- William L Culbertson
On Science Fiction
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
My area of expertise is not literature. However, I am a reader and author of science fiction. To me the genre of science fiction appears to (mostly) fall into two categories—space opera and the more contemplative stuff. The term space opera probably had its genesis as a way of signaling its similarity to horse operas and soap operas. The author is telling a blood and thunder adventure story. It’s the background against which the story plays out that determines the genre. Space operas are rocket ships and ray guns. H. G. Wells wrote a nineteenth century space opera (that took place on Earth) in War of the Worlds. A current and familiar example is the Star Wars movies.
In space opera, the science is definitely secondary—sadly. A lot of the conventions like warp drive, artificial gravity, transporters, and disintegrator ray guns are made-up fictions with little thought to justification or even physical plausibility. Here, a rip-roarin’ adventure plot drives the technology. If the story demands travel from solar system to solar system, the author imagines the technology to do it.
Some space operas (and other science fiction stories) have so much made-up, imaginary science that it seems ludicrous to call them “science” fiction. Enjoying fiction of any kind requires what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “willing suspension of disbelief.” I’ve had enough training in the sciences that I know, at least in general terms, how the world works. Therefore, I prefer what’s called “hard” science fiction. The author should give least a nod to recognizable physical reality. Otherwise, it is “magical” science—but that’s fantasy.
My stories have starships that are based on ideas that emerged back in the 1970s with the British Interplanetary Society's Project Daedalus and others who proposed starships of the future powered by nuclear fusion. The science is basically that of a hydrogen bomb or the power source for the Sun. Scientists spent time trying to figure out the broad outlines of how it could be done. But the technical details of the actual equipment were left to future generations. (Details omitted in science fiction stories are sometimes called “hand-wavium.”) In addition to the particulars of actually inventing the power technology, a major challenge to building a nuclear powered starship would be making a large-scale structure in outer space. However, given our civilization’s past development trend of “higher, faster, farther,” these extrapolations are not unreasonable. This part of the genre has an element of possible future reality that gives it the feel of telling stories about events that could lie in our own future.
Another variety of hard science fiction speculates about discoveries that might be made, discoveries which could change everything. Stories in this part of the genre are interesting from the standpoint that they could be true—or not. While occasionally a prediction might come true, prediction is not the point. The author is free to explore the implications this particular discovery or development might have for society. There are opportunities here to tell stories with biting social commentary. An author can take a quirk, a fad, an economic trend, or a political movement and extend it to show an extreme horrible example—say Orwell’s book, 1984. While you can put social commentary into other genres, there’s something about doing it in a science fiction setting that makes it feel more ominous. If this is a story about the future, could it be describing our future?
One aspect of science fiction that is seldom written about is the genre’s creation of expectations for the future and how those expectations drive research and development to actually make those predictions come true. Airplanes, robots, and space ships were all written about by science fiction authors well before they actually existed. What role did the stories play in encouraging people to try to create these things? More than a little, I suspect. While anyone can come up with an idea, only science and engineering can give it reality. Some ideas are big enough they sell themselves. An airplane? Sure. Easy to see how useful that would be. However, other ideas need promoting before someone would be willing to work on them. A mobile, self-aware robot? Seems like a lot of hard work. What would it do for me? A few thousand stories about robots—good, bad, or horrible robots—have already explored the implications of this developing technology.
Over the years, I’ve seen one trend in science fiction that I welcome. In Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, he spends a ponderously long time explaining the new technology that will take the three men to the moon. I assume this was to make the story sound reasonably plausible to a society which had not seen writing about the future and future technology. This attempt at verisimilitude makes the story hard to read these days. Modern authors paint with a broader brush. Because there is no such thing as a warp drive engine, the author doesn’t need to explain the details of a technology that doesn’t exist. Unless, of course, there is some aspect of the engine which turns the story. I’ve seen this phrased along the lines that the reader doesn’t need a tour of the engine room unless something important is going to happen in the engine room.
I’ve just scratched the surface of a huge body of work. All fiction is made-up stories. Much of science fiction is made-up stories about the future, a future that might be ours—for better or worse. We may live in the moment, but science fiction offers us a thoughtful way (okay, thoughtful and exciting way) to look at the road ahead.