What is science fiction?

  • 20150325_1

    Don Urban (CC / Flickr)

    The term ‘science fiction’ originally described a body of literature that emerged in the early 20th

  • Science fiction is characterised by settings in the future or on other worlds, or by extrapolation from current science.
  • Science fiction is always presented as plausible, which distinguishes it from fantasy.

Avril is new to the writers’ group, so it’s hard to know why she asks ‘what is science fiction?’ Some of the more astute writers look at her sideways, wondering if she’s naive to what she’s just started or whether she’s being mischievous and wants to watch the rumpus. Because the more astute writers know that’s a catnip question to writers, who leap gleefully into the debate.

No one is sure whether Avril’s half smile is bemusement or amusement, but they’re having too much fun to care.

The best definition of science fiction I’ve heard was by Damon Knight: ‘science fiction is whatever we point to when we say “this is science fiction”.’

Not good enough?

OK, I’ll inflict my opinion on you.

The birth of science fiction

The term ‘science fiction’ emerged in the 1930s to describe an emerging genre of literature characterised by settings in the far future or distant worlds, and extrapolations from contemporary science. Other terms like ‘science fantasy’ and ‘scientific romance’ fell by the wayside and ‘science fiction’ became the label for a genre that has never been given a widely acknowledged definition.


sdobie (CC / Flickr)

At the risk of being burned as a heretic, or the modern equivalent of evisceration by Twitter, I’d argue ‘science fiction’ is a rather unfortunate term. It implies that what we point to when we say ‘science fiction’ must have some connection with science, which has never been the case. Even in its salad days, science fiction included Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels although there was nothing scientific about John Carter leaping around to rescue beautiful Martian princesses with swords.

The best known film and television science fiction, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, follows in the Burroughs tradition of eschewing science in favour of technobabble. In the writers’ group debate, someone will argue that lack of scientific coherence excludes such works from the definition and characterises them as fantasy. I disagree. Enough people say ‘science fiction’ and point to Star Wars to make it science fiction. A broad definition of the genre does not diminish its merit.

The science in science fiction


Chaotic Good01 (CC / Flickr)

From well before the term was coined, some science fiction was firmly rooted in contemporary science. HG Wells’s The Time Machine was a fictional commentary on The Origin of Species. As Wells’s inventor watches species evolve, his narration supported the advocacy of Darwin’s theory of natural selection championed by Wells’s former lecturer, TH Huxley.

The science in science fiction may be sociological or economic as much as physical or biological, so most fiction that deals with the future is classed as science fiction. Once again, it was Wells that pioneered such fiction with The Sleeper Wakes. More recently, David Brin’s Earth was written in 1990 and set in 2040. Half way between writing and setting, it looks almost prescient.

Science fiction has itself evolved in the decades since it was recognised as a distinct genre. The breadth of its scope is illustrated by the large number of recognised subgenres, including hard, soft, military, feminist, utopian, dystopian, cyberpunk, steampunk, biopunk, space opera and many more.

Yes, yes, many argumentative readers and writers will agree, but what’s the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

Does it matter? I ask. As writers, the only genre definitions we care about are in the guidelines of the market we’re submitting to.

It’s what we point to when we say…not good enough? OK.

If it’s plausible, it’s science fiction

I’ll stick my neck out and suggest science fiction is defined by plausibility. Not scientific plausibility. It doesn’t have to pass peer review. It does need to persuade the reader that what he’s reading could happen in the future, could be happening now, or could have happened in the past if history had played out differently.

20150325_5Fantasy makes no concession to plausibility and resorts to the supernatural when an explanation is needed.

Science fiction rarely provides a full explanation of the science behind its premises, partly because it often extrapolates far beyond known science and partly because nobody reads science fiction for a fictional version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

HG Wells pioneered the art of the pseudo-explanation in The Invisible Man, where he persuaded his Victorian readers to believe a dedicated and misguided rogue scientist could turn himself invisible. He didn’t persuade them they might trip over such a man next time they walked out, but he persuaded them to suspend their disbelief while they were reading and he did it without boring them with unnecessary detail. His trick still works today.

There are areas where science fiction gets a pass on plausibility by tradition. The laws of physics stop anyone or anything travelling faster than light or back in time, but both remain staples of science fiction.

Telepathy and telekinesis have not fared so well. Both were common themes of science fiction in the sixties and seventies, when parapsychology was still considered a science. As parapsychology has fallen out of university departments and into the realms of quackery, so telepathy and telekinesis have fallen out of science fiction and been picked up by fantasy.

Where did it start?

Back at the writer’s group, everyone realises that all the arguments have been repeated at least three times and agreement remains elusive. Someone buys a round of beers and there’s a near silence in deference to the end of a favourite topic.


Zac Peckler (CC / Flickr)

“So,” says Avril, “what was the first work of science fiction?”

She’s definitely being mischievous.

The critical mass of similar work that lead to science fiction being identified as a genre started with Wells and Verne. However, any working definition would include several earlier works.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is usually regarded as the first work of science fiction, but there are earlier contenders. What about Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726)? Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666)? Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)?

That’s just in the English language.

Far be it from me to attempt to put an end to an argument that gives so many people so much satisfaction. What do you think?

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Wednesday Pontification

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on WordPress.com

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 453 other followers

%d bloggers like this: