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The Martian
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2014 Reads > TM: How we define Science Fiction

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Shaina (shainaeg) | 165 comments I absolutely loved this book. One of the things it got me thinking about is how we define science fiction.

My immediate thought on reading the description of this book was that it was sci-fi because it takes place on Mars. As I read the book I kept feeling like this really shouldn't be defined as sci-fi, more just an science adventure book. There weren't any aliens or currently unrealistic technologies (as far as I know). I'm no scientist, so there may be some futuristic technologies that I overlooked, but most of the technology seemed like stuff that we have the capability to do now even if we haven't.

As our technologies have grown what is science fiction is constantly changing because what we are capable of is changing. 100 years ago, a book about traveling to the moon would have been sci-fi, but since the apollo missions the line between fiction and science fiction has gotten increasingly blurry.

How does everyone else feel, is this science fiction or just scientifically leaning fiction?

And yes I know that categories don't really matter in the end, but it's fun to think and talk about.


Gordon (daftyman) | 28 comments also loving the book, not even a tenth of the way through. Obviously there's sci-fi and there's sci-fi. While this isn't as fantastical as some full of worm holes and aliens it must be science fiction, but I feel that it could also sit in a more regular fiction bookshelf as it is more speculative. you feel that there is a real grounding in what's available now. That there is a very real chance that this could happen. It almost seems unfair to put this in a sci-fi genre as it would automatically push some people away that would get a real kick out of the book.
At what point does a genre become a crutch that hinders as opposed to a crutch that supports?


Michele | 1154 comments This article on i09 today seems appropriate here http://io9.com/all-the-times-science-...


Mike | 9 comments it isn't wrong to call this science fiction because removing the science would destroy the story. You'd end up with "man gets abandoned on Mars. Gets rescued/dies/whatever - i'm only 40% through so don't know what happens!

unlike something like the movie Gravity, which could just as easily be about a bint in a sailing boat in the Mediterranean as being stuck in space.


John (Nevets) Nevets (nevets) | 1527 comments We've had a few discussions on here in the past about categorizing stories. I think most of us here think a good story is a good story no matter what you call it, but it is also fun to see others perspective on it and possibly have some FRIENDLY debate.

Everyone's connotation of broad descriptions, like Science Fiction, is different. But both personally, and I believe historically, this sort of work is easily classified as Science Fiction. Even though the "Aliens in Space" is probably the most popular branch of Science Fiction, there is a lot more that most consider to fall under it. The "Alternative History" or "What if" branches often don't have any advanced tech or aliens, just advance a change that took place in the past. Most people would consider Gibson or Doctrow's recent near future works Science Fiction, even though there really nothing too advanced in them. One of my favorite novels of all time is Cryptonomicon and that is usually shelved in the Science Fiction area, even though it takes place in the present and 1940's with appropriate technology for each.

I haven't finished "The Martian" yet, but from the first half it seems to be very much in line with the 30 years in the future tech and science in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but just with out the monolith driving them.

In another post somebody mentioned "Hard Science Fiction", and I do agree with that. I think they also mentioned it feeling more like a natural disaster book, and I would also agree with that. What traditionally people looked for in classic Science Fiction was big ideas (or just pulp fun). A lot of times the authors were able to tell controversial make you think stories with out pissing off anyone like if they just wrote an op-ed.

To be honest your phase "Science Adventure" reminds me more of the pulp adventure novels from way back like a "Buck Rodgers". But that is just my connotation, not that it makes what you think wrong.

Any other takes on this?


Dara (cmdrdara) | 2693 comments What I loved about this book was that it felt like it could be real whereas a lot of scifi feels fantastical with tech. There's no space magic here. Just Andy Dwyer Mark Watney surviving on his own by being smart and using his wits.


J.J. Litke (jenzgoodreads) I don't think we actually can go to Mars right now. But I googled the question and found this from NASA's site: http://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/livi...

