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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reader Question: Science Fiction Definition (and Other Rhyming Goodness)(Part One)

Kelsey, a friend from Facebook and Young Writers Online, recently asked me the following question:
This might be a stupid question, but what exactly defines SciFi, or what are the characteristics? Most people think (like my pitiful self) of space-ships, but I've also heard 1984 and other such books being called SciFi.
Firstly, I want to make it clear that I am not going to get into the debate over the differences between the terms "science fiction" and "scifi." Kelsey is specifically talking about the genre as a whole, and any discussions over the subtle nuances that separate the "serious" genre from its "entertainment-oriented" brother/sister will distract from the issue at hand. Secondly, my answer to this question is a personal one, and while I may consider it to be the right one, others will obviously disagree. This post should then become more of an open forum to discuss what may be the defining elements of science fiction as a genre, as in those elements which most easily define it without getting into a sempiternal dispersion of "or"s and "unless"s.

Defining science fiction has been and continues to be one of the most challenging issues for writers and fans of the genre. Many have argued for various versions of definition, but no single definition, at least one that has been specifically defined, has been accepted or held firm by the public, writers, or the publishing industry. We run into a huge problem with defining science fiction due to absurd debates about what is and is not science fiction. Some argue that science fiction is not serious, that it is a genre fashioned entirely for entertainment, and anything that happens to use the furniture of science fiction, but is "serious" or "literary," must not be debased by the term "science fiction." Thus, high literary critics argue that 1984 and other classic examples of science fiction (Brave New World, Utopia, We, etc.) are literary endeavors and above the purview of the "pulpy nonsense" that has typically made up science fiction as a genre.

But these sorts of arguments miss the point: that science fiction is like any other genre of literature and contains within itself the markings of good and bad, serious and juvenile, great and mediocre. With that in mind, how do we define such a genre if it is, at any point in time, a collage of elements equally as vast as its sister genre, fantasy?

Here we have to look to two of the most recognized literary theorists who have, at one point or another, focused their attention onto a genre that has largely been ridiculed and treated with derision: Samuel R. Delany and Darko Suvin.

Delany, to my understanding, argues for a verbal or lingual understanding of science fiction. While this is made far more complex and limiting in his various critical approaches to this theoretical model, the basic premise of science fiction as a linguistically designated genre delves into the "how" of the reading process (in science fiction). You do not read a science fiction novel the same way you read a romance novel, because what may be seemingly mundane in romance will be quite the opposite in science fiction. I am, unfortunately, not nearly as familiar with his theories as I would like to be, but it is still interesting to note this approach to understanding what science fiction is.

Suvin, however, makes the argument that science fiction is "cognitive estrangement." Broken down, this means that science fiction is about taking a cognitive element and twisting it so that it drags the reader to a different space--a space that is occupied by both the estranged (unreal, perhaps) and the cognitive (understood to be true at a particular time, or to at least be based on a cognitive element). Specifically, this takes into account the two elements of the term "science fiction" (i.e. science and fiction). Since one is, by default, a product of the imagined, to varying degrees, and the former is a product of human understanding of the natural world, these terms converge together to form a world view that is not only aware of what is or probably is true, but is also aware of the fictive reality that exists in the realm of speculation. This concept, perhaps, explains the initial creation of the term "speculative fiction" to mean, roughly, the same as "science fiction," because ultimately what science fiction does is speculate upon possibilities, on potential realities broken from the temporal and spacial plane of reality. Hence, cognitive estrangement: since cognition is a process/perception of understanding based on learning and reason, to estrange that perception is to take it to a stage above current reality into one of the possible reality (i.e. where much of the "what if" questions arise from within early and middle-age science fiction).

I tend to agree with Suvin, but because most who are familiar with his theoretical approach to science fiction only know it at its most basic, it tends to hold a limited view. Suvin, of course, discusses at length in various essays how he envisions the genre and where to draw the line.

Due to the length of this post, I'm going to have to cut this short here. In the second part to this, I'd like to draw my own line. For now, feel free to open the discussion on what you think science fiction is. A good debate would do us some good, I think.

Read Part Two


If you have a question about science fiction, fantasy, writing, or anything related you'd like answered here, whether silly or serious, feel free to send it via email to arconna[at]yahoo[dot]com, tweet it via Twitter to @shaunduke, or leave it in the comments here. Questions are always welcome! If you liked this post, consider stumbling, digging, or linking to it!

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  1. My favorite definition paraphrased the old "I know it when I see it" definition. I like that because it can encompass anything, and, given the diverse subgenres out there for spec fic, I don't know what the precise limit of speculative fiction is.

    Mostly, though, it involves things that aren't "real" or being set in the future. And that can encompass an awful lot of real estate!

  2. Well, this is part one, so I go into personal definitions in a few hours. I mention at the end of that post that when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter how you define science fiction. The genre is perceived to be vastly limitless anyway, even if people differ in opinion.