Our science fiction isn't your father's SF

The February 2010issue of Asimov's contains an amazing story in "Stone Wall Truth" by Caroline M. Yoachim. This story is set in a far future village which exists alongside the ancient remnants of a high-technology wall. When a new ruler takes control of the land, he sends his vanquished foes to this village, where they are cut open and strung to a wall. The wall not only keeps these people alive but reveals to them their inner devils and hells. Once that is done, the person is sewn back together and allowed to live--if people can truly live after having witnessed the darkness within the minds and souls of all humans.

This is one of those rare stories I immediately reread upon finish it. In fact, I felt the same way reading this story as I did last year about Eugie Foster's novelette "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" (which won a well-deserved Nebula Award and is a finalist for the Hugo). Like Foster's novelette, Yoachim's story also struck me as a perfect example of SciFi Strange and will be on my list of the year's best stories. But that said, I also knew many science fiction fans would have the same issue with Yoachim's story as with the other SciFi Strange stories I love. Because every single aspect of the story isn't explained, for many people a story like this simply can't be called science fiction.

Sure enough, when I looked for reviews on the story I found these comments in Tangent Online by Carl Slaughter. While Carl praises the story, he asks "What is the source of the wall's power?  The author doesn't say.  We don't discover the origin and nature of the wall.  Nor the identity of the Ancients who built it, nor the time and place of the story.  Thus the story is a masterpiece, but a masterpiece of fantasy rather than science fiction."

That review drives me crazy with its narrow view on what qualifies as science fiction (although I totally agree with Carl that the story is a masterpiece). The truth is there are many accepted tropes in science fiction which are not technically possible or can't be accurately explained, including faster than light travel, time travel, dimensional travel and so on. However, if an author uses these tropes in their story they're okay and still writing science fiction. But if an author tries to explore a possible future technology but don't explain said technology in mind-numbing detail, they aren't SF.

I have a mouth and I must scream! Which, by the way, refers to another famous science fiction story which doesn't explain how everything works. I mean, a computer the size of a planet which can trap people inside it for all eternity? Provide me a précis on how that is possible under what we currenty know about science and technology. It isn't. But Ellison's classic story is still pure science fiction.

Part of the problem is that the science fiction genre has become too narrow in what it accepts as legitimate SF. We live in a world where our most advanced theoretical sciences like quantum mechanics are almost philosophical in nature. But instead of allowing our science fiction to be as equally free to explore the universe, we box it in. And ironically, we're not even consistent in how we do this. For example, people screamed when the last Star Trek film tripped into the red matter realm, but they didn't say a word about universal translators, transporters, and Spock being the offspring of two totally different alien species. But all these conventions are accepted as SF without a second thought.

This is made even more amusing when you consider that the science in many older SF classics was flat out wrong when the authors originally wrote them. For example, in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the book opens with the discovery that Mars is inhabited, and even mentions Martian canals. Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles deals with a similarly occupied Mars. However, when the authors wrote those science fiction classics it was known to science that Mars was a hostile environment which did not contain advanced life. So why were those books accepted as being part of the SF genre?

Likewise, in Gene Wolfe's classic Book of the New Sun series, the science and setting are so far in the future that the science behind everything is more fantasy than real.  Again, the science isn't explained to the Nth degree, but the books are accepted as being science fiction.

What these examples prove is that being part of the science fiction genre is about more than simply writing accurately about science. It is also about exploring ideas and visions and possible futures. So why the different standard when new writers like Yoachim and Foster do that very thing? I have yet to read a convincing explanation for this divide.

I suspect that just as science has expanded into disconcerting places in the last decade, some people are disturbed by where science fiction is going these days. So they simply wave their hand and state that certain stories can't possibly be science fiction.

Which is too bad. Because while our science fiction may not be your father's SF, all these stories belong to the same genre.