally consistent) I think that it fails the science fiction test (for me).

    I think consistency is a very important part of both science fiction and fantasy. But while it is not essential for fantasy, it is essential for science fiction. (This is another reason I think that SF&F should not be considered two completely separate genres.)

  21. >How would you rate Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing

    Interesting! Early proto-SF, groping towards the modern form. There were a lot of similar experiments; Edgar Allan Poe was responsible for a few, and Rudyard Kipling would be doing a better job by 1900.

  22. >“The Iron General”

    The intent here seems to me to be what I would call technology-of-magic (SFnal structure, fantasy tropes) rather than science fantasy (fantasy structure, SFnal tropes).

  23. I thought Bierce’s tale might be ancestral both to SF proper and “Weird Tale” fiction – like Sinister Barrier or Through the Gates of the Silver Key.

    (Lovecraft, especially, relied on a universe that was rational at bottom…but with the idea that humans could only see, and tolerate, a tiny fraction of that reality. I never could react to him as horror, the way I did to Stephen King’s tales as a kid, but he wasn’t plucking the same strings as SF either.)

    (Bierce also did an early entry in the “Robot Rebellion” genre – Moxon’s Master. Interesting fellow, that Bierce.)

  24. One could argue that the mindset of SF writers and fans represents a memetic trait with evolutionary advantage. The cSF meme embodies undaunted and courageous problem-solving in the face of catastrophic change of an unknown nature. I think it’s very likely that our ancestors encountered this phenomenon was some regularity.

  25. >I thought Bierce’s tale might be ancestral both to SF proper and “Weird Tale” fiction – like Sinister Barrier or Through the Gates of the Silver Key.

    Fair point. A. A. Merrit probably rates a mention here.

    >(Lovecraft, especially, relied on a universe that was rational at bottom…but with the idea that humans could only see, and tolerate, a tiny fraction of that reality. I never could react to him as horror, the way I did to Stephen King’s tales as a kid, but he wasn’t plucking the same strings as SF either.)

    That is also an interesting and valid point. I agree that the universe of the Cthulhu mythos can be understood as having a very dark, weird version of rational knowability, and that this is what makes it different from most horror. But if that knowability is inaccessible to any sane human we are, as you note, outside the range of reader responses characteristic of SF.

    Edge cases are edge cases. Sometimes they illuminate the less exceptional ones.

  26. Hrm. Does the introduction of a superintelligent scientist such as Spock (come on, have you ever seen him utterly stumped?) turn a story about USS Make Shit Up (™ Voltaire) from science fantasy into bad SF?

  27. Excellent, excellent article. I’ve linked to it on my blog.

    I’ve only recently stumbled over your site and am having lots of fun browsing. As a fantasy author (and some SF) I’m definitely in the “technology of magic” camp.

  28. Cathy on 2014-07-02 at 09:17:43 said:

    “But that’s not what he said. The essay would be better summed up as, “What SF fans like best is REAL SF and that stuff that the literary avant garde likes isn’t.””

    I read it more like: “there exists a genre of writing where the idea is the hero and the challenge in reading and writing fiction of that genre is figuring out / hiding a rationally explainable reveal”. The argument is that this is the key element defining a specific writing genre and that the other trappings often found with that genre aren’t key elements.

    Then there’s a second argument that that genre has a better claim on the name “science fiction” than other genres – popularity, history, etc.

  29. I think ESR is generally correct with his definition. Almost all works that are considered SF, especially good SF, would match his definition. The challenge then, would be to find a work that doesn’t match the definition, but is widely considered good SF (by the fans).

    My nomination would be Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. It won a Hugo and a Nebula. I consider it an amazing book. But I don’t think it contains a counter-factual that changes the world. Yes, it’s a time-travel story, but that has minimal effect on everything.

  30. I don’t think you can analyze serialized multi-author (often dozens of authors) television series as atomic things. You need to look at the episodes individually. Sometimes Star Trek is sci-fi, sometimes it’s science fantasy, and sometimes it’s soap operas in space. This deep inconsistency makes it more difficult to slip some true science fiction in, but sometimes they manage even so. Sticking just to Star Trek, on the one hand you’ve got true science fiction like The Measure of a Man, an incredibly-heavy ideas episode about what it means to qualify for the rights as a sentient being (using the episode’s terminology) which could not simply be translated into the modern world, and on the other hand, in what is otherwise dramatically a somewhat similar episode, The Drumhead, which is a good episode in the general sense but is basically little more than a courtroom drama set in space whose sci-fi trappings could be stripped away with little dramatic loss (and indeed is expected to speak directly to the viewer about modern issues in a way that The Measure of a Man can not (yet)).

    Doctor Who generally swings far more science fantasy. In fact I’m trying to think of an episode that would be actual science fiction by this definition from the reboot and I’m not coming up with anything. It’s grasp on drama also swings wildly; fortunately in the last couple of seasons it has been put in charge of someone who can at least spin a yarn that is structurally sound, unlike the previous director. But it’s still mostly a tale told strictly for entertainment, with little to no “ideas” that matter in this sci-fi sense, IMHO.

  31. The principle of “rational knowability” as I understand it is exactly opposite to religious belief. US is notorious for having high contrast in this regard – from highly-educated university professors teaching evolution theory to some semi-literate rednecks from biblical belt trying to forbid it in schools. Out of curiosity – have you considered correlation between SF authors/improvers position with regards to genre as you’ve described it and their position in this geographical/social strata?

  32. I’m afraid that this won’t do as a descriptive definition of SF, for the simple reason that, as the term is actually used, “SF” refers to all sorts of things which are not cSF. You may ignore the vast body of popular and scholarly discussion which uses the term SF to include non-cSF if you’d like, but at that point it becomes clear that you’re not describing what SF is, but prescribing what it should be. And your arguments to the contrary are weak: of course, cSF is very popular, and yes, many (most?) of the most important SF works are cSF, but none of these suffice to prove that only cSF is true SF.

    That said, my disagreement goes away if we allow that cSF is “core SF”, and admit that the genre has both a core and a periphery, and that the exact boundary between SF and non-SF is somewhere out there in the periphery without us being able to define exactly where. I’ll happily admit that cSF is archetypal SF, but that peripheral works may reflect on and reject elements of the archetype in order to achieve some other effect. This is especially true if we consider that peripheral SF novels typically require a familiarity with the core SF reading protocols. An “anti-SF” novel which works towards the conclusion that the universe is not rationally knowable nonetheless requires a reader who is attentive to the question of rational knowability and capable of being shocked by its negation, ie. an anti-SF novel can only be properly read by an SF reader, which strongly implies that even anti-SF is SF.

    (Note also that “core” is different from “canon”, and that there are canonical works which are not core.)

  33. Lem and Dick are trickier cases. Lem I think is best understood as a fabulist who used the imgery of SF in a kind of bricolage that has nothing particularly to do with SF genre concerns. I like the Cyberiad and his tales of Pirx the Pilot a lot, but they have more in common with Jorge Luis Borges than SF proper.

    Lem was no mere fabulist; he set out to call into question the core tenets of SF, including — and especially — that rational knowability. He was one of the few writers willing to write aliens which were truly alien — not just alien to Earth, but alien to human experience and comprehension. If we do indeed encounter a powerful extraterrestrial intelligence, it is bound to be as foreign to our experience as we are to that of an amoeba. Lem was just about the only writer of his time willing to “go there”.

    Lem and Dick were trying to do something specific: explore “bigger questions” than SF is capable of. Funny you should mention murder mysteries; to illustrate SF’s limitations, Lem specifically cites murder mysteries and compares them with Crime and Punishment; while the biggest question in Christie is “who committed the murder?”, Dostoyevsky poses the deeper and thornier question: “why do people murder?”

    SF has been tapped out for decades; about the only place it could go is, as you said, to increasingly foreign and exotic (but still “rationally knowable”) settings. Transcending the limitations of SF to ask bigger and more troubling questions has been the name of the game since the New Wave. Oddly enough, Lem credits Dick as the first writer to successfully do so.

    In that light, it’s no surprise that Dick’s “craziest” work is often considered his best; the lens of psychological trauma and “madness” has been the most effective means to challenge comfortable norms and present thought-provoking ideas in literature since at least Hemingway, probably earlier (Poe comes to mind).

  34. While I’m glad to see a shout-out to “With the Night Mail” as a seminal work of hard SF, I think I have to raise the banner of Jules Verne as the undeniable pioneer of SF as “rational knowability fiction.” That’s the root of his entire body of work: the world is full of cool stuff, and humans can discover, comprehend, and make use of it. All of his heroes are problem-solvers and discoverers, and his occasional nods at conventional 19th-century Catholic pieties have no thematic connection to the actual stories. Vernean heroes never trust in a higher power, or engage in any kind of spiritual contemplation. Their contemplations are rational, and power is force times distance per unit time.

  35. >Does the introduction of a superintelligent scientist such as Spock [...] turn a story about USS Make Shit Up (™ Voltaire) from science fantasy into bad SF?

    Seems unavoidable to me. Unless you make the big reveal in your story specifically that the superintelligent scientist’s logic is necessarily inadequate, pegging your story to a character like that implies that you want the reader to believe in a rationally knowable universe.

  36. >My nomination would be Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. [...] Yes, it’s a time-travel story, but that has minimal effect on everything.

    Huh? Time travel drives the whole plot. Furthermore, it’s not just a McGuffin that operates once with no later effect; major challenges in the story follow from the limitations of the technology. Crucially, in the end, the viewpoint character is successfully rescued because her friends figure out what to do

  37. >I don’t think you can analyze serialized multi-author (often dozens of authors) television series as atomic things. You need to look at the episodes individually.

    You don’t think the setting continuity matters? Strange…

    The Trek setting, unlike Star Wars, is saturated with respect for science and rational knowability even when individual episodes are silly science fantasy.

  38. >none of these suffice to prove that only cSF is true SF.

    I think you have misunderstood my position in a subtle way, which is related to why a lot of people in this thread are having trouble with the genre status of Star Trek and Star Wars. The relevant boundary is between non-SF (author isn’t even trying to play the game) and defective SF (author is trying to play the game, but without the clues or capability to do it right).

    I think most things which are called SF but are not cSF are best understood not as non-SF that has been popularly misclassified but as defective attempts at SF by people who mean well but don’t understand how to do it right. This is one major reason why prescriptive analysis like mine is useful – it’s guidance.

  39. Hypothesis: The anti-modern-literature would start as Yet Another Rumbling Gut Rumble and then reveal what monkey signals got messed up and how.

  40. Star Trek shouldn’t be seen as a unified item to be classified. Star Trek is a vehicle used by a number of screenwriters. Some episodes are science fiction, others science fantasy, others lit, others straight up action adventure.

    “City on the Edge of Forever” is science fiction.

  41. One of the biggest changes in science fiction, and something which coincided with the “New Wave”, but only partially overlaps it, is the deeper exploration of *social* changes due to technology. Lots of earlier science fiction assumed some sort of known social system, with fancy technology, and the stories were about individual’s interaction with the technology. Stories like Haldeman’s “The Forever War” explored how that technology would impact the social system, and the characters responses to both the technology and the social changes. Notice that Heinlein, in his Lazarus Long stories, pretty much assumes that society won’t be very different with lots of really old people running around, even though his earlier “Solution Unsatisfactory” explores the political changes that might result from nuclear weapons.

  42. Am I right in that one could write a SF story that has a protagonist who views the universe as an entirely mystical and not rational knowable?

  43. >Lem was no mere fabulist; he set out to call into question the core tenets of SF,

    Hate to burst your bubble there, mister insanity-apologist, but Lem had zero interest in questioning the core tenets of SF. I read a marvellous interview with him years ago in which he was quite clear about this; SF was simply irrelevant to the sort of philosophical fabulism Lem thought he was doing. Your belief about Lem says nothing about Lem and everything about you.

