Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Hard to Soft SciFi (2018-12-17)
Image from the bbc television programme cd soundtrack for 'Life on Mars,' february 2007
Science fiction is a curious genre, intended to imagine possible futures while really talking about the past and sometimes by luck, the present. The features that usually separate science fiction from other types of fiction is the role of science and machine technology in the plot. They provide the macguffin or object of what is typically a modified quest narrative. This leaves a great deal of leeway, and there is even more now that writers have insisted on bringing in other sciences than physics and chemistry, the great foundations of weaponry. This has of course led to the importation of the same pointless and nonsensical contrast between "hard" and "soft" sciences to create pseudo-categories of "hard" and "soft" scifi. I will resist indulging in the obvious and awful puns implied by this terminology in view of the persistent assumption that scifi, especially in its movie and comic book form, has a teenage male exclusive market. And of course, some fiction does cause all manner of challenges to categories that are really intended to serve marketing, not readers or writers. Take the television programme that today's illustration is from, Life on Mars. The partisans could tie themselves in merry knots arguing over whether it should be considered science fiction or just a weird period drama.
I am by no means committed to an extremist definition of science fiction that disqualifies anything that doesn't feature some type of elaborate and powerful machinery. Since in my view technology really should be considered to include ways of thinking, techniques, and the many tools that seem simple but are in fact extraordinarily complex products of longterm experimentation, such a narrow definition of science fiction just doesn't make sense. On the other hand, I don't necessarily expect every science fiction story to eschew fancy rayguns and spaceships, or to necessarily have plenty of well-rounded characters. There are cases where a good writer can use flat types instead, although that is high risk and rarely works out if the idea is to write a story that can be reread or rewatched. In my younger days I read a wide range of science fiction, as do many teenagers, much of it in the telltale little trade paperbacks that show up in yellowing stacks in second hand book stores, rarely worth more than a dollar unless they are by a "big name." Despite my best efforts, even though I feel sure they were both fun to read at the time, I remember next to nothing of Asimov's Foundation series or Clarke's Space Odyssey series. What I do remember of the latter has been irretrievably contaminated by Kubrick's movie. Perhaps that's another sort of categorization worth playing with, how memorable a given science fiction book or series is over time.
An important cue to think about this at all came via Cora Buhlert's blog post, Cozy Space Opera, Cozy Mysteries, and the Domestic Sphere. It had never occurred to me so much as sideways to imagine a descriptor like "cozy space opera" so of course I had to read it, and it seems "cozy" and "opera" are terms that came in as derogatory markers of "femininity." Apparently pretty much any science fiction that delves into the complexities of interpersonal relationships or larger social questions, in other words, the "social sciences" is still often derogated by such terms, or even refused the monicker of science fiction all together, by some purists. I suspect that Life on Mars would definitely not be considered science fiction by those purists, for example. This is a puzzler if we foolishly expect consistency. Among my eclectic teenage scifi readings is only one Heinlein, which is called Time Enough for Love. Not a novel I enjoyed especially, to be honest. The pathologically bored Lazarus Long is neither very sympathetic nor very interesting, and Freud is awfully obvious in the set up and denouement. Others have enjoyed this novel and its compatriots of course, and the key point here is that we could claim that it isn't science fiction. The high technology is barely present, the real centre is Lazarus Long's angst over his long life, determination to perform toxic masculinity, and his attempt to find a few decent relationships (generally with other he-men) before he finds a way to get himself killed at last. Writers being writers, even the most hardboiled and cynical get fed up with what amounts to describing randomly moving objects perhaps blowing each other to pieces. So they turn their attention to people and their relationships, and indeed, Heinlein is something of an example. If nothing else, they can fall on a quick and easy formula in the mode of Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers.
In the end, perhaps the best and fairest description of science fiction is the one that Seo-Young Chu developed in her book, Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? She defines science fictional writing and therefore indirectly science fiction, as writing that uses metaphor to deal with "cognitively estranging referents," in other words, weird things we don't understand. (The notion of a "cognitively estranging referent" was labelled by Darko Suvin.) This form of writing then is used to make sense of some technology or even social relationship so different from what we know that it has no obvious words for it, no categories to fit in apart from the box we could loosely label, "what the hell is that?" Chu points out that this does not allow us to limit what she calls science fictional writing only to science fiction. Other forms of fiction may also serve this purpose, but it is science fiction in particular that seems to be geared predominantly to this task. Whether that is historically the task science fiction has had or is a more recent development, that's a different question.