Some folks define “science fiction” pretty literally, as needing an element of science. I think stories that ask “What if…?”, in other words stories about ideas, is closer to the mark. It also works better for science fiction’s snobby twin monicker “speculative fiction”. Of course, it often does involve science, because when asking truly interesting “What if..?” questions, science is a better thing to whip out of your holster than a blaster.
But even then, it does not have to be science science. Witness my fave Star Trek episode, “Darmok”, where Picard & Co have to unravel an alien language that has stumped their universal translators. They eventually figure out that the alien language is a set of references to its own mythologies. If you know the mythology, you know the language. Hell of an idea, not a ton of science. It’s the idea that’s fascinating: What if we met beings at least as intelligent as us, but we could not communicate?
Ted Chiang’s titular story from his collection Stories of Your Life and others involves such a question and alien linguistics. You might have seen the trailer for its upcoming movie with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, Arrival (same director as Sicario, which… holy cow, just… please). The movie looks good, and we’ll compare/contrast as soon as they open this theater door I’ve been banging on since mid-August (the theater dudes inside keep yelling something about November – fine, I’ll wait here – I brought my space blanket). As for Chiang’s story, it’s excellent sci-fi. As much as I love Star Trek, it’s hard to imagine universal translators working with genuinely alien languages – though they nearly always do. No such luck for Amy Adams, whose character has to take an incredible leap of imagination to unlock the extraterrestrial lingo. What I don’t see in the trailer is the story’s parallel thread about how this new language actually affects her personal life. As some linguists have said, the language we use actually affects our understanding of the world. How would learning an alien tongue affect us? It does something pretty unexpected in the story, and we’ll see if the film deals with that.
I don’t think Chiang is quite as good with that human element as he is with the ideas, but he does always connect the ideas – often quite abstract – to how they affect people. A man given an experimental drug becomes so intelligent, he becomes both totally isolated and absolutely free to shape the entire world to his liking. A mathematician’s life falls apart when she discovers an equation that destroys mathematics. My favorite story setup is of a world where angels regularly visit us to do healings and such, but when they do, the sheer power of their presence leaves a gash of collateral damage: 4 healings, with 9 casualties (2 deaths by falling debris, 5 people treated for burns, 1 blinding, 1 heart attack), and 2 million dollars damage – like The Avengers came to town. Funny stuff, though it gets much, much darker. All that, plus golem-technology, politically correct beauty-unenhancers and a harrowing journey up the Tower of Babel – Chiang always asks what great sci fi asks: IF such and such happened, what would happen to us?