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What Qualities Do You Find Common To Great Science Fiction?

  1. Jul 25, 2005 #1


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    Perhaps the hallmark of the great sci-fi novels is that they always tell stories in service to a fantastic idea, an idea that often comes to fruition in the future. For instance, in 2001 the idea is that an extremely powerful alien intelligence is responsible for the evolution of apes into men, and soon in the future will be ready to guide men on the next step. The idea in Dune is that far into the future we will have the ability to mold planets to our will using the tools of conservation ecology, and mold mankind to our will using selective breeding and psychedelic drugs. To achieve status as great literature, however (and not just great sci-fi), a novel must tell a compelling story, with interesting characters that undergo meaningful development. It is the very rarest achievement in the genre to fulfill both of these requirements, and also to simply have well-written narrative, without terribly affected descriptions and dialogue.

    H.G. Wells, probably the father of modern science fiction, saw the genre as a modern vehicle for telling the 'fantastic tale' in a way that could be believable to modern generations. That is, aliens and scientific achievement now take the place of fairy-tale creatures and magic, but the form of the story remains. Men like Frank Herbert and George Lucas saw science fiction as a way of fulfilling the epic form, to create new myths that, like the old myths, teach us virtue and morality, whereas someone like Philip K. Dick saw it more as a way to raise mind-bending questions that didn't have the easy answers of epic morality plays. Many great works of science fiction critique the present by satirizing it in the future (1984 and Brave New World).

    What do you think is the highest aim of science fiction? What do you think makes a story of this genre great? Do you prefer when it leans more toward social critique or epic fantasy? Optimistic visions of the future (Contact, Star Trek) or dystopian views (Bladerunner, Terminator)? Or what about that rarest of rare achievements - social critique and epic fantasy mixed together within a dystopian, but hopeful, view of the future (The Matrix)?

    Heck, for that matter, what are some of your favorite sci-fi tales and why do you love them so much?
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  3. Jul 25, 2005 #2
    I love satire so I prefer any sort of story with a social critique, which most have to some degree anyway. To me the most important aspect of any fiction is that it is creative and original, not borrowing too heavily from prior fiction. I guess that is rather evident though, especially for the sci fi genre.
  4. Jul 25, 2005 #3
    An immense and detailed universe and culture are to me what makes a science fiction (or even fantasy) a compelling one. Dune is a perfect example of it, because Frank Herbert made the entire universe seem alive and bustling with activity. And while the science part of it may be a little questionable, at least it isn't blatantly wrong. Some parts (like the selective breeding) seem to fit in with normal science.

    Without the immersive environment, the storyline will suffer greatly and end up like the sub-quality B sci-fi movies that end up being really atrocious. Plot is also important as well to any novel.
  5. Jul 25, 2005 #4


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    One characteristic that I like sci fi to have, is a careful adherence to accepted science (this does not prevent an exploitation of the grey areas). What makes good sci fi "good" (to me) is how much it achieves by making good use of known science. Scientific accuracy and detail enriches sci fi for me. I like Asimov for this reason. Naturally, without the creative thought, there would be nothing in it.
  6. Jul 25, 2005 #5


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    And then there's Douglas Adams, whose winning formula involves two ingredients :
    (i) language and writing style,
    (ii) boundlessness of creativity
  7. Jul 25, 2005 #6


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    As a hard-SF fan and writer, I make a distinction between SF and Fantasy. (And, although I know that it isn't intentional on the part of anyone here, the term Sci-Fi is considered a mortal insult. 'The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman' is Sci-Fi; 'Contact' is not.) 'Star Wars' and the Indianna Jones series are Fantasy. I mean, face it... a light sabre is a sword, 'carbon-freezing' isn't even vaguely possible, and 'The Force' doesn't exist.
    All good SF is a human (or alien) tale like any other, set in a situation wherein solid science, or the extrapolation thereof, is a background component or at most equal to the humanitarian factor. My second favourite movie, for instance, is 'Charly'. Nobody considers it SF because Cliff Robertson got a Best Actor Oscar for it, but it was. It involved experimental brain tissue implantation in order to overcome retardation. While such is theoretically possible, we have not yet achieved it (and Daniel Keyes wrote the original 'Flowers For Algernon' in 1958—Hugo award for best short story in '59). And check out one of the best ever... 'Nerves' by Lester del Rey. It's a very compelling, rivetting, and completely accurate account of a nuclear station meltdown—written in 1942.
    For now, my favourites are Larry Niven and James P. Hogan.
  8. Jul 26, 2005 #7
    Danger, have you ever read Greg Bear? He doesn't write purely science fiction and takes some liberties here and there but mostly extrapolates from known science or scientific theory. I think he's mostly famous for the "grey goo" scenario though I forget the name of the actual story it came from.
  9. Jul 26, 2005 #8

