Definitions of SF

Tagged: Theme

The term "science fiction" came into general use in the 1930s, an early appearance being in Hugo Gernsback's editorial to #1 of Wonder Stories (June 1929). Rather later in the UK, the term was used in Scoops (Summer 1934 and later) to describe individual stories, and Walter Gillings used the term on the cover of the first issue of Tales of Wonder (Summer 1937) to designate the issue as a whole as containing sf. Long before, however, several writers (see Edgar Fawcett; Edgar Allan Poe; William Wilson) had made attempts to define species of literary production similar to sf, and other early speculative writers had their own manifestos. Only since the founding of the specialist sf Pulp magazines in the USA has there been any measure of agreement.

The category first referred to by Gernsback as Scientifiction was described by him thus in the editorial to #1 of Amazing Stories (April 1926):

"By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H G Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision ... Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading – they are always instructive. They supply knowledge ... in a very palatable form ... New adventures pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow ... Many great science stories destined to be of historical interest are still to be written ... Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well."

This notion of sf as a didactic and progressive literature with a solid basis in contemporary knowledge was soon revised as other pulp editors abandoned some of Gernsback's pretensions, but the emphasis on science remained. A new manifesto was drawn up by John W Campbell Jr for Astounding Stories, which, as Astounding Science-Fiction, would dominate the field in the 1940s. He proposed that sf should be regarded as a literary medium akin to science itself: "Scientific methodology involves the proposition that a well-constructed theory will not only explain away known phenomena, but will also predict new and still undiscovered phenomena. Science fiction tries to do much the same – and write up, in story form, what the results look like when applied not only to machines, but to human society as well."

Within a few years of the creation of the term "science fiction" a subculture had evolved composed of writers, magazine editors (and, later, book editors), reviewers and fans; stories and novels written within this subculture shared certain assumptions, linguistic and thematic codes which were embedded in the growing literature, and a sense of isolation from the external "mundane" world for which those codes remained cryptic. This whole living matrix, not just the fictional texts that had initially occasioned it, came to be called "science fiction" (see Genre SF).

Once the publishing category had been established, readers and critics began using the term with reference to older works, bringing together all stories which seemed to fit the specifications. However, the first major study of the field's ancestry was undertaken by a person from outside it, the academic J O Bailey in Pilgrims through Space and Time (1947). He identified his material thus: "A piece of scientific fiction is a narrative of an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences and consequent adventures and experiences ... It must be a scientific discovery – something that the author at least rationalizes as possible to science."

Many further sf researchers and writers attempted to generate definitions of the form which would demarcate the contemporary genre and assimilate any theoretically eligible earlier work. These definitions included attempts by James Blish, Reginald Bretnor, Robert A Heinlein, Damon Knight and Theodore Sturgeon, from within the field, and, from scholars and critics more or less closely associated it, by Kingsley Amis and Sam Moskowitz. Judith Merril echoed Campbell's prospectus while borrowing Heinlein's preferred terminology, which replaced the term "science fiction" by "speculative fiction": "Speculative fiction: stories whose objective is to explore, to discover, to learn, by means of projection, extrapolation, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper-experimentation, something about the nature of the universe, of man, or 'reality' ... I use the term 'speculative fiction' here specifically to describe the mode which makes use of the traditional 'scientific method' (observation, hypothesis, experiment) to examine some postulated approximation of reality, by introducing a given set of changes – imaginary or inventive – into the common background of 'known facts', creating an environment in which the responses and perceptions of the characters will reveal something about the inventions, the characters, or both."

The emphasis in all of these earlier definitions falls on the presence of "science", or at least scientific method, as a necessary part of the fiction. The Merril definition, however, clearly (by shifting from science itself to the idea of extrapolation) is rather wider, since it would include stories which depict social change without necessarily making much fuss over scientific development; and indeed such stories were becoming very popular in the magazines during the 1950s and 1960s, the period during which Merril did most of her writing and editing.

Oddly enough, the most obvious element in the magazine sf that is the initial focus of nearly all of these earlier definitions is not much mentioned in them: the overwhelming majority of the sf of this period – especially in the USA – was set in the future. (By contrast, most nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sf was displaced from the normal world through space rather than time.) With an enjoyable lack of responsibility about using the future to teach us about the present, writers like E E "Doc" Smith, in his Lensman series, freed the future for "itself", and the effect of this new freedom was, in literary terms, explosive. From this the characteristic (and addictive) flavour of US sf derives: its relaxed embracing of scale and technology, its narrative fluency and, perhaps, its secret impatience with reason. Most descriptive definitions of sf from the period 1940-1970 look with hindsight surprisingly unsatisfactory and rather constricting – damagingly indifferent, in fact, to the actual shape of sf texts.