    >Transcending the limitations of SF to ask bigger and more troubling questions

    Do you ever listen to yourself when you say things like this? They sound really cool in a coffeehouse or an English Lit seminar, but they collapse into vacuousness when examined at all closely. To believe there are questions too large for SF to tackle you have to believe there are questions too large for rational inquiry to tackle. But that’s a self-destroying belief for reasons I have covered many, many times on this blog; you have to either presume the applicability of rational inquiry in order to argue that its scope is limited (FAIL) or retreat into a position in which you won’t permit consequential reasoning to touch you (FAIL).

  44. Am I right in that one could write a SF story that has a protagonist who views the universe as an entirely mystical and not rational knowable?

    It would be a challenge of perspective but entirely possible. To be SF, though, the universe itself would have to actually be rationally knowable, possibly upsetting the protagonist’s expectations in the process. The events of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court told from the perspective of Merlin might qualify.

  45. >In fact I’m trying to think of an episode that would be actual science fiction by this definition from the reboot and I’m not coming up with anything

    Oh, that’s easy. The Empty Child. Spooky and weird, but most definitely SF, underlined by the turn in the narrative from what appears initially to be a truly chilling horror premise. Impressed the hell out of me. I saw several others that I think qualify but that one really stands out in my mind.

  46. I would add an optional criteria: It’s quite common for SF to expose a psychological and/or philosophical (or even political) concept that is not formulated as a theory but rather conveyed by example. (The shift in the diagetical world would be then a mere maneuver to provide a setting for these ideas.) In this case, a strategy of “soft convincing” would take the place of the central bet/gamble between the author and the reader, while both strategies often go side by side or are even merging.

  47. >…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.

    Interesting. How would you classify LMB’s Vorkosigan novels? I suspect you’d put them in the character studies bucket, but they’re pretty high up both the sales (I’m guessing, don’t have bookscan) and awards lists (not guessing on that one)

  48. >Am I right in that one could write a SF story that has a protagonist who views the universe as an entirely mystical and not rational knowable?

    I don’t think it could be done. If you want to persuade me otherwise, you’ll have to demonstrate with an example.

    There have been inversions of this in which it turns out that mysticism is tapping into some kind of substructure with causal rules even though the mystics themselves fail to understand this. That can be done in SF.

  49. >Interesting. How would you classify LMB’s Vorkosigan novels?

    I’m very fond of those. Bujold is a good enough writer to play both games (character study and SFnal literature of ideas). Probably the apposite response to your question is that they are not merely character studies decorated with SF stage furniture – the SF elements are essential to the plots and a significant part of the reader’s reward is conceptual breakthrough.

  50. > I think most things which are called SF but are not cSF are best understood not as non-SF that has been popularly misclassified but as defective attempts at SF by people who mean well but don’t understand how to do it right.

    If we take your “defective SF” and map it onto my “peripheral SF” then I think that we agree, at least about where the boundaries are. I still argue that most non-cSF works aren’t trying to be cSF and failing, but are rather trying to do something else, using the reading conventions of cSF and deflecting them to some subtly different end, rather than just being cSF done poorly. This is why I pointed out that most peripheral SF requires the reading conventions of SF in order to be properly understood, even while it lacks or deliberately attacks some element of the archetype.

  51. There have been inversions of this in which it turns out that mysticism is tapping into some kind of substructure with causal rules even though the mystics themselves fail to understand this.

    I think that fits what Emanuel was asking: the protagonist views the universe as irrational, but the universe’s actual rationality is a sort of dramatic irony.

  52. >I think that fits what Emanuel was asking: the protagonist views the universe as irrational, but the universe’s actual rationality is a sort of dramatic irony.

    Right, that could be done in SF – and would make very good SF if executed competently.

  53. > Huh? Time travel drives the whole plot. Furthermore, it’s not just a McGuffin that operates once with no later effect; major challenges in the story follow from the limitations of the technology. Crucially, in the end, the viewpoint character is successfully rescued because her friends figure out what to do…

    Divide Doomsday Book into two parts. The first part is the Middle Ages. The second part is the future. The SF element of time travel mechanics is entirely in the second part. It really has no bearing on the first part. However, the power of Doomsday Book lies in the first part. Any sense of “sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way” will come from the first part, not the second. But if the first part contains no SF elements, the sense of new understanding doesn’t derive from an SF change, and thus is not SF.

    Consider a story where a modern man is sent back in time to the 1800s. Once in the 1800s, he solves a murder. But he solves it in an entirely period-specific manner. Then he comes back. Such a story is not SF because the time travel did not affect the solution to the murder. In my opinion, Doomsday Book is much the same.

    A “sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way” does not only come from SF. SF does it by changing a condition/assumption of the underlying setting and exploring that change. But other genres do it through different methods, like character studies.

  54. > There have been inversions of this in which it turns out that mysticism is tapping into some kind of substructure with causal rules even though the mystics themselves fail to understand this.
    A story where the protagonist is such an mystic is the sort of story I had in mind. After I had gained the insight that a protagonist who is all about the rational knowability of the universe can exist in a non SF story I was assuming the inverse is true too.

  55. >it’s quite common for SF to expose a psychological and/or philosophical (or even political) concept that is not formulated as a theory but rather conveyed by example.

    I don’t think this is at all problematic for my definition. “Rational knowability” is not restricted to neat crystalline deductions structured like theorems of mathematics. Knowledge is often scruffy, contingent and heuristic (“conveyed by example”). Affirming rational knowability means that you believe it’s always possible to improve the fit of your theory by integrating more evidence, not necessarily that your theory has a neat a-prioristic structure.

  56. >Divide Doomsday Book into two parts.

    I think this is like claiming that an elephant is not an elephant because you have chainsawed it in half.

    >the sense of new understanding doesn’t derive from an SF change

    Eh? The viewpoint character is only in a position to grasp realities like “people in 14xx were much dirtier all the time than history records” and “entire languages failed to make it into the historical record of Middle English” because of something quite SFnal and counterfactual she had been through.

    I think trying to divorce her understanding from the SFnal elements of the novel is both futile and pointless. Also contrary to the author’s intentions; Willis could after all have written what you call the “non-SF” part as a straight historical. If you ask yourself why she didn’t, you may understand the novel and its reception better.

  57. You need to nominate some not science fiction: Pink science fiction, written by women to preach progressive themes, featuring romances with super powered bad guys – pretty much indistinguishable from a romance about a pirate king, except supposedly progressive and empowering for women.

    Star wars is rather science fictiony, despite the fact that it announces itself to be a fairy tale rather than science fiction, because everyone loves the science fictional elements – starships, light sabres, and robots. The story is not classical science fiction. It is explicitly a fairy tale, but the story is just a thin excuse for taking us on a tour of classical science fiction tropes.

  58. Do you think that the same genre mismatch applies to coding? While open source may write as classical SF, agile as SF and refugees from Waterfall as mystery.

    Agile places less emphasis on the idea as hero. Waterfall does not want conceptual breakthrough: reveal details, rather than explore ramifications change.

    Technical debt takes he place of McGuffins.

  59. “In both forms [cSF and Mystery] 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.”

    I don’t buy this. I see this game being played in mysteries (and play it myself when I read mysteries) but I don’t see this at all in science fiction. It’s simply not how I read science fiction. Furthermore, I’ve never heard of anyone else who reads science fiction in this way until you brought it up.

  60. @cathy

    But that’s not what he said. The essay would be better summed up as, “What SF fans like best is REAL SF and that stuff that the literary avant garde likes isn’t.”

    Except he does. When you define SF to not include Star Wars and Star Trek YOU are the literary avant garde in the scenario. The assertion that “SF stories must have important structural features in common with murder mysteries” is very narrow thinking.

    Some science fiction fits that mold. Others don’t. To call it defective SF is itself defective because who made ESR or Benford the arbiter of what is and is not SF?

    I prefer Spinrad’s opinion:

    “There is only one definition of science fiction that seems to make sense: ‘Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.'”

    And if you want to be invoking Niven his comment is thus:

    “The brightest minds in our field have been trying to find a definition of science fiction for these past seventy years. The short answer is, science fiction stories are given as possible, not necessarily here and now, but somewhere, sometime.”

    That’s 80 years now.

    The reason is that it is intractable is that exclusive definitions are often meant to divide “good” SF vs “defective” SF by voting stuff you don’t think highly off the SF island into “Science Fantasy” land…usually in a derogatory manner (like saying they are defective for example).

    Inclusive definitions are vague because the reality is:

    “Science fiction is not a unitary genre or form, hence cannot be encompassed in a single defintion. It is an assemblage of genres and subgenres that are not intrinsically closely related, but are generally accepted as an area of publication by a marketplace. Science fiction is thus only a commercial term.” – EF Bleiler

    Pohl agreed if in a tongue in cheek manner. According to James Gunn his definition of SF was any story that wouldn’t have too many readers cancel their Galaxy subscription.

    It pushes my buttons because trying to vote some SF off the SF island is very much like trying to vote some OS things off the FOSS island for insufficient freetard purity.

    Star Trek and Star Wars are part of the SF continuum. So are giant f-ing robots that make no sense in any universe. Attempting a definition that excludes them simply makes normal people (and normal fen) roll their eyes.

    Heck, given the definition you can even exclude a lot of Weber and Drake stuff (and probably a very large fraction of the entire Baen catalog) because they are historical scenarios (aka war porn) with “SF stage furniture” with a different structure than “murder mystery”. Put the characters and stories back into their original historical era and they’d read pretty much the same only with period weapons and warships. Same for classic SF writers like H. Beam Piper. Uller’s Uprising is essentially the 1857 Indian Mutiny with aliens and contra-gravity ships.

  61. Since you seem to be responding to queries, I’d like to toss a few at you.

    You liken cSF to mysteries because in both there is a “big reveal” which the reader is expected to try to work out for himself before the author shows it.

    In mysteries, the “big reveal” is always “whodunit”. BTW, there are subgenres of crime fiction in which there is no mystery – the police procedural, for instance, or the “caper” story (see the work of Donald Westlake). Are there SF-associated parallels?

    Getting back to cSF, I can see quite a few cSF classics with no apparent “big reveal”. Starship Troopers, for instance. Or The Pride of Chanur, The Mote in God’s Eye, Mission of Gravity, or The Ophiuchi Hotline.

    Finally: what do you think of R. A. Lafferty? He entered the SF genre largely because (I think), under the influence of the New Wave, SF would accept and buy his work. But he had nothing whatever to do with the New Wave as a writer.

  62. Let me tell you two themes in SF that I think are lazy and dumb, and cliched. I cannot read any work by anyone that employs them.

    1. The running-out-of resources story. You know, a race has depleted their world of natural resources and so either relocate to (or invade) another world. Yawn. I’m so tired of this discredited Malthusian nonsense. This was one reason I liked Star Trek, because it seemed to depict a future where people enjoy a great prosperity.

    2. The future depicted as a giant free love orgy. Heinlein among others was guilty of this. To me this badly misjudges human nature.

    I know others will like stories with these tropes, but I find them intellectually irritating.

  63. esr> … Kipling’s With The Night Mail (1912), which I think can justly be called the very first work of hard SF, …

    Surely you must know that calling any foo “the very first work of bar” is to open a can of worms that the thread can never close. :p Seriously though, what would Mary Shelley have to change about Frankenstein (1818) to make it qualify as hard science fiction for you?

  64. Interesting. How would you classify LMB’s Vorkosigan novels? I suspect you’d put them in the character studies bucket, but they’re pretty high up both the sales (I’m guessing, don’t have bookscan) and awards lists (not guessing on that one)

    Hmm. Taking ESR’s definition above as a given . . .

    Well, where would you classify Ethan of Athos except in core SF? A planetary society defined by one specific technological innovation and a specific societal response to it, rational knowability throughout, and the final plot twist being something the reader could guess in advance but probably didn’t because of his assumptions.

    You can argue where other specific books in the series sit in relation to core SF, of course. However, never do they violate the “rational knowability” criterion, so the series as a whole sits comfortably in the SF cloud, even when you whipsaw from physics-and-crime mystery Komarr to comedy-of-manners A Civil Campaign.

