Science Fiction Its Nature Faults and Virtues

Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues

In 1957, the University of Chicago hosted a lecture series featuring leading science fiction writers of the day: Robert A. Heinlein, C. M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and Robert Bloch were the invited speakers. Their lectures were published soon afterward in

The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism

(1959), a collection remarkable for the extent to which it asserts an importance for science fiction that some would deny it. Heres Robert A. Heinleins part of this effort. For Heinlein, science fiction is or at least can be far more than mere escapist genre literature. In our fabulously science fictional nation, he argues, SF and technological innovation go hand in hand.

First let us decide what we mean by the term science fictionor at least what we will mean by it here. Anyone wishing a scholarly discussion of the etymology of the term will find one by Sam Moskowitz in the February, 1957 issue ofThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I shant repeat what he has said so well but will summarize for our immediate purposes. The field has existed throughout the history of literature but it used to be called by several names: speculative romance, pseudo-scientific romance (a term that sets a science fiction writers teeth on edge), utopian literature, fantasyor, more frequently, given no name, simply lumped in with all other fiction.

But the term science fiction is now part of the language, as common as the neologism guided missile. We are stuck with it and I will use it . . . although personally I prefer the term speculative fiction as being more descriptive. I will use these two terms interchangeably, one being the common handle, the other being one that aids me in thinkingbut with the same referent in each case.

Science fiction means different things to different people. When I make a word do a lot of work like that, said Humpty Dumpty, I always pay it extrain which case the term science fiction has piled up a lot of expensive overtime. Damon Knight, a distinguished critic in this field, argues that there is no clear distinction between fantasy and science fiction, in which opinion August Derleth seems to agree. I cannot forcefully disagree with their lines of reasoningbut I wonder if they have made their definitions so broad as to include practically all fiction? To define is to limit: a definition cannot be useful unless it limits. Certainly Mickey Spillanes murder stories could easily be classed as fantasies, as can many or most of the love stories appearing in the big slick magazines. But I feel sure that Mr. Knight and Mr. Derleth did not intend their definitions to be quite that unbounded and in any case my difference of opinion with them is merely a matter of taste and personal convenience.

Theodore Sturgeon, a giant in this field, defines a science fiction story as one in which the story would not exist if it were not for the scientific elementan admirably sharp delimitation but one which seems to me perhaps as uncomfortably tight as the one above seems to me unusefully roomy. It would exclude from the category science fiction much of Mr. Sturgeons best work, stories which are to my mind speculative rather than fantastic. There are many stories that are lumped into the class science fiction in the minds of most people (and in mine) which contain only a detectable trace, or none, of sciencefor example, Sinclair LewisIt Cant Happen Here, Fritz Leibers great short story Coming Attraction, Thomas F. Tweeds novelGabriel Over the White House. All three stories are of manners and morals; any science in them is merely parsley trimming, not the meat. Yet each is major speculation, not fantasy, and each must be classed as science fiction as the term is commonly used.

Reginald Bretnor, author, editor and acute critic of this field, gives what is to me the most thoughtful, best reasoned, and most useful definition of science fiction. He sees it as a field of literature much broader than that most often termed main-stream literatureor non-science fiction, if you pleasescience fiction being that sort in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the human activity known as the scientific method, shows equal awareness of the great body of human knowledge already collected through that activity, and takes into account in his stories the effects and possible future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact. This indispensable three-fold awareness does not limit the science fiction author to stories about sciencehe need not write a gadget story; indeed a gadget story would not be science fiction under this definition if the author failed in this three-fold awareness. Any subject can be used in a science fiction story under this definition, provided (and indispensably required) that the author has the attitude comprised by the three-fold awareness and further provided that he has and uses appropriately that body of knowledge pertinent to the scope of his story. I have paraphrased in summary Mr. Bretnors comments and I hope he will forgive me.

Mr. Bretnors definition gives the science fiction author almost unlimited freedom in subject matter while requiring of him high, rigorous, and mature standards in execution.

In contrast to science fiction thus defined, non-science fictionall other fiction including the most highly acclaimed literary novelsat most shows awareness of the by-products of scientific method already in existence. Non-science fiction admits the existence of the automobile, radar, polio vaccine, H-bombs, etc., but refuses to countenance starships and other such frivolities. That is to say, non-science fiction will concede that water is running down hill but refuses to admit that it might ever reach the bottom … or could ever be pumped up again. It is a static attitude, an assumption that what is now forever shall be.

