Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

So what is science fiction?

with 5 comments

Like most authors, although I don’t always like to admit it, I’m very interested in other people’s reactions to my work. One of the singular things about being a writer these days is that one has access to a huge range of opinions about one’s writing: on review sites, blogs, discussion boards, and all the other venues for talking about fiction that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. As a result, every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying. (One of my few disappointments following the publication of “Kawataro” was that it coincided with the demise of the Analog readers’ forum, where I had once been able to count on a spirited discussion—or at least a ruthless nitpicking—of my stories.)

For the most part, readers seem to enjoy my stuff well enough, and it’s always gratifying to find a positive review online. Over time, though, I’ve noticed a particular theme being struck repeatedly even by people who like my work: they don’t think it’s science fiction at all. Now, I’m pretty sure that my novelettes and short stories are science fiction—if they weren’t, they  wouldn’t be published in Analog, which doesn’t have much interest in anything else—but I can understand the source of the confusion. Thanks mostly to my X-Files roots, my stories are set in the present day. They all take place on this planet. I don’t do aliens or robots. And while the plots do turn on science, they’re more often structured as contemporary mysteries where the solution depends on scientific information, which I gather is fairly uncommon.

It’s worth asking, then, whether we can come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to include both my work and, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s. (Or even L. Ron Hubbard’s.) TV Tropes, usually a good starting point for this sort of thing, despite its sometimes breathless fangirl tone, argues that science fiction hinges on technology:

The one defining(-ish, definitions differ) trait of Science Fiction is that there is technology that doesn’t exist in the time period the story is written in.

Which automatically disqualifies most of my stories, since I don’t have much interest in technology for its own sake, at least not as a narrative device. I’m also not especially interested in world-building, another hallmark of conventional science fiction, if only because so many other writers are better at it than I am.

So if my stories don’t include technology or alien worlds, where does that leave me? Wikipedia comes to the rescue, defining science fiction as dealing with “imagined innovations in science or technology,” including one particular subcategory:

Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots.

Which is basically where I fit in, as long as you stretch the definition to include connections between previously unrelated scientific principles. “Inversus,” my first published novelette, is basically about psionics, but links it to a number of existing phenomena, like situs inversus. “The Last Resort” takes a known phenomenon—limnic eruptions—and transfers it to a novel part of the world, with a speculative explanation of how it might be caused by human activity. “Kawataro” fictionalizes the case of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin, moves it to Japan, and connects it to another medical mystery. And my upcoming “The Boneless One” begins with a real scientific project, the effort to sample genetic diversity in the world’s oceans, and speculates as to how it might lead to unexpected—and murderous—consequences.

Much of my favorite fiction is about such connections, whether it’s the paranoid synthetic vision of Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the constructive impulse of the great science fiction novels. (Dune, for instance, gains much of its fascination from the variety of Frank Herbert’s interests—ecology, energy policy, the Bedouin, the story of T.E. Lawrence—and from how he juxtaposes them in astonishing ways.) My love of connections is what led me to focus on my two genres of choice, science fiction and suspense, both of which reward the ability to see connections that haven’t been noticed in print. And the ultimate playground for ideas is science. The science is real; the connections are plausible, but fictional. Put them together, and you get science fiction. Or something like it, anyway.

5 Responses

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  1. Funny you mention Kim Stanley Robinson. I did a book reading with him last year as part of the Science Fiction in San Francisco series. And it may be hard for readers to consider your work science fiction, but believe me, they’ve got nothing on my utter bewilderment at following KSR’s beads-of-sweat-on-the-forehead hyper-intense historical hypotheticals with my own attempt at light science nonfiction travelogue. (This, of course, for an audience made up of 99% huge KSR fans who had brought every book he’d ever written for him to sign, which led to awkwardness at the signing tables.)


    May 3, 2011 at 11:27 am

  2. “every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying…”



    May 3, 2011 at 12:02 pm

  3. This is interesting to me because it touches on markets and labels. I am always saddened, yet I see all too often, notes on agents’ statements of what they’ll consider and for literary magazines that specifically forbid “genre fiction.” This drives me crazy first and foremost because it makes clear that prima facie “genre fiction” will not have the same redeeming quality as belles lettres.

    But then again, science fiction and mystery are genres with some kick-ass marketing outlets, and you can reach communities of avid readers in so many ways that you could not if you were just aiming for general market fiction.

    I attended a panel of Jewish American writers and asked them how they felt about having their work marketed in a sub-genre that say, a Jonathan Franzen would never be obliged to. Their responses were mixed. If you’re writing about family dynamics and it’s a good story, it can be in outer space or in a non WASP community, but there the label goes. But then, if you can get sales that way, well that’s really really important too.


    May 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm

  4. @Eric: That’s hilarious. I have huge admiration for KSR, but I admit that I found his Mars books a bit of a letdown—amazing science and good writing, but some narrative and structural problems that gave me pause.

    @Kirsten: One reason I’ve decided to write suspense (rather than science fiction) novels is that it’s as close as you can get to the mainstream while still enjoying the pleasures of genre. Many “mainstream” novels are really just thinly disguised suspense (as in the case of Ian McEwan). And it’s easier for a suspense novelist to move into the mainstream than it would be for a science fiction writer (although Jonathan Lethem managed it nicely).

    @Arthur: We all google ourselves occasionally, don’t we?


    May 3, 2011 at 3:23 pm

  5. “We all google ourselves occasionally, don’t we”

    Only when I don’t have a boyfriend.


    May 3, 2011 at 10:47 pm

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