Please note: This post draws on a class I took at Penn, STSC 110 Science and Literature with Mark Adams. If you like reading and fun books, and still go to Penn, I highly recommend it.
I’m sure it does not come as news that Ray Bradbury passed away last week at the age of 91; when he died, major news outlets rushed to eulogize the beloved author of science fiction.
In doing so, they got the story completely wrong.
Nearly every obituary did two things: One, call Bradbury a writer of science fiction. Two, include the following quote, in which Bradbury desperately tries to prevent the occurrence of One:
I always wanted to be a magician, and of course that’s what I turned out to be. The best description of me is a magician, and not a science-fiction writer.
While I imagine that those who knew Bradbury through Farenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles might have lingered over the excerpt, readers familiar with some of Bradbury’s other work – Something Wicked This Way Comes, or one of my favorite books written by anybody ever, Dandelion Wine – likely considered this ‘revelation’ trivial.
Yet while writers almost uniformly considered the quote sufficiently remarkable to include in Bradbury’s obituary, they apparently considered it insufficiently serious to incorporate its message into their headlines:
So let me reassure you, Bradbury got it right:
I’ve written only one book of science fiction [Fahrenheit 451]. All the others are fantasy. Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.
A single work of science fiction does not a ‘science fiction author’ make. But while Bradbury may have been a certifiable non-author of science fiction, he wasn’t making things up. You might not know this from walking into your neighborhood Barnes & Noble,* where you’ll find a single shelf devoted to ‘Science Fiction/Fantasy’, but science fiction and fantasy are – without qualification – distinct genres.
Noted [actual] science fiction author Robert Heinlein explained the difference between science fiction and other forms of fiction – like fantasy – using a table that looked like this:
According to Heinlein, it’s not when a story takes place that determines whether it is a work of science fiction, but how. While the X denotes most science fiction, it can also be set in the past (e.g. ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’) or the present (possibly involving time travel, the internet, or possibly not – feel free to suggest specific examples). The need for realism is the genre’s most important requirement.
Since I just quoted it, allow me to explain using Star Wars: the Force may sound an awful lot like magic, but we learn in Episode I (sorry) that it is produced by midi-chlorians, microscopic life forms that live symbiotically within human cells. George Lucas might not be able to publish a scientific paper explaining exactly how midi-chlorians can make a light saber fly, but the fact that he sought to provide an explanation at all plants Star Wars firmly in the camp of science fiction.
On the other hand, here’s a wonderful sketch of ‘How the Lord of the Rings should have ended’ – if only it had been a work of science fiction:
But wait a second! The Martian Chronicles sounds like a book that takes place on Mars, so what’s that if not science fiction?
Like ‘when’, where a story takes place does not suffice to qualify it for the designation ‘science fiction’. The Martian Chronicles is indeed set on Mars, but hardly meets the requirement that science fiction be realistic. It is more a collection of lyrical short stories – a Dandelion Wine that happens to be set on Mars – than any attempt to paint a coherent vision of the future that matches scientific reality as Bradbury understood it.
Sounds like a lot of news outlets owe Bradbury’s estate an apology.
*The decision to lump science fiction together with fantasy is not simply an expedient made necessary due to limited space, but is also perpetrated on the retailer’s website:
I also find it cute when I hear people fretting over the future of B&N and how it’s closing stores because Amazon has been so successful. Feels like only yesterday I heard the same thing about small, independent bookstores closing because Barnes & Noble had been so successful.