An example of the great scope of this definition is Sinclair Lewis novelArrowsmith, a story motivated by the human problems of a man aware of and consciously trying to practice the scientific method in medical research in the face of difficulties.Arrowsmithwas not labeled science fiction by its publisher, it is not concerned with space ships nor the year 3000; nevertheless it is science fiction at its best, it shows that three-fold awareness to the utmost and is a rousin good yarn of great literary merit.

Lets back off for a moment and compare science fiction with other forms of fiction. First: what is fiction?

Merriam-Webster: Works of imagination in narrative form.

Funk & Wagnalls: Imaginary narrative.

Thorndike-Barnhart: Prose writings about imaginary people and happenings.

FowlersModern English Usageequates fictitious with imaginary.

These reasonably equivalent definitions are all based on the common element imaginaryso lets put it in everyday words: Fiction is storytelling about imaginary things and people. These imaginary tales are usually intended to entertain and sometimes do, they are sometimes intended to instruct and occasionally manage even that, but the only element common to all fiction is that all of it deals with imaginary elements. Even fiction of the most sordid and detailed ash-can realism is imaginaryor it cannot be termed fiction.

But if all fiction is imaginary, how is realistic fiction to be distinguished from fantasy?

The lexicographers cited above are not quite so unanimous here. However, I find certain words used over and over again in their discussions of fantasy: dream, caprice, whim, fanciful, conceit, figment, unreal, irrational. These descriptive words have a common element; they all imply imaginings which are not limited by the physical universe as we conceive it to be.

I therefore propose to define fantasy in accordance with the implication common to the remarks of these lexicographers. There have been many wordy and fruitless battles over the exact meaning of the word fantasy; I have no intention of starting another. I ask merely that you accept for the purpose of better communication during the balance of this essay a definition based on the above. When I say fantasy fiction I shall mean imaginary-and-not-possible in the world as we know it; conversely all fiction which I regard as imaginary-but-possible I shall refer to as realistic fiction, i.e., imaginary but could be real so far as we know the real universe.

Science fiction is in the latter class. It is not fantasy.

I am not condemning fantasy, I am defining it. It has greater freedom that any other form of fiction, for it is completely independent of the real world and is limited only by literary rules relating to empathy, inner logic, and the like. Its great freedom makes it, in the hands of a skilled craftsman, a powerful tool for entertainment and instructionhumor, satire, gothic horror, anything you wish. But a story is not fantasy simply because it deals with the strange, the exotic, the horrible, the unusual, or the improbable; both fantasy and realistic fiction may have any of these elements. It is a mere provincialism to confuse the wildly strange with fantasy; a fantasy story is one which denies in its premise some feature of the real world, it may be quite humdrum in all other respects, e.g., Eric KnightsThe Flying Yorkshireman.

Conversely, a realistic story may be wildly strange while holding firmly to the possibilities of the real worlde.g., E. E. SmithsGray Lensman. The science fiction author is not limited by currently accepted theory nor by popular opinion; he need only respect established fact.

Unfortunately there is never full agreement as to the established facts nor as to what constitutes the real world, and definitions by intention are seldom satisfactory. By these two terms I mean the factual universe of our experience in the sense in which one would expect such words to be used by educated and enlightened members of the western culture in 1959.

Even this definition contains semantic and philosophic difficulties but I shall not attempt to cope with them in this limited space; I will limit myself to pointing out some stories which, in my opinion, deny some essential fact of the real world and therefore are, by the imaginary-and-not-possible definition, fantasy:

My storyMagic, Inc.; E. R. EddisonsThe Worm Ouroboros; the Oz books; stories using talking mules, or Seacoast Bohemia, or astrology treated as if it were a science; any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics, stories which have the lizard men of Zlxxt crossbreeding with human females, stories which represent the surface conditions of Mars as being much like those of Earth. Let me emphasize: Assumptions contrary to fact such as the last one mentioned do not in themselves invalidate a story; C. S. Lewis powerfulOut of the Silent Planetis not spoiled thereby as a religious parableit simply happens to be fantasy rather than science fiction.

Very wellfrom here on fantasy will be considered identically equal to impossible story.

All other fiction including science fiction falls into the category imaginary-but-possible. Examples: Frederic WakemansThe Hucksters, Dr. E. E. Smiths galactic romances, Daniel DefoesMoll Flanders; stories about time travel, other dimensions, speeds faster than light, extra-sensory perception; many ghost stories, ones about extra-terrestrial life, John SteinbecksThe Grapes of Wrath.

