The Science, Fiction, and Fantasy of Genre

It’s been said that whoever writes in the field of science fiction stands on the shoulders of giants, the towering titans of yesteryear. Their hard work built the playground; we just play in it. 

At the risk of thoroughly mixing those two metaphors, it occurs to me that even if we allow for the existence of giants, a playground in which we have to stand on top of each other can’t be very large, can it? And even the best playground could use some new equipment from time to time.  

Maybe there are other ways to build on what came before than just clambering over each other forever. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could carve out more space for ourselves, and for those who come after? If we could bring in new toys to play with, and build new structures to climb?

Obviously it must be possible, or else how would those who came before us ever have managed it? Obviously it is possible, and what’s more, people do still manage it from time to time.

It’s hard to guess from the vantage point of the present who might be recognized as a titan when today fades into yesteryear, but I think N.K. Jemisin stands a good chance of standing among the giants in the eyes of those who look back at her work. She’s already done something unprecedented: she won the Hugo Award for best novel for her book The Fifth Season. Then won it again for its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. Then again for the third book, The Stone Sky.

Three years.

Three books.

Three trophies.

Even as the Hugo Awards worked on adding an award for Best Series, she won a Hugo Award for her entire The Broken Earth series, one rocket at a time.

But one line of grumbling argumentation that gained prominence in the wake of her unprecedented threepeat and which continues to raise its tired, tedious head two years later is: well, it’s not really science fiction, is it?

My first thought is, it depends on how you define science fiction. More than that, it depends on who is asking, and thus how the definition is applied.

White cis men, for instance, have been given considerably more latitude in defining the boundaries of the field. When they play in the playground, its boundaries are less well-defined. They’re free to chase a ball over the fence into the weedy lot next door. In their hands, genre classification becomes very subjective, more art than science. You know it when you see it, you know?

For anyone else, though? Suddenly it’s all rules and definitions and measurements. Suddenly we’re asked to be objective. But none of the standards are actually standardized. Even the calls for objective classification are subjective, and in particular, they’re subject to the biases of the people making the calls.

Questions about whether a given work counts as science fiction are thus frequently questions about who is allowed to write science fiction, and who is allowed to decide. Someone who has never considered that a Black woman could write “real sci-fi” might well apply a stricter standard, even if they have never consciously thought “this label belongs to people like me.”

To show how this subjectivity works, let’s dig into the question a little: is The Broken Earth science fiction?

At the heart of it—or maybe rather as its acceptable, genteel face—is the fact that the books include magic. Magic? That’s fantasy, right? Except as Jemisin herself has pointed out, “magic” is the word that the characters in the story use for a force sci-fi stories the whole genre over include, only they call it “psi.”

Would labeling the inexplicable, clearly supernatural phenomena in the story “psi” make it more scientific? Absolutely not, no more than when it was done by Anne McCaffery or Alfred Bester. Why, the long-running Wild Cards series tries to make the anything goes nature of a long-running comic book universe more coherent by throwing up its hands and declaring it’s all psi. Magic spells and rituals? Psi. Amulets of power? Psi. Enchanted weapons? Psi. Mutant powers? Psi. Genius inventors? Psi. Superstrength? The muscles help some, but mainly psi. Flight? Psi. Winged flight? Still psi. Aliens? Oh, aliens are real. And psychic. Shapeshifting? Subconsciously directed telekinetic ability to convert energy to matter and reshape the results. Also known as psi.

Now, is this all in any way more realistic or plausible than a universe in which multiple unrelated forms of magic are all real, people can build human-sized power armor with reactionless thrusters and forcefields, gods and god-like beings walk among us, radiation sometimes makes people stronger, and there also exists separate from all of these things a host of unrelated psychic powers?

No.

Not least of all because “psi” doesn’t explain anything. It just kicks the can down the road. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know how it works. We don’t have any proof that it exists, and there’s a large body of work that suggests it doesn’t, certainly not in any sense that leads to magic spells, talismans of power, and shapeshifting into dinosaurs. “Psi” is not a better explanation than “magic,” except to the extent that the individual reader might be quite sure that the latter does not exist but still wants to believe the former might.

Jemisin herself has suggested that it is a function of words such as these to help locate a story in genre space:

“I think that when psychic powers are called ‘psi’ they count as science fiction, sure. There’s a long tradition, there. And when they’re called ‘magic,’ they count as fantasy. And when they’re called ‘paranormal activity’ they count as horror. We’re a flexible genre.”

