I’ve been fascinated with science fiction stories for as long as I can remember, although, I must confess, I never thought of science fiction as being mainstream literature. I, like many readers, pursued science fiction as a form of escapism, a way to keep up with speculation on recent scientific discoveries, or just a way to pass the time.
It wasn’t until I met with my thesis adviser to celebrate the approval of my paper that I had to think about science fiction in a new light. My adviser works for a large, well-known literary foundation that is considered to be very “canonical” in its tastes. When he asked me if I liked science fiction, and if I would be willing to select about one hundred stories for possible inclusion in an anthology that they were thinking about producing, I was somewhat surprised. When he told me it might lead to a paying gig, I became even more astounded. I went home that afternoon feeling very content: my paper had been approved, and I might get a paying job to select science fiction, of all things.
Then it hit me:
I’d actually have to seriously think about some sort of a method to select from the thousands of science fiction short stories that had been written in the past century. When I considered that the ideals of the foundation would have to be reflected in the stories which I selected, something near panic set in: science fiction was not part of the “cannon.”
“While I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” I reached a decision: I’d first try to figure out what science fiction “was,” and then I’d develop a set of themes that related to the essence of science fiction. So, armed with this battle plan, I proceeded to read what several famous authors had to say about science fiction. This seemed simple enough, until I discovered that no two authors thought science fiction meant quite the same thing. Oh, great, thought I: “nevermore.” (Sorry, Edgar, I couldn’t resist).
Having failed to discover the essence of science fiction, I selected four authors whose work I liked to try to determine what they contributed to the art of science fiction. The authors were: Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, and Arthur C Clarke. At the time, I didn’t realize that two of the authors, Asimov and Clarke were considered “hard” science fiction writers, and the other two, Silverberg and Card, were considered “soft” science fiction writers.
So, you might ask: what is the difference between “hard” and “soft” science fiction.
I’m glad you asked, else I would have to stop writing right about now. “Hard” science fiction is concerned with an understanding of quantitative sciences, such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc. “Soft” science fiction is often associated with the humanities or social sciences, such as sociology, psychology or economics. Of course, some writers blend “hard” and “soft” science fiction into their work, as Asimov did in the Foundation trilogy.
So, having selected the authors, I was ready to proceed to my next challenge, which you can read about in the next installment of the series.
“All these worlds are yours:” the Appeal of Science Fiction, Part II
In the first part of the series, I mentioned that I’d been given an assignment to select approximately one hundred science fiction short stories for inclusion in an anthology that was being considered by a literary foundation. Originally, I’d intended to find the “essence” of science fiction, and then select stories that reflected this essence. Unfortunately, this turned out to be nearly impossible, since different authors had different ideas about what constituted science fiction.
So, I took the easy way out, I selected four authors whose works appealed to me, and hoped that I could make selection based upon my familiarity with their works. My selection process resulted in four authors who have been writing science fiction for thirty years or more: Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, and Arthur C Clarke. As it turned out, two authors were considered “hard” science fiction writers, and two were considered “soft” science fiction writers.
Well, I finally had a plan. And then the wheels fell off. I still needed some sort of selection criteria, or I’d have to develop one as I read. So, I did what anyone in my place would have done. I started reading. I read, and read some more, and then… I read some more. Over three thousand pages and three hundred short stories, in fact. I was almost ready to make a stab at a selection process; almost, but not quite.