Discovering Science Fiction’s Re-emergence and Re-assessment in the USA

Science fiction has emerged as acceptable in the literary cannon with the inclusion of a wide selection of science fiction writers as worthy of studying. At least this was one of the facts I learnt of a genre which I had for long associated with popular thrillers when we discussed Contemporary American Literature in the US a year or so ago.

Science fiction is a broad genre of fiction often involving speculations on current or future science or technology usually in books, art, television, films, games, theater, and other media. In the age of television, computers and other technology, the fascination of contemporary fiction writers with technology has become an extension of the sphere of social realism for the exploration of writers..

Science fiction is akin to fantasy. But it differs from it in that, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically postulated laws of nature though some elements might still be pure imaginative speculation.

Science fiction is largely then writing entertainingly and rationally about alternate possibilities in settings that are contrary to known reality including:

o A setting in the future, in alternative time lines, or in a historical past that contradicts known historical facts or archaeological records

o A setting in outer space, other worlds, or one involving aliens.

o Stories that contradict known or supposed laws of nature.

o Stories that involve discovering or applying new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics,

o Stories that involve the discovery or application of new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots,

o Stories that involve the discovery or application of new and different political or social systems

Science fiction also involves imaginative extrapolations of present day phenomena, such as the thoughtful projection forward of contemporary medical practices such as organ transplants, genetic engineering, and artificial insemination or the evolving social changes such as the rise of the suburb and the growing disparity between the rich and poor.

Science fiction has a widening range of possibilities in themes and form. It embraces many other subgenres and themes.

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein defines it as “realistic speculations about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” For Rod Serlin whilst “fantasy is the impossible made probable, Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.There are thus no easily delineated limits to science fiction. For even the devoted fan- has a hard time trying to explain what it is.

Hard science fiction, gives rigorous attention to accurate detail in quantitative sciences producing many accurate predictions of the future, but with numerous inaccurate predictions emerging as seen in the late Arthur C. Clarke who accurately predicted geostationary communications satellites, but erred in his prediction of deep layers of moondust in lunar craters.

“Soft” science fiction its antithesis describes works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology and anthropology with writers as Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick. and its stories focused primarily on character and emotion of which; Ray Bradbury is an acknowledged master.

Some writers blur the boundary between both. Mack Reynolds’s work, for instance, focuses on politics but anticipates many developments in computers, including cyber-terrorism.

The Cyberpunk genre, a portmanteau of “cybernetics” and “punk” ,emerged in the early 1980s.” First coined by Bruce Bethke in his 1980 short story”Cyberpunk,” its time frame is usually the near-future and its settings are often dystopian. Its common themes include advances in information technology, especially of the Internet (visually abstracted as cyberspace (possibly malevolent), artificial intelligence, enhancements of mind and body using bionic prosthetics and direct brain-computer interfaces called cyberware, and post-democratic societal control where corporations have more influence than governments. Nihilism, post-modernism, and film noir techniques are common elements. Its protagonists may be disaffected or reluctant anti-heroes. The 1982 film Blade Runner is a definitive example of its visual style with noteworthy authors in the genre being William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and Rudy Rucker.

Science fiction authors and filmmakers draw on a wide spectrum of ideas. Many works overlap into two or more commonly-defined genres, while others are beyond the generic boundaries, being either outside or between categories.The categories and genres used by mass markets and literary criticism differ considerably.

Time travel stories popularized by H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine with antecedents in the 18th and 19th centuries are popular in novels, television series ( Doctor Who), as individual episodes within more general science fiction series ( “The City on the Edge of Forever” in Star Trek, “Babylon Squared” in Babylon 5, and “The Banks of the Lethe” in Andromeda )and as one-off productions such as The Flipside of Dominick Hide.

Alternate history stories based on the premise that historical events might have turned out differently. using time travel to change the past, or simply set a story in a universe with a different history from our own. Classics in the genre include Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, in which the South wins the American Civil War and The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, in which Germany and Japan win World War II. .

