Fictional Space Essays On Contemporary Science Fiction
Essays on Contemporary Science Fiction
Tom Shippey (editor)Basil Blackwell 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995 http://dannyreviews.com/
- Related reviews:
- - more literary criticism
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%T Fictional Space
%S Essays on Contemporary Science Fiction
%E Shippey, Tom
%I Basil Blackwell
%G ISBN 0631177620
For other uses, see Science fiction (disambiguation).
"Sci Fi", "Scifi", and "Sci-Fi" redirect here. For other uses, see Scifi (disambiguation).
Science fiction (often shortened to SF or sci-fi) is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, spaceflight, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas". It usually avoids the supernatural, unlike the related genre of fantasy. Historically, science-fiction stories have had a grounding in actual science, but now this is only expected of hard science fiction.
Main article: Definitions of science fiction
Science fiction is difficult to define, as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes. Hugo Gernsback, who suggested the term "scientifiction" for his Amazing Stories magazine, wrote: "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision... Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. They supply knowledge... in a very palatable form... New adventures pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow... Many great science stories destined to be of historical interest are still to be written... Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well."
James Blish wrote about the English term "science fiction": "Wells used the term originally to cover what we would today call ‘hard’ science fiction, in which a conscientious attempt to be faithful to already known facts (as of the date of writing) was the substrate on which the story was to be built, and if the story was also to contain a miracle, it ought at least not to contain a whole arsenal of them."
Isaac Asimov said: "Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology." According to Robert A. Heinlein, "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method."
Lester del Rey wrote, "Even the devoted aficionado—or fan—has a hard time trying to explain what science fiction is", and that the reason for there not being a "full satisfactory definition" is that "there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction." Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty, saying "science fiction is what we point to when we say it", while author Mark C. Glassy argues that the definition of science fiction is like the definition of pornography: you do not know what it is, but you know it when you see it.
Further information: Skiffy
Forrest J Ackerman is credited with first using the term "sci-fi" (analogous to the then-trendy "hi-fi") in 1954. As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech "B-movies" and with low-quality pulp science fiction. By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Knight and Terry Carr were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction. Peter Nicholls writes that "SF" (or "sf") is "the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers."
Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possible worlds or futures. Quoting Hal Clement, Frederik Pohl said that
The author is entitled to One Big Lie. He can say, for example, that faster-than-light travel is possible; or that a time machine has been invented; or that men can read each other's minds. What comes after that may not be a lie, however; it must follow naturally and inevitably from that first premise.
Science fiction elements include:
- Temporal settings in the future, in alternative timelines, or in a historical past that contradicts known facts of history or the archaeological record.
- Spatial settings or scenes in outer space (e.g. spaceflight), on other worlds, or on subterranean earth.
- Characters that include aliens, mutants, robots, enhanced humans and other predicted or imagined beings.
- Speculative or predicted technology such as ray guns and other advanced weapons, teleportation, brain-computer interface, bioengineering, neuroprosthetics, superintelligentcomputers and others.
- Scientific principles that are new or that contradict accepted physical laws, for example time travel and faster-than-light travel or communication.
- New and different political and social systems and situations, including utopian, dystopian, post-scarcity, or post-apocalyptic.
- Future history and evolution of humans on earth or on other planets.
- Paranormal abilities such as mind control, telepathy, and telekinesis (e.g. "The Force" in Star Wars.)
- Other universes or dimensions and travel between them.
Hard and soft science fiction
Main articles: Hard science fiction and Soft science fiction
Hard science fiction is characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell's Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction, formed by analogy to hard science fiction, first appeared in the late 1970s; referring to the popular distinction between the "hard" (natural) and "soft" (social) sciences. Science fiction critic Gary Westfahl argues that neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy; instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful.
Soft science fiction includes works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. The term can describe stories focused primarily on character and emotion. The early members of the soft science fiction genre were Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury and James Blish, who were the first to make a "radical" break from the hard science fiction tradition and "take extrapolation explicitly inward", emphasising the characters and their characterisation.
