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On Science Fiction
Science fiction is interested in technology and human nature. When I say "science fiction" I'm mostly talking/thinking about the tradition starting with the "hardcore" stuff from the 50s and 60s. It is interested in exploring the consequences and possibilities of various ideas or theories about technological advancement and how humans deal with it. It explores the possibilities of technology and the logical consequences and limitations of it--it takes something like "faster-than-light travel" and says "okay, what effect does that have on aging? On human physiology? On our capacity for exploration? On our understanding of space-time?" It also explores the dangers of technology--c.f. anything about artificial intelligence becoming self-aware and rebelling. I would say that the majority, if not upward of say 70%, of the time, the science is grounded and based in actual current human knowledge of physics and programming and medicine and etc. etc. etc. It takes something we already have, or are already looking towards, and explores it, pushing to its logical extensions and examining the consequences. Sometimes, though, it investigates the discovery of a technology that goes against everything we thought we knew about science (or is perhaps simply so advanced that we couldn’t possibly consider it—like introducing the iPod to cavemen) and explores how we would cope with the sudden increase in our technological ability.

It also cares about human nature. Not necessarily individual humans, but more humanity as a whole--how do we react to change, to new situations? How do we handle the power of technology? In a huge galaxy full of aliens, what does it mean to be human? What sets us apart?* Place into these theoretical technological situations, what are the limits of human nature? The possibilities? Faced with new situations brought about by the technology, how will we react and adapt? Will we fall into the darkness of our species, or ultimately fall to the monsters we create (c.f. Harlan Ellison [esp. "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"]), or will we eventually triumph (c.f. Asimov, at least in things like Quark’s recommended “The Last Question”)? The possibility of causing our own annihilation is a huge issue (and that I am sure was in part and/or whole caused by the Cold War).

Aliens, or even just humans developing somewhere besides Earth (or in a post-apocalyptic Earth), are sometimes a focus, inasmuch as there’s an attempt to construct an entirely different mindset—there’s a relation to the “what if?” questions of technology, but not necessarily on a technological level—“what if a culture developed on a world that experienced one rotation from day-night a lifetime?” It takes scientific knowledge of what such a world would be like (really freaking cold, for one, and idk what the gravity would be) and then explores questions within it. “How would a sentient hive mind work?” would perhaps be another question.

Overall, though, science fiction tends to focus on strict rules, or having a strictly defined system, and then exploring the limits of that system in order to seek out truths of human nature, existence, and meaning. It tends to focus less on characters and more on types—the original Star Trek is in large part about taking types (the brash captain, the skeptical doctor, the logical science officer) and putting them through situations and exploring the consequences. One of the biggest complaints about Asimov and his ilk is that they don’t care about characterization at all. (Or writing female characters. There was no Sally Ride in those days, after all.) It’s also sometimes true that the emphasis on technology creates a certain cold technical sterility underlying the stories, and certainly authors can get way bogged down in describing their own system. My general understanding is that science fiction focuses on technology and scientific concepts, rather than characters or plot, in order to address existential and ontological issues that could arise from the technology or situations.

*You'll notice that humans are almost always the young upstart race, and that we're almost always more clever and quick-acting and ingenious and able to think outside the box and provide new understanding than any other race. Aliens tend to be a lot more homogenous than humans. Or perhaps that’s simply the outsider perspective. This goes for both sci-fi and space opera, although I think the former in its proper form has fewer aliens.

On the Space Opera
So it would be cheating here to say that “space opera is everything sci-fi is not,” but hopefully y’all are already tracking where the difference is going to be.


Sorry. Space operas are, basically, not constrained by scientific facts or possibilities. They have limitless possibilities because they are not confined to things like Physics As We Understand It. Not that some space operas don’t pay attention to the rules of physics, but they tend to care less about how ray guns would actually work and focus more look we have ray guns. The technology is cool but not necessarily feasible (c.f. blasters in Star Wars), and the story doesn’t get bogged down in technical details—the focus is more on the story. (This last point varies, depending on how much the author wants to lay out his Really Neat Idea for ray guns.)