You will have noted that I make the category possible very broad. Faster-than-light, time travel, reincarnation, ghosts, all these may strike some of you as impossible, contrary to scientific fact. No, they are contrary to present orthodox theory only and the distinction is extremely important. Such stories may be invalidated by their treatments; they cannot be ruled out today as impossible simply because of such themes. Speeds faster than light would seem to be excluded by Einsteinian theory, a theory which has stood up favorably under many tests, but such an exclusion would be a subjective one, as anyone may see by examining the equations; furthermore, Dr. Einsteins theories and related ones are now being subjected to careful re-examination; the outcome is not yet. As for time travel, we know almost nothing about the nature of time; anyone who has his mind made up either pro or con about time travel is confusing his inner opinions with objective reality. We simply dont know.

With respect to reincarnation, ghosts, ESP, and many related matters concerning consciousness, the evidence concerning each is, in 1959, incomplete and in many respects unsatisfactory. We dont even know how consciousness anchors itself to mass; we are short on solid facts in this field and any opinion, positive or negative, can be no better than a tentative hypothesis today.

Hypotheses and theories are always expendable; a scientist modifies or discards them in the face of new facts as casually as he changes his socks. Ordinarily a scientist will use the convenient rule-of-thumb called least hypothesis but he owes it no allegiance; his one fixed loyalty is to the observed fact. An honest science fiction writer observes the same loyalty to fact but from there on his path diverges from that of the scientist because his function is different. The pragmatic rule of least hypothesis, useful as it may be to orderly research, is as unfunctional in speculative fiction as a chaperone on a honeymoon. In matters incompletely explored such as reincarnation and time travel the science fiction writer need not be and should not be bound either by contemporary opinion or least hypothesis; his function is to speculate from such facts as there are and to do so as grandly and sweepingly as his imagination permits. He cannot carry out his function while paying lip service to the orthodox opinions or prejudices of his tribe and generation, and no one should expect it of him. It is difficult enough for him to bear in mind a multitude of facts and not wander inadvertently across into fantasy.

I have made perhaps too much of this point because it is a sore one with all science fiction writers; we are regularly charged with violating fact when all we have done is to disregard currently respected theory. Every new speculation necessarily starts by kicking aside some older theory.

To categorizing there is no end, and the field of prose fiction may be classified in many different ways: by length, plot, subject, period, locale, language, narrative technique; or by intentsatire, romance, burlesque, comedy, tragedy, propaganda. All these classes blend together and what categories a critic chooses to define depend upon his purpose. We have divided fiction into possible and impossible; now let us divide again by temporal scene:

1. Historical Fiction 2. Contemporary-Scene Fiction 3. Realistic Future-Scene Fiction

I. Fantasy laid in the past II. Fantasy laid in the present III. Fantasy laid in the future

This arbitrary classification has advantages; on inspecting it several facts show up at once:

So-called main-stream literature fills most of class 1 and class 2.

Class 3 contains only science fiction; a small amount of science fiction may also be found in class 1 and class 2.

In the second division, good fantasy, consciously written and skillfully executed, may be found in all three classes. But a great quantity of fake science fiction, actually pseudo-scientific fantasy, will be found there also, especially in class III, which is choked with it.

But the most significant fact shining out from the above method of classifying is that class 3, realistic future-scene fiction, contains nothing which is not science fiction and contains at least 90% of all science fiction in print. A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.

To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of almost all) it is necessary only to strike out the word future. But in fact most science fiction is laid in the future; the reasons for this are not trivial and will be discussed later.

As always, categories tend to overlap, or stories turn out to overlap the categories. We will not offer them Procrustean hospitalitya story is what it is, regardless of a critics classifications. John Taines novelThe Time Streamis science fiction which spans past, present, and future; Dr. Frank G. SlaughtersSangareeis a fine historical novel which is also a science fiction novel; Lion FeuchtwangersSuccessis an historical novel laid in the present and told as if the narrator were in the future; Maxwell GriffithsThe Gadget Maker, Philip WyliesTomorrow, and Pat FranksForbidden Areaare examples of science fiction laid in a future no later than tomorrow morning. Some stories are such exotic creatures as to defy almost any method of literary taxonomy. A skillful writer could combine in one story an element of fantasy, some of science fiction, a contemporary story, an historical and a bit of the future, some comedy, some tragedy, some burlesque, and a little straight hortatory propagandain fact I have seen one which includes all of these elements: Vincent McHughsCaleb Catlums America.

But realistic speculationscience fictionis usually laid in the future, because it extrapolates from what is to what might be. Some will say that this is the rankest form of fantasy, since the future is not real. I deny that. We have the dead past, the dying moment and the ever-emerging, always-living future. Our lives always lie in the future; a casual decision to scratch oneself must be carried out at least an instant in the future. The future is all that we can changeand thank Heaven we can!for the present has obvious shortcomings.

