What is Science Fiction?

In this article I intend to explore various definitions of Science Fiction and their limitations in the hope of coming up with something more useful.

By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules VerneH. 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.

Hugo Gernsback, Amazing Stories, April 1926

More specifically:

Science fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin

Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell

[S]cience 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

Brian Aldiss, Billion Year Spree

a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficient functions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Darko Suvin, Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction

Damien Broderick

Sf is that species of storytelling native to a culture undergoing the epistemic changes implicated in the rise and supersession of technical-industrial modes of production, distribution, consumption and disposal. It is marked by (i) metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics, (ii) the foregrounding of icons and interpretative schemata from a collectively constituted generic ‘mega-text’ and the concomitant de-emphasis of ‘fine writing’ and characterisation, and (iii) certain priorities more often found in scientific and postmodern texts than in literary models: specifically, attention to the object in preference to the subject.

Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight (1995)

Roger Luckhurst:

For me, SF is a literature of technologically saturated societies. A genre that can therefore emerge only relatively late in modernity, it is a popular literature that concerns the impact of Mechanism (to use the older term for technology) on cultural life and human subjectivity… SF texts imagine futures or parallel worlds premised on the perpetual change associated with modernity, often by extending or extrapolating aspects of Mechanism from the contemporary world. In doing so, SF texts capture the fleeting fantasies thrown up in the swirl of modernity.

Roger Luckhurst, Science Fiction

Luckhurst, then, dates the origin of SF proper to around 1880 when this accelerated transformation became visible to all – much later than Brian Aldiss‘ suggestion that SF begins with the Gothic horror of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

Further conditions necessary for the emergence of the genre include the extension of literacy and provision of primary education for all, including the working classes; the corresponding emergence of cheep magazines that superceded the earlier ‘dime novels‘ and ‘penny dreadfuls‘ aimed at this newly literate class, and which differentiated themselves into specialist genres (detective, spy, western as well as SF); and the growth of scientific and technological institutions to train lower-middle class workers as scientific workers, teachers and engineers.

a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms

Jeff Prucher, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction

  • Aldiss, Brian, Billion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction (1973, 1986)
  • Amis, Kingsley, New Maps of Hell (1960)
  • Broderick, Damien, Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (pdf) (1995)
  • Clute, John, Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews (1995)
  • Clute, John & Peter Nicholls (eds), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Second Edition, 1993)
    • The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Online Edition)
  • Delany, Samuel R., The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977)
    • Silent Interviews: on Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction and Some Comics (1994)
  • Luckhurst, Roger, Science Fiction (2005)
  • Parrinder, Patrick (ed.) Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia (2000)
  • Prucher, Jeff (ed), Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. 2009
  • Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: on the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979)
    • Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (1988) 

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