As everyone basically knows, consistent worldbuilding—creating a fully-realized world with rules that are carefully laid out and accepted by its inhabitants—is an important part of creating a setting in which the reader may be immersed. I said earlier that science fiction has a focus on creating strict systems—space operas are also systemic and consistent, but again, they’re not concerned with feasibility. Star Wars novels that try to explain hyperspace are wasting their time.

Space operas can also address big philosophical questions of existence and the like, and are especially big on exploring the questions raised by aliens (and the challenges of creating an alien universe-view), but they are emphatically more story-, not situation-, generated. Star Wars tells the Hero’s Quest story against the backdrop of space. The story—characters and plot—are what generate the movement and questions of the work, not an interesting technological or scientific puzzle. The glory of setting stories in space is that space is limitless—the universe is expanding!—and there’s SO MUCH OUT THERE TO GO AND EXPLORE AND DO AND SEE and you can introduce the fantastic (e.g. dragons) simply by putting them on a planet out there. ALSO THERE ARE SPACE SHIPS.

For me, at least, space operas captured the imagination of my childhood (every time I watch Star Wars I’m secretly convinced that I too could go explore the galaxy), while science fiction appealed to me more as I got older and understood the ideas it wrestled with.

On the limitations of the phrase “space opera”
This is more a sub-topic, but operas (i.e. grand epic-fantasy-scale stories) aren’t the only kind of not-strict-science-fiction-space stories that get told, so I would just like to say that there are also space mysteries (like The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn, whom I love) and (and this is WP’s favorite kind) space military fiction, among other examples. The latter is a huge sub-genre that I’ll address in a minute.

onto the problems!


(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-27 12:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fabricalchemist.livejournal.com
(so glad this is broken up into chunks)

I think the main, uber underlying difference between fantasy and sci fi is one uses magic and the other uses technology. Magic is more emotional, technology is black and white. Left brain, Right brain. But like you say! Some stories take unfortunate emphasis on the technology, sacrificing time spent on characters and human struggle. This also happens in fantasy...man, if I have to struggle through freaking esoteric Ultra Sweeping 800 Page Fantasy, I mean, let's hurry up and get to the drama bits. Space Opera is where it's at *cough*Firefly*cough*DoctorWho*cough*

Also! An excellent example of combining fantasy and sci fi is Enchantress From the Stars, relying heavily on the notion that all magic is simply science we don't understand yet.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-28 12:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rosaleeluann.livejournal.com
I've heard it argued that the essential difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy is past vs. future. I've also seen it said that Fantasy is good vs. evil and is more religious, where Sci-Fi is our side vs. their side and is typically godless, or at least religion is discussed less. And then theres the magic vs. technology you said.

Not disagreeing, just saying that... I'm confused about it. Well, not really. I don't think it comes down to JUST ONE of those things being the difference between them. Its all of them. Next question, if there are all these differences, why are Science Fiction and Fantasy so often spoken in the same breath? :D

I'm just rambling, ignore me :D

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-28 03:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fabricalchemist.livejournal.com
Wow, weird! I guess all of those things could apply, really, although I would argue that Dune is totally religious.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-29 12:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jade-sabre-301.livejournal.com
Past vs. future! That is intriguing, although Star Wars deliberately subverts it ("a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away") and I think others have as well (and see also the "super-advanced technology is basically magic" idea/plot twist).

And I like the other comparison too--or you could say that technology becomes religion (and then science fiction explores the consequences of that idea too). (Also one of Quark's and my favorite characters from Mass Effect, a space marine who comes out and says I'M NOT WORRIED ABOUT MY DADDY, I KNOW HE'S WITH GOD, BECAUSE HOLY COW LOOK AT SPACE IT IS SO AWESOME HOW COULD THERE NOT BE A GOD. Speaking of subverting tropes.) Although just because fantasy has religion doesn't necessarily make it more "godful" than sci-fi.

