If you think you’re a science-fiction fan, you might have to think again.
Sir Terry Pratchett ruffled a few feathers recentlywhen he claimed that only ‘people who don’t know what science-fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science-fiction’.
To claim the adventures of Matt Smith and Co. are closer to fantasy than sci-fi might feel like stating the obvious but I’m willing to go further and claim that most of what passes for science-fiction in today’s media actually belongs to the genre’s trickier, more nebulous cousin: science-fantasy.
Before we go any further, let’s define our terms. The Collins English Dictionary defines science-fiction as ‘a literary genre that makes imaginative use of scientific knowledge or conjecture’. Those last four words are key. Yes, the writer has to tell a good story, yes the characters should be well rounded and believable but if the narrative doesn’t mine the challenges and pitfalls of science as sources of drama, it ain’t science-fiction.
So what about fantasy? Collins describes it simply as ‘imagination unrestricted by reality’ which sums up the philosophy behind most modern sci-fi offerings. For all their space ships, aliens and androids, they rarely represent a realistic view of how such things would actually work. Reality is sacrificed to the needs of the plot, as opposed to having the plot develop naturally from the story’s reality.
Many writers have used Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ to cut narrative corners (Russell T. Davies, I’m looking at you) but it would be unfair to dismiss science-fantasy as nothing more than “soft” sci-fi. And, while it’s true that Star Wars casts a shadow over everything from Blake’s 7 to Stargate, science-fantasy enjoys a much longer, richer history than many people realise.
The late 19th Century saw the dawn of a technological revolution, affecting every aspect of western culture. Gas and coal gave way to electricity; the first automobiles appeared in the streets; moving images were successfully captured on film for the first time and the railways brought unprecedented freedom to people at all levels of society.
It’s only natural that such a time should give birth to new literary genres and, sure enough, in 1865, Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon
, a light hearted adventure story in which a group of American entrepreneurs attempt to launch a trio of astronauts to the moon.
From the start, it’s clear that Verne did his homework; not only did he accurately calculate the time needed to reach
the moon, he also pinpointed the locations best suited to a launch – his astronauts blast off from Florida, on almost exactly the same latitude as NASA’s Apollo missions, a century later. Angles of ascent and escape velocities are also explained, as are the practicalities of returning a space capsule to Earth.It’s textbook science-fiction. The adventure springs from the scientific challenges facing the characters and their resourcefulness in overcoming them.Compare this to another lunar voyage; The First Men in the Moon
, by H.G. Wells (1901). Perhaps wary of re-tracing Verne’s steps, he avoids dealing with the physics of a moon launch thanks to Cavorite, a miracle substance able to defy gravity. The process of creating Cavorite is neatly sidestepped with a self-deprecating flourish;
‘I am no scientific expert, and if I were to attempt to set forth in the highly scientific language of Mr Cavor the aim to which his experiments tended, I am afraid I should confuse not only the reader but myself… If only I had taken notes.’
Wells isn’t being lazy – he simply has a different goal in mind to Verne. The physical journey to the moon is less important than the moral journey undertaken by the characters upon finding themselves amongst the ancient race of Selenites beneath the lunar surface. In fact, the whole story bears a striking resemblance to many traditional rural folktales, in which a hapless mortal gains entry to the idyllic underworld of the fairy folk and, through his own corrupt nature, brings about some calamity that results in his expulsion. It’s the story of Adam and Eve fleeing Eden, dressed in scientists’ lab coats.It’s this difference in focus that defines the genre for me. True science-fantasy isn’t simply a watered-down version of science-fiction – it’s the modern successor to the folktales and mythologies of the past. The old tales are being re-told to suit the philosophies of their time.Why the change? There are practical reasons, of course – most writers aren’t scientists and want to tell a story without having to take a physics degree first. But since the Enlightenment, western civilisation has moved away from its traditional spiritual beliefs towards a more existential, rationalistic viewpoint. We may not believe in the supernatural any more, but we clearly haven’t dispensed with the role it filled in our cultural conscience. If fairies seem absurd, we’ll use aliens instead. Find magic and miracles and bit hard to swallow? Then psychic abilities and superpowers can fill the gap.
So who cares if the idea of a dimensionally transcendental police box makes no sense whatsoever? It’s simply a means to an end; the latest wardrobe to Narnia.
Science-fiction should seek to blaze new trails as our knowledge of the universe expands, telling stories that would not have been previously possible. Science-fantasy, meanwhile, must always keep one foot in the past, reminding us where we’ve come from, as much as where we might be going.