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message 1: by Massimo (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments Robert Heinlein said that SF was “Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”

My working definition of SF is closer to Theodore Sturgeon’s: “A good science fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.”

We could draw a map of the relationships between scientific knowledge and science fiction, not to prove whether the science used in science fiction was true, or to prove the opposite, but namely that good science fiction is often plausible and realistic.

Science fiction is not, and should not be mistaken for, futurology. Science fiction is not a literature that predicts the future, but is a literature that bears a scientific point of view of all possible futures. It helps, as with Asimov, if the writer has a solid scientific background.

What science fiction should do — and it performs admirably to the task — is to stimulate the reader to change, to ask questions rather than give answers, about our future, the developments of science, and its implications. There is no science fiction if the story is not there because of the scientific element and its impact in the society.

To expand — as Hawking says — the human imagination and figure out how we can react to changes brought about by the development of new technologies or scientific discoveries is something exceptional.

message 2: by T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (last edited Aug 23, 2015 11:52AM) (new)

T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (t_k_elliott) | 19 comments I would say that the rules for good sci-fi (or fantasy) are the same as for any other type of story: good characters, good plot, and decent writing.

Personally, I don't agree that the "science" part needs to be necessary to the plot: for instance, Jenna Starborn is what most people would regard as sci-fi, as it contains planets, space-travel, and cyborgs. However, the plot is actually a pretty straight retelling of Jane Eyre. And Forbidden Planet is The Tempest done with spaceships and planets instead of sailing ships and islands.

I'd probably change the end of Sturgeon's definition to "...that has, as an element of plot or setting, an aspect of science that is either beyond contemporary knowledge/practice, or represents an alternative path not taken."

Or something like that. :-)

message 3: by Massimo (last edited Aug 23, 2015 12:21PM) (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments It's still Jane Eyre and The Tempest. :) Is thus science fiction then just any story with aliens and space? Just any background? That would then be the same for any other genre. Paranormal? Just put ghosts. Horror? Just slam a monster in. Thriller? Just have someone killed.

Pretty reductive, to me. So it's like putting everything in a cauldron and dress it up as anything you like, just a matter of ingredients? Formula writing?

T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (t_k_elliott) | 19 comments Thinking through the sci-fi I've read, books where the sci is actually necessary to the fi are actually not that common.

David Weber's Honor Harrington series doesn't make the cut, because you could just substitute sailing ships for spaceships, and any other major economic resource for the wormhole.

Only some of Lois McMaster Bujold's books would qualify: in fact, probably only A Civil Campaign, Ethan of Athos, Falling Free, and Diplomatic Immunity would. The rest would fail due to the books being about essentially eternal human problems, rather than specifically about a particular technology.

Even The War of the Worlds wouldn't count as science fiction, because it's a standard invasion story: you could do the same thing with neighbouring countries, rather than neighbouring planets.

Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust likewise fails because it's about a bunch of people who are trapped and will die if not rescued. Could be anywhere, including a collapsed mine.

The majority of Star Trek wouldn't make the cut either - mostly it's straight cultural/ethical conflict; if you read/watch with ethical hat on, it's pretty interesting... but the right to die debate is the same regardless of whether or not it includes Klingons.

Books where the sci-fi elements are used simply as window dressing don't tend to be the best ones, in my opinion. But there's a gap between "window dressing" and "unavoidable", where the sci may not be essential to the fi, but it provides a very effective vehicle.

Lois McMaster Bujold deals with disability, PTSD, and society's attitudes to both in a science-fiction setting - and also the concept that the reality of society may not be what it appears to be at first glance. She could have done it earth-contemporary, but by doing it as science fiction, she had a lot more freedom to make her point and tell a good story.

"Formulaic", to me, is more of an indicator of quality: where you can just see the author running down a checklist. Romances are a classic example: Jane Eyre is viewed as Literature, and deservedly so. But, when you break it down, it's just another Cinderella story. Poor, downtrodden girl meets rich, handsome boy, difficulties ensue, boy loses girl, boy and girl get back together again. Happy ending. But it's so well written that you don't notice.