They're spoken in the same breath because neither focuses on reality or "practical" things?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-02 12:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] keestone.livejournal.com
They're spoken of in the same breath because aside from the fact that they're both explicitly not Realist or mimetic, they've got a lot of kinship. They just often express ideas in different images and tropes, but they're inherently speculative and their stories are based in the world building what if.

And because they're "Make Believe" instead of "Serious Real" and got ghettoized in the pulps for a while while Realist fiction was king, they still get maligned as "juvenile" and "not serious writing" because people are unimaginative idiots who think fairy tales are for babies.

Edited to add: Le Guin and Atwood are quoted here as agreeing that, "the key distinction between fantasy and science fiction was one of possibility: fantasy could never happen, while science fiction could." http://io9.com/5650396/margaret-atwood-and-ursula-k-le-guin-debate-science-fiction-vs-realism That's also a kind of facile distinction, though, because some stuff dealt with in science fiction is just as likely to not be possible as stuff that would fall in the fantasy magic category.
Edited Date: 2012-07-02 12:38 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-29 12:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jade-sabre-301.livejournal.com
(hahahaha the original plan was all one post so GUESS IT'S A GOOD THING I DIDN'T DO THAT.)

I would definitely agree with that! And so then when doing a post about the difference/similarities between sci-fi and fantasy, you'd have to ask, "okay, what's the fantasy equivalent of science fiction" it interests me that something like say Sword of Shanara would have the same problem as Quark's probable ones with the Foundation Trilogy even though they focus on COMPLETELY different things (okay I have never read either one--SoS I started, asked my dad if there were going to be ANY girls, he said no*, so I quit, and I just haven't ever actually picked up Foundation), but like I get why long science fiction would have problems but what is it about long fantasy (because oftentimes fantasy has to be a little long for the sake of worldbuilding) that would cause problems.


*this is one of the few moments where I remember doing that. Every time I read feminist narratives of readership that are like I SEARCHED FOR WOMEN IN BOOKS** AND COULDN'T FIND THEM AND FELT LIKE I WAS FORCED TO ONLY READ ABOUT MEN MEN MEN AND IT COLORED MY VIEW OF THE WORLD AT THE TIME I am wary of how these women were apparently super-aware of gender at the age of eight or even able to realize how much they were warped based on their memories of this time (although I can see how you can look back and trace how, over your life, this has been a problem). For the most part I never cared and it never bothered me (see ** for the reason why), but I was mad about SoS because it's this HUGE FAMOUS FANTASY SERIES and I wanted to read more of it so I would know about it but I couldn't even get through book one because there were no giiiiiiiiiiiirls (and the menfolks were all super-boring).

**to be fair I think I only ever read this is women of Tamora Pierce's generation, because they all went on to fix the problem by writing lots of books about girls

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-29 02:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fabricalchemist.livejournal.com
(but then you wouldn't have a comment to reply to IN EACH SECTION)

When long fantasy becomes tedious it's because you can only save the world SO many times. You can only describe things in SO MUCH torturous detail. Same old deal, just a bigger boss. After a while it just becomes repetitive, whereas with sci fi, you have essentially all of infinity to explore. You're not confined to one magic land on one magic planet, forced to differentiate it with "exotic" apostrophed names (though this is not always the case, I am generalizing).

DUDE. Even though I had She-Ra growing up, the boy heroes always got the best lines, the coolest adventures, the most swag clothes. I was like, eff princesses, I'm going to be a boy. So I probably went the opposite way from you and instead tried to conform to the books (which wasn't a big deal until high school/puberty/my body's betrayal of me since we were raised feral anyway). And by then there were at least a few cool female heroines, but Uncle Howl had already chased them out of my head with his hyacinth bodyspray and hair gel; dear child, you feral thing, let's teach you to be fancy...do you like long sleeves?

