Characteristics of Science Fiction

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Describing Science Fiction, Robin Roberts writes: “Only science fiction uses extrapolation and cognitive estrangements. Extrapolation is a term taken from geometry, in which a set of points is used to draw a curve that goes beyond the points. The extended line is an extrapolation from the known points. Speculating from what exists to what might exist is an important quality of science fiction. Science [-p.13] fiction writers can take a scientific or sociological development and extrapolate it into the future. For example, McCaffrey’s dragons are an extrapolation of genetic engineering, and space travel could be seen as an extrapolation of plane travel. Similarly, galactic empires could be seen as an extrapolation of the British Empire. …Extrapolation keeps science fiction located in issues and ethics that are a part of contemporary human culture.

Cognitive estrangement, or defamiliarization, is another key concept in science fiction. Literary theorist Darko Suvin bases this idea on the work of Viktor Shklovosky, a Russian theorist. Suvin has popularized Shlovoky’s idea about making the afamiliar seem new and strange. While defamiliarization can occur in realistic fiction, this sense of estrangement appears at its most intense in science fiction. For example Octavia Butler defamiliarizes not only the biological process, but also our attitudes toward reproduction and childbirth in the chilling Nebula-Award winning story about a pregnant male, ‘Bloodchild.’ Because a female alien impregnates the human male on her planet, we are estranged from our usual sentimental attitude toward mothering. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ allows the reader to see the familiar – childbirth- from a new angle. Similarly, McCaffrey defamiliarizes our sense of what makes us human by creating a character – Helva – who is both human and a spaceship. The main character, a cyborg (part human and part machine), forces us to think about how we define humanity and femininity.” (12-13)

“Science fiction,” Roberts writes further on, “frequently involves robots, aliens, space travel, and the future. These features are more specific than the theoretical bases discussed previously [in her discussion of extrapolation, cognitive estrangement, and shared universes]. Most people probably think of robots and space ships when they think of science fiction. Robots (machines that can function independently), androids (robots that look human), and cyborgs (creatures that are part human and part machine) all make science fiction exciting and bizarre. But they also serve another function: to help us decide what we mean by ‘human’. Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot is credited with changing our sense of robots as negative and threatening to a more positive view. Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics, which state that robots must obey humans, must protect humans, and must protect themselves without violating the first two laws. Asimov’s robots are the friends and protectors of humans. McCaffrey’s brain ships and cities follow Asimov’s beneficent version of robots, and like his creations they have to face prejudice. Robots, androids, and cyborgs provide a way to defamiliarize the plights of subordinate groups dealing with hostile and dangerous dominant groups.

Aliens also enable a discussion of trust and mistrust, prejudice and tolerance. While robots, androids, and cyborgs are usually created by humans, aliens are autonomous and perhaps even more threatening because of their difference from humans. The ‘first contact’ story, in which humans and aliens meet, is a classic device in science fiction. Through the first meeting, humans and aliens are tested: Can they be trusted? Will they behave ethically and responsibly?” (14)

Ref: Robin Roberts (1996) Anne McCaffrey; A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT

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