What’s Science Got to Do With It?

Last Thursday, #MGlitchat’s topic of the week was science fiction in middle grade books. I write YA rather than MG, but I was kind of jonesing for a writerly discussion (and science fiction is a subject dear to my heart), so I joined in. It proved to be a lively topic.

In the course of the hour or so I was participating, a few of us got into a side discussion of what constituted science fiction. Since I’m of, ahem, a certain age, and have been reading SF for a few decades (no, I won’t tell you how many), I ascribe to the classical definition of the genre. That is, it’s science fiction if, were you to remove the science element, there would be no story.

One of the other folks on the chat wondered if that definition is no longer valid. I think it’s a fine question to ask, but I just can’t think of another definition that would serve the same purpose. It is, after all, science fiction, so there has to be science. I guess the only question would be, can you call it SF if there’s no actual science? Or if the only “science” aspect are space ships, or laser guns, or people use unfamiliar slang?

Are there books that one might want to call science fiction, but have no science integral to the story? For instance, is Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games science fiction? It certainly has a science fiction feel to it. But what’s the science?

How about the Games themselves? There’s a great deal of science not only in the creation of the horrific arenas, but also in the tracking of the participants every moment. There’s a certain scientific aspect to the projection of the future as well (although that element of the series could also be labeled “speculative fiction,” which is a more generic term).

What about my own book, Tankborn? Is it truly science fiction? I believe it is. Yes, I could have created a straight fiction novel based on the Indian caste system but it would have been an entirely different book. Instead I used caste in a futuristic novel in which a bastardization of that system re-constitutes itself in a society that has left earth and colonized another planet. There is science in the creation of the genetically engineered GENs, science in the circuitry wired in their bodies that is used to control them, science in the devices that are used to interface with the GENs’ annexed brains. Some of the “science” in the book, e.g., my lev-cars and illusory holographic projections might not be strictly necessary to the story, but they do flesh out the setting. However if the science of the GENs were pulled out of Tankborn, many crucial aspects of the story would fall apart.

So are dystopian books, in and of themselves, automatically science fiction? I can’t speak for every dystopian out there since I haven’t read them all (yet :-)). But in addition to the Hunger Games trilogy, there are other dystopians that would certainly qualify in my mind as SF. Neal Shusterman’s Unwind is an excellent example, as is Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox. In both books, certain scientific advances (in addition to social changes) led to the dystopian world depicted in the story. In fact, without the science and social aspects in tandem, there would not be a story.

I’d love to hear others’ opinions of what science fiction means to them. I’d like to hear what books you think are science fiction and why you think they are. For instance, I believe Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic SF book, but some might call it literary. So what are you reading in science fiction? And what’s science got to do with it?


About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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2 Responses to What’s Science Got to Do With It?

  1. Brenton Clark says:

    This makes me wonder if you would really classify Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness as SF. A major (perhaps THE) point of the book is imagining a society where gender roles and stereotypes are completely turned on their heads from what we know. Couldn’t that have been accomplished with a story about a missionary/explorer who goes to live with one of the Native American or South American tribes who have very fluid views on sexual identity and view transgendered people as semi-divine?

    I haven’t finished Handmaid’s Tale yet, but based on your own definition of SF I’m not really seeing it. What science element, if removed, would mean there was no story?

    • karensandler says:

      Regarding The Left Hand of Darkness, there is a great deal of science-based worldbuilding in all the Hainish novels–the ansible that’s used for communication for instance and interstellar travel. I think the physical non-gender attribute of the Gethen people is not as simplistic as fluid gender roles in earth-based tribes. As a general rule (although I’m sure there are exceptions), we don’t have true gender-neutral sexuality. Although there may be some societies that accept gender variations, largely we have specific gender or sexual identifications. So yes, I’d still consider TLHoD science fiction. If not for the ability to traverse the stars and visit other planets, the people of Gethen would never be discovered.

      As for Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood herself insists (in the Wikipedia entry I read anyway) that her book is “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction.” but her definition of science fiction is rather suspect. She states that science fiction needs to have spaceships and monsters, that it involves “talking squids in space.” Um, no. One wonders why she objects so vehemently to the science fiction label, but gladly embraces the spec fic label. Whatever. Since I don’t remember what set in motion the dystopian society in THT (whether it was science-based, e.g., a virus that destroyed fertility in some), I’m ready to concede it’s not science fiction.

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