Science fiction vs. techno thriller

Posted: August 15, 2014 in Books, Culture, Uncategorized
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science fictionMy recent review of Jon McGoran’s excellent thriller “Drift” got me thinking about the definition of “science fiction.”

On the surface, defining science fiction looks pretty simple, doesn’t it? Does it have science in it? Is it fiction? Then it’s science fiction. Whew! Gotta take a nap. All this thinking has plum wore me out!

Except maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

Don’t want to go into too many details here lest I drop any spoilers. McGoran’s book is about a modern-day cop who stumbles into a criminal conspiracy involving the bioengineering of crops. I’ll tell you this much. The secret he uncovers turns out to be pretty jaw-dropping, yet it’s grounded in modern scientific developments. Incredible, but not intelligent-walking-plant-creatures-menacing-humanity incredible.

That aura of plausibility, coupled with the fact that it takes place in modern times instead of the future, would seem to place it in the realm of “techno thriller” rather than “science fiction.”

Though I’m not one of these obsessive buffs who reads nothing BUT science fiction, I still love it.

It’s interesting to me, how science fiction developed. It (debatably) started around the turn of the 20th century, at a time of staggering scientific and technological advances that were radically changing the world for better and for worse. People were interested in reading stories that speculated about what changes might be in the works, and what those changes might bring.

A lot of early science fiction wasn’t intended as escapist fantasy, so much as a peek at how sweeping technological developments could affect the future.

I’m not suggesting that all science fiction was based on sober speculation. I doubt anybody read John Carter’s adventures on Mars because of their gritty realism. Still, a lot of early science fiction was based on a sense that the fantastic scenarios and inventions being described were plausible. Even imminent. If transcontinental air travel — a bizarre and fanciful notion for the generation preceding those early science fiction writers — was plausible, how much of a leap was it that the next generation would be living on the moon? If Americans could meet and interact with people on the other side of the globe, was it really that big a stretch that we might someday be shaking hands with the occupants of Mars or Venus?

So what makes one fictional work involving science a “techno thriller,” and another “science fiction?”

I saw a few reviews comparing McGoran to Michael Crichton. I’m reluctant to do that, because I really liked McGoran’s book, and I’m not a big fan of Crichton as a writer or as a scientific theorist. (“Global warming? Poppycock!” Good call, Mike. Very scientifically rigorous.)

Still, Crichton’s books were frequently classified as techno thrillers too, as opposed to science fiction. No matter how outlandish the premise — such as resurrected dinosaurs — the contemporary setting and mere nod to scientific plausibility would take them out of the realm of science fiction.

It seems that these days, a work gets classified as “science fiction” more because it incorporates certain tropes associated with the genre, than because it has anything to do with science. Tropes such as time travel, space travel, extraterrestrials, cyborgs, etc. Not based in actual scientific research on any of those topics, so much as variations on previous works about them. Being curious and knowledgeable about science doesn’t necessarily appear to be a qualifier for science fiction writers anymore, so much as a desire to write about spaceships and robots.

That’s not a diss. Like I said, I love science fiction — vintage and modern. And I guess it’s not a recent phenomenon. I just did a Google image search for science fiction pulp magazine covers, and they don’t exactly make the words “scientific rigor” come to mind. The raison d’être for many of them is apparently finding excuses to depict babes in metallic bikinis on the covers.

And of course there are plenty of exceptions. The subgenre of cyberpunk, much like early 20th century science fiction, attempted to combine rollicking adventure with genuine speculation about how radical contemporary technological developments might affect the future. You’ve also got works such as Scott Pruden’s “Immaculate Deception” that deliberately subvert standard science fiction tropes for purposes of social satire.

Still, it’s interesting that incorporating genuine science into a story these days might disqualify that story as science fiction.

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