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 gimme—time 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 gimme—but 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.