Main articles: History of science fiction and Timeline of science fiction
As a means to know the world, science fiction dates back to the days when the line between myths and history became blurred. written in the 2nd century AD by the Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian, contains many themes and tropes that are characteristic of modern science fiction, including travel to other worlds, extraterrestrial lifeforms, interplanetary warfare, and artificial life. Some considered it the first science fiction novel. Some of the stories from The Arabian Nights, along with the 10th century The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and Ibn al-Nafis's 13th century Theologus Autodidactus also contain elements of science fiction.
A product of the Age of Reason and the development of modern science itself, Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1620–1630). Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627),Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657), his The States and Empires of the Sun (1662), Margaret Cavendish's "The Blazing World" (1666),Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), Ludvig Holberg's novel Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (1741) and Voltaire's Micromégas (1752) are some of the first true science fantasy works, which feature adventures in fictional and fantastical places, or the Moon. Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan considered Kepler's work the first science fiction story. It depicts a journey to the Moon and how the Earth's motion is seen from there.
Following the 18th-century development of the novel as a literary form, Mary Shelley's books Frankenstein (1818) and The Last Man (1826) helped define the form of the science fiction novel. Brian Aldiss has argued that Frankenstein was the first work of science fiction.Edgar Allan Poe wrote several stories considered science fiction, including one about a trip to the Moon.
In the late 19th century, the term "scientific romance" was used in Britain to describe much of this fiction. The term remained in use into the early 20th century for writers such as Olaf Stapledon. With the dawn of new technologies such as electricity, the telegraph, and new forms of transportation, writers including Jules Verne and H. G. Wells created a body of work that became popular across broad cross-sections of society. Verne in his novels is noted for his attention to detail and scientific accuracy, especially Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), which predicted the modern nuclear submarine. Many critics consider Wells one of science fiction's most important authors.Brian Aldiss called him "the Shakespeare of science fiction”. His most notable science fiction works include The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). His science fiction imagined time travel, alien invasion, invisibility, and biological engineering. In his non-fiction futurist works he predicted the advent of airplanes, military tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television and something resembling the world wide web.
In the early 20th century, pulp magazines helped develop a new generation of mainly American SF writers, influenced by Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories magazine. In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs published A Princess of Mars, the first of his three-decade-long series of Barsoom novels, situated on Mars and featuring John Carter as the hero. In 1928 E. E. "Doc" Smith’s first published work, The Skylark of Space written in collaboration with Lee Hawkins Garby, appeared in Amazing Stories. It is often called the first great space opera. The 1928 publication of Philip Francis Nowlan's original Buck Rogers story, Armageddon 2419, in Amazing Stories was a landmark event. This story led to comic strips featuring Buck Rogers (1929), Brick Bradford (1933), and Flash Gordon (1934). The comic strips and derivative movie serials greatly popularized science fiction.
In the late 1930s, John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and a critical mass of new writers emerged in New York City in a group called the Futurians, including Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Judith Merril, and others. Campbell's tenure at Astounding is considered the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction, characterized by hard SF stories celebrating scientific achievement and progress. Other important writers during this period include Arthur C. Clarke, A. E. van Vogt, Ray Bradbury and Stanisław Lem. In 1942, Asimov started his Foundation series, which chronicles the rise and fall of galactic empires and introduced psychohistory.
In the 1950s, the Beat generation included speculative writers such as William S. Burroughs. In 1959 Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers marked a departure from his earlier juvenile stories and novels. It is considered one of the first and most influential examples of military science fiction, and introduced the concept of powered armorexoskeletons. The German space opera series Perry Rhodan, by various authors, started in 1961 with an account of the first Moon landing and has since expanded to the entire Universe and billions of years of time; becoming the most popular science fiction book series of all time. 1965's Dune by Frank Herbert featured a much more complex and detailed imagined future society than had been common in science fiction before. 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin was set on a planet in which the inhabitants have no fixed gender. It is considered one of the most influential examples of social science fiction, feminist science fiction, and anthropological science fiction.