If the future were not real, no insurance company could stay in business. All our lives we are more deeply concerned with what we are going to do than with what we are now doing or have done. The poet who said that every child is the hope of the world understood that. This process is time-binding, the most human of all activities, observing the past in order to make plans for the future. This is the scientific method itself and is the activity which most greatly distinguishes man from other animals. To be able to grasp and embrace the future is to be human.

For this reason I must assert that speculative fiction is much more realistic than is most historical and contemporary-scene fiction and is superior to them both.

Are the speculations of science fiction prophecy? No.

On the other hand, science fiction is often prophetic. There was once a race track tout who touted every horse in each race, each horse to a different sucker. Inevitably he had a winner in every racehe had extrapolated every possibility. Science fiction writers have prophesied (if you will excuse a deliberate misuse of the word) so many things and so many possible futures that some of them must have come true, with sometimes rather startling accuracy. Having bet on all the horses we cant lose. But much has been made of the successful prophecies of science fictionthe electric light, the telephone, the airplane, the submarine, the periscope, tanks, flamethrowers, A-bombs, television, the automobile, guided missiles, robot aircraft, totalitarian government, radarthe list is endless.

The fact is that most so-called successful prophecies are made by writers who follow the current scientific reports and indulge in rather obvious extrapolation of already known fact. Let me pick to pieces two cases which I know well because the prophecies are attributed to me. The first is from my storyWaldo, and refers to remote-control manipulators described therein which I called waldos after the fictional inventor. Willy Ley calls this one of the neatest predictions ever to come out of science fiction and goes on to describe how nearly perfectly I had described the remote-control manipulators now used in atomic hot laboratories, even to the use of stereotelevision to conn them … even to the development of master and slave teams to permit one operator to do multiple tasks. Sounds pretty good, eh? Especially as the word waldo has since become engineering slang.

The second refers to my story Solution Unsatisfactory. John W. Campbell, Jr., in an essay on this point, lists nine major prophecies in this story, seven of which he says have come true, and two of which, he notes, may very well come true soon. All of them refer to atomic weapons and their impact on history. I might even add that one of those predictions would have come true even more precisely had I not finished writing another story on atomic power and wished to avoid repeating one of the incidents in it. All of these so-called prophecies were made in 1940 and they have come true, so to speak, during the ensuing 19 years.

Sounds as if I own a crystal ball, doesnt it?

Now to pick them to pieces, the latter one first. At the time I wrote Solution Unsatisfactory there wasnt enough U-235 in pure state to blow the hat off a flea. But I had had my attention called to its explosive and military possibilities not only by technical reports but both by Mr. Campbell himself (who had maintained his connections at MIT) and by Dr. Robert Cornog, atomic physicist from Berkeley who later helped to develop the atomic bomb. Thus I had first hand and most recent scientific knowledge to build onall this was before security restrictions were placed on the matter, before the famous first pile was erected at the University of Chicago.

I had two more all-important data: a great world war was already going on, and the basic knowledge which made U-235 potentially an unbeatable weapon which could win that war was already known to scientists the world aroundeven though the public was unaware of it.

Given all this mass of fact could a careful fictionist fail to come up with something near the truth? As prophecies, those fictional predictions of mine were about as startling as for a man to look out a train window, see that another train is coming head-on toward his own on the same trackand predict a train wreck.

The other one, the waldos or remote control manipulators, was even simpler. Back in 1918 I read an article inPopular Mechanicsabout a poor fellow afflicted with myasthenia gravis, pathological muscular weakness so great that even handling a knife and fork is too much effort. In this condition the brain and the control system are okay, the muscles almost incapable. This manI dont even know his name; the article is lost in the dim corridors of timethis genius did not let myasthenia gravis defeat him. He devised complicated lever arrangements to enable him to use what little strength he had and he became an inventor and industrial engineer, specializing in how to get maximum result for least effort. He turned his affliction into an asset.

Twenty-two years later after I had read about his inspiring example I was scratching my head for a story notionand I recalled this genius. Now I myself am a mechanical engineer who once specialized in mechanical linkages and had worked in industrial engineering. Is it surprising that with so much real fact to go on and with my own technical background I could describe fictionally remote-control manipulatorswaldoswhich would multiply human muscle power and at the same time handle things with delicate precision? Television had already been invented years beforeabout twenty years before the public got itand somebody had already built such linkages, even though they were not in common use. So I prophesied themtwenty years after the fact.