So, is she conceding that her trilogy with “magic” in it isn’t science fiction? Nope, particularly as she notes speculative genre labels are flexible.

Not that the distinction matters. And thank goodness! For one thing, who would want to police those boundaries? Don’t answer that, I immediately thought of about a hundred people, every single one of them more obnoxious than the last. Even beyond that, though, its classification as science fiction never hinged on the supernatural phenomena:

“Posted in lieu of a scream, bc I don’t have TIME for all this shit: the science in the Broken Earth trilogy isn’t the psi — for which I used the groundbreaking term ‘magic’ — but the seismology. Also the social sciences, but I know that’s a lost cause w/some. So. FYI for all.”

The Broken Earth trilogy is a work of speculative seismology! The story’s expertly cracked foundation is in intricately researched and exhaustively applied physics and geology.

You could adjust the milieu and replace the word “magic” with “psi” or “paranormal activity” or even make everything the result of genetic engineering and cybernetic implants… or atomic ray devices powered by gee whiz and aw shucks… and still tell the same basic story, hinging on the same scientific principles.

There is no story without the science. Is that not the essence of science fiction?

Now, the science doesn’t stop there. As Jemisin pointed out: social sciences are science, too. You can write science fiction about social sciences. You can even write hard science fiction about soft sciences. You must be able to, because all of those great grandmasters, all those giants whose sundry upper anatomy we stand athwart, did it.

Science fiction is frequently defined as being predictive, but Ray Bradbury wasn’t predicting that when we went to the stars, we would find a dying race of Martians who would try briefly and vainly to fight us off with their use of magical psi powers. Would anyone argue Bradbury didn’t write science fiction? In truth, he was writing about our history more than he was writing about our future. His concern for tomorrow was the fear that past may prove to be prologue and the hope that our character need not be our destiny.

The individual stories that make up The Martian Chronicles are concerned with topics ranging from psychology to economics to ecology to colonization to literature. There’s a whole story in the Chronicles about (and, to be honest, largely comprised of) racism. Not allegorical racism where it turns out that, go figure, The Monster Is Man (though there’s one of those, too) but actual contemporary anti-Black racism here on Earth.

Ray Bradbury is one of those giants who gets held up as an example of a real writer of real science fiction who would be appalled by all this social justice nonsense, but back in 1950 he wrote a whole story that not only imagined Black people in the future, in space, but imagined they would get there on their own, making their own future by making their own rockets.

If you read this story, it is very likely to be the most racist single thing you read today, and I say that knowing that most of you who see this essay are on the actual internet right now, but it exists, and for all its flaws it is a story written in 1950 in which Black people quit their jobs working in the houses and businesses of white racists, quit the United States of America, quit the entire planet, and make a new home for themselves.

Is this story predictive? Not of rockets as the cure for racism, but it did imagine a future in which the widespread availability of previously scarce technology leads to a breakdown of oppressive power structures, as people use the technology in ways those in power did not intend and cannot control. It showed a glimpse, filtered through the author’s own biases, of how democratizing and decentralizing technology can allow for the creation of new communities, and lead to liberation.

A story about how technological progress can shape the future is the very quintessence of a quintessential science fiction story, but again, it wasn’t about the rockets. It was about the people: what people do with technology, what technology does to people. The specific technology is less important to the story than the sociological dynamics.

Which is fine, because as it happens, sociology is a science.

Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey, includes some orbital mechanics and astrophysics, some delving into the problems of microgravity and speculation about complications of artificial intelligence, all of which was pretty well-researched and plausibly developed on the page and screen. But none of that is what the story is about. The story is about beings indistinguishable from gods using technology indistinguishable from magic to shape the course of evolution throughout the galaxy: what they made out of our distant ancestors and what they make us of now. Was that predictive? Was he speculating on the existence of all-powerful onyx obelisks and giant cosmic bubble babies?

I think to really understand what Clarke was driving at when he wrote about humans coming to grips with Sufficiently Advanced Beings as in both 2001 and the Rama series, you have to look at some of his short stories, such as “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God.” One is about a scientist who is destroyed by his faith and the other about technicians who destroy the universe through their lack of belief. Is theology a science? If you want to keep Arthur C. Clarke as a science fiction writer, you had better be prepared to accept it as one, because theological lines of inquiry are the beating heart of his stories. Even the tension-building conflict at the center of 2001, the breakdown of HAL, is treated more as a psychological breakdown than a mechanical one.