The New Wave movement in science fiction developed out of soft science fiction in the 1960s and 70s. New Wave authors were known for their embrace of a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, and a highbrow and self-consciously "literary" or artistic sensibility;Brian Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny are writers whose work, though not considered New Wave at the time of publication, later became to be associated with the label.
In 1984 William Gibson’s first novel Neuromancer helped popularize cyberpunk, and the word "cyberspace" -- a term he coined in his 1982 short story Burning Chrome. This dystopian vision of the near future is also described in the works of Philip K. Dick. C. J. Cherryh's detailed explorations of alien life and complex scientific challenges influenced a generation of writers. Emerging themes in the 1990s included environmental issues, the implications of the global Internet and the expanding information universe, questions about biotechnology and nanotechnology, as well as a post-Cold War interest in post-scarcity societies; Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age explores these themes. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels brought the character-driven story back into prominence. Concern about the rapid pace of technological change crystallized around the concept of the technological singularity, popularized by Vernor Vinge's novel Marooned in Realtime. Other science fiction trends and sub-genres of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first centuries include steampunk, biopunk, , and mundane science fiction. 
Main articles: Science fiction film and Lists of science fiction films
The first known science fiction film is 1902's A Trip to the Moon, directed by French filmmaker Georges Méliès. It was profoundly influential on later filmmakers, bringing creativity to the cinematic medium and offering fantasy for pure entertainment, a rare goal in film at the time. In addition, Méliès's innovative editing and special effects techniques were widely imitated and became important elements of the medium. The film also spurred on the development of cinematic science fiction and fantasy by demonstrating that scientific themes worked on the screen and that reality could be transformed by the camera.
1927's Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, is the first feature-length science fiction film. Though not well received in its time, it is now considered a great and influential film. Since that time science fiction films have become one of the most popular and enduring film genres.
In 1954 Godzilla, directed by Ishirō Honda, began the kaiju subgenre of science fiction film, which feature large creatures of any form, usually attacking a major city or engaging other monsters in battle.
1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the work of Arthur C. Clarke, rose above the mostly B-movie offerings up to that time in scope and quality and greatly influenced later science fiction films. That same year Planet of the Apes, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and based on the 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle, was also popular and critically acclaimed for its vivid depiction of a post-apocalyptic world in which intelligent apes dominate humans.
In 1977 George Lucas began the Star Warsfilm series with Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The series went on to become a worldwide popular culturephenomenon, and the third highest-grossing film series.
Science fiction films often “crossover” with other genres including animation (Wall-E), fantasy (Avatar), gangster (Sky Racket), Western (Serenity), comedy (Spaceballs), war (Enemy Mine), sports (Rollerball), mystery (Minority Report), film noir (Blade Runner), and romantic comedy (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).Science fiction action films feature science fiction elements weaved into action film premises.
Main articles: Science fiction on television and List of science fiction television programs
Science fiction and television have always had a close relationship. Television or television devices frequently appeared in science fiction in the late 1940s and early 1950s.; perhaps most famously in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first known science fiction television program was produced by the BBC's pre-war BBC Television service. On 11 February 1938 a thirty-five-minute adapted extract of the play RUR, written by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek, was broadcast live from the BBC's Alexandra Palace studios. The first popular science fiction program on American television was the children's adventure serial Captain Video and His Video Rangers, which ran from June 1949 to April 1955.
The Twilight Zone, produced and narrated by Rod Serling, who also wrote or co-wrote most of the episodes, ran from 1959 to 1964. It featured fantasy and horror as well as science fiction, with each episode being a complete story. Critics have ranked it as one of the best TV programs of any genre.The Jetsons, while intended as comedy and only running for one season (1962-1963), predicted many devices now in common use: flatscreentelevision, newspaper on a computer-like screen, computer viruses, video chat, tanning beds, home treadmills and more.
