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What Is Science Fiction?

Defining "science fiction" is (in some circles) a popular but disputatious pastime, and there is no end to the proposed definitions, or to their flaws. Most of them, I think, miss the point; and practically all of them overlook the obvious.

For all the confusion over this problem, I think that the solution is really quite simple. But first we must ask the right question. Science fiction is a species of the genus fiction. What distinguishes it from other kinds of fiction?

In the end, this thing called "science fiction" is just that: the fiction of science. This is true in one obvious way, and another more subtle and farther-reaching. First, SF is the imaginative exploration of the possibilities opened up by science; and second, it is the literary expression of the scientific world-view.

I use the term "possibilities" advisedly. The problem with SF, as the "predictive" or "hard-science" school conceived it, is that the science part inevitably, sooner or later, is going to be rendered obsolete by real science. It stands or falls entirely on the merits of the fiction part. This is why Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback, the founders of the predictive school of SF, are so much weaker than H. G. Wells, the founder of the more purely imaginative school (and in Gernsback's case, now totally unreadable).

SF is not really about science, but quasi-science. Quasi-science is like pseudo-science in being an imitation of science, but unlike it in not purporting to be true. It treats ideas as if they were scientific. The goal of SF is not verity, but verisimilitude.

SF is founded on scientific or technological speculation that extrapolates from the present, and lies on a continuous spectrum of greater or lesser distance from the present. Science fiction keeps its feet firmly on the ground even as its head is in the clouds. Fantastic speculation is founded upon some violation of the natural order -- whereas science and technology, and therefore SF, depend on that order.

Admittedly, there is a fine line between a violation of the natural order and the discovery of unexpected, but nonetheless natural, laws and phenomena. The whole distinction between fantasy and SF lies in that line. Almost anything, no matter how fantastic, can be glossed over with a little quasi-scientific patter. That patter -- no matter how perfunctory or formulaic -- is still significant, and so is the distinction between fantasy and SF.

The distinction is perhaps not so much metaphysical as epistemological: not in their underlying assumptions about what is (or might be) real, but in their assumptions about what we can and do know about reality. Simply put: In fantasy, strange things and events are unexplained and inexplicable (magical or miraculous); in SF, strange things and events must be explained and explicable, though it requires stretching our mental boundaries to understand them. This imperative, with all its implications, is precisely how SF represents, in the profoundest sense, the scientific world-view.

It has become a cliche that SF is the mythology of the modern age. Like most cliches, it is true, but unsatisfactory.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, in defense of detective stories, that they are "the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life." As such, they were of course only a stopgap. The final and perfect expression of "the poetry of modern life" is the literature devoted, directly and specifically, to the marvels of man's discovery and invention: space ships and time machines, mutants and aliens, computers and robots, the far future and distant planets.

SF is the indispensable means to assimilate scientific-technical advances, because it is the only art form specifically devoted to science and technology. Most obviously, it relates them to characters, persons like ourselves who are grappling with the challenges they pose. By exploring their consequences for our lives, it makes us better-prepared to cope with them.

More subtly, SF estheticizes science and technology, which taken by themselves can be pretty grim and cold and abstract -- at least, to those of us not actively engaged in making new discoveries and inventions. Even scientists themselves are now so specialized that they cannot conceive the whole enterprise imaginatively, simply by virtue of being part of it. By telling stories about the mind-boggling prospects they open up, SF raises our mind's eye from the quotidian details of our great mechanical civilization, up to the grand enterprise of discovery and invention as a whole.

The greatest importance of SF is as the cultural expression of Enlightenment civilization. Modern civilization is an adventure -- the greatest of all adventures: this daring project to dispense with idols, leaving man on his own, to explore and exploit the Universe in a systematic fashion. SF reminds us just how amazing it has all been, and how much more it has in store for us -- for good or evil.

Like all adventures, the scientific-technological revolution is glorious, and offers great rewards, but is also fraught with great perils. Not all SF consists of paeans to science and technology, which is as it should be: the cautionary tales remind us of the perils that face us. In the face of world-transforming technical innovation, SF writers are spread across the whole spectrum from Luddite panic to fatuous complacency. But whether it is laudatory or cautionary, SF enables our imagination to grasp and hold onto this immense mechanical civilization we have built, which often seems to have gotten out of hand.

Whether or not this or that SF writer is imbued with the underlying beliefs and aspirations of the scientific-technological revolution, all SF, and only SF, has come to grips with the expanded horizons created by that revolution. All mainstream, mundane fiction takes for granted a geo- and anthropocentric world. It makes no difference whether the Earth orbits the Sun, or the other way around; nor whether the Earth was created by a god in 4004 B.C., or condensed out of cosmic dust well over 4,000,000,000 years earlier; nor anything else we have learned about the universe in the past five hundred years.

The cosmos and prehistory have been opened up for exploration by science. The progress of historical knowledge has made us aware of how the present contrasts with the past; this awareness, together with the rapid pace of scientific-technical and social-political change, has made us aware that the future will be a very different place. SF is the literary exploration and exploitation of these hitherto unsuspected realms of human experience. No matter how trite, unambitious or downright silly any SF story may be, it leads us away from the familiar world into the great unknown.

All of this implies a radically transformed vision of man's place and destiny in the world. Man is now both inconsequentially tiny and tremendously important: a mere trace of protoplasm on a dustmote in a vast uncaring universe, and the highest and most powerful being that exists. Man is not a fallen being, but one risen from apish subhumans, whose rise is far from complete.

