Quality Grades Science Fiction : an article by GF Willmetts.

There is often a question as to what makes Science Fiction Science Fiction. My criteria has always been a plot ending that wouldn’t work in any other genre. However, with the nature of the 17 SF sub-genres (https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/which-of-the-sf-sub-genres-is-safe-or-unsafe-and-why-an-examination-by-gf-willmetts-article/), you do have to wonder if there should be a gradient within these definitions, if only to allow some level of acceptability and quality. After all, just because a story has the trappings of SF, doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a poor story or even not considered acceptable.

This also doesn’t mean the lowest level, Sci-Fi, is still not poor or rubbish but generally that is because it is littered with mistakes, especially with normal science which isn’t that difficult to check. The same kind of mistakes that could also appear in any other genre which would also still make it unacceptable. Examples of this would include misinformed general knowledge or even specialise knowledge inaccuracies.

Some aren’t always readily recognised at the time. Ian Fleming’s James Bond books have proven to be amongst them with hindsight but he wrote in a convincing way that few questioned him until recent decades after his death. That was with ‘You Only Live Twice’ and a certain activity that Sumo wrestlers did with their wedding equipment was a fabrication. Writers are, after all, supposed to be convincing liars on paper. That is until they get found out or are careless. Always trust good research to find things out eventually.

pulpy pulp

Science Fiction relies on a rule structure which you explain to the reader somewhere near the beginning of a story on anything that is different to our current reality. Doing that you establish the rules to the reader and how they are used. As such, you then conform to this and if the reader is clever, the reader might even work out how you use these changes. A clever writer can manipulate this and show the same information can be used in different ways without violating the premise.

If anything, recognising the worse fiction is often a lot easier than the best because that is always subjective to personal taste in regard to subject matter and how it’s written. Then again, all fiction can fall into the categories below. The nature of this article is in evaluating how well the writer did his or her research. Of course, with Science Fiction, not all things are based on research but imagination. However, there are some things that a good SF writer won’t fudge and pride in remaining accurate about or within the pages explain why it has changed. Doing the latter is respecting the reader’s own knowledge.

Fudging has nothing to do with having a sweet tooth but misleading the reader. Most SF introduces some science or technology or both that isn’t possible today but might be in the future. Well, it’s not strictly a lie, just something we can’t do like exceeding the speed of light or time travel. You have to be really daring to introduce too many of these because it can be harder for the reader or viewer to follow.

Often, they are surrounded with more conventional things that are more instantly understood. It’s why certain character types tend to be followed in different genres and, with SF, even aliens have certain human traits. Most of this is not necessarily to dilute the fudging but to make it more acceptable because you, the writer, has been honest with everything else.

This is all a fragile existence but even if you don’t know all your sciences well, you can instinctively recognise when fiction isn’t right even if you can’t put it in words. Generally, that means you tend to avoid such authors.

However, as we tend to do deep analysis here at SFCrowsnest, I thought it might be worth having some sort of grading system. Please treat the options below as work in progress and if you want to contribute to this, let me know in the usual way.

Finding examples has actually been difficult beyond some classic ones. I suspect, we tend to forget the bad ones like we can often forget some bad experiences. Then again, the really bad ones really stick out as being particularly bad mistakes or where some lines have been drawn. I’ve named the categories and, hopefully, there shouldn’t be a grey area between them but when has that ever happened naturally. Hopefully, some more meaningful names will become apparent at sometime in the future.

Remember, it’s a lot easier to point out the real foul-ups than the quality simply because these are the ones that tend to stick in the memory as the type of stories to avoid.

So, from the top to the worse:-

Science Fiction Becomes Real: This can be a grey area. There were proto-type submarines around before Jules Verne wrote ’20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ so be careful to check dates and factual information. A lot of SF speculates on where new discoveries are going. Computers were used a long time before they became commonplace but no SF writer predicted that they would become so small which would have been real predictive.

The Real Thing: Properly researched and employed like a smoking gun in the story.

The Perfect Fudge: The concept that changes the reality to what you have created and how it affects it that extends across the boundaries of the story showing how much you’ve thought about it. If you have economic anti-gravity, then you wouldn’t just use it for flight but places houses on the sides of mountains and how a society uses it in all of its forms. The best example existing today is how the mobile smartphone has taken on so many other things and gone far beyond its original use. This has gone far beyond the communicator that inspired it from the original ‘Star Trek’ series.

The Indelicate Fudge: This is where the concept has only applied to the confines of the immediate story. If you are left thinking why an author hasn’t done such a thing with what they’ve created then it tells you that they haven’t been paying as much attention as they should.

Plausibility: The science might not necessarily be true but sounds like some thought has been given to the problems that needed to be resolved later. Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’ (1970) had some scientific assistance after its first book sorting out some of the things Niven hadn’t resolved properly but followed afterwards.

The Trappings: Uses SF tropes but the story can be story would work in most general genres. Such stories are there only by convenience. The dividing line can quickly slip if the trappings should have been used and haven’t.

The Convincer: This is probably where Ian Fleming belongs. They get enough others right so not to question other details where he just makes things up. You wouldn’t treat such books as gospel in real life. The same can also apply to some American films where you wouldn’t use their medical advice to save a life and that especially applies to type one diabetes.

Updated Facts Dismiss Old Stories: Accidentally: where updated knowledge makes an apparent fact obsolete. This is a lot rarer these days. The best example of this is in Isaac Asimov’s anthology book ‘Asimov’s Mysteries’ (1968) where he comments on his story ‘The Dying Light’ (1956) saying it was written when it was thought Mercury did not rotate in orbit until it was discovered in 1962 that it did. Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘A Fall Of Moondust’ (1961) and we now know moondust isn’t like dunes and filling deep crevasses, at least as far as we know.

Oddly, Leigh Brackett did this also in her ‘Eric John Stark’ books having helicopters on Mars where we now know that the atmosphere is far too thin for that to happen. You can probably add stories on the various planets, including Venus, before it was discovered how inhospitable it was. No one can foretell these changes until they happen but always check the facts so your story is at least correct at the time of release.

Research Claimant: A writer claims to have done the research in the introduction and yet there are errors you can run a bus through. Connie Willis springs to mind here with her novel, ‘All Clear’. Would any British person tell her that there was a Jubilee Line on the underground in WW2 when it wasn’t opened until 1979? It would have been a simple thing to check than just look at a current London Underground map and think we British never change things.

The Worse: specialise knowledge inaccuracies. The ‘Space: 1999’ episode ‘The Last Sunset’ where the Moon gets an atmosphere and what do the Alphans do? They change all the three inch thick windows so they can be opened and play games outside. Irrespective of the fact that the moondust is especially sticky and carried into the base and that there would be implosions when the glass should the vacuum returned. The vacuum did return and nothing happened. Then again, the number of planets the Moon reached in such a short span of years also raises serious question marks. TV can do this a lot. It’s the prime example of what not to do in a story.

There you have it. Please bear in mind this doesn’t apply to fantasy and maybe not horror fiction because there is a strong dependence on magic which is essentially a cheat to let anything be possible. Science Fiction should be fair and, to some extent, honest with the reader. It is a genre of challenge to the reader in the art of problem-solving and occasionally some heavy thinking on solutions. Learning from these inaccuracies is as much for the writer as the reader.

© GF Willmetts 2018

My thanks to Pauline Morgan for running through some of the earlier drafts of this article.


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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