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Or, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

I’m looking at what is likely the homestretch on the WiP, or at least the first complete draft of it. So of course I’m thinking about blog posts right now instead of writing.

It is notoriously difficult to define “science fiction” but a common attempt to do so–to wall off stuff that isn’t “really” science fiction from the proper stuff–is to assert that a real science fiction story wouldn’t survive the removal of the science fictiony bits, where, I don’t know, I guess “fake” science fiction is just Westerns with spaceships instead of horses or somesuch.

I never thought much about this except to think that well, sure, that would probably be a succinct way to define the most science fictiony of science fiction.

But the more I’ve thought about it, recently, the less satisfied I’ve been with this. I’m not sure there are any stories that fit this requirement.

Here’s the thing. Almost any story, you could remove some or other bit of it, replace it with some more present-world (or past world) analogue, and it would still be recognizably the same story on some level.

Let’s take Star Trek. Okay, some of you may consider ST to be “fake” science fiction. I’ll lay my cards on the table and tell you I laugh when I see someone call ST “hard science fiction. I consider it to be space opera. But let’s consider it a moment, shall we? At first glance all the aliens and the transporter and that utopian Federation of Planets stuff, and you’d think you couldn’t remove it, but let’s set it back a couple centuries, build the Enterprise out of wood, make Kirk into Horatio Hornblower and change the Klingons to French, the Romulans to Spanish. (I know, I know, the Klingons are actually stand-ins for the Russians, and the Vulcans/Romulans for the Chinese but that’s not helping the cause of “can’t remove the skiffy elements” is it.) You could take Star Trek and remove it’s snfal elements and still end up with basically the same stories.

That was an easy one, right? A gimme? Sure, maybe. But consider–there’s always–always–a level of abstraction available at which a story with whatever elements removed qualifies as “the same.” And the reverse is true–there’s always a level of specificity at which the removal of very small things means a large change. I mean, you could go very close-up on Star Trek and say that without dilithium crystals and tribbles, very specifically, it wouldn’t be the same. And it wouldn’t!

So it’s just about how much change it can take before too much violence is done to the original, right? Well, no. Any change is going to do violence to the original. Traduttore tradittore, after all. And the question of how much violence to the original is too much isn’t hard and fast.

I’m sure someone is going to comment insisting that Star Trek is one thing, but story Foo would actually really be irreparably changed by the removal of element Bar, and thus am I refuted. But seriously, there are almost no sfnal elements that couldn’t be framed some other way, no blackhole that can’t become an inescapable whirlpool, no alien that can’t become the denizen of some far away island, and while we’re at it whole planets get treated basically like smallish islands of one sort or another in quite a lot of sf anyway so that’s an easy enough transition to make. The question of whether that non-sfnal framing constitutes an obviously different story, or one recognizably the same if superficially different, is not one that can be answered easily, not in any really objective way.

And I can’t help noticing how often this particular criterion is used to delegitimize stories as “real” science fiction that by any other measure would more than qualify. It’s not just that the critic doesn’t really like this work, no, sadly the story is just not “really” science fiction, because if you take away the robots and the spaceships and the cloning and the black holes and the aliens and the interstellar civilizations and the fact that it’s set way in the future, well, it’s still a story about people wanting something and struggling to get it. Not really science fiction, see?

And well, sure, you take all that away and no, it’s not science fiction. But you had to take it away to begin with, didn’t you.

6 Responses

  1. w
    wapy

    Well, don’t they say that all stories can be reduced to one of: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature or Man vs Himself? Basically what you said on the last paragraph: if enough elements are removed, all stories will match the same basic criteria. You just remove elements/details according to which box you want the story to fit in.

  2. Murphy Jacobs

    Well, now, I’d have to disagree and say that, once you get beyond Booker or Polti, you can’t have science fiction without science — something extrapolated from evidence based current science, something based on a fact or theory currently standing strong, some idea or “what if” that has a root (no matter how long) back to soft or hard science.

