What is Science Fiction? – Thoughts from Author David Brin

it can be complicated to define a genre as wide and broad as science-fiction we have four to six thousand years of literary history and almost all of it dealt with fantastic elements heroes and gods doing things that were definitely extraordinarily different well starting in the 17th 18th 19th centuries life changed for the average reader in Europe in America the social order went through ructions and transformations and yet people started to actually get a sense that of their five children three or four of them were highly likely to live there was more more stability in life and so you started seeing so-called mainstream literature focus in on daily life now that didn't mean fantasy went away you had Gulliver's Travels and so on leading to the woman we call the grandmother of science fiction Mary Shelley and Frankenstein followed by the two dads of science fiction of Vernon Wells clearly what they did was science fiction science and technology drove and propelled what they were talking about and yet the older tradition of fantasy continued they go to the same section of the bookstore fantasy and science fiction yet much is said about the difference between these genres science fiction breaks with the old tradition of Homer and Achilles and all those legends because they were largely about demigods and gods and uber beings Nietzsche and uber beings we're a science fiction started talking instead about us it started saying all right the main character here is above average but only above average not a god and the crew and team that he or she puts together is going to do something marvelous using tools that some other team could replicate some other group will replicate it's the notion that is in science fiction that the premise might change the basic of life might change mortality as home entertainment this cannot be the future so you see what I was mentioning earlier that society was starting to change over the course of a single persons generation your son might enter a profession that you had never even heard of your daughter might take for granted social mores that would have been shocking to your mother the fundamental premise of science fiction violates the premise of fantasy and comics going back to Homer and the premise is children can learn from the mistakes of their parents you notice I said can not will they because science fiction is very good at developing what's called the self preventing prophecy the dire warning on the beach or dr. Strangelove Soylent Green Silent Spring George Orwell's 1984 these were all terrifying stories that had the purpose and they achieved it of frightening millions of readers or viewers into deciding they are going to expend some of their effort for the rest of their life to making sure that this failure mode won't happen and arguably we're here today because the failure modes that could have led to nuclear war that were exposed in dr. Strangelove failsafe and on the beach were paid attention to and then those stories made themselves not happen they were self preventing prophecies in these dire warning stories children don't learn from mistakes of their parents they make new mistakes that are horrible that are terrifying like in Soylent Green wrecking the world but the implicit assumption is they could have not made this mistake now that makes for a more chilling kind of tragedy people Soylent Green is made out of people in the poetics Aristotle defines tragedy as being typifies by the play Oedipus where eat a puss is doomed from the beginning of the play to follow a path that cannot be avoided now when you watch eater pus follow this for a doomed path you weep because it's meant to extol to draw sympathy from you and the play is still fantastically effective but a modern person raised on science fiction is tempted to leap on the stage put a bullet in poor EDA pusses head and then go hunting gods for having done this but else want to negotiate the premise is this didn't have to happen and of course some science-fiction shows children learning from the mistakes of their parents and making a better world as in Star Trek this is a fundamental difference that breaks from the old tradition fantasy comics Homeric fairy tales that you see in in almost all ancient tribes they all have the fantastic and they follow Joseph Campbell's arcs even though science fiction follows these same arcs of the fantastic science fiction breaks from these arcs that's what all this is about a lot has changed in the past 300 years people are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things we have eliminated hunger want the need for possessions we've grown out of our infancy

47 thoughts on “What is Science Fiction? – Thoughts from Author David Brin

  1. i get told not to watch stuff like this at work, because of the adult images. even then, other people do, and no one says anything. i hate double standards.

  2. The "good" old days when Comics was a genre and not a medium.

  3. "We've grown out of our infancy" – a great final line for this vid. Thanks for putting it together.

    The interesting thing is, one classic of "Golden Age SF" called "Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke is arguably the antithesis of Brin's idea: Clarke describes aliens coming to Earth and working a transcendence on the human species, taking us away from all our mistakes and problems. It's as if "Childhood's End' is really the beginning of a second childhood, where we're no longer responsible for our mistakes, and no longer need to work to find solutions. Instead these remarkable aliens will fix it all.

    The story is obviously out of our frustration with and fear of a future in which between nuclear war, overpopulation, and pollution, there wasn't a hell of a lot to look forward to.

    Is the fact that there are now other apparently insurmountable challenges reflected in the stuff people write now?

  4. David Brin's Uplift Universe should be the next "Big Thing" in Hollywood's obsession with "expanded universes". That is all.