In the 1960s a new line of thought, stemming in large part from the UK, saw sf re-emphasized as a global literature with nineteenth-century roots rather than as a purely US phenomenon nurtured in the pulp magazines from the 1920s onwards. This wider perspective on sf tends to de-emphasize its science/technology component. The term "science fiction" itself came in for criticism from Brian W Aldiss, who commented that sf is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are for ghosts. J G Ballard remarked in 1969 that "the idea that a magazine like Astounding, or Analog as it's now called, has anything to do with the sciences is ludicrous. You have only to pick up a journal like Nature, say, or any scientific journal, and you can see that science belongs in a completely different world." In Billion Year Spree (1973; rev vt Trillion Year Spree 1986 by Aldiss and David Wingrove) Aldiss offered the remark – it seems more an observation describing a philosophical outlook than a definition – that "science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode" (see Gothic SF). By placing Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) at the head of this tradition, Aldiss effectively (and influentially) argued that sf was a child begotten upon Gothic Romance by the Industrial and Scientific Revolution of the early nineteenth century. More recent critics, like Brian M Stableford in Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985), have likewise somewhat undercut those definitions that appear to fit most closely an idea of sf as a genre first cultured in US magazines (see Scientific Romance).

The 1970s as a whole witnessed a great upsurge of academic interest in sf (see SF in the Classroom), especially in the USA, and with it, naturally enough, came more rigorous and formal attempts to define sf. To teach a subject you need to know what it is; and, especially in the case of sf (which blurs so easily into Fantasy on one side and Postmodernist fictions – Fabulations – on another, Technothrillers and political thrillers on a third, mainstream works about scientific discovery on a fourth, not to mention Lost-World stories or Utopias or Future-War stories or stories set in the prehistoric past), you also need to know what it isn't. Thus in academic definitions there was a new emphasis on drawing the boundaries of sf more precisely, in terms of its literary strategies as well as its ideational content, sometimes using a vocabulary already developed in different spheres of literary criticism by structuralist and other critics.

In 1972 Darko Suvin defined sf as "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment". By "cognition" Suvin appears to mean the seeking of rational understanding, and by "estrangement" something akin to Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, defined in 1948 thus: "A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time make it seem unfamiliar." Perhaps the most important part of Suvin's definition, and the easiest with which to agree, is the emphasis he puts on what he and others have called a Novum, a new thing – some difference between the world of the fiction and what Suvin calls the "empirical environment", the real world outside. The presence of a novum is insufficient in itself, of course, to define sf, since the different and older tradition of fantasy likewise depends on the novum. Peter Nicholls, pointing to this particularly blurred demarcation line, argues that sf must by definition follow natural law whereas fantasy may and mostly does suspend it. Fantasy need not be susceptible to "natural" or cognitive explanation; indeed, supernatural explanation is at fantasy's heart. (Suvin claims that the commercial linking of sf and fantasy is "a rampantly pathological phenomenon". This dividing line is further discussed under Magic.) As to estrangement, it arguably has little to do with at least the US tradition of sf (although a great deal to do with European traditions of Satire), in which an important component is nostalgia for the familiar – even the familiarly new (see Clichés) – and estrangement is significantly absent. John Clute has argued that much sf seeks to create the exact opposite of estrangement; that is, it works to make the incredible seem plausible and familiar. Nonetheless, while Suvin's definition would find few who agreed with all of it, it is challenging and has perhaps been the most useful of all in catalysing debate on the issue.

It is to be expected that disagreements of this sort should take place, since sf itself is not homogeneous, and at different times – sometimes both at once – its strategy is either to comment on our own world through the use of metaphor and extrapolation or to create genuine imaginative alternatives to our own world.

The first of these alternatives is the one emphasized in Structural Fabulation (1975) by Robert Scholes, who defines Fabulation as "fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way". Unqualified, the definition would fit not only Genre SF but also the fabulations of John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Pynchon, works which are quite often annexed to sf though having a different characteristic flavour. Scholes recognizes this when he goes on to the specific case of "structural fabulation" (yet another term substituting for "science fiction" and sharing the initials "sf") in which "the tradition of speculative fiction is modified by an awareness of the universe as a system of systems, a structure of structures, and the insights of the past century of science are accepted as fictional points of departure. Yet structural fabulation is neither scientific in its methods nor a substitute for actual science. It is a fictional exploration of human situations made perceptible by the implications of recent science. Its favourite themes involve the impact of developments or revelations derived from the human or physical sciences upon the people who must live with those revelations or developments."