Also female heroines seem to have the unfortunate habit of rubbing it one's face "YEAH IM A GIRL HAHA BET YOU THOUGHT I WOULD BE STUPID HUH". We get it, you're a groundbreaker.


(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-01 02:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] keestone.livejournal.com
Okay, here's one point where I kind of disagree.

I mentioned a "continuum" on the first post, and your description of "Science Fiction" mostly describes earlier "Hard" Science Fiction but doesn't really describe a lot of other stuff in the genre. This is a lot of what you'll get with Clarke and Asimov in particular, but even there you're going to get a certain amount of handwaving because even extrapolating from the most detailed knowledge of the best knowledge we have about the relevant sciences, you have to make an imaginative leap to build a world in which these things are concrete reality. This goes back to Clarke's third law as well: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (And of course, Anne McCaffrey really demonstrates that one with her Pern books, which are also "soft" SF because they deal much more with speculated social structures, and have the Fantastic dragons and pseudo-medieval(ish) society. And not very explained telepathy. And some of the books are also romance, of course.) One of the reasons that Space Opera is absolutely still within the greater category of Science Fiction is exactly what you're describing -- it's the Sense of Wonder (or facetiously, "sensawunda") that is so important in Star Wars and in Asimov, in Le Guin and in Bradbury. (Bradbury really is - ---was RIP *sob* the epitome of sensawunda for me.)

Anyhow, another spectrum within the SF/F spectrum is Hard vs Soft Science fiction (cf. hard sciences vs soft or sciences). The harder you get, the more closely I see what you're describing, but that is much more the case with older SciFi. More recent authors pay a lot more attention to plot and (especially) character development in my experience, and it's part of the maturation writing within the genre or mode. (For instance, I definitely would categorize Peter Watts as Hard SF -- I don't know if you can get much harder-- but he's such a consummate master of psychologically deep and real storytelling that the awesome development of frighteningly plausible and very well researched worldbuilding is seamless with the story. (IMHO, though I can't recommend him without caveats, because he does not write stories for the faint of heart or easily triggered, and he gets dark dark dark.)

It's probably also worth noting that I know people who couldn't get into Tolkien because of what they saw as excessive world-building at the expense of plot or character, and I smegging HATED Madame Bovary because I couldn't care less exactly which shop the damn wedding cake came from or exactly how many feet wide the office was, and Victor Hugo nearly lost me in The Hunchback of Notre Dame because of the entire smegging chapter on exactly why the buildings in a certain quarter of Paris were built a particular shade of yellow. It's not a characteristic that either defines or is restricted to Science Fiction.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-01 11:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jade-sabre-301.livejournal.com
1. Still granting you the sub-genre-ness! And I really like your "sense of wonder" point. (Again, part of what spurred this was Quark and Beth talking, and Quark was talking about how she loves Asimov's short stories yet can't find any long science fiction that she likes, so I was interested in a) why hardcore science fiction doesn't translate well to being long and b) what you actually usually find when you read long stuff [i.e. space opera] and what problems that itself entails.) I couldn't get into the first Pern book, and I've never read LeGuins science fiction forays. SUGGESTIONS WELCOME ON THIS FRONT. (Not that you're not busy with your omg-I'm-drooling-at-the-mouth Wilde conference. :-b)

2. Aware of the datedness of the hard science fiction points, so thank you thank you for a recommendation on that front--part of my quest is to figure out who these days is still doing hardcore science fiction. I totally agree with your point about the evolution of the genre, I was just wondering who was doing it within the confines of hardcore science fiction versus space opera stuff. (Also, thank you for qualifying your rec--I mentioned somewhere in this behemoth that I read the whole "I Have No Mouth" short story collection, and I think I had to limit myself to one story a day because they were so dark.)