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    I enjoy shocking, mind blowing originality. All the rest of the elements mentioned are important to be sure, but I want to read something that leaves my head spinning. For this reason, above all, I consider modern physics great stuff! :biggrin:
  10. Jul 26, 2005 #9
    I've read a fair bit by Stephen Baxter recently. Most of his stories are based on real science, and several of his books have appendices with references to the real-life work on which it is based. For example, (I just grabbed one off my desk) in this book he includes a 'Feynman Radio', quark nuggets, evolutionary families of universes, vacuum decay etc. and references the journals where these ideas have been published. I don't find his stories quite as compelling or engrossing as Dune (I must have read the whole series at least 6 or 7 times now), but it's a great mix of science fiction and science fact.
  11. Jul 26, 2005 #10


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    I've seen the name, but never read any of his stuff. Given your description of it, I think that I'll probably enjoy it. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I'm currently not able to access a new bookstore, so it'll have to wait a while. I'll definitely keep an eye out for him in the used bookstore and library, though. As far as taking liberties goes, I think that I might hold a record on that. It took me 20 years to get a plausible excuse for a telepath and teleporter existing, and it depended upon them being craniopagus twins. The same 20 years were spent figuring out how to build a fighter plane that would do 8 Mach. Neither one is seriously attainable, but at least I put enough work into it to make it acceptable from a scientific standpoint.
    Kazza; same to you as to Mr. Ape. I've not heard of this fellow, but I'm sure that I would enjoy his work very much. I'll keep an eye out for it.
    I should point out that while a lot of the masters of SF stepped outside the boundaries of pure science, they maintained the dignity of the scientific principle. (Asimov, for instance, was a biochemistry professor, so his application of physics was sometimes amiss. Even Larry Niven allowed for 'stepping disks' and FTL spacecraft.) And as for 'new' stuff, it doesn't exist. It's essentially impossible to come up with a 'new' story line. The best that can be done is to modify a pre-existing one to fit the parameters of the background. ('Forbidden Planet', for instance, was a remake of 'The Tempest', and it's considered to be one of the best SF movies ever made.)
  12. Jul 26, 2005 #11
    Perhaps I understated how much liscence he takes. Some of his stories are pretty fantastic but he always tries to explain as much as possible. In one he has an alien race whose religion is based around black holes, many elements of social commentary. Another there is a war between humans and an alien race, he does delve deeply here into how this very differant life form must have evolved including psychological and social evolution. He also seems to have a fascination with phenomena such as ghosts but the occurances in his stories when they happen, if I remember correctly, are always left open and uncertain as to how "real" they were. I still think you would like him. Maybe I can find a story or two on the net...
    Huh.. looks like his new book is a "hi tech ghost story" lol. Possibly something involving someones mind being transfered into a computer. He likes this topic as well.
    He has some interesting looking articles on his page here under "other writing".
  13. Jul 26, 2005 #12


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    Thanks for the info and links, TSA. That looks pretty good. I don't have time to check it out properly right now, but definitely will soon.
  14. Jul 26, 2005 #13


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    One of my favorite stories was "The House that Jack Built", it introduced me to tesseracts/hypercubes at the age of 12-14. I can't even find reference to it now, but I still remember it so well after all these years.

    Another all time favorite is the Dr Urth stories by Asimov "extraterrologist & sleuth Dr. Wendell Urth". Those were great. :approve:

    Then "St Katy the Virgin" by Steinbeck, about a pig that would raise up on one hoof and spin in ecstasy. Ok, the official blurb is "about a mean-tempered pig who is converted to Christianity and becomes a saint". :biggrin: (Yes, John Steinbeck, I could have sworn this was written by Poul Anderson, but apparently I was wrong)

    These were all stories I read as a young girl, stories that shaped my life.

    Of course, Bradbury, Poul Anderson, Heinlen, etc... I read every quality science fiction story I could get my hands on, I had dozens and dozens of books, the book store ran out of new books for me to read at one point.
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2005
  15. Jul 27, 2005 #14
    Yes, the classics are great. Especially when you read some of the really early stuff and look at how the genre evolved. I remember reading a story set in the far future where man-kind had developed the technology to create super-speed train-like transportation capable of travelling at the incredible speed of 200mph. I wish I could remember who wrote that one.
  16. Jul 27, 2005 #15
  17. Jul 27, 2005 #16
  18. Jul 27, 2005 #17
    One of my all-time favorites is not one that is very well known, nor is it by one of the SF great name authors. In fact, it isn't even a novel; its a short story. Its emphasis isn't on science or phenomenal occurrence. It is mostly a human interest story, written many years ago. It is titled "The Silk and The Song", by Charles L. Fontenay.

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