Wednesday, January 9, 2008

It's Good, But Is It SF?

A few days ago SF Signal ( asked me, as part of its Mind Meld round-up of author responses, for my definition of science fiction. I gave it, and later went to the website to read everybody else's definitions. Very enlightening, especially in view of my recent reading of Robert Reed's story "Roxie" in last year's ASIMOV'S, which Gardner Dozois had placed on his list (on the ASIMOV'S Forum) of his favorite stories the magazine published last year.

"Roxie" is a very nice story -- affecting, believable, interesting, and well-written. It features two intertwining threads: the unnamed narrator's long relationship with his dog, Roxie, from puppyhood to nearly death, and an asteroid that may or may not hit Earth a few years from the end of story time. The asteroid gets closer, the dog gets older, the narrator deals with the usual human problems of age and time. I liked the whole thing a lot. But when the story ends, the asteroid has not hit, it's not certain it will hit, and no one is doing much to stop it. The story is all mood, which is fine with me -- but is it even remotely SF?

Now, I am not one that requires aliens, robots, clones, or gee-whiz tech to call a story SF. Nor do I require resolution, or even much of what is conventionally considered "plot." But I do wonder if what is there shouldn't have some speculative element in it, some changes to reality as we know it (see Mind Meld, above). If that's in Roxie, I didn't see it. No, we don't have a killer asteroid on the way toward Earth (that we know of), but the one in "Roxie" is still a long way off, with decent odds of not hitting at all, and that we have all the time.

So -- is "Roxie" SF? And does it matter?


Unknown said...

I would consider it a certain breed of SF, sure. It's not hard SF or typical SF, but it's certainly a type of SF. The story talks about a future that may or may not exist with things that exist in that future that might exist tomorrow, but don't exist today.
The fact than an asteroid is about to impact the Earth and that's part of the central story, makes it a very mild form of SF. You could easily market it as mainstream *shrugs* But I'd read it as SF.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

I'm afraid I do need a resolution, a plot and if it is labeled as SF, I am going to need a bit more than some rock bound for Earth that might hit.

Lately, this seems especially true in the American Breed of SF on the short story side, the community seems hellbent on incorporating as little of the traditional tropes of SF into the story as possible. Some of this seems to be driven by the Mundane SF nonsense. More of it seems to be driven by some need among many to find acceptance with the American Mainstream Literary Community (something I personally think is unattainable).

That said, I'd be hardpressed to define what SF means for me and my subscription to Asimov's lapsed (on purpose) before Reed's story came out so I can't judge it.

I do know this. I do prefer my stories to come with more hard science and facts. I do prefer to see the gadgets, widgets and whatnot. I do prefer to see robots, AIs, aliens (of any type, not just lumpy foreheads) and I definitely prefer to speculate/read about the impossible today possible tomorrow tropes as opposed to the more Mundane breed that exists today.

Hope the root canal went well. I'd rather be writing myself.

S. F. Murphy

dolphintornsea said...

SF, as heretical as it may seem, doesn't need to be all that speculative. The science element may fall squarely within current knowledge, as long as we are taken well beyond previous experience. A manned trip to Mars, for example, is entirely possible with technology that is known today. But you can't help thinking a Mars flight story would still be SF.

Ian MacLeod's "New Light on the Drake Equation" is very similar to "Roxie" in this respect. There's a lifelong search for aliens, and not an alien in sight by the end. So where's the SF? The Robert Reed story is a meditation on the end of the world. That's an SFnal situation, I think. Still not sure about the "Drake Equation".

Edward Ott said...

To me it would matter how much the pressure of having a huge rock smash into the earth played a part in charaters actions.

Elver said...

It doesn't matter. A good story is a good story. Attaching labels on it just invokes prejudice.

Nancy Kress said...

Interesting comments! And, yes, the story is a 'meditation on the end of the world" -- Roxie's world, the world of the narrator's special relationship to her, and the Earth as a whole, potentially.
Nancy Kress

Unknown said...

I don't think attaching labels to literature is such a bad thing. If it invokes prejudice, then so be it. I don't like reading chicklit, so I like to know ahead of time that a book is chicklit. If the label isn't there and I pick up the book and start reading, it'll just irritate me and I'll put it down. It's a waste of my time and I won't have a very good picture of the author in my head.
But if I know a story is SF or fantasy or it's an urban fantasy w/ vampires, then I have some idea of what to expect from such a story. Labels help me decide what to read. I have no desire to read chicklit or harlequin romance or other kinds of literature and labeling works as such makes sure I can avoid such literature. Otherwise it would be like trudging through the slush pile all day long.