A Different Kind of Science Fiction

“Science Fiction”: what does that mean? Fiction based on science? About science? Speculative fiction about the implications of science? It’s all those things, or at least can be; but it seems to me that most of what we refer to as science fiction might better be called “technology fiction.”

Think about it; what comes to your mind when you think of science fiction? Space travel, probably. Spaceships, faster-than-light drive, phasers, encounters with alien civilizations. Hovercars. Perhaps you think of cyborgs and intelligent robots. If you read cyberpunk back in the day, then you might think of avatars, and the version of cyberspace and the internet that authors imagined back then. But it’s all technology, really, not science. Except for the alien civilizations, of course.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

People do make a distinction between hard science fiction and soft science fiction; roughly, hard science fiction is about the hard (that is physical) sciences: physics, chemistry. It’s also about the engineering that comes from those sciences, engineering that produces spaceships, or cyborgs. Classic science fiction from the days of Analog or Astounding was by and large hard science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven wrote hard science fiction.

Soft science fiction (setting aside space operas and space fantasy) concerns itself with questions from the soft sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology. I would say that Asimov’s I, Robot was soft science fiction. Ray Bradbury wrote soft science fiction. Soft science fiction speculates on the social, cultural, or psychological implications of technology. Or perhaps, even, on the way technology creates new expressions of old-as-history human psycho-pathologies and baser tendencies. I’m thinking of Bradbury’s uber-creepy “The Veldt” when I say that, and there’s also “The Jigsaw Man” by Larry Niven, about a society where criminals convicted of capital offenses are used as organ donors. But organs are in high demand — so eventually, traffic violations become a capital crime. Again, these stories are speculation about the implications of technology, so I would argue that even soft science fiction is generally another form of technology fiction.

But science doesn’t only concern itself with technology. What about the life sciences, the natural sciences? Science is also about understanding the world, purely for the sake of knowledge. Can we write a speculative fiction that is based on science conceived that way?

I got to thinking about this when I came across the short story “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Wollheim was a science fiction writer and editor, and the founder of DAW, the first publishing house devoted to science fiction and fantasy. He was definitely a fan of what I’m calling technology fiction. “Mimic” isn’t about technology, at all. A significant part of the story is a discussion of animals (mostly insects) who take on the coloring or the shape of other animals, or of plants, for protection: moths that disguise themselves as wasps, beetles that imitate the markings of army ants. It’s basically a potted lecture on entomology.

IMG 0530A stick insect that lives in our backyard, and likes to hang out on the wall of the house, for some reason.
Photo: Nina Zumel

There are all sorts of things that look like dangerous animals. Animals that are the killers and superior fighters of their groups have no enemies. The army ants and the wasps, the sharks, the hawk, and the felines. So there are a host of weak things that try to hide among them — to mimic them.

And man is the greatest killer, the greatest hunter of them all. …

Can you guess where this is going? This is speculative fiction that is really riffing off science, off entomology in particular. We know there are animals that mimic predators, to keep from becoming prey. Humans are predators, why couldn’t an animal mimic us? Or mimic the trappings of our environment? How would that work? Wollheim takes a guess.

Another story along these lines is Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite,” which happens to be the first Sturgeon story I ever read. It turned me on to Sturgeon, in fact. It’s maybe not his best, but I’m still awfully fond of it. It starts off as a noir-ish detective story, complete with spunky girl reporter and the special police medical consultant she’s having an affair with; it turns into a story about parthenogenesis and syzygy (in the biological sense). And about some other things, too; Sturgeon’s style of science fiction was softer than Wollheim’s, and you can definitely see that when you compare these two stories.

He thought, in your most secret dreams you cut a niche in yourself, and it is finished early, and then you wait for someone to come along to fill it — but to fill it exactly, every cut, curve, hollow and plane of it. And people do come along, and one covers up the niche, and another rattles around inside it, and another is so surrounded by fog that for the longest time you don’t know if she fits or not; but each of them hits you with a tremendous impact. And then one comes along and slips in so quietly that you don’t know when it happened, and fits so well you almost can’t feel anything at all. And that is it.

