My understanding of science fiction: a personal introspection

Science fiction was science fiction because of my position in time, not through any other inherent feature.

Yesterday I logged onto Twitter (mistake number one in any hectic working day*), and say T.G. Shenoy, quite possibly the best-read critic of SFF in these waters, tweeting thusly.

Apparently some writer claimed that SFF was fascist propaganda designed to fight communism. I fell down the rabbit hole (mistake number two) and found the source of the tweet, which seemed to have made quite a stir on SFF twitter.

Now obviously the argument does not hold water. SFF is not a uniquely capitalist enterprise. Soviet science fiction writers created communist futures: the Strugatskys, Belayev, Bulgakov, A.Tolstoy. British writers such as Ian M. Banks championed post-scarcity socialism (the Culture). Ken McLeod, as far as I’m aware, was a Trotskyite. Even in the U.S., Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed stands out as a critique of capitalism instead of a weapon in support of it. If anything the construct that haunts SFF seems to be a sort of feudalism-lite, often decorated with charismatic larger-than-life heroes (Chrestomanci, Harry Potter, LOTR,  Doctor Who) playing around with the lives of lesser mortals.

And this is just a cursory glance based on what I grew up reading, which was usually the British stuff and Sinhala or English translations of the Russian writers [0]. American fiction does, indeed, seem have been leveled against communism in the 60’s, and the reasons behind that can be seen in Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding. I suspect modern American SFF is a lot more anti-capitalist than anything else. But that aside: Britain and Russian science fiction exist, have existed (for a long bloody time, one might add, at least since the 1900s).

Anyway, the rabbit hole made me think about SFF, and even about the use of the word SFF, which I seem to have rather unconsciously adopted. And judging by the rabbit hole, people have vastly differing definitions of what SFF is.

So I’m going to attempt to break up how the definition has evolved in my mind.

Early years (2002-2007):

  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • ‘Other’ science fiction

Or rather, growing up, there was Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Stanislaw Lem. This was stuff that took thought and tried to push it to the brink. In fact, this was most science fiction in Sri Lanka, primarily because Clarke lived here, and his impact was so vast that it was as if a black hole settled in Sri Lanka and we all bent around it.

As I said in my introduction in an upcoming anthology:

… he settled down here in 1956, when Sri Lanka was still Ceylon. From here he delivered to the world a tremendous output of thought that cemented his status in history. He nodded towards his adopted homeland often; he placed his space elevator close by, and his favorite novel – The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) was about a planet named Thalassa, which in Sinhala breaks down very clearly into “Under the palm trees”. He was the Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka’s leading technological university, for 23 years. He wore a white sarong and shirt – the national dress – as part of the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations disarmament talks in the 1980. Sri Lanka bestowed upon him the titles of Vidya Jyothi (‘Luminary of Science); Sahithyaratna (‘Gem of Literature’); and the Lankabhimanya (‘Pride of Lanka’), the highest honor a civilian can achieve.

All of which is to say: in Sri Lanka, Sir Arthur was science fiction. He was an icon of intellect. We grew up in his shadow. The first science fiction book I read was Rendezvous with Rama. I grew up with a line in my head: there was Clarke, Niven, Lem, Asimov ….

In the fantasy bracket, there was René Goscinny, J.K. Rowling, Dianna Wynne Jones, Ursula LeGuin, Terry Pratchett, Lynn Flewelling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Garth Nix.

Then there was this strange ‘other’ category. Ian Banks and William Gibson occupied that sphere. And, increasingly, so did Stanislaw Lem. Instead of pushing materials sciences, electronics and physics, they explored social theory and philosophy.  The physics was a backdrop. It was interesting, and a gateway drug to the interests that would shape me as a writer.

Then there was Star Wars, which I first saw in 2006 (a pirated copy of The Phantom Menace; I remember this not because of Star Wars but because I also saw Tomb Raider and developed an instant crush on Angelina Jolie).

What to make of Star Wars? It was exciting, but so blatantly not hard science fiction. Possibly it fit in this other category, but in my mind lumping it in with Lem and Gibson and Banks was impossible. I think I ended up regarding it as a type of fantasy that wore scifi skin. I mean, it had magic. It had mystical elements.