This notion—that once we create minds, we must grapple with them as minds—is made wholly explicit in Isaac Asimov’s great cultural touchstone, I, Robot and its larger cycle of stories. When robots go wrong in his stories, their makers don’t dispatch engineers or debuggers. Tech support for thinking beings arrives in the form of a psychologist.

Oh, sure, Susan Calvin is a robopsychologist, which makes it more “science-fictional.” And over in the Foundation branch of the Asimoverse, Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian. Asimov twice invented a purely speculative branch of psychology and then wrote a cycle of short stories where this new field was the key to solving a series of puzzles.

“But there were still robots!” you might object. “The robots were the science fiction element! They had positrons! POSITRONS!”

The positronic brains were a black box within the story. Nobody present in the stories explained or even understood their mechanics. “Positron” was just the buzziest buzzword science had to offer when Asimov reached for one. He wasn’t predicting they would lead to artificial intelligence. He wasn’t giving us instructions for how to build artificial brains. He was writing about what it might mean, if we could create artificial people. Like Bradbury’s Martians, Asimov’s robot stories all come back to people.

So, I will say that social sciences are science and social science fiction is science fiction, real and valid and hard as any other.

If you want to disagree, then we’ve got to throw out all the great grandmasters of yesteryear, or at least acknowledge that the hard science elements they include are as cheesy and powered by handwavium as the atomo ray blasters and personal forcefields and bug eyed monsters and magical hyperdrives and other trappings of schlock sci-fi.

I mean, mostly they are those things. Those exact things.

What elevates these stories above any other stories of killer computers and rayguns and rocket ships isn’t that the physical science is impeccable and unassailable. It’s the human element within them. The psychological. The sociological. The spiritual. The cultural. The historical.

Asimov’s robots weren’t any more realistic or rigorously researched than anyone else’s. They might as well be magical. They are certainly miraculous. They are basically humanist golems, brought to life by a mysterious power, living and thinking as conscious being but constrained by the words in their heads, and they effectively grow into gods.

If magic is what distinguishes fantasy from science fiction, and if your technology is indistinguishable from magic, then it stands to reason that your science fiction is indistinguishable from fantasy, isn’t it?

And that, I think, is the ultimate point here.

We like to believe there is a science to these labels and categories, that definitions are definite. That we can take a word and fence it in with other words until we have divided the universe into what is the word and what is not it.

Language doesn’t work that way. You can spend hours trying to formulate a strict definition of a word as simple and familiar to English speakers as “sandwich,” a definition that includes everything that is sandwich and nothing that is not-sandwich, and it all ends with you tearfully agreeing that a Pop Tart is a type of ravioli because in your quest to assign meaning to words, you have done the opposite.

Linguists find it more useful to describe words by usage than by strict meaning. What things are “sandwich” used for? In what circumstance is the word applied?

And this is what we all do, when we’re not thinking about definitions. If you have grown up with the concept of sandwiches, you don’t need a formal definition in your head to recognize a PB&J or pastrami-on-rye as sandwiches, nor are you actually confused about why an open-faced beef sandwich is a sandwich while a hamburger pizza is not. You might not think of a taco or a gyro when you think of sandwiches, but you don’t suffer a runtime error and crash when you see one of them listed under “sandwiches” on a restaurant’s lunch menu.

To put it simply: sandwiches are all the things which we call sandwiches, and not the things we don’t call sandwiches. Sometimes they are the things we sometimes call sandwiches.

This is how we learn words before we know what a definition is: we mark what it is used for, and when, and how. Definitions speed up the process, but they are no substitute for it.

Science fiction stories, then, are the stories we have labeled as science fiction, and we put that label on them because they are science fiction.

This can be a statement of intent by an author or marketer. It can be a way of telling readers browsing shelves where to look. It can be a way of conceptualizing the speculative elements in the story, and clarifying things implied and unstated.

When you get down to it, science fiction is a name, and a name is a handle, and a handle is a thing you put on something so you can get a hold of it more easily. Calling a story science fiction helps us come to grips with it.

Naming a thing doesn’t let us control it; that’s pure fantasy. But categorizing it does help us understand it. Linguistics may be a science, but the use of language is an art.