  65. @nht
    The problem with the “it was published as SF, therefore it is, and if it wasn’t, it isn’t”, is that it misses some good stuff. The Handmaid’s Tale is (imho) classic SF, except the author says that means speculative fiction, and not science fiction. I disagree with her. Similarly I don’t think Nineteen Eighty-Four was published as science fiction, but again, I would argue it is.

    Now I think about it, I think trying to use science fiction as a prescriptive term is sure to fail. It is a descriptor, but it is one that is very hard to define. Something could easily be real science fiction, but because of an unreliable narrator, or because the author changed their mind in a later story (and so retrospectively made the early story SF), it could be presented as fantasy. The Merchant Princes series is a modern example.

  66. “The challenge then, would be to find a work that doesn’t match the definition, but is widely considered good SF (by the fans).”

    I don’t think the field is dominated by reveals that the reader is supposed to be able to anticipate. That is common, but it is also common just to set a good yarn in a universe that is interesting enough that visiting the universe is part of the appeal of the book. E.g., quite a lot of Heinlein, including _Starship Troopers_ mentioned above.

    It’s also not necessarily rational. Often it is, but some of the exceptions are interesting. There should be some sense of internal consistency, but the internal consistency of _Lord of Light_ is more rule of cool than science, and it won a Hugo, and _Dune_ did too.

  67. >When you define SF to not include Star Wars and Star Trek YOU are the literary avant garde in the scenario

    In fact, I’ve been standing up for the proposition that Star Trek is SF because the intent of the setting designer is a universe of rational knowability. It’s other people trying to bin ST as science fantasy.

    >who made ESR or Benford the arbiter of what is and is not SF?

    I wrote the essay to explain my position as a critic of the genre. Am I not allowed to have such a position?

    Judging by the responses it seems to strike most people here as at least defensible.

    >Heck, given the definition you can even exclude a lot of Weber and Drake stuff (and probably a very large fraction of the entire Baen catalog) because they are historical scenarios (aka war porn) with “SF stage furniture”

    There’s some point to this. But you are assuming I would necessarily analyze such things as “not SF” rather than “defective SF”. Think about the difference carefully.

  68. RohanV> The challenge then, would be to find a work that doesn’t match the definition, but is widely considered good SF (by the fans).

    The closest thing I can come up with is Luc Besson’s movie The Fifth Element . A Google search for ” ‘The Fifth Element’ ‘not science fiction'” vs “The Fifth Element’ ‘science fiction’ ” comes up 3,920:153,000, so people generally do view it as Science Fiction. On the other hand, the substance of the movie is mostly slapstick with spaceships in it. It cannot be described as “our world, with one thing changed”, and it has nothing to do with rational knowability. So what gives? I suspect your key words are “by the fans”: Google weighs everyone on the internet equally, But if you polled people at WorldCon, the “not science fiction” verdict may well be the majority view about The Fifth Element.

  69. >I suspect your key words are “by the fans”

    Yes. There’s also a problem with the difference in media. The classical SF structure is much, much more difficult to do on film than in print. It has been managed on occasion, from Forbidden Planet to Inception, but it’s so rarely achieved that insisting on it would exile all but a few dozen or films out of the hundreds that are commonly assigned to “SF”.

    This creates a real difficulty. In print SF, I can show how almost all of the works considered important are cSF; in films I can’t do that. Attempting to constrain the SF film to similar standards of rigor would require a prescription that nobody would buy – it would be too disconnected from the movie-SF experiences everyone thinks about.

  70. > Eh? The viewpoint character is only in a position to grasp realities like “people in 14xx were much dirtier all the time than history records” and “entire languages failed to make it into the historical record of Middle English” because of something quite SFnal and counterfactual she had been through.

    Maybe this is a difference of opinion on Time Travel stories. I don’t think simply contrasting a modern person’s view on life with the reality of history is enough to qualify a work as SF.

    A lot of other genres do this, especially romance. Would you consider something like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books as SF simply because the protagonist goes back in time and has to deal with life in the 18th Century?

    I think that Doomsday Book would have been much the same if the protagonist had stepped into the past through a fairy ring instead of technological time travel. To me, that’s a sign that it doesn’t match your definition.

  71. >I think that Doomsday Book would have been much the same if the protagonist had stepped into the past through a fairy ring instead of technological time travel.

    No, because if that had happened it is long odds that the viewpoint character wouldn’t have the mental toolkit as a scientist approaching the understanding of the past in terms of rational knowability. And the constraints on how she could be retrieved probably wouldn’t be have any more explainable causal structure than “tap your ruby slippers three times”.

    You want to divorce the historical elements from the SFnal ones, but that is still chainsawing the pachyderm in half. Who the narrator is and how she thinks about time travel and events uptime makes a difference.

  72. I think in the case of the “Doomsday Book” it is instructive to compare it to another time travel story, “Frost and Thunder”. In the latter the protagonist may just as well have stepped through a fairy ring…it’s a pretty arbitrary mechanism and the protagonist has no clue how it happened to him in either direction. I can easily imagine a version where the time travel is even less rational that would still be SF, but if the viewpoint character loses any of his rational attitudes the whole thing falls apart.

  73. The definition seems to imply that SF is a subset of something like “rationalist fiction”. I mean: fiction that affirms a knowable universe (but doesn’t necessarily focus on the “sense of conceptual breakthrough” aspect). I suppose that would include the murder-mysteries along with SF, but perhaps there are “normal fiction” (people interacting with other people) stories too.

    Hmm… On the other hand, maybe “rationalist fiction” is more of a descriptor or attribute of story (with some stories having more or less of it), rather than a genre (with its own particular language and tropes).

  74. 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.

    I think you do not go far enough in this definition. A genre can be seen as a “conversation” between authors and between authors and readers. (it is not fashionable, but the historic analysis of “discourse” by Foucault is relevant here)

    As every long running conversation, a genre has internal themes, motives, and a history. Writings that disconnect to the main conversation are not considered by the other authors in the genre and not read by the same readers and, therefore, can be seen as outside of the genre.

    Note that such a view is not normative, but descriptive.

  75. >I think you do not go far enough in this definition. A genre can be seen as a “conversation” between authors and between authors and readers. [...] As every long running conversation, a genre has internal themes, motives, and a history. Writings that disconnect to the main conversation are not considered by the other authors in the genre and not read by the same readers and, therefore, can be seen as outside of the genre.

    That is well put. For contingent and historical reasons that would be worth an essay in itself, the conversational aspect of the SF genre is exceptionally well developed relative to other fiction genres, with both writers and readers cultivating a detailed awareness of what has been done and works frequently being written as implicit replies to and commentaries on other works.

    This is very much the way I would have further developed my definition of genre had I been more interested in that concept in itself (as opposed to its application to SF in particular). As it is I am seriously tempted to insert a version of the above text in my essay. I almost wrote something rather like it the first time.

    UPDATE: It turned into the following two paragraphs, which actually smooth the transition from writing about genre to writing about SF in particular:

    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. Writings 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.

  76. @Cathy
    “Pure fantasy is harder to define once you get away from the high fantasy of Tolkein and his imitators, but it’s definitely distinct from science fiction and mostly distinct from science fantasy.”

    How could the Odyssey be incorporated in this framework? It is the historically ancestor of most of romantic epic novels.

    In it’s time it was “religious”, and probably fantasy in one. It has strong SF/Fantasy elements for all times. And it is the archetypical “Romance” or novel.

  77. Winter: I’m not sure one can call the Odyssey even proto-science fiction. Odysseus is clever and resourceful, and his brilliant improvisation of a way to defeat the Cyclops might be worthy of a Bronze Age Doc Smith character, but consider:

    Events in the story are specifically driven by the conscious will of divine actors. Odysseus has trouble reaching home because of a god’s curse. His numbnuts crew manage to incur a couple of other divine curses along the way. Odysseus himself survives everything because he also has at least one divine being on his side, who can feed him advice and occasionally intervene to turn aside the wrath of the others.

    There is no discovery. Odysseus and his men encounter monsters and wonders, but that is all they are. His worldview never expands to encompass them as anything but monsters and wonders. They are overcome by courage, not comprehension — like so many boss monsters in a video game.

    And, finally, of course, there’s the strong possibility that it’s all bullshit. All of the wonders and monsters in Odysseus’s voyage are recounted by him in a long narrative to King Alcinous, with no external confirmation at all. The listener may be expected to think this is all a cock-and-bull story improvised by canny Odysseus to impress his host.

  78. OK, I’ll buy in to the “Star Trek” is sci-fi by this definition. The difference is that your definition was about intent, and I was looking at effect (that is, is it actually rationally knowable by a reader). After some thought, intent makes more sense for a genre definition. Much Star Trek is fairly bad science fiction, much of it is good, much of it is in the middle, but there’s only a handful of outlier episodes that explicitly go truly mystical on us. (I’m particularly thinking of the several times there are American Indian vision quests that are mostly ungrounded in “rationality”; the ST:TNG ones with Wesley can still be explained as part of a “transcendence”-type storyline, but the Voyager ones, IIRC, are just straight-up “vision quests”.)

    Doctor Who I’ll still grant, but slightly less so. The universe is (mostly) rationally knowable to the Doctor, a superhuman, but not generally to the humans along for the ride (and often not to the viewers). It’s usually used as fantasy within the dramatic structure, but yes, the intent is sci-fi.

  79. “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. ”

    Excellent.

    + More generally, it’s great to see someone with the temerity to put forth this argument. There’s so much chaff on the SF shelves that it’s become tiresome to select books. Genres and categories serve a purpose.

  80. >Doctor Who I’ll still grant, but slightly less so. [...] After some thought, intent makes more sense for a genre definition.

    In return, I agree that considering Dr. Who’s case to be SF shakier that Star Trek’s is sound – I tried to imply this in earlier comments but may not have been explicit enough about it. The continuity in Dr. Who is weaker and there is less implication of rational knowability.

    This subthread has helped me clarify my thoughts about the distinction between defective SF and non-SF, which is often a matter of intent.

    Defective SF often displays an authorial intention to affirm rational knowability (manifested, for instance, in the prominence of a character like Spock, or having a scientist as a good guy) but botches the job. Perhaps the author doesn’t know enough science, or history, or economics, or simply isn’t bright enough to realize he has uttered inconsistencies.

    By contrast, in non-SF rational knowability isn’t an issue at all; neither the authors nor the characters care about it. There’s no intention to affirm it anywhere.

    In anti-SF, rational knowability is actually attacked – portrayed as essentially inadequate, or as a credo of heartless and evil people.

  81. In re Odysseus: I’m not sure whether “must be true in the story frame” is a requirement. Should Alice in Wonderland be disqualified as fantasy because it’s a dream?

    If there were a story which consisted of science fiction authors trying to top each other with science fiction short stories, would it be memetic fiction or a collection of science fiction stories? Now I’m trying to remember whether the tales of the White Hart were supposed to be true in the story frame.

  82. Rich Rostrom raises some good questions, and I apologize for not responding sooner – I missed his comment the first time around.

    >Are there SF-associated parallels? [to the caper story and procedural]

    I think there are, but don’t want to wander off into the weeds chasing specifics at the moment because your next question raises more central issues.

    >Getting back to cSF, I can see quite a few cSF classics with no apparent “big reveal”. Starship Troopers, for instance. Or The Pride of Chanur, The Mote in God’s Eye, Mission of Gravity, or The Ophiuchi Hotline.

    Let’s look at these in detail:

    In Starship Troopers Heinlein provides a number of reveal and breakthrough moments. One is a battle scene (I think it’s during the raid on the Skinnies) in which he makes you really feel what it’s like to be a drop trooper in powered armor making split-second tactical decisions with wildly powerful personal weaponry. If you were paying attention to earlier indirect exposition you could reasonably have anticipated elements of the scene, but pulling them all together has an overall impact that feels like a breakthrough moment.

    Another (I think the biggest reveal in this book) is what the History & Moral Philosophy class scenes are building up to, when you really grok Heinlein’s derivation of altruism and morality on what we would now call sociobiological grounds. Interestingly, this actually anticipated Robert Trivers’s seminal paper on the evolution of reciprocal altruism by about a decade; one has to wonder if Heinlein influenced Trivers’s conceptual breakthrough. I think it likely.

    I haven’t read The Pride of Chanur, but I’ve seen a synopsis. I believe it is representative of a class of SF in which a human character’s world-view is dramatically expanded through a series of challenges and reveals which enable him to comprehend the alien. When this is done right (and I’m betting Cherryh does it right) you can get to each realization just before the character does by paying attention to clues the author is dropping.

    Stories of this kind often have a final big reveal that radically inverts some deeply held assumption the character had about the aliens in the beginning; I don’t know if The Pride of Chanur does, though.

    In the The Mote in God’s Eye, the big reveal is how cruelly Motie reproductive biology drives the cycles of civilizational rise and collapse. Suddenly everything else we’ve seen about the aliens snaps into focus as part of a huge and terrifying synthesis.

    I’d have to reread your other two examples to do this analysis on them.

    >Finally: what do you think of R. A. Lafferty?

    Wonderfully weird and variable. I should reread some of his stuff.

  83. The vorkosiverse stories are all SFnal by ESR’s definition, both by being rationally deducible and by having a singular or closely related set of rational-yet-counterfactual “tech” elements. In this case, outside the “freebies” of supraluminal/space travel (and assorted subtropes such as Space Marines), the “Tech” elements are all concerned with technological life extension (uterine replicators, cryochambers, genetic engineering etc). These are usually drivers of the plot; I can only think of a couple of the novels where these are not a primary plot factor – Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game, except that Miles Vorkosigan is both literally and figuratively formed by the uterine replicator.

  84. >Would you classify the Dune books as close to cSF. If no, why?

    I think they qualify as cSF. The later sequels are pretty awful, though.

  85. Agree about Starship Troopers, but Mote in God’s Eye has a *huge* big reveal! Perhaps you’ve read it so many times that the surprise has worn off :-) or maybe you were misled by the fact that the reader gets it way before the characters have put it all together.

  86. “The only universal message in science fiction: There exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently.” –Larry Niven

  87. There’s some tech in the Vorkosiverse which isn’t about life extention– the memory chip, Cetagandan genetic manipulation, the soliton (sp?).

  88. Tim Powers has written an afterword to the new Baen edition of Heinlein’s _Waldo & Magic, Inc._ in which he discusses how Heinlein plays with idea of a rationally knowable universe. It’s worth tracking down.

  89. I think the big reveals of The Ophiuchi Hotline would be in the alien “conference room” scene: the actual location of the Hotline, the fact that all species are subject to and helpless against the Jovian’s pattern of conquest, and the significance of DNA in the grand scheme of things.

    And regarding R. A. Lafferty: I love his work, but I would say most of it’s in the anti-SF category. Or at least fantasy. He once said (something along the lines of) that the John Campbell era was the worst thing to have happened to the development of science fiction.

  90. In the spirit of exploring Eric’s definition further: Is there anything in it that disqualifies the Harry-Potter books from being Science Fiction? Should there be?

    On the face of it, the Harry Potter universe passes all the important tests Eric suggests. For one, it is our world with exactly one twist: magic works. It is also rationally discoverable, and the protagonists know it. Its magic is the opposite of esoterical: Figuring out the right spell for the right situation is a routine task for motivated and intelligent students, usually involving a trip to the library and a lock into a manpage — I’m sorry, a spellbook. Once found, invoking the spell does not seem substantially different from invoking a command from a Unix shell. Everything about Harry-Potter magic makes sense and is rationally discoverable.

    Even the ‘magical’ devices in Harry Potter are really technology with fairly thin magical camouflage on top. For example, Tom Riddle’s diary in Chamber of Secrets, and Voldemort’s interaction through it with with Ginny, is barely distinguishible from an IRC channel on which a dirty old man chats up an underage girl. In Goblet of Fire, Rita Skeeter is seen walking back and forth, apparently talking to herself, but actually talking to her editor through some ‘magical’ bug in her ear. That’s not even camouflaged, really. The Flea Network, routinely used throughout the series, might as well be a pneumatic letter shoot for people. We could all multiply these examples ad nauseam.

    So how, to repeat the question, does Eric’s definition disqualify Harry Potter from being science fiction? And if it doesn’t, is this a false positive or just a counterintuitive positive? In other words, might there be a sound case to make that Harry Potter actually is Classical Science Fiction rather than Fantasy?

  91. Going back a few comments now – would ‘The Flying Sorcerers’ by Gerrold and Niven count as SF where the ‘protagonist views the universe as irrational’, but there is actual rationality behind it all? Granted, it’s on the silly side…

  92. Yes, I would say magic is a form of technology for most plausible definitions of magic.

    However, I wonder if modern speakers are misusing the word.

    It seems like, in a pre-scientific society, magic would be a word meaning something like “mysterious wish granting in violation of natural laws” whereas in the Harry Potter sense, magic is a force of nature that presumably obeys some kind of natural laws.

  93. It seems like, in a pre-scientific society, magic would be a word meaning something like “mysterious wish granting in violation of natural laws” whereas in the Harry Potter sense, magic is a force of nature that presumably obeys some kind of natural laws.

    Depends very much on the magic system in play. An animistic structure, with free will for mountains and rivers, might match your description, but sympathetic magic (and homeopathy and the Law of Attraction) claims to tap into a universal structure.

  94. Where I have limited sympathy for the New Wave/lit crit crowd with regards to “classic SF” is that many classic SF purists regard flat characters and wooden dialog as badges of honor, as proof that they haven’t “sold out.”

    One of the reasons why I hold Pournelle in higher esteem than Niven is that Pournelle, like Kipling, invests his characters with emotional depth…or at least did, early in his career. Pournelle did this less and less over time, roughly coinciding with becoming a teetotaler. I’m glad for Jerry’s sake that he did so, because it has, to date, added about a quarter century to his lifespan — but it’s made his books less readable.

    H. Beam Piper also did this very well. One of the hallmarks of writers who do this well is when they can make philosophical arguments they’re opposed to sound appealing when presented by their antagonists.

    A lot of authors (I’m looking at you, David Drake) manage to mimic giving their characters an emotional life and resonance because they can throw their own traumatic experience into the fiction…but once they try stories where that kind of trauma isn’t appropriate, they still us it. It’s the literary equivalent of the ‘When your only programming language is C, all your problems look like pointer errors’ truth.

    Most SF authors get by on a surprisingly small number of stock characters. David Weber has more or less recreated Honor Harrington (“duty bound to the point of having no sex drive hypercompetent female who thinks like Horatio Hornblower and is a deadly combatant”) in three series: Safehold, Path of the Fury and Honor Harrington. Robert Heinlein leaned on three male character archetypes and one female character archetypes for the bulk of his fiction.

    So, I can see that the “please, deepen your characters…” argument has some merit. Bujold is very good at writing deeper-than-average SFnal characters, but a lot of classic SF fans regard any critique about characterization as a channel marker for “Just Doesn’t Get SF, So Ignore Them.”

    Anyone REALLY want to argue, with my ludography, that I Just Don’t Get SF? :)

    I’ll give a case in point here.

    I was a first reader for a fiction piece with a pair of marines in a LAV magically transferred the Green Zone in Iraq to the author’s fantasy setting. I pointed out that while one marine was clearly the author’s POV character, and the second marine (a 19-year old PFC) was along to be a loader/gunner with the LAV in the big action scene, there was a flaw with the second marine. (And to be fair, I was brought in as a first-reader because he really wanted to find a way to run a LAV that normally has 3 people run with just his protagonist. We got him down to two characters…)

    To wit: The word fuck wasn’t thought or expressed by either marine for over 120 pages (and 20 hours of narrative time) after the transition. Having been around marines, having your LAV suddenly go from Baghdad to a fairy ring with skyclad dryads, I suspect the interval between the transition and the utterance would interest to theoretical physics.

    When your 45,000 word novella has a marine that doesn’t cuss, that marine is a piece of furniture, not a character. Broadening him out just a bit – even having him say something to the Gunnery Sergeant protagonist beyond “Yes, Sergeant” and “30 mm round loaded.” — having him express any kind of interest in what’s going on — doesn’t take much. It’s also probably more useful to spend 500 words spread over four dialog snippets on this than it is to give lugubrious travelogue descriptions of the fantasy land.

    One of the corollaries of good fiction – not just science fiction – is that your characters are knowable and they do things for reasons that the reader will comprehend. When bad things happen to them, they have emotions – those emotions may happen later when the adrenaline runs out, but they will have them.

    One of places where classic SF has hampered itself is this idea that hypercompetent heroes go through this stuff and then, take off their swords, sit down at the computer and refactor their code as if nothing had happened. Those consequences need not be soul-destroying, which is the major problem of most of the New Wave writers fell into, but they should be there.

    It’s not an objection to hypercompetence – it’s an objection to bullet-proofness.

  95. >In the spirit of exploring Eric’s definition further: Is there anything in it that disqualifies the Harry-Potter books from being Science Fiction?

    The stage furniture could be that of a technology-of-magic story. The substructure is not.

    I don’t think the Potterverse qualifies as rationally knowable. Spells act like pushbuttons, but the causal structure of magic itself is never shown or even suggested to be knowable. Relatedly, there is no moment of conceptual breakthrough about the magic; you don’t end the books believing you know more about how and why things work than you started with.

    In classic examples of technology-of-magic such as the Compleat Enchanter stories, and in their contemprary descendants like Brandon Sanderson’s Final Empire books, there is always a crucial plot thread that is “figuring out how magic works”, not just in a pushbutton way but as discovery of a deeper implied order that generates knowledge about how to make new spells. This is absent in the Potterverse.

    I will note however a different resemblance to classic SF. The particular flavor of moral didacticism in the Harry Potter books is very, very reminiscent of a strong tradition of juvenile/YA SF that can be read for pleasure by adults, exemplified by works like Heinlein’s Space Cadet.

  96. >Where I have limited sympathy for the New Wave/lit crit crowd with regards to “classic SF” is that many classic SF purists regard flat characters and wooden dialog as badges of honor, as proof that they haven’t “sold out.”

    There are two ways to understand this sympathetically that I think are both valid.

    Fundamentally, when a writer is spending effort and wordage on characterization, that effort is not being spent on what is centrally important to the SF form. Fans observe a zero-sum conflict here, and that only exceptionally capable writers can do well at characterization without shortchanging the worldbuilding/idea-as-hero/rational-knowability values particular to the form. Lois McMaster Bujold came up earlier; she is such an exception.

    Thus, the earlier commenter who reported that he had learned to read complaints about poor characterization in Amazon reviews as clues to a good read. If Amazon reviews had existed long enough, this would have been an unsurprising heuristic over the entire history of the genre.

    The best course for an SF writer has generally been to spend just enough effort on characterization to give the story a bit of emotional life without being seen to overdo it. I think the acceptable amount of visible effort (that is, shy of looking like you’re overdoing it) has risen somewhat since the 1940s, but it is still well below what is typical for most other genres.

    If that were all that were going on, fans would explicitly express a preference for the unusual examples that combine good SFnal story value with good characterization over those that only get the SFnal story values right, provided the author is careful to not make the amount of work going into characterization obtrusive. But because of the structural issue, treating poor characterization as a badge of honor also functions as a form of tribal rally point and pushback (“Keep SF in the gutter where it belongs!”) against literary improvers who are either indifferent to or actively hostile to SF’s central values.

    This is correct. This is healthy. This is the genre conversation defending itself against disruption.

  97. There’s some tech in the Vorkosiverse which isn’t about life extention– the memory chip, Cetagandan genetic manipulation, the soliton (sp?).

    Don’t forget the small arms tech. You can tell that Bujold has a very clear idea of how stunners, nerve disrupters and plasma arcs each work, because she’s obviously spent time thinking out how they ought to affect tactics; we have the concept of “stunner tag”: that “with a stunner, you really can shoot first and ask questions later”; and we also have Aral’s observation in Shards of Honor that a stunner’s non-lethality leaves its wielder vulnerable to large numbers, who will be more willing to charge one since they know the worst they’ll get is some peripheral neuropathy and maybe a blister or two. There’s also little touches like learning that Barrayaran soldiers don’t carry specialized fire-making equipment: “It’s assumed if you want heat, you can fire your plasma arc.”

    These are small things, but they signal to the reader that the author is taking her SF responsibilities seriously. We are clearly a long way away from the hack writer who gives his hero a “ray gun” because, you know, future.

  98. >You can tell that Bujold has a very clear idea of how stunners, nerve disrupters and plasma arcs each work

    There’s something else going on here as well. All these weapons have been well-established SF furniture for a long time, and Bujold’s versions operate in ways (a) not surprising to the knowledgeable fan and (b) worked out more meticulously than usual.

    What we have here is not just good worldbuilding, it is a virtuoso display of Bujold’s connection to the genre conversation and her ability to contribute to it in a respectful and appropriate way.

  99. All these weapons have been well-established SF furniture for a long time

    This is true: I thought of Bron Hoddan in Murray Leinsters The Pirates of Ersatz (1959) “borrowing a few kilowatts” for his stun-pistols, and worrying because he wouldn’t have a broadcast-power net to trickle-charge them, but decided to focus my comment on Bujold. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to bring it up :)

  100. >borrowing a few kilowatts” for his stun-pistols

    I note the existence of a rival model in which stunners use infrasonics or ultrasonics rather than being taser-like; the trope exemplar is Randall Garrett’s Hunting Lodge (1954) in which the gas from an explosive charge in a stunner is directed through an ultrasonic whistle.

    This is somewhat plausible in light of scattered reports that infrasonics can actually have some odd physiological effects on people, including nausea and induced feelings of fear. These have recently become an issue around wind farms.

  101. For thinking about the technology of magic, it’s useful to compare Harry Potter with Wiz Zumwalt, from Rick Cook’s Wizardry series.

  102. >Rick Cook’s Wizardry series.

    Which would have been wonderful if the computer references hadn’t been so badly botched. Author actually thought “emacs” is a plural and the shell prompt is a backslash. FAIL.

  103. Another thing about Bujold’s version of the stunner is that they aren’t 100% safe, the way most SF stunners are. There’s a noteworthy chance of killing someone who is old or sick when shooting them with a stunner, not to mention the possibility of a stun victim falling and dying from the fall (as happened in Ethan of Athos).

    Also, there’s the way Bujold handles fast-penta, her version of the SF truth serum. There are people who are alergic to it, people who have an induced allergy to it, and the ways people take its availability into account when plotting their plots.

  104. “This subthread has helped me clarify my thoughts about the distinction between defective SF and non-SF, which is often a matter of intent.”

    I have to object to the term “defective” SF. There is a place for value judgments, but this isn’t one of them. In addition, it undermines your effort to describe SF as a radial category, the way describing a pineapple or an avocado as a “defective fruit” undermines the idea of fruit as a radial category. It’s also a new piece of jargon. Better to use the already-established term “soft SF” for SF that pays tribute to the idea of a rationally knowable universe without living up to that standard.

  105. Meh, I’ve got no heartburn with the shell prompt. After all, different shells do have different prompts, and it’s not the Bourne shell.

    emacs itself may not be plural, but the megabytes it soaks up are… :-)

    And you gotta love the little man from Starting FORTH

  106. esrI don’t think the Potterverse qualifies as rationally knowable. Spells act like pushbuttons, but the causal structure of magic itself is never shown or even suggested to be knowable.

    That’s a sensible distinction. Thanks for explaining.

  107. >emacs itself may not be plural, but the megabytes it soaks up are… :-)

    Dude, you’re dating yourself. These days respectable smartphone apps are bigger than Emacs.

  108. Interesting thread. Thanks to all. A few comments.

    Of course The Fifth Element is science fiction, though not what I would call hard SF or cSF. It’s in large part a satire on sf tropes, which does not make it “defective” in my view. It got a little sappy at times, but it captured that Sense of Wonder that good sf has. It was clearly written by an “outsider,” but I think it worked quite well. Trivia: the way they got Chris Rock to wear those outrageous costumes was to make up sketches of even more outrageous costumes that they never intended to use. They showed him those, he said no way, and then they “compromised” on what they wanted all along.

    I enjoyed the R.A. Lafferty I read years ago. He was on the borders of sf and fantasy. I encountered him once at a con, and he was an oddly pear-shaped man. From the sternum up he had a build like Stan Laurel, and from there down like Oliver Hardy. He looked like someone from a low-rent bowling alley. I was there with a high school friend who adored his work and imagined him as looking like a sensitive poet. I made sure to point him out and watch her response, and I was not disappointed. Her jaw nearly hit the floor. The difference between art and artist is rarely so stark.

    Speaking of anti-sf, fandom is being roiled these days by an invasion of political correctness. Fandom is criticized for being “too white,” racist, sexist, etc. One person called it an “unreconstructed institution.” There are demands for more gay characters and so on. Guests of Honor are being disinvited because a few people raise stinks about jokes they told. The Social Justice Warriors have arrived, and it’s not going to fun.

  109. >I have to object to the term “defective” SF. There is a place for value judgments, but this isn’t one of them.

    Yes it is. Remember that the essay was written to explain how I do my job as a critic of genre work. Being a critic implies having standards, and standards imply that they can be failed. By contrast, I write about SF as a radial category when I’m taking a more historical view of how it evolved.

    Genres learn from experience, and as they do the next step in the learning process sometimes involves an insider having both the will and the authority to say “Hey, everybody, some of the shit we’ve been doing is embarrassing, we need to up our game.” Benford’s 1992 insight about affirming rational knowability was a huge advance in the critical theory of the SF genre, obsolescing every previous attempt at a definition of SF because it does such an excellent job of both predicting reader response to new work and retrodicting the common features of the classics in the SF canon.

    When you get a breakthrough like that, you ought to want to do the right thing better, and standards ought to change.

  110. >The Social Justice Warriors have arrived, and it’s not going to fun.

    We survived the New Wave and came back strong; we can survive these morons.

  111. We survived the New Wave and came back strong; we can survive these morons.

    I hope so, but then I never expected to see a world in which John Campbell is dismissed as merely a racist, in which people lose their jobs for saying one offensive thing or for making a donation in support of traditional marriage, in which kids get in serious trouble for biting a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun, or in which national politicians seem incapable of comprehending the Camp of the Saints situation on the border. It’s crazy times.

  112. “Dude, you’re dating yourself.”

    “And that’s illegal in Minnesota. But not in Wisconsin. Everything’s legal in Wisconsin as long as it involves a dairy product. *moo*”
    Oh, sorry…conditioned response.

    “These days respectable smartphone apps are bigger than Emacs.”

    But they’re not text-based text editors with delusions of OShood…

    Anyway, the reason I brought up Cook’s series is that his universe has magic as, essentially, a scripting language for reality. (Or is it assembler? Machine code?) That’s the technology of magic in about as pure form as it gets, and a distinct contrast to Harry Potter.

  113. >Anyway, the reason I brought up Cook’s series is that his universe has magic as, essentially, a scripting language for reality. (Or is it assembler? Machine code?) That’s the technology of magic in about as pure form as it gets, and a distinct contrast to Harry Potter.

    That is true, and you are right to point out the contrast.

  114. The Social Justice Warriors have arrived, and it’s not going to fun.

    We survived the New Wave and came back strong; we can survive these morons.

    Gibbon aptly described the art and literature of the latter days of the Roman Empire as “The second childhood of human reason”. Took a thousand years of darkness for rationalism to return and art to recover.

    Dark ages the norm. Civilized periods are rare and fragile exceptions. Civilization is hard to build, hard to maintain, easy to destroy from within. Darkness is the norm.

  115. Backing up to my early comment– I don’t think of authors of the “just making stuff up” school like van Vogt, Dick, and Bradbury as offering the experience of a rationally knowable universe to the reader. Slans need golden tendrils for telepathy, but look! the big reveal is tendrilless slans!! I suppose you can make a distinction between a universe which is knowable for the characters vs. one which is knowable for the reader. I find James White’s medical sf annoying because even though the characters see what’s going on, he doesn’t give me enough clues as a reader for me to see the process of working things out.

    Farenheit 451 is reasonably hard sf, but I think of ghosts on Mars as quintessential Bradbury.

    As for social justice, it’s been affecting the field for some years, and not always for the worse. There’s nothing wrong with including a wider range of characters and treating them more respectfully. I’m not fond of the level of rancor, but fortunately, I haven’t been seeing that show up in the fiction.

    For that matter, even the New Wave wasn’t a total waste– the prose has improved in the sense that the lower range is better.

    As for the idea as hero, this idea makes no sense to me. Heroes strive against difficult obstacles for worthwhile goals. Ideas don’t have enough personality for that, though I wouldn’t mind seeing a story with personified ideas. I don’t see the landscape as a character, either.

    On the other hand, I do see ideas as crucial parts of stories, and I haven’t seen a good critical vocabulary for talking about the quality of a writer’s imagination.

  116. The great loss I’m seeing from SJ in the past couple of years is the people who are put off from reading older sf at all.

    There’s quite a difference between having a nice chat with an SJ about the stupidest thing Heinlein ever said (I give you my nominee in a future comment) vs. the younger people who’ve heard that Heinlein supported pedophilia in The Door into Summer (I don’t agree) and are simply intending to never read him.

  117. >Backing up to my early comment– I don’t think of authors of the “just making stuff up” school like van Vogt, Dick, and Bradbury as offering the experience of a rationally knowable universe to the reader

    This is actually a good trio of edge cases to consider. Van Vogt’s work is in general defective SF; he has the intention of offering a rationally knowable universe, he just isn’t very good at it. This is why, though he was an early footsoldier in the Cambpbellian revolution and considered an A-list SF writer for the next quarter century (I’m just barely old enough to remember those days) his reputation plummeted as standards in the field rose.

    The post-1965 work Dick is best known for wants to throw rational knowability on the trash heap – it is relevant that he became seriously delusionally insane. He’s almost a poster child for the category of anti-SF.

    Of the three, Bradbury is the slipperiest. His work ranges from hard SF to imagistic poetry recruiting SF furniture. I don’t think describing the latter as non-SF is any more problematic than noticing that SF authors sometimes write fantasy.

    >There’s nothing wrong with including a wider range of characters and treating them more respectfully.

    If that were all the SJWs were after I don’t think they’d be a problem. It isn’t, of course.

    >For that matter, even the New Wave wasn’t a total waste– the prose has improved in the sense that the lower range is better.

    Agreed. Fairness requires me to note that the New Wavers widened the subject range of SF as well. It is nevertheless a good thing that their attempt to disrupt the deep norms of the genre failed.

    >As for the idea as hero, this idea makes no sense to me. [...] Ideas don’t have enough personality for that

    Interesting. I thought everyone knew not to take that phrase so literally – I have since I first encountered it in the 1960s. What I have always understood it to mean is that in an idea-as-hero-story the apparatus of storytelling (plot, characterization etc.) is directed to thinking through a question or possibility.

    In a novel of character there may be ideas, but the function of any intellectual challenge they present is to drive the character development of the hero. In an idea-as-hero story this is deliberately inverted – character development is a mechanism used to emotionally underline the development of ideas. The philosophical fiction of Jorge Luis Borges and certain works of John Fowles, among other things, are instances of this pattern outside the SF genre.

  118. @Nancy Lebovitz
    ” the younger people who’ve heard that Heinlein supported pedophilia in The Door into Summer (I don’t agree) and are simply intending to never read him.”

    What a great excuse to not have to read Plato.

  119. >the younger people who’ve heard that Heinlein supported pedophilia in The Door into Summer (I don’t agree) and are simply intending to never read him.

    Think of it as a selective filter winnowing out gullible fools. Also as something that will badly backfire on the SJWs as word gets out how bogus this charge is. It’s generally overreach like this that winds up discrediting movements to politicize art; the SJWs weren’t the first and are unlikely to be the last.

  120. >A recent development is the revelation that Marion Zimmer Bradley molested and abused her daughter, and stood by while her husband molested many, many boys

    Sorry, recent development of what? How is this relevant to the OP?

