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What makes science fiction?

February 23, 2012

The books I’ve read recently have coalesced into a thesis in my head: how do we define science fiction? What makes a book science fiction, as opposed to any other of the plethora of genres? What differentiates it from literary fiction?

The two books in question are two recent titles: How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu and Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot. Neither of these novels follows the traditional “science fiction” paradigm: there are no aliens, no deep delves into the nature of the sciences, and while there are fantastical elements they are decidedly not the focus of either text. Rather, they tell human stories, though they do so with varying degrees of specificity and success.

Both these novels run kicking and screaming from science fiction trope while simultaneously embracing them by rejecting the notions of classical plot. Science Fiction Universe does this better than Blueprints, primarily because it creates a much better defined space for action to happen in.

It’s one of the most difficult parts of a science fiction novel: creating an internally consistent, logical location for story to exist in. In a world where reality is different than our own, we need to have rules established, or else we will get lost in a string of nonsensical actions. Science Fiction Universe takes place in a parallel dimension where all science fiction stories occur, where the laws of physics were only mostly installed so that wacky shit could happen. Blueprints takes place in a future Earth during “The Age of Fucked Up Shit”; you can tell what that means just from the name.

Despite being half the length and tackling a much more different concept, Science Fiction Universe manages to concisely establish its world view. As a novel, I couldn’t recommend it more highly because it’s so utterly efficient. Setting is espoused at the same time as back story is laid out, and we readers are thoroughly placed into this alternate dimension. Further, its conflict is micro: rather than a world-shaping incident, Science Fiction Universe breaks down everything into one concise, intense conflict that shines its path with the focus of a laser beam.

This would be the moment to mention that these two books feature perhaps the two best opening sentences I’ve read in years. Yu’s begins:

“When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself. “Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.“

While Boudinot’s:

“The world was full of precious garbage.”

Their difference in topic represents the split between the two, despite each being compared very rightly to Charlie Kaufman’s films. Yu’s focuses on a very tight moment: the moment where he shoots himself. It colors the novel. It’s the first sentence, but it’s not referenced for a fair while because merely its existence makes the book stronger, more ominous. Boudinot’s, meanwhile, is trying to tell the story of so much garbage. It’s a long book, and it has a lot to explain to you: guns named after corporations, private armies, a sentient, apocalyptic glacier, wars between humans and cyborgs, and networked nanotechnology. Five protagonists, whose stories rarely intersect for more than a few minutes.

Blueprints has a much higher rating on Goodreads because of its ambition. Book nerds love ambition; it’s unfortunate that I’m a story nerd, otherwise I feel like this would be my favorite book. It has huge ideas, but it doesn’t have the run time to deliver on its promises. Rather than tell one satisfactory story it tells half of one and fragments of others and doesn’t offer up that “tying together” moment that it so sorely needs.

Because I love the characters! I love the world Boudinot’s created. It’s utterly, incomprehensibly brilliant. It has a singular problem: as you watch the page count dwindle, you realize that there’s no hope that these things will come together in a meaningful way. You finish the book and you feel like you missed something—you want to read it again, just to see, but I’m fairly confident I didn’t. People do things for internally consistent reasons, but we are never privy to that consistency. The curtain remains drawn incredibly tight, not letting any secrets slip, and we don’t get inside of anyone’s head. No one makes sense to us.

I recommend it incredibly highly to book nerds, to obsessive compulsive types: it has more mystery, more world than any other book. The problem is it doesn’t know what story it’s supposed to tell. And as a human being, my love is stories: I want to see people follow an arc, and I want to reach the end and understand more about the human condition. The world is window dressing: it might be lovely, but it doesn’t define the characters. Science Fiction Universe places us into a world where stories happen; Blueprints gives us access to this fantastically detailed place and says, “There’s no story to tell here,” even though it’s obvious there is one, just off-screen. I want to read that story. I want to know the whys that Boudinot keeps jealously guarded.

In the end, here’s what I take from the difference between genre and “literary” fiction: literary fiction is at its most forward concerned with telling us a story about people. Genre adds the flavor of different types of stories, different types of tropes. Literary fiction gives us just the meat with salt and pepper, while genre adds on spices, sauces, and other flavors. Without a good enough protein the sauce feels wasted, too decadent for regular consumption; of course there are people who will eat chocolate and only chocolate, but it’s the substance that stands out the strongest. That’s the literary element: give me more meat, flavored with genre, and I’ll fall for your writing.

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3 Comments
  1. Science fiction is not about aliens and robots as you state. The human stories are always key, as is societal commentary. 1956’s ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatcher’s’ movie was a social commentary on anti-communist. Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’ is more about the human characters and human morality than it is about shambling vegetation gone wrong.
    The robots and space ship battles are just a dumb Hollywood thing!

    • Oh my god I have comments! I’m sorry, I’m not used to there being comments here, since I don’t, like, engage my audience or any of that social media nonsense. xD

      I fully agree with you. The human story is always the most important element, and the social commentary second (the monsters third). The thing is, I get the impression from lots of (younger) science fiction fans that their most important element is the world. They dislike elegant, human books like Science Fiction Universe because they’re “about Daddy issues” while they love confusing messes of books because they want to unravel the confusing mess. They want to choose their own adventure through the confusing part of the book.

      That’s really my point, I think. I’m not sure I even know my point.

  2. christiangmill permalink

    Your take on the sci-fi genre is interesting, yet good. I love sci-fi and I have found that with every passing year the quality of the genre grows. The creative mind is an amazing thing.

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