What is Science Fiction?

Hint: there's a lot more than one answer.

What is Science Fiction? There’s probably as many ways to think about science fiction as there are scifi authors. I like the broad, eclectic overview best: science fiction is storytelling that involves imagined futures.

That’s a short-cut approach, and like any summary it risks leaving out too many options. Another short cut: science fiction’s any story with robots, spaceships, time machines, extraterrestrials from any time period or imagined world. Science fiction extrapolates from so many elements of the real world that it seems like the story, as one possible future, could happen. There’s a tipping point, in any of the arts, where the imagination is so well-developed that even the most unbelievable fantasy setting is believable enough that the story provokes emotion. And that too is a function of science fiction. A broad, open-ended range of sort-of futuristic possibilities is a good way to understand science fiction.

Science Fiction Dramatizes the Future

In their brand new anthology, The Big Book of Science Fiction, editors Ann and Jeff Vandermeer offer a wonderful, open-ended definition of science fiction: it’s story that “depicts the future, whether in a stylized or realistic manner” and “science fiction lives in the future.” (for a solid review of the anthology, see http://www.tor.com/2016/07/12/book-reviews-the-big-book-of-science-fiction-edited-by-ann-and-jeff-vandermeer/ or just go get yourself a copy of this wonderful book. )

But how does science fiction accomplish a sense of the future?

That’s a huge puzzle, and there’s no easy answers. Thinking of the future, of course, requires a certain degree of extrapolation from today’s world. Author Paulo Bacigalupi refers to his work as ‘extrapolative fiction,’ which may be a bit more open-ended than the term science fiction.

The future is also suites of codes, symbols, metaphors, idealizations and refractions. Another way of looking at this is how author Paul Park considers the overlap, or intersections, between the living reality or known histories within which we exist, compared and contrasted with the fictions that we create. These overlays can be called metafiction… “If they’re looking at science fiction as a series of signs and symbols that intersect with the world they actually know, then they’re open to other approaches. They’re open to metafiction.” (Paul Park, interviewed by Locus Magazine see link at http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2014/10/paul-park-metafictional-demons/ )

We might imagine the future is quite different from today, noting how the world and our ideas are dynamic and always shifting and changing. That kind of change is a core idea within science fiction as a field of scholarship. Among the first scholars to teach science fiction, James Gunn wrote,

Science Fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger. (Gunn, Road to Science Fiction vol. 1)

Expanding on this notion, is Chris McKitterick’s useful 6-point exploration that science fiction is about change via scientific discoveries and innovations, ideas and questions of ‘what if?’, that it’s also multidisciplinary, focused like scientific methods on understanding the world, that it’s diverse, and is also a broad and diverse community of writers, thinkers, readers and fans across many media. (see link at http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/SF-Defined.htm )

Ask the Next Question

McKitterick further notes the core skepticism and questioning inherent in thinking about futuristic scenarios, which is a point well worth remembering:

By dramatizing such scenarios, populating them with believable characters, and providing the background necessary for the audience to willingly suspend disbelief, SF brings ideas to life. In Episode 5 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Science needs the light of free expression to flourish. It depends on the fearless questioning of authority, and the open exchange of ideas… The nature of scientific genius is to question what the rest of us take for granted, then do the experiment.” Replace “science” or “scientific” with “science fiction” in these statements, and you concisely define what SF does – and the value of its study becomes apparent.

What about the Science?

What can we say about the ‘science’ side of science fiction? Narrow examples may insist that the characters think and act like scientists. Today this argument slips into the ridiculous, quite simply because there are tens and tens of thousands of scientists. Their approaches to their disciplines vary a great deal. Some are mechanical engineers. Some are quantum physicists. Some are biologists, medical doctors, sociologists. They may all operate with shared principles, but also with great variation in terms of the needs of their fields, the thought processes necessary for those fields, the ways of working that each individual scientist prefers, or simple personality differences. There is no one way that scientists think or act. There’s a whole mess of ways. And so that would really mean ‘rigorous mess fiction’ or ‘evidence-based chaotic innovation fiction’. Narrow definitions fall apart.

Regarding the ‘science’ side of science fiction, Eileen Gunn articulated the frictions and contradictions between believable science and fanciful scifi inventions:

Because science fiction spans the spectrum from the plausible to the fanciful, its relationship with science has been both nurturing and contentious. For every author who meticulously examines the latest developments in physics or computing, there are other authors who invent “impossible” technology to serve as a plot device (like Le Guin’s faster-than-light communicator, the ansible) or to enable social commentary, the way H. G. Wells uses his time machine to take the reader to the far future to witness the calamitous destiny of the human race. (See her excellent article at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-americas-leading-science-fiction-authors-are-shaping-your-future-180951169/ )

The need today for these approaches relates as much to the idea of change as to wanting to believe change is possible. Speaking of her own writing as well as what science fiction themes can do for the world, Ursula K. Le Guin said,

Hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. (from her speech when awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letter)

We can also say that some science fiction is simply story that inspired scientists, or appealed to science-minded readers, more than the stories or characters are themselves scientific in nature. Star Wars, for example, is almost antithetical to science, but many would still call it science fiction. It’s just that Star Wars is the action fantasy technological dream sort of science fiction, with a big dose of New Age mysticism thrown in and a classic hero’s adventure plots. Star Trek would better fit the narrower definition of science fiction as science-oriented, however much the newest Star Trek films are in an alternative universe of the earlier movies. But a lot of Star Trek is preposterous science at best (See The Physics of Star Trek for a fun read on this point).

SciFi is Many Groups, Many Methods, Many Possibilities

Nor is science fiction one homogenous group. It includes dozens of subgenres, and many of their proponents disagreed with each other. Bringing literature into the mix, we have Asimov’s robot series, versus Octavia Butler’s Kindred, versus Frank Herbert’s political Dune series, toward cyberpunks like William Gibson Neuromancer and Rudy Rucker’s Ware Tetralogy. We have incredible stories from Connie Willis, Michael Swanwick, and hundreds more. Then we also have crossover categories like The New Weird, which freely mixed science fiction, horror, fantasy and sometimes slipstream ways of writing, borne out of science fiction’s earlier generation, The New Wave. Space opera, military sf, supernatural sf… these competing styles and types of science fiction show how if it is anything, science fiction is a plural category, full of multiple ways of writing and thinking, many genres and subgenres, some pulp and some literary.

Asking ‘What if?’: Being a Science Fiction Writer

For me, as a writer, I’m interested in all of these strains of thought. But if I have to choose some limits, I’d choose the paradoxical kinda-sorta unlimited ones: the future-oriented mindset that filters through much of science fiction, and the change-oriented mindset that the futuristic scenarios propose. That’s naturally, in the act of writing, a method of both extrapolation and interpolation. These both seem rooted in the grand question “What If?”
And that’s for me the big source of innovation and imagination. Asking ‘What if?’ as a mode of thinking, gets us to scientific methods by adding the secondary phrase “Gee, what if I’m wrong about this?” A little falsifiability and self-doubt goes a long way toward finding new options that better explain and emote our worlds. But it also shoves us out of our own comfort zones — What IF? What if there’s another way? The question doesn’t have an ending, and, one idea can inspire more and more great ideas.

What if we do develop viable faster-than-light space travel? (Accelerando, or Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross) What if time travel happened in a phone booth? (Any episode of Doctor Who) What if elves, gnomes and trolls were in the future of Earth (Terry Brooks Shannara Chronicles) What if people migrated to another planet, and developed dragons to help them fight off a terrible dread? (Anne McAffrey’s Dragons of Pern series). What if people could change genders as part of their core nature, over their lifetimes? (Ursula K Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness) What if?

Earlier Histories of SF as an Idea

Some of these ideas track back to earlier views, for example:

  • Isaac Asimov: “Hard science fiction’ stories … feature authentic scientific knowledge and depend upon it for plot development and plot resolution.” (Asimov and Greenberg, “Cosmic Critiques” Writer’s Digest Books)
  • Ray Bradbury: he wrote many connections, but of them “Science fiction guesses at sciences before they are sprung out of the brows of thinking men. More, the authors in the field try to guess at machines which are the fruit of these sciences. Then we try to guess at how mankind will react to these machines, how use them, how grow with them, how be destroyed by them. All, all of it fantastic” (in Bradbury’s intro to Farrell, Gage, et al. “Science Fact/Fiction.” )
  • Theodore Sturgeon: quoted as giving this definition of good science fiction “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” [see Atheling Jr., William(1967). The Issue At Hand. Chicago: Advent. p. 14.]

But “What if?” is a question that can and does apply and function across cultures. And here we might keep in mind that there’s been great science fiction all over the world — that the American and British variations are by no means the only types. Afrofuturism. Manga. Open-ended plurality it is.

What then, is not science fiction? That’s easy… magical fantasy like Harry Potter. Goofball but oddly realistic comedy like The Big Lebowski. All of Shakespeare. The gorgeous dream-visions of Hidetora Ichimonji in Kurosawa’s ‘Ran.’

Read Widely

At the same time science fiction writers and readers like me like to read any genre. I’m just as likely to read, and re-read Helen McDonald’s poetic and wonderful book H is for Hawk, as I am to read Neal Stephenson’s incredible Anathem as Maria Russell’s The Sparrow and Emily St.John Mandel’s Station Eleven as Steven Pinker’s nonfiction The Better Angel of Our Nature.

A great book can help us think and empathize in new ways that we ourselves hadn’t imagined. Great science fictions of all types can do that. But so too can great books in any genre. So I doubt it’s necessary to hew to a narrow definition of science fiction at all. I guess that’s my ‘loosey-goosey gelatinous blob’ definition of science fiction.

The best science fiction, as a focus of drama and storytelling, serves exactly the same core functions as other types of storytelling, though it does so through a lens of looking toward the future. If we stay focused on the roots of human cognition through storytelling, then we also gain good ways to see how science fiction relates to today’s world.

For Further Reading

  • “What Science Fiction Isn’t” by Mike Resnick, a solid article with more specifics and skewering the narrower definitions.
  • Road to Science Fiction, James Gunn (four volumes… get them all!)
  • Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, Hartwell and Hayden
  • The Secret History of Science Fiction, Kessel and Kelly
  • The Big Book of Science Fiction, Anne and Jeff Vandermeer
  • The Feminine Future, Ashley
  • Ascent of Wonder, Hartwell and Cramer
  • The Physics of Star Trek, Krauss
  • Physics of the Future, Kaku
  • Women of Futures Past (forthcoming, Baen). K. Rusch
  • Afrofuturism: The World of Back Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Ytasha Womack
  • Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, ed by Sheree Thomas
  • Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software…, Cadigan et al, edited by Blake
  • See also Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: Science Fiction Defined http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/SF-Defined.htm
  • Definition of Science Fiction, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_science_fiction
  • And Science Fiction category, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction