I love exploring what makes us human through the literary terrain of science fiction.
Science not Fantasy
The Fiction of Science Fiction
No science fiction writer can see tomorrow's worlds with pinpoint accuracy. Sci-fi is an inherently speculative discipline. Even when science fiction writers expect their fiction to have immediate practical applications (as in Isaac Asimov's novels), they are by no means naïve to think that their stories must have such applications. Even if they do, they can never have any real idea of the ways that we'll use these applications; that's what science fiction writers do, after all, makeup.
To be given credence and respect within the field of literature means to be given both a desire and a realistic possibility of translating scientific observations into fiction that people will accept as real and believable. However, beyond this to consider the flaws of humans and humanity itself. Or, to paraphrase Einstein: the one truly important thing is to do and say things worth thinking about.
Science fiction may be invented; however, it may also be based on facts and claims about real things that one can prove or refute. The real secret, of course, is that both science and fiction represent aspects of ourselves.
It is what we represent in our heads, whether it is the captain of a spaceship, a dystopian planet the hero must save, or, indeed, an entire universe our protagonist has to navigate. Therefore, our genre is not unlike most stories, perhaps all stories, finding hidden treasures in ourselves. However, readers of sci-fi have chosen a particular flavour that differs in themes from the rest.
A real scientist looks cold-heartedly at the facts and is unbiased in their procedures, although the best are malleable and dynamic in their analysis. An astronomer can sit for hours examining the insides of a galaxy, searching for the structure of its interior to make a new discovery. His findings can be challenged to be invalid. Still, the scientific community cannot simply dismiss his theory without deriding the scientific method, ignoring facts, and research that perhaps spent many years gathering.
Some literary critics have suggested that science fiction should be allowed to claim truths and falsehoods, or, at least, facts that are not fundamentally inconsistent with scientific reality. If you read the criticism, you will find an equally unwavering belief that science fiction is pure imagination and, therefore, anything goes. Before exploring these arguments, this might be a good time to discuss the similarities between science fiction and fantasy briefly.
Fantasy, in general, is about changing perceptions of reality, changing ourselves, bending realities to suit our desires. Sci-fi is about changes in perceptions of reality, social changes, and how we perceive ourselves, about growing up and becoming more self-aware. And sometimes, science fiction writers do make statements of this sort. For instance, the protagonist of Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land constantly reminds himself that, although he cannot change other people, he can change himself and become a better person. The protagonist of Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light repeatedly insists that he must become stronger in order to succeed in his goals. Neither of them, however, believes that he can change reality or change his social situations; in the end, in fact, the hero of Heinlein's novel exclaims that "Nobody was ever changed because of a dream." If fantasy is a realm of transformation, science fiction changes our perceptions and social situations. Science fiction, however, does not only touch upon those areas of social change. It also touches upon issues of morality and religion, with some of its better authors presenting tales that touch on philosophical issues.
However, the same would not (usually) be consistent with fantasy, even when it touches upon such issues. Fantasy, in general, is not meant to offer realistic examples of anything or to represent reality in the way that science fiction often does. Fantasy is a realm of magical transformations of the mind, and it offers experiences (often some very complicated and challenging to explain experiences) that can be highly exhilarating and liberating. Fantasy is a realm of soaring or of falling from the sky, of being rescued or rescued yourself, of men and women achieving their destined destinies.
What we mean by fantasy is not just a series of transformations or illusions that move from one form to another. Fantasy is sometimes a direct process of constructing items, events or entire worlds that never existed in the first place – a deus ex machina. And at other times, it is a desire for something to be different from what it is. Sometimes it is a childish, naive yearning for something better and more beautiful. Sometimes it is a yearning for domination and control. And sometimes, when it is combined with some other characteristics, it is a political movement, a social campaign, or a religious doctrine.
Thus, the irony, of course, is that fantasy writers are not only defying reality, but they are also defying those who would define reality. They are producing an environment in which, while the boundaries of a writer's own perceptions of reality may change, the limits of those perceptions will remain more or less the same because reality is not so malleable, nor do the people who actually experience life and the world of experience change them.
Science fiction clearly shares many attributes and traits with fantasy. However, in sci-fi, there need to be clearly defined rules in a way that fantasy does not adhere to. In the sci-fi environment, scientific and technological knowledge has led to a societal climate where there is a fair amount of power. There are rules, and those rules must be followed, or someone can be punished. And in the sci-fi environment, there are physical and environmental dangers that must be addressed, if not entirely eliminated. Yet, fantasy writers and readers are not faced with that level of societal control or threat. They do not have to follow the rules about behaviour or how they should use their social status.
So when an audience is looking for a specific science fiction story, i.e. one in which there is a glimpse of future social or technological conditions that are not entirely normal, the authors of that particular science fiction are bound by the conventions. In some cases, that is a benefit since it allows the writer to add some description that a strictly factual description could not. And there are authors whose narratives blur the lines, so it can be not easy to tell if they are describing a possible reality or a complete fantasy.
Science fiction writers who want to go a step further and produce a real-world of their own must have their own definitions and rules that work for the text to be successful. Those who write fantasy can turn up their noses at the strictness of scientific and technological constraints. Fantasy authors can set out to create a situation that they believe to be illogical or so different from that in which most people live that it cannot happen.
In conclusion, the fiction in science fiction is often very different from that in fantasy. In science fiction, the writer is not so much dealing with the limits of our reality but trying to deal with what exists within their imaginations. The issue, therefore, is not whether one genre is better or worse than the other, but what world you would instead create a science fiction story in or a fantasy story in. And, although many fantasy fans would vehemently argue otherwise, science fiction needs a more integral and realistic structure that can theoretically work.
© 2021 Emma Kirsten