Dystopias vs Science Fiction

All dystopias are science fiction, but not all science fiction is dystopian. This is a surprise to some, apparently, given this entertaining post over at Stacked.

… so many of you insist on conflating the two! Yes, dystopias are science fiction stories, but the opposite is not always true. Perhaps some examples will help shed light on the situation.

Not dystopias: VARIANT(157 Goodreads readers have been misled into calling this a dystopia). Cinder (422 befuddled creatures). TANKBORN (59 confused souls). THE OBSIDIAN BLADE (1 lonely reader). DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE(22 readers who need to stop reading fantasy while under the influence of certain substances). THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (not even the professionals are immune).

Kimberly is being snarky here. She is also absolutely right.

A lot of novels, especially YA, are labeled “dystopia” today because the label sells. These are nearly all actually science fiction (I put the “nearly” in there in case there are some dystopian fantasies I am forgetting). Sometimes it seems that other subgenres of science fiction have vanished because there are so many dystopias out there today, especially, as I say, in YA. But this is not true, though labeling all kinds of SF “dystopia” for marketing purposes does give that impression.

As you all know, in order to be a dystopia, the society in which the story takes place must be repressive, the repression must occur on a large scale, and the repressive society is generally also presented by the ruling class as a utopia (though this is not required; look at THE HUNGER GAMES, that is about as nakedly repressive as you can get).

Incidentally, this means that Post-Apocalyptic SF is not dystopian, either, though a dystopian society can arise from a post-apocalyptic scenario. But look at LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, for example. You don’t have a large-scale repressive society there. You have a society in the process of falling apart. Same with ASHFALL. Post-apocalyptic does read a lot like dystopia, though, so what else is out there that is not anything like dystopia? Plenty, of course!

For those who don’t read a lot of SF(Chachic, I’m looking at you), let me just mention a couple big subgenres of SF which are not at all dystopian:

Adventure SF — this is the equivalent of high fantasy. There is a quest, and there are obstacles, and tribulations, and often a romance, and generally a positive outcome. HUNTING PARTY by Elizabeth Moon comes to mind. People who love fantasy but avoid SF should look here for stories that are likely to appeal to them.

Incidentally, Andrea K Höst had a good post recently, in which she also mentions high fantasy (secondary world fantasy that is neither epic nor comedic) and adventure SF in the same breath. I think this is right.

Space Opera — often romantic and often melodramatic, always fast-paced, always with a heroic protagonist, set in a relatively distant future. It’s hard to define, so what the heck, I’ll do it by example: The VORKOSIGAN series by Bujold is one of the best examples ever. Stuff that reads like that is space opera. Again, people who love fantasy should look at space opera for SF that will provide a reading experience that feels more comfortable and familiar.

Hard SF — this is what people too often think of as “science fiction”, as though there’s nothing else out there. Often idea- or concept- or world-based, often with characterization taking a back seat. Kim Stanley Robinson comes forcefully to mind. So does James Corey. In my opinion, both do fine characterization, but characterization is not the point. Actually, the fantasy equivalent might be Tolkien. Both are showing you the world more than showcasing the characters. Some hard SF authors do seem, to me, to write very flat characters. Their books are not very appealing to me personally.

Sociological SF — a second classic SF subgenre, this appeals to me a lot more. This category includes masterpieces like Elizabeth Moon’s THE SPEED OF DARK, which focuses on human society; but this category is where an author can use nonhuman species to explore sociological ideas in ways impossible to other genres. CJ Cherryh is the master at this.

Obviously there are lots and lots of other SF subgenres. I just wanted to mention a handful of the most important subgenres that are NOT dystopias.

Okay! Now you can all argue. What should I have used as an example of hard SF? How should space opera actually be defined?

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7 thoughts on “Dystopias vs Science Fiction”

  1. Space opera is the SF version of epic fantasy. It’s grand, sweeping, high stakes stuff, often politically or war-focused.

    Hard science fiction (for me) is a broader category than most people usually work with. I think of it as “SF that is interested in the ramifications of scientific development”. It is not just “engineering science fiction” and it is not just “only things we’re absolutely certain are scientifically possible, plus one not yet possible scientific development (and also hyperdrive)”. Bujold’s Vorkosigan stuff is, to me, both space opera and hard science fiction, because she takes a scientific development (artificial wombs plus also cloning) and runs through the ramifications. That’s what I think of as hard science fiction – exploring scientific advancement. [Or ‘scientifiction’, as I gather it was originally called.] If a story doesn’t give a damn about the ramifications of any scientific developments, then it’s not what I think of as “hard”.