Military science fiction exploits conflicts between national, interplanetary, or interstellar armed forces; in which the main characters are usually soldiers. It has much details about military technology, procedures, rituals, and history; and sometimes using parallels with historical conflicts. Examples include Heinlein’s Starship Troopers followed by the Dorsai novels of Gordon Dickson. Prominent military SF authors include David Drake, David Weber, Jerry Pournelle, S. M. Stirling, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War , a Vietnam-era response to the World War II-style stories of earlier authors is a critique of the genre. Baen Books cultivates military science fiction authors. Television series within this subgenre include Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1 and Space: Above and Beyond. There is also the popular Halo videogame and novel series.

Related genres include speculative fiction, fantasy, and horror,. alternate histories (which may have no particular scientific or futuristic component), and even literary stories that contain fantastic elements, such as the work of Jorge Luis Borges or John Barth. Magic realism works have also been said to be within the broad definition of speculative fiction.

Fantasy is closely associated with science fiction. Many writers, including Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, C. J. Cherryh, C. S. Lewis, Jack Vance, and Lois McMaster Bujold have therefore worked in both genres. Writers such as Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley have written works that appear to blur the boundary between the two related genres Science Fiction conventions routinely have programming on fantasy topics and fantasy authors such as J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien (in film adaptation) have won the highest honor within the science fiction field, the Hugo Award. Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away stories treat magic as just another force of nature subject to natural laws which resemble and partially overlap those of physics.

In general, science fiction is the literature of things that might someday be possible, and fantasy is the literature of things that are inherently impossible.with magic and mythology being amongst its popular themes.It is common to see narratives described as being essentially science fiction but “with fantasy elements.” such narratives being termed “science fantasy”..

Horror fiction is literature of the unnatural and supernatural, aimed at unsettling or frightening the reader, sometimes with graphic violence. ” Although not a branch of science fiction, its many works incorporates science fictional elements. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, is a fully-realized science fiction work , where the manufacture of the monster is given a rigorous science-fictional grounding. The works of Edgar Allan Poe also helped define the science fiction and the horror genres. Today horror is one of the most popular categories of film.

Modernist works from writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and StanisBaw Lem bordering Science Fiction and the mainstream.have focused on speculative or existential perspectives on contemporary reality. According to Robert J. Sawyer, “Science fiction and mystery have a great deal in common. Both prize the intellectual process of puzzle solving, and both require stories to be plausible and hinge on the way things really do work.” Isaac Asimov, Anthony Boucher, Walter Mosley, and other writers incorporate mystery elements in their science fiction, and vice versa.

Superhero fiction is a genre characterized by beings with hyper physical or mental prowess, generally with a desire or need to help the citizens of their chosen country or world by using their powers to defeat natural or supernatural threats. Many superhero fictional characters have involved themselves (either intentionally or accidentally) with science fiction and fact, including advanced technologies, alien worlds, time travel, and interdimensional travel; but the standards of scientific plausibility are lower than with actual science fiction.

Some of the best-known authors of this genre include Stan Lee, Keith R. A. DeCandido, Diane Duane, Peter David, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, George R. R. Martin, Pierce Askegren, Christopher Golden, Dean Wesley Smith, Greg Cox, Nancy Collins, C. J. Cherryh, Roger Stern, and Elliot S! Maggin.

As a means of understanding the world through speculation and storytelling, science fiction has antecedents back to mythology, though precursors to science fiction as literature began to emerge from the 13th century (Ibn al-Nafis, Theologus Autodidactus) to the 17th century (the real Cyrano de Bergerac with “Voyage de la Terre à la Lune” and “Des états de la Lune et du Soleil”) and the Age of Reason with the development of science itself. Voltaire’s Micromégas was one of the first, together with Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels. Following the 18th century development of the novel as a literary form, in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley’s books Frankenstein and The Last Man helped define the form of the science fiction novel] later Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about a flight to the moon. More examples appeared throughout the 19th century. Then with the dawn of new technologies such as electricity, the telegraph, and new forms of powered transportation, writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells created a body of work that became popular across broad cross-sections of society. In the late 19th century the term “scientific romance” was used in Britain to describe much of this fiction. This produced additional offshoots, such as the 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott. The term would continue to be used into the early 20th century for writers such as Olaf Stapledon.