On the other hand, I've definitely read books where the "genre" part felt as though it had been grafted on as an afterthought. In my case, the one that springs to mind was a book marked "steampunk". I didn't declassify it as steampunk: I just subcategorised it as bad steampunk (for a whole bunch of reasons, but that was one of them).

message 5: by Massimo (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments "Themes" can be common to all genres, and I don't think any author of science fiction has ever said that SF is a story about a particular scientific or technology problem.

Rereading Sturgeons' definition, it can well be about essentially eternal human problems. On the contrary, dressing it up is what would make it "specifically about a particular technology."

We are 'wired' to like the same stories again and again, boy meets girl, hero overcomes life threat and saves the country, etc, etc. The same story can be a horror, a paranormal, or a science fiction, but if it's just a dressing, that usually ends up into a 'bad' use of the genre.

So, back to square one, I'd say. What makes good SF good? Certainly not the 'dressing up.'

T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (t_k_elliott) | 19 comments To me, "good SF" comes back to characters and plot - the same as any other genre.

Even The Invisible Man, which fits your (or Sturgeon's) definition of science fiction as invisibility is a core part of the plot... except that it's pretty much a retelling of Plato's Ring of Gyges, and deals with the question of how far morality depends on the chance of getting caught (or not).

So once again, the science part of the story isn't essential - even in the case of what's generally regarded as a classic of the genre.

Unless, of course, we relax what we mean by "would not have happened at all without the science content", and make it "would not have happened in the same way without the science content."

That way, The Invisible Man can keep its sci-fi label: although Plato did it first, science is integral to the way Wells tells version, if not to the bones of the story itself.

Likewise, although Weber's Honor Harrington books could have been written as age-of-sail novels, the spaceships and wormholes are integral to the way Weber tells the story.

On the other hand, I would agree that SF that seems to have just had a spaceship added (which could just as well have been a dragon or a sailing ship without changing anything much about the story) does not generally turn out to be good SF.

However, this might be because an author who just adds a spaceship where one isn't needed may also be an author who is lacking in the plot/character department too.

Or, conversely, a good author - who is skilled with characters and plot - is usually also skilled enough not to just add a spaceship and call it SF; they know that they have to either weave the S into the story properly, or leave it out.

What do you think?

(Although... I wonder how far apart we actually are? One pitfall of internet fora is that it's quite possible for two people who are completely in agreement to fail to realise it... :-) )

message 7: by Massimo (last edited Aug 23, 2015 02:08PM) (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments I agree with that, "would not have happened in the same way without the science content" means it would not have been a science fiction story.

As I said previously, science fiction is not about 'science' or fictional science. The story of how we suffer, how we overcome struggles, and how we manage to change and face whatever the story sends against us is repeated since millennia.

Science Fiction is not a different kind of stories, or themes. Those will last for ever, we are 'geared' toward those triggers and pulls.

I agree with this point "just had a spaceship added (which could just as well have been a dragon or a sailing ship without changing anything much about the story)" —— it would make for a Fantasy story —— "does not generally turn out to be good SF." (or a good Fantasy story, either).

"an author who just adds a spaceship where one isn't needed may also be an author who is lacking in the plot/character department too." It usually goes with it. The belief that "just" because one slams a spaceship *then* it's a science fiction story. "Dressed up as" for sure, but only a fat chance that it could be a good SF story at the same time.

"Or, conversely, a good author - who is skilled with characters and plot - is usually also skilled enough not to just add a spaceship and call it SF; they know that they have to either weave the S into the story properly, or leave it out."

Absolutely. I don't think we are far apart at all, I think we actually do agree in everything :)

T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (t_k_elliott) | 19 comments Classic internet, then. Two people in pretty much complete agreement taking several hundred words to figure it out... :-)

Reminds me of that poem:

One fine day in the middle of the night
Two dead men got up to fight
Back to back they faced each other...

