Postscript to THE GLORY GAME — Is it SF?

The story of THE GLORY GAME contained no science fictional speculations at all. It was in that sense a very conservative book, dwelling on what was the same in human nature in all ages past and present. It could have been set in any setting with the same impact.

But if we define science fiction to include only those tales that have scientific speculation as the center of their plot, we are defining science fiction to exclude my genre, space opera, which is defined as an adventure story in a vaguely science fiction flavor setting.

The rule of thumb is a thought experiment: imagine the same story set in the present, on Earth, or in the historical past. Eliminate the scientific speculation present. If the story can still be told, it is not SF. In SF the speculation is the heart of the story. If you can tell the same tale on the sailing ship Enterprise or from the viewpoint of plucky rebels fighting the Roman Empire or the Spanish Empire rather than the Galactic Empire, then the tale is not SF properly so called.

On the other hand, this is a crisp and clear definition, very serviceable to fans of Analog, and other ‘Nuts and Bolts’ types, so I dare utter no protest against it.

The definition clearly works for Hard SF. Let us take three examples from Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark, by common consensus,  the hardest of Hard SF writers, or at least the most famous.

There is no story in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is Mike the Martian is not from Mars, does not have psychic powers, and is not a more advanced species than man. The science fictional speculation about higher civilizations who stand to industrial, monogamous and monotheism civilization as the civilization stands to primitive polytheist polygamous savages is the core of the book.

The same story being told about, let us say, an castaway infant raised in the jungle wilderness returning to his family in London could not contrast the shortcomings of civilization with future splendors of the orgy-ridden nudist communism which Heinlein (and which apparently every heresy since the dawn of time) has seen as the futuristic or utopian superior of civilized virtue. Such a story can, however, contrast the shortcomings of civilization with the noble savagery of more primitive times — such is the point of TARZAN and A PRINCESS OF MARS and Conan stories and countless others.

The story is innately progressive, showing how the next step in evolution, the superman, can throw aside his clothing and his marriage vows as easily as he throws aside the curse of Adam saying he must toil for his bread. The superman lives without sin and without law. And without clothing.

By contrast, STARSHIP TROOPERS (a book I myself far prefer) could have taken place anywhere, anytime, since it is only a story of boot camp and a series of lectures on civic responsibility. Nothing would have been lost by making Mr. Rico into a grunt storming Normandy Beach, or a footslogger in Caesar’s Gallic campaign, or an Apache brave learning the rough and manly discipline of the warband.

The is inherently conservative message in an inherently conservative story, that is, the tools of war change, but men don’t.

Likewise, there is no story in FOUNDATION without the Seldon Plan (and, to be blunt, precious little with it) that is, without the science fictional speculation that human history is subject to predictable laws just like the gas laws.

The story is a story about social engineering. A mathematician and a group of academic intellectuals decide to save civilization by manipulating history, and their plan leads to a Second Empire. The idea of giving the plebeians votes simply never comes up.

By contrast, STARS LIKE DUST could have been written as a historical novel concerning the declining Roman Empire facing the Golden Horde.

Likewise again, CHILDHOOD END is a book I take to be the quintessential science fiction book. It is almost a myth, not a novel, since the main characters are all utterly forgettable. There is no story aside from the central conceit of an more advanced species aiding (or forcing) mankind up the next step of the ladder of evolution to the realm of the superhuman. The concept of the ladder of evolution where supermen stand to men as men stand to apes is pure science fiction, is almost the definition of science fiction.

The Overlords fulfill all the Progressive dreams in one fell swoop. As the gigantic saucers hover over the cities of man, there is suddenly one world government, an end to war, and (oddly, consider the world is about to be destroyed) no more bullfighting nor cruelty to animals. And that silly mental disease called religion is brushed airily aside in a paragraph: man is too grown up for gods. Then in the climax of the book, the children of men become gods, man goes extinct, the world is obliterated, and the children of men fly off as pure spirits to merge with the Galactic Overmind also known as the Pleroma of the Gnostic. The destruction of the material world and a life of pure and disembodied intellect was the central concept of Neoplatonism and every other heresy since the dawn of time. Think of it as taking nudism to the ultimate extreme.

By contrast, uh … I cannot think of a single novel or short story by Arthur Clarke which was not science fiction, that is, a story that could have been told in some other milieu without losing its point.