People are often keen to impose a restrictive definition on science fiction, usually to rule something out of the genre. And even some of the genre's best authors have been on the receiving end of this. Like multiple award-winning writer Ted Chiang, who's regularly told his work is "not really science fiction."
Top image: The Merchant & the Alchemist's Gate, artwork by Jacob McMurray
The California Sunday Magazine has a fascinating interview with Chiang, who's arguably the least prolific multi-award-winning writer of science fiction today. (In 25 years, Chiang has managed to write just 14 stories. He tells the Magazine he doesn't get that many ideas that he can turn into stories, and writing is a slow, difficult process for him.
But the interview also touches on how little Chiang's work relies on stock genre devices, and how this makes his work look less like SF to some people:
Chiang has been able to pull this off not by leaning on sci-fi staples like talking spaceships and interstellar war, but by crafting carefully considered, deeply researched parables that use scientific concepts to illuminate the human condition. One story, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," employs the Novikov self-consistency principle — which holds that a time traveler could never change the events of the past or future — to explore how we deal with regret; another, "Exhalation," is an inventive meditation on death that Chiang describes as "a story about entropy." They're entertaining, imaginative tales that leave you feeling smarter by the time you reach the last line.
"Sometimes, people who read my work tell me, 'I like it, but it's not really science fiction, is it?'" he says. "And I always feel like, no, actually, my work is exactly science fiction." After Star Wars forever made the genre synonymous with what Chiang calls "adventure stories dressed up with lasers," people forgot that science fiction includes the word "science" for a reason: It is supposed to be largely about exploring the boundaries of knowledge, he says. "All the things I do in my work — engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions — those are all things that science fiction does."
The whole interview, including Chiang's thoughts on the upcoming movie version of Story of Your Life, is well worth reading. [California Sunday Magazine]