Notes for a Series of Essays About Science Fiction

The essays I plan to write will be about science fiction — the nature of science fiction with discussion of many individual science fiction works — and the things science fiction is about. Which is most things.

The introductory essay will discuss how science fiction, over the past century and especially in the past five or six decades, has become increasingly visible as a part of popular culture, in ways that parallel the changes in popular culture itself, from pulp magazines in the 1930s to radio to TV in the 1940s and 1950s to books and movies in the 1950s and 1960s to games in the 1980s and 1990s to the extended franchises in books, movies, and TV, of the 21st century.

The essays will not attempt to cover all of SF’s forms*. Rather, while focusing on literary SF – novels and short stories – they will especially trace various SFnal themes through works of short fiction, with relatively few prominent novels along the way. In this way the essays focus on the genre as it was first identified in the 1920s as “science fiction” – cheap, “pulp” magazines publishing short stories and sometimes serialized novels. To this day short stories form the intellectual core of the field of science fiction, with hundreds of them published each year in magazines and in books of original stories. And in this way these essays differ from virtually every other survey, for whatever purpose, of literary science fiction.

The essays will be united by several particular perspectives and points of view.

First, they take a 10,000 foot view of science fiction’s history and themes. Not a 30,000 foot view, and not a close-up analytical view typical of most nonfiction (including the academic ones) studies of the field (which presume you’re familiar with all the works they discuss). The audience I will have in mind are those family and friends who have at best a casual acquaintance with science fiction, almost entirely through movies and TV, or perhaps a few famous books taught in schools, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Ender’s Game — and likely little familiarity with the richness and range of short stories. I also have in mind current, young readers of science fiction, perhaps regular readers familiar with currently active writers, but unaware of the popular, influential writers who published decades ago, let alone those writers’ best works.

The point here is that science fiction has a rich history and is far more varied and complex than the movies and TV shows that form most people’s knowledge of science fiction indicate. The mission here is to explore the varieties of literary sf, in particular its themes, in much the way a Food network gourmand would survey fine dining for an audience whose typical fare comes from fast food restaurants. [This is probably unfair.]

Second, and primarily – these essays will explore the ideas that science fiction has, in the past and currently, explored, compared to the current, early 21st century, state of scientific knowledge. This isn’t about how well science fiction has “predicted” the future, but the ways in which science fiction has imagined the future, and why it has done so in certain particular ways, in light of the current scientific understanding of the time. And how many still-common assumptions of science fiction have outlived their plausibility (in particular, ESP and FTL). Thus the subtitle, “science fiction as a prism in the dawn.” New knowledge is the sunlight peaking over the horizon. The prism scatters the light. Science fiction explores the many ways that light might scatter, whether plausible or not.

Third, unlike virtually every nonfiction overview of science fiction I’ve seen, these essays focus on short fiction as much as they do novels. As already mention, science fiction began in magazines that published short stories, a quarter century before books called science fiction were regularly issued by publishers. It’s often been noted that the short form of SF is best suited for exploring new ideas, without the overhead of characters and plot needed for a full-length book. Most of the striking ideas that science fiction has “invented” have come first in short works, before they’ve appeared in novels.


Next notes for essays:  a potted history of science fiction; and a walk through the various definitions of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

*Rules #1 for discussing science fiction: its abbreviation is SF, never “sci-fi.”

[First draft. This is the draft I wrote offline in September 2021, along with others, this one already touched up in this post. As I post drafts of more essays, I will revisit, and revise, the earlier ones, as I go on.]

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