What is Science Fiction?

21 Oct

Ahh, yes, the promised rant.

So, after thinking about it, I have come to retract some of my original statement/belief, which was as follows:

Barbara Hambly, who wrote the introduction in The Road to Madness, the Lovecraft collection in which I recently read “In the Walls of Eryx,” described said story as “outright science fiction.” Wikipedia describes it as a “standard science fiction story.” Upon reading both of these things and the story itself, I was outraged that it could be described as science fiction – I saw it as a horror story taking place in a science fiction setting.

Upon further reflection, I am taking a few steps back – but not giving up entirely – that view. It certainly is not “outright” or “standard” science fiction. The setting is clearly science fiction, of course – for those of you unfamiliar with the story, it is set on Venus, and the main character is a human explorer looking for energy crystals of some kind and fending off lizard alien-things – but the story itself is not just science fiction, which is what irked me about that description. The story is a blending of science fiction and horror, and to me it seemed to have more elements of horror than science fiction.

But doesn’t a science fiction setting make a book science fiction? I would say yes, if that is true, then the book may be classified as science fiction, but not the story or plot. It takes only one element of the book being science fiction to make the whole thing science fiction. Either a science fiction plot or science fiction setting makes a book science fiction in my eyes.

But here in this post I am focusing on what a science fiction story is. This is simple; a science fiction story poses a “what if” question and explores the possibilities, and is in some way related to some phenomena that is at least attempted to be explained scientific. A rather broad definition that encompasses a lot of things.

Looking at Lovecraft’s story “In the Walls of Eryx,” then, we can see that the setting is science fiction – heavily based on technology and in the future – but the plot is not primarily focused on a “what if” question, at least in my eyes. The question it poses is “what if someone was trapped in a labyrinth that they couldn’t see the walls of?” This is a legitimate “what if” question, based on technology, but to me it does not hold up to the whole test. The plot in its most simple form might be science fiction, but it does not focus on the implications of this question – instead, it focuses on the growing sense of fear and despair that gradually takes over the fearlessful protagonist. Does this genre sound familiar to you? It should, because its a key element of…


*cue frightened screams*

Yes, horror, Lovecraft’s forte – it’s not surprising that this “science fiction” story contains elements of horror. The lizard alien-things watching and mocking him, his unease, despair, resignation, and fear playing a prominent role, and the horrifying situation that he is put in all support the idea that this story is, at its heart, a horror story. I don’t want to say too much here for those who haven’t read it, but read it and see what you think, then tell me. Maybe I’m just biased against Lovecraft writing science fiction.

I’m now going to take a moment to turn the lens on The Loneliness of Stars. The setting is undeniably science fiction, but I have been told my many that the storyline and writing more closely resembles those of a thriller, horror story, and adventure. I do not really ask any big “what if” questions, and just tell a simple story that (apparently) has the capacity to scare people. So, I would say that TLOS is a horrifying and thrilling adventure upon a science fiction background. The background of the world that it’s set in, as will become very evident in The Light of Civilization, is very reminiscent of Tolkienesque high fantasy as well as soft science fiction, so then the strange hybrid become even stranger, as the plotline genre remains similar.

Well, my rant is over. My paper is done, and I’m back to work on “The Vessel!”

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Posted by on October 21, 2010 in Philosophical Musings, Readings


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