    (Her husband’s perversions are two-decade-old news at this point, anyway.)

  121. Sorry, I’m dragging things off-topic. I meant in relation to the SFWs in fandom, condemning writers and editors (past and present) for sexism and racism and so on.

  122. Superb post, Eric, and overall thoughtful comments. of course, standards are necessary to understand literature, and life. It is clear that one of the worst failings of Leftism/progressivism is its refusal to accept that there are any standards or norms in any baspect of human life.
    in this regard, John C Wright has a great recent post on the destruction of beauty, and the idea of beauty, in our time.
    http://www.everyjoe.com/2014/07/03/politics/robbed-of-beauty-by-the-left/

  123. One interesting thing (to me) about the Vorkosigan Saga is that the McGuffin(s) that are not the furniture of rayguns and rocketships are all well into the territory typically explored by Cyberpunk. In fact, a capsule description of Jackson’s Hole would leave the unaware with the impression that it is a cyberpunk dystopia; except it’s not, not really. And the rest of the setting isn’t even close.

  124. As for social justice, it’s been affecting the field for some years, and not always for the worse. There’s nothing wrong with including a wider range of characters and treating them more respectfully. I’m not fond of the level of rancor, but fortunately, I haven’t been seeing that show up in the fiction.

    Typical example: Insectiod aliens are having a conflict: Parts of the hive want to secede and be their own hive. Deadly violence has ensued on a small scale and the possibility of a great deal more deadly violence looms. And a completely counterstereotypical black man somehow magically appears in the story, followed by a tedious and entirely insulting lecture on human race relations, a condescending lecture full of insulting and hateful lies, which lecture goes on, and on, and on, until, after several pages, I stop reading.

    As Ayn Rand said on lectures, a lecture has to be motivated and made interesting by events taking place in the story that have engaged the readers interest.

    I could put up with a lecture that was a thinly disguised demonization of white people as creepy crackers who deserve to be mugged, if it actually had some basis in an interesting story.

  125. @esr:
    >Author actually thought “emacs” is a plural and the shell prompt is a backslash. FAIL.

    Just to be difficult:

    PS1=\\

    >Dude, you’re dating yourself. These days respectable smartphone apps are bigger than Emacs.

    Young whippersnapper though I am, I love all the jokes about Emacs memory footprint. My favorite is “Eight Megs And Constantly Swapping”, though “emacs -nw” on my system only comes in at 7.5 megs, and would have to chew through another ~30 gigs before it hit swap.

  126. >A recent development is the revelation that Marion Zimmer Bradley molested and abused her daughter, and stood by while her husband molested many, many boys

    Sorry, recent development of what? How is this relevant to the OP?

    One of the classic instruments of the left is child molestation charges. If you ask an adult sexualized questions about their dimly remembered interaction with a famous adult when they were a child, they will remember that interaction as sexualized, and pretty soon, after enough questioning, as rape. And, of course since pedophilia is so serious, we cannot let any statute of limitations nonsense stand in the way – we cannot ask why this evidence did not come out forty years ago, when its veracity could be more easily checked, because if you ask questions like that, you are pro rape.

    Of course, in reality, most of the bad sexual behavior happens on the left, or at least most of the indiscreet bad sexual behavior happens on the left, so recently some people have been pushing back: If you are going to charge rightist artists with bad sexual behavior, we are going to point out all the bad sexual behavior by leftist artists.

  127. I think part of the problem here is that the publishing houses have traditionally had sharply defined categories that their wares were required to fit. SF wasn’t so much a true genre as where all the weird stuff that didn’t fit a specific other category went.

    You’ll still see Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” or John D, MacDonald’s “Wine of the Dreamers” in the military-fiction and mystery sections due to marketing, not genre considerations. And the people who read those, or Robert Harris “Fatherland”, probably didn’t notice they were reading “science fiction” instead of “real fiction.”

  128. TRX: There’s long been a prejudice against sf in the publishing industry and even among authors. When an author already has a name (e.g. Deighton), or made their name elsewhere even though they wrote sf earlier (MacDonald), or they’ve risen above the ghetto of sf (Vonnegut), or the publisher wants a wider audience for a book (Harris), they won’t label it as sf.

  129. Bujold, indeed, reinvented reader-response criticism on her own as a way of making sense of her fannish and writerly experiences.

  130. >>I have to object to the term “defective” SF. There is a place for value judgments, but this isn’t one of them.

    >Yes it is. Remember that the essay was written to explain how I do my job as a critic of genre work. Being a critic implies having standards, and standards imply that they can be failed.

    Not if you want to include “failed SF” as a subset of SF.

    If the works you dub “failed SF” are a part of SF, then referring to them as “failed” is an inappropriate value judgement. If you insist on that term, and that judgment, for those works, then you must classify them as a subset of non-SF, rather than as a subset of SF. Which you have declined to do, drawning instead a distinction between non-SF and “failed SF.”

  131. Ouch. Serious brain-fart on my part here. Of course you used the term “defective” rather than “failed” (“failed” being my own hallucination) and so my particular argument here falls apart.

  132. I find the cSf vs the New-wave SF dichotomy is a bit misleading. If I have to choose between stuff like _Have Space Suit, Will Travel_ and something along the lines of _The Left Hand of Darkness_ the choice is simple. I will choose the book with better characters, better dialog, etc. “Space Suit” is completely wooden, even allowing for the time it was written. Hero (a guy of course), damsel in distress, evil space-traveling Big Bad, better space-traveling police-force (but still a danger to humanity), advocate/mentor, … did I miss anything? While _Darkness_ is an engaging story (at least to some of us).

    As for “the rules” and when they are broken… Several Someone’s have alluded to the rules of the who-done-it. A lot of the classic mysteries don’t play fair, in that you really have little chance of solving the crime before the big reveal. While some modern mysteries – like the Tony Hillerman mysteries – are VERY popular, and yet the reader usually figures out the twist before or as the hero/inspector does. So which group is playing fair, and which group is not? Which are the correct rules? Is one better than the other?

    Sure _The Word for World is Forest_ (I’ve only read the original novella) hits you over the head with environmentalism and the anti-Vietnam-War ethic, but it lives on in things like the movie _Avatar_ which also hit you over the head (and I know, isn’t an adaptation… but hits most of the same notes). _Forest_ is also a creation of the time in which it was written. Does that mean it “broke some rule?” Or is not science fiction? Why would you write a book in the 1970s and ignore Vietnam, Watergate, etc?

    _Doomsday Book_ by Willis has been mentioned a couple of times. I actually prefer _To Say Nothing of the Dog: or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last._ Same universe with time travel. Some of the same characters. Less about the technology – though there is some there – and more about the universe working to save us from our own mistakes, and the unending ridiculous nature of bureaucracy. In some ways I see how you would see this as “defective” in that there is an “invisible hand” controlling where people can land at the end of time travel to protect them from “corrupting” history. Even leading one character across history to show him what he needs to know. Almost as if there exists a greater plan.

    _Contact_ (the book – not the movie) had explicit references to information embedded in the nature of reality. (Specifically in mathematics) Presumably by the creator/architect of that reality. Which, strangely enough, is sort of the philosophy that most of the mathematicians, and physicists I have known hold. One of the reasons we went looking for the Higgs boson is that its existence is necessary to make the math beautiful. That is why is was known as the “god particle.” It made the structure of reality look elegant – in mathematical terms – and look as if it had been designed with the math in mind. Does this view of the universe make Contact “defective?” If so, then was the hunt for the Higgs Boson “defective science?” (Before CERN built The Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful instrument we had was the Tevatron at Fermi National Lab in Illinois. The Tevatron could produce no evidence of the Higgs. We spent 20 or 30 years and millions of Euros looking for something we had no physical evidence for, only the math pointed us in that direction. And the idea that the math should be elegant.) Are scientists required to be atheist, to insist the world is “rationally knowable” at all levels? (If they are, that’s news to me, and I did work with people on Tevatron, the heavy-ion accelerator in Tennessee, and a handful of mathematicians.)

    Was there some crap written under the heading of “new wave scifi?” No doubt. But I don’t think there was more crap per year than at any other time during the reign of scifi. There is plenty of drek on the shelves at Border’s today. I know, I keep looking. And there is plenty of “Classic Sci Fi” that just sits in the “technology is always good, progress is always good” mode of pre WWII America. And definitely pre-Watergate, pre-Vietnam view of life.

    I offer up the same (or similar) comment I made on your (now deleted) post about the intro scifi reading list. I think you will find half the population prefers the psi-power-science of Zimmer-Bradley’s Darkover series to war-porn of Drake’s Slammer’s Series. It doesn’t mean that one is “classic” and the other “defective,” it just means that 16-year-old boys have different tastes in reading material than 16-year-old girls.

  133. @esr:
    >Author actually thought “emacs” is a plural and the shell prompt is a backslash.

    IMNSHO this criticism is unfounded.

    “Emacs” obviously refers to the older meaning of “editor macros”:

    “What was that?” Shiara asked.

    “An Emac. A kind of magic clerk. They help me organize things and translate simple commands into complex sets of instructions. I have several of them now.”

    “Emacs,” Shiara said, wrinkling her nose. “I see—so to speak.”

    The backslash is not a prompt but used as an escape:

    “Very well,” he said and raised his hands above his head. “backslash” he intoned.

    $” replied the Emac.

    “class drone grep moira”

    $” said the Emac again.

    exe,” Wiz said and the Emac’s lips moved soundlessly as he transmitted the order, expanding it into a series of commands to each of the drones.

  134. >IMNSHO this criticism is unfounded.

    Dang it, now I’m going to have to go back and reread this. The text as you reproduce it wouldn’t have annoyed me as much, and doesn’t look quite like I remember it.

  135. @Zendo Deb
    “Which, strangely enough, is sort of the philosophy that most of the mathematicians, and physicists I have known hold.”

    The latest in theoretical physics is that gravity is a “force” in the direction of greater computational complexity. And a black hole horizon is an information/computation firewall.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firewall_(physics)

  136. In Starship Troopers Heinlein provides a number of reveal and breakthrough moments.

    Explicit exposition of the background and narrative (technical or philosophical) at many points in a story is very different from feeding the reader a series of clues and then challenging him to solve one big puzzle which is revealed at the end.

    In a fair number of mysteries (most of the “Ellery Queen” series, for instance), the challenge is explicit: page ~180 of ~200 is a formal notifiication from author to reader that all the clues have been presented, and the reader should now try to identify the murderer. I’ve never seen anything remotely llike that in SF. Many other mysteries have a list of characters at the front for the reader’s convenience in solving.

    I know one classic mystery in which the author supplies a clue as a puzzle: she describes exactly how the detective finds it, and replaces the dialogue in which he informs the police with “(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.)” In some other mysteries, this is done in narrative, with the detective challenging his colleagues – for example Holmes’ famous line about “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Again, I’ve never seen that in SF.

    To me this is a fundamental distinction. The very name of the “mystery” genre says that it is about puzzles. If there is no puzzle, it is not a mystery (though it may be crime fiction). But in SF, puzzles are rare and very few of the best works have them.

  137. >Explicit exposition of the background and narrative (technical or philosophical) at many points in a story is very different from feeding the reader a series of clues and then challenging him to solve one big puzzle which is revealed at the end.

    “Explicit exposition of the background” understates the similarity between what what goes on SF and mysteries. The book I just reviewed, Fortunes of the Imperium, is an excellent example of the convergence precisely because it’s a light, fluffy entertainment (in many ways analogous to what mystery fans call a “cozy”) in which none of what goes on is taken very seriously and genre conventions are exhibited in a relatively relaxed form.

    Nevertheless, the game is played. Much of the plot turns on the question of how an entire military vehicle could have introduced into the waste tank of a starship without the crew being any the wiser. The trader family crewing the ship are consequently framed for smuggling and threatened with sentence of death; the viewpoint character needs to solve this close analog of a locked-room murder mystery to prevent their execution. The game is played honestly because there are enough clues in the exposition for a sharp reader to deduce how it was done before the characters arrive at this understanding.