  5. lots of people interestedin stringently defining the genre of science fiction fail to account for the fact that they can't retcon the cultural reality of sci-fi and its much more inclusive traditions. In previous eras it was less important that the "science" to be plausible to what we collectively/generally believe to be possible or not. In essence it was more important that the baseline elements of the setting were conventional while the "sci-fi" elements are extraordinary to the audience but not necessarily to the characters in the setting. The difference from fantasy usually being that the extraordinary element is given a natural plausibility(even if its impossible to the audience) instead of a mystical one. EG a god-like creature being born in the center of the earth from an ancient alien egg while perhaps considered geologically impossible would still be science fiction where as a true god from mythology just rising from the center of the earth with no naturalistic explanation would be more akin to fantasy.

  6. Good writing is good writing no matter the genre. If it fires up your imagination that its all to the good. Period.

  7. That was really good. There's and reason that I've always enjoyed sci-fi more than fantasy, even though I enjoy both.

  8. For me Scientific fiction is something that asks the question "And if …?", The whole idea of Scientific Fiction is born of the assumptions of the question, example:

    Star Trek is "And if, humanity stops itself from fighting each other and explores space?"


    Asimov "And if, real artificial intelligence were created?",

    Star Wars should be the best example of this difference, does not have "And if …?", It is only the classic hero's journey, could be executed in a Tolkien scenario without even a difference, in fact there is "Eragon" Is basically medieval Star Wars

  9. 2:39 Social mores have nothing to do with it. It sounds like he's subtly encouraging people to embrace non-traditional values, as if the two go hand in hand. But that is not true at all

    edit Just looked up David Brin. No surprise, he's a Jew. Someone give the guy a gold star!

  10. Am I the only one who thinks, "1984," should be required reading in school?

  11. Hi!
    I am wondering if you are familiar with the Space: Above and Beyond series, and what is your opinion on that?

  12. The failure mode you mention is only one of many. Or to put it another way "No animals were harmed during the making of this movie some did become extinct". From the credits of flying high.

  13. cocks shotgun Time to hunt gods…

    Get over here Apollo…Thor, you're next…And Yahweh, you can run but you can't hide.

  14. David Brin was brilliant alone in exposing Frank Miller's bias in 300- in light of Miller's tantrum over Occupy Wall Street. He divided Miller's fantasy from the history that actually happened.

  15. I'm a science-fiction writer and I endorse this message. Check out my genre-busting mega-mashup novel 'Terminal Crescendo' available now on Amazon Kindle!

  16. Nice. It's really interesting that Brin describes sci-fi as breaking with fantasy in that "children can learn from the mistakes of their parents". I'll think about this.

  17. To paraphrase Damon Knight "Science Fiction is what I'm pointing at now".

  18. I'm a big fan of those genres; sci-fi and fantasy. And I often think to myself, how is it that I enjoy those "childish" stories about heroes and magic? What's wrong with me 😀 Shouldn't I be reading more intellectual material?!

    I realized that I prefer Fantasy stories, because they're more novel. Both have adventure, personalities, novelty, sure. But the former has /more/ novelty. More unique and curious ideas, more abstract, go deeper.

    Hold on! Deeper in the sense that Fantasy worlds can be anything, literally, while Sci-Fi worlds try to be "scientific"; physics. The plethora of known rules and laws of nature we identify know, only expanded and guessed-upon. But not beyond that. Which is understandable.

    I've traveled plenty, in the great outdoors, and feel that the mysteries of the natural world are unsatisfactory. Imagination goes far beyond what seems to be discoverable! Especially so, in one's lifetime.


  19. I think Picard's speech about humanity growing out of it's infancy by not having needs to wants is a bit odd considering all the possession any particular character has. Personal items that hold value to them, not monetary, but a want, something that reminds them of something important in their life. So it isn't that humanity has outgrown desires and wants, but its priorities have changed from petty things or things of simple survival. Food is practically limitless. You don't need to struggle to have a home, to learn whatever you want and pursue other things without the absolutes of say a job.

  20. Science Fiction and Fantasy share a hunting ground: they are vehicles for exploring unknown worlds. What they have in common is a very broad range of story-elements I call "weird stuff." Weird Stuff refers to anything which is not, or is not known to exist in the contemporary world. This can be something/ one whose existence is debated, such as God, ghosts, angels, clairvoyance, etc. It can be technologies which don't exist – warp drive, time machines; it can be a hidden world or civilisation – Borrowers, Wombles and Fraggles all exist, hidden, in our world. Or it can be a situation – a post-apocalyptic future. Anything which is not demonstrably possible in what the author would have called today's world. Because the ground it covers is so vast, Weird Stuff is a handy shorthand!

