Good, hardcore science fiction is glorious. It shows us what the human race is capable of, both good and bad. Notice I said science fiction, which takes known theory and extrapolates it to the realm of possibility.
Science fiction: a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life. (Wikipedia)
Science Fantasy: a mixed genre within the umbrella of speculative fiction which simultaneously draws upon and/or combines tropes and elements from both science fiction and fantasy. It also sometimes incorporates elements of horror fiction. (Wikipedia)
The above definitions are the accepted versions but mine is a bit different. My definition distinguishes science fiction from those books and movies that feature any aliens or pseudo-science hand waving events (i.e. magic), including the Force. No one knows what aliens look like. Everything about aliens of any type is completely made up. We can make guesses based on our biology but that is about it. Thus, much as I love movies like Star Wars, Aliens, Star Trek, or even Cloverfield, they all tend to lean towards science fantasy even though they may feature some exciting futuristic ideas.
On the other hand, I, Robot, Gravity, and even the old Forbidden Planet all fall more under science fiction because they use facts and established theories to get from plot point A to B in the story. The path can stretch the imagination a bit but the science is still clear. For those who would say, “But wait! The Krell were aliens!” I agree but the monster was based on man’s psychology. The Krell were merely a plot device to explain the monster. By the way, this movie was the first time I’d ever heard of the id, ego, and superego as a kid.
That is why I love great science fiction. The audience can always learn something from the plot. For instance, Interstellar was a thought-provoking film, and in some cases difficult to understand, but it did an excellent job in showing relativity and space travel.
Mixing Fantasy and Reality
Consider these definitions as the polar points on a continuous line. Most science fiction books and movies fall somewhere along that line with only a few being solely parked at hardcore or fantastical.
Even Arrival, a wonderful first-contact movie, features some great linguistics ideas but also tentacled creatures, which puts it on the edge of science fantasy. It also teaches a great lesson in how we always start with certain assumptions, like math is math everywhere. We also assume that language represents a linearity of time. (SPOILER) For the aliens, it wasn’t.
Where did all the spacemen go?
My rant in this blog is this. Hard-core science fiction seems to be disappearing. Hollywood is producing some great films but the literature is sadly lacking.
The golden age of science fiction became eclipsed when some of the best writers (Clark, Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, among others) died off. While other great writers have risen to fill these giants’ shoes, the emphasis is all too often more on aliens. In mediocre fiction, we see a lot of these plot lines.
Fill-in-the-blank-hero is facing Fill-in-the-blank alien and the two races are on the brink of, or already at, war. Will he/she survive?
In a universe filled with fill-in-the-blank, Fill-in-the-blank-hero is the Chosen One to unite the races and fight back the forces of evil.
These tried and true plots are becoming as tried-and-tired as unimaginative vampire stories.
Whereas these books might be well written and enjoyable, they don’t really use science as the moving force. Yeah, they feature unexplained interstellar flight and zap guns, but the science serves more of a backdrop than a critical part of the story.
Where Is My Flying Car?
I get it. The dream of space travel at best has become a humdrum reality or at worst a lost opportunity as the space program suffers from a lack of funding. However, let’s encourage writers to go back to the ideas of owning flying cars, exploring new planets, working with interesting biology, and more. Let’s use science as an integral part of the story. Maybe we can start thinking beyond the limits of Earth and time. Yes, dangers await, but at least we will embrace that aspect of the human spirit that wants to dream, expand, and explore again.
Post note: I realize my knowledge of recent science fiction books may be limited. So, dear reader, if you have any books to suggest, please leave the title in the comments. I would love to have some recommendations.