Jun 25, 2017

The Reason Why Science Fiction Is Like An Egg

When I was younger I tried my hand at writing a few science fiction stories, I then presented them to my Grandfather to proofread and provide some feedback. He tore my stories to shreds and went to great detail describing how scientifically impossible my stories were. I know he meant well, but it did shake my confidence in writing. It wasn't until many years later that I realised we were both looking at these as science fiction stories but from totally opposite ends of the scale. To make it a metaphor, I presented him with an omelette and asked him what he thought of my egg cooking skills not knowing that he only liked his eggs, hard boiled.

The science fiction genre is fluid.

So what is science fiction? How do you define it? Most people would define it as any story with spaceships and lazer guns? Star Trek-y kinda stuff as my wife puts it. But did you know there's a lot more to it than that?

We could start off with a simple definition that works for about ninety five percent of all science fiction.

Science is fiction set in the future.

Simple as that. Or is it? Sometimes it's set in an alternate present, or an alternative past. Sometimes it's set somewhere out of our reach, a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Hmm, sometimes it ain't that simple.

At other times we don't know when the story's happening, sometimes we read stories that include high tech, like cybernetics and artificial intelligence's, but the characters seem to live in a Victorian Dystopia. Sometimes the technology seems very obsolete to us, like clockwork and steam, but the characters are using this low tech in ways that we would deem impossible. For example, creating giant steam powered robots, or airships genetically engineered out of whales.

The science fiction genre has become so fluid that it's hard to agree on what is and is not science fiction. There are times when someone says a book is science fiction and, like my Grandfather, I look at it and say No, it's not. If I, who has over 40 years of experience reading and watching science fiction, have trouble defining what is and is not science fiction how can can someone new to the science fiction genre know the difference?

Science fiction is what I point at.

If you're new or unfamiliar with science fiction, want to understand the genre better or wanting to read more of it. I'm hoping that I can help. Damon Knight, who was an editor and critic, once said, Science fiction is what I point at. And with my experience and love of science fiction, I'm hoping to be your guide and point you in the right direction.

So back to the title, why is science fiction like an egg? Well like an egg, science fiction can be served in a lot of ways. Hard, soft, poached, fried, scrambled or in an omelette to name a few. While science fiction is it's own genre, it can also be split up into various sub-genres, so let's take a look a few of the main ones:

The two overarching sub genres are Hard and Soft.

Hard Science Fiction.

Firmly grounded in reality, Hard science fiction has an emphasis on using scientific details as accurately as possible in the story. If it's currently scientifically possible or theoretically possible at some point in the future, it's good to use. Which is why faster-than-light travel and teleportation is not seen in these type of stories. This is what my Grandfather was thinking about when he was critiquing my stories.

A good example of a current Hard science fiction novel is Andy Weir's The Martian. In this book an astronaut is stranded on Mars, like Robinson Crusoe, and he has to use his knowledge of science to survive until he is rescued. Everything he does to survive, everything he does in the book, is theoretically possible to do according to our current knowledge of science. There is a particular emphasis on scientific detail and accuracy.

If he was able to build a stargate or found a crashed alien spaceship and repair it to return home then it wouldn't be Hard science fiction is would fall into the other category, Soft science fiction.

Soft Science Fiction.

Focused more on story and character, Soft science fiction is more flexible on scientific rules and is more fantastical with it's technology. The two major science fiction franchise, Star Trek and Star Wars are both classed as Soft science fiction. This is what I had in mind when I was writing my stories.

Sometimes when critics talk about Soft science fiction they also mean the story is centred around the soft sciences, like psychology or sociology, those sciences which deal with human affairs, so these stories are more concerned with the nature of humanity.

A good example of some Soft science fiction novels are Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Frank Herbert's Dune.

Asimov's Foundation came up with the idea of psychohistory which could make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people. The story of Foundation centres around the predictions made by psychohistorian Hari Seldon. He predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire, if it continues along the path they are currently on, there will be a dark age of thirty thousand years before a second Empire arises. However, an alternative path devised by Seldon, allows for the intervening years to be shortened to only one thousand.