3a. THIS TOO is a point that interests me (Rosalee keeps commenting about the difference between science fiction and fantasy and I am intrigued by the thought that what bogs down long hardcore science fiction is what bogs down epic fantasy, but I wonder if it would work for short epic fantasy the way it works for short hardcore science fiction). How does bad writing play itself out across genres, and what is the common error they're all making (too much attention to irrelevant detail, but [aside from the frustration of reading] I am amused at what irrelevant details are from genre to genre).

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-02 12:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] keestone.livejournal.com
1) I read almost all of Anne McCaffrey as a teen, but I wouldn't exactly say they're all good books. The only ones I do keep coming back to are Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums (now called the Harper Hall trilogy). They were the first ones I read, work well enough on their own, and I'm not sure I would have cared so much about reading the rest of the books if I'd started elsewhere.

The classic Le Guin recs for Science Fiction are The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, but I don't know which would best to try first. I started with her Earthsea (Fantasy) books, and my favorites by her are Lavinia (which I guess could be counted as Fantasy but is more literary fanfic to my mind) and Searoad which is a collection of short stories based around a small town in Oregon. Anyhow, her "Hainish" universe (to which both The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness belong) really explore constructs of gender and society.

I'm really mostly several years out of date on who's writing what in SF/F right now, but two authors I'm going to try to pick up books I missed in their series while I'm in CA are C. J. Cherryh and Jo Walton. I'm missing a book in Walton's alternate WWII series that starts with Farthing, and I think I'm two behind in Cherryh's increasingly epic Foreigner series. Cherryh does alien psychology really well, BTW, and I love what she does with linguistics and culture (as well as her characters). If you try that series, you will want to start from the beginning and read in order, and this may take a bit of effort because the first third of Foreigner is a self-contained first-contact novella, and then the real story picks up generations later. At least the first nine books or so break nicely into trilogies, but as the story gets bigger the books get less self-contained. For a smaller try, her earlier series starting with The Pride of Chanur is really fun and deals with some similar themes (and the alien psychology she does so well). My favorite standalone of hers is Cuckoo's Egg.

The thing with both of these authors: They're not lazy and they try new things. Walton writes more Fantasy, as she started with a really original take on an Arthurian story, but she never repeats herself. She's written a Trollope novel with dragons, Alternate History, and most recently a magical memoir Among Others, that blends believing in fairies and magic with coming of age as a science fiction fan.

I love Peter Watts, but the experience of reading those books is a serious gut punch and I think the last one influenced a bad dream. And I am not easily squicked, although I'm not a horror fan. So, yeah. I can't not warn, but I'd say at least try Starfish, keep on for at least until you get used to the flat affect of the style (which is there for a reason), and realize things get darker if you think it's worth continuing. The Rifters trilogy is available online for free under a creative commons license, btw.

Yeah, "smegging" is a great word. I love Red Dwarf (which reminds me that completely daft and illogical sit-coms set on a space ship with absolutely no pretense at continuity or scientific credibility can also be brilliant Science Fiction). :D
Edited Date: 2012-07-02 12:22 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-17 10:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] beth-shulman.livejournal.com
One of the reasons that Space Opera is absolutely still within the greater category of Science Fiction is exactly what you're describing -- it's the Sense of Wonder (or facetiously, "sensawunda") that is so important in Star Wars and in Asimov, in Le Guin and in Bradbury.

See, this is really interesting, because one of my distinctions between fantasy and science fiction (admittedly I don't have much experience with science fiction) was always that sci fi seems to be so much more - grounded, I guess the word would be. Both feet flat on the ground and no sense of wonder, whereas "sense of wonder" was in my list of elements that make a book a fantasy.

And in fact - I'm guessing because I have negative associations with sci fi - I associate any borderline sci fi/fantasy, like Connie Willis and even the Ray Bradbury book I just read - as fantasy.

I think "getting to Mars" is a sci fi concept, but The Martian Chronicles isn't really about that, is it? It's about human nature more than anything, and I thought it wouldn't be out of place categorized with fantasy.


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