S is for Science Fiction


“Genre boundaries are constantly shifting and being challenged.” Mike Pinnington asks: what is science fiction?

What is Science Fiction? My response to this is that I know it when I see it (or, indeed, read it). For me, it can be broken down (roughly) to time, place, and tech. If a story is set in the future (near or otherwise) then, to me, we’re practically all the way there to its being full blown science fiction. Equally, however, if we’re in an alternative reality to the one we know – either historical or present day – then it too fits the bill. Simple, right? Not at all. Because the question of ‘What is Science Fiction?’ is deceptively complex.

As author Adam Roberts rhetorically asks in his preface to the excellent Science Fiction: A Literary History (2017): “How to define SF when any gathering of three experts will produce four mutually exclusive definitions?” The dictionary, meanwhile, says it is a genre made up of ‘stories making imaginative use of scientific knowledge’. This feels like a definition from the dawn of the genre rather than one equipped to get a grip on the nuanced, often complex and wildly diverse picture it represents today.

“Science Fiction is ‘notoriously difficult’ to define”

Academic Sherryl Vint, who says science fiction is “notoriously difficult to define”, begins her own outlining of the form by acknowledging its breadth and versatility. Taking the basic plots of three “radically different” stories – Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll (1940), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977–83) and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975) – Vint says that, despite their differences, each could be considered as “the ‘centre’ of some understanding of science fiction”. Respectively: huge technological advances; space opera; and doppelgangers hailing from different worlds whose societies differ markedly from our own.

Additionally, there is the attendant question of what, beyond or as well as escapism, science fiction is for. I tend to think of a lot of the ‘best’ or, at least, most thought-provoking work in the genre utilizing non-realist contexts for social commentary, as with Joanna Russ’ exploration of gender stereotypes in The Female Man. Russ felt that science fiction “provide[s] myths for dealing with kinds of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.”

“There are those who assume that the aim of science fiction is to divine what the future holds”

Addressing the same question in an essay included in the catalogue for the exhibition Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination (2022), Nalo Hopkinson considers: “Perhaps some are thrown by the word ‘science’ in the moniker. Science is, after all, serious business. Science fiction, therefore, must be utilitarian and dry, with a barely concealed didactic aim. It must be there to teach us something. Sometimes one does learn something by reading science fiction. Its authors do a lot of secondary research into science, history, art, language, social customs and so on. We also do a lot of extrapolation. This may be why there are those who assume that the aim of science fiction is to divine what the future holds.”

Science Fiction © Thames & Hudson

But authors, like audiences, rarely agree on definitions, or classifications when it comes to where, exactly, certain types of stories sit. Take Margaret Atwood who, writing in 2011, said she “didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant anymore”, preferring instead speculative fiction. Atwood has certainly earned the right to decide for herself which ground her books occupy, even if it is an equivocal ‘have my cake and eat it’ take: “What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, ‘speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians.”

“She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto”

I can’t help but read this as splitting hairs, an attempt to ‘elevate’ her writing above – or edge it away from – the oft- and frequently unfairly derided genre. Atwood’s fellow titan Ursula K Le Guin responded (in her review of the former’s The Year of the Flood): “This arbitrarily restrictive definition [speculative fiction] seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.”

It’s worth noting, that, for me, whether we use the term science fiction, speculative fiction – or whatever – these are essentially interchangeable and belong to the same family (even if some of the family members might rather never see or hear from their relatives again). In the introduction to her The Unreal & The Real: Selected Stories Volume 2 – Outer Space, Inner Lands, Le Guin asserts “There are dozens of definitions of what ‘science fiction’ is; few are useful and none is definitive. Variations on the term, such as ‘speculative fiction’, complicate the discussion more than they clarify it.”

“Science Fiction’s past is littered with prejudices”

I’m with Le Guin in thinking that it’s often about snobbery; exclusionary terms such as literary fiction (suggesting anything else is decidedly un-literary?) persist. It can also be found in the Hard/Soft SF debates, which boiled down to male authors jealously trying to keep ‘their’ genre – what it read and looked like – to themselves. Science fiction’s past is littered with prejudices, leading so brilliant an author as Octavia E. Butler to ask: “Should a woman who is black have to spend her writing life wondering whether the praise or criticism she is receiving comes because of her sex, or her color, or because her work is deserving of it?” And to ponder: “Why aren’t there more SF Black writers? There aren’t because there aren’t. What we don’t see, we assume can’t be. What a destructive assumption.”

Here I must hold my own hands up and issue an admission. For many years, I dismissed Ursula K Le Guin as a writer of ‘mere fantasy’. That is until I read her novella The Word for World is Forest. I had been missing out all this time due to my own preconceptions of what I’d long thought a childish, superficial and limited genre reliant on the spectacle of magic spells, dragons and god knows what else for its enduring popularity. There are, as with anything, good, bad and indifferent examples of fantasy. In Le Guin’s hands, it is a genre of great, vividly told stories, full of big ideas and urgent questions to do with how we understand and negotiate the world.

“It’s not my job as a writer to make life easy for anybody”

I turn to Le Guin once more here, who understands classification, ultimately, as “a concept which could have served as a useful distinction of various kinds of fiction, [which] has been degraded into a disguise for mere value-judgement.” And that “The various ‘genres’ are now mainly commercial product-labels to make life easy for lazy readers, lazy critics, and the Sales Department for publishers.” She concludes: “It’s not my job as a writer to make life easy for anybody. Including myself.”

Whatever our definitions, and I think it’s clear by now this can be quite subjective, genre boundaries are constantly shifting and being challenged. Sherryl Vint asks: “Which is the ‘real’ sf, or, if they are all equally but differently sf, what is this genre?” It’s a good question – one I’ll continue to enjoy ruminating on as a fan of whatever this wonderful, probing and ever-evolving thing we call science fiction is.

Mike Pinnington

Further Reading: Introducing: Science Fiction Collections Curator Thomas Dillon; What is Science Fiction for?|Nalo Hopkinson

Images/media: Rod Long on Unsplash; cover artwork for Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination

Posted on 31/05/2024 by thedoublenegative