NivenLarry Ringworld Gollancz art 1500

modern science fiction and the gimme part 4 – on various genres and the gimme

THIS IS THE FOURTH of five es­says (all ti­tled “modern sci­ence fic­tion and the gimme part 4” or 3 or 1) ad­dressing as­pects of the ac­knowl­edged “laws” of plot­ting and story-telling in modern sci­ence fic­tion. It is not nec­es­sary to have read the first two parts to un­der­stand this part. Here are a few very brief, easy-to-understand de­f­i­n­i­tions that de­lin­eate the pri­mary dif­fer­ences be­tween sev­eral types of fan­tas­tical lit­er­a­ture and how the use of the gimme varies.

All forms of sci­ence fic­tion can be con­sid­ered as sub-categories of fan­tasy fic­tion, but that is not what most people en­vi­sion when they hear someone dis­cussing fan­tasy as a lit­erary form. What they do her and vi­su­alize is swords and sor­cery, elves and fairies, hob­bits and dragons, and cater­pil­lars puffing on hookahs atop magic mush­rooms.

In fan­tasy, the au­thor does NOT have to offer a rational/logical ex­pla­na­tion for his gimme or any of the fan­tastic oc­cur­rences in his story. Es­sen­tially, every­thing boils down to magic; de­pending on how the au­thor de­scribes the pa­ra­me­ters of the magic, vir­tu­ally any­thing is con­ceiv­able, there­fore doable.

For ex­ample, the ability of one person or species to read an­oth­er’s thoughts just is: it ex­ists and re­quires no ex­pla­na­tion of a sci­en­tific order. Nor does it need to be named, as we do with telepathy.

Fan­tasy and sci­ence fic­tion can be in­tel­li­gently in­ter­min­gled: in Anne Mc­Caf­frey’s mar­velous Drag­onriders Of Pern se­ries (read them all!), the dragons are es­sen­tially based on the same myth­ical beasts of Terran yore ex­cept that they are the prod­ucts of ge­net­i­cally ma­nip­u­lating a beast na­tive to an­other planet, Pern.

In that, the sto­ries have a sci­ence fic­tion gimme. But the ‘im­pressing’ that oc­curs be­tween dragon and its human mate—despite the or­ganic telepathy and telekinesis of the beasts—borders on the mys­tical, the su­per­nat­ural.

I will ad­dress other as­pects of fan­tasy fic­tion in a sep­a­rate, follow-up posting ti­tled “On Modern Fan­tasy and the Gimme Rule”—coming soon to a com­puter screen near you!



I was turned onto Lew Shin­er’s mar­velous writ­ings by mu­tual friend Paul Williams, who thought Lew and I were of a kind. Paul pointed me to Lew’s Glimpses, a modern fan­tasy in which the pro­tag­o­nist travels back­ward in time to the late ’60s in an at­tempt to help Brian Wilson, Jim Mor­rison, and Jimi Hen­drix com­plete their  un­fin­ished mas­ter­pieces

On science fiction

In sci­ence fic­tion, the au­thor pro­vides a rational/logical ex­pla­na­tion for his gimmetime travel and trav­eling faster than the speed of light are usu­ally ac­com­plished through ad­vanced tech­nology. Seem­ingly ex­tra­or­di­nary mental or phys­ical abil­i­ties may be ge­net­i­cally / evo­lu­tion­arily evolved or the product of syn­thetic drugs.

For ex­ample, telepathy would re­quire some ex­pla­na­tion, such as it has lain dor­mant in the human brain for eons but a few hu­mans take the next evo­lu­tionary step and dis­cover the ability. Or a newly dis­cov­ered drug (say an LSD-like com­pound) or even an an­cient sub­stance (like a pre­vi­ously un­known fungus or vine) ac­ti­vates the la­tency.

One of my fa­vorite books in re­cent years is De­serted Cities Of The Heart by Lewis Shiner (and ti­tled after the song of the same name from Cream’s 1968 Wheels Of Fire album). In it, a leg­endary mush­room grows only in the shadow of de­serted, ru­ined Mayan tem­ples in the rain forests of Yu­catan.

A tiny piece of the flesh of these ‘gods’ trans­ports the taker in the story back hun­dreds of years in time, where the Mayan priests await his ar­rival. While this can be cat­e­go­rized as sci­ence fic­tion due to the gimme having a botan­ical source, few would argue should you de­cide to cat­e­go­rize it as a psy­che­delic fan­tasy.

There are sev­eral sub-genres of sci­ence fic­tion, in­cluding these three basic ones:


Larry Niven’s novel Ring­world is a classic of hard science-fiction. and, for me, too typ­ical of the sub-genre: When I read it in 1970, I was fascinated/awed by the sci­ence but bored by the fic­tion (the nar­ra­tive and the char­ac­ters). There have been many edi­tions of this title, many with fine cover art but this is my fave from Gol­lancz in the UK in 2005. Alas, I couldn’t find the name of the artist.

