Recently I put out a call on social media for people’s questions about science fiction. No rules, no limitations, just questions. I got a lot of responses to this, and a wide variety of questions. In the interest of openness, I have edited some of these questions for clarity (and because some were framed as comments and not questions), but they are all from you, the science fiction reading public.
Where my opinion has been asked for, or where I have made a judgement call, I encourage you to seek out other answers for comparison. But more than anything, I hope these answers will be informative. After all, what is Sci-Fi if not the genre of enlightenment?
Q: What would you consider to be one of the most definitive works in the genre? What changed the formula?
For me, the definitive works are the ones that rose out of the pulp magazines. Things like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Science Fiction is too broad a genre to simply point at one book and say ‘this represents science fiction,’ but it’s the stories from this era that give us so many of the tropes modern science fiction still relies on, for better and for worse.
As for one that changed the formula, it’s one that I haven’t actually read yet, but E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Skylark to Space. Why? Because it was one of the very first stories to feature the exploration not only of our solar system, but of the Galaxy beyond. It opened up – literally – countless new worlds for the genre to explore.
Q: What differentiates Sci-Fi from Fantasy?
Depending on the book in question, not a whole lot. Both genres spawned from the same pulp sources, tracing their roots back to Weird Fiction among other regions. For me, science fiction is the genre in which the author takes our current understanding of the world and extrapolates potential evolutions of that. Even when it goes to fantastical places, it is still rooted in current understandings of science. Fantasy looks backwards, often to mythology, and seeks to reconcile that with modern social trends. I also think that the best science fiction does its best to remain plausible, while fantasy should take the impossible and make it feel real.
Honestly, this is a great question, and I might give it the full article treatment in the future.
Q: Is Star Wars science fiction?
Oh, you want more. Right then. George Lucas can call it a fantasy all he wants, but I disagree. Leaving aside the trappings of Sci-Fi (spaceships, aliens, robots, etc.) I reach my decision due to the prequels. In the original trilogy, the Force is essentially magic. In the prequels, we learn of midichlorians, which are essentially a genetic marker for these abilities. The Mandalorian make sit clear that these are a being studied in a scientific manner. Within a work of fiction. Thus, science fiction.
Q: What do you think about the space opera genre, and if it’s probably the fantasy into science fiction subgenre?
I love space opera. If I know a fantasy reader who wants to get into Sci-Fi, I tend to recommend a space opera to them. Aside from the fact that space opera tends to come in chunky books and lengthy series, the overall scale and sense of adventure is very much in keeping with the style of modern fantasy.
Space opera is also where the actual science of science fiction is played with far more loosely than a lot of other subgenres. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and I think it helps ease fantasy readers in. There are a lot of space operas (see Star Wars) that thematically and textually have more in common with epic fantasies than other science fictions.
Q: Could you speak on the connection between Sci-Fi and philosophy?
Not to any great length, because I know some philosophy enthusiasts and the are almost uniformly, tediously self-centred. However, because a lot of science fiction examines the effects of technology and events on the development of society, I think there is a lot of Sci-Fi that could be mined for its philosophical content.
In other words, I can’t tell Descartes from Barthes, but the best science fiction has a lot of thought put into it, and you’re bound to find some underlying philosophy if you study it close enough.
Q: What is accepted to be the first Sci-Fi novel? What was the first popular Sci-Fi novel?
There is no single accepted science fiction novel. A lot of people will will point to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but these people are at best ill-informed, and at worst wilfully ignorant morons. Hugo Gernsback invented the term ‘scientifiction’ (which later became science fiction) in 1926, quite some time after Shelley’s death. Therefore Shelly could not have written it, because it did not exist. The first book advertised as science fiction would not have been released until 1926 at the earliest.
However, Gernsback applied the label retroactively to the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. If we take that same approach, not only did Mary Shelly write Sci-Fi, so did many who came before her. Thomas Moore’s Utopia is a classic example of social science fiction using this method, but there are older. If we take science to mean something along the lines of ‘the study of how the world works,’ then there is an argument that Gilgamesh, the oldest known story, is also science fiction. It’s not an argument I support, but it could be made.
