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Transcript of Speculative Fiction
Isaac Asimov's three
categories of Science Fiction
Examples of each "category"
Social Science Fiction
Making the Abstract Concrete
Classic science fiction writer Isaac Asimov organized science fiction
into three categories:
Gadget: The focus of the story is the invention itself: How it comes to be invented, how it works, and / or what it is used for. The invention is the end result of the plot.
Adventure: The invention is used as a dramatic prop. It may be the solution to a problem, or it may be causing the problem itself, but the main focus is on the caper and how the invention's presence helps or hinders it.
Social: The focus of the story is on how the presence of the invention affects people's daily lives, whether for good or for ill. The chief distinction between this and the other two types is that the presence of the invention causes the plot rather than affecting it or being the goal.
Most stories are a combination of two or more of these. Often the most interesting stories involve at least some elements of SOCIAL.
NOTE: You can also consider similar categories when writing a
fantasy story. For example, your story could focus on a civilization
which discovers dragons over the course of a story (gadget); it
could focus on an adventure a young thief has after
stealing a dragon (adventure); or it could focus on
problems that arise after dragons are
a major part of society (social).
Social science fiction or social fantasy does not have to be boring
or didactic ("preachy"). It can contain all of the adventure and
cool gadgetry - or magic - of "lighter" works.
All that social science fiction represents is an attempt to explore something about humanity. It asks the question: where will man's curiosity take us? What is man's potential for good? What is man's potential for evil? How will humans react to possible future events?
Science fiction and fantasy are very, very excellent mediums to use to express social satire or a social critique, or to make a comment on a current trend. That is because science fiction and fantasy allows us to take a current social trend and exaggerate it in order to make a point. This can be a very effective way to express your point about the big ideas of the world and even express your fears about what the future can hold. Science fiction is a powerful way to bring up important themes, because we care more about issues such as poverty or over-consumerism when real, personal characters are experiencing them.
Example: In Brave New World (1931), Aldous Huxley presents a world full of futuristic, exaggerated hyper-consumerism and the breakdown of human relationships. This reflected his fears, as he wrote at the beginning of the age of "mass-production."
Example: One major theme of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the
negative effects of media exploitation, and the fact that media can distort
the truth. Collins is making a comment on our current age of tabloids
and mass media, in which we are all under a microscope, and
we are encouraged to fixate on the lives of others.
- When writing fantasy, it can be very tricky to make your reader
suspend their disbelief. This is because fantasy doesn't necessarily have to include a scientific explanation for anything. A magician can wave a wand, and a genie can pop out of thin air. So, how do we make the reader "believe" in the world when they are reading it?
- Make the characters follow the rules you have established in your imaginary world. Make those rules clear. Avoid magical powers that "conveniently" save the day at the last minute. Make sure that the conflict poses a
even if your protagonist has special abilities. If everything's too easy for your protagonist, we will not care about them!
- Include real-world, simple, vivid detail and imagery. Try not to over-glamorize everything. Describe the "ordinary" things in your fantasy world, not just the extraordinary.
- Work on creating three-dimensional characters who have flaws. Avoid two-dimensional stereotypes such as the completely evil stepmother. Use characterization tools to reveal their personality traits. Create a protagonist
with strengths AND weaknesses.
- Make sure to describe the climactic scene of the story in detail. Use
tools such as action, dialogue, and imagery to SHOW the main
conflict, not just TELL us that it happened. This will
help your reader to envision the exciting scenes
of the story - and make it more REAL for them.
CONCRETE language consists of words (nouns) that describe
tangible (touchable) objects. These are usually objects that exist in
the "real" world. Concrete language creates a distinct, often simple
image in our mind. EXAMPLES: Dog, computer, chair, baby, school.
ABSTRACT language consists of words (nouns) that appeal to our imagination. This may include ideas and values: Freedom, love, justice, peace, rights.
Science fiction and fantasy often makes the abstract (fear, love, justice, anger) concrete by using exaggerated, extreme, imaginative, or unusual characters, worlds, and technologies. The characters and settings in a speculative fiction story may be exaggerations of real-life people, places, and problems. CONCRETE language and FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE (below) can help your reader IMAGINE your unusual, fantastical world!
METAPHOR (direct comparison): The house was a mountain.
SIMILE (comparison using like or as): The house was like a mountain.
PERSONIFICATION (applying human attributes):
The house was a giant, glaring angrily at everyone who walked past.
HYPERBOLE (exaggeration): The house was bigger
than the moon (in a scifi story, that may be true!)