    If only the categories didn’t cross over so much. It would make creating pigeon holes much easier. :D

    If you set a story on the international space station, and added no scientific advancements whatsoever, should it still be called science fiction? If you add one non-possible/not considered likely thing (hyperdrive) to your story, does that invalidate a story that otherwise sticks rigorously to known science?

    I consider Touchstone space adventure, but also a hard science fiction story, because it’s deeply interested in the impact of nano-tech and a hardwired internet in your head. Stuff like the yanner (the duct cleaner) and crowd control via playing obnoxious sounds directly into your head, that kind of stuff. I’ve yet to hear anyone call it hard science fiction. The psychic space ninjas evidently aren’t as easily excused as a hyperdrive.

    No-one’s quite called it a dystopia, though, even though you could make some interesting arguments toward the Taren government being…uncomfortable to live with at times. And All the Stars, however, was called a dystopia several times, which I found highly amusing.

  2. Your definition of space opera doesn’t take into account a lot of the books described as “new space opera” which often feature anti-heroes as protagonists, tend to be much darker in tone, and can be very violent (Richard K.Morgan and Neal Asher’s novels are examples). I’d expect these sort of space operas to appeal to fans of grimdark fantasy.

  3. Andrea, really? AND ALL THE STARS was called a dystopia? ??? Thanks for making my point that the term is massively overused.

    I think I’m more restrictive about what I call hard SF than you — because you did a great job with extrapolating the connected society, yet I wouldn’t call the Touchstone trilogy hard, either. I think I may be forced to declare that it’s hard SF if it “feels like” hard SF.

    As far as the Taren government being dystopian . . . I think the only truly unlikely thing you do in Touchstone is make the government and other important organizations both competent and well-intentioned. I don’t think that’s at all likely in a real government with such broad, intrusive power, unfortunately. So I don’t think your Taren government is dystopian, but I think a real government with that kind of power would be.

  4. Cheryl, I’m sure you’re right about the readership. I haven’t read anything like that, because if I suspect a grimdark worldview, I head the other way.

    Violence is fine with me, btw. Even a dark tone can be all right. But antiheroes? Doubleplus ungood. Also, if this is really a subgenre that is taking after grimdark fantasy, then I expect the protagonist, the secondary characters, and the world wind up worse off at the end than they were to start with, because that is (it seems to me) part of the grimdark worldview. Not enough doubleplus ungoods to express how I feel about that.

  5. I suppose one could handwave the gov’t in TOUCHSTONE as being more honest and competent because of the lack of privacy. Or something like that. Honestly, if the employee hadn’t swiped the files they would have been way too good to be true. And if we’d seen everything from the POV of one of the other strays, all the less lucky, non-touchstone ones, I bet it would have come off as much more tyrannical.

    I’m not too much of a pigeon-hole person, but I agree that Bujold’s Vorkosiverse novels read like space opera. And they are also hard sf, in the biological realm. More so than, say, CJC, I think, because they actually follow the ramifications of certain biological tools on various planets and through more than couple time-span. CJC has the space ships, and space stations and such but less following of the results of the hard sf things she’s using. To a point. Chanur does deal with the culture changing impacts of space travel. CYTEEN tackles cloning.

    Where do works like Melanie Rawn’s Sun (whatever, I can’t remember the title cause I only read the first one lo these years ago, anyway her first books), or Haydon’s Rhasphody series go? They look epic, and the fact that I didn’t care for either doesn’t change that.

  6. Well…. As usual, I never follow the rules, lol!! So, I am not going to answer your questions. What I AM going to do is suggest to all writers out there that, when thinking about your own writing, to take the excellent descriptions in this article, and use them to your advantage.

    Mix it up! What happens when you find a dragon, who’s character has developed beyond that of Smaug, flying through space? What are the relationships that he/she develops with other characters? Why is a dragon in space to begin with?! Etc…. Let your imagination run wild.

    Lastly, I am going to present to you a key to ridding oneself of writer’s block. If you are creatively burned out around chapter’s 10-15, break the world apart, and then put it back together again. Don’t forget to tie all of your loose ends up for the finish. THERE! I just wrote the rest of your book for you! :-)

    You will thank me later.

    Happy writing!

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