Yesterday I posted about the difference, if any, between Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I got some very thoughtful replies. The majority viewpoint seemed to be that Science Fiction was based on (to quote Katie) “science-based, can-be-illustrated-by-a-proof phenomenon”.
I can accept that viewpoint, but I’m not sure that I agree with it. I went looking for top lists of Science Fiction books, and while “best” is an incredibly subjective designation, I found one that was based on a broad fan survey. So this is a list of books that Science Fiction fans voted as the best and I think while there is plenty of room for argument as to what belongs in the list and what doesn’t, it’ll work for illustration purposes.
- Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game
- Frank Herbert Dune
- Isaac Asimov The Foundation Trilogy
- Douglas Adams Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Robert A Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land
- George Orwell 1984
- Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451
- Arthur C Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Philip K Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- Isaac Asimov I, Robot
- Robert A Heinlein Starship Troopers
- William Gibson Neuromancer
- Larry Niven Ringworld
- Arthur C Clarke Rendezvous With Rama
- Dan Simmons Hyperion
- H G Wells The Time Machine
- Aldous Huxley Brave New World
- Arthur C Clarke Childhood’s End
- H G Wells The War of the Worlds
- Joe Haldeman The Forever War
- Robert A Heinlein The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
- Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles
- Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five
- Neal Stephenson Snow Crash
- Niven & Pournelle The Mote in God’s Eye
There are two books on the top 25 (Hyperion and Snow Crash) that I have not read, but looking at the other 23, I am struck by the fact that the overwhelming majority of them don’t fit the definition of Science Fiction as being based on observable scientific fact.
In fact, by my reckoning, only three of these, Nineteen Eighty Four, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World can be said to be solidly grounded in real world science. Interestingly enough, those are the three that are considered the most “mainstream”.
All of the others that I have read (as I say, all but two) involve technologies that violate one or more scientific principles as currently understood. (Judging from the thumbnail descriptions of the ones I haven’t read, I’m sure that at least one of them does as well.)
This is not to say that current understanding of science is exhaustive or unfailingly accurate–there is certainly no reason to believe that what we think we know can’t be wrong. It has before.
The point is that there are elements in these novels that are quite simply “magic”. Faster than light travel and self-aware machines, to name two, are no more theoretically possible now than they were fifty years ago when some of these books were written. However, they are tropes that are repeated so often in Science Fiction that readers are willing to accept them as being based on science.
Other technologies are exaggerated to the point that the cease to be grounded in reality–genetic manipulation, human/machine interfacing, materials manufacturing, social engineering.
Now, I am not saying that any of these things are not possible–I am not going to go on record as saying that anything is definitively impossible–what I am saying is that science doesn’t tell us these things are possible.
That’s our willing suspension of disbelief. We want a good story, and so we are willing to pretend that the elements in the story are possible. And since we need faster than light ships to get us from one fantastic environment to another, we accept them as part of the author’s universe.
We accept starships in the same way that we accept magic portals–they fill the same narrative function of getting characters from one place to another. One method of transport is not any more “realistic” than another.
Our cultural preconceptions tell us that blinking lights and brushed chrome look more plausible than arcane symbols set in a stone floor, but magic is magic. You either choose to believe or you don’t.