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What is Science Fiction for?


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No matter how many times the community debates science fiction’s viability, direction, and future, a fundamental question goes unasked: What is the purpose of science fiction? The answer to that question is at the heart of every (often recurring) debate about the genre, yet I have rarely seen it asked directly. Consider:

Quality: Genre vs. Literary Fiction Science Fiction’s Exhaustion Award Criteria

These are just the most recent paroxysms of genre self-confidence that I can recall from the past year. And in most cases, the resulting discussion is necessary for the continued health of literature (and of our genre, in particular – see my earlier thoughts on that front here and here). But in each discussion, the debaters speak from a particular perspective, heavily informed by their underlying and unarticulated perception of science fiction’s purpose. It is the implicit background which every one of us takes for granted, but which leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and grossly divergent conclusions.

The Amorphous Purpose: A Definition

(NOTE: I would love to see a story entitled “The Amorphous Porpoise”. Just saying.)

The purpose of a genre is – by its very nature – protean. It is an amalgamation of methods, effects, and consequences within literature and society. If the concept appears fuzzy and imprecise, there’s a good reason for that: It is. Like so much critical discussion, it is a philosophical abstraction. We cannot apply it to any particular title, nor even to a particular series. To be meaningful, it must be broad enough to contain contradictions, and resilient enough to withstand them.

Despite its imprecision, genre’s purpose remains a powerful critical tool. When Damon Knight says that “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”, he relies on the particular mix of methods, effects, and consequences of a given story to group it with other stories of similar purpose. Conceptually, it is similar to Brian Attebery’s “fuzzy set” of genre markers, but its value goes beyond the merely taxonomic: genre’s purpose contextualizes the stories within the genre, and thus creates a framework for our interpretations and responses.

When Christopher Priest laments the nominee slate for the Clarke Award, or when Paul Kincaid observes the “exhaustion” of science fiction in the Best-of anthologies, their concerns can be reframed in terms of genre’s purpose. Between the lines, they each suggest an indistinct and idealized vision of science fiction. Neither offers a clear prescription, but it is clear that they have set their own bars on the basis of some criteria, whether articulated or not. If we reframe their arguments (hopefully without doing damage to their intentions), we find that Priest observes that the Clarke Award does not reward the fiction he believes aligns best with science fiction’s purpose. Paul Kincaid believes that much of contemporary science fiction aligns with an outmoded purpose, which may no longer be culturally relevant.

In both cases, they leave the purpose of science fiction implicit and unarticulated, which I think does their core arguments a disservice. I think a debate about the purpose of science fiction and its role within literature and society is an interesting and valuable one, from which interesting ideas about writing and genre can both flow.

On the Constitution of Purpose

I think of genre purpose as having three components. There may be more, particularly since this is still a concept I’m trying to wrap my head around. But in general, a genre’s purpose is the combination of its:

Methods
These are the techniques, conventions, and devices which are employed in stories ascribed to a particular genre. They are directly observable within the text, no one story will ever use all of them, and any one story may specifically reject or subvert one or more of them.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Scientific plausibility
  • Fictive Neology
  • The Novum
  • Rational actors/consequences
  • Naturalistic prose
  • Reliable narrators
  • Unreliable narrators
  • The imagined future
  • Interstellar travel
  • Intelligent alien life
  • Sentient artificial life

Effects
These are the emotional and mental responses produced in the individual reader as a direct result of the genre’s methods. They are not observed within the text, but are observed within its individual readers. Certain effects may be generalizable across an audience, but because no two readers experience a story in the same way, the effects are never universal for any story. The effects can likewise be directed, e.g. “fear of science” or “fear of government”, etc.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Escape
  • Entertainment
  • Imaginitive speculation
  • Wish fulfillment
  • Ethical Uncertainty
  • Sadness
  • Horror
  • Terror
  • Optimism
  • Ambition
  • Transcendence
  • Affirmation
  • Curiosity
  • Rumination
  • Satisfaction

Consequences
These are the cultural reactions that a genre produces. They may be expressed outside of the literary sphere, for example in education, cultural sensibilities, or public mores. They may also be expressed within future texts, as a response to or expansion/subversion of the genre’s purpose.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Fleeting enjoyment
  • Scientific/technological development
  • Changed social acceptance/rejection/prejudice
  • Perceptions of government power
  • Perceptions of civic responsibility
  • Perceptions of civil rights/roles
  • Adjusted conceptions of justice
  • Adjusted aesthetic sensibilities
  • Adjustments in personal priorities

I believe that all fantastic genres (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), and possibly all literature shares the majority of their effects and consequences, but that they rely on different methods to do so. I imagine – and I hope – that there are people who disagree with this, as their thoughts might provide fascinating insights into the purpose of literature and art.

The Evolving Purpose of Genre

When each of us thinks of a literary tradition – be it science fiction, biography, or mystery – we value different methods, effects, and consequences differently. This is partially a consequence of our individual tastes, and partially the result of our philosophical values. Genre’s purpose – in its abstract philosophical sense – does not have intentionality. But when we begin to discuss a genre’s purpose, each of us prioritizes certain methods, effects, and consequences over others, and this gives genre’s purpose a directionality.

The cycles we see in science fiction – whether it was the gradual move away from scientific romance conventions in the pulp era, or the New Wave’s focus on the sociological, or cyberpunk’s psychosocial aesthetics – are a consequence of genre’s constantly-evolving purposes, which in turn are an emergent property of our consumption of media and our experiences of daily life. The sometimes acrimonious divide between “hard” and “soft” SF merely reflects differences in our community’s priorities, tastes, and philosophical values.

Our individual values, and the intentions they lend to our perception of genre, inform everything we do when it comes to genre. When we write genre fiction, we (hopefully) write what we think it should be, applying and communicating our values. When we review genre fiction, we express how an author’s work is executed relative to our individual conception of the genre’s purpose: did the story successfully align with what we want from the genre? When we criticize genre fiction, we generalize across multiple stories to either gain insight into how genre’s methods, effects, and consequences interrelate or to articulate our generalized desires about the genre.

Perhaps, rather than rehashing the perennial “genre is exhausted/dying/dead” debate it would be helpful to take a step back, and articulate what we think genre should be, and start from there. There will be plenty of disagreements if we do: this is actually pretty complex philosophy, and it has flummoxed much smarter people than me. I suspect that for many of us, it is easier to express our values through our fiction than it is to spell them out. But I think as a community, it is a discussion worth having nevertheless.

But if we want to advance our understanding of the art form, and if we want to advance the quality (howsoever it gets defined) of that art form, shouldn’t we at some point spell out where we want it go?

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