The Many Definitions of Science Fiction

    Science fiction has always been hard to define. To the general public it has been typecast as space opera and anything to do with the future but that is not my definition of science fiction. I consider Star Wars one-hundred percent fantasy with not a single drop of science fiction in it. Just because a story is set in the future, with space ships, bug-eyed monsters and robots, doesn’t make it science fiction, at least in my skewed view of the world. Maybe we can call it sci-fi, but I’m not even happy about that. Of sure, science fiction is the accepted label commonly used to categorize books, movies, comics, games and television shows as a genre, but that’s like saying all art forms with human nudity is porn. And I’ll admit that most science fiction is a kind of porn compared to the works I want to label science fiction.

    To me science fiction is art that conveys a revolutionary speculative idea that should fit into reality according to the laws of science. Any story about traveling faster-than-light after the speed of light was established and before Einstein’s famous work can be science fiction and any story about traveling faster-than-light after Einstein is fantasy. Before anyone complains, I do know there is scientific speculation that could justify hypothetical means of FTL travel, but it involves things like converting the mass of Jupiter into energy, so I’m still going to call FTL fantasy.

    Sometimes it’s a tight call – for instance, “Bears Discover Fire.” Not likely, but a fascinating speculation. H. G. Wells got to most of the best science fictional ideas at a time in history where they might still be considered scientific. Time travel was a brillaint piece of speculation. Timescape by Gregory Benford is the last time travel story I’d call legit science fiction. Time travel is definitely in the realm of fantasy now. When Wells wrote War of the Worlds the phrase science fiction didn’t exist, but he pretty much defined the term as I like to see it. Aliens and life on other planets and around other stars was not new in his time, and I’m not even sure if Wells’ book was the first to suggest invading aliens, but WoftW has gained worldwide acceptance as a science fiction classic. H. G. Wells made the concept of science fiction famous, even when it wasn’t labelled.

    In the 1920s E. E. “Doc” Smith established the concept of interstellar travel but in a totally unscientific way, but it fired up the minds of the public about the idea of traveling to the stars. Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Universe” about a starship that took generations to reach its destination was rim of reality science fiction – the fact that Heinlein had his characters set in a time where they have forgotten their mission is mega sense-of-wonder story telling and science fiction squared. However, there aren’t that many original science fiction ideas and thus not that many true science fiction novels. Heinlein went on to write science fantasy when it came to space travel.

    I think Heinlein knew this because after Starship Troopers he figured that writing science fiction about space travel was a dead end, so he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land and took science fiction into a new dimension. I’ve read Stranger many times and both love and hate it. The kernal of a story about a human raised by aliens and then returned to Earth to be reeducated as human is very fine. The story of creating a new religion in modern times is also good speculative exploration. In fact, SIASL is full of good ideas, but it’s also full of bad science fiction. It devolves into a fantasy about wishful I Dream of Jeannie type powers that appeal to adolescent minds, and ultimately was an old man’s fantasy about wife-swapping and swinging.

    By my definition of science fiction there aren’t that many science fiction books and movies. Gattaca was a magnificent story speculating about the impact of genetic manipulation. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a disturbing story speculating about the worst mechanical qualities of being human – which is the opposite of the film based on the book, because Blade Runner was about the possibility of human qualities showing up in machines that looked like humans.

    The book I’m reading now, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is about the colonization of Mars, a very old and tired storyline, but one that Robinson makes into cutting edge science fiction. Although it was published in 1992, I think it represents the bar for speculating about what humans can do with Mars. It’s a big book, with lots of characters and ideas, and to surpass it would probably take even a bigger book, bigger even than the entire Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy, which means that’s a lot to attempt. Other than that, books about Mars are going to be adventure fantasy stories with a few science fictional ideas thrown in here and there.

    The first guy to use a space elevator in fiction can claim he’s writing science fiction, after that it’s no longer speculative science fiction but a baroque embellishment. Robinson has a space elevator, but it’s not why his Mars book is science fiction. Red Mars is science fiction because it’s a complex ecological speculation about humans coming to Mars. It’s human ecology/psychology meets Mars ecology done with finesse and characterization.

    Being a science fiction writer is hard. Coming up with new ideas that are real speculation is light-years beyond hard. Most so called science fiction writers are content to live with writing action stories set in old speculation. For god’s sake, just how many military science fiction stories are needed? Starship Troopers was original and had some very good science fiction in it, as well as a lot of fantasy action. The Forever War was a standout novel of science fiction. By the time the great film Aliens rolled around, the genre was clearly adventure fiction – although high quality. Battlestar Gallactica is fantasy soap opera. And I’m not being critical. Good story telling is good story telling – but the phrase science fiction in my book should be reserved for those stories and films that wow us with a new and novel idea. The very act of calling a work of art science fiction should be praise in itself.


5 thoughts on “The Many Definitions of Science Fiction”

  1. I have really enjoyed your essays and I was hoping for a good comparing and contrasting of some of the definitions of Science fiction. You only really talked about yours, yours is a good definition of “Hard Sci-Fi” But I was looking for more.

    One of my favorites –
    Rod Serling. “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.”

    There are some good ones by , John W. Campbell and Heinlein.

    I just read this one –
    Tom Shippey. “Science fiction is hard to define because it is the literature of change and it changes while you are trying to define it.”

    Keep up the good work James

    ~ Anthony

    1. The Rod Serling does have a nice ring to it.

      Science fiction explores the possibilities of reality whereas normal fiction describes reality and fantasy creates alternative realities. Because every science fiction and fantasy writer can create something completely new it’s very difficult to reign in their definitions without imposing limits. I tend to define science fiction in terms of what I want to read, but I’m always open to being surprised, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate fantasy.

  2. Is everything within written science fiction really science fiction? I suppose of course it isn’t. As an anectodal example of this,I refer to J.G. Ballard,who said that readers complained that his magazine short stories weren’t science fiction.Perhaps it’s true,considering how different what he wrote was compared to probably nearly everybody else at the time.Furthermore,he said that his “Vermillion Sands” short stories,were not set in the future,but rather in a visionary present.

    1. There are all kinds of stories labeled science fiction that I wouldn’t call science fiction. To me, a story is science fiction when it’s theoretically possible for the technology in the story to occur. For example, stories about humans going to the moon were science fiction for hundreds of years before we actually went to the moon. We may never colonize Mars but it’s theoretically possible. The space travel we see in Star Wars is pure fantasy. Most people think stories set in the future or in outer space by definition means they are science fiction. I don’t think that’s true.

      1. I’m sure that not all the best science fiction that has been published within the genre is theoretically possible.Do I have to suppose then that it isn’t science fiction? I find it very difficult to specifically catergorise everything in this case.I can only read it and evaluate it on it’s own merits.

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