Science fiction is the literature of our times. And that means myths about science fiction are actually myths about the world we live in today. Science fiction explains our gadget-obsessed, social-media-saturated, meta-fictional present. So here are 10 common myths about science fiction, and why they're important.
Images by Jonathan Powell/CGHub
1) The best science fiction is written by people with a science degree
Definitely, a lot of the greatest science fiction authors have had advanced degrees in science — and you see people, sometimes, claiming that this is a condition for true greatness. As a counter-example, there are people like Philip K. Dick, who once asserted, "Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can't talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial." (To be fair, he went on to say that usually their fiction was "dreadful," but I doubt most readers of Dick would agree with that.)
Why this matters: There's a reason that Dick's writing, in particular, continues to speak to people who feel besieged by false realities and exploitative technology, and it has almost nothing to do with Dick's scientific plausibility. And science fiction needs all of its powers of speaking about reality.
2) Science fiction is intended to predict the future
You see tons of articles examining "predictions for 2012 or 2013 from science fiction" — and some of them seem to be grading SF from the 1950s and 1960s on how accurately it predicted the present. But really, that's like grading a drummer on flower arrangement. Science fiction doesn't really aim to predict the future. Writers from Cory Doctorow to William Gibson to Kim Stanley Robinson have debunked this one.
Why this matters: As Doctorow says, it lets people say things like, "science fiction is dead, because the future is here." Or point to incorrect predictions as a way of downgrading the usefulness of the genre — when, in fact, science fiction always speaks about the present, and in this capacity it's more powerful a tool than ever for understanding the completely bonkers world we live in.
3) If it's really good, it's not science fiction
You still see this one a lot in book reviews and movie/TV write-ups a lot. It's not just a matter of genre snobbery, but of clinging to the idea that science fiction is a particular type of narrative, with one-dimensional characters and Lucasian dialogue. This attitude is summed up by Kingsley Amis' handy poem: "SF's no good! They bellow 'til we're deaf. But this is good. Well, then, it's not SF!"
Why this matters: Not so much because of the thing where certain outstanding works get mis-classified as being "not science fiction" — that's just a minor annoyance — but more because this attitude, perversely, leads to people creating absolutely terrible science fiction, with the understanding that we don't expect or deserve anything better.
4) Science fiction is stuff that could never actually happen
This is a close cousin of the "science fiction can't be good" argument — for example, when Margaret Atwood tries to claim she's never written science fiction, she frequently uses this argument. But you also see this idea in political discourse — set up a Google alert for the phrase "science fiction," and you'll see a steady trickle of headlines like "government's economic plan is science fiction" or "new jobs plan is science fiction" — the implication being that this means some politician or thinktank has said something totally unrealistic.
Why this matters: It subtly encourages people not to speculate boldly, because there's this thing called "science fiction" wherein we categorize things that go beyond the pale. And it also spreads the idea that science fiction cannot speak realistically about our present-day experiences — thus depriving us all of an important tool.
5) Similarly, if it's realistic and near future, it's not SF
I've seen a lot of people trying to claim Gravity isn't science fiction. Not because it's good, or plausible, but because it's too close to reality. Here are the questions you need to ask about Gravity: 1) Is it fictional? 2) Is it about science? 3) Is science important to the story? The answer to all three is clearly "Yes." If you want to claim Gravity isn't science fiction, then you're saying George Clooney is an astronaut in real life. And similar debates crop up about "lab lit" and other stories that hew closely to reality.
Why this matters: Well, it would suck if science fiction creators felt as though nobody was expecting them to try and borrow from Alfonso Cuaron's achievement in Gravity. And in spite of the thing above about science fiction writers not needing science degrees, we should be encouraging more realism in science fiction — and not declaring some point of realism which science fiction can approach asymptotically but not ever be allowed to reach.
6) It's not hard science fiction unless it's about a particular discipline
You'll sometimes see people claim that "hard science fiction" involves only physics and one or two other disciplines — but not biology or medicine. (And then they're surprised when longtime Analog editor Stanley Schmidt recommends everyone read "Flowers for Algernon." In fact, a lot of the best hard science fiction deals with biology, environmental science and other fields that aren't as focused on what Schmidt calls "clanking hardware."
Why this matters: It's one way to prioritize science fiction by male authors, since there are more male physicists and more female biologists. (And this, in turn, means people miss out on some brilliant, life-changing writing.) It's also a way of valuing certain real-life scientific disciplines over others, since if physics is closer to "hard science fiction," it must be more important than biology in real life as well. Even though the "life sciences" are in fact helping to change the world.
7) The best science fiction is always in dialogue with what's come before
You're not going to write the first ever time-travel story, or even the first time-travel self-orgy story. So you'll often hear people say that science fiction has to build on what's been written before, and assume a level of familiarity among the readers with the existing body of work. And lots of posthuman far-future space opera novels assume that you've already read a lot of posthuman far-future space operas, and accordingly throw you past the deep end.
Why this matters: There's a burning need for what Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden and author John Scalzi call "entry-level SF," stuff that assumes you've read nothing. And arguably, to write good "entry-level SF" requires a level of familiarity with the history of the genre — but it also requires a refusal to engage in overt "dialogue" with works that a new reader won't have read. Also, the popularity of young-adult SF (including among older readers) testifies that lots of people crave science fiction that doesn't aim at a readership that's already steeped in decades of tradition.
8) Science fiction is inherently liberal/conservative/libertarian/socialist
I feel like this one is more implicit than explicit. There are certain authors or creators that both right-wingers and left-wingers will try to claim ownership of. Google "science fiction is conservative" and "science fiction is progressive" and you'll see tons of pieces that either argue those propositions, or simply assume that you'll agree with them. In fact, science fiction is way too broad to be limited to one political point of view.
Why this matters: Not just because this belief could constrain the scope of political science fiction — but also because you have to assume the people who believe science fiction is inherently progressive aren't reading the great conservative authors in the genre, or vice versa. And that means people aren't getting exposed to challenging, bracing ideas.
9) The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12
This is a catchphrase that gets repeated pretty often, even though the same people who repeat it also complain that the Worldcon membership is graying. When you unpack this statement, it generally means that science fiction is something you really only fall in love with, uncritically, when you're a tween or incipient teen, and the genre wows you at age 12 in a way that it can't when you're older. In reality, tons of people first embrace SF in their 20s or 30s, with the same eagerness — and tons of people who love Ursula Le Guin or Star Trek have never quite thought of themselves as having had a "golden age" of science fiction, because SF is everywhere and it's just part and parcel of the other things they love.
Why this matters: It devalues the experience of people who came to SF later in life. It implies there's a "typical" experience of discovering science fiction, which is great for community-building but bad for helping science fiction reach new audiences in as many ways as possible.
10) Science fiction has to be disguised, in order to be relatable
You hear this all the time from people in the entertainment industry, particularly television. It's the reason so many science fiction TV shows keep their genre trappings carefully hidden — although this year, The CW and Fox are both trying their luck with overt science fiction again. But usually when people point to science fiction that's not relatable, they're actually talking about utter drek, where technobabble substitutes for story.
Why this matters: Stripping away actual science and real ideas doesn't make your story more relatable — just dumbed-down. And arguably, less relatable to the complicated, confusing world we live in.
Thanks to Claire for the feedback.