Nice talking to you, anyway. :-)

message 9: by Massimo (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments Likewise, Theo.

message 10: by Gaines (new)

Gaines Post (gainespost) | 61 comments Various sub-genres of sci-fi = apples, oranges, strawberries, boysenberries, guavas, mangos, rock melons, etc etc.

It's hard to lump all those different flavors into a single category, but if we must, then "Science fiction" = fruit.

T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (t_k_elliott) | 19 comments Yep. Good for you (as long as it's not rotten). :-)

message 12: by Massimo (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments Unless it is bananas. Rotten bananas make for great banana bread :)

message 13: by Micah (new)

Micah Sisk (micahrsisk) | 233 comments I will define science fiction, first, by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as 'a story set in the future,' [nor does it require] ultra-advanced technology. It must have a fictitious world, a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society... that comes out of our world, the one we know:
This world must be different from the given one in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society…
There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation…so that as a result a new society is generated in the author's mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader's mind, the shock of dysrecognition.

[In] good science fiction, the conceptual dislocation---the new idea, in other words---must be truly new and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader…[so] it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification, ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create…. The very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create---and enjoy doing it, [experiencing] the joy of discovery of newness.

--Philip K. Dick, The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Carol Publishing, 1999, xviii-xiv.

message 14: by Gaines (new)

Gaines Post (gainespost) | 61 comments Theophania wrote: "Yep. Good for you (as long as it's not rotten). :-)"

Too true. Although my disease is that I finish every book I start reading, rotten or not :-p I can't help it. I'm not the same way with bad movies though.... *shrug*

message 15: by T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (last edited Aug 26, 2015 12:20AM) (new)

T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (t_k_elliott) | 19 comments Gaines wrote: I finish every book I start reading, rotten or not...

I used to be the same way. Hanging on like grim death, dragging myself along, page after painful page. Then I decided that I was getting too old for that sort of thing, and I didn't want to spend my declining years reading stuff I didn't enjoy - and, worse, thereby missing out on the good stuff.

So now I'm a lot more ruthless: if it hasn't engaged my interest after two pages (approximately), then it gets ditched unless I have a specific reason for carrying on.

However, it's notable that my husband and I - both sci-fi and fantasy fans - don't always like the same books. So "good" sci-fi is at least partially in the eye of the beholder.

message 16: by Massimo (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments Micah wrote: "I will define science fiction, first, by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as 'a story set in the future,' [nor does it require] ultra-advanced technology. It must have a fic..."

Agreed, and I think it is in line with Sturgeon's definition.

message 17: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 121 comments Well, that's not the only definition of science fiction that Heinlein gave. He also said:

"Let's gather up the bits and pieces and define the Simon-pure science fiction story: 1. The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem itself—the "plot"—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts, i.e., if you are going to assume that the human race descended from Martians, then you've got to explain our apparent close relationship to terrestrial anthropoid apes as well."

There is a good list of definitions of science fiction here:

I guess the science fiction needs to be, well, science fiction. In this case, the clue very much is in the title. It needs to have some elements of science and some elements of fiction. Speculation and story, story and speculation.

The problem comes when we take things out of context. The Heinlein quote is taken from a longer article which does balance the need for story against the science/ speculative aspects. Here's the article in full:

Taken as a whole, the article is not that far from Sturgeon's definition of sci-fi.

message 18: by Massimo (last edited Aug 26, 2015 03:44AM) (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments Thanks, Will.

Indeed, Heinlein and Sturgeon are short versions focusing on some aspect of the same understanding of what SF actually is and/or should be.

Speculation, of course, "but it must not be at variance with observed facts" and "based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding" of its implications so not to write 'Fantasy'.

Fantasy as well needs to be coherent but the implications and assumptions of its speculations can violate without explanation and be a "variance of observed facts."

For example, you may enter a wardrobe on a top floor forgotten room and enter Narnia.

message 19: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 121 comments The "at variance with observed facts" takes us to a division within science fiction - the hard or soft variety.

Some people argue for hard sci-fi. Under this definition, a sci-fi story should not include time travel or faster than light ships because we currently believe them to be impossible.