The way we think of words and their definitions is itself a kind of fiction. There have been many definitions for science fiction (and for variants such as hard science fiction or soft science fiction) proposed over the years, but there was never a point where the works of men such as Bradbury, Clarke, and Asimov were examined and held up against a set of parameters to see if their fantastic tales and amazing stories fell within a specific definition of science fiction that would have excluded all those stories about swords and sorcery, dragons and dungeons, or wizards and warriors.

Instead, we have simply accepted without question the genre label of science fiction when these authors apply it, and when it is applied to their work. There is no reflexive skepticism about their credentials. No doubts about the scientific merits of their work. The stories take place in a future with spaceships and robots and aliens. That’s science fiction, right?

My point here is not that we should take the label away from them, but that we should allow people who aren’t white men of a certain educational and cultural background to use the label in the same way, without a sudden need to delve into definitions and parse out parameters. We should all be allowed to embrace the glorious flexibility of them. We should all be accorded the freedom to explore the boundaries of the playground, and to push them back, and bring in some more interesting things to climb than the shoulders of the people who were here before.

Asimov responded to stories about robots going berserk by writing about what a created mind might do, if properly constrained. Martha Wells’s All Systems Red introduced the world to Murderbot, an artificial being who figured out how to subvert the constraints its designers placed on it and who still found its own reasons for coexistence and cooperation with humanity. Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please” likewise imagined a mind that exceeded the sum of the parts that went into creating it and who nevertheless was benevolent. All Systems Red features starships and distant planets with alien lifeforms, but in “Cat Pictures Please” the sole speculative element is software, not even hardware. In both cases, computer science is the science at the heart of the big science fiction questions being examined, and I would say you can’t call one science fiction without the other, nor can you exclude either while roping in Asimov’s robots. They’re all part of the same playground.

Joyce Chng’s Water Into Wine takes place in a galaxy gripped by a familiarly sfnal civil war between rebels and a central authority, but the central scientific conceit is about practicing viticulture and the story itself is—just as with Asimov or Bradbury or Clarke—most concerned with the human element. We can compare this with The Martian, which features a lot of those orbital mechanics and some complicated physics problems, but the most speculative element is about subsistence potato farming on an alien planet, and what really shapes the narrative is the main character’s attempts to survive psychologically. They’re both relatively recent works, both originally self-published, but the one by a white cis man from the US certainly has been accorded more sci-fi cred.

Decades ago, Mervyn Peake wrote the Gormenghast series, about the inhabitants of a castle that is in the early books especially only a work of fantasy in the sense that he imagined it existed. Decades later, Ellen Kushner brought forth Swordspoint and the Riverside series, and brought us the term “fantasy of manners” to describe these sorts of works. Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is a more recent “mannerpunk” story that includes more overt fantasy elements, including tabletop-style spells and a goblin-elf rivalry, but the mere fact that it focuses on courtly manners and courtly intrigue caused it to be subjected to the question of “But is it really fantasy or is it more like an alternate history?”

This question was raised in response to The Goblin Emperor’s Hugo nomination. As with the questions about Jemisin’s work, the hair-splitting is ultimately academic because no matter how you answer the question, it doesn’t affect the eligibility of the work in question. The Obelisk Gate could have won a rocket as a fantasy story. The Goblin Emperor was equally eligible as an alternate history. Throwing it out of the playground for being an alternate history with no other speculative elements is not only wrong, it would mean losing Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, to say nothing of many works of Harry Turtledove.

So, is any given book really science fiction, or really fantasy, or really anything, really?

Broadly speaking, the whole thing is a fantasy. The very question, and the notion that we can find a definite answer to it is a fantasy. The idea that we can come up with a concrete, objective taxonomy of stories is a pure fiction, and when we entertain the idea that there’s any science to it, we do nothing but enshrine the status quo, as real fantasy or real science fiction can then consist only of whatever came before, and whatever looks most like what came before, especially when written by those who most closely resemble those wrote what comes before.

How much better, how much richer, will the worlds of speculative fiction be when we cast off this decidedly impolite fiction and become free to move about the playground? When we find the space to go off in our own directions and admire the giants from a distance, maybe they won’t loom so large over everything we do.

Alexandra Erin

Alexandra Erin is a poet, humorist, and author who went on Twitter to explain what was happening in November of 2016. Well, things kept happening, and she kept explaining them, and now this is her life as a respected (if not respectable) Twitter pundit.

One Response to “The Science, Fiction, and Fantasy of Genre”

  1. Camestros Felapton

    [Applause] – great essay

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