After skimming that I concluded, no, we can't go to Mars just yet. Which IMO makes the novel true science fiction, as it describes something that we can't do as it stands.


message 8: by Rodrigo (new)

Rodrigo (rodrigobraganca) | 2 comments One good example of this blurred line is the Foundation series. Most of what Asimov depicts is possible, with the exception of faster then light travel. And Foundation is still a science fiction book. I usually define sci-fi as a story with real science in it and a bit of fringe science or "imagination" science.
Just to amplify the discussion, we have enough technology to go to mars. And when I say that we have enough technology I mean that we can shield ourselves from the radiation, build a ship to get there, enough fuel and people willing to go, but this shielding is very expensive and hard to built; I may say that the technology is not refined enough. Just don't compensate to got to Mars right now. Please, if I'm mistaken, forgive, I'm just a theoretical physicist, not an astronomer or engineer.


message 9: by Trike (last edited May 01, 2014 11:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trike | 8146 comments Shaina wrote: "How does everyone else feel, is this science fiction or just scientifically leaning fiction?

And yes I know that categories don't really matter in the end, but it's fun to think and talk about."


The Martian is an excellent example of Hard Science Fiction.

I think the problem you're having with calling this science fiction is due to the fact that you have been fed a steady diet of Fantasy masquerading as Science Fiction. The most popular SF franchises are really just Fantasy with SFnal props: Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who... there's precious little science to be found anywhere near them.

I think categories DO matter, and they always have, for everything in our life. From something as simple as "Which genre is this?" to vital things like "friend or foe." Categorizing is valuable and we do it instinctively, so denying it in art goes against our basic impulses.


message 10: by Joe Informatico (last edited May 01, 2014 12:32PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Informatico (joeinformatico) | 888 comments Well, the NASA and American society depicted in this book don't resemble their current-day, real-world analogues, nor do they seem like probable depictions of what either will be like any time in the near future.

I elaborate in this long, spoilery post, but in summary, the NASA as depicted in The Martian operates like a NASA plucked from the 1960s, albeit far less dominated by white dudes, with access to technology from about 20-30 years in the future, and dealing with a news media and American public from ca. 1997. You could interpret the novel's setting as an alternate-history where the American public's support and enthusiasm for space exploration never waned, and the World Wide Web never dominated the business and technology sectors in the mid-1990s the same way they did in reality, and Watney's story is happening in some alternate version of 2014.

I loved this book, and I fully understand why Weir made the decision not to poke those particular bears. But they're still the part of the story that required the greatest suspension of disbelief on my part.


message 11: by J.J. (new) - rated it 4 stars

J.J. Litke (jenzgoodreads) Good point, Joe. I'm barely into the book, but I'm getting a little of the same feel about the alternate history. And certainly it would take more resources than NASA currently has to fund multiple ongoing missions to Mars.

And just to push, I'm going to suggest that if it counts as alternate history, it's actually NOT hard science fiction.


message 12: by Buzz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buzz Park (buzzpark) | 332 comments This is an interesting discussion on what the definition of Science Fiction is. Just PLEASE nobody ask what the definition of "noir" is!!

(inside joke from the last laser pick...)


message 13: by Camilla (new)

Camilla (repressedpauper) Joe Informatico wrote: "Well, the NASA and American society depicted in this book don't resemble their current-day, real-world analogues, nor do they seem like probable depictions of what either will be like any time in t..."

This was an interesting comment. I was just looking at it as hard science fiction, but I think it's a combo of that and alt history now, which is a cool, not too common combination!

Jenz, I definitely think it can be both! I think alternate history lends itself well to being double-genred.


message 14: by J.J. (new) - rated it 4 stars

J.J. Litke (jenzgoodreads) I don't know, Leanne, once we exclude Star Trek from being science fiction at all, I don't think we're allowed any crossovers. ;)


Trike | 8146 comments Joe Informatico wrote: "I elaborate in this long, spoilery post, but in summary, the NASA as depicted in The Martian operates like a NASA plucked from the 1960s, albeit far less dominated by white dudes, with access to technology from about 20-30 years in the future, and dealing with a news media and American public from ca. 1997. You could interpret the novel's setting as an alternate-history where the American public's support and enthusiasm for space exploration never waned, and the World Wide Web never dominated the business and technology sectors in the mid-1990s the same way they did in reality, and Watney's story is happening in some alternate version of 2014.

