I don’t like the term ‘science fiction’. Why? Well, I claim to be a science fiction writer but I would say while I know a little bit about fiction, I don’t know very much about science. Not off the top of my head, anyway. I could probably just about manage to turn on a Bunsen burner. I got a double B for Science in my GCSEs, but that was the last time I studied Physics, Chemistry or Biology to any great depth. If I write fiction where I need to know scientific principles or where science is applied or subverted in some way, then I need to do my research (luckily I am a trained researcher and that’s my job title). I’m not a qualified aeronautical engineer like Robert Heinlein, or a professor of biochemistry like Isaac Asimov.
Most importantly, how do we define ‘science fiction’? If you ask most people this question, they will most probably picture a story that is set in space and/or some future time. There are numerous repetitive motifs in science fiction (much like dwarves, elves, and magicians in fantasy fiction) such as space craft, space colonies and colonisation, robots and androids, alien planets and cultures, aliens, alien invasion, time travel, inter-galactic wars, etc. Think of the numerous films, television shows, books and video games which can be neatly packaged in this niche genre. Most importantly, it reaches the stage where it can be marked ‘For Geeks Only’ (“It’s nothing to do with the real world. Strange, sad socially inept people and overgrown schoolboys like it”- this is the opinion of a lot of women, by the way) and the type of entertainment that people like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost like. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but when it reaches the level of SF Conventions and obsessive weirdoes with questionable personal hygiene, dressing up in ridiculous outfits complete with fake pointy ears and learning redundant fictional languages like Klingon, I do begin to suspect that it probably is.
I had a discussion with my boss about the writer J.G Ballard. I insisted that Ballard was a science fiction writer. My boss hates the standard SF motifs, despises Star Trek, Star Wars and any space/future time-located story but he does like Ballard (he also likes Iain Banks, but not Iain M.Banks). He maintained that Ballard did not write science fiction because his stories are set in an everyday recognisable world rather than dealing with spaceships and little green men, or star captains in skin-tight jumpsuits piloting vast space craft, or time machines spinning inexorably through space. The more recognisable everyday setting is a hallmark of writers of ‘New Wave’ science fiction which became popular from the 1960s onward but I’ll come to that in a moment.
A brief resume of Ballard’s fiction is appropriate here. It’s true that he wrote non-SF material such as ‘Empire of the Sun’ and ‘The Kindness of Women’ about his formative childhood experiences in Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War. Yet the work he is most noted for has science fiction elements. ‘The Drowned World’ is about ecological disaster, when Earth’s polar ice caps melt and most of civilisation is submerged, leading to a regression in the previously civilised attitudes of the protagonists of the story. ‘The Crystal World’ is about the discovery of a crystalline organism within the African jungle which is slowly expanding and turned everything to crystal; a rather attractive form of apocalyptic destruction that might eventually transform the world into a giant crystal rock, glimmering within space. ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ is an experimental novel, heavily influenced by William S.Burroughs, exploring the inner workings of the mind of a psychotic character, with a splintered, fractured narrative. Ballard’s most notorious novel, ‘Crash’ is about car-crash sexual fetishism (symphorophilia). One publisher’s reader returned the manuscript remarking that: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!” ‘High Rise’ and ‘Concrete Island’ have similar themes- speculation on how modern life and technology warp and subvert the human psyche. Other Ballard novels such as ‘Cocaine Nights’ and ‘Super-Cannes’ are set in a recognisable near-future, in dystopian social environments- yet although they do not focus on advanced technology or encounters with alien races, their themes and ideas are certainly compatible with the science fiction genre, except the term ‘science’ is not quite so relevant any more.
This is where I would apply the definition of ‘science fiction’ more loosely, and instead apply the term ‘speculative’ fiction. The concept of speculation may encompass a broader range of work in regard to speculative concepts of future time, alternative histories and alternate realities, in worlds that may even closely resemble our own.
In my opinion Ballard is writing in the same genre as Philip K.Dick, Robert Heinlein, Brian Aldiss or even Michael Crichton- although his style may be more literary than others, let’s say. Speculative fiction can be further subdivided into science fiction, which then can be subdivided into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction, if you’re inclined to do so and you enjoy categorising fiction. Yet I prefer the broader definition of SF, where it’s possible to appreciate each individual writer’s unique vision.