I can’t help it, I agonise over the meanings of things. I’m a discriminator; a differentiator. I like to categorise.
Take “science fiction” (oh stop groaning, you went to the trouble of clicking the link, you might as well listen to what I have to say). It’s a term that arose in the mists of time and has evolved into a marketing category and, by now, is nearly meaningless. Yet I still feel that, for me, it means something. For me, it is what I do, what I love, what I aspire to.
I’ve tried to say what I think sci-fi is. I’ve tried to say what I think I’m doing when I write it. I’ve got into horrible frustrating arguments with horrible frustrating people on blogs and forums. Now, I finally believe I have distilled the essence of what science fiction is for me – if not for anybody else. Here is my definition.
Science fiction is a genre in which it is considered true that only reason and the assumption that the physical world is the only one that exists, can explain the universe, and in which the story typically but not necessarily, features science and/or technology.
Hey, at least it’s short. It may not cover every book ever written that people consider to be sci-fi, but at least it covers all the books I’ve ever written, and that’s what is really important. It also covers all the books which I believe to be science fiction and excludes all the ones I don’t. This is a big breakthrough for me.
It also solves a problem I’ve been having in the past few days as I ponder the possibility of writing a sequel to TimeSplash. The problem with TimeSplash is that it violated some of my previous definitions of science fiction because the method of time travel, while having loads of great consequences I could play with, bears no relation to any real physics. I just made it up. However, under my new definition, made up physics is perfectly acceptable, as long as the overall commitment to reason is upheld.
Think of it this way. A science fiction writer can make up whatever he or she likes as long as the foundation is assumed to be based on reality and the physical universe. You can’t make up supernatural forces (like The Force, or Fate, or Destiny, or whatever) or supernatural actors (gods, vampires, zombies, angels, demons, and all the rest) but you can make up anti-gravity, faster-than-light travel, transhumans, and aliens – because they are assumed to be explicable by science.
Here’s another way to think of it. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In my science fictional universe, this is not true because the assumption is always that anything, however magical it may seem, has a rational explanation – because that’s just the way the real world is. Magic has no place in my science fiction. It’s the way I am. It’s the way I want my sci-fi to be.
The fact that I also like science fiction to conform as closely as possible to what modern science has discovered about the universe – or, at least, not to contradict it without good reason – is simply, therefore, a matter of taste. Fifty years ago, even “hard” sci-fi writers happily included “mental powers” such as telepathy in their stories. And why not, fifty years ago, the existence of psi powers was an open question. Since then, decades of painstaking research have shown none of these powers actually exist. Putting them into a sci-fi story today would seem as ridiculous as using phlogiston to explain combustion. Yet people still do it, still seeming to believe that there is a scientific basis for psi. I don’t like it. I cringe at the ignorance this displays. Yet, as long as the assumption is there that science could, in principle, explain it, I will grudgingly allow such nonsense into the fold of science fiction. If they do it with the view that psi is a supernatural phenomenon, not accessible to a scientific explanation even in principle, then, I’m sorry, but the doors of sci-fi are closed. They should peddle their wares in the market of fantasy or religious fiction.
So. What do you think?