In the early 20th century, pulp magazines helped develop a new generation of mainly American SF writers, influenced by Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories magazine. In the late 1930s, John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction. A critical mass of new writers emerged in New York City. Called the Futurians, This group included Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, James Blish and Judith Merril. Other important writers during this period included Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and A. E. Van Vogt. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding is considered to be the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction, characterized by hard SF stories celebrating scientific achievement and progress. This lasted until postwar technological advances, new magazines like Galaxy under Pohl as editor, and a new generation of writers began writing stories outside the Campbell mode.

In the 1950s, the Beat generation included speculative writers like William S. Burroughs. In the 1960s and early 1970s, writers like Frank Herbert, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison explored new trends, ideas, and writing styles, as was a a group of writers, mainly in Britain, who became known as the New Wave. In the 1970s, writers like Larry Niven and Poul Anderson began to redefine hard SF while Ursula K. Le Guin and others pioneered soft science fiction.

In the 1980s, cyberpunk authors like William Gibson turned away from the traditional optimism and support for the progress of traditional science fiction. Star Wars helped spark a new interest in space opera, focusing more on story and character than on scientific accuracy. C. J. Cherryh’s detailed explorations of alien life and complex scientific challenges influenced a generation of writers.

Emerging themes in the 1990s included environmental issues, the implications of the global Internet and the expanding information universe, questions about biotechnology and nanotechnology, as well as a post-Cold War interest in post-scarcity societies; Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age comprehensively explores these themes. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels brought the character-driven story back into prominence.

The Next Generation began a torrent of new SF shows, of which Babylon 5 was among the most highly acclaimed in the decade. There was also the television series Star Trek. :A general concern about the rapid pace of technological change crystallized around the concept of the technological singularity, popularized by Vernor Vinge’s novel Marooned in Realtime and then taken up by other authors. Television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films like The Lord of the Ring created new interest in all the speculative genres in films, television, computer games, and books. According to Alan Laughlin, the Harry Potter stories have been very popular among young readers, increasing literacy rates worldwide

While SF has provided criticism of developing and future technologies, it also produces innovation and new technology. The discussion of this topic has occurred more in literary and sociological than in scientific forums.

Cinema and media theorist Vivian Sobchack examines the dialogue between science fiction film and the technological imagination. Technology does impact how artists portray their fictionalized subjects, but the fictional world gives back to science by broadening imagination. While more prevalent in the beginning years of science fiction with writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Walker and Arthur C. Clarke, new authors like Michael Crichton still find ways to make the currently impossible technologies seem so close to being realized]

This has also been notably documented in the field of nanotechnology with University of Ottawa Professor José Lopez’s article “Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction in Nanotechnology.” Lopez links both theoretical premises of science fiction worlds and the operation of nanotechnologies.

Science fiction has brought in the primacy of technology as a culture making it otherwise called ‘technoculture’ which in literature describes a new proximity between the author and technology. From the computer code accompanying the text of Laurie Anderson’s stories from the Nerve Bible to the metaphors of binary computer logic used by Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 to the full partnership of computer and authorship represented by hypertext fiction, many recent literary developments suggest a shift in paradigm linking creativity with the telecommunications machine that now facilitate- and mediate – human contact. This has also resuscitated science fiction as an experimental literary genre that has for over three decades being producing compelling dystopian visions, social allegories, and innovative variations on traditional forms of fantasy. constituting a new and powerful engagement with technology as a social and creative force.

The possibilities just as the dangers of technologies are immense. The present day technologies might be used by women and other historically disenfranchised groups as tools to embody and enforce new social relations. In Feral Lasers Gerald Vizenor’s crossblood trickster technician Almost Browne harnesses first-world technology to produce holographic laser light shows that project the ghosts of the past over the landscapes of the Quidnunc reservation and urban Detroit. And Almost Browne asserts the cause of light rights in the courtroom where he is being tried for causing a public disturbance,whilst people inspired by him deploy the lasers to revise histories to hold their memories, and to create a new wilderness over the interstates.

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