Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What is 'Science Fiction,' and who gets to decide?

Cover of Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014
ESSAY: "Was Jules Verne a Science Fiction Writer"
by Robert Silverberg
(Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014)

ESSAY: "Retro Versus Visionary"
by Norman Spinrad
(Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014)

     What is science fiction? Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell once defined it as what a science fiction editor buys. My wife likes to kid that it's about spaceships and ray guns.

     In the latest issue of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, science fiction writer Robert Silverberg is prompted to ask "Was Jules Verne a science fiction writer?" after "William Butcher, one of today’s pre-eminent Verne scholars," insisted that Verne wasn't.
     Butcher, Silverberg reports, claims that "Verne is not a science fiction writer: most of his books contain no innovative science. ... He even claimed he was ‘never specifically interested in science,’ only in using it to create dramatic stories in exotic parts; and indeed his reputation as a founding father of science fiction has led to a major obfuscation of his literary merits.” 

     That last point, the "obfuscation of his literary merits," is the key point. To certain academics (and the general public), if it's good, it's not science fiction. The real culprit for Verne's rep is the poor quality of most U.S. translations of Verne (Silverberg cites one example -- “The badlands of Nebraska” mistranslated as “the disagreeable territories of Nebraska” --  but there are worse mistakes which make it seem that Verne didn't know his science), as well as careless editing to make the books shorter.

Cover of a William Butcher translation of Jules Verne
     Silverberg makes an argument in part similar to Campbell's: If science fiction is what future science fiction writers read, if science fiction writers can identify science fiction when they read it, and if the editor of the first science fiction magazine reprinted Jules Verne novels and considered them science fiction, then Verne was a science fiction writer.  

     But Silverberg also cites many things in Verne's books that involved extrapolation from available science, some of which seems prescient:  

     Verne called what he wrote le roman scientifique, “the scientific novel”—to my mind, carrying much the same meaning as “science fiction.” His first novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1863 but rejected by his publisher and not brought to light until 1991, anticipates the fax machine, the photocopier, elevated railways, and boulevards lit by electric light. ... I’m hardly alone here. Ray Bradbury called Verne his favorite science fiction writer, saying that he “makes one proud to be a human being.” Arthur C. Clarke said of From the Earth to the Moon that “it was the first to be based on sound scientific principles.” It predicted not only that the first flight to the Moon would be an orbital one but also that when it returned the space capsule would make an ocean landing. Robert A. Heinlein praised Verne also, though he noted that “the ‘wild fantasies’ of Jules Verne turned out to be much too conservative.” And Kim Stanley Robinson, in an introduction to Voyage to the Center of the Earth, wrote, “In it, contemporary changes in science are explored in ways that enable or drive the plot, and everything is described with the help of a scientific rhetoric that makes the events feel like things that could really happen: that’s science fiction, no doubt about it.”

      So one definition of science fiction, courtesy of Silverberg, is at least some of what Jules Verne wrote.

     Coincidentally, in the same issue, in an essay titled "Retro Versus Visionary," writer/critic Norman Spinrad attempts a more limited definition of science fiction or (as he prefers to call it) speculative fiction. 

      Much of what is marketed as SF, Spinrad argues, is really fantasy, and he's not just referring to stories about quests and magic and dragons, but anything that doesn't involve "a speculative element that does not knowingly violate the current scientific concept of the laws of mass and energy ... . The speculative element doesn’t have to be scientific or technological," Spinrad argues, "but speculative fiction does have to be something set in the future, at least in the immediate future, not the past, and not in a knowingly impossible realm of fantasy." This includes a recent anthology, Old Mars, edited  by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (the latter one of his former editors at Asimov's Science Fiction and a noted anthologist) which takes place on Mars as imagined by past writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Roger Zelazny and Ray Bradbury.

Cover courtesy of Bantam
     So, in Spinrad's argument, anything that doesn't take place at least 20 minutes into the future (as Max Headroom claimed to be) cannot be science fiction, and that includes steampunk and other retro science fiction, as well as alternate history in general ("Fiction set in alternate past histories cannot be speculative fiction, and ipso facto is fantasy"). The problem is that "such burgeoning retro sub-genres ... are nevertheless coming to dominate the 'science fiction' of 'SF' at the expense of the real visionary speculative deal."

     (One note: Spinrad attempts to defang an accusation of hypocrisy by acknowledging that he has written at least one work of alternate history, The Iron Dream. What he fails to mention is that the book has only ever been marketed as "science-fiction," not "fantasy," even in its current edition.)

      The key thing here may be that Spinrad feels steampunk and such is dominating the market, and he claims he has been unable to get several of his most recent novels published in the U.S. (one, Osama the Gun, is available now, but only as an e-book). 

      I'm not sure that's accurate though. Of the novels he has managed to get published in the past decade or so, at least two of the three are not SF but historical novels (fantasy?). So Spinrad is not even arguing (as Tom Wolfe did after the success of Bonfire of the Vanities) that other people should be writing the type of books he writes but that they should be writing the type of book he doesn't write. I wonder if he considers his earlier books (Bug Jack Barron, A World Between, Songs from the Stars) to be the type of SF he feels writers should be writing.

      I also have problems with a lot of what is being marketed as science fiction, and even steampunk. I'm annoyed at the introduction of supernatural elements and some invented power source or medium called aether in so-called steampunk, which I'd prefer to follow the example of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in imagining what might have happened with technology if Babbage's difference and analytical engines had been produced and used. It avoids the fantastic leaps of most steampunk, playing fair with the available science and its possibilities, I think, but I guess Spinrad doesn't consider that to be science fiction either.

     That's a limitation that wasn't imposed on steampunk by its creators -- K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock and Tim Powers -- who included fantasy elements in their Victorian science fiction. But that's the point: just because you invented the term and/or the genre, you don't get to define it. Other people come along, writers and editors and readers. 

      Hugo Gernsback, who produced Amazing Stories, the first SF magazine, used the term scientifiction, a contraction of scientific fiction. Science fiction came later.

     Spinrad didn't invent the term science fiction, probably not the counter-term speculative fiction either, but even if he had, he doesn't get to tell us what is and isn't science fiction. His attempts at an authoritative definition are semantics that betray his prejudice but add no light, poses no special authority. Some critics have defined science fiction as a sub-genre of fantasy. It sounds like sour grapes.

     Certainly a historical novelist should appreciate that speculation isn't only about the future, and a SF writer should know that a large part of the appeal of the genre has always been "what if." Some of Spinrad's best work has functioned best as thought experiments rather than rigorous scientific extrapolation.

     I don't think retro SF or steampunk is even that large a part of the market really, certainly not as large as actual fantasy set in a never-never land or alien planet/alternate dimension with medieval trappings. I find that much more irritating than retro science fiction, and it's much more of a threat to shelf space than steampunk.


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