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Monday, July 13, 2009

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

(Read Part One)

The more I study and understand science fiction, the more I realize that the genre is simultaneously limitless and limited. While most consumers of popular fiction and films are quick to say "science fiction is spaceships and aliens," I find such gross determinations to be overly simplistic and impossible to equate with a standard definition of the genre. Anyone familiar with science fiction would understand that spaceships and aliens are not universals of the genre. True, much of early science fiction literature and the vast majority of science fiction film have dealt quite exclusively with what are considered to be the "tropes" (and cliches) of the genre, but science fiction is, undoubtedly, about so much more.

In getting to the end of this post, I have to indicate that I probably have shifted my position from earlier discussions of what science fiction is. I still hold to certain idealistic perceptions of the genre, and while Darko Suvin, Samuel R. Delany, and even Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. have all used relatively isolated definitions of the genre, we must define science fiction by what it is universally; there cannot, in my opinion, be exceptions to the rule. What defines science fiction, to me, are these elements, placed together and never separate:
  • The presence of the future, whether it be tomorrow or a thousand years distant, or, at least a progression into the future within the narrative itself. The future is absolutely essential to any proper definition of science fiction. Some have argued with me, in the past, that this would inevitably create a paradoxical relationship with narratives dealing with the past, but I would argue that only those narratives which contain primary characters from a future point can be up for true consideration in the genre. Alternate history, thus, is not science fiction, but The Time Machine and Back to the Future are, up to this point.
  • A general reflection or speculation upon aspects of the technological or social, in their most broadest contexts. Science fiction contains the word "science" for a reason. It is not necessary, per se, for a science fiction narrative to get the science absolutely correct, but it is necessary for the narrative to speculate upon the possibilities of technologies, social structures, etc. Most any field of science is applicable to science fiction, and you could certainly write a science fiction narrative that questions issues of archaeology or paleontology, etc. It should be noted, too, that the science, whatever field it may be, does not necessarily have to be central to the story itself; hence why many science fiction stories may set themselves up in universes or worlds vastly different from our own, but yet are more concerned with issues of character or plot. Having said this, though, I want to be clear that a scientific approach (or cognitive estrangement, if you will) to envisioning science fiction is essential; you might not make a laser pistol a significant concern for the characters (such as by asking how the laser pistol has changed the face of the world), but it still must be there (and you can, of course, supplement the laser pistol for any scientific subject, so long as it is sufficiently estranged from the present to speak upon Suvin's "cognitive estrangement" concept).
    Additional qualifiers for this subject include:
    • The acknowledgement of temporal placement of the narrative from the author's perspective (i.e. when it was written). While the science should, for all intensive purposes, be correct, even theoretically, some leeway must be given to texts which precede current science. Hence why The Time Machine is still considered a work of science fiction despite new scientific research which has largely proven the subject of time travel, at least via H. G. Wells' vision.
    • A general displacement of Clarke's Third Law (i.e. that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic). If it's indistinguishable from magic, it is magic, and any discussion otherwise is fairly pointless.
  • A discussion, whether directly or otherwise, of the human condition. This is not to say that every science fiction narrative must be aware or obsessed with humanity, but such narratives must be aware of a human, or even inhuman, concern with the wider world/universe/etc.
Have laid out these complicated elements of true science fiction (presence of the future, speculations on science or technology, awareness or dealing with the human condition), it would seem that certain texts/films would have to be excluded from science fiction, including some of my personal favorites (Star Wars, for example, though Lucas certainly attempted to compensate for his fantastic approach to the genre by providing an ill-conceived scientific explanation for the Force). Exclusions are, perhaps, inevitable in any definition of science fiction. If we look at definitions of the genre by professionals within the literary field, we see that exclusion is impossible to avoid. I won't remark on them here, because this post is long enough as it is, but you should certainly get to know the field as it is defined by professionals.

But, since this is in response to a question give to me by a reader, I should indicate that my definition/conception of science fiction is by far not the most readily accepted one. Typically, one looks to the genre for its cliches, and those happen to be spaceships, lasers, and other flashy things. Even serious science fiction uses these things, from time to time.

To close this discussion, I'll leave you with a word of advice: don't worry too much about what science fiction actually is. Because the genre is not so easily defined, by anyone, it doesn't really matter whether you use elements that are not necessarily science fiction by my account or anyone else's. Star Wars will probably always be known as science fiction, no matter how hard anyone tries to push it into the science fantasy category.

What are you thoughts on defining science fiction? Let me know in the comments.


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. Wow, I strongly disagree. First of all, it seems strange to me to open your discussion by admitting that the boundaries of the genre are ill-defined, and then try to draw those boundaries in a very clean way. I respect your effort to try, but I think that any attempt to put such firm definitions in place is doomed to failure (hence, for instance, deciding that Star Wars is not science fiction).
    Offhand, I don't think I can come up with a counter-definition that's better than "I can't define it but I know it when I see it", but I think that a definition focused more on inclusion than exclusion is the way to go.
    I'd be curious to hear what your reaction to C.S. Friedman's "The Coldfire Trilogy" is: ostensibly, a human colony ship crash-landed on a planet many centuries ago. The planet manifests a force called the "fae" which responds to human emotions. Friedman writes in both genres, so she has a nod to theories of evolution, and does the "crash landed spaceship full of frozen colonists" bit in the same way that I'd expect to see it in a pulp sci-fi story, but the vast majority of the trilogy is about people in a vaguely medieval society coming to terms with the magic of the fae. Science Fiction?

  2. Star Wars contains magic. At best it is science fantasy, but it can never be science fiction precisely because the Force is nothing more than an element of the fantastic, and thus, the impossible.

    Science fiction is always about the possible. Once you toss in what cannot possibly occur, it ceases to be science fiction and turns into science fantasy.

    I've not read C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy, but if the "fae" is magical, more than simply bizarre, but scientifically probable, then it would be science fantasy as well.