Views expressed by guest or resident columnists are entirely their own.

Robert J. Sawyer is the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell Memorial, Heinlein, Hal Clement, Skylark, Aurora, and Seiun Award–winning author of twenty-three bestselling science-fiction novels, most recently the #1 Locus bestseller Quantum Night. A Member of the Order of Canada—the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Canadian government—his physical home is Toronto and online it’s at sfwriter.com.

Robert J. Sawyer

Defining Science Fiction

I’m honored to take over from my friend Barry Malzberg as the science-fiction columnist here at Galaxy’s Edge. Since this is our first time together, I think it’s worthwhile to define our terms—or, at least, my use of the term “science fiction.”

I have four definitions of this genre. Which one I invoke depends on the point I’m trying to make, but all of them take as a given that science fiction is serious, important literature with valuable, relevant things to say to everyone, not just its die-hard fans.

My first, and most direct, definition is that science fiction is the mainstream literature of a plausible alternate reality. By “mainstream literature,” I mean most science fiction stories are told as if to someone already familiar with the milieu of the story. If a novel is set in the year 2500 on Mars, the narrative voice is not “Someday we’ll establish a colony on the Red Planet and thicken its tenuous atmosphere with cometary water vapor,” but rather “You know Mars—dust everywhere, even after a century of induced rains.” As Samuel R. Delany famously wrote in his essay collection The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, this narrative conceit often proves to be a damn-near impenetrable barrier to readers coming into the field as adults—but it’s the core DNA of our genre.

By “alternate reality,” I mostly mean the future but, since (as Philip K. Dick argues in the text of his novel The Man in the High Castle) alternate history is a branch of science fiction, it can also mean a different timeline, or even the ancient past (as in Robert Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station).

As for “plausible,” that’s crucial: science fiction is the literature of rational and reasonable extrapolation. It’s distinct from fantasy: SF is the literature of things that plausibly might (or plausibly could have) happened; fantasy is the literature of things that could never have happened (by virtue of requiring magic or supernatural powers that contravene the laws of physics).

Yes, in science fiction, we do allow faster-than-light travel (but I can give you dozens of references to real science suggesting that might someday be possible) and time travel (ditto). Still, if you want to argue that these concepts have simply been grandfathered into science fiction, I won’t dispute that; if you find that paradoxical in a demand for plausibility, well, remember, science fiction invented the grandfather paradox.

My second definition is that science fiction is a laboratory for thought experiments about the human condition that would be unethical, impractical, or impossible to conduct in real life. As recently as 1960, Stanley Milgram could turn people into heartless monsters in his famous shock-machine, obedience-to-authority experiments; as recently as 1971, Philip Zimbardo could divide students at Stanford arbitrarily into prisoners and prison guards—and personally, as mock-warden, preside over the torture that ensued. But now, every university requires informed consent, making impossible whole areas of psychological research.

But science fiction with its “what-if” crucible still allows us to explore questions of human nature, looking for answers that ring true. And, of course, it’s only in the pages of science fiction that we can test out notions of how human psychology will change when lifespans are greatly enhanced, how societies will adapt to the collapse of capitalism and the elimination of most employment, and how we will deal with contact with aliens.

My third definition is that science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions. By that I mean it’s the place where traditional African culture and Western liberal privilege can spark off each other, as in our esteemed editor Mike Resnick’s Hugo Award-winning novelette, “The Manamouki,” or where quantum physics and paleoanthropology can be pressed together, as in my own Hugo Award–winning Hominids. Put another way, science fiction is the interdisciplinary genre—the place where academic fields of study that might never intersect on a university campus happily collide with each other.

And my fourth definition is that science fiction is the world’s only fractal literature. No matter what level of magnification you look at it—a single person, a couple, a family, a community, a city, a nation, a world, a solar system, a galaxy, a universe, the multiverse—science fiction should be interesting. No other type of fiction has that zoom-in/zoom-out potential. Even a hard SF writer, if he or she takes the position that characterization is the dramatization of principles from the science of psychology, can achieve this, telling stories of believable people facing extraordinary events. Working equally well as an exploration of the intimately human and the grandly cosmic makes for spectacular stories, such as Frederik Pohl’s 1977 Hugo and Nebula Award–winning Gateway, my all-time favorite SF novel.

You’ll note that the word “science” is absent from all four of my definitions. It’s not that I disparage the science in science fiction—far from it. I self-identify as a hard science-fiction writer, and have published over half a million words in Analog, the most scientifically rigorous of the SF magazines.

But I take the word “science” in the genre’s name back to its Latin root, sciere—to know. Ours is the literature of truths, and often of deeply profound ones about morals, ethics, culture, and religion in a world otherwise awash in “alternative facts” and what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—the veneer of veracity overtop of a lie. Far from being escapism—and I guess this is my fifth definition, and maybe the most important of all—science fiction is the literature of deep reality.

And, while we’re defining things, what about “Decoherence,” the title I’ve chosen for this column (replacing Barry’s “From the Heart’s Basement”)? It’s a term from quantum physics—which I find to be the most interesting area to mine for twenty-first century science fiction, since it deals with the fundamental nature of reality in a way that’s very rewarding.

The beauty of quantum physics is that things can be in multiple states simultaneously. “Decoherence,” loosely, is the process of that superposition of states collapsing into just one reality. Since fiction writing is the act of taking the general—all possible stories about, say, a mother and her daughter having a falling out—and turning it into one specific tale (a mother who seeks out her estranged daughter solely to receive a needed kidney for transplant), it aptly describes the art of what we fictioneers do—and, well, if you say my arguments are incoherent, I’ll just smile, and reply, no, they’re decoherent...and be on my merry way.

See you next issue!


Copyright © 2017 by Robert J. Sawyer





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