All definitions of sf have a component of prescription (what sf writers ought to do, and what their motives, purposes and philosophies ought to be) as well as description (what they habitually do do, and what kind of things tend to accumulate under the label). It is, however, only in the later academic definitions by authors like Suvin and Scholes, who are noticeably reticent as regards what sf is actually about, that we find prescription getting the upper hand. It is possible with almost all definitions, especially of the prescriptive sort, to find examples which do not fit the prescription. No one has yet emerged with a prescription sufficiently inclusive to satisfy all or even most readers. (If the editors of this encyclopedia have erred, it has been on the side of inclusiveness.)

Some other academic definitions have been less inclusive than Suvin's or Scholes's. Leslie A Fiedler, for example, argues (in Partisan Review Fall 1965) that the myth of sf is the dream of apocalypse, "the myth of the end of man, of the transcendence or transformation of the human – a vision quite different from that of the extinction of our species by the Bomb, which seems stereotype rather than archetype". In his New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction and American Literature (1974) David Ketterer expands on Fiedler's point at length, dividing sf into three categories (according to the type of extrapolation involved) and concentrating on the third: "Philosophically oriented science fiction, extrapolating on what we know in the context of our vaster ignorance, comes up with a startling donnée, or rationale, that puts humanity in a radically new perspective." This he sees as a subcategory of "apocalyptic literature" which, by "the creation of other worlds", causes a "metaphorical destruction of [the] 'real' world in the reader's head".

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock (1970), a study of the increasing rate of change in the real world, wrote in 1974 that sf, "by dealing with possibilities not ordinarily considered – alternative worlds, alternative visions – widens our repertoire of possible responses to change". Here is the beginning of a definition of sf in terms of its social function rather than of its intrinsic nature, a little more sophisticated than Marshall McLuhan's earlier comment in The Medium and the Massage (1967): "Science fiction writing today presents situations that enable us to perceive the potential of new technologies."

In 1987 Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in "Notes for an Essay on Cecelia Holland" (Summer 1987 Foundation #40) that sf was "an historical literature ... In every sf narrative, there is an explicit or implicit fictional history that connects the period depicted to our present moment, or to some moment of our past." Commenting in 1992 in the New York Review of Science Fiction on this formulation, John Clute suggested that it underlined the sense US sf conveyed of being connected to the linear, time-bound logic of the Western World.

Unfortunately, the clearest (or most aggressive) definitions are often the least definitive, although many sceptics have been attracted to Damon Knight's "[Science fiction] is what we point to when we say it" (in "The Dissecting Table", November 1952 Science Fiction Adventures) or Norman Spinrad's "Science fiction is anything published as science fiction". Both these "definitions" have a serious point, of course: that, whatever else sf may be, it is certainly a publishing category, and in the real world this is of more pragmatic importance than anything the theorists may have to say about it. On the other hand, the label "sf" on a book is wholly subject to the whims of publishers and editors, and the label has certainly appeared on some very unlikely books. An additional complication arises because some writers fight hard to avoid the label, perhaps feeling that it might deleteriously affect their sales and/or reputations (e.g., Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Wyndham and latterly Margaret Atwood). Publishers apply similar cautionary measures to potential bestsellers, which are seldom labelled as sf even when that is exactly what they are (although this has been less true in the post-Star Wars period than in, say, the 1970s), on the grounds that genre sf when so labelled, while normally selling steadily, rarely enters the bestseller class.

There is really no good reason to expect that a workable definition of sf will ever be established. None has been, so far. In practice, there is much consensus about what sf looks like in its centre; it is only at the fringes that most of the fights take place. And it is still not possible to describe sf as a homogeneous form of writing. Sf is arguably not a genre in the strict sense at all – and why should it be? Historically, it grew from the merging of many distinct genres, from utopias to space adventures. Instinctively, however, we may feel that, if sf ever loses its sense of the fluidity of the future and the excitement of our scientific attempts to understand our Universe – in short, as more conservative fans would put it with enthusiasm though conceptual vagueness, its Sense of Wonder – then it may no longer be worth fighting over. If things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, mere structural fabulation may be loosed upon the world!

For a listing of many definitions, including some of those referred to but not actually quoted above, a good source is the "Science Fiction" entry in Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy (1986) by Gary K Wolfe. [BS/JC/PN]

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.