META: Musings on What Science Fiction Is

Andrew Perron pwerdna at
Mon Jul 30 16:37:59 PDT 2012

So, I was thinking on what brings together the wide and heterogeneous assortment of story styles that we call "science fiction". And I was also thinking about the oft-repeated claim that certain stories are *not* science fiction, but simply fantasy with a coat of trope paint over the top. So, to break this down, I chose the biggest and most obvious example: Star Wars.

And, for once, I had a realization; a sudden understanding as to why it matters that Star Wars is, in fact, science fiction. And, furthermore, I realized that it's because of the aspect that - I'd argue - is the key to its success.

Simply put: The world.

The plot of Star Wars is an epic quest; a plot that's most often found in fantasy, but isn't part of what makes fantasy fantasy. But, equally, it's not what makes science fiction science fiction. None of the concepts that are important to the epic quest require it to take place in any world other than our own.

But the *setting* of Star Wars is filled with things that can't be reduced down to their closest fantasy counterparts. The fact that Luke Skywalker is a poor farmer's son can be found in the plot of many fantasy novels, but the fact that his farm sucks the coveted water vapor out of the dry air of a planet with a different chemical makeup - heck, simply the fact that it's a farm of machines, and the duty of the farmers is to collect the products and provide maintenance - there's no easy equivalent of that. Likewise, the fact that Darth Vader is a masked servant of dark forces is easily mapped to the standard dark wizard, but the fact that the Death Star is a mobile weapons platform with an enormous weapon that has to charge up - well, you get it.

But there's a deeper assertion I'm making, an implied, invisible thesis. So let's pull that into the light: The setting of a story is more than just set dressing for the plot. It is an integral part of the story itself.

Not that this is news; fourth-grade English starts off by teaching you that stories are made of plot, setting, and characters. But we forget this, every so often, treating setting as "okay so we're going to be in a Vancouver forest this week" instead of "the world in which we live presses upon our every action, and vice-versa". So, let's reiterate it now: The setting is part of the story, and you can't say "this story is X or Y" without considering it.

Andrew "NO .SIG MAN" "Juan" Perron, that went in a direction I only figured out through writing it! Neat!

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