OP-ED: In Defense of the “Fiction” in “Science-Fiction”

“I can state flatly that heavier than air flying machines are impossible.”

—Lord Kelvin, not long before the flight at Kitty Hawk.

So for starters, I’m not sure how long this post is going to be. Additionally, it was sort of unplanned and very spontaneous (definitely a clear target for the “Disorganized Thoughts” tag).

But … I wanted to say it anyway. Some of you might be curious as to where this post is coming from, and so I’ll start there. In what I’m sure is a surprise to almost no one, I do tend to frequent or at least dwell occasionally in online Sci-Fi hangouts. I’ve talked about r/PrintSF before here on the site (at least, I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned it at least once, but I know it’s been brought up in the Discord), and it’s not the only location I’ve spent time on online that discusses Sci-Fi in all its various forms.

As I said, I’m sure none of you are surprised by this. But in my spending time in these locations, discussing books, films, games, and other Sci-Fi, I have run across a number of opinions. Most of these are the fairly classic fare, such as “Kirk VS Picard” and “Peaceful aliens VS hostile aliens VS unknowable aliens.”

But there’s one particular crowd, a very vocal and outspoken crowd, that always irks me a little. In fairness, I think some of you will agree. But this group is … Well, they remind me of flat-earthers or climate-change deniers. Not, I stress, because they believe in a flat-earth, but because they display a parallel sort of thought process.

Maybe the best name for this group would be the “anti-fiction crowd.” Anti-science works too, as could anti-progression. The mindset behind it probably fits “anti-science” a bit better, but since we’re talking about Science-Fiction, we’ll stick with “anti-fiction.”

This crowd operates under two principles:

  1. No Science-Fiction book should writen about anything that is not 100% provable or capable by today.
  2. Science is absolute, and cannot be considered incomplete.

Now, I’d wager that a number of you are already recoiling from such a black-and-white (as well as unscientific) mindset, but I’ve found that despite that, there are a small but outspoken number of “Sci-Fi readers” who follow those two apparent points with a sort of nigh-religious zealotry. They’re all too happy to go after any Sci-Fi tale that “fails” either of those two tests in a manner that reminds me of the “Genius at Work” segment from The Simpsons. They show up in the comments to talk about how “unfortunate” it is that [insert random science fact here] says such-and-such from whatever is being discussed is “unrealistic” or “pure fantasy.”

And you know, there is something wrong about the way this crowd seems to, in their “deep dive” into how [insert Sci-Fi element here] could never work due to [insert long rambling diatribe, maybe scientific], never stop to think about the “Fiction” part of “Science-Fiction.” Or rather, for all their “understanding” of science, seem to have zero recollection of what “fiction” actually means.

Fiction: literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.

Imaginary events and people. When we say “Science-Fiction” we’re saying “Science literature that is about imaginary events and people.”

Events include the science. That’s kind of the whole point of Science-Fiction as a genre. Whether it’s looking at a lot of scientific advances and what they might bring to pass, or just one, it’s taking a look forward and saying “What if Science is right/wrong about this? What would happen? What could we do?”

Take the first Sci-Fi book ever written, Frankenstein. The whole crux of the book is imagining what could happen if someone discovered how to reanimate dead matter (yes, I know there’s a lot more to the book, but this is the science bit). Was it possible at the time the book was written? No, of course not. It’s not even possible now—and indeed, Frankenstein’s creation shows up more in fantasy than in Sci-Fi today as science has marched on. In fact we now know why it wouldn’t work. But at the time, it was a moment of “What if?”

That’s what Sci-Fi is! It’s taking the roots of science as we understand it now and asking “What if?” What if a stable island exists, full of elements we’ve never imagined? What if we find life on Europa? Or Mars? What if we find life on Jupiter? What if we discover there is no dark matter, and instead find something else even more fantastical?

These, or any number of other questions, from the basic to the fantastic. Science-Fiction isn’t about limiting ourselves to what we’ve already “proven”—we call that non-fiction, and those quotes are there for a reason—it’s about looking at what might be or what something we’ve “proven” could result in!

That’s Science-Fiction. Without that bit of unknown, it’s not fiction. It’s just science. Those that run around on forums and social media decrying any Sci-Fi story that takes liberties, predicts, or “invents” something that doesn’t mesh 100% with current science? They’re not looking for fiction. They’re looking for something that doesn’t exist: fiction that isn’t fiction.

But there’s a second part to this as well that tends to exemplify these anti-fiction readers, something that has to do with why I put “proven” in quotations above. See, as noted with point #2 from the folks that post this stuff, they act with the conceit that science is absolute and cannot be considered incomplete.

Except that any good scientist will tell you that science is incomplete. Science is mankind’s attempting to understand how the universe works. And we get that wrong all the time.

How foolish would it be for books, to say nothing of science, to assume that what’s been figured out is absolute and never question it, wonder, or even test it? We’d never have invented the cures for many modern diseases if we’d held to this. We never would have gone to the moon, or even developed heavier-than-air flight. Computers would likely be nothing more than quickly-dismissed imagination.

What a cold, mirthless world that would be. Thankfully for us, science, in its infinite attempts to understand the universe, is open to being wrong. Open to being proven incomplete, and even self-admitting that it is incomplete, that so much of what we know are merely theories that have held true enough to be considered law … unless something new comes along. Quantum physics, plate tectonics, computing limits, every year science discovers new things, refines old theories or even throws them out entirely as they learn more about how things work. Just last week with the unveiling of the James Webb Telescope images it was commented that a hundred years ago science didn’t even know there were other galaxies (that was discovered in 1924). Science was operating under the idea that, as far as we knew, the milky way was it.

But it wasn’t.

