Monthly Archives: September 2013

What is Science Fiction?

A couple of weeks ago, over at Amazing Stories (TM), Paul Cook stirred up a great deal of controversy when he took some well known authors to task for writing what he viewed as something other than science fiction.  The well-known included Gene Wolfe, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Sharon Lee & Steve MIller.  Of course there was a reaction, including this rebuttal at Amazing by Nina Munteneau; in other places this one and this one as well.  I’m sure there were people voicing their thoughts in parts of the interweb I don’t go into after dark.  (Or before dark, either.)

GatewayI’d already been thinking along these lines, and I’m ready to put my thoughts down in writing, if for no other reason than to get them out of my head.

I like cross-genre writing.  While none of you have seen any of them yet, much of the fiction I attempt to write is a blend of mystery and some other genre, with the mystery being the secondary genre.  In fact the second and third longest things I’ve ever written, and the two longest things I’ve actually completed, are a science fiction private eye story and a fantasy who-done-it.  You may see the latter soon.  Both are too short for traditional publishing and too long for the short fiction markets.

I also like my science fiction pure, like the high end product you can only buy on the schoolyards in the rich part of town.  Err…forget I said that.

Science fiction is one of those things that people can’t necessarily define, but htey know it when they see it.  Kind of like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s definition of pornography.

Here is my definition:  Any story in which the science is so integral to the story that the story collapses without it.  That story can be set in the future, the past, or a time that never was or will be.  The story can be a mystery, a thriller, a western, or (gasp) a romance.  And of course, there’s always the scientific puzzle story.  Whether the science fiction is the main genre or the supporting genre really doesn’t matter as far as this definition is concerned.

Now I personally prefer my science fiction either fairly straight, or if I’m indulging in a mixed genre, on at least equal terms with the other genre.  I realize not everyone feels this way, and that’s fine.  If you won’t tell me what to read, I won’t tell you where to go.Kuttner Thunder in the Void

As a practicing scientist (some would say a scientist who hasn’t practiced enough), I personally prefer hard science and the scientific puzzle.  I also love space opera, military sf, and a good time travel story.  I’m a sucker for a rousing space adventure, especially one with well thought out aliens who are more than just caricatures of the things that used to appear on the covers of second rate pulps.

If an author is a good enough writer to put some other genre in the mix, then great!  I suspect some of Mr. Cook’s objections grew out of finding someone else’s genre mixed in his science fiction.  He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, and I can understand where he’s coming from, even if I don’t completely feel the same way.


RIP, Frederik Pohl (November 26, 1919 – September 2, 2013)

Fred PohlOne of the last living links to the early days of science fiction has died. Frederik Pohl entered the hospital yesterday morning with respiratory distress and passed away yesterday afternoon.

Pohl started out as a fan and moved to become an editor, agent, and writer. His first editing job came when he was just 19, taking the helm at Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. He was also a founding member of the Futurians.  He served in World War II, and after the war briefly became a literary agent.

He collaborated with a number of writers throughout the decades, including Lester Del Rey (Preferred Risk as by Edson McCann), Jack Williamson (The Starchild Trilogy, Farthest Star, Wall Around a Star, Land’s End, The Singers of Time) and Arthur C. Clarke (The Last Theorem).  His most famous and successful collaborations were with fellow Futurian C. M. Kornbluth, beginning with the classic The Space Merchants, and including Search the Sky, Gladiator-at-Law and Wolfbane as well as a number of short stories.

Pohl edited Ballantine Books’ Star Science Fiction series in the 1950s, introducing the  concept of the original (nonthemed) anthology.  In the 1960s, he was the editor of Galaxy and If magazines.  During the 70s he was an editor at Bantam.Gateway

Like his collaborator Jack Williamson, Pohl continued to write novels almost until his death.  His most recent was All the Lives He Led (2011).  His Heechee saga is one of the landmarks of modern science fiction, especially the first volume, Gateway.

I had the privilege of meeting Pohl once in the summer of 1991, when the Science Fiction Research Association held a meeting on the campus of the University of North Texas.  Among those in attendance were Pohl, Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp, and James Gunn.  Pohl was very friendly and chatted with me for a bit about what he was working on.  The books he signed for me at that event are among the most prized in my library.

I can’t help but feel like an era has ended.  I grew up reading science fiction by people like Pohl.  In fact, one of the first, if not the first, book I ever bought from the Science Fiction Book Club was The Best of Frederik Pohl.  I bought almost every SFBC edition of his work until I graduated high school.

platinum pohlHe will be missed.  As cliched as it sounds, we shall not see his like again.  Many of his novels are still in print, and his best short fiction was collected a few years ago in Platinum Pohl, which contains a number of stories written after The Best of Frederik Pohl was published.