SF-adjacent: the inherent fuzziness of human enthusiasms

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.
Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.
Camestros Felapton has been doing a fascinating series of posts reviewing sci-fi stories about dinosaurs—it started out specifically stories about dinosaurs that had been nominated for a Hugo, but he expanded as he realized that looking at stories that didn’t get nominated (and analyzing possible reasons why) is also a useful way to look at the science fiction/fantasy field.

In one of those posts he reviews a story that isn’t technically a sf/f story, though it is about the making of a sf/f film and is written by Ray Bradbury. And there was a fascinating conversation that occurred in the comments about edge cases, and the notion of sf-adjacent things. In the post he made a list of topics that sf-fans are sufficiently enthusiastic about that stories (even non-fiction ones) with that element might be considered part of the sf category:

  • Space travel
  • Rockets
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence
  • Dinosaurs

I don’t, by the way, disagree with him at all in his definition of things that can be considered sf-adjacent. The list is great, as far as it goes. I would rephrase it a bit:

  • Manned space travel/astronomical phenomenon
  • Rockets and satellites and unmanned spacecraft
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence (modern readers)
  • Dinosaurs and extinct mega-fauna

It could be argued that I’m just being pedantically specific with a couple of these. But, stay with me: I very seldom met a fellow dinosaur enthusiast who wasn’t also equally excited to talk about Mammoths, Smilodons, giant Sloths, Dire Wolves, giant Tortoises, and other extinct non-dinosaurs of the Pleistocene. A news blog I follow used to have a contributor who regularly posted stories about new fossil finds, paleontology, and such, with the tag “dinosaur news” and there would always be at least one comment from someone whenever the extinct animal in quest wasn’t actually a dinosaur. And they were usually of the “well actually” type of comment. So she started including a note to the effect that she knew this thing wasn’t a dinosaur, but that people who were interested in such paleontological news stories often found them with “dinosaur” as a search term.

And this gets to why I expanded the first two bullets to be more explicit: there is a significantly large fraction of science fiction fans who are almost pathologically pedantic. Such a person might insist that the term “space travel” should only refer to people moving through outer space, for instance. Of course, another person might object to rockets being a separate category. And anyone might ask why manned space travel is separate from rockets and satellites. To me, space travel is about the experience of traveling in space, while rockets is about the technological and engineering problems of the vehicles and such themselves. Similarly, things that we learn about distant objects in the universe through telescopes and other sensors are a different topic than the sensors themselves and how they are made.

I added the “modern reader” qualifier to the third bullet because I think for sf/f fans who were alive in the 50s and 60s and actively reading sf/f published at that time (so, maybe people born before 1948-ish) that the third category would have been “Robots and computers” which could be argued subsumed AI, but any computer topic seemed futuristic at the time, whereas just plain computers have been humdrum for a while. Further, I suspect that the Robots and AI section will morph again when the young children of today become active consumers of sf/f, because a lot of us have AIs on our pockets, now. And many of us have robots in our homes. Robots and AI are swiftly becoming mundane phenomena. I’m not sure what it will morph into, but it will morph.

In the essay in question, Cam clearly says that his list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. And since he wrote the list while in the middle of tracking down, reading, and reviewing stories published between 1952 and 1971, it makes sense that those are the topics that would first come to mind. I think a more exhaustive list could easily include topics from medical and biological sciences, for instance.

Not all science fiction fans are nerdily into engineering and hard science. Many of us are just as interested in the so-called soft sciences (dinosaurs!). For a lot of fans, the appeal is less about how technology works, and more about how technology changes us and society. Most people don’t know how smart phones work, for instance, but everyone has opinions about how our social habits and expectations have changed now that nearly everyone has a magic hunk of glass in their pockets that allows them to communicate with the world. And it’s not just luddites. During one of the panels at Locus Awards Weekend, a panelist commented that you have to keep telephones out of certain kinds of stories. Mary Robinette Kowal (current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) agreed: “Right, they are just too dangerous to plots. Pfft! Letting people talk to each other?”

Speculating about what other inventions might change our behavior (collective and otherwise) is a component of sf which is just as importance as how those inventions work. And one of the ways we think about that is to look at how historical inventions and discoveries changed society. You don’t have to know who an automated loom works to be interested in how the cheap manufacture of textiles changed how we live and even how we think about clothes, for instance.

So there are probably fans who would ask why Mechanization isn’t on the list. I might point out that a mechanized loom is a type of robot, so maybe mechanization belonged on the list a few generations ago? Or am I just spinning out of control with all these fuzzy boudnaries?

Because now I’m wondering, if sf-fandom had existed in the early 19th century, before Sir Richard Owen first coined the word “dinosaur,” what might the list have looked like?

Maybe that’s a question for another day

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