There was no theory behind this typology. Just loose attributes that I saw [1].

O/Ls- A/Ls (2008-2010):

Around this period I had more reading time on my hands [2].  The taxonomy mutated:

  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Soft Science Fiction
  • High Fantasy
  • Low Fantasy

This structure seemed much more useful. Clarke et al remained in the Hard SF category, using its seed some technological change. Social Science Fiction, which I was reading more of, covered the likes of Banks and Lem. Star Wars I placed alongside LOTR in the High Fantasy category. Low fantasy was what we might call magical realism today.

In my head the boundary was between predictive and descriptive. Science Fiction attempted to predict what could be. It was a die-roll game: often a book that might get ten things wrong might nail two or three things. One of my friends, who had a rich dad, brought a smartphone to school – the first I’d ever seen: an enormous Nokia with a huge camera. It looked like a calculator, but a bit smaller. It could fit in the palm of your hand. He took pictures of us in the class and showed them to us, and we went “ooh!”. And maybe to get my interest, he said, “Look, it has a dictionary! You can connect it to a computer!”

Now I looked at this thing, and I thought: wait a minute: this seems familiar. I’ve never seen this thing before, but I knew exactly what it could do. I reached into my bag and found the book that I had, the previous day, stolen from the library. Imperial Earth. Arthur C Clarke. Date of publication, 1976.  And there, Clarke described a device.  It looked like a calculator, but a bit smaller, it could fit in the palm of your hand. It had a dictionary. You could connect it to a computer.

I went back to the library, returned the book, got caned by the library teacher, and then asked for more books. In hindsight it wasn’t a very good library – all of the stuff it had was really old – but the shape of ideas I saw around me seemed to be from that science fiction section. Rockets? Moon landings? Submarines? Jules Verne, 1800’s. Video calling; Skype; Google Hangouts; that came from 1911 (Hugo Gernsback). Anti-depressants? 1931 (Aldous Huxley). PDAs sounded like, Douglas Adams, 1981, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Now it was simply a matter of sorting these out into the Hard or Social categories. Mary Shelley presided over this category of what could be. Peter Watts fit here. Fantasy, on the other hand, described what is with what could not be. Terry Pratchett, particularly.

Of course, I now realize the flaws of this classification. But at the time it captured most of my world. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan) points out that we often generate erroneous rulesets based on observations and we assume those observations hold. If you see a million white swans, you assume all swans are white. Then the Black Swan arrives.

2010: Left Hand of Darkness, District 9, V for Vendetta and the return of Clarke

In 2010 I encountered not one, but four Black Swans: Le Guin’s science fiction, Neill Blomkamp, Alan Moore.

District 9 – set in a science-fiction-ey scenario – was more a description of race hatred and what is rather than anything that could be. V for Vendetta, though set in London, echoed across space to show me parallels in the rising centrist control of Sri Lanka and all the abuses of power that come about when information is tightly controlled.

The kicker was Left Hand of Darkness. Until now I had only read Le Guin’s Earthsea. LHoD’s Gethen to me was a fantasy construct, and yet it was set on other planets, against the backdrop of an interplanetary United Nations of sorts; and it was a powerful, extremely intellectual critique on the way that I had seen the world; it not just described what was, but I felt it took a stab at [accurately] predicting a future society where gender was giving way to a more freeing androgyny, and the tensions between the cracks.

It was the introduction to LHoD that was the final straw on the camel’s back of my classification system:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life..

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”

And then the ghost of Clarke, whispering:  “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

It was a slow-burning fuse, and in hindsight it should have been obvious, but I kept having to think about this, especially on my Prachett re-reads. Especially Going Postal. Science fiction was science fiction because of my position in time, not through any other inherent feature. Had Going Postal been written before the advent of the telegraph, it would surely have been science fiction.