    The Mote In God’s Eye, previously discussed in this thread, is an excellent example of the game being played for higher stakes. The humans are puzzled by evidence all over the Mote solar system of many, many cycles of civilizational rise and catastrophic collapse. The Moties quickly realize that they must conceal the cause of the Cycles (a simple but deadly fact about Motie reproductive biology) lest humans quite rationally conclude their species is a a blight which must be exterminated before it can escape the Motie system.

    For much of the novel the reader knows there is a deadly secret but has not been told what it is. But the game is played honestly; a sharp reader can deduce it before the characters do. The essence of SF is in the moment of breakthrough at which you realize how the Cycles follow with terrible logical inexorability from one simple fact. One of the many reasons The Mote In God’s Eye is a major work of the SF canon is the vast scale and emotional impact of consequences following from what, if presented baldly and without context, would seem an almost trivial cause. This is the game played at its most sublime level!

    That having been said, there are some differences. As you point out, the challenge-response structure in mysteries is often formalized and single-pointed to a degree it is not in SF (I’ve actually been waiting for someone to give me a good excuse to make this point explicitly – thank you). Instead of a rigid structure of one sequence of clues leading to one resolution, SF novels often have an escalating and interlocking series of challenges and reveals.

    Also, SF makes rather more of a point of hiding the clues in plain sight in the exposition than mysteries do. Your detective is often aware of what facts constitute clues even if he or she does not yet understand what they mean. By contrast, in SF such clues are often facts about the setting which are revealed by indirect exposition. Often the setting (rather than the acts of a specific human or alien antagonist) is the mystery; this is the case in The Mote In God’s Eye, though not in Fortunes of the Imperium.

    A different way to state the contrast is that SF replaces the murder mystery’s one big puzzle about an individual human action with an iterative process in which the reader’s increasing grasp of the implications of facts about the setting eventually rewarded with a resolution that is both larger and less predictable in form and implication than just who did the murder. In classic examples of the SF form the moment of conceptual breakthrough often has implications at civilizational scale.

    >But in SF, puzzles are rare and very few of the best works have them.

    This is absolutely, fundamentally wrong. As my first example illustrates, even relatively trivial and comedic examples of the SF form pivot on puzzles. I think you are confused about this because of a difference in emotional emphasis. Murder mysteries usually foreground the puzzle, with the resolution as a stylized formal coda of a very predictable kind. By contrast, SF foregrounds the moment of conceptual breakthrough, with the very nature of the puzzle leading up to it often hidden until some reveal induces a large shift in the reader’s perspective.

  138. Winter, I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. The event horizon (around a black hole) as an information “barrier” is fairly well established. That’s what “event horizon” means. You can’t get information out past it. Time also works very differently around a black hole as well. (It acts much more like the 4th dimension of space-time than it usually does.) That much is clear from Einstein’s equations.

    It has been 25 years (and then some) since I studied theoretical physics. Having seen PhD.s up close, and seen the competition for (relatively) low-paying jobs, I decided Info Tech was a much better way to make a living. And I was right.

    The point I was trying to make, is that 25 years ago, even people who working in the forefront of the hardest of the hard sciences, didn’t always see the universe as a quantum-mechanical version of Newton’s clockwork. That it is “rationally knowable” in all of its aspects, even as they struggled to understand (mathematically) the workings of quarks, mesons, bosons, and the associated fields. This doesn’t even address the incompleteness theorem or the uncertainty principle. And that if physicists didn’t insist on that, why should artists?

  139. On subject of different reactions to classic Sci Fi. I was a member of a SciFi book club about 15 years ago, or so. We were persuaded – by several members of the group to read Herbert’s “Dune.”

    Upon reading the last paragraph, one of the other women in the group responded by throwing the book across the room. Specifically the last sentence. “They will call us wives.” As if that is the highest position that Herbert could assign to women. “Dune” may or may not be classic scifi. It may or may not be good sci fi. But half of today’s population isn’t going to view it with quite the reverence that it gets from some quarters. (My reaction to the novel wasn’t that visceral. I was just glad it was over, and never had any desire to spend more time with the characters by reading the sequels.)

  140. Upon reading the last paragraph, one of the other women in the group responded by throwing the book across the room. Specifically the last sentence. “They will call us wives.” As if that is the highest position that Herbert could assign to women.

    PC, like any official government imposed belief system, is loudly and piously announced much more than it is inwardly felt. Observe that European converts to Islam are overwhelmingly fertile age female, and converts from Islam to Christianity are overwhelmingly male.

  141. That bit about being called wives didn’t bother me, but the Bene Gesserit had some very cool powers, and all Herbert could think of for them to do was run a breeding program to create a male with abilities they could never equal.

  142. >all Herbert could think of for them to do was run a breeding program to create a male with abilities they could never equal.

    That didn’t bother me, because reality might be like that. Crucial genetic loci could be on the Y chromosome. Whether that is true wouldn’t be either a bad thing or a good thing, just a thing.

  143. > I’m not familiar enough with Strugatsky to say for sure, but my impression from secondhand accounts is that much of it probably would.

    Strugatskys use SF imaginery to explore moral problems raher than technology, rationality etc. Yet they are part of the hard core Russian SF. If you suggested in Russia that Strugatskys are not SF you would be ridiculed.

    So, I guess, your definition applies to the western/american SF rather than SF in general.

  144. >Strugatskys use SF imaginery to explore moral problems raher than technology, rationality etc.

    I question the “ra[t]her than”. It is quite possible to explore ethical/moral issues in science fiction, and in fact to do so is pretty normal in “western/american” SF.

  145. >And that if physicists didn’t insist on [rational knoweability], why should artists?

    Because it’s a rule of the genre’s conversation; if you don’t follow it, you don’t induce the experience of conceptual breakthrough supported by rationality that the readers come to SF for.

    The rule doesn’t actually actually do any violence to the physics, either. Mixed states cannot cohere at macroscopic scales because the rest of the universe “observes” the system any time a photon bounces off it. The walls of the box collapse the wave function of Schrodinger’s cat. When you formalize this it’s called “decoherence theory”

  146. “It is quite possible to explore ethical/moral issues in science fiction, and in fact to do so is pretty normal in “western/american” SF.”

    Indeed, a good argument could be made that this is what Starship Troopers really is about.

  147. @Zendo Deb
    “Winter, I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. The event horizon (around a black hole) as an information “barrier” is fairly well established. …”

    Theory is shifting from the “information horizon” to computational complexity in the neighborhood of the horizon. That is, it is not just “It from bit”, but “it” also has to compute. Down in the foundations, nature is computing things. There really is some kind of assembler programs running the universe ;-)

    AFAIK&understand, the problem revolves around the requirement that no information is ever lost. Therefore, information falling into a black hole will eventually come out again. How can nature be constructed such that you still cannot communicate with someone who crossed the horizon? The answer involves recognition that you could not decode the information in time. But this is way beyond my skill level See the link for better information.

  148. > Going back a few comments now – would ‘The Flying Sorcerers’ by Gerrold and Niven count
    > as SF where the ‘protagonist views the universe as irrational’, but there is actual rationality
    > behind it all? Granted, it’s on the silly side…

    Definitely yes. Although Shoogar doesn’t understand many things, he plainly believes that it is within his capacity to understand them. He even explains to Lant that all apprentice magicians must prove for themselves that magic works, by doing a controlled experiment. His explanations for why things work is often wrong, but there’s no shame in that; a lot of the things he’s trying to explain or predict are out of his reach, but not out of the reach of his descendants. He overextends himself a bit when he tries to call down a moon to destroy Purple, but to his credit he knows perfectly well that this would create a new Circle Sea.

    Purple likewise makes mistakes. His first and primary mistake is to blindly say that magic does not exist, without first verifying that the word ‘magic’ was translated correctly. There’s a similar problem with the gods Shoogar talks about. They don’t give him any predictive power, so they’re not scientific. Purple says that they don’t exist, and with the same lack of consideration. The problem is that our term ‘weather’ is just as bad. We can make predictions a few days out, but about the only advantage we have over Shoogar is that we know that it’s a chaotic phenomenon, and thus no amount of prior knowledge of the state of the system will enable a perfect prediction arbitrarily far into the future. Well, that and a basic understanding of thermodynamics helps to explain what happens when warm and cold air meet, but you still have to figure out if they will meet or not.

    Lant is the point-of-view character, and the one making most of the decisions. He figures out how to get Purple and Shoogar to cooperate, after all. He shows that he believes the world to be rationally knowable when he argues with Shoogar about the gods. He points out that Purple’s magic unquestionably works, and that Purple denies that gods exist.

    Eric, how would you classify Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun? I quite enjoy it, and just reread it. It’s billed as SF; it has energy weapons and space ships in it, so it could hardly avoid that. Since I first read it I’ve considered it fantasy though. On the other hand, I paid more attention this time, and it seems to me that Severian makes a pretty good effort to understand the events he has previously described as supernatural. He comes to regard them as potentially being the actions of his own future self, after he has become a time traveler, and indeed, time travel was only gradually revealed, first hinted at and then stated explicitly. It’s thus reasonable to try to figure out which other events of the story involved some form of time travel.

    On the other hand, while it is possible to reason out the consequences of time travel in general, it’s pretty obvious that the results are entirely aphysical; they can’t occur in our universe. In a universe where timetravel is possible you can’t predict much because any time traveler from the distant future (whose motivations you cannot predict) can come visit your future and muck about with it.

  149. @Martin Sustrik: Except Strugatsky themselves contradict your statement.
    See the “offline interview” with Boris Strugatsky: http://www.rusf.ru/abs/int_t24.htm
    (Link in Russian)
    Loosely translated:
    “93.Question: How does Boris Natanovitsch reflect on the evolution of Strugatsky’s writing from the technological to the social themathic? Does this evolution reflect the changes in the Soviet society, which switched from technocratic development to performing socio-economic experiments, beginning in 1964, which correlates well with the change in the direction of the writings of Strugatsky brothers?
    Is it possible that Strugatsky, being the skillful masters they are reacted (unconsciously) to the demands of the society, (not as a direct order, of course, but rather sensing the changes in the mood of the society and of the intellectual elite) to the suppression of the physicists and the technocrats toward socio-economic manipulation?

    No, it reflects no such thing. We had simply started from traditional SF, but very soon we’ve come to understand that SF is not and will never be a real literature. Because literature always has the man and his destiny at its core. SF, on the other hand (the technogenic thematic) has the discovery, the invention or more generally “the humans and the universe” problems at its core. It has no direct relation to eh changes in our society. Having said that since the beginning of sixties we had already understood what world we are living in, and have despised the lies, our superiors, [...], but this had more of an impact on our worldview, rather than on our artistic method.”

    As I’ve said, this is very loosely translated, but demonstrates rather sharply that Strugatsky were under no impression they were writing orthodox SF.
    I quite like many of their creations nonetheless, but it is quite obvious that they were not aiming for the SF category.

  150. There’s at least some literary fiction that has its fans– I’ve seen enthusiastic writing about Waiting for Godot and Finnegans Wake. It seems like ignoring reality to assume that all modern literary fiction is inimical to human pleasure. Other nominees?

  151. Note to self: James Gunn anticipates some of my thinking here:

    http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/protocol.htm

    His remarks on what happens when you try to read a work using inappropriate protocols are particularly good. He notes one way this can happen: a reader applying the wrong protocols to a genre work. I note that the opposite failure also occurs – an author writing with the wrong set of protocols.

  152. >We had simply started from traditional SF, but very soon we’ve come to understand that SF is not and will never be a real literature. Because literature always has the man and his destiny at its core. SF, on the other hand (the technogenic thematic) has the discovery, the invention or more generally “the humans and the universe” problems at its core. It has no direct relation to eh changes in our society.

    This is interesting, but fails to be definitive. It may still be the case that Strugatsky brothers have produced SF if (a) their works affirm rational knowability, and (b) their works require the reader to apply SF reading protocols. (These criteria are essentially equivalent.)

