Thursday, September 12, 2019

Hard and Soft SF

The September-October 2019 MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION contains an article that indirectly addresses the perennial question of defining science fiction,"Science: Net Up or Net Down?" by Jerry Oltion. He asks, "How scientifically accurate does a story have to be?" How far from scientific rigor can a work drift before it ceases to be "science fiction"? Is STAR WARS science fantasy, space opera, or science fiction? Many hard-science readers wouldn't consider Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series SF, because they don't believe in the scientific possibility of psychic powers. (Personally, I classify "space opera" as a subset of SF. And if a story claims a scientific rationale for its content, I'm prepared to accept it as science fiction. Did Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter series, which includes several wild implausibilities, such as a fertile union between a Terran male and an oviparous Martian female, cease to be SF when it was discovered that Mars holds no advanced life?) Oltion begins his essay by analyzing the book and movie THE MARTIAN, demonstrating that the wind forces possible on Mars couldn't endanger the lander and force the crew to evacuate, stranding the protagonist. Oltion admires the story anyway, willing to give the author a pass on this one point for the sake of setting up the plot.

As he puts it, "the author gets one porcupine," meaning the reader will swallow one factually problematic element but seldom more than one. The greater the deviation from possibility, the more suspension of disbelief is required. Faster-than-light travel, for instance, is a convention we accept for the sake of moving stories along, provided everything else in the work is "rigorously scientific." Or not, such as STAR WARS. If we find the tale captivating enough, we can overlook numerous factual implausibilities. Going too far, though, resembles "playing tennis with the net down." Oltion declares, "I'll read anything that hangs together internally, unless some wild howler knocks me out of the story." It also matters whether the writer appears to know when he or she is bending the rules and shows evidence of doing it deliberately for sound reasons.

So is internal consistency the minimum requirement? Oltion thinks so, but he cites students in a writing workshop he taught, who didn't even seem to care about that. He appears to throw up his hands in surrender at this point, declaring, "You can write anything you want as long as you can pull it off with enough panache to satisfy your readers" (starting with the editor who has to like the piece enough to publish it). Of course, a story composed with this philosophy will attract different readers from those who favor hard SF and insist on scientific rigor. In my opinion, internal consistency can't be jettisoned. In the type of fiction I write, fantasy and supernatural, it's even more important than in SF. If a writer expects readers to swallow the "porcupine" of magic, psychic powers, supernatural creatures, or other fantastic elements, nothing must throw the reader out of the fictional world. Everything has to hang together, and if (for example) the hero rides an ordinary horse, it better behave like a real horse.

I have a strong preference for playing with some sort of net. Inconsistencies do throw me out of a fictional world. And yet I can't deny that an exciting story populated by engaging characters—the latter being, for me, the most important factor in a story's appeal—may cover a multitude of authorial sins. Still, in my opinion a writer risks losing a large segment of the potential readership by ignoring consistency and solid world-building. It's not as if such attention to detail is likely to repel other kinds of readers!

On the whole, however, I can support the general principle with which Oltion sums up: "So as readers, and as writers, decide what kind of story you like and plan accordingly."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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