In 1963 the time travel themed Doctor Who premiered on BBC Television. The original series ran until 1989 and was revived in 2005. It has been extremely popular worldwide and has greatly influenced later TV science fiction programs, as well as popular culture.Star Trek, produced by Gene Roddenberry, premiered in 1966 on NBC Television and ran through the 1969 season. It combined elements of space opera and space Western. Although only mildly successful it gained popularity through later syndication and eventually spawned a very popular and influential franchise through films, later programs, and novels; as well as by intense fan interest. Other programs in the 1960s included The Prisoner,The Outer Limits, and Lost in Space.
In 1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation began a torrent of new shows, including three further Star Trek continuation shows (Deep Space 9, Voyager and Enterprise) and Babylon 5.Red Dwarf, a comic science fiction series aired on BBC Two between 1988 and 1999, and on Dave since 2009, gaining a cult following. To date, eleven full series of the show plus one "special" miniseries have aired. The latest series, dubbed Red Dwarf XII, started airing in October 2017.The X-Files, which featured UFOs and conspiracy theories, was created by Chris Carter and broadcast by Fox Broadcasting Company from 1993 to 2002.Stargate, a film about ancient astronauts and interstellar teleportation, was released in 1994. Stargate SG-1 premiered in 1997 and ran for 10 seasons. Spin-off series included Stargate Infinity, Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate Universe.
Science fiction’s great rise in popularity in the first half of the twentieth century was closely tied to the respect paid to science at that time, as well as the rapid pace of technological innovation and new inventions. Since that time science fiction has both contributed to the innovation of new technologies and criticized their possible harmful effects. This topic has been more often discussed in literary and sociological than in scientific forums. Cinema and media theorist Vivian Sobchack examines the dialogue between science fiction films and the technological imagination. Technology impacts artists and how they portray their fictionalized subjects, but the fictional world gives back to science by broadening imagination. How William Shatner Changed the World is a documentary that gave a number of real-world examples of actualized technological imaginations. While more prevalent in the early years of science fiction with writers like Arthur C. Clarke, new authors still find ways to make currently impossible technologies seem closer to being realized.
Science fiction has almost always predicted scientific and technological progress. Some works predict this leading to improvements in life and society, for instance the stories of Arthur C. Clarke and the Star Trek series. While others warn about possible negative consequences, for instance H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and Adlous Huxley’s Brave New World. The National Science Foundation has conducted surveys of "Public Attitudes and Public Understanding" of "Science Fiction and Pseudoscience." They write that "Interest in science fiction may affect the way people think about or relate to science....one study found a strong relationship between preference for science fiction novels and support for the space program...The same study also found that students who read science fiction are much more likely than other students to believe that contacting extraterrestrial civilizations is both possible and desirable."
As protest literature
Further information: Political ideas in science fiction and Social novel
Science fiction has sometimes been used as a means of social protest. James Cameron’s film Avatar was intended as a protest against imperialism, and specifically against the European colonization of the Americas. Its images were used by, among others, Palestinians in their protest against Israel.
Robots, artificial humans, human clones, intelligent computers, and their possible conflicts with humans has been a major theme of science fiction since the publication of Frankenstein. Some critics have seen this as reflecting authors’ concerns over the social alienation seen in modern society.
Feminist science fiction poses questions about social issues such as how society constructs gender roles, the role reproduction plays in defining gender and the unequal political and personal power of men over women. Some of the most notable feminist science fiction works have illustrated these themes using utopias to explore a society in which gender differences or gender power imbalances do not exist, or dystopias to explore worlds in which gender inequalities are intensified, thus asserting a need for feminist work to continue.
Libertarian science fiction focuses on the politics and the social order implied by right libertarian philosophies with an emphasis on individualism and private property, and in some cases anti-statism.
Climate fiction, or "cli-fi" deals with issues concerning climate change and global warming. University courses on literature and environmental issues may include climate change fiction in their syllabi, as well as it being discussed by the media, outside of SF fandom.
Comic science fiction often satirizes and criticizes present-day society, as well as sometimes making fun of the conventions and cliches of serious science fiction.
