Bewildering Stories

TCO writes...

What smells like science fiction, sells as science fiction

TCO is a regular of the Asimov’s magazine forum and is known only by his initials, if that’s what they are. Apparently, he’s a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and has a specialty in engineering.

The following message appeared initially on the Asimov’s forum and is reprinted at the author’s and our publisher’s suggestion. It fits into a larger discussion about the nature of science fiction and related genres that has appeared in our issues (links to other letters on the general topic are listed at the end).

There are two different definitions of SF. Many of you are saying SF is “anything with technical innovation as important to the story,” so you include a wide net of things. You include technothrillers like Crichton or Tom Clancy.

The Clancy thing is really a stretch. I had Clancy give me an autographed copy of Hunt for Red October before my first middie cruise and thought about it a lot as I quickly came to a deeper understanding than Clancy will ever have of that world. Clancy’s claim to fame is not in technical innovation prediction or exploration of its effect on society. Rather it’s an intuition and a feel for what it’s like (currently) to be doing secret ops... what it’s really like to be there. He’s done so well with his intuition for these things that he’s been able to predict (in a fashion) some events that happened later (Libya conflicts, 9-11, etc.).

Similarly, you include many “crossover to mainstream.” or even mainstream books like American Gods or alternate history books that feel much more like a regular “Graves-style” historical romance. What’s of interest about the latter is that they are often filed in both the mainstream section and SF.

Even more interesting is that the covers are clearly not SF covers. Booksellers (and authors... check out the Sawyer site or that site by that writer woman on how to write) know that a book’s cover does tell the reader what to expect in it. (Pedant prevention insertion: no, I’m not saying that every cover is always completely correct in terms of marketing appeal and always aligned to a niche in the reader taste; what I’m saying is that when you see a whole class of crossover books marketed the way Gaiman’s book was, then it is a very good indication that the reading public and the publishers and all can tell that these books are not solidly in the ghetto.)

I think the more important definition of SF is “what smells like SF.” Because that determines what sells as SF. The reader and the marketplace know implicitly what feels like SF. In other words, what’s in the ghetto! And it’s not just “science as vital to the story.” Much SF has the science part more as milieu. For instance Double Star could be written without the sci-fi part (Prisoner of Zenda). But anyone who reads it feels that instant feel that it is firmly in the ghetto. No one will return it saying that it belongs in the mainstream section and they feel cheated and that the spaceship on the cover is a lie! (except some pedants from here, but not the general reading population. Go ask at a store to have them move that book and watch while they look at you as if you have three heads.)

And IMHO, it’s not some strange collusion of booksellers creating this division (perhaps by meeting secretly in the gnome room after the Zurich financiers are done with it). Instead they are responding to natural tendencies of the buying public’s tastes, which represent some je ne sais quoi, that is there even though I’m not astute enough to really pin it down.

What makes the first, “lit-crit-based,” definition more important? I argue that the latter definition is more important since it is related to human behavior. Surely that holds promise of something more interesting than a trite taxonomy. The latter definition is operant.

Copyright © 2005 by TCO

Some related letters (in chronological order):
Kevin Ahearn and Don Webb, Writing Beyond the Sky
A. R. Yngve, “The Tolkien Bubble
Kevin Ahearn, “Science Fiction and Sci-Fi

I’m glad to welcome TCO as an ally in the discussion as it has unfolded in the “related letters” as well as in a few of Jerry Wright’s editorials. “Ally” may seem startling, but it’s true: TCO seems to join something of a consensus. I’ll explain...

In 3rd grade I read all my school library’s holdings in the Dr. Doolittle and Mary Poppins series. I sensed even then that the stories were vaguely similar in some ways but were not of the same kind. At age 8 I could never have told you what that difference was, but it’s been borne out in reality. Since then, sign language has been used in serious attempts to communicate with our fellow primates, while telekinesis remains at the level of bent spoons and passes for a tired joke. Dr. Doolittle was science fiction; Mary Poppins, fantasy.

So what? Did I object in later years when Astounding Science Fiction published Jack Vance’s “Telek”? Did it “smell” like science fiction? I’m not sure; it can go either way. But I’ve never cared: I loved the story and was glad to see it in Astounding. I didn’t split hairs at age 8 and I still don’t.

All taxonomies are “trite”; they’re supposed to be. At best they help us analyze things. But I share TCO’s skepticism. He rightly warns against misusing them: as prescriptions they become dogma; they warp our thinking and stifle creativity.

Here’s an example: “If a story can be told without science, then it isn’t science fiction.” TCO demonstrates forcefully that the notion is paid lip service at best. Rather, he reminds us, we ought to look at what people really do rather than what they say they do.

I would add that the “science is key” formula is a crock: any story can be told with or without science — or fantasy, for that matter. Why, then, do we have it at all? Why do we read and write space operas rather than medieval epics or Greek comedies and tragedies? Because it’s part of our culture. Every age invents or borrows its own stage settings, be they real or imaginary. “To every thing there is a season”; but “it’s still the same old story,” and a story is always about people.

Thanks, TCO...

Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb

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