Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Heart of Science Fiction

It is popular to maintain that science is the heart of science fiction. Fans make that claim periodically, and nobody ever seems to dispute it. Surprisingly though, in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder, subtitled The Evolution of Hard SF, David Hartwell seemingly disputes that belief in his statement, It is a commonly held opinion of writers who write hard sf, and the perception of the readers who prefer to read it, that hard sf is the core of all science fiction. Notice that Hartwell doesn’t support the claim, merely pointing out that for some writers and readers science is perceived as the heart of science fiction. But is that belief true for all readers of science fiction?

Personally, I don’t believe science is the heart of science fiction at all. Although I have been reading science fiction faithfully for nearly 40 years, the vast majority of what I read is not centered around science. While it incorporates science as part of its worldview, it generally does not do so any more than my own daily life incorporates science in the form of modern technology. Very few of the stories I enjoy most are actually centered around science.

But it is possible my opinion only reflects my own prejudices and that I occupy a small corner of the science fiction universe rather than the center of it? Before I can legitimately make a far-reaching claim that science is not the heart of SF, I needed to investigate further. So I went to the results of a Locus poll several years ago in which its readers selected the best science fiction novel published prior to 1990. 52 books made the cutoff, led by Frank Herbert’s Dune in first place all the way to a tie for 52nd place between Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves and Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series. I went down the list and designated each novel into one of two categories: either science-centered or non-science-centered. My results: 9 books were science-centered and 43 were not.

So what is the heart of science fiction? In an attempt to determine the answer, consider the following possible definition of speculative fiction:

Speculative fiction is the study of historical change upon the world as we know it. That change might involve plausible change (science fiction) or implausible change (fantasy or alternate history).

As the Locus poll (admittedly not a scientific survey) has shown, while scientific and technological advances may accelerate the changes in most science fiction stories, or be one of the specific aspects studied in them, the changes being studied are primarily historical change rather than science itself.

As the definition implies, speculative fiction actually contains three distinct sub-genres, each of which I will discuss further in a future blog.

To be continued...


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