I loved this book, and I fully understand why Weir made the decision not to poke those particular bears. But they're still the part of the story that required the greatest suspension of disbelief on my part. "


I did kind of wonder if Weir wasn't hinting at a more totalitarian state in the near future.

We're still fighting for Net Neutrality, which just received another blow last week, and there's increasing evidence that the younger generation is actually disconnecting from the internet and going peer-to-peer. It's already happening to a large degree in Japan, and we've seen these types of massive swings in public behavior in just the past 30 years.

If you'd written a story 15 years ago about an America that featured a black President, legalized marijuana, the bankruptcy of GM, widespread acceptance of gay marriage, a terrorist attack that brought down the twin towers, indefinite detention of political prisoners as well as an NSA that spied on the Star Trek communicators everyone carried in their pockets... well, you'd probably be hooted at and had rotten fruit thrown at you.

So for me, having lived through much stranger shifts in American culture both publicly and politically, I didn't have any issue whatsoever with the future portrayed in The Martian. There's no guarantee that what we're seeing today will be true 15 years from now.


message 17: by Trike (last edited May 01, 2014 04:37PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trike | 8146 comments Jenz wrote: "And just to push, I'm going to suggest that if it counts as alternate history, it's actually NOT hard science fiction. "

Why is that?

Multiple Universes seems to be gaining traction as a viable model, so why not tell stories in a world similar yet not the same as our own? As long as the science holds up, there doesn't seem to be any reason to eliminate such a story from the Hard SF category that I can see.


message 18: by Heather (last edited May 01, 2014 06:44PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Heather | 28 comments To me, this book really epitomizes what SF can be. I mean, I love space operas, but SF can also inspire, make people think, and give people space to imagine how the future might unfold.

This book is basically a thought experiment on how an astronaut would handle being stranded on an inhospitable planet all by himself. I imagine this book will inspire many a smarter mind than mine to consider the technology needed for Mars exploration.

I think it can safely be classified as SF.


message 19: by Tamahome (last edited May 02, 2014 05:36AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tamahome | 6089 comments The author considers this book hard sf, hard sf to him being probable near future science fiction. He said so on Science Friday (it's only 17 min):

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/...

Ironically that's the kind of books Margaret Atwood does too, but she doesn't consider her books science fiction at all.


Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments Well, that's because Atwood seems to be one of those writers that thinks "genre fiction" means "bad or shallow fiction." Weir isn't pretentious.

Honestly this discussion reminds me of Among Others- the narrative had fantastical elements, but a very common and tenable reading was that none of those elements were real, we were just seeing reality filtered through the way a traumatized girl was processing things. If that was a correct reading, and nothing magical ever actually happens, was it still fantasy?

I think so. For these categories to be useful they must be broad; a fantasy story should be a story with fantastical elements, a science fiction story should be a story with science fiction elements. It doesn't matter if the story is ultimately 100% realistic. It still made use of the tools that that genre uses.


message 21: by Eric (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eric Mesa (djotaku) | 617 comments Rodrigo wrote: "One good example of this blurred line is the Foundation series. Most of what Asimov depicts is possible, with the exception of faster then light travel. And Foundation is still a science fiction bo..."

Also, Psychohistory is not a thing. q;o)


message 22: by Eric (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eric Mesa (djotaku) | 617 comments As for how plausible this is, I think think it's just somewhere between http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php... and http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php...

I know someone above mentioned that Mars travel isn't yet feasible, but from what I've read it's only just barely unfeasible. If we had another Apollo Program thing, I'm pretty sure we could do what the book anticipates (there and back) withing 5-10 years (not counting travel time to/from Mars). From what I know, the biggest problem is radiation shielding/calcium leaching because of the length of the trip. But I do love Weir's idea of dropping off a bunch of stuff ahead of time.


message 23: by Eric (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eric Mesa (djotaku) | 617 comments Oh yeah, and I apologize if my previous answer led to you throwing your day away doing a wiki-walk of TvTropes. I, at least, find it highly addictive.


