jade_sabre: (harthdarth:  good on the inside)
[personal profile] jade_sabre
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.

Space opera is, generally speaking, a story set IN SPACE. Because space is AWESOME and has ALIENS and FASTER-THAN-LIGHT TRAVEL and RAY GUNS and SO MANY STARS AND IT’S SO BIG AND THERE’S A WHOLE UNIVERSE OUT THERE YOU GUYS LET’S GO LET’S GO LET’S GO

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!

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