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Science fiction is a literature of ideas, and as such it has always incorporated new technologies -- and hypothetical developments of such technologies -- into its subject matter. On the other hand, science fiction has always been very slow in making use of new ways of telling a story. SF would seem to be the perfect kind of writing to make use of developments like hypertext, but in actual practice this has been minimal. It was really only in the New Wave movement within science fiction, and to some extent within cyberpunk, that any real attempt was made to escape the confines of traditional narrative storytelling modes.

In this article, I will look at why most science fiction is slow to change narrative modes, and at some of the ways in which New Wave and cyberpunk SF have gone beyond traditional narrative.

A Literature of Ideas

Science fiction is commonly spoken of as a literature of ideas. It is also called extrapolative. As Ursula K. LeGuin writes in her book The Language of the Night, "The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here and now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future." This work of extrapolation or prediction goes far back -- Robert Silverberg cites an 1890 novel, A.D. 2000 by A.M. Fuller, which anticipated many of the technologies we have today, including "a national newspaper published simultaneously in many places by a sort of teletype network called a 'sympathetic telegraph'," but like so many SF stories it also got many things vastly wrong.

Isaac Asimov also wrote about the predictive nature of science fiction, and it is worth quoting him at length:

To people who don't read science fiction, the most amazing thing about the field is its apparent ability to predict the future . . . . Actually, there is very little in the vast output of science fiction, year after year, which comes true, or which is ever likely to come true . . . . Nevertheless, successful prediction can take place. Intelligent science fiction writers attempt to look at world trends in science and technology for plot inspiration and in doing so, they sometimes get a glimpse of things that later turn out to be near the truth.

Perhaps even more than it is either extrapolative or predictive, science fiction is the literature of change. "More precisely," says Brooks Landon, in his book Science Fiction After 1900, "science fiction is the kind of literature that most explicitly and self-consciously takes change as its subject and its teleology." The changes that form the subject of SF are drawn from, or at least informed by, changes that happen today. Ursula Le Guin writes:

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life -- science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them.

Thus the things that concern us today, the vast changes that happen in the sciences and other areas, become the source for ideas about change in the possible futures of SF. As Norman Spinrad writes, the "central thematic core" of SF is "the philosophical relationship of the human spirit to science and technology."

A Conservative Literature

In his paper "In Defense of Stone Tablets," Gary Westfahl remarks that science fiction is a conservative genre. It is also, he says, "one which will most likely be one of the very last fields to embrace and fully explore the potentials of any radically different new media." This tendency to avoid "new and innovative approaches" may seem paradoxical considering SF's emphasis on scientific progress.

Patricia S. Warrick, in her book The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction, comments that although the traditional elements of narrative -- such as plot, characters, setting and symbolism -- are present in science fiction, they are subordinate to other elements, "the central concerns of SF." Those other elements are such things as the use of current scientific knowledge, a sense of the new, a different place or time than our own, and the ability of the ideas in the work to engage a reader's intellect and offer new insights. Science fiction, therefore, is more interested in getting across ideas, in communicating, that it is in experimenting with new literary forms. Gary Westfahl connects this also to William Labov's research on inborn patterns of language and storytelling, and says that "[i]n order to communicate one's story and ideas more clearly and effectively, a writer will tend to fall back on this ancient approach."

A quick look at any how-to book on writing science fiction shows the same traditionalism. Crawford Kilian's Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, for example, explains to the would-be writer the elements necessary in the opening of any SF story or novel, the things that should appear in the body of the text, and the tasks a conclusion must accomplish. Later in the book, he outlines the principles of creating a plot. Nowhere are there any references to experimental narrative techniques; all of the advice in Kilian's book is firmly within the traditional means of structuring narrative.

Reasons for this avoidance of the experimental are not hard to find. SF is concerned with communicating -- especially with communicating ideas. And since the ideas in science fiction are concerned with the new and strange, they are best presented within a familiar format. C. S. Lewis put it best: "Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl." To express strange ideas in a strange experimental narrative format would be the same as "tell[ing] how odd things struck odd people" as Lewis describes. It would be "to have an oddity too much." As Gary Westfahl says, "One does not invent a new language in order to yell 'fire' when a building is burning down."

