Thursday, May 17, 2012

Science Fiction, Space Fantasy, and the World of Speculative Storytelling

Once upon a time there was a young woman named Mary Shelley. She wrote a little story you may have heard of called Frankenstein, and the genre known as science fiction was born (whether it was self-aware or not yet). Then came the space fantasies and the Burroughs and the Bradburys and the Asimovs, and eventually, science came calling and tried to take back the ground it had lost to the fantasists.

Thus we have a huge range of varying work that passes for science fiction nowadays.

So to get to the heart of the matter and talk space turkey about the mixed up genre, we went straight to the writers to make the magic happen (metaphorically, of course, since magic isn't technically science, no matter how indistinguishable it is from it -- thank you, Arthur C. Clarke).

What is your working definition of sci-fi as a literary genre?

William D. Prystauk: Science Fiction must have a story with real science at it's core. For instance, ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TIMECRIMES, while movies like STAR WARS are science fantasy. Just because the latter tale takes place in space does not mean it's science fiction since that element is not the foundation for the story.

R.J. Sullivan: A story that examines either how a scientific advancement or theoretical postulation can affect the people caught up in it.

H. David Blalock: Science fiction is story-telling based on an exaggeration of science fact that never requires the reader to question the feasibility of the science used. Once that line is crossed, you've stepped into science fantasy. Hard science fiction is difficult to write mainly because it requires real research and often a working knowledge of the science used. Science fantasy (or "soft sci-fi") is much easier and more common. It can break laws of physics and disregard the restrictions of hard science.

Herika R Raymer: Science-fiction is that which takes technology into a desired effect or even takes humanity to a extra-terrestrial, or otherwordly, location. Science-fiction can be exploring the limits of nanotechnology, digital technology, or even medical technology. I especially like the science-fiction that deals with possible extra-terrestrial creatures. Exploring other worlds, meeting other creatures, and generally exploring what might happen if humans finally became space explorers. What would they find? How would they react?

Lee Houston Jr.: For me, true science fiction has to have at least one element that is not possible in our current world, whether it be a spaceship, aliens, taking place upon another planet, or more preferably, all of the above and then some.

Elizabeth Donald: Science fiction foretells a plausible future or alternate present with technology that does not currently exist, but could within our understand of the world. Any science sufficiently advanced from ours may appear like magic, but science fiction best tells us about ourselves by showing us a conceivable outcome of our present day. It is distinguished from fantasy by its explainable phenomena, and from horror in that while it may be thrilling, its primary focus is not to evoke fear.

What is it about sci-fi that drew you to writing it?

William D. Prystauk: The fun of being able to explore something new. And I really did since I had to read up on science based items to have a better grounded and more realistic story.

R.J. Sullivan: Star Trek.

H. David Blalock: The challenge of actually staying inside the confines of science fiction without breaking the rules. Doing that and keeping the readers' interest is an art form.

Herika R Raymer:
The fascination that what was once science-fiction is now science-fact. For instance, in the old science fiction books and movies there were communication devices and transportation devices, as well as medical procedures, that were simply too far-fetched to believe. Yet look at today: personal computers, cell phones, tracking devices, laser surgeries, and more. There is still a dark side to it, and pointing that out can be just as dangerous in real life as it is on the page. It is interesting to see what might be science fiction today become science fact tomorrow.

Lee Houston Jr.: Like fantasy, science fiction gives the writer a place to let their imagination truly run wild and free. Granted, it might be a very long time before anything written now ever has a remote chance of coming true, if ever. But it is the mere thought of the possibilities, of striving to accomplish the "impossible", that keeps me coming back as both a writer and a reader.

Elizabeth Donald: The best science fiction tells us about ourselves. It is allegory and metaphor, it is a cautionary tale or a utopia to which we may strive. I have never been so fond of science fiction that depends on machinery and an absolute attention to technology and physics as I have the stories of people of the future, what they think and what they can show us.

Where's your prefered working space on the continuum between hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi?

William D. Prystauk:
  I don't like soft stuff. I'm an adult and I want stories that feel real in all regards. This does not mean that I expect grand explosions and piss-and-vinegar characters, I just want a sense of real familiarity with the characters and stories within the realm of physics that don't go "over the top."

R.J. Sullivan: Soft sci-fi, because of its focus on character and their response to the science rather than a study of the science itself.

H. David Blalock: I prefer to work closer to the soft sci-fi simply because, on the whole, I am a lazy writer. I can stretch science to my liking in science fantasy without regard to whether my audience will allow it or not. The audience of hard science fiction (which is increasingly small and may not last out this generation) is much stricter on the author, expecting more and demanding more.

Herika R Raymer: I imagining you mean hard-scifi as being militaristic in the details, and unfortunately I cannot write that. Unlike some writers I know, I do not have the science background to do hard science fiction though I am not sure I would want to. I like leaving some details to the imagination – which is why I can write soft science-fiction. A fellow writer once told me that, no matter how hard you try, there will always be someone who will pick apart your devices and tell you how it is not only not feasible but would not work. So they said the safest route is to use elementary science for kids, that way you get the base, you get it right, and leave the rest to imagination. It has worked for me.

