Swans Commentary » swans.com January 30, 2006  



What Is Science Fiction?


by Milo Clark





(Swans - January 30, 2006)  The Editor of Asimov's Reader asks, "What is Science Fiction?" Preferring a broad definition, she muddles around Alternative Futures, Alternative History, Fantasies, and stumbles into fictitious non-fiction and vice-versa to arrive at no definitive definition. She concludes that she likes keeping things as wide open as possible. Maybe, she suggests, Science Fiction, as a genre, has something to do with science, typically viewed from a future perspective.

She notes that yesterday's Science Fiction has a way of predicting today's actualities.

As a very long-time admirer of older Science Fiction luminaries such as Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein, I note that both have good records as SciFi prophets. Philip K. Dick's sparsely populated stark worlds now confront far too many of us. George Orwell is castigated for not getting everything right (see 1984), yet some pigs are sharply more equal than others (see Animal Farm).

I am always delighted to run into works previously unknown (to me) by Robert Anson Heinlein. Recently, a pristine copy of the mass paperback Assignment in Eternity jumped out at me from the pickup bed of Sunday's Makuu Market bookseller Royce Wilson. Assignment in Eternity (Baen Books, Riverdale NY, 1953, ISBN 0-671-65350-4) collects three novellas: "Gulf" (1949), "Elsewhen" (1941), and "Lost Legacy" (1941), with a short story, "Jerry was a Man" (1947).

Assignment also has an early version of the wonderful "Heinlein Timeline." He shows us his plans for works in process and to come. The Timeline was modified over the years, of course, but each version provides insights into a very creative mind with well-honed sensitivities.

Roughly, each Timeline spans prior history before expanding into three centuries, 1900, 2000, and 2100. Heinlein notes completed works and suggests titles to come. He names his principal characters and gives timelines related to their roles. He makes similar timelines for key technical processes and expansions, naming relevant data and sociological trends he finds significant. The last column is Remarks.

In the 2000 Remarks segment of the Timeline found in Assignment, Heinlein cryptically notes:

Rise of Religious Fanaticism
The New Crusade . . .
Religious Dictatorship in U.S. . . .

Under Remarks, he writes:

. . . extreme puritanism, . . .
Social control developed by the priest class.

Optimistically, by 2100 Heinlein sees "re-establishment of civil liberty, . . . eventuating in a . . . beginning of first mature culture."

Virginia Heinlein, wife, writes in the 1991 "Original Uncut Version" of Stranger in a Strange Land, first published in a truncated version in 1961, that Gulf was a story for which Heinlein sketched notes later to emerge as Stranger. The 1961 Stranger was a must-read of the early 1960s counter-culture.

From Gulf (p. 62ff) has his characters note:

. . . I confess to a monkey prejudice in favor of democracy.

. . . I confess to that same affection for democracy, Joe. But it's like a yearning for the Santa Claus you believed in as a child. . . . But now if the race is simply to stay alive, political decisions depend on real knowledge. . . [Speaking of the majority] They aren't up to it, Joe. . . They can't learn what they must know. . . .

. . . Reason is poor propaganda when opposed by the yammering unceasing lies of shrewd and evil and self-serving men. The little man has no way to judge and the shoddy lies are packaged most attractively. There is no way to offer color to a colorblind man, nor is there any way for us the man of imperfect brain the canny sill to distinguish a lie from a truth.

From Lost Legacy (p. 216 and 218):

. . . any attempt to place the essentials of the ancient knowledge in the hands of the common people is met by a determined, organized effort to prevent it, and to destroy or disable the one who tries it. . . . [there is] a cold, calculated awareness that their power lay in keeping the people in ignorance . . .

. . . Our antagonists don't wait, they are active all the time.

I would say that Heinlein got us right for the early 2000s. I hope he is equally accurate about the coming of a mature culture in the 2100s.

Is Heinlein's work to be classed as Science Fiction or prophecy?


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Truth is stranger than fiction. Please help both truth and fiction.

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Internal Resources

Arts & Culture

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'


About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Report No Evil - Deck Deckert

This Is A Man's World - Jan Baughman

Are US Citizens As Gullible As The "Good Germans" Were? - Philip Greenspan

Nikolai Bukharin's Philosophical Arabesques - Book Review by Louis Proyect

Monkey Business - Film Review by Charles Marowitz

The Top Of The Day Always Starts At The Bottom - Michael Yonchenko

Escape Mechanism - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

San Diego - Poem by William T. Hathaway

Blips #33 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/mgc176.html
Published January 30, 2006