Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Science Fiction

(updated 8jul20, with additional para’s at the end)

What is science fiction? Many things, and what interests me about science fiction is not reflected in all its forms, any more than any particular music fan, interesting in dance, say, or complex harmonization, embraces all styles of music. (Just as some people aren’t science fiction fans in any sense; some people aren’t interested in music in any more than an incidental sense–for example Isaac Asimov famously liked Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, but only for their librettos). And so a fan of “classical music” or “rock music” does not respond equally to the many examples even within those genres. There is insipid classical music, and elevator rock music, and there are also the highest forms and the classics in these genres, and there is always (this is perhaps the most important point) how any individual responds to varieties of music depending what they are exposed to as a child or teenager, or what they actively pursue as adults, which forms their particular tastes. I can certainly trace mine–how my tastes in various kinds of music formed mostly by chance exposures as I grew up, and only belatedly through any systematic exploration.

Similarly, I struggle to define my scope of what science fiction is all about, in this blog and in my imagined book, without seeming judgemental. Of course I am being judgmental, but only to the degree that there are forms of pop sci-fi (an abbreviation I would never use about literary SF) that simply don’t interest me, that I find… degraded? I’ll keep struggling to express this more respectfully.

In any social context, when I say that I read science fiction, or that I’m a science fiction reviewer, or that I run/contribute to a website about science fiction, there is usually¬†the presumption that… I’m a Star Wars fan, or a Star Trek fan*, or an X-Files fan. Because these are the pop culture versions of science fiction. I try to be polite and clarify, but I cringe a little. (There’s also the occasional presumption that science fiction writers and readers are susceptible to the various forms of pseudoscience, especially about “belief” that UFOs are alien spacecraft. This is not true. Science fiction writers, and readers, are more savvy about science and pseudo-science than the average person, as I written about elsewhere.)

Thus my attempt at another hierarchy.

I’ve considered definitions and descriptions of science fiction before — some gathered on this page — but more work needs to be done. In particular, I’m attracted to the hierarchies of ideas I’ve posted recently, about awareness, about understanding, about knowledge and human affairs. Each of these proceeds in phases, or perhaps dimensions, from the most simple or intuitive, to the more complex or intellectual. In this light, let me draft a hierarchy of science fiction, from its most superficial, to its most complex.

  • The most superficial science fiction is simple-minded space opera: stories about battles between good vs. evil, about heroes vs. villains, translated into interplanetary and galactic settings, with no regard to scientific plausibility. (These used to be called “space opera,” as the counterpart to “horse opera,” when Western movies and TV shows about cowboys and Indians were popular, in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s.) This includes the worst of Star Trek and perhaps all of Star Wars.
  • A step up are those stories about the consequences of fictional technology, even if not rigorously scientific (e.g. about space warps and time travel), and that avoid simplistic good-guy/bad-guy plots. I would guess the vast majority of classic science fiction novels and stories lie here. Much of science fiction, over the eight past decades, has presumed the existence of ESP and telepathy, of FTL drives, of time travel, all of which seem to have been invalidated by the best understanding of modern science.
  • And so the next step up is to be rigorous about avoiding those technologies that our best current understanding of the universe would say is impossible. Thus, stories about travel to planets around other stars without FTL, stories that take into account the relativistic effects of near-light travel. Recent examples are by Gregory Benford, Alastair Reynolds, and Kim Stanley Robinson.
  • And the highest form of science fiction, analogous to the idea that the nature of reality perhaps cannot be conceived by humans, would be how science fiction peaks around the corner of human existence to suggest the existence of a higher reality. At its rare best, Star Trek did this, in its early series; films like 2001 and Arrival did this; and offhand, writers who do this are Ted Chiang and Greg Egan.

And a key point is that, any one of these levels can be written across any range of literary techniques.

There’s another dimension to the relationship between science fiction, “realistic” mainstream fiction, and SF’s associated genres of fantasy and horror. As on the linked page above, my take, roughly, is that fantasy indulges in stories about the world that reflect human desires and emotions, in specific disregard to what logic and science indicates is actually true about the world. There are, for example, so so many fantasy novels set in worlds where magic has disappeared, and the plot is about restoring that magic to the world. (For two decades I’ve compiled short descriptions of newly-published¬† SF, fantasy, and horror books, posted every Tuesday on Locus Online, and so I have an acute sense of how many such books are published on these different themes.) Many people would prefer that magic existed in the world — just as they cling to supernatural religious beliefs about angels and saviors. This is human nature, and these presumptions about how the world works have promoted human survival over the millennia, even if they’re not actually…true.

Fantasy is easy; science fiction is hard. (Religion is easy; science is hard.)

And so there might be another dimension, or hierarchy, about the range from science fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy, in their assumptions about not only what is true, but what is important.


* Of course I am a Star Trek fan, but only in the limited sense that I grew up with Star Trek and see it in a nostalgic sense, much the way I do Lost in Space. Though I do admire Trek‘s vision of an egalitarian future that has overcome issues of politics and religion that plague our own age.

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