What I did miss was that the development of atomics would make waldos utterly indispensable; I predicted them for straight industrial usenow even that is coming true as industry is finding other uses for the manipulators developed for atomics.

But as a prophecy I was taking as much chance as a man who predicts tomorrows sunrise.

These manipulators exist in the opposite direction, toodown into the very small . . . micromanipulators for microchemistry and microsurgery. I have never worked with such things but I learned their details from my wife, who is a microchemist and microsurgeon. Working with such and using a stereomicroscope a skilled operator can excise a living nucleus from a living cell, transplant it to another cell, and cause it to livea powerful tool in biological research . . . and a beautiful example of research scientist and engineer working together to produce something new. The scientist wanted itworking under his direction, optician and mechanical engineer could make what he needed.

There are other obvious extrapolations from these facts. Put these four things together, the remote-control manipulator with the micromanipulator, television with microscopy. Use micromanipulation to make still smaller instruments which in turn are used to make still smaller instruments which in turn are used to make ones smaller yet. What do you get? A scientist, working safely outside a hot laboratoryperhaps with the actual working theater as far away as the Antarctic while the scientist sits in Chicagoseeing by stereomicroscopic television, using remote-control microscopic manipulation, operating not just on a cell and a nucleus, but sorting the mighty molecules of the genes, to determine the exact genetic effect of mutation caused by radiation. Or a dozen other things.

I give this prediction about twenty years, more or less. The basic facts are all in and soon well be needing such a technique. There may be a story in it for me, tooanother easy dollar as a fake prophet. Im afraid the itch to prophesy becomes a vice. Forgive me.

Sometimes the so-called prophecies are even less prophetic than these two I have just deflated. For example, in one story I described a rather remarkable oleo-gear arrangement for handling exceedingly heavy loads. I was not cheating, the device would work: it had been patented about 1900 and has been in industrial use ever since. But it is a gadget not well known to the public and it happened to fit into a story I was writing.

Most so-called science fiction prophecies require very little use of a crystal ball; they are much more like the observations of a man who is looking out a train window rather than down at his laphe sees the other train coming, and the ensuing prophecy is somewhat less remarkable than a lunar eclipse prediction.

However, science and science fiction do interact. There are close relationships between scientists and science fiction writersindeed some of them are both. H. G. Wells had a degree in biology and kept up with science all his life. Jules Verne worked very closely with scientists. Dr. E. E. Smith is a chemist, a chemical engineer, and a metallurgist. Philip Latham is a world-famous astrophysicist. Philip Wylie has a degree in physics, as has Don A. Stuart. Murray Leinster is a chemist. Dr. Isaac Asimov teaches at the medical school of Boston University, does research in cancer, writes college textbooks on biochemistry, write a junior series of science books as welland somehow finds time to be a leading science fiction author. John Taine is the pen name of one of the ten greatest living mathematicians. L. Sprague de Camp holds three technical degrees. Lee Correy is a senior rocket engineer. George O. Smith is a prominent electronics engineer. Chad Oliver is an anthropologist. Is it surprising that such men, writing fiction about what they know best, manage to be right rather often?

But science fiction not infrequently guides the direction of science. I had a completely imaginary electronics device in a story published in 1939. A classmate of mine, then directing such research, took it to his civilian chief engineer and asked if it could possibly be done. The researcher replied, Mmm . . . no, I dont think souh, wait a minute . . . well, yes, maybe. Well try.

The bread-boarded first model was being tried out aboard ship before the next installment of my story hit the newsstands. The final development of this gadget was in use all through World War II. I wasnt predicting anything and had no reason to think that it would work; I was just dreaming up a gadget to fill a need in a story, sticking as close to fact and possibility as I could.

Tout ce quun homme est capable dimaginer, dautres hommes seront capable de la raliser. (M. Jules VerneI am indebted to Willy Ley for the quotation.) Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real. Or to put it in the words of Colonel Turner, first commanding officer of White Sands: Ill go this far: anything we want to do, we now can do, if we want to badly enough. As Oscar Wilde puts it, Nature mirrors art, … and it often does, in science fiction. If a writer knows that mankind wants to do something or needs to do something and that writer is reasonably familiar with the current trends in research and development, it is not too hard for him to predict approximately what one of the solutions will be.

However, in science fiction as in law, ignorance is no excuse, to quote L. Sprague de Camp: the man who has neglected to keep himself informed concerning the frontiers of science, or, even having managed that, fails to be reasonably knowledgeable about any field of human activity affecting his story, or who lacks a fair knowledge of history and current eventsfailing in any of these things, he has no business writing speculative