Science-Fiction is fiction, yes, but it’s also able to play with the tidal zones of where what we “know” and what we don’t know (which is still incredibly vast) overlap! And quite frequently, Science-Fiction gets things wrong, sure. Sadly, we don’t have moon colonies yet, and still haven’t figured out how to manipulate gravity or travel faster than the speed of light. Maybe we won’t.

Or maybe we will. Furthermore, Science-Fiction didn’t nearly guess how quickly mankind would start playing with tablets, smartphones, microprocessors, the internet, and handheld music storage. In fact, what we now take for granted with so much of our day-to-day life in that regard in old Sci-Fi was considered more unbelievable than, say, taking a vacation to the moon.

I’m getting a little off-topic. The point is that we haven’t solved everything. Earth isn’t solved. The solar system isn’t solved. The Universe is unsolved. There remains such a vast gulf of our knowledge of the workings of cosmos that could—and I, being a futurist, assume will—have substantial impact on the human condition.

What if mankind figured out faster-than-light travel tomorrow? What if we figured out a cheap, safe way to genetically modify ourselves? What if?

That’s Science-Fiction. It’s looking at what science still seeks and still experiments with and asks “What if?” It puts people in situations from the straightforward (you can now change your hair-color with a shot) to the fantastical (we’ve figured out how to skip something off of another universe like a slingshot to travel to distant stars).

Science-Fiction isn’t supposed to be “100% verified, solved universe stories.” It never was. Nor will it ever be. Science-Fiction is about looking at that vast space we still don’t know, and being brave or adventurous enough to ask “What if?”

Or, as Arthur C. Clarke put it

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

I’m sure most of you know the third of the three by heart.

So let’s let the “fiction” of “Science-Fiction” stand.

After all, if we’ve learned anything from the last hundred-plus years, a good chunk of it will wind up Science-Non-fiction before long anyway.

6 thoughts on “OP-ED: In Defense of the “Fiction” in “Science-Fiction”

  1. Nice post.
    I tend to prefer and write in three distinct flavors of fiction. The impossible, the improbable, and the mundane.
    It sounds as if this literary group of Luddites falls in the last classification.
    Impossible stories include magic, ghosts, FTL, essentially those that break the laws of physics.
    Improbable are those that might include Dyson spheres, O’Neill cylinders, space elevators, or genetic mutations allowing human powered flight.
    While mundane, you no doubt surmise, extrapolate nothing into the future.
    What do you think of those fictional divisions?


    • Personally? I think calling any segment of stories “impossible” with any definition tends to be restrictive. My point was that these anti-fiction folk are vehemently aggressive about “X is impossible” even when it isn’t, or later turns out not to be so “impossible.” Powered flight was “impossible” to legions of scientists and engineers for decades. Splitting the atom was once declared “impossible.” Going to the moon was once declared impossible, along with handheld computers and a host of other technologies and discoveries.

      Calling something “impossible” then, is a real misnomer (especially in a field of literature that’s about pushing forward toward it). Once again, Clarke’s Three Laws have held up incredibly well, despite folks that insist things will be “impossible.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I call out “impossible” as merely a means to identify stories that enlist the reader to suspend disbelief in dramatic fashion. Magic? Ghosts? FTL? Great story premises, but if a rational line is drawn, such stories would fall on the outside. If they didn’t we’d have people believing that Harry Potter could be a true story.
        I love reading impossible stories, but accept that what I’m reading are fantastical not fact (future or otherwise).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, I’d state that there still needs to be further delineation. Harry Potter, for example, is very forward with “We understand that this is fantasy, and cannot happen.” A story about FTL, however, COULD happen. Like powered flight once was, it’s definitely out of our reach right now, but in another century, or even a decade, new breakthroughs could quite thoroughly upend that, just as they did many other things once declared “impossible.”

          Ghosts? Well, there are Sci-Fi stories about people saving echoes of people as imprints that explore scientific ways such things could be brought to pass. The line gets pretty murky the more you try to define things (hence why most agree finding it isn’t worth anyone’s time) but my point is that declaring something like FTL “impossible” is just as foolhardy, ultimately, as declaring flight impossible or fission power impossible. There are people working on FTL travel at NASA right this instant, and have been for years. Just because our current understanding of physics says “Can’t do it yet” doesn’t mean our understanding of physics won’t see updates and new knowledge that makes it possible.

          Again, Clarke’s Three Laws, which have outlasted EVERY individual who declared them foolish fantasy.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I get it. Sufficiently advanced tech = magic.
            I suppose I need to define, in my own mind, where I draw the line of reality.
            “C: It’s the law” is one I take to heart. Just like ZPE (zero-point-energy) and the multi-verse, stories that violate of the (yeah) known laws of physics are those I place over –>> here. While stories that are merely improbable, (doable, given sufficient resources, time and reasonable tech advances) I put over –>> there.
            But, so much of this is subjective.
            Any group stating there are pure rules in fiction, and condemning those who break them, are just being priggish.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. One thing that has irked me through history up until the present is the number of pseudo-science scams that use the cloak of ‘Science!’ to extract money from an unwary populace. From snake oil to X-ray acne treatments, electrical rheumatism cures and mercury medicines, the list is practically endless and I suspect will only grow as time marches on and the line of grifting scam artists grow.

    Working from memory here. There are several inviolate rules that must be followed before something can be considered *real* science.
    –The raw data you use for your experiment must be made available to your critics, as well as the corrections you made to it, and the methods by which the data was obtained.
    –The formula by which you process that data to produce your results must likewise be available to any critics.
    –Using independently acquired data should give the same results as your data, and both should be replicatable.
    –If your experiment is supposed to predict a future event, it should be able to predict the current state of events if fed older data.
    –Dramatic conclusions require dramatic proof.

    Liked by 1 person

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