I regret that I have read precious little* of the work of Mr. Ray Bradbury, who died this week. But I understand that with his passing, the last of the great voices of so-called golden-age science fiction has been silenced. And so, in honour of this man, I would like to reflect upon the history and nature of science fiction as I understand it.
It seems to me that there are three broad streams to science fiction. The first is intelligent speculation about future technology, alien life, alternative civilizations and so forth based upon known (or seemingly known) principles of science; this stream takes Jules Verne as its champion. The second stream is concerned with social and philosophical meditations upon science, future technology, alien life and so forth; this stream is credibly represented by HG Wells. The third and final stream is that which seems to have recieved the least scholarly attention, while at the same time being (to a large extent) the “public face” of the genre: campy, pulpy adventure stories concerned with two-fisted heroes rescuing green-skinned space princesses from betentacled monsters on Planet X. This stream, I would say, can probably claim Edgar Rice Burroughs as its champion.
Every work of the genre will embody the different streams in lesser or greater measure. For example, Star Wars is very heavy on the third stream, with little or no attention paid to the first two**; the original Star Trek represented the three streams in roughly equal measure, while The Next Generation downplayed the third stream in support of the other two (especially the second). The revamped Battlestar Galactica ignores the first and third stream virtually in their entirety. Dune played heavily on the second and the third, with the first used minimally, largely just to justify the setting. The works of Robert J. Sawyer tend to eliminate the third stream (except for his earlier novels), with emphasis on the second. The works of Michael Crightonnplace heavy emphasis on the first and third, with some minimal emphasis on the second. And of course, I could go on.
I hope at some point to find some way to assign works of science fiction scores in the various streams based on some set of objective criteria, but I’m not convinced that this is really possible since works of fiction are incredibly difficult things to quantify (particularly good science fiction, which is meant to be creative).
I have no idea whether this theory has been advanced before, but most of what I’ve read takes account only of the first two. It seems like someone must have thought of it before.
*A small smattering of short stories from the Martian Chronicles
**Except for a rather clumsy attempt at political commentary in the third prequel, which felt completely out of place, precisely because this had already been established as being, essentially, a fairy tale universe.