A Definition of Science Fiction -- a Frightening realistic glimpse into a probable future
"Oh Brave New World! O. Wonder! That Has Such People in it!" This is the poetic exclamation that John the Savage of Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World utters, upon seeing individuals from 'the future' (really, the present day) in his so-called primitive, native society. When the future individuals seem bemused by John's highfalutin poetic utterance, John explains that he is merely quoting Shakespeare's "The Tempest," a fantastic play about wizards and enchanted islands and airy spirits. Yet while Brave New World is conventionally defined as a science fiction novel, "The Tempest" is never defined as a science fiction play, merely a poetic fantasy. When attempting to come to a convincing definition of the novelistic genre science fiction, it is perhaps thought proving to first look at this striking comparison between these two fictions and two apparently similar genres -- the fantastic and the scientific.
While both fantastic and scientific fictions can show the reader the distinction between different types of human moral behaviors, through the use of fictionally contrived plot devices and artfully created strange situations, wondrous settings, and author-constructed rules of law (such as making magic govern an island, rather than the police, for instance, or genetically programmed happiness rather than judges), science fiction, unlike any other form of fantastical fiction attempts to give human beings a vision of the future that is probable, rather than merely imaginative. The genre of science fiction hopes to not simply hold up a distorted mirror to the present day, by which present day people can better see their true selves. It instead hopes to show a vision of what the technical future may really be like -- unless people act differently today, towards the technological capacities they do possess. Thus, while Shakespeare's fantastic island might have been a cautionary tale about human behavior and wonderment, it was not a warning that someday wizards might govern all of humanity. But Huxley's vision of a eugenically governed future, where people seek nothing but pleasure, not truth, and soma rather than lasting satisfaction in hard work, was meant to scare his readers into looking more critically at their attitudes and technology. Science fiction often takes the tone of moral imperative and a call to action for human morality to act more responsibility in the present day, not simply a reflection upon human morality in strange situations.
Yet despite this sober use of science fiction, even perhaps more so than other forms of fiction, science fiction often has a humorous, even satirical tone to it. This may be seen in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which, although set in the present, portrays an absurd view of modern, mechanized conflict. In Vonnegut's parallel universe his characters frequently have ridiculous names and rationales for their behavior in a dehumanized, technical environment of war. However, this is not because the setting is not realistic but because Vonnegut's novel acts as a kind of parody of present-day reality and wartime rhetoric. It people do not behave differently towards wartime conflict, he suggests, then the absurd reality of World War II's incarnation of Slaughterhouse Five will become a true reality of the next World War.
Thus, rather than creating a purely alternative world, like a fantasy, with no connection to modern life, a science fiction novel usually creates a kind of parody or exaggerated 'take' on modern life, usually of dehumanizing or technical elements, using satire and exaggeration to drive its point home. The surreal atmosphere of Slaughterhouse Five is further created by the novel's methodology of storytelling, as it moves backwards and forwards in time. The main character is Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who was captured by the Germans in the Ardennes offensive in 1944. Although this is a real-life event, the absurd attitudes of the commanding officers and soldiers towards heroism makes the supposedly 'true' world of these sections of the novel seem just as strange as Huxley's. Conflict and the dehumanized, mechanical nature of conflict, suggests Vonnegut, is the end product of modern, distanced warfare where bombs rather than people matter most.
This coolness of tone is one reason why readers seldom feel…