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
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
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!