Thus, when your main concern is to express a particular idea or provoke thought in your readers, an unfamiliar storytelling style would get in the way. Straightforward narrative makes the strange ideas accessible, and SF, as Landon says, "relies on realist techniques to glove its fantastic elements with the rhetoric of rationality." Science fiction includes in its subject matter aliens, other planets, societies of the near and distant future, and even stranger ideas; therefore it is necessary to present SF stories "in a commonplace manner" to avoid Lewis's "an oddity too much." Science fiction, then, tends to lag behind literary fiction in the use of new and experimental forms of narrative. Gary Westfahl estimates this lag at about forty years:

Thus, we find that science fiction readers of the 1960s were shocked and sometimes appalled when writers dared to try writing like James Joyce and John Dos Passos in the 1920s, and one reason that Neuromancer so stunned those readers in the 1980s was that William Gibson boldly and innovatively imported into science fiction the attitudes and style of the Raymond Chandler detective stories of the 1940s.

An Experimental Literature

If early science fiction stuck very closely to old narrative forms, some SF writers of the 1960s tried to challenge those forms. The British New Wave writers began to work with more experimental story structures. This movement can be seen as a reaction against the constraints of the SF genre, though SF stories in older narrative forms continued to be successful at the same time. Of particular relevance here, New Wave writing adopted many narrative techniques from mainstream literature, including experimental forms. The New Wave did not bring about the end of traditional SF, but "expand[ed] the genre's sense of its territory to include radically new perspectives and values" as well as new, experimental, narrative techniques, in Landon's analysis.

The mid-1980s saw another movement within SF, one that "proclaimed once again that the old science fiction was dead." The writers of cyberpunk were particularly interested in new technologies, but at the same time were wary of utilizing them for new ways of telling stories. Even the novel that epitomizes the Cyberpunk movement, William Gibson's Neuromancer, is a work strongly rooted in the realist tradition.

But perhaps it is not within each of Gibson's novels that experimentation with narrative is to be found, but between novels in the same series. With Neuromancer and its two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, it may be that, as John Christie writes, "the continuities are apparent only, and they conceal quite fundamental shifts of narrative subject and ideological orientation." They should be read, argues Christie, as "a discontinuous series whose subjects, preoccupations, values, and styles undergo fundamental shifts." However you read them, these novels still have more in common with traditional narrative than with experimental stories of literary fiction. Cyberpunk was the first science fiction subgenre to look seriously at the implications of new technologies, but in the end it "settled for the kind of narrative conservatism that has so long characterized SF," according to Landon.

There are some notable attempts outside the New Wave and cyberpunk to use experimental forms to tell a science fiction story. For example, Robert Silverberg's story "Sundance" attempted to play with narrative in experimental ways. Silverberg was looking to explore "ways to dramatize subjective, ambiguous perceptions of reality"; he did so by shifting point of view between first, third, and even second person within a single short story. Pamela Zoline's story, "The Heat Death of the Universe," is another experimental SF story, which consists of 54 paragraphs, most numbered, some titled and some a mere sentence in length. A more recent experiment is Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction, a series of short short stories organized around the Periodic Table of Elements. There is one story per element, but they are not interconnected, so the whole is more of a neat way to organize a series of stories than a truly experimental narrative. Other stories, such as "Cat in the Box" by A. R. Morlan, employ new forms -- like a sequence of e-mails between two characters -- but the traditional narrative structure of beginning-middle-end is still apparent.


Brooks Landon wonders why science fiction, cyberpunk especially, has failed to make use of new technologies for telling stories. He argues that writers have "fail[ed] to imagine that the computers that so radically reshaped the cyberpunk semblance could also radically reformulate narrative structure itself." They have been happy with the traditional print narrative and "reluctant to consider the nonlinear, hypertext narratives that computer technology makes possible today." This seems especially strange given the fact that the audience for science fiction is generally quite technologically advanced. People who like to read about technological gadgets often like to play with them, too. But the examples of the conservatism of SF cited by Westfahl and quoted above, show the forty-year gap between the introduction of an experimental narrative form and the use of that form in SF. Gary Westfahl and Brooks Landon both wonder: "why are there no science fiction hypercard narratives or fractal fictions?" The answer is that "they are not scheduled to appear until the year 2030."