Q: Could you talk about any things in older Sci-Fi have turned out to be on target predictions, technology, gadgets, science, etc?
The common example given here is the communicators from Star Trek, which we now essentially have in the form of mobile phones. The PADDs of The Next Generation Era also closely resemble tablet computers. Though thankfully we don’t have to carry ten around when we have a lot of work to do.
One prediction I came across fairly recently is the prevalence of advertising. There are several older works that feature personalised advertising, or the constant stream of marketing we are subjected to on a daily basis. The best predictor is probably Edmund Cooper’s short story ‘The Life and Death of Plunk Goo,’ which is a darkly prescient take on how adverts will be targeted at children through the use of fictional characters.
Q: Has Sci-Fi changed over the last 100 years?
Yes, and much more than I could cover in a single Q&A session. I think there are two major structural changes, the first of which is the demise of the short story and the rise of massive epics. rather than a short piece examining an idea, we now have multi-volume epics telling stories on a much larger scale.
The other change is one that’s affected a lot of literature, which is the obsession with character. These days it’s very rare to find a book that isn’t character-driven. Personally I think the genre, and literature as a whole, is worse of for this shift, but it speaks to a change in public tastes since the formation of he genre.
Q: How the personification of AI has evolved, from Olivaw (or insert time period here) to AIDAN?
I admit, I had to do a quick search of what AIDAN is, but I see the point. I think that as our understanding of computing has changed, science fiction has been able to take on more varied forms of Artificial Intelligence. If you look at the early robots of Karel Capek and Isaac Asimov, there are either barely intelligent, or a human in all but name. Olivaw in particular is essentially an improved version of a regular man. Smarter, faster, stronger, and so on. The human advantage is adaptability.
These days, writers are seemingly more open to the idea that an AI might not think anything like a human. The Machine and Samaritan from Person of Interest are great examples of this. They have goals that are beyond human comprehension, and their abilities are limited only by the reach of technology. That being said, an awful lot of AI are shown as wanting to be more human. Star Trek‘s Data or Dark Matter‘s Android, for example, are always experimenting with their sense of identity. I think these two extremes show just how varied modern interpretations of AI have become. Rather than being servile tools or mindless killing machines, they now have complex goals of their own, and can be either completely incomprehensible, or closer to us than we’d like to admit.
Q: What’s one aspect of Sci-Fi that’s the closest to becoming reality?
Though it’s largely reserved for billionaires at present, I think commercial spaceflight is closer than a lot of people think. We can already see private companies going to space, and picking up contracts that governments alone are unwilling to foot the bill for. Now, people can criticise the individuals and companies all they want, but the fact that you no longer need to be a national agency to get into space is a good thing.
Building on that, I feel like (barring calamity) there will be a permanent lunar base in my lifetime. NASA is already planning to return to the Moon, and you have to imagine there’ll be some stiff competition to get there. It probably won’t be much on its own, but it’s an important next step towards space. We’ve already had a permanent orbital presence for to decades, so it’s one of the few things I’m genuinely optimistic about.
Q: Why and how does Canada produce (or house the sets & locations of) all the good Sci-Fi TV shows?
This one is actually a fairly simple one. It all comes down to money. The Canadian government, in particular around Vancouver, offers large tax breaks and other financial incentives to production companies. Basically, the studios end up being a lot more affordable than their US counterparts, and so many companies take their work north of the border. One of the side effects of this, both contractually and for practicality’s sake, is that Canadian actors are hired a lot. That’s why you’ve seen Roger Cross in so many great science fiction shows.
Canada isn’t alone in this. The UK government gave large incentives to Disney in order to have Star Wars produced in the UK. In Pinewood studios specifically. While not everything in the creative industry is about hard cash, when it comes to location, it’s a major factor.
That’s your lot for now. If you have any other questions about science fiction, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them next time around.