How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Science Fictional Universe

When we were discussing which topic we wanted to cover this month, it dawned on us that in the year-and-a-half we’ve been doing this, we’ve hardly touched Science Fictional Universe.

how to live safely in a science fictional universe
Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay 

Which is strange, because, broadly speaking, it’s one of the most influential genres in all of fiction.

So this month we want to make up for it and just… focus on sci-fi as a whole. There’s one problem, though: no one can seem to agree on what science fiction is. 

We’ve run into a lot of differing opinions on this subject, but most of them seem to affirm that we’ve stumbled onto a sort of organizational vacuum-a no-man’s land of vague descriptions.

The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction Defines it as “the literature of the human species encountering change.” But what about works like A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick, where the “difference” isn’t a new change-it’s the status quo? Robert A. 

Heinlein called it “realistic speculation about possible events, based solidly on an adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.

” Interesting, but it kind of misses things like Doctor Who and The Fifth Element-works usually classified as “sci-fi”, despite their lacking a firm basis in reality.

If you go hunting for definitions, this is the majority of what you’ll find: authors and editors attempting to distinguish the genre by philosophical engagement or technical accuracy. 

With the best of intentions, they end up pigeonholing science fiction into something purely cerebral. And really, who can blame them? Some of the most thought-provoking pieces of modern literature are sci-fi.

Even so, we think we may actually have uncovered a way to define the genre that’s both considerate of its diversity… and very simple.

But before we get to that, you need to understand what lead us here; what we think maybe the single most compelling factor behind this constricted point of view.

 It’s something the community on has appropriately dubbed “The Sci-fi Ghetto”. Ever since Hugo Gernsback brought science fiction into the public eye back in the 1920s, writers and audiences have been struggling to figure out its boundaries.

Of course, it goes back a lot further than that, but his magazine-Amazing Stories-was the first dedicated English-language sci-fi publication.

He called it “scientifiction”, which was at the time mostly made up of sensational stories about new gadgets and impossible futures:”Pulp” sci-fi. The ensuing rubber aliens and tin-man robot did very little to curb the building connotation that sci-fi was not serious, not literary,and not worthy of academic scrutiny.

Ironically, the solution to this “pulpification”also led to a second, equally-destructive connotation. After the success of Gernsback’s Amazing Stories,competitors began to spring up.

The creatively-named Astounding Stories was among them, and with the addition of the legendary John W. Campbell as an editor, it began to change the face of science fiction.

Campbell heralded the “golden age of sci-fi”, focusing on work he felt was “smart”: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and others. Revolutionary, cerebral stuff, but also rather esoteric.

There’s certainly a niche for stories that provide realistic speculation about the future of technology, but many of these highly-accurate”hard science fiction” stories lacked the intrinsic appeal of pulp.

They were perceived to be written for a limited audience-a dangerous prospect for film-makers and publishers.

Thus, we have The Sci-fi Ghetto: a made-up place where we cram anything “sci-fi” because it’s bound to be either too niche or too novel.

It manifests in places like the Academy Awards, where no film clearly recognizable as “sci-fi” has ever won best picture, and in academia, where classic works of science fiction rarely make it into the regular literary curriculum.

Even worse, a lot of excellent authors goto lengths to evade the Ghetto, either refusing to call their work “sci-fi” at all or defining the genre to exclude that embarrassing pulp.

For us, this is a problem. Genre isn’t a tool for the appraisal; it’s a tool for orientation.

How are we supposed to understand and categorize sci-fi when most of the definitions come from prejudice or the desire to avoid it? There has to be some way to describe the genre that represents its true breadth. 

And we think… we may have found it. One simple sentence that covers everything.

“Science fiction is any work with the presence of ‘novum’.” That’s probably a little anticlimactic for you, because you probably have no idea what “novum” means. And, before starting the research for this video, we didn’t either.

We found the term in an essay by Croatiancritic Darko Suvin. It literally means “new thing”, but he adapts it in reference to cognitive estrangement-when something seems familiar to the audience,but is also made unfamiliar.

With a little stretch, we’re mosquitoing it. When we say “novum”, we’re referring to thingswhich may not be plausible in reality, but are reconcilable with it. For example, vampires are fantasy. We have stories and accounts of them, just no empirical data that tethers them to the real world.

But vampires that occur as the result of abacterial infection? Bacteria are real, and there may not be any that cause these symptoms yet, but there could be. That was novum. That’s sci-fi. By this definition, a lot of things are technically sci-fi.

Even some things you’re better off filing under a different genre altogether. Just because the magic in Patrick Rothfuss’sKing-Killer Chronicle is explained through thermodynamics doesn’t mean his books full swordplay and faeries are best categorized as “science fiction”.

The novum are there, they just aren’t nearly as important as the fantasy. In Star Wars, the universe is overbrimming with novum, but the magic of The Force rules the plot.

They’re of equal relevance to the work, soit fits on both shelves-“Science Fantasy ”. This is the kind of breadth that will allow us to navigate the genre. It can be pulp, sure. We can also have Literary SF and Hard SF,Steampunk and Slipstream, Space Opera and New Wave.

The important thing is that, for all their vast differences, they do share one thing in common: their novum. 

And that’s hardly enough to judge the value of any one piece. Hopefully this will make things significantly easier for you when you’re trying to get a handle on the genre.

It’ll definitely help us approaching this month’s short story, which is apparently going to be pretty open for suggestions. If you want, you can join the discussion and get sneak-peeks by supporting us on Patreon.

You can also support the show by visiting our new merch store and leaving with your own Tale foundry T-shirt or hoodie. Anyway, that’s all for this post. Thanks for reading, and keep making stuff up. 

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