Sense of wonder
Main article: Sense of wonder
Science fiction is often said to generate a "sense of wonder." Science fiction editor and critic David Hartwell writes: "Science fiction’s appeal lies in combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous. It is an appeal to the sense of wonder."Isaac Asimov in 1967 commenting on the changes then occurring in SF wrote: "And because today’s real life so resembles day-before-yesterday’s fantasy, the old-time fans are restless. Deep within, whether they admit it or not, is a feeling of disappointment and even outrage that the outer world has invaded their private domain. They feel the loss of a 'sense of wonder' because what was once truly confined to “wonder” has now become prosaic and mundane."
See also: List of science-fiction authors
Science fiction is being written worldwide by a diverse population of authors. According to 2013 statistics by the science fiction publisher Tor Books, men outnumber women by 78% to 22% among submissions to the publisher.A controversy about voting slates in the 2015 Hugo Awards highlighted tensions in the science fiction community between a trend of increasingly diverse works and authors being honored by awards, and a backlash by groups of authors and fans who preferred what they considered more traditional science fiction.
Main article: List of science fiction awards
Among the most respected awards for science fiction are the Hugo Award, presented by the World Science Fiction Society at Worldcon; the Nebula Award, presented by SFWA and voted on by the community of authors; and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for short fiction. One notable award for science fiction films is the Saturn Award. It is presented annually by The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films.
There are national awards, like Canada's Prix Aurora Awards, regional awards, like the Endeavour Award presented at Orycon for works from the Pacific Northwest, special interest or subgenre awards like the Chesley Award for art or the World Fantasy Award for fantasy. Magazines may organize reader polls, notably the Locus Award.
Conventions, clubs, and organizations
Main article: Science fiction convention
Conventions (in fandom, shortened as "cons"), are held in cities around the world, catering to a local, regional, national, or international membership. General-interest conventions cover all aspects of science fiction, while others focus on a particular interest like media fandom, filking, etc. Most are organized by volunteers in non-profit groups, though most media-oriented events are organized by commercial promoters. The convention's activities are called the program, which may include panel discussions, readings, autograph sessions, costume masquerades, and other events. Activities occur throughout the convention that are not part of the program. These commonly include a dealer's room, art show, and hospitality lounge (or "con suites").
Conventions may host award ceremonies; Worldcons present the Hugo Awards each year. SF societies, referred to as "clubs" except in formal contexts, form a year-round base of activities for science fiction fans. They may be associated with an ongoing science fiction convention, or have regular club meetings, or both. Most groups meet in libraries, schools and universities, community centers, pubs or restaurants, or the homes of individual members. Long-established groups like the New England Science Fiction Association and the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society have clubhouses for meetings and storage of convention supplies and research materials. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) was founded by Damon Knight in 1965 as a non-profit organization to serve the community of professional science fiction authors,
Main article: Science fiction fandom
Science fiction fandom is the "community of the literature of ideas... the culture in which new ideas emerge and grow before being released into society at large." Members of this community, "fans", are in contact with each other at conventions or clubs, through print or online fanzines, or on the Internet using web sites, mailing lists, and other resources.
SF fandom emerged from the letters column in Amazing Stories magazine. Soon fans began writing letters to each other, and then grouping their comments together in informal publications that became known as fanzines. Once they were in regular contact, fans wanted to meet each other, and they organized local clubs. In the 1930s, the first science fiction conventions gathered fans from a wider area. Conventions, clubs, and fanzines were the dominant form of fan activity, or "fanac", for decades, until the Internet facilitated communication among a much larger population of interested people.
Fanzines and online fandom
Main article: Science fiction fanzine
The first science fiction fanzine, The Comet, was published in 1930. Fanzine printing methods have changed over the decades, from the hectograph, the mimeograph, and the ditto machine, to modern photocopying. Distribution volumes rarely justify the cost of commercial printing. Modern fanzines are printed on computer printers or at local copy shops, or they may only be sent as email. The best known fanzine (or "'zine") today is Ansible, edited by David Langford, winner of numerous Hugo awards. Other fanzines to win awards in recent years include File 770, Mimosa, and Plokta.