Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 1

If someone came to me who had never read science fiction before and expressed an interest in reading ten books as an introduction to SF, what would I recommend? After giving it much thought, I decided that I’d want them to read the books which, I feel, make up the “heart and soul” of science fiction. To expand on this idea, I came up with the following conceit: What if a library decided that it only had room for 100 books to represent science fiction of the 20th Century? 

Which 100 books would be chosen? Which 100 books best represent what science fiction was during the 20th Century?

Bear in mind that I am not attempting to list the “best,” nor the “bestselling,” nor the “most important” books in the genre. Rather, this is an attempt to uncover the essence of science fiction in the 20th Century as a genre of literature. Science fiction is a wide field, yet for all its variety it can be argued that SF in the 20th Century maintained a certain cohesiveness. This cohesiveness diminished as the century wore on, primarily due to the increasing number of writers publishing the stuff. It can still be said that SF exists, even in the 21st Century, as a literature with a certain set of “core aspects.”

What are these aspects? Primarily, I think, a “sense of wonder” rests at the core of the genre. While not all tales told in SF may possess this “gosh-wow” factor, as it is often called, I believe most of them do on some level.

The use of science, or at the very least of what Charles Sheffield might call “the borderlands of science,” must come into play. This can be any of the so-called “hard” sciences such as physics, biology, chemistry, etc. Or it can be the “soft” sciences such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc. It can also incorporate pseudo-science that may be, or may have been at one time, considered the fringe of respectable science (as opposed to the lunatic fringe), such as ESP, or even faster-than-light travel (depending on who you ask). Sometimes it isn’t even science that a story depends on, but technology or engineering (such as most cyberpunk).

Other aspects can be couched in terms that reflect the types of stories which appear over and over in SF, such as “if this goes on,” which is cousin to the dystopian tale (or utopia-gone-awry tale). These kinds of stories often completely dispense with any real approach to utilizing real science in their fiction, as do many space opera tales, and humor/satire/parody stories.

Scope can also be important to SF, both in a space- and time-sense (a long time ago...and far, far away). How else to tell tales involving immortals, galactic empires, interstellar wars, or, even, God Himself?

Ultimately, one need only pay lip-service to science or technology in order for a work to be marketable as science fiction (although the “hard SF” readers may shun it).

It is no surprise, then, that SF books are generally measured differently than literary works. Let’s face it, most readers only know what is, or isn’t, literature because someone, usually a college professor or a critic, told them whether a work possesses literary merit...or not.

SF books are not measured using the same standards as mainstream popular fiction. Mainstream fiction tends to be judged based on either sales (achieving bestseller status results in more readers buying the book to see why it was so popular in the first place), or based on reviews that refer to such books as “page turners” or “good summer reading.” In other words, these books are judged based almost purely on their entertainment value.

SF books, while they can be judged on either populist or literary criteria, have their own standards by which all other SF books are measured, regardless of their readability, literary merit, or sales figures. These are the elements that make a science fiction book uniquely science fiction, and can best be judged using the following descriptors:  “sense of wonder,” “big idea,” “well-thought-out,” “gosh-wow,” and, finally, “internal logic.”

An example of a great review for an SF book, regardless of the literary quality of the writing, might go something like this: “The author achieves a true sense of wonder by creating a well-thought-out world that never violates its own internal logic.”

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