Friday, July 14, 2006

Robots and Rayguns and Defining Sci-Fi

So, over on Thor's blog, I (off-topically) made the comment that "Games with Sci-Fi color = Sci-Fi games". Joshua A.C. Newman (designer of the upcoming and eagerly awaited by me Sci-Fi RPG Shock: Social Science Fiction) disagreed and suggested we take up the discussion someplace else to avoid clogging up Thor's thread with internet craziness.

Here's my basic thinking:

If you ask the man/woman on the street to name some works of sci-fi. Responses might include Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, Aliens, Terminator, The Matrix. Depending on when they were born and whether or not they read books, maybe they'll mention Asimov or Bradbury or L. Ron Hubbard or Philip K. Dick, too.

So, most people identify Sci-Fi based on its color: robots, aliens, spaceships, clones, super-duper gadgets, etc.

Why pay attention to these average Joes and Janes? Why not go to the experts?

Well, genres aren't top-down affairs: they're created through the interplay between authors and audiences (made up of those average Joes and Janes as well as more dedicated fans).

I think it can be very useful to differentiate between various sub-genres of Sci-Fi - as in, Star Wars is Space Opera and Orbitsville is Hard Sci-Fi and A Voyage to Arcturus is Philosophical Sci-Fi. Especially if you are editing a short-story collection, writing an essay, trying to effectively market a story, or designing a super-focused narrativist RPG.

But I think it might be more useful (or at least, it's been more useful for me) to be able to look at the genre in the way it is commonly understood. (FWIW, I'm not alone in this: Tom Disch's interesting look at Sci-Fi, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, takes a very catholic approach to what makes up sci-fi: Star Wars, Heinlein, Stapledon, John Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, and Star Trek.)

And I think it is definitely useful (for anyone who's interested in the genre at least) to be able to consider the reasons behind this common understanding.

Take Star Wars and Asimov's Foundation Series: one focuses on pulpy adventure and the other focuses on social commentary. But both feature robots, galaxy spanning civilizations, and spaceships. (From an old-fashioned, Northrop Frye-ish lit-crit standpoint Star Wars and most of the Foundation novels are actually Romances).

Like I said, I get why people want to say that Star Wars and the Foundation novels are different beasts. But they do have shared features and it just makes the most sense to me that we acknowledge these shared features by lumping them both into the basic genre of Sci-Fi.

This is kind of an Occam's Razor thing: stories with spaceships and robots and other kinds of hi-tech, futuristic color certainly have something in common. Why come up with some other term/concept to describe what they have in common when we already have a perfectly good term/concept in Sci-Fi (as the genre is commonly understood)?

And I think Sci-Fi in this general sense is truer to the history of the writing/publishing/reading of these kinds of stories. Taking a more restrictive definition of Sci-Fi tends to retroactively un-Sci-Fi a lot of stories that were considered to be Sci-Fi when they were originally written/published/read. But we're dealing with a living genre, so I think things are too tangled together for this to work. For instance, there are a lot of books that, it seems to be, belong in the Sci-Fi genre, but that don't live up to the restrictive definition that guys like Heinlein (perhaps self-servingly?) proposed: like - Charles Harness's The Paradox Men or Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books.

(Another way to look at it: most people have no trouble lumping the Hopalong Cassidy movies together with Deadwood by calling them all Westerns, but they're certainly as different from each other in theme/focus/intent as Star Wars is to the Foundation novels).

The spaceship and raygun and robot part of these stories is supremely important for firing up the imaginations of the members of their audience, regardless of whatever else the story is up to. That is, there's a reason spaceships and robots show up in both "Star Wars" and the Foundation novels, despite the fact that these stories have different goals/themes/concerns.

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