“Smart” Science Fiction

The Museum of Science Fiction recently tweeted out an essay with a question attached:


I at first assumed that “smart” science fiction was referring to “hard” sci-fi, where real-life science defines the rules and, more often than not, drives the plot. Reading through the piece, I discovered that the author Darren Beyer instead defines smart science fiction as:

Novels like The Martian and the Atlantis series rely on plot, theme, tempo, and realism to draw the reader in, versus attracting them simply because they belong to a genre the reader finds appealing.

Beyer goes onto say that smart science fiction has been a staple of the genre over the years, but it has never made the leap to the mainstream until recently due to the majority of novels catering to old tropes.

I am of two minds about this. The first part says that there is no hard-and-fast rule for how a genre is defined. The second part makes worrisome noises and warily eyes old quotes of literature elitism.

In the past, many authors have done their best to have their books avoid the dreaded “science fiction” label. After all, that meant talking squids and spaceships, and nothing serious or insightful could come from such things. While Beyer’s essay does keep the novels like The Martian firmly planted in the science fiction genre, I disagree with separating them from the other piece of science fiction based on quality.

For one, the way I discover new works is that I look for common themes that I would like to explore further. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell was picked up because I wanted to read more science fiction in which songs played an important role. I first read Starship Troopers because Halo had given me a craving for military science fiction. Sub-genres work because they are based on similar elements.

Secondly, it seems to be a similar separation, though on a lesser scale, to avoid a dreaded label. That work isn’t space opera – it’s a serious exploration of imperialism. This work isn’t an alien invasion book – it’s a metaphor for communism. These works are GoodTM and therefore cannot be scifi horror, alternate history, cyberpunk, etc. Perhaps this is not what Beyer meant, but the sub-genre of “smart” science fiction rings a little too close for my taste.

But then that loops around to the first part of my mind; there is no solid definition for science fiction, and like genres themselves, there are many overlaps in sub-genres. If smart science fiction is a sub-genre that Beyer can use to organize his readings and his understanding of science fiction as a whole, then he is welcome to use it. I, on the other hand, will pass.

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