And, going from this: almost every science fiction story contains within it one big lie, be it lightspeed travel or generation ships or even something like being able to mathematically model the future behavior of entire civilizations without a fraction of the data we have available today (Asimov). If we accept that as science fiction, why not dragons? With a few advances in genetic engineering, upscale lizards are far more plausible than generation ships. And surely visitations from aliens are about as fantastical as a giant turtle bearing the world on its back. It seemed entirely a matter of opinion.

So the taxonomy was not only useless: it was irrelevant.

Present Day

Today I have three types of fiction in mind:

  • SFF-predictive
  • SFF-descriptive
  • SFF-escapism

Notably, while fascist strains of any literature can exist, I have yet to see an argument for these three categories for being fascist by design or by representation in reading material.

I cannot fully accept Le Guin’s thesis that science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. To do so would be to ignore actual predictive work. For example, David Brin’s Earth is often cited in the policy circles I float in, particularly among the generation of policymakers that saw the rise of the Internet and the switch from telephony policy to broadband policy. Aspects of fiction – such as William Gibson’s mega-slum, the Sprawl – are commonly referenced in arguments around the office about urban design and the future of cities such as Delhi. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in play around AI ethics.

But I can broaden the definition a bit and say: science fiction and fantasy are thought experiments, and they come in three types. Predictive fiction rolls on, with writers exploring everything from hard engineering problems to climate change. The finest of this category fits Frederick Pohl’s definition of science fiction:  “a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

And descriptive fiction yields glorious bounties in understanding the world. Pratchett presents magnificent allegories on the world today. I can add Kafka and Borges and Madeleine l’engle and Jeff Vandermeer and be quite happy.

The divide is primarily the observer’s point in time and space. Categorizations shift as events unfold. Neuromancer is already descriptive in its depiction of megacorporations that have taken on the functions of government, such as holding a legal monopoly on violence. In a few years we may end up in a world where Paolo Baccigalupi’s the Wind-Up Girl or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem turns out to be descriptive rather than predictive. Works that are already in transition, in my mind, are those of Malka Older and Annalee Newitz, to name a few.

But the Fantasy / Scifi divide does not matter as much anymore. Where the bookshops put this is irrelevant to their effectiveness as predictive or descriptive fiction. The frame also allows me to add certain things that are usually, for some reason, excluded from a tighter frame – such as Michael Chrichton. Why is Timeline, for example, not discussed as part of SFF canon?

This seems to tally with how non-writers in my circles approach things. They generally read very few books in the genre, and as a consequence approach something only if it has extraordinary predictive or descriptive value. I was recently surprised when the Chairman of LIRNEasia, Rohan Samarajiva (a former telecom regulator, Professor of various things, and an ardent Brin-and-Gibson fan) used the dynamics of the two-person Panopticons in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to explain the social effects of grassroots, community-led surveillance [3].

I could use the term speculative fiction. But to me this seems a word coined out of defensiveness. Harlan Ellison used it to avoid being pigeonholed; Margaret Atwood used it to set her work (which features climate change, bio-engineering, corporate governance and people with glowing blue penises) from “scifi”, which she sees as “squids in space”. So I have grown more comfortable with the term SF/F, or SFF, because the two sub-genres borrow much from each other – a really good example is Foundryside, which presents cyberpunk themes (and certainly, programming and AI) with fantasy constructs – and because the term doesn’t look down its nose at the rich and robust history of the genres.

I’ve applied this to my own work as well. Numbercaste is predictive. The Commonwealth Empires series is descriptive; I was initially taken aback by reviews that insisted that I should extrapolate the technologies of a future British Raj faithfully, but that is outside the mission, which is to examine otherization and Sri Lanka’s political factions through a whole assembly of cyberpunk conceits.

And then there is escapism, which is self-explanatory. We all need that from time to time, because nobody can maintain thought experiments 24/7/365 unless an absurd amount of acid is present. All stories are escapist: some are more escapist than others.

Fine, but there’s better ways of doing this

Absolutely. I suspect Wittgenstein will always have a hoot on this particular subject, and all I’ve done is really lay out my head-canon.