Lee Houston Jr.:
Hard gives you all the details and explanations. Soft just presents the concepts and expects the reader to accept everything at face value. In either, the science (fiction) has to at least be plausible. But I try to stay in the middle of the two extremes. I present the ideas and devices, give the readers some details, and let them fill in the rest how they see fit. For example, I've stated that Hugh Monn, Private Detective's Hover 3001, which is more akin to Luke Skywalker's land speeder than George Jetson's flying vehicle in my mind's eye, gets 500 to a fuel cell. But I never said 500 what, let alone what he is using for fuel, or how many fuel cells the vehicle has.

Elizabeth Donald: I dislike the terms "hard" and "soft" SF because they feel judgmental. Hard SF is usually described as fiction that focuses more on technology and world-building than character and story, which I feel to be a weakness. Soft SF is usually denigrated as somehow being less intelligent, thoughtful or complex, as though the author must have wanted to write about the physics of space travel but couldn't be bothered to do the research. Both, then, are negative connotations. I think a novel can focus on people and story without skimping on technical accuracy, and that the most fascinating world still has to have people walking through it. I think we should get past "hard" vs. "soft" SF and instead focus on "good" vs. "boring" SF.

How has sci-fi changed as a genre over the past 50 years, and how has that affected the way you write it?

William D. Prystauk: I think science fiction was always escapist literature. But once gripping tales from Gaines and Dick came along, the latter questioning social themes, the foundation for telling dramatic tales grew stronger. Going beyond the fifty year point, however, Verne not only showed us what could be fantastical, but he made certain his work had a strong basis in reality. Movie wise, when one looks at ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER, it's easy to recognize that the science fiction element is derived from a strong sense of story and character that grips our imagination as well as our spirit. In that regard, Serling and Matheson should be heralded for taking what many considered "sci-fi garbage", something laughable and childish, and bringing us poignant social tales with great thematic strength. (Much like what MAUS and WATCHMEN, for instance, did for comics -- they proved, through story, character and theme, that great, human experience tales can come out of something often seen as sub-intelligent.)

When I write science-fiction, I want it to say something. I want the story to have as much merit as classic literature. My goal, as with any story in any genre, is to have the reader leave the piece to contemplate. Sure, I want to entertain, but I want people to think about what they just read. I don't want it to be disposable.

R.J. Sullivan: The biggest change to the genre came in the late 80s early 90s when we began to lose the authors who had advanced the genre out of the pulp age and into the age of relevance. (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke much later, etc.) I think what has gobsmacked the genre is the development of inner space and miniaturization. For decades writers postulated an advancement in rocketry, robotics, exploration. A few "cyberpunk" stories in the 90s seemed cutting edge and of limited interest to the general SF reader, but the final frontier has now proven to be cyber space, not outer space, and writers are beginning to realize that cyberspace opens up worlds of the imagination that the old school writers could never have dreamed possible. I am exploring cyberspace in my upcoming novel Virtual Blue.

H. David Blalock:
Science fantasy has overtaken hard science fiction. The accelerated pace of scientific advancement has given rise to the general public believing that science can do anything, equating it to what used to be called magic. To paraphrase someone, I believe it was Clarke, any technology sufficiently advanced would appear magical to the uninitiated. As a whole, the public does not understand the very science with which they interact on a daily basis. From electricity to computers, the average joe couldn't tell you anything about how they work, just that he is glad they do. Science fiction is science fact to the layman. The line between the two is so blurred in the public eye, they cannot tell the difference.

Herika R Raymer: As mentioned before, much science fiction has become science fact. The exploration of “because we can, should we” is still there with cloning and other topics, but it gets a bit more touchy. I have to admit to being relieved at the resurgence of steampunk, because it is a science-fiction I can research and write, as well as place it in a period that is flexible – at least on paper. I think that is most likely what has changed in the past 50 years – writing more in alternate realities. The idea is fascinating, and with writers hard pressed to think of the next impossible gadget, their next option is to look at a timeline where certain gadgets have not even been introduced and try and figure out how they survived. It is a challenge, but it is fun.

Lee Houston Jr.: Like fantasy, there must always be at least some suspension of belief/reality to truly enjoy science-fiction. We may know more about Mars and Venus now than when the stories were originally written, but that shouldn't lessen our enjoyment of Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars or Carson of Venus novels. The original Star Trek series is accredited with presenting the concepts we know today as cell phones and the personal computer. All I have to say as both a writer and a reader of science fiction is "What next?" and "Let's see what's out there!"

Elizabeth Donald: The blessing of science fiction has also been its curse. The past few decades have seen enormous strides in movie-making technology, enabling us to bring classic and contemporary science fiction epics to the screen that previously could not have been filmed without a laugh track. But that very dependence on special effects required a constant upgrade in big explosions and awesome visuals, while the viewing public grew disinterested in cultural metaphor and allegory in the me-me-me 1980s and 90s. Now you see action movies whose titles were inspired by Phillip K. Dick and Richard Matheson, and Star Trek is remade into an exciting thrill ride that doesn't even give a tip of the hat to actual science. They make money, so the book world then turns to the SF writers and asks for more explosions. It is my hope that eventually we can turn things back around somewhere between the overly cerebral and frankly boring novels of the mid-20th century from the brain-dead and exhausting fiction of the current era, that there is room for plot and adrenaline, intelligence and explosions. It doesn't hurt to let women in on the fun, either.