Herbert's Dune focus on several topics which affect humans; politics, ecology as well as religion. The story focuses on human interaction, even to the point of downplaying science. Computers and robots are banned so it is quite different from many science fiction novels, as humans expand their consciousness, with the drug\spice Melange, in order to fill those niches.

Getting the balance is key to a good science fiction story.

In short the more scientifically accurate the story, the harder the hard science fiction; the more ridiculousness in the story, the opposite. Scientific absurdities would include things like: human-like aliens, explosions and fireballs causing shockwaves in a vacuum, "down" being perpendicular to direction of travel, unlimited thrust from rocket engines, landing on a convenient nearby planet to make repairs, causing a computer or AI to self-destruct by giving it a problem it can't solve logically, giant mecha or monsters that don't collapse under their own weight, lifeless planets with breathable air, and so on. 1

Just because someone gets the science right doesn't mean the story is amazing. Too much obsession with authenticity can easily get in the way of telling a good story by limiting the imagination.1

So if you place Hard Science Fiction and Soft Science Fiction on opposite ends of a scale you'll find that there are many other genres in-between. Some tell amazing stories with little 'real' science involved, sometimes the use of technobabble or handwave-ium is utilised to explain the science, whereas others are so realistic with the science it feels like you're reading a text book. Getting the balance is key to a good science fiction story.

I've listed some other genres of science fiction which I love reading along with some recommendations of the genre.

Space Opera.

This is my favourite science fiction genre to read. A space opera is epic in nature. There are many large civilisations and empires to visit, and everything is so oversized, including the political conflicts and intrigue, the love stories, the heroes and villains and of course, the space battles.

Some of my favourite space operas include, Kevin J Anderson's Saga of Seven Suns Series and Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space Sequence.

Military science fiction.

The key distinction of military science fiction from space opera is that the principal characters in a space opera are not military personnel, but civilians or paramilitary. Military science fiction also does not necessarily always include an outer space or multi-planetary setting like space opera

David Weber has said that: military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context.

Some of my favourite Military science fiction include, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Alternative History.

This type of story is set in a world where one or more historical events unfolded differently than they did in our world, which greatly changes our Present Day. Most often these stories are set some time after the event or they follow another major historical event in light of that change.

Harry Turtledove's World War Series introduced me to this genre, however I found them a bit too dry when it came to storytelling. I would recommend anything by Stephen Baxter if you're interested in this genre.


Imagine it... The Victorian Age accelerated. Starships and missiles fuelled by coal and driven by steam. Leaving history devastated in its wake.
The Doctor, Doctor Who, "Tooth and Claw"

Steampunk could be classed as an Alternative History genre because it is normally written in a Victorian setting. Think of the world of Charles Dickens with steam-powered technology that is more advanced than our modern electronics. In these stories the internal combustion engine and electronics never displaced the steam engine and clockwork, and as a result all manner of cool steam-driven technologies have emerged, ranging from Airships to submarines; and also cool steam driven robots.

My favourite Steampunk series has to be Stephen Hunt's Jackelian Series.


Cyberpunk is centered around the transformative effects of advanced science, information technology, computers and networks (cyber) coupled with a breakdown or radical change in the social order (punk).2

Generally cyberpunk describes a Dystopian future that is dark and cynical in tone. Normally corporations have taken over the role of government and human life is very cheap.

A good example of Cyberpunk is movie, Blade Runner which is based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I've recently read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline  and highly recommend this book.

There are so many other story variations within the science fiction genre, which, I believe, proves what a great genre it is and how versatile it is as a storytelling tool. Start with these few and if you want more feel free to subscribe to my newsletter to get more reading ideas, or get in touch with me on Twitter or Facebook and ask away. I'll happy to help people discover great reads.

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Part of the 'In Defence Of Science Fiction.'

If you're new or unfamiliar with science fiction, want to understand the genre better or wanting to read more of it, This series is aimed at you! I wanted to to share my passion with my friends and I'm hoping that you, the reader will benefit as well.

The links will be affiliate links, so if you going to make a purchase at Amazon I'd appreciate you using the link. Doing so will help me buy more books so it should be a win-win for us both.

Enjoy reading more and thinking more... with your favourite beverage!

Footnotes and Further reading:
1. https://omni.media/the-scale-of-hardness-in-science-fiction/
2. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CyberPunk

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