As I return to a piece of writing that intersects with cyberpunk, dystopias, and visions of the future, I’m reminded of how hard science fiction can be to define. In his short book, Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (2011), David Seed sketches out this problem out in his introduction to the book.
Firstly, to call science fiction (SF) a genre causes problems because it does not recognize the hybrid nature of many SF works. It is more helpful to think of it as a mode or field where different genres and subgenres intersect. And then there is the issue of science. In the early decades of the 20th century, a number of writers attempted to tie this fiction to science and even to use it as a means of promoting scientific knowledge, a position which continues into what has become known as ‘hard SF’. Applied science – technology – has been much more widely discussed in SF because every technological innovation affects the structure of our society and the nature of our behaviour. Technology has repeatedly been associated with the future by SF, but it does not follow that the fiction is therefore about the future. The crudest reading of an SF novel is to ask ‘did Arthur C. Clarke get it wrong?’ Science fiction is about the writer’s present in the sense that any historical moment will include its own set of expectations and perceived tendencies. The futures represented in SF embody its speculative dimension. In that sense, as Joanna Russ has explained, it is a ‘What If Literature’. The writer and critic Samuel Delany has applied the term ‘subjunctivity’ to SF in a similar spirit to explain how these narratives position themselves between possibility and impossibility. It is helpful to think of an SF narrative as an embodied thought experiment whereby aspects of our familiar reality are transformed or suspended.David seed, Science Fiction: A very short introduction (2011): 1-2.
This genre blurring is apparent in many different narratives that fall under the broad definition of science fiction. The transmedia property, Firefly, is a western set in another solar system in the future – there are spaceships and new worlds to explore, but the storyline could be drawn the stories of those living in the shadow of the American Civil War. Similarly, Star Wars might be considered in the genre of a saga, the TV show, Counterpart, a Cold War spy drama, Blade Runner as detective noir, and Almost Human as a buddy cop show.
What is true is that the best science fiction, in my opinion, is that which has a deeply human story to it. That, for all the scientific or technological background in the story, there is something that genuinely makes us reflect on who we are, how we see the world and others, and how that provides us with a vision to live well and leave the world a better place than we found it.
Currently I’m reading Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman series of books, which explore how individuals and communities might live in the shadow of a known extinction event (a large asteroid impacting the Earth) in the not-to-distant future. Each book moves us closer to the impact, with young detective progressively holding onto a smaller, but more firmly held, value set – protecting those who need protection, find his sister, and speaking for those who have no voice. It’s science-fiction, but it’s a human story about what happens when hope is taken away from people and the choices you make in response to that. So part detective story, part family drama, with the “science fiction” sitting well off to one side. It’s both a gentle story in some ways, as well as one which raises pointed questions about how we react in difficult circumstances. Worth a look.
For another gritty, end of the world police-related drama then the UK TV series, Hard Sun (2018), is another possibility.