Monday, November 1, 2010

Henderson on Gradations of SF

Randy Henderson discusses the differences between science fiction and science fantasy over at Fantasy Magazine. Excerpt:
People love to debate what is "real" science fiction. Is hard SF the only real SF? Where is the line between soft science fiction and science fantasy, and should both simply be called fantasy?

According to the Henderson Institute of Knowing Knowledge, there are three general levels of science fiction. There used to be six, but one was erased in a time paradox, one was converted into pure energy, and one was confiscated by Area 51 and cannot be discussed. The three remaining levels are:

• Hard Science Fiction
• Soft Science Fiction
• Science Fantasy

The three levels are not to be confused with definitions like cyberpunk, steampunk, space opera, social scifi, military scifi, etcetera scifi. Those are science fiction subgenres, not levels, and all of the subgenres can potentially fall into any of the three levels. And now I feel like I'm trying to describe ninth dimensional space, so let's move on.
Read the whole thing. Henderson goes on in a very readable fashion to explore the differences between the three genres, an exercise I find enlightening. I suspect, though, that many of my friends and family would find it nitpicky. "Why bother with all this fine categorization?" I can hear them asking. "Isn't it enough to know that you like it?" Well, not exactly. Sure, much ink (or whatever passes for it on the InterWebz) has been pointlessly spilled splicing ever-finer genre hairs. But stories with different sorts of components are also different sorts of, well, stories. Content matters. There's a world of difference between the soft SF of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, the hard SF of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and the science fantasy of C.S. Lewis' Perelandra. Delineating the three (and others like them) ultimately serves readers themselves.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Horia Varlan)

14 comments:

Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chestertonian Rambler said...

"Sadly, publishers and bookstores have yet to adopt these perfect and unassailable definitions."

I'm not sure whether he's being sarcastic there, but I hope he is.

The problem is that he assumes that the degree of nuts-and-bolts realism is the prime element that readers use to decide when to read SF. In my experience, that is not often the case.

Personally, I divide my SF / Fantasy reading (roughly, assailably, and imperfectly) into "romance" and "speculative" fiction. Do I read a story primarily for adventure, strangeness, and expressions of human(ish) characters in dramatic situations? Then it's romance. Do I read the story because it investigates society through the lens of something happening that changes everything? Then it is speculative fiction. The two blend, but that's okay--so does life.

The test case, for me, is Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. It doesn't actually fit into either category--it starts out as a Romance/fantasy adventure story, and then ends up as hardish SF (which is all SF can do by those standards, if it is set centuries in the future.)

Randy would have it classed with "hard SF," I suppose, which would make all the scientists confused when they read about a boy's adventure with a (seemingly) magical sword and device that may or may not be divine in origin. Or he would classify it as Science Fantasy. Or he would shrug his sholders and throw it in the trash, since its inability to fit a "perfect" system means it is junk. (You'd be surprised, historically, how often this happens. Shakespeare violated genre categories all the time, which for a century or so let plenty of smart folks say he was crap and not worth reading.)

My system may not work, but at least it opens up discussion. You could say that it starts off as a Romance coming-of-age story and morphs into hardish-SF, and does so in a way that lets you connect the individual psychology of its (strange and untrustworthy) protagonist with his world, culture, and (possibly, probably considering Wolfe's Catholicism) deity. I wouldn't change anything, but I would warn Romance readers that it picks up the weirdness of hard SF, and hard SF readers that it cares more about character than technology.

And I'd class it under SF/Fantasy in the bookstore, because that's where weird, creative non-horror stories are expected to be found.

Anyway, the SF/Fantasy section is small enough in the bookstores, as is. If it really is so large that it confuses a reader, he can ask a friend, or a librarian, for advice.

Or he can read something different from his normal fare, and experience the vertiginous strangeness that is one of SF and Fantasy's prime achievements.


P.S. I did once have my bookshelf grouped into Adventure and Speculative Fiction, and arranged chronologically by author's birthdate. My wife made me change it; in my system she could never find the book she was looking for

Ben-M said...

The hard/soft SF delineation irks me for quite a few reasons.

Some time ago I read Ursula Le Guin's rant on the topic of Hard-SF and "Technology", in which she asks some very good questions, including How can genuine science fiction of any kind lack technological content?

I also encounter readers who take the Hard-SF love affair a bit further and seem to expect an author to supply the names and specifications of every component of the technology they're writing about. Newsflash folks: If we really knew all the components of an interstellar starship we would have built one already.

I love and try to write stories that move my readers, and whatever technology I use is there to serve the story. Often, I wonder if the issue I have with Hard SF is simply one of show vs tell: I work very hard to not tell a reader all about the technology, but rather to show them the effects of the technology in action.