John (Nevets) Nevets (nevets) | 1527 comments I don't completely agree, but here is another interesting view on what defines Sci-Fi.

http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/02/opinion...


message 25: by J.J. (new) - rated it 4 stars

J.J. Litke (jenzgoodreads) Oh please! I'm not a big Star Wars fan (to say the least), but Hollywood has always epitomized the saying about mediocrity rising to the top, that didn't start with Star Wars.

It's sheer foolishness to embrace that level of snobitude about spec, as if we want it to be an obscure cult-like genre that publishers and movie-makers aren't willing to spend money on because the mainstream doesn't like it. More devotion of resources means we get more and better material, not worse. Mainstream crossover is actually a GOOD thing, whether you like those mainstream appeal movies and books or not.


message 26: by Serendi (last edited May 03, 2014 11:14AM) (new)

Serendi | 828 comments I think that the feel of this book fits very comfortably with 50s hard SF. The NASA depiction fits better with about 70s SF. ETA: on thinking about it, probably 60s SF.

If you just figure Andy Weir read a lot of the same books I did and wrote from that mindset, it works fine.


Tamahome | 6089 comments It kind of reminds me of 'mundane science fiction'.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mundane_...


Darren If people argue about the science in it, then it's science fiction.


Trike | 8146 comments Rob wrote: "Honestly this discussion reminds me of Among Others- the narrative had fantastical elements, but a very common and tenable reading was that none of those elements were real, we were just seeing reality filtered through the way a traumatized girl was processing things. If that was a correct reading, and nothing magical ever actually happens, was it still fantasy?

I think so. For these categories to be useful they must be broad; a fantasy story should be a story with fantastical elements, a science fiction story should be a story with science fiction elements. It doesn't matter if the story is ultimately 100% realistic. It still made use of the tools that that genre uses. "


I put stories like that in a special category: "Technically."

Technically the Wizard of Oz (1939) and Cabaret (1972) aren't musicals. Do they hit every single aspect of musicals? Yes, except for one: the singing and dancing aren't part of the movie's real world.

By the same token, TWoO is like Pan's Labyrinth (2006) in that they aren't Fantasies, either, because of the "it was all in her imagination" aspect of those movies.

Similarly, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) isn't a Western, nor is The Man from Snowy River (1982) or the Sundowners (1960). That is purely because a Western has to take place in a certain geographical region of the world, and these movies (and the novels they're based on) don't. But if you like Westerns, you'll like them.

But that's an academic argument and a really fine distinction that no one besides me and maybe three other people cares about.


Trike | 8146 comments Eric wrote: "Oh yeah, and I apologize if my previous answer led to you throwing your day away doing a wiki-walk of TvTropes. I, at least, find it highly addictive."

Precisely why I didn't click on those links. That place is a delightful black hole.


message 31: by J.J. (new) - rated it 4 stars

J.J. Litke (jenzgoodreads) TvTropes is the biggest time suck ever!


message 32: by Paolo (last edited May 05, 2014 10:46AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paolo (ppiazzesi) | 51 comments Trike wrote: "By the same token, TWoO is like Pan's Labyrinth (2006) in that they aren't Fantasies, either, because of the "it was all in her imagination" aspect of those movies."

Not to derail this thread too much but Pan´s Labyrinth (view spoiler)


message 33: by Gene (new)

Gene Phillips | 32 comments I wonder if "mundane SF" is akin to what I personally think of as "bestseller SF." This would include not only things like the "alternate history" novels mentioned above, but also oldies like Philip Wylie. I thought his GLADIATOR read like a bestseller rather than a genre-work, and got the same feeling when I re-viewed 1951's WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE-- which is, I know, not the same as reading the original book. See what you think of this excerpt:

"Of Philip Wylie's works I've only read the 1930 novel GLADIATOR, but from what I've read of him, Wylie's brand of science fiction was not allied to the expectations of 1930s pulp magazines; rather, it might be better termed "bestseller SF," in that it was written to a more catholic readership. Certainly the film is replete with many bestseller tropes, particularly in its concentration on a romantic plotline."


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