What is “Science Fiction?”

September 19th, 2010

An author friend of mine sent an email to a list I’m on:

I’m about to start teaching an Honors science and lit class and I have a whole bunch of various definitions of what science fiction is, but many of those are from academics or dead people (I have some who are still alive and currently writing also).   But I wonder, those of you who are chest deep in actually writing, what are you definitions of science fiction?

Well, I also think consumers of science fiction probably have some good ideas about this.

I’m afraid mine comes down to “I know it when I see it” so I can call Star Wars fantasy, and forgive Star Trek or other softer science fiction that conveniently ignores the laws of physics from time to time (even while acknowledging “you canna change” them).

Unfortunately, stories that take place in the past, present, and future can be science fiction, or not.   Stories on Earth, or in space, can be science fiction or not.   Stories involving time travel, again, science fiction sometimes and sometimes fantasy.   Stories with robots can be science fiction, or modern versions of the golem story, or fantasies about the nature of love, or any damn old thing.

There’s a school of thought that says that science fiction is just a label that marketers put on the spine of a book, regardless of what is inside, and that something I’d call science fiction gets put into a different section if the author is Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or Margaret Atwood.

I’ve posted about this before and have some links there to other discussions on the web.   Definitions…so simple, so difficult.

Let me try to state my own personal definition of science fiction:

“Science fiction is a kind of story in which science or technology plays a central role, both in terms of plot and theme, and the science or technology elements are beyond our current knowledge or capabilities (without violating what we already know), permitting the exploration of novel ideas and the reaction of humanity to them.”

This definition will exclude some things others will call science fiction, such as some kinds of space opera, and stories where super science is present but takes a backseat.

Feel free to critique my definition and help me improve it, or suggest your own.   I’ll forward the information to my friend.


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