IS SF JUST A TYPE OF FANTASY?
Science Fiction as a separate type of fiction only dates from the Nineteenth Century when literate people realised that the development of the sciences meant that the future need no longer resemble the past. And so the first indisputable SF story—as distinct from romances set in imaginary lands, such as Lucian’s “True History”—was Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
Later writers such as Verne concentrated on the development of marvellous machines such as the “Nautilus” and “Albatross” to the detriment of character development. This approach was taken up by the Luxembourgian émigré Hugo Gernsback who wrote stories in which his extrapolations of the science of his day were the heroes. His successors were Edward E. Smith and John W. Campbell who took their views of the future of physics into intergalactic immensity. Campbell in particular was impressed by the work of J. B. Rhine who was active from the 1930s to the 1970s in the field of so-called psi phenomena e.g. precognition, telekinesis and, of course, telepathy. Campbell’s editorial power ensured that psi phenomena were soon ubiquitous in SF.
Parallel to these developments, but originally independent of them, was the growing acceptance of “High Fantasy” as a fit subject for adults, thanks to the popularity of J R R Tolkien’s work in the USA.
However, although SF writers were champions of science, science itself did not develop in ways which were helpful to the writing of “scientific” romances. In particular, and most destructively, were Einstein’s relativity theories, which placed a limit on how fast physical objects could travel. At a stroke, this sent adventures about fleets of space battleships warring among the stars into the world of fantasy. Similarly, Campbell’s uncritical acceptance of Rhine’s theories led nowhere, as Rhine’s results could not be replicated to acceptable standards. This removed the multitudinous stories about Telepathic Supermen from respectable speculation into the world of High Fantasy.
Because real science had not delivered the advances that the writers wanted, the proponents of interstellar colonisation were forced into creating endless versions of hyperspace, subspace, ultraspace, null-space, etc., so that they could have their space adventures. In parallel, stories about telepaths began to fade. In the end, most writers just accepted that science had let them down and that Science Fiction was simply a subtype of High Fantasy and no longer bothered to devise ingenious ways of getting around inconvenient facts.
So the modern writer who tries to write genuine in science fiction is in a bind. No longer can he or she write about Earth being accepted into a Galactic Empire, or future humans using telepathic rays to exterminate evil aliens.
So is anything left?
To this topic we shall return.