How do you define science fiction? [Article]

Science_Fiction_Stories_April_1943 (Words To That Effect Define Science Fiction Article)In Episode 3 of Words To That Effect (listen here) I asked a selection of unsuspecting friends a seemingly straightforward question: “what is science fiction?”. I got lots of answers: it’s about the future, about plausibility, about aliens, about science, about technology, about being realistic and not surrealistic. It’s a question that many science fiction fans don’t feel any need to ask themselves. As I say on the podcast, paraphrasing the author Damon Knight, science fiction is simply what you’re pointing to when you say “this is science fiction”. But for the critics and academics working in the area, attempting to define science fiction is obviously important – you need boundaries if you’re going to claim a field as your own.

Is this something that’s unique to science fiction? Do other genres have such problems deciding what they are? The short answer is probably ‘no’, other genres don’t tend to have such existential problems. On the surface at least, it is often easier to name the critical ingredients of other genres: a detective story must have a detective, a romance must have people who fall in and out of love, a western must be set in the American west, a horror story must induce feelings of horror or terror. This is, of course, a massive oversimplification and these “rules” can be broken, and have been many times. But it does seem that critics working in the genres mentioned above, and many others, spend an awful lot less time trying to work out what the genre they are studying actually is. Science fiction criticism, by contrast, is locked in an interminable/essential/fascinating (delete as appropriate) investigation of what is, and is not, science fiction.


Amazing_Stories_1927 (Words To That Effect Define Science Fiction Article)There have certainly been many, many attempts (there’s a useful roundup on i09 here) although none, as you might imagine, that have pleased everyone. Ultimately, I think these ongoing debates and the questioning of the genre add to the field. Science fiction makes us question what it is that makes us human, where we fit in the grand scale of the universe, where our future lies. Science fiction is about questions. The more the better.

So, how would you define science fiction? Is it something you’ve thought about? Or do you think it matters at all?

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