Example of figurative language from "A Pail of Air": "I don't know what the city looked like in the old days, but now it's beautiful. The starlight lets you see it pretty well—there's quite a bit of light in those steady points speckling the blackness above...We are on a hill and the shimmery plain drops away from us and then flattens out, cut up into neat squares by the troughs that used to be streets. I sometimes make my mashed potatoes look like it, before I pour
on the gravy. Some taller buildings push up out of the feathery
plain, topped by rounded caps of air crystals, like the fur hood
Ma wears, only whiter. On those buildings you can see the
darker squares of windows, underlined by white
dashes of air crystals."
This term simply means Science Fiction, Fantasy, and any subgenre
that "speculates" (contemplates, ponders) imaginatively. Rod Serling defined these terms as follows: "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible." Science fiction usually focuses on a technological or scientific element that the writer must persuade the reader to "believe in" in the context of the story. Fantasy usually focuses on an imaginative or magical element that, while it does not have to be explained scientifically, must follow the logical rules of the fantasy "universe" that is created.
Speculative fiction can have several purposes:
It entertains us by showing us new worlds, beings, and concepts.
It uses language and ideas in unique, fresh ways.
It uses new, exaggerated, or unexpected situations to make a statement about humanity or society.
We have been telling imaginative stories for many, many years, but many critics say that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) represents the beginning of true science fiction. Frankenstein is notable because it uses slightly exaggerated and fantastical science to ask questions about man's nature - and about whether or not humans should "meddle" with "creating life" in the first place! Fantasy has an even older beginning; fairy tales and imaginative legends have been told for thousands of years.
Everything from The Odyssey to the Brothers Grimm
is great fodder for fantasy.
Asimov used the example of three different late nineteenth century
authors all being inspired to write new stories about the automobile,
each going in one of three directions:
Writer X spends most of his time describing how the machine would run, explaining
the workings of an internal-combustion engine, painting a word-picture of the
struggles of the inventor, who after numerous failures, comes up with a successful model. The climax of the yarn is the drama of the machine, chugging its way along at
the gigantic speed of twenty miles an hour, possibly beating a horse and carriage which have been challenged to a race. This is gadget science fiction. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")
Writer Y invents the automobile in a hurry, but now there is a gang of ruthless crooks intent on stealing this valuable invention. First they steal the inventor's beautiful daughter. The inventor's young assistant goes to the rescue. He can accomplish his purpose only by the use of the newly perfected automobile. He dashes into the desert at an unheard-of speed of twenty miles an hour to pick up the girl who otherwise would have died of thirst if he had relied on a horse. This is adventure science fiction. (ibid.)
Writer Z has the automobile already perfected. A society exists in which it is already
a problem. Because of the automobile, a gigantic oil industry has grown up,
highways have been paved across the nation, America has become a land of
travelers, cities have spread into the suburbs—and what do we do about
automobile accidents? Men, women, and children are being killed
by automobiles faster than by artillery shells or airplane bombs.
What is the solution?
This is social science fiction. (ibid.)
How can we make
science fiction believable?
How can we make
- Describe the emotions and actions of each character in a way that makes sense to the reader. Help us enter their emotions, hopes, and fears - especially if your character isn't human! Focus on revealing their emotions with action, dialogue, gesture, and description. Characters should react believably to conflict.
- Use real, everyday details that appeal to the five senses of the reader (imagery). Don't be afraid to use similes and metaphors that compare the fantastical things in your story to things that we can put into a "context." That is the purpose of figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole). Consider the description in "A Pail of Air"; it helps the reader to imagine how such an extreme future might look.
- If your story contains a specific type of technology or machine, do a little research into that field - you don't have to earn a science degree to write science fiction, but make sure you use the correct terminology for any "real life" references you make.
-Speaking of terminology: Make sure that the "made up" scientific terms your characters use make logical sense within the story. Be consistent! If there are "rules" for using the fantastic technology in your story, make sure they are logical and believable. Ask yourself: how would humans try to manage and control this new power or technology I've imagined?
-Make sure that any character change in response to conflict is believable, not cartoonish or illogical. Any plot twist or character development should make sense and naturally follow from the flow of the plot.
-Avoid letting a character "sum up" the "lesson" of the story in dialogue (this rule may be broken if there is a good reason to do so).
Writers who do this well:
Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley, any short stories by Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon,
Ursula K. LeGuin, Madeleine L'Engle,
Damon Knight, Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac Asimov,
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Why read it? Why write it?