|This is still some people's idea of SF.|
Science fiction as a recognizable literary genre has been in existence for almost two hundred years (if we start the count with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is as good a place as any). Yet when I tell people I write science fiction romance, the responses I sometimes get tell me people have the most amazing misconceptions about the genre. (Never mind adding “romance” into the mix; we won’t even go there.) When I heard some of those myths repeated on the first of BBC America’s four-part series THE REAL HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION last week, I figured I had to say something.
(By the way, the series is worth watching, even if that “real history” pertains mostly to film and starts with the movies of the 1970’s and reaches back (sometimes) for literary or film antecedents.)
Accordingly, here are Five Myths of Science Fiction that should be shot out of space with a laser cannon:
NUMBER FIVE: Science Fiction Is All About Space and/or Aliens.
Long before William Gibson kickstarted the cyberpunk craze in the ‘90’s with Neuromancer, hundreds of writers and stories were exploring interior space as the setting for SF. Indeed, if one of the definitions of SF is art that explores the impact of science and technology on human beings, then the very first SF novel, the above-mentioned Frankenstein, created a huge sub-section of the genre that has NOTHING to do with either space or aliens. These are the “science goes wrong” stories, or “mad scientist” fiction, much of which is set right here on Earth. And don’t forget what Rod Serliing could do with just a man, a room and some crazy lighting, no spaceships in sight.
NUMBER FOUR: Science Fiction Is All About a Hopeful Future.
And speaking of Rod Serling, one of my favorite episodes is “Time Enough to Read”, in which Burgess Meredith plays an introverted librarian who somehow survives a nuclear holocaust. He’s at first appalled and horrified to find himself the last man on Earth, but then he realizes he has plenty of food and water. And books—millions of books to read! Until he falls and breaks his glasses. Oh, yeah, there’s a hopeful future for ya!
The list of dystopic SF is long and distinguished—1984, Fahrenheit 451, On the Beach, BLADE RUNNER, THE MATRIX, THE HUNGER GAMES, BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA. It’s a list that pretty much eclipses more optimistic SF—STAR TREK, for example. Still, a friend who calls himself a science fiction fan insists on this myth of hope in SF, and I heard it repeated on BBCA. Me, I love STAR TREK, but I’m still waiting for my flying car.
NUMBER THREE: Science Fiction Is All About the Science.
This is a relatively recent notion in the history of science fiction. For most of its two hundred years, the science in SF has been completely speculative. H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, E.E. “Doc” Smith, John Campbell, most of the writers of SF’s Golden Age and New Age weren’t stressed about conforming to the laws of physics or biology.
Only after the Great Split of fantasy and SF in the 1970’s did literary SF begin to worry (to the point of obsession) whether the science was correct. Science fiction in film and television went blithely on about its business, to great commercial success. TREK had its communicators, warp drive and teleporters; the MILLION DOLLAR MAN had his bionic parts; BATTLESTAR GALLATICA had its Cylons; ALMOST HUMAN has its more-human-than-human android cop partner just a few years into the future. Who cares? Science fiction is about building a believable world, one that works within the context of the story the author or screenwriter has created, not one based on the mundane rules of this world, necessarily. After all, what can be imagined, can be made to be part of a new reality, something the most visionary scientists understand.
NUMBER TWO: Science Fiction Is All About THE IDEA.
This old chestnut has been around for a while (and was repeated again on BBCA). It is difficult indeed to argue against it, because when we think of the classics of SF, we seldom think of the heroes or heroines; we almost always think of the central theme and the answer to the question “what if?”. What if our images of the Devil were based on the appearance of aliens who had left us on Earth and warned us they were coming back to take our children? (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End) What if an alien culture existed with a mutable gender—they were male sometimes and female sometimes? (Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness)
But not all science fiction was written this way. In the beginning and all through the Golden Age, SF had its share of heroes—H.G.Wells’ time traveler, Burroughs’ John Carter, Buck Rogers, all the classic superheroes. Even during the New Age, the humans forced to respond in some way to the changes created by technology were more often the focus of the story than the tagline in books by Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land comes to mind) or Zenna Henderson (The People).
Nowadays the focus is on character-driven fiction in much of science fiction (and certainly in SFR), just as it is in other genres. Even when the Big Idea is a great one, without relatable characters to carry the story, readers lose interest.
And, finally, the NUMBER ONE MYTH OF SCIENCE FICTION that deserves to be eradicated wherever it raises its ugly head: Science Fiction is For Boys; No Girls Allowed.
Really? After last year’s blowup in the Science Fiction Writers of America that spilled over into a couple dozen blogs, you’d think we could put this one to rest. Happily, the BBCA show succeeded in finding qualified women to comment (including io9 blogger and SFR author Charlee Jane Anders). Judging from what we saw on our TV screens, women are just as active and successful in SF film and literature as men. Which is only as it should be.