  153. Productive and interesting article. Thanks.

    Two typos I noticed:
    s/and readers// (“the majority of both SF readers and writers and readers consider acceptable”)
    s/is/in/ (“one that entwines escapism with extrapolation is ways that are productive”)

  154. Pingback: Essay on the "deep norms" of SF - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  155. @EFraim
    “No, it reflects no such thing. We had simply started from traditional SF, but very soon we’ve come to understand that SF is not and will never be a real literature. Because literature always has the man and his destiny at its core. SF, on the other hand (the technogenic thematic) has the discovery, the invention or more generally “the humans and the universe” problems at its core. It has no direct relation to eh changes in our society.”

    This man could not be more wrong. Although SF is about man and his/her artifacts (technology), technology is always about society. To quote a non-English example: The fat years by Chan Koonchung. This is a direct criticism of modern China in the spirit of “Brave New World”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fat_Years

  156. >It is not fashionable these days to be so normative about any kind of artistic form

    It is actually a deeper problem – humankind struggles since the beginning with the dilemma of strict rules vs. liberal rules, authority vs. liberty and interestingly, the best solution so far seems to be neither nor the middle, but both – a Talebian bimodal strategy where there is a lot of freedom for everybody to start any “club” they want to, however it is acceptable for a “club” to set strict rules for itself and exclude people who don’t want to accept those rules. In such a world, freedom exists _between_ the “clubs” (in the form of freely making them and leaving them and in applying for membership in another one), and _inside_ those “clubs” that wish to be so, and strict rules exist _inside_ those clubs that wish to be so.

    Reddit seems to be an excellent example of this strategy. It is easy to make new subreddits, and subreddits can set their own rules, from the very loose adviceanimals.reddit.com to the draconian strictness of askhistorians.reddit.com that only accept sourced answers and Wikipedia is not considered a source. Of course there is some moaning about the later, consider the mods too authoritarian and whatnot, but as long as everybody is free to start easygoingaskhistorians.reddit.com and the transaction cost to do that is near zero – beware that detail, it matters – this tends to lead to near ideal outcomes.

    At any rate this idea with fairly clearly defined genres seems to be the same one. I think this concept deserves a name – it is a form for territorialism, it has something to do with libertarianism, but it is not individualistic in the atomistic sense but more social, it is more about social clubs, social spheres that are free to set their own rules.

  157. A couple of thoughts came to mind as I read this post, and the comments.

    First, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve read Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”, but Eric’s point about a genre being a way to read things as much as a way to write things, makes me wonder if this book would be a good way to introduce readers to the genre of science fiction in general. Indeed, one interesting anecdote Card used to illustrate how SciFi tends to take things literally was when at a writer’s workshop, he and his students got into a discussion about what a book meant by a “serpent cart” used at an airport. Was it some sort of lizard? The one student not used to science fiction was puzzled by this, because serpent carts to him were merely those things that bring your luggage to the airplane; they are called that, because they move in a serpentine way.

    Knowing how science fiction fans/writers can think about things would be helpful if you’re picking up a work of science fiction for the first time!

    Second, while it’s clear that Fantasy is strongly related to Science Fiction, it would be interesting to explore how they are different. I think Eric’s explanation of how Harry Potter isn’t science fiction resonates with me: there’s no curiosity about where magic comes from, nor is new magic developed. In “How to Write SF&F” Card claims that the primary difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is that the first at least starts out with an air of space ships and laser guns, while the latter has huts and castles and swords; this explanation never sat well with me. I could see no reason why something couldn’t be both science fiction and fantasy.

    I think one reason why both Science Fiction and Fantasy have always been attracted to me was that both genres like to take the world as we know (or perhaps knew) it, change an axiom or two, and then explore what happens from there. This enjoyment of exploration of consequences is probably a major factor that led me to become a mathematician, because mathematicians like to do that as well….

    In thinking about Eric’s criteria, perhaps the two keys are, first, less of a willingness to explore where magic comes from (although this is by no means a guarantee); and second–I’m having a difficult time putting this aspect into words–less of a tendency for ideas to be front and center, perhaps, but more emphasis on action. The “Lord of the Rings”, for example, seems to focus on how to destroy the One Ring, and to the extent that things are puzzled out, it’s more of “how are we going to accomplish this task?”.

    I recently completed Larry Correia’s “Hard Magic”; I suspect that, while this is published as a fantasy novel, it’s more appropriately classified as “classical” science fiction.

    At this point, I think I’m thinking out loud….but I notheless think this is a good distinction to make, because it would help us understand why, while Star Wars is exciting and enjoyable, it’s more “Science Fantasy” or “Space Opera” than “Science Fiction”.

  158. What is rationally knowable? Don’t skyscrapers have to hold themselves up?
    What is middle school physics in relation to science fiction?

    Is it unreasonable to expect to be told the tons of steel and tons of concrete on every level of a skyscraper? Was 9/11 science fiction? Do people who can’t figure that out qualify as competent science fiction fans?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT4BXIpdIdo

    Was 9/11 science fiction.

  159. Was 9/11 science fiction.

    If you look at the video, there is a mighty big hole in the skyscraper that comes near to cutting the building in half. And it is on fire. Kind of odd that it was still standing. But, given that it was standing, the science question asked by troofers is “could fire make it fall”?

    And the answer is that ordinary fire, though not hot enough to melt steel, is hot enough to soften steel, as any blacksmith knows.

  160. Hard Magic is several things, but fantasy it is not. I’d say it qualifies for SF by Eric’s definitions; the magic is quite definitely explored as a science, after all

  161. >Hard Magic is several things, but fantasy it is not. I’d say it qualifies for SF by Eric’s definitions; the magic is quite definitely explored as a science, after all

    The traditional term is “technology-of-magic”. The defining original is The Roaring Trumpet (1940) which became the first of a series of linked stories developing this subgenre.

  162. @Shenpen

    > . In such a world, freedom exists _between_ the “clubs” (in the form of freely making them and leaving them and in applying for membership in another one), and _inside_ those “clubs” that wish to be so, and strict rules exist _inside_ those clubs that wish to be so.

    I refer to this idea as “The Berlin Wall Corollary” (although “Contrapositive” might be a more accurate term, most people probably wouldn’t get it). As soon as Hungary started letting Ostis go to Austria (whence they could take the train to the Bundesrepublik and claim citizenship there) the DDR was effectively finished. (Had the Wall never been built, it would have been done decades sooner.) The right of free egress is the minimum liberty that a government must afford its residents to be considered “civilized”. If I ever get around to writing my own SF ‘verse, it will include the BWC, enshrined in international (interplanetary) law as the most basic human right. (It will also include certain places that complete the equation, by being the destination of that egress, at least temporarily, for those who haven’t figured out where they want to go yet, but know they don’t want to stay in a bad situation either.)

  163. If the Honor Harrington books have science fiction furniture without doing much serious world-building or having moments of revelation, what’s the hook? They’re very popular, and hardly the only examples of that sort of thing.

  164. >If the Honor Harrington books have science fiction furniture without doing much serious world-building or having moments of revelation, what’s the hook? They’re very popular, and hardly the only examples of that sort of thing.

    Thank you for posing the question in that way, because I think I just had an insight!

    It is true that the Honorverse books are pretty slight in the conceptual-breakthrough department. But you still have to apply SF protocols to read them, and maybe that’s the hook. That is: SF fans don’t merely use their capacity to apply the protocols instrumentally, they enjoy the process in itself.

    So, for an SF fan, even military SF (or romance with SF elements, or crime/suspense with SF elements) may have rewards that unmixed versions of these genres do not even if instances of conceptual breakthrough are rare or absent.

    Another line of evidence for this is the glee and inventiveness fans put into retconning individual mistakes in SF settings, or even entire poorly constructed settings.

  165. Another line of evidence for this is the glee and inventiveness fans put into retconning individual mistakes in SF settings

    This makes me think of my very first SF convention, in 1971 (IIRC), when they showed the film Forbidden Planet. (Spoiler warning) At the end, the ship escaped from the planet at FTL speeds, while a timer on the planet was counting down. When the planet blew up, someone in the audience said: “What about the speed of light?” and many began chanting the question in an amused way. The audience had enjoyed the film, but spotting a technical error (though one due to dramatic requirements) did bring a certain glee.

  166. But you still have to apply SF protocols to read them, and maybe that’s the hook. That is: SF fans don’t merely use their capacity to apply the protocols instrumentally, they enjoy the process in itself.

    Half the fun of D&D is rolling dice and arguing about combat rules?

  167. I’m glad you liked the phrasing. I’m one of the many who don’t like “defective science fiction”, and I was looking for an alternative.

    Other possibilities for why the Harrington stories are liked is that many people like estrangement (something different from the real world) in their fiction, and that a conventional future like Weber’s triggers nostalgia from other, better science fiction.

    Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what proportion of science fiction readers care a lot about tight world-building.

  168. >I’m not sure what proportion of science fiction readers care a lot about tight world-building.

    Again, the popularity of retconning exercises is an indicator here. Not just the frequency with which people do them, but the fact that they are a form of expression widely respected even among fans who don’t do them. The underlying ethos is “By damn, if the author(s) can’t be bothered to do decent continuity we’ll create it ourselves!”

  169. Wow, a truther can barely write a coherent sentence.

    whoda thunk?

  170. >It is true that the Honorverse books are pretty slight in the conceptual-breakthrough department. But you still have to apply SF protocols to read them, and maybe that’s the hook. That is: SF fans don’t merely use their capacity to apply the protocols instrumentally, they enjoy the process in itself.

    I thought that was something obvious you assumed from the beginning. How could a hacker miss that?

    Oh and about Weber…. his worldbuilding is ridiculously intricate. But it’s very specialized. It helps to be a technophile with a military outlook, and a student of history especially the history of technology to appreciate it. On certain forums, there are people who argue fine points of Weber’s made up framework of technology with rabbinical fervor (mining textev).

  171. People complain about Weber’s tendency toward infodumps, but that’s just grist for the puzzle solving mill.

    Oh and I don’t recall seeing it come up, so I’ll ask: have you looked at the alternate history subgenre as well?

  172. >Oh and I don’t recall seeing it come up, so I’ll ask: have you looked at the alternate history subgenre as well?

    I haven’t written down any of my analysis of it. I don’t think it poses any special problems.

  173. Natural Law in both it’s aspects.
    First is the physics, chemistry, biology, etc, or something more complex with magic.
    But second is the most important and where the cancer is metastasizing. Morality. The natural law is universal as C S Lewis points out in “The Abolition of Man”. But it is as much for our universe as physical laws.
    SF/F bends the laws. It forces you to think in the new paradigm. Psi? What are its limitations? When is it moral to use? And you ought to be better in this world.

    Instead, we not merely have preachy feminism and gay rights, they purge all dissenters. No moral challenge renders things bland.

  174. One of places where classic SF has hampered itself is this idea that hypercompetent heroes go through this stuff and then, take off their swords, sit down at the computer and refactor their code as if nothing had happened. Those consequences need not be soul-destroying, which is the major problem of most of the New Wave writers fell into, but they should be there.

    It’s not an objection to hypercompetence – it’s an objection to bullet-proofness.

    Modern men lack testosterone. That is not just an old fogy speaking, that is a medical fact.

    Under extraordinary stress, used to be men joked about it – see, for example the heroes of the battle of Britain, and soldiers who would sleep through artillery bombardment. Modern men really do act like shrieking schoolgirls, compared to our predecessors.

  175. >Under extraordinary stress, used to be men joked about it – see, for example the heroes of the battle of Britain, and soldiers who would sleep through artillery bombardment. Modern men really do act like shrieking schoolgirls, compared to our predecessors.

    Another underappreciated kernel of truth.

    But no, there are still such people. They just tend to not be the kinds of people the media approves of and writes about. And that coping mechanism is still known, and used. Dark, dark humor you can only appreciate if you’ve visited some dark places yourself. (But the ones you control what the ‘mainstream’ is in our society don’t understand, and call that humor sick. Idiots.) Get to know a cop, say, or someone who works in emergency medicine, or a soldier, well enough that they let you in on the jokes.

    Lovely treatment of the trope in John Steakley’s “Armor”.

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