Swanwick's Periodic Table comes close to this kind of fiction, though, as it is published online with a clickable Table of the Elements to take the reader to each story. If it had an overall narrative to tie the stories together, this work would prove Westfahl and Landon wrong. But the Periodic Table's existence does show the SF writers are starting to use new technologies in interesting ways -- maybe a few years ahead of schedule.

Another answer to why SF writers are reluctant to make use of new technologies is that hypertext puts much of the final form of a work -- in other words, what the reader actually reads -- in the hands of the reader, rather than in the hands of the author. The words may be the author's, but the order they are read is the reader's. As the author Lewis Shiner says, "I strongly believe that there's a perfect and final form for every piece of fiction I do. I'm not interested in having alternative versions or expansions or contractions made available. If I make a change in my fiction, I'm making it for a reason." As with visual arts, new technologies may do more to create new art forms than to change the way older art forms are done. As Greg Bear says, forms such as hypertext fiction will not be in the form of novels and short stories -- traditional narratives -- they "will end up being a whole new art form." Westfahl sums up the whole idea nicely: "while the future will undoubtedly bring hosts of new ways to tell and absorb stories, the new ways will take their place beside, and will not replace, the old ways." This has been true of nearly every other facet of human life affected by technology; it will be true also of storytelling.


Reader Comments

Niko Silvester has a BA in Archaeology, an MA in Folklore and a BFA in Writing -- from universities on both coasts of Canada and somewhere in the middle. Niko's book, comics, and toy reviews, as well a couple of editorials have appeared online at Entertainment Tomorrow, and her computer game reviews can be found on the Electric Playground website. She currently writes fiction (two stories have appeared in the online 'zine Fables and one will be in the November issue of Quantum Muse), freelances as an editor and copyeditor, and maintains's Creative Writing for Teens Web site.


Aldiss, Brian with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Gollancz, 1986.

Asimov, Isaac. "How Easy to See the Future." Asimov on Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981. 81-86.

Christie, John. "Of AIs and Others: William Gibson's Transit." Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens and London: U of Georgia Press, 1992. 171-182.

Frongia, Terri and Alida Allison. "'We're on the Eve of 2000': Writers and Critics Speak Out on Cyberpunk, Hypercard, and the (New?) Nature of Narrative." Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens and London: U of Georgia Press, 1992. 279-292.

Fuller, A.M. A.D. 2000. 1890.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. 1986. New York: Ace, 1987.

-----. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1988.

-----. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Hale, Edward Everett. The Brick Moon. 1869.

Huntington, John. "Newness, Neuromancer, and the End of Narrative." Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens and London: U of Georgia Press, 1992. 133-141.

Kilian, Crawford. Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Self-Counsel Press, 1998.

Landon, Brooks. Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. New York: Twayne and London: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Le Guin, Ursula. "Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness." The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, revised edition, by Ursula le Guin. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. 150-154.

Lewis, C.S. "On Science Fiction." On Stories by C.S. Lewis. 1966. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. 55-68.

A.R. Morlan. "Cat in the Box." SciFiction, 2001. Available online.

Silverberg, Robert. "Introduction to 'Sundance'." Reflections & Refractions: Thoughts on Science-Fiction, Science and Other Matters by Robert Silverberg. Grass Valley, CA: Underwood, 1997. 420-425.

-----. "Science Fiction and the Future." Reflections & Refractions: Thoughts on Science-Fiction, Science and Other Matters by Robert Silverberg. Grass Valley, CA: Underwood, 1997. 28-35.

-----. "Sundance." Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1969. Reprinted in SciFiction and available online.

Spinrad, Norman. "Alternate Media: Visual Translations." Science Fiction in the Real World by Norman Spinrad. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. 57.

-----. "Modes of Content: Hard SF, Cyberpunk, and the Space Visionaries." Science Fiction in the Real World by Norman Spinrad. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. 91-92.

Swanwick, Michael. Periodic Table of Science Fiction. SciFiction, 2002. Available online.

Warrick, Patricia A. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1980.

Westfahl, Gary. "In Defense of Stone Tablets: Isaac Asimov Explains Why Science Fiction is Skeptical about 'New Information Technologies'." Science Ficiton, Children's Literature, and Popular Culture: Coming of Age in Fantasyland by Gary Westfahl. Contributions to the Study of Science Ficiton and Fantasy, Number 88. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Zoline, Pamela. "The Heat Death of the Universe." New Worlds, July 1967. Reprinted in SciFiction and available online at

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