    The difference? In Science Fiction, the author makes some effort to pretend that there is a scientific explanation for the Weird Stuff. In Fantasy, the author makes no such attempt. The feel of the story is more important than plot mechanics in determining whether an SF or Fantasy backdrop is appropriate. In Harry Potter, wizards apparate. In Science Fiction, we use teleporters. Arguably this leaves fantasy more freedom than SF, because it is not bound by any physical laws. SF, however, needs only "make some shit up", as Voltaire puts it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwhAq3F8NCE) , to bridge this gap.

    The lines are fuzzy sometimes, depending on how MSU the supposed science is, and sometimes primarily SF concepts show up in a fantasy sphere (Star Wars is fantasy. I don't care if it's got space ships, there's an omnipresent entity the heroes and villains draw energy from through prayer, and it conjures ghosts. Fantasy.)

    It's also important, I think, to avoid getting stuck on the conventions and cliches of either multigenre as defining it. You know, the "It's not fantasy, it's literature" mentality, which seeks to reconcile the snobbish idea that SF and fantasy can't possibly be "proper" literature with the fat that Shakespeare wrote about ghosts, witches and fairies. I was once at a writing workshop at which someone insisted that Toy Story is not fantasy because "It's more of a buddy movie"!

  21. But Edgar Allan Poe wrote a science fiction story way before Jules Verne or h.g.wells.where born.

  22. Can there possibly be a way to measure science fiction and fantasy? No, that's gotta be a fantasy! Doesn't science fiction have to use science words and fantasy use fantasy words like 'gravity' and 'unicorn' and 'orbit' and 'vampire'? So what if you count all of those words? Won't some books use them more than others? JK Rowling uses the word 'wand' 1,500 in the Harry Potter books. Michael Chrichton uses 132 science words 923 times in Andromeda Strain for a science density of 2.278 which totally blows away Harry Potter's Fantasy density of 0.706. Talk about anti-Potter


  23. That's not the definition of science fiction. What you're describing is utopian fiction.

  24. received this from a webmaster who read my Book 2: "Loved it! You have a Mega-Mind & a great sense of humor. I will definitely pick up 'The Continuum' to keep up with Traylogy & look forward to #3." – Michael Shore of MayanMajix. Write to me, people. How many real-published authors write to you good lovers of imaginative books & will answer anything?

  25. This is a great analysis spanning 4,000 years, and brings a bit of hope and fear together.

  26. http://blog.world-mysteries.com/guest_authors/doug-yurchey/son-of-zog-coming-soon/
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  27. Wonderful video! Personally I believe that science fiction is more of a continuation of old tradition rather than a divergence from it. Either way, love the video!

  28. PLEASE take a second to check out my short film titled HOMICIDIUM. The film is about a SCHIZOPHRENIC college student who has a MANIC episodes and violent visions of MURDERING his classmates.!!!!!

  29. Orwell's 1984 succeeding….oh gods, how I wish that were true. There are too many people who see it as a model society as opposed to what should never be, whether knowingly or not.

  30. The difference is very easy to discern. Fantasy is just that. It explains nothing, and if it does try it always magic or a McGuffin of some short. It uses ethereal or "God" type powers. Technology behind the power items is suppressed nearly completely. Star Wars is a perfect example. No explanation of FTL, blasters, or lightsabers. They are simply props. Science Fiction has a basis in science proper, although sometimes it is a very loose association. Star Trek is the greatest example of this category as it sometimes goes out of its way to explain how something works, if only theoretically.

    Seriously how can a lightsaber work? it must be a plasma based technology, as a laser is simply concentrated photons that have no way to contain itself. So the lightsaber must use shielding to contain a plasma charge.

  31. Subscribed.  Thanks.  I'm surprised you didn't say something about "theoretical possibility" as perhaps the defining characteristic of science fiction (say as opposed to fantasy).  Surely this is a radical component of the genre.  The idea that even if these things are not yet invented they are not presented as magic or pure whimsy per se.   Which is why Star Wars catches so much shit from sci-fi people.  Of course the distinction is permeable and not meant to be taken too far.

  32. I was always taught that todays science fiction is tomorrows reality, it allows us to dream!

  33. Your point of view is so elegant and full of hope that I hesitate to take any issue with it at all.Nonetheless, I feel compelled to say that many of the warnings of science fiction have been ignored or only temporarily heeded. 1984's warnings ignored are too numerous to count, but Newspeak (political correctness) stands out as a masterpiece of prediction, Orwell [Blair] would probably say that he was merely reciting history, particularly recent history. He has been quoted as saying that 1984 was 1948 slightly modified. I wonder exactly who fills the boots of the Ministry of Truth these days?

     Now, as to Roddenberry, he used science fiction to HIDE his messages, which certainly follows from his overall philosophy of never using hi-tech stuff to carry the story line. Also, a hidden message is always more effective when communicating with our hard headed species. Anyway, this video is beautifully crafted and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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