I’m not here to argue about genre. AE is a science fiction magazine, but we freely — and proudly — admit that we have a generous interpretation of what fits in that category. A quick perusal of our publishing history shows that we can be quite fond of stories that employ a light touch with science fictional elements. Indeed, you’ll find it hard to convince us that drawing a crisp distinction between “science fiction” and other genres is a useful endeavour. (Can you write a science fictional romance? Yes. A noir detective story? Yes. A coming-of-age tale? A comedy? Yes and most certainly yes.)
But whether or not we want to get into debates about “what is science fiction,” as editors of a science fiction magazine we nevertheless end up making those judgments every day. So where do we draw the line?
There are lots of pieces that show up in our inbox that don’t strike us as science fiction, but there are some interesting patterns. We don’t tend to get high-magic, sword-and-sorcery fantasy, and we don’t get a lot of stories without any speculative elements whatsoever. Most of the submissions that miss the science fiction mark fall into the general category of stories about weird unexplained happenings. They’re often (though not always) set in the modern day, in a world very much like our own. The action takes place on a day much like any other day, until … something happens. Something not only unexpected but strange, incongruous, and outright impossible. The characters may refuse to believe it, but there it is.
This kind of story fulfills the expectation of introducing something that is not strictly realistic, something that doesn’t exist in the world we live in. Often that element is quite original, and sometimes the consequences of the strange event make for compelling reading — but that’s only half the battle. The other half is to create a world in which this bizarre event is perhaps not entirely ordinary, but at least not impossible. When a story injects a single “what if …” into our world it naturally leads us to ask “why?” and “how?” Leaving out the answers to these questions is like cutting off an X-Files episode after the first act, before Mulder and Scully come on the scene to help us make sense of it all.
There are some unreal elements, though, that we’re willing to accept with very little explanation. These are the things that we all know as proper SF: Faster-than-light spaceships. Time travel. Mad-scientist inventions. Robots. Aliens.
One of the benefits of working with these themes, especially in a very short story, is that they have long traditions behind them. Despite our lack of direct experience with these things as they are depicted in science fiction, we have a shared understanding of them. They have detailed Wikipedia pages just like real phenomena, and they have inspired varied (and sometimes contradictory) points of view. There’s something familiar about each of these elements that eases the mental transition to another world without causing us to ask too many questions. All this makes a useful foundation to build on while still leaving plenty of flexibility to take stories in different directions.
But by no means does a story have to rely on traditional elements, even at short-story length. The unexplained happening can work even if it is never quite explained. “Touch the Sky, They Say” doesn’t explain how the sky fell (or even how the sky can literally be touched), but neither does it try to convince us that such a thing is so very strange. Instead it gives us a world where a fallen sky is so much part of the landscape that they sell tickets to rooftops within reach of the firmament. And the weirdness of the situation isn’t what the story is about. It’s about the ordinary problems and petty frustrations that people have even in the face of a larger catastrophe, shown through a lens that gives us a different perspective on the challenges of living in our own world.
Strangely, sometimes even stories based on tried-and-true science fiction themes don’t feel substantially different from a story told in our world. It’s not just that our technology is approaching and in some cases eclipsing the futuristic visions that once populated science fiction. The fact that a computer can outperform the greatest human champions on Jeopardy! doesn’t mean we have to abandon AI as a science fictional subject. But perhaps the familiarity of these long-standing themes makes it too easy to tell a familiar story, instead of one that makes us look at the world in a new way.
Take aliens, for example. Theodore Sturgeon observed that at the heart of every good science fiction story is “a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution.” And so it makes sense that, despite the vastness of the universe and the infinite possibilities it may contain, science fiction literature is full of aliens that represent something earthly and familiar (not that we don’t love the occasional truly alien alien.) But a story that features aliens ought to be a story that can’t be told with a cast of humans.
If the aliens are just standing in for the Enemy or the Stranger and otherwise exhibiting perfectly human behaviours, then just tell the human story you want to tell about the futility of war or tolerance of people who are different from ourselves. Star Trek may have built entire alien cultures out of a single personality quirk, but it worked best when the defining trait of an alien race was amplified to the extent that it wasn’t just a character type that you might encounter in real life, but a distillation of an aspect of humanity, put under the microscope for us to examine. Aliens will always have something of ourselves that we can recognize in them, but it’s the differences that highlight what it means to be human.
And this is the balancing act of science fiction: to present a departure from reality as we know it, one that’s not so radical that it ceases to be relatable, yet is different enough to throw our assumptions about the world into question. But to be successful it must also offer its own set of assumptions and allow the reader to explore their implications. That last part is the difference between a broken depiction of Toronto and a portrait of an intriguing, slightly strange universe that nevertheless feels genuine and somehow real.