Hard science fiction

Wikipedia rea­son­ably de­fines hard sci­ence fic­tion as “a cat­e­gory of sci­ence fic­tion char­ac­ter­ized by an em­phasis on sci­en­tific or tech­nical de­tail, or on sci­en­tific ac­cu­racy, or on both.”

For my pur­poses here, hard sci­ence fic­tion is the same as reg­ular sci­ence fic­tion (above)—the au­thor pro­vides a rational/logical ex­pla­na­tion for his gimmebut the au­thor often also of­fers an ad­di­tional tech­nical ex­pla­na­tion for that rational/logical ex­pla­na­tion.

The gimme is al­most al­ways of an ad­vanced scientific/engineering na­ture.

Soft science fiction

“Soft sci­ence fic­tion is based on the soft sci­ences, and es­pe­cially the so­cial sci­ences (an­thro­pology, so­ci­ology, psy­chology, po­lit­ical sci­ence, and so on), rather than en­gi­neering or the hard sci­ences (for ex­ample, physics, as­tronomy, or chem­istry). Soft sci­ence fic­tion is often more con­cerned with char­acter and spec­u­la­tive so­ci­eties rather than sci­en­tific or en­gi­neering spec­u­la­tions.” (Wikipedia)

Need­less to say, soft sci­ence fic­tion is more dif­fi­cult to de­fine than hard sci­ence fic­tion: “In The En­cy­clo­pedia Of Sci­ence Fic­tion, Peter Nicholls writes that soft SF is a “not very pre­cise item of SF ter­mi­nology” and that the con­trast be­tween hard and soft is “some­times il­log­ical.” In fact, the bound­aries be­tween hard and soft are nei­ther def­i­nite nor uni­ver­sally agreed-upon, so there is no single stan­dard of sci­en­tific hard­ness or soft­ness.” (Wikipedia)

Like so many ex­pla­na­tions and de­f­i­n­i­tions of­fered for these var­ious sub-genres, this is no de­f­i­n­i­tion at all! For my case here, the con­cept of soft sci­ence fic­tion as a lit­erary term is mean­ing­less, if not silly. That is, its ex­is­tence as an iden­ti­fi­able genre is moot. One could say that if it’s sci­ence fic­tion but it’s not hard sci­ence fic­tion, then it’s soft sci­ence fic­tion …

The gimme can be of vir­tu­ally any type, in­cluding that of the hard sci­ence fic­tion above.


Super soft science fiction (‘sci-fi’)

I just coined the term super soft sci­ence fic­tion for this piece. It’s the most pop­ular and fi­nan­cially suc­cessful form of sci­ence fic­tion. Often, the gimme rule is ig­nored, if it is known by the writer to even exist.

None of the rules or ex­pla­na­tions of sci­ence fic­tion lit­er­a­ture have ever seemed to matter to the ma­jority of those writers who supply Hol­ly­wood with scripts for (sup­posed) sci­ence fic­tion movies. In fact, the ma­jority of scripts are written by in­di­vid­uals with little or no knowl­edge of, let alone ex­pe­ri­ence in, sci­ence fic­tion as literature—and it al­most al­ways shows!

Since the deliri­ously un­ex­pected suc­cess of the Star Trek and Star Wars fran­chises, many younger sci­ence fic­tion writers no longer abide by the time-tested laws and rules of the lit­er­a­ture, in­cluding those of the gimme.

My use of Star Trek and Star Wars is NOT meant to de­mean those series/properties—at least not all of them. But the erup­tion of the pop­u­larity of these two has seemed to have had a triv­i­al­izing (in­fan­tilizing?) overall ef­fect on the field of sci­ence fic­tion. Or, at least on the gen­eral per­cep­tion of the field by many older sci­ence fic­tion readers.

But that is not un­usual in any en­deavor: those who boldly go where no one has gone be­fore al­most al­ways are fol­lowed by folks of lesser vi­sion and vigor. In the hands of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, cy­ber­punk was bril­liant, innovative—a sub-genre for the times. It was fol­lowed by the de­cid­edly less daring steam-punk. And so it goes …

Per­haps sci­ence fic­tion movies and their tie-ins (es­pe­cially the books re­lated to the films or the char­ac­ters) and re­lated pseudo-science fic­tion such as comics and games is an area where we old fo­gies may use the term sci-fi in a pa­tron­izing manner and re­main true to the spirit of El­lison and other stick­lers for a sense of pro­priety in sci­ence fic­tion lit­er­a­ture.


HEADER IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is an­other artist’s de­pic­tion of Larry Niven’s Ring­world. I chose it for both its love­li­ness and how much it echoes the cover art of the Gol­lancz pa­per­back above. And like the pa­per­back, I couldn’t find an artist’s credit for this work, which I found on the In­fin­i­Space blog.


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