David Louis Edelman August 4th, 2006
Since my post on The Five Elements Common to All Stories, I’ve been thinking about the obvious follow-up: what are the common elements of science fiction stories?
We can argue all day about what constitutes a science fiction story and what doesn’t. (And, heck, if you’re reading this blog, chances are nothing would make you happier.) But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to include both the genres commonly known as science fiction and fantasy, as well as their numerous branches and offshoots. Alternate history, cyberpunk, steampunk, epic fantasy, doorstopper fantasy, et cetera ad nauseum. Basically, if you would find it in the Science Fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble, today I’m calling it science fiction.
So what principles encompass all of these varieties of the genre? Is there any blanket that could possible cover the whole kit-and-caboodle? These characteristics have to be out there, because, as with Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum about pornography, we generally know science fiction when we see it.
Obviously we can include the previous five principles outlined in my earlier post. (And I think we can also probably include Point, which Sherwood Smith brought up in the comments.)
But the baseline elements common to all science fiction stories? I could only think of two.
1. Dissociation. By dissociation, I mean that every science fiction story has some element that is profoundly alien to the reality of its intended audience. Sometimes it’s a technological element (spaceships, time travel, sentient cell phones), sometimes it’s a fantastical element (dragons, magic wands, cursed cell phones), sometimes it’s a metaphysical element (time running backwards, effects not following causes, cell phones that exist in an alternate dimension).
The point is: there’s something other in the story, something that is purposefully and fundamentally different from the audience’s accepted reality. Of course, few SF stories are limited to just one element of dissociation; they usually provide us with many. (In the case of China Mieville and Justina Robson, maybe thousands.)
(Note that there isn’t necessarily a dissociation with the characters in a science fiction story. The everyday citizens of Earthsea had no qualms whatsoever about accepting the reality of the magicians in their midst, and Bilbo Baggins was perfectly at home in a land of hairy midget chain smokers. But these worlds are profoundly different from what you and I, the readers, experience.)
Why “profoundly” alien? Because all fiction is, in a sense, alien to our experience. It’s made up, by definition, and almost always contains characters and scenarios that don’t exist. Where exactly this boundary between the simply strange and the “profoundly” strange rests is up to interpretation, of course, and changes with time.
For instance, you might be thinking: hey, Dave, running around with a powdered wig in eighteenth century Massachusetts is pretty alien to me, so by your definition Gore Vidal’s “Burr” is science fiction. Ah, but that experience is not alien to your reality, because it’s a recognized and well-documented part of history. It’s one piece of the puzzle that makes up your worldview, even though it might be separated from you by a sizable period of time. And so Burr falls under the category of historical fiction.
To twist this around another way, imagine if someone in Aaron Burr’s day wrote a novel about people walking around driving strange metallic horseless carriages and communicating via small metal boxes they carry in their pockets. (Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century predicted gas-powered automobiles, the Internet, fax machines, and calculators in 1863.) Even though this scenario is familiar to us, it certainly would have created a sense of alienation to the author’s eighteenth-century readers — and thus would be classified as science fiction. (Similarly, if a man from Mars arrives on Earth tomorrow and teaches us all how to grok, that doesn’t nullify Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land from the SF label.)
Note that just setting your story in the future doesn’t qualify your story as science fiction. However, keep in mind that the further into the future you set your story, the more alien the landscape becomes by necessity. One could very easily write a story set ten years in the future that’s not SFnal at all, but I challenge anyone to write a story set a hundred or a thousand years in the future that’s not science fiction.
2. Focus of Scientific Progress. There’s a reason for the “science” in science fiction. That’s because every science fiction story contains within it an understanding that there is such a thing as technological and scientific advancement, and that the human race is a part of it.
Why is this important? Doesn’t every story told after, say, 1700 have this built in? Yes, but unlike many other genres, science is always an implicit (if not explicit) topic of science fiction stories. By including profoundly alien elements to these stories, SF writers focus attention on the building blocks that comprise our world. (And yes, this includes fantasy as well, since the elements of a story that make it fantasy are precisely those that bend or break the laws of science.)
This sense of historical change was largely absent in the world prior to the Scientific Revolution. If you had asked an ancient Roman to write a story set two thousand years in the future, they would have likely envisioned a story set in the same reality that they lived in; different cities, different people, but the same ground rules. Similarly, a scholar of the Middle Ages would have seen the future as simply another span of years waiting for the return of Christ. The concept that scientific progress might profoundly change the human experience simply didn’t exist.
(Note that I’m not claiming that scientific progress is the only topic of all SF stories, or even the major one. It just has to be there to qualify for the definition.)
Let the discussion commence!