Written by Stephanie Pickrell
The science fiction genre has struggled with its own definition since its beginning. It encompasses everything from intergalactic space battles to horrifying dystopias, and even science fiction writers themselves disagree on exactly what it means to write sci-fi. However, the discourse on science fiction hasn’t developed as fast as science fiction itself, and we lack an articulate way to talk about its values, faults, and intricacies.
One such way to make sense of such a sprawling genre is to analyze stories by their approaches. Science fiction is frequently defined (at least more than other genres) by the “what if?” question. “What if” aliens attacked Earth or “what if” humans could grow wings? The “what if” question allows us to define a genre with a very wide scope, but it doesn’t reflect the complexities of the differences within science fiction. As a science fiction nerd myself, I’ve outlined three approaches that science fiction writers often use, whether they know it or not, to ask varying degrees of “what if”: the backdrop, the vessel, and the instrument.
First, the backdrop approach. One requirement of science fiction that nearly all of its supporters can agree upon is its futuristic setting. However, in the backdrop approach, futuristic setting becomes almost the evidence for it being part of the genre. In general, this approach treats the future as a setting, but doesn’t specifically use the future for thematic purposes. This is not to say that science fiction of this kind is any less science fiction, or has any less merit. On the contrary, stories that subscribe to this approach can be every bit as fulfilling as literature from any genre. The only difference between the backdrop approach and the other approaches to science fiction is that it treats the futuristic “backdrop” as a new arena for questions that could be asked in any other genre.
The most illustrative example of this approach is Star Wars. The series is a must-watch for any true science fiction nerd (excepting the prequels, of course), but the only thing that is “science fiction” about it is its setting. Evil empires, rebels, and forces of mysterious power are not unique to science fiction, and the questions they raise can be found across all genres of fiction. What makes Star Wars qualify as science fiction is the setting, but it doesn’t utilize the opportunities of the genre much further.
Recommended backdrop books:
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
Secondly, the vessel approach. Science fiction of this approach regards the genre as a vessel for change, whether social, political, or anything else. It’s arguably the most popular approach to science fiction today, and probably the largest. Writers who use this approach focus mainly on issues of the present in their depiction of the future, often using the work as an advocate of or warning against certain political circumstances. The vessel approach overlaps with a good deal of the dystopian genre, although stories don’t have to be dystopias in order to fit under it Whereas the vessel approach generally asks the question “What if this technology existed?”, the vessel approach asks, “What if this societal issue is taken to its extreme?”.
Science fiction of the vessel approach has been making itself heard lately in popular culture. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the social issue taken to it extreme is strict religiosity and rigid societal roles. In Unwind, a popular series by young adult author Neal Shusterman, the extreme is political divide over abortion rights. Although the approach (as well as dystopia in general) is gaining strength today, it’s not just a recent phenomenon. Even Frankenstein, perhaps the most widely known example of “classic” science fiction, follows this approach. In its case, the extreme is an obsession with science and domination over nature.
Recommended vessel books:
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Thirdly, the instrument approach. Writers under this approach use science fiction as an instrument with which to explore deep philosophical questions. What does it mean to love if love can be manufactured with chemical impulses? What does it mean to be human when robots are slowly replacing us? What does it mean to enforce justice when humans collide with a radically different alien species? The instrument approach takes the questions that philosophers have debated for thousands of years and sets them in a futuristic setting that challenges their traditional answers.
Not coincidentally, many instrument approach stories involve aliens. Strange alien cultures are the perfect way to challenge ideas that are so universal to humanity that we often don’t think to acknowledge them, never mind actively question them. For example, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead deals with how humanity reacts to a previously non-violent alien species suddenly and inexplicably killing the one scientist allowed to study them. The moral, philosophical, and even religious question that Card asks through the narrative are so intricately tied to science fiction that those questions could not be asked without the genre as an instrument. This approach in science fiction gives us an opportunity to examine our societies and ourselves with some distance and to see with new eyes the truths we take for granted.
All this is not to say that science fiction has more thematic importance than other genres, even more traditional, realistic fiction. Realistic fiction is just as capable of asking important questions. But science fiction has so long suffered from a lack of recognition for its merits, and its not only equal but unique potential for philosophy is severely underestimated.
Recommended instrument books:
Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card
Foundation, Isaac Asimov
These approaches—backdrop, vessel, and instrument—are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to have a science fiction story that fits into all three categories, and in fact, most have some element of all of them.
For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be explained in terms of all three approaches. Typical of the backdrop approach, the story centers on a single invention and asks, “What if we could manufacture life?” Under the vessel approach, Shelley focuses heavily on the main character’s obsession with science and asks, “What if society became obsessed with the power of science?” And finally, under the instrument approach, the story explores the nature of innocence without childhood, the nature of feeling human without being human, and other questions that, while not impossible to ask through other types of fiction, lend themselves particularly well to science fiction’s imagination.
Science fiction is expanding rapidly, but still remains largely unmapped and misunderstood. By finding different ways to categorize its goals and themes, we are finally able to describe the fluid and changing nature of modern science fiction without sticking intergalactic adventures in the same box as experimental dystopias. Sci-fi deserves recognition for its faults as well as its strengths, but we need to define ways to describe it, first.