Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Science Fiction...is Weird


Science fiction is such a weird genre. So weird. It's a whole spectrum of weirdness from Very Science to Very Fiction. I want to talk about a super-weird little corner I've been reading in recently, but in order for that to hit the way I'd like, I feel the need to give some context. Spoilers: more than half this post is going to be "context", and I stand by that decision.

Most of science fiction is a part of a family of genre fiction called speculative fiction. Regular fiction is imminently plausible. It follows the rules of the world as we know it; speculative fiction does not. Speculative fiction has dragons and magic and faster-than-light travel and monsters and demons and aliens.  

 Here have a graph:

It's a rough graph. I made it myself. Don't think too hard about it. The point is that there is more overlap between various genre fiction than you might imagine, and as you can see, there's a portion of science fiction that is not particularly speculative, and a part that's so speculative it becomes a little bit more fantasy or a little bit more horror or both. 

The bit of sci-fi that falls completely outside of speculative territory is fiction built completely on known science. It might be out of reach at the moment for various reasons, but it doesn't rely on discoveries that haven't been made yet. The Martian and Artemis, by Andy Weir are good examples of this. They both involve known planets with known technologies and known laws of physics, only a decade or two in the future. The first is about an astronaut stranded on Mars while NASA tries to rescue him, and the other is about a heist, but on the moon, with space gangsters. 

So that's the least weird end of the spectrum. Most sci-fi, though, relies on at least a couple bits of science we haven't reaaallly discovered yet. Only theorized about. Like hyperdrives and subspace, sentient life on other planets, and time travel. Hard sci-fi is the end of the genre that's really serious about making all the applied science super logical and all the theoretical science work...theoretically. A good example of this is To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. There's no question it's speculative, but Paolini worked really hard to make it plausible. Same with the Illuminae series by Jay Kristoff and Aimee Kaufman. Very theoretical, but with each major element explained thoroughly and logically enough to make it feel like something that could actually happen. 

This is in contrast to something like a space opera, which is a story much more concerned with alien cultures and space battles, intergalactic politics, and weird extraterrestrial phenomena than actual science. This is considered soft sci-fi. We're definitely getting weirder. Examples include Star Wars, Star Trek, and a great number of Ray Bradbury's short stories.  

And theeennn there's the truly weird science fiction/space fantasy, like Escaping Exodus and its sequel Symbiosis, where you have space travel, but all the humans are just parasites living inside space whales. There's very little science involved, and most of it is just made up space whale anatomy, but it still manages to be really serious literature about how for a couple simple reasons, over a few generations a culture can grow up really sick and twisted and find it all not just normal but sacred. 

I'd put Dr. Who here on the spectrum too, if anyone was wondering, in the area where sci-fi, fantasy, and horror all overlap. Not every episode is all of those all the time, but the best ones are, I think. 

But Dr. Who is not even remotely as weird as sci-fi gets. We're finally to what I actually wanted to talk about, which is the science fiction that doesn't care about the science and doesn't care about the fiction. It just wants to mock itself, life, the universe, and everything.  It tends to get classified as science fiction comedy or comic science fiction, but I really wish there was a better subgenre label because it is so much more than just funny. It's savage social commentary and equal parts satire and full-on mocking. It's also one of the only places I've seen literary criticism so thoroughly built into story and such flagrant disregard of the fourth wall. 

The first book I ever read like this, and the most well-known is Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This book takes how it doesn't take itself seriously very seriously, and if you don't know what I mean, the answer is 42. The trick is just figuring out what the question is. 

Then there's Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. I didn't actually love this book, but it's still a great representative of the subgenre. Basically all the civilizations in the known universe got tired of fighting over who was sentient and who had rights, so they just decided to make everything a music competition. If you can't hack it in the competition, you probably aren't all that sentient, and Earth, as it turns out, is not all that sentient. I didn't love it, probably because I don't like my sentience being called into question. 


But not everything in this subgenre mocks all of sci-fi and life in general. John Scalzi's surprisingly serious book, Redshirts, pretty much exclusively mocks Star Trek, particularly the absurd mortality rate common to, usually nameless, characters wearing red shirts. It's really, really good. 

Speaking of Star Trek, you know how all the inner workings of Star Trek ships contain bio-neural gel packs? There was one particular episode of Star Trek Voyager called Learning Curve (Season 1, Episode 16), where the ship's systems begin to fail and someone runs onto the bridge and says (breathlessly) something like, "Captain, it's the gel packs.....they've caught a virus."

And in that moment all I wanted in all of life was to see an episode where everything on the ship is just going inexplicably haywire and the big reveal and cliffhanger leading into Part Two is a Red Shirt running onto the bridge yelling frantically, "CAPTAIN It's The Gel Packs *panting in shock and horror* They've Become SENTIENT."

Um anyways. The funniest, weirdest thing, I have found in science fiction, and to be honest, fiction in general is the Rex Niholo series by Robert Kroese. Narrated by a near-sentient android named SASHA, who can't have original thoughts, the story is one long joke at the expense of science fiction, literature in general, and you. Not you in general, you personally. If you read the books, the joke is on you. Here is the series, in publication order, in all its glory. 

First we have Starship Grifters, which, while its name is a parody of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, doesn't actually mock any part of Starship Troopers as far as I'm concerned, except maybe this: The point of Starship Troopers is that even with space travel, aliens species, and all the technology you can imagine, war is exactly the same, and soldiers are exactly the same, and nothing but the scale and the details changes. Starship Grifters is that, but with con-artists, and one in particular: Rex Nihilo, the self-proclaimed, "greatest wheeler-dealer in the galaxy." 

Then you have Aye, Robot, in which Rex takes the concept of space piracy to a whole other level. It's title is of course a nod to I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (absolutely nothing like the Will Smith movie), which is possibly the only work of science fiction whose ideas on robot psychology Kroese treats with actual respect by mining and then repackaging them throughout the series.

And then we have the shockingly satisfying conclusion, The Wrath of Cons, which is of course named for the second Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan, which I remember as a terrifying film involving ear worms that I have never ever had the nerve to watch in its entirety after accidently being exposed to it  at not an appropriate age. And no, I have absolutely no idea why Blogger refuses to let me justify this paragraph left. 

Oh you thought that was it? No, there's a prequel called Out of the Soylent Planet, which has nothing to do with the first book in C.S. Lewis' sublime space trilogy, which is arguably not sci-fi at all, but rather richly allegorical fantasy that happens to take place on first Mars, then Venus, only to spend the significantly-longer third book entirely on Earth. 

Out of the Soylent Planet, gets tired of making fun of sci-fi and takes a swing at dystopian fiction instead, and it's great. And that's literally every science fiction comedy I've read. If you know of others, please tell me, I'm one hundred percent down for it. 

What about you? Have you read any of these titles? Is there a part of the sci-fi spectrum that you especially enjoy? Any books I should add to my list? I've been trying to read more sci-fi across the spectrum, so I'm definitely open to suggestions. See you next week!

Up Next (probably, I might change my mind): Unfinished Business, Part the Second. 

1 comment:

  1. I have a love/hate relationship with sci fi. I like Star Wars and Star trek and Doctor Who was a favorite. But I have a hard time getting into space type things unless their character focused. I did like The Martian though I have been meaning to Read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.