A softer variation is to allow speculative science that may or may not be invented one day. We currently believe that FTL is impossible, but we could be wrong.

I am not so sure that it matters all that much. An author writes a story. If his or her readers like that story they will read it. And that, frankly, is all we need to know. We invent genres like fantasy and science fiction in order to keep our bookstores and libraries neat, and to help people find their next good book.

But as soon as we invent a genre, authors will start pushing the boundaries, experimenting, tweaking the format. And then we can get paranoid about whether story X is true sci-fi or not.

Write me a good story with FTL and I'll happily suspend disbelief and enjoy it. Similarly, spin me a yarn about a universe where FTL is impossible and I'll enjoy that too.

Genre definitions are for librarians. The rest of us can simply enjoy good stories.

message 20: by Massimo (new)

Massimo Marino | 34 comments Indeed, Will. Fully in agreement.

I have FTL (sort-of) by the use of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Although it can be extremely difficult to prove or realize it in our life time, it still is a scientific possibility and current research is actually done on the subject.

message 21: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 121 comments Well, yes, but it doesn't have to be that way. You are writing from a hard sci-fi point of view where technology has to be at least vaguely possible. That's one point of view, but it's not the only one.

The other approach is to be more speculative and to include technology which we are pretty sure would be impossible. That is still science fiction. It may not be to the taste of the hard sci-fi crowd, but it can still work as a piece of fiction.

I have heard it said that every work of fiction is allowed One Big Lie. This might be something that we believe to be impossible such as time travel or FTL. The audience/ reader will accept One Big Lie as long as the rest of the story is credible.

An idea or gizmo doesn't have to be a scientific possibility for it to be used in a work of science fiction.

T. K. Elliott (Tiffany) (t_k_elliott) | 19 comments Then, of course, there's the Arthur C. Clarke quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

And there's the famous (alleged) IBM quote "I think there's a world market for, maybe, five computers."

But then there's: "Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to
breathe, would die of asphyxia."

And "X-rays will prove to be a hoax." - Lord Kelvin.

There's another quote I vaguely remember but can't track down (instantly), something along the lines of "Looking at the technology we have today, 90% was predictable by the technology we had 100 years ago, 10% wasn't." Of course, whoever said it first said it a lot better than that, but the thrust of it is that the further you go into the future, the more difficult it is to predict what state science and technology will be in when you get there. As is demonstrated by reading science fiction: if you start with Mary Shelley and work your way forwards, you get an interesting view of what people at that time thought the future might hold.

Some authors got it wrong; IsIsaac Asimov wrote a lot about robots becoming commonplace. However, recent research in Japan - where they do quite a lot of robotics, apparently - is that people don't actually like robots in caring/domestic type roles. That may change in future, of course, but right now Asimov's view of the place of robots isn't borne out.

On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke successfully predicted the smartphone (the Minisec in Imperial Earth), and Star Trek predicted the tablet computer (the PADD).

You might even say that Mary Shelley predicted both defibrillators and the concept of a whole-body transplant.

So I try not to throw stones, particularly at authors who are setting their stories far in the future. If top scientists failed to predict X-rays, bacteria, and high-speed rail travel, I'm saying nothing about FTL travel.

message 23: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 121 comments I am not so sure that Asimov was so wrong about robots. He just fell into the trap of assuming that robots had to be shaped like a human. That is actually an incredibly difficult thing to make.

What we are seeing is that we are getting mechanised assistants, but they are don't look like C3-PO or R2D2, at least not yet. They are called Siri or Cortana and we carry them in our pockets.

message 24: by Micah (new)

Micah Sisk (micahrsisk) | 233 comments Theophania wrote: "Then, of course, there's the Arthur C. Clarke quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

At Worldcon last week one of the panelists I saw said that he was told once that writing stories about planets in binary star systems was utterly ridiculous because that would never be possible: the gravitational forces of the two co-orbiting stars would either eject any planet out of the system, or gobble them up.

Only now the exoplanet hunters have actually found planets in stable orbits in just that kind of star system (I think even trinary systems).

What once was a scientific "impossibility" is now science fact.

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