Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Biased Opinion - No Squid Faced Aliens Need Apply

Following up on my last entry, I decided to put together a short list of science fiction that doesn't meet Margaret Atwood's definition of science fiction. If you recall, according to her, Oryx and Crake isn't science fiction because it has "no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians". To expand on her statements, apparently science fiction is "when you have rockets and chemicals". Also, according to Ms. Atwood, science fiction is about "talking squids in outer space". It certainly isn't about a dystopian future in which religious zealots have taken over the U.S. government and forced women into concubinage (like her other science fiction story, The Handmaid's Tale, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award).

All of which is pretty much just a list of reasons why some writers should never be allowed to give interviews, because they will just embarrass themselves by exposing their ignorance.

But, just for fun, I figured I'd come up with a list of books that are clearly science fiction, but that manage to avoid these elements. But, just to see how far I can push the definition, I decided to make the terms a little more restrictive than even Ms. Atwood does.

1. No intergalactic space travel. This definition wouldn't actually exclude many science fiction books at all, primarily because there aren't all that many stories featuring intergalactic space travel; that is, space travel between galaxies. David Brin's second Uplift series has travel between galaxies, as does E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series (read review), but not many others do. Even Isaac Asmiov's Foundation series (read review) and Frank Herbert's Dune series, which feature galaxy spanning empires don't have intergalactic space travel. I think Ms. Atwood meant to say interstellar or interplanetary space travel (or maybe even just space travel at all, but that prevents people from writing about stuff that people have actually done, so that is probably too restrictive). Just for grins, I'll say that she meant interplanetary space travel, and exclude from my list anything that involves travel between planets, stars, or galaxies.

2. No teleportation. This actually doesn't exclude much of anything. Very few science fiction works actually involve teleportation. Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination gets eliminated from my list by this restriction, as does a fair amount of Larry Niven's Known Space books, since they include teleportation plates. Some relatively minor works like Jumper also have teleportation. On the whole, though, unless you think Star Trek with its transporters is the core of science fiction, not many works actually feature this element.

3. No Martians. This specific definition doesn't affect many science fiction works either, since comparatively few feature actual Martians. Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet, and Podkayne of Mars feature Martians, as does Isaac Asimov's David Starr, Space Ranger. Of course, a lot of older pulp stories like Burrough's Barsoom series feature Martians too. But let's not limit ourselves to Martians, let's exclude from my list all books that involve aliens - that is - all books that feature intelligent life from planets other than Earth. That certainly takes care of any books involving "talking squids in outer space". To tell the truth, I'm not sure how many science fiction stories actually feature talking squids, maybe The Human Pets of Mars, or maybe War of the Worlds would qualify, but the list of books with that specific element seems to be pretty small.

I've also decided to not list science fiction short stories, or else the list would become ridiculously long without really even having to try - The Roads Must Roll, The Nine Billion Names of God, If This Goes On-, Coventry, and so on just seem to be too much like absurdly low-hanging fruit. So, what sort of list do we have once we exclude interplanetary space travel, teleportation, and aliens from our list? Quite a bit actually.

(Side note: I make no claims as to the quality of any particular work listed here. I also don't pretend that this is anything like a comprehensive list of books that are science fiction, but don't have the elements that Ms. Atwood thinks characterize the genre. This is simply an off the top of my head list of books that I remember that meet the stated criteria. I'm sure that any number of people could easily add works I forgot to this list.)

Without further ado, here's the list, arranged by author, in no particular order.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Door Into Summer, I Will Fear No Evil, Farnham's Freehold, and Sixth Column (also titled The Day After Tomorrow)

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: Lucifer's Hammer, Inferno, and Oath of Fealty

Larry Niven and Steven Barnes: Dream Park, The California Voodoo Game (read review), and The Barsoom Project

Arthur C. Clarke: The Ghost from the Grand Banks

Brian Aldiss: Greybeard

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

Richard Cowper: The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship, and A Tapestry of Time

William Gibson: Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and Count Zero

Robert Sheckley: Immortality, Inc.

Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man (read review)

Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon

John Varley: Millennium

Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker

H.G. Wells: The Invisible Man, and The Island of Dr. Moreau

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Yevgeny Zamyatin: We

Robert Mason: Weapon

Nancy Kress: Beggars in Spain

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar

David Brin: Earth and The Postman

Greg Egan: Permutation City

Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Prey, and The Andromeda Strain

Andre Norton: No Night Without Stars

I could go on and on, but I figure this is enough to prove my point. Science fiction gets along just fine without space travel, aliens, and teleportation. In point of fact, many of the most influential works of science fiction feature none of these elements, and yet, somehow, despite Ms. Atwood's claims, they remain science fiction.

As does a story about a dystopian future that deals extensively with the results of genetic engineering. She can twist, dodge, and play semantic games all she wants, but Ms. Atwood has written two books that are clearly science fiction, whether she wants to admit it or not.

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Biased Opinion - Been a While

Well, it's been a while since I updated this. I blame fantasy baseball - I got talked into rejoining the Internet Simulated Baseball League (which I had left several years ago) and, since I don't do much of anything halfway, I spent a lot of time researching for the league auction and setting my roster and so on. That is now back to a moderate time waster for me now though, I just have to make sure to get my games in on time for the rest of the season.


I have found it amusing recently to read about the various "serious" authors who have, to their horror, discovered that they have written science fiction, and then seen their frantic attempts to explain that their books are not actually science fiction. Actually, let me rephrase that: their ludicrous, unconvincing, and incredibly juvenile attempts to explain that their books are not science fiction.

The most famous would be Margaret Atwood. She's written not one, but two works of science fiction: The Handmaid's Tale (for which she won a, gasp, science fiction award), and Oryx and Crake. However, despite the fact that Oryx and Crake is about a dystopian future with a plot that heavily features the results of widespread genetic engineering, according to Ms. Atwood, it isn't science fiction. In her words it "is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper." Apparently this is because, "it contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." That's about as convincing as saying that the thing I'm wearing on my upper body isn't a shirt, because it is red, and shirts are blue. It is the sort of semantic dodge that only a child would consider sensible, and it is really unworthy of someone who is capable of writing publishable fiction.

I suppose I could be more charitable and assume that Ms. Atwood simply hasn't actually read much science fiction, and thus doesn't know that her definition of the term makes no sense. That makes her seem a little less childish, but it instead results in the conclusion that Ms. Atwood is simply poorly educated on the subject. In other words, she is a writer who simply doesn't know anything about the genre she has written in. This is just one of the more obvious examples of writers and critics doing everything in their power to explain how a work written by one of the "literati" that is clearly science-fiction (or fantasy) really isn't.

For example, P.D. James' Children of Men, about a future in which women have lost the ability to have children, according to the New York Times, apparently isn't science fiction. it is, "a trenchant analysis of politics and power that speaks urgently to this social moment". Which apparently means it, by definition, cannot be a work of science fiction. I suppose one could also say that the movie Chariots of Fire isn't about people who are competitive runners, but that it is about people who "move their legs really fast while trying to go around a track faster than anyone else." It would make about as much sense.

The list goes on. Apparently Douglas Adams didn't write science fiction, he wrote books that happened to be about space and time. Steven Fry, who used time travel in one of his novels, never wrote a science fiction novel either. The common theme is that these authors simply define science fiction as "something other than what I wrote" using some of the most transparently poorly thought out semantic dodges I have ever seen.

I think that the fact that I was looking at a bunch of these semantic dodges at the same time I was looking at some material debunking a host of creationist claims about the origins of life brought home to me that the "literati" really are a lot like creationists. Because they can't teach creationism in public schools (because it is religion, and not science), its advocates have tried to use the semantic dodge of calling their theories "intelligent design". Of course, they fool no one (in point of fact, when tested in court, "intelligent design" has been correctly determined to simply be creationism renamed). Similarly, authors like Ms. Atwood don't fool anyone with their silly semantic arguments. A shovel is still a shovel, even if you call it an "human powered earth moving tool". Trying to argue that the shovel is, in fact, not a shovel based upon this sort of renaming would just make someone look ridiculous.

And, in the end, all the people who posture, protest, and deny that what they have produced is actually science fiction but "an examination of the impact of technology on humans in the future" or some such semantic nonsense - all they really do is make themselves look ridiculous. We aren't fooled. No one is. In the end, they only expose their own prejudices and lack of education.

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