Published by Gregory Benford on January 22nd, 2016


We’ve tried for decades to isolate what true, irreducible inner quality SF has that makes it a separable genre. Damon Knight’s notion that philosophical speculation is the True Core raises interesting questions, but I feel does not answer most of them.

When I suggested that hard SF “somehow seems to be the core” I was actually reporting a widespread belief, largely uninspected, of the bulk of the reading (and viewing) public. You can’t help noticing that the bestseller lists carry the names of hard SF stalwarts – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke – and not the Sturgeons, Pohls and Bradburys of the same vintage. Question is, why?

Partly, I suspect it comes from the fact that the public likes fiction deeply grounded in the real world. It’s long been known that nonfiction top bestsellers (leaving out diet books etc.) outsell fiction top bestsellers by a typical ratio of 2:1. Similarly, the didactic fiction of Mitchener et al sells better than the best thrillers. Even in as fanciful an area as SF, these biases probably hold sway. Hard SF benefits from this basically American taste; as Charles Platt remarks in Science Fiction Review 51, “I open a nonfiction book, or a rigorously realistic novel, with the definite expectation of discovering new and interesting information,” and to his surprise, most of his friends do, too.

But Damon’s case against hard SF as the centre of the field rests also on his odd notion that our Founding Fathers, Verne and Wells, weren’t hard SF types. Verne conspicuously allied himself with his contemporary technology, stating on one famous retort to a critic, “I never invent!”  When he needed to get characters to the moon, he used what seemed possible at the time – huge cannon – and tried to take account of celestial facts. He got lots of it wrong, but that only means he didn’t do it well, not that he was opposed to the standard of fidelity to fact.

Similarly, Wells‘ famous injunction – assume one improbable thing, and then deal rigorously with it – announces a central tenet of hard SF. There must be a fantastic element, but then the methods should be orderly and convincing. His Cavorite wasn’t obviously impossible when he wrote of it, neither was the time machine, or invaders from Mars.

In fact, Heinlein (clearly a hard SF type) descends obviously from Wells; his “The Door into Summer” specifically refers to “When the Sleeper Wakes.”

True enough, the aim of some hard SF is the large landscape – but not of all hard SF. To dismiss rigor as “novelty” is to miss that invention is central to SF. If our standard of abiding worth is to be that a book should stand up to (and reward) re-reading, then novelty clearly would fade. But hard SF can and does contain drama, emotion and philosophy tightly grouped around the central images of science. Novelty is not the only purpose of hard SF.

Which brings us to Damon’s assertion that philosophical inquiry is the true centre of the field. The problem with this is that, First, the statement is too vague. Most of “serious” literature has philosophical aims; so do most of the arts. So what? We would like the core of SF to distinguish it from, say, the fictions of Sartre.

We‘ve seen claims through the history of literature that it is essentially allegorical (18th century) or reportorial (19th century) or metaphorical (20th century) or philosophical (as Damon claims for SF). Of course it’s not merely any of these aspects. All general aspects can be applied; the interesting question is what’s distinctive about a given class of works?

Second, too much SF doesn‘t have significant philosophical inquiry. This is even true of hard SF. For example, Niven’s short work and many of his novels are devoid of it. Indeed, when he collaborates with Pournelle we can clearly see an outside hand inserted into it, lending a different flavour. Also, lots of SF adventure fiction isn’t philosophical (Leigh Brackett, Chalker, McCaffrey). Leinster‘s “First Contact” isn’t philosophical unless you force a metaphysical interpretation. Neither is “Arena,” etc.

You could maintain, of course, that “high” SF is more philosophical – but it’s got other virtues, too, which make it “high.”

Fantasy is mostly pastoral, animistic, and politically conservative. SF is more often urban, technophilic [sic], and politically radical – in the sense of striking at fundamental issues. Using a distinct disjunction from contemporary reality demands thinking about basic issues. Sometimes this has a libertarian flavour, as befits the independent-mindedness of writers everywhere. I wouldn’t call right-wing political theory “simplistic,” as Damon does, since pragmatism (which he cites) isn‘t necessarily an inferior philosophy.

Damon would cast aside scientific fidelity in favour of reaching a philosophical point, saying “it does not matter a rap if the science is wrong.” But this hazards losing a goodly fraction of the audience. Worse, it also casts the philosophy into contrast with known facts.

How seriously this is depends on, the details of how it’s done, the particular story, etc. How seriously will a reader take an authors’s ruminations or explorations on metaphysics, when he’s clearly shown that he doesn’t feel bound by what we’ve already learned about the world? You run the risk of merely demonstrating to the reader that your “original philosophical point” applies only to a dream world.

I feel that we are in the business of enlisting the devices of realism in the cause of the fantastic. One of the masters of the exact, gritty detail in short stories is certainly Damon Knight. And he’s at his best while doing this. His “l See You” uses an invention which isn’t theoretically impossible (as I remember it). Similarly, “Masks” is perfectly plausible.

That’s what gives these stories quite a bit of their power. The working th[r]ough of consequences, ever mindful of what he know of the world, doesn’t merely introduce “novelty,” as Damon has it. Doing so plays tennis with the net up – always a more interesting spectacle. I’m sure that‘s the way it will be – played twenty years hence.

[C] May 4th 1984 Gregory Benford


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