    Your own books lean on that. I don’t think you could remove the hyper aware, multiply duplicated AI from the stories and still have those stories. And that idea of the AI stems from current ideas about computers and psychology.

    As for Star Trek, not every story had or required Klingons and Romulans. Some of them required some extraordinary way for a character to be somehow changed or divided from him/herself, or to experience something in reality (rather than as a psychotic break or supernatural event). Yes, science in ST was often lame and limp, but it still was the required element. How could you have had episodes like “Mirror, Mirror” without the transporter? Possibly “City on the Edge of Forever” could do without the time travel, but I’m not sure. ( I will avoid going full ST fan girl on you :))

    Of course, it’s fully a fun day to take stories and try to pull out their elements to see what’s left. Pull the murder out of an Agatha Christie novel, or the guns from a Louis Lamour or Raymond Chandler.

    With all that said, I do get into discussions about what is “real” science fiction, and I tend to be more inclusive than exclusive as long as the story in question actually deals with how X technology, scientific tidbit, or theory affects the world/universe and the people in it (yours do, and to wonderful effect. I’m a fan.)

    That’s why I call Star Wars Space Fantasy 😀

  3. E
    Estelendur

    I immediately thought of the Niven short story “Neutron Star,” but then I realized it is essentially a locked-room murder mystery, with the twist that the murderer is the laws of nature themselves! So you could do something like, oh, poisonous gases seeping out of the earthen floor of a sealed cell, maybe. Not sure. *ponders*

  4. I
    Ian Creasey

    Historically, the original impetus behind “a real science fiction story wouldn’t survive the removal of the science fictiony bits” was an attempt to improve the quality of science fiction by publishing stories that weren’t simply westerns dressed up in SFnal jargon.

    Galaxy Science Fiction famously had a mission statement to this effect in their first issue. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galaxy_Science_Fiction (scroll down to “Early Years”).

  5. M
    Matt Lewis

    I feel like this is a rabbit hole you can fall into and argue forever without getting anywhere. For me, the best SF isn’t about the SF elements. They’re a tool, not the point. Star Trek is about many things, but they’re things like xenophobia, what it means to be human, colonialism, etc. They’re not about how cool it is to get hot tea from a replicator.

    As wapy said, there are a few basic stories out there, and we’re arguing window dressing. Star Wars is a heroes journey, so is The Odyssey. I guess I don’t get the point in the compulsion to put everything in a very specific box based on the setting.

  6. Mark Tiedemann

    I’ve noodled on this through most of my writing life and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that, for the most part, the thing that separates science fiction from fantasy (which is the major arena for this one) is an aesthetic stance. Science fiction–down in its guts, before the first word is put down–takes as given that the universe is a knowable, comprehensible place. I’ve been calling it epistemological fiction, just to sound erudite. While fantasy relies often on the unknowability of at least some aspect of the universe.

    Beyond that, it seems to me largely about engineering. Take your books, for example. In a fantasy, the ruler would be some species of wizard that has magicked multiple manifestations. The power is innate. The story goes from there. In yours, somewhere along the line mechanisms were built to create a multiform being. Now I suspect that your Ancillary stories could not be written as fantasy because the wizard would have the power to control or destroy the manifestations, but in any event the very real difference you write about which has caused a civil war would be secondary and perhaps not even plausible. Because what you’ve set up is culmination of epistatic drift—which is a knowable process. Normal people can understand it.

    In the end, it may or may not be important—civil war stories can be written about trouble in a ruling family. But in this instance, grappling with a bifurcated mind is most of the fun, and a very sciency kind of fun.

    That doesn’t even begin to address the other major aspect of the work, that of a vast intelligence squeezed into a small brain.

    Point being, it’s all about understanding the universe in the way science allows for. It doesn’t even have to be “real” science as long as it taps into that aesthetic. In a lot of fantasy, especially epic fantasy, knowing is secondary to destiny, which kind of negates the whole utility of knowing.