Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Introduction: About Me, About Science Fiction

Hello! This blog is an assignment for a writing course on science fiction, so each post will likely explore the topics I learn in class and what I glean from the materials we read. I am a freshman at Wellesley College, where I study biology. I am also interested in anthropology, visual art, psychology, and science in general. My favorite type of science fiction combines speculation on themes in biology, such as evolution, genetics, or ecology, and fictional cultures. I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an alternative system of gender.
            I’m taking this course in the hope that I’ll learn how real scientific development and social thought may be guided by science fiction. Science fiction may one day influence my research, if I become a scientist. Perhaps I will write my own science fiction and influence the research of the next generation in turn.
            Writing is a visual record of thought, but what thoughts are considered science fiction? I’m somewhat familiar with the history of the genre, so I know that science fiction has many historical permutations and many functions, making it difficult to define. Too specific a definition can exclude unique, but relevant, work. Too broad a definition can mistakenly include works of fantasy. After all, according to Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many scholars to be the first science fiction novel, the genre remained nameless until Hugo Gernsback created Amazing Stories, the first science fiction magazine, in 1926. By combining the words “scientific” and “fiction,” Gernsback dubbed his stories “scientifiction.” In the introduction of the first issue of Amazing Stories, he says:

“By ‘scienficition’ I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.”

He goes on to say that “scientifiction” is always instructive and supplies information in a form palatable to the public.
While such a technical manual-style definition of science fiction is not surprising from a former electronics businessman (Gernsback also created the first electronics magazine, Modern Electrics), it is limiting. Many of Gernsback’s stories read like a tour of the future and have little plot or social commentary. Their focus is the machinery of the future and how it works. Not all science fiction is instructive in this way, and not all science fiction strives to prophesize the future. If all science fiction novels followed this definition, the genre would be a husk of its present glory.
            Calling the work of H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe “charming” is also questionable. Wells wrote some of the most apocalyptic novels of the 19th Century (most notably The War of the Worlds). He was famous for exploring the darkness of human nature, especially in cases where man is given power as in The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Not all science fiction is a charming romp in the future.
            Philip K. Dick, a modern giant of science fiction, was more generous with his definition of the genre.

“SF presents in fictional form an eccentric view of the normal or a normal view of the world that is not our world….Central to SF is the idea of dynamism. Events evolve out of an idea impacting on living creatures and their society. The idea must always be a novelty. This is the core issue of SF, even bad SF. That events accord with known scientific truths distinguishes SF from fantasy.” (The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, 1995)

This seems like a more accurate definition, but it excludes science fiction that does not always accord with known scientific truths. For example, some of the powers given to the main character in Stranger in a Strange Land are considered physically impossible today. Scientific evidence does not support the existence of psychic abilities. Science fiction often asks what would happen if certain impossibilities were possible. Older works of science fiction, written before scientific discoveries disproved their eccentric views, also don’t “accord with known scientific truths,” yet they are still considered science fiction. Many scientific truths of today may become the scientific falsehoods of tomorrow. We must look for a broader definition.
            David Pringle provides such a definition in his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels of 1985.

Science fiction is a form of fantastic fiction which exploits the imaginative perspectives of modern science.”

Although this definition places science fiction under the umbrella of fantasy, it also allows for elements that are not based entirely on scientific fact. It appreciates the wide variety of purposes science fiction serves. It emphasizes the role of imagination in its creation and places it in the context of its time. I can get behind Pringle's definition, though I still enjoy Norman's Spinrad's idea:
"Science fiction is anything published as science fiction."

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