I love Theodore Sturgeon.

One key difference between technology fiction and (for lack of a better term) natural-science fiction is that technology fiction is set in the future; it’s about what could happen when our technology reaches a certain stage. Natural-science fiction is set in the present; it’s about what could happen right now, what’s remotely plausible given our current state of knowledge about nature or the universe. In this sense, natural-science fiction is often more similar in tone and mood to weird fiction or horror than it is to technology fiction. Like weird fiction and horror, Wollheim’s and Sturgeon’s stories are about the wonderful and the terrible that co-exists with us without our realizing it, potentially able to invade our prosaic existences and our false senses of security. Only in their stories, the terrible thing has nothing to do with the occult or the supernatural, or Cthulhu, or whatever. It’s nature; it’s science.

A few other examples: Luigi Ugolini’s “The Vegetable Man,” also in The Weird. I don’t know how solid his science (a disease model) is, but the story was written in 1917, so I’ll cut him some slack. Besides, there are technology-based science fictions with pretty shaky physics, too.

Michael Chrichton’s The Andromeda Strain is science-fiction about pandemics and bacteriology; you could argue that War of the Worlds is about bacteriology, too. Only at the end, though. Stanislaw Lem’s The Investigation is statistics-fiction disguised as a detective novel (and it’s philosophy, too).

Can anyone else think of speculative fiction that could qualify as this different kind of science fiction?

10 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Science Fiction

  1. Not a lot of science in traditional “science fiction.” It is just gadgets. Check out the pulp like: “Air Stories”, “Airplane Stories”, “Amazing Stories”, “Weird Tales”, “Pirate Stories”, “Thrilling Wonder Stories”. They all ended up as the base for “golden age” science fiction. Hugo Gernsback edited what I would call “gadget fiction” (as follow-on to his “Radio News” and other gadget magazines). John W. Campbell seemed to insist on psionics and telepathy in his author’s stories (not at all scientific).

    While Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity” is a great example of the hard science fiction, it seems to not have influenced the field overly much (the science in Mission of Gravity is the setting Clement postulates a very different planet than ours and writes a story in the derived setting- so he is trying to apply scientific knowledge). It is a “great example” but only a good story.

    1. “Gadget fiction”; “technology fiction” — fiction about cool stuff, not science. Exactly!
      I’ve not read “Mission of Gravity,” but from your description and Wikipedia’s description I would say it’s really science-fiction about science, which fits my category of “the different kind”.

      “Mimic” is also a great example but only a good story. Still — points for trying!

  2. Another possible candidate: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though of course he never would have thought of it as science fiction.

  3. When I read your post I immediately thought of The Prisoner TV series with Patrick McGoohan, which I watched back in England during the swinging 60’s. Of course it was never a book but it was ‘soft’ science fiction and it developed quite a cult following in the counter-culture and anti-statist movements of the times.

    1. Big fans of The Prisoner over at my house, too! Funny, I never thought of it as science fiction (though I see your point). Political-science fiction, maybe? Psychology fiction, certainly, to watch Number 6 interact with all his Number 2 opponents.

  4. I’ve been contemplating a blog post along these lines for a long time. In fact, even before I started blogging I remember penning some thoughts about Asimov into my notebook about how his best works aren’t about technology but about social and political consequences in technologically advanced societies. Come to think of it, some of these thoughts are there in a review of Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long Earth that I posted on my blog a while ago.

    And if you’re interested in these questions you should read Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds. The distinction she draws between ‘science’ fiction and ‘speculative’ is rather interesting and possibly unique.

    1. Darn it Surendran! You keep growing my wish list. I will check out the Atwood. And if the blog post was a while ago, there’s no reason you can’t pull out those thoughts and expand on them. I’ll look out for it….

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