And then perhaps there's the other reason I get up in arms about this - by day my mild-mannered alter-ego is that of an engineer: And by golly, if a reader just wants technical jargon, I feel like sending him a few thousand pages of maintenance manual.

Ben-M said...

(I meant to add something else but got a little carried away there: Randy's article reminds me why I'd just rather let academics, publishers and critics argue over genre definitions; if an audience likes an author's stories, who cares which box it's in...)

Scattercat said...

Arguing over genre boundaries reminds me of back in college when my friends and I would discuss the game statistics for actual people. This included a lot of discussion about how much difference there is between 10 and 11 Charisma, which in the game is treated as functionally equivalent (the average result on a 3d6 stat roll actually being 10.5).

The answer? 11 Charisma is someone who COULD get to 12 Charisma and that tasty +1 bonus after only four levels instead of eight, and ergo represents a slightly higher degree of potential.

In other words, if this is something you enjoy discussing, then have at it, but most taxonomic systems are primarily only useful insofar as they are widely adopted and make for apt comparisons. You could group fungi into whatever the hell kingdom you want and sharks can be fish if you'd like them to be (and everyone agrees to the change), is what I'm saying. It's all just definitional.

(Poor, poor Pluto.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Scattercat: I agree with you. I guess my long and (er) rambling response could be summed up like this:

You should argue about what Cha 11 means if it is fun, and/or if it helps you to think about people in a new way. I think I have a fun and interesting way; try it on if you think you'll like it.

But Henderson claims that his definition for Cha 11 is "perfect and unassailable," and that we should keep Cha 11's away from Cha 10's so that people aren't confused by their similarities. I think such talking is misguided, and hope that it doesn't become commonplace so that publishers or readers start listening to it. Because then the power of genre-fiction would be less.

Scattercat said...

I think everyone should adopt my taxonomic system. In one pile will be "Good Books" and in the other pile will be "The Other Crap."

I'll make up the piles; just send the checks to my P.O. box.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

I'm not sure whether he's being sarcastic there, but I hope he is.

He most definitely is. There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff throughout the post.

The problem is that he assumes that the degree of nuts-and-bolts realism is the prime element that readers use to decide when to read SF.

That seems an accurate assesment of his view. And of the view of the classical SF community, really. Most folks in the old school do seem to grade (for lack of a better word) such fiction on the amount of scientific content in it. Of course, subgenres breed like alley cats and have a tendency to bust out of the categories moments after the lock has clicked shut.

P.S. I did once have my bookshelf grouped into Adventure and Speculative Fiction, and arranged chronologically by author's birthdate. My wife made me change it; in my system she could never find the book she was looking for

You, sir, have an advantage: Your wife actually wants to read the fiction you enjoy.

Loren Eaton said...

Ben-M,

And by golly, if a reader just wants technical jargon, I feel like sending him a few thousand pages of maintenance manual.

This is why I rarely read classic hard SF. That's what it feels like to me.

But labels do have their uses. Flawed as they may be, they give us a hint to a tome's content and whether or not we might enjoy it.

P.S. An example: Charles Stross' "Overtime" is hard SF of the statistical sort blended with Lovecraftian horror and told with a Monty Python-esque wit. Which is all to say that it's good and you should read it.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

... most taxonomic systems are primarily only useful insofar as they are widely adopted and make for apt comparisons.

Precisely. That's the entire reason to have this conversation. Genre classifications aren't perfect, but they're helpful to readers.

Poor Pluto? What about the Triceratops? There goes my childhood.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As someone who can differentiate between horror, fantasy and science fiction, I defer to better minds.

Scattercat said...

My point is that we have widely-accepted tropes of what constitutes fantasy, scifi, and horror, and there's very little reason to wrangle about the smaller subgenres (which breed and die like rats anyway) nor to grumpily argue where "Thus far and no more" falls for each particular border. Once we've got a common lexicon that most people can use to describe the same broad groupings, we're basically done. And we have those things, so everything beyond that should be strictly done on the basis of how much you enjoy the act of arguing itself. Establishing the nuances of how much science makes a story 'hard' or what kind of science qualifies as 'hard' is a game for mugs or wonks, but I don't see it adding much of anything of value to the genres in question.

This ain't biology or astronomy we're talkin' about. It's all subjective here anyway.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

I've seen you write in two of those genres excellently.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

Actually, I'd argue that delineating the niceties of the (soon to be extinct) subgenres provides the most service to readers. If you say "horror" or even "vampire romance," there's still quite a differene between Twilight and Sunshine. Getting nitty gritty can help there.