There have obviously been many people who have thought about the subject and arrived at different conclusions, and often with far more rigor than I have. Arthur C. Clarke said that “Science fiction is something that could happen—but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen—though you often only wish that it could.” Orson Scott Card insisted that

  1. All stories set in the future, because the future can’t be known. This includes all stories speculating about future technologies, which is, for some people, the only thing that science fiction is good for. Ironically, many stories written in the 1940s and 1950s that were set in what was then the future—the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—are no longer “futuristic.” Yet they aren’t “false,” either, because few science fiction writers pretend to be writing what will happen. Rather, they write what might happen. So those out-of-date futures, like that depicted in the novel 1984, simply shift from the “future” category to:
  2. All stories set in the historical past that contradict known facts of history. Within the field of science fiction, these are called “alternate world” stories. For instance, what if the Cuban Missile Crisis had led to nuclear war? What if Hitler had died in 1939? In the real world, of course, these events did not happen—so stories that take place in such false pasts are the purview of science fiction and fantasy.
  3. All stories set in other worlds, because we’ve never gone there. Whether “future humans” take part in the story or not, if it isn’t Earth, it belongs to this genre.
  4. All stories supposedly set on Earth, but before recorded history and contradicting the known archaeological record—stories about visits from ancient aliens, or ancient civilizations that left no trace, or “lost kingdoms” surviving into modern times.
  5. All stories that contradict some known or supposed law of nature. Obviously, fantasy that uses magic falls into this category, but so does much science fiction: time travel stories, for instance, or “invisible man” stories.

Card’s definition evades the point-in-time anchor trap, but at “all stories set in other worlds, because we’ve never gone there.” – the Left Hand of Darkness is tapping at the door. It wants to have a word. And the rest of fantasy is behind it. I think Andrew Milner’s ultimate cop-out is the most honest: “Science fiction is a selective tradition, continuously reinvented in the present, through which the boundaries of the genre are continuously policed, challenged and disrupted, and the cultural identity of the SF community continuously established, preserved and transformed. It is thus essentially and necessarily a site of contestation.”

So for now, I will stick to my three categories:

  • SFF-predictive
  • SFF-descriptive
  • SFF-escapism

Until the next Black Swan arrives and disrupts my thinking again. I look forward to it.

[0]There has always been a prominent Russian-inspired Marxist strain here in Sri Lanka: see the JVP rebellion; the JVP is still in Parliament today

[1] I realize the structure of the post so far may make it seem as if I came across scifi first. In reality the chronology was not so neat. I came across Asterix first, then Dianna Wynne Jones’s Chrestomani; then we got swept up in Harry Potter (I was in grade 2 or 3 at the time, and I remember painstakingly replicating the Harry Potter logo from my pencilcase, and subsequently having to kneel outside class for two periods not paying attention to the teacher). Then came Terry Pratchett and DWJ, who I suspect I will read until the day I die.

[2] Two things happened in this time. One, money reached up and slapped me in the face. And when I say that I mean my father had had taken out a loan on our house to send me to private school, and the loan amount was done. He had, of course, defaulted on the loan: my mother and I had been living apart from him since 2001, when creditors seized our house and locked up all the furniture (and my books) and threw us out – but I always had school to return to the next day.  So I was kicked out of school (the principal made it known to all parents that school fees had not been paid, and This Was What Happens When You Act Like You Can Afford Things You Can’t) and spent a year school-less while applying to public school. That year I did nothing but read.

Two, the amount of violence in my life increased.  Until this point I had thought the regular police and hospital trips were normal, and people just didn’t talk about it. We lived in what could be called a slum: one room, tin roof, wooden walls, one plug point wired from the neighbor’s light socket, water and toilet at the landlord’s. Every family fought day and night, and most evenings I preferred to sit outside and read. But now that was added to the school situation – the school I went to at first was President’s College Kotte, which was basically gang turf. So I did what I could: I joined the meanest bastards on the block – the Army Cadets – whose reputation was such that as long as I completed training for the day, and as I could hold my own in a fight, I could skip class and read without being harassed too much for reading English.  Needless to say, I read a lot of Pratchett.

[3] I have been trying since 2014 to get him to read Pratchett. Eventually, he will read it. Hopefully, before his next reincarnation.



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