Donald A. Wollheim, in The Universe Makers, outlined a "Cosmogony of the Future" -- the composite underlying world-view of SF -- which is very interesting and useful, but misnamed. "Cosmogony" means the beginning of things, but SF is primarily about the future and the end of things. Thus SF's implicit world-view should be called an eschatology -- specifically, an immanent eschatology. This world-view is essentially a vision of the continuing progress of science and technology, and particularly the grand adventure of our conquest of outer space and other planets.

SF has, often enough, told the story of the end of the world -- told of a thousand different ends. But this is a subgenre, which by its nature is narrowly constrained. More often than not, optimism wins out, and the disaster (natural or man-made) is only the premise for a different kind of story, the out-of-the-ruins story, in which we see progress resuming.

Beyond even the heroic age of interstellar exploration and colonization, we may look forward to an age when our remote descendants will become godlike. SF has all too rarely touched on this theme, because of its obvious difficulties; but it is implicit in the open-endedness of human evolution and progress. Perhaps then there will be a new cosmogony, with our descendants as the creators of new worlds -- maybe a whole new cosmos.

Now, eschatology concerns not just the end of all things, but the ultimate fate of each and every one of us. All living things will die; only human beings know they will. We can ignore this and live for the moment, or seek comfort in religion's promises of life after death, or accept it philosophically -- or we can put our hopes in the potentially infinite progress of science and technology. It is quite likely that our descendants, perhaps not too distant, will make themselves immortal; and is it too far-fetched to suppose that someday, in some unforeseen and perhaps unforeseeable way, they might become able to resurrect the dead?

We have been using terminology commonly understood in a religious sense: mythology, eschatology, gods, creation, resurrection. This is inevitable when we deal with matters that have traditionally been monopolized by religion: the general understanding of the world and one's place in it, the sense of purpose and value, moral norms and ideals, and communities based on these shared beliefs. The scientific world-view, which underpins modern civilization, has dispensed with religion: what, if anything, can replace it?

The religious side has usually responded to the challenge of science in one of two ways. One is to counterattack and try to destroy science, out of an agoraphobic craving for the womblike medieval cosmos: this was the response of the Catholic Church to Galileo and Bruno, and is now the response of Protestant fundamentalism to Darwin. There are also many who can no longer believe in the old gods, but still yearn for false gods and try to create them in their own image: neo-pagans, New-Agers and eco-pantheists, who also reject science. The other response is to allow science to circumscribe the boundaries of religion, retreating step by step into agnosticism.

SF, like science itself, has not been hospitable to religion. Only two men have written it with a serious religious purpose: C. S. Lewis and Olaf Stapledon. Lewis, the foremost Christian apologist of the twentieth century, stands alone in his brave attempt to face honestly the challenge that post-Copernican cosmology poses to Biblical revelation. In his unique brand of theological SF, he populated outer space with angels, and other planets with races that never fell from grace; but in the end he came back to Earth, and crossed the line into fantasy. Stapledon is more plausible, because he made no attempt to salvage anything of Christianity or the medieval world-view. His God is cold, aloof, and purely cosmological, creating cosmos after cosmos without pity or love for their mortal inhabitants.

Another response to the challenge is to accept the incompatibility of religion and science, from the other side: to reject religion, and everything associated with religion. The soul, free will, morality, and so on are abandoned along with the gods. This is materialism, which takes such diverse but interrelated forms as positivism (the imitation of the scientific method in the study of man), technophilia (the idolization of machinery and technical progress, regardless of their human consequences), socialism and capitalism (which both reduce all human relations to economic ones). Among the many problems with materialism is that it depends on science, and science is a product of reason, which belongs to the soul.

The final response is that which we may call, for want of a better term, "humanism": the recognition that religion was a human creation, which fulfilled the natural human need to believe in something, and which expressed natural human hopes and fears; and rejecting only the false beliefs, hopes and fears, not their natural ground. That is to say, humanism preserves the human soul, and the whole realm of things that pertain to the soul (which we may call -- again, for want of a better term -- "culture"), while dispensing with the old supernatural understanding of the soul.

It is difficult to imagine a rationally-constructed philosophy inspiring a mass movement, much less a whole society. The great majority of people are motivated, not by intellect, but by habit, prejudice, and emotion. Myth, not reasoning, is what gives them their sense of meaning and purpose and value. The advent of science has not changed these facts very much; indeed, it has spawned new, pseudo-scientific mythologies and ideologies (such as the various forms of materialism). The unity of culture has been lost: both vertically (i.e. between high and low, the knowers and the believers) and horizontally (i.e. through the coexistence of incompatible world-views and moral norms). The only way to restore the lost unity is to recreate, in a new form, the coherent mental framework that fell apart when science broke the bonds of religion. This is where SF comes in.

SF is not in itself the "mythology of the modern age": it draws on this mythology, usually quite spontaneously, and in turn feeds it. The ultimate source of the mythology is the scientific-technological enterprise itself, and man's emotional and imaginative response to it (both his hopes and his fears), of which SF is the highest and most conscious form. Because the scientific-technological enterprise is exploratory and evolutionary, rather than revelatory and dogmatic, its mythology grows and changes in a manner rather different from that of traditional mythologies. Art is as much a creator of the mythology as an expression of it.

SF re-enchants the world -- not in the sense of restoring the illusions and delusions that used to stand between man and the universe, but in the sense of awakening a sense of wonder at the universe as it actually is. It satisfies needs of the soul that materialism does not even acknowledge. If the actuality of SF has fallen short of its potential, it only goes to show that SF, like civilization itself, has prospects for advancement that go beyond anything we can now foresee.

2000 by Karl Jahn

Two Modernisms

A Guided Tour through the Imaginative Universe