The definition of the science fiction genre

Charlie Stross has an interesting post up on the distinction between science fiction and fantasy.  He looks at a question I haven’t thought about in a while:

Not too long ago, someone in the twittersphere asked, “Whatever happened to psi? It used to be all the rage in science fiction.”

The answer, essentially, was that John Campbell died and nobody believes in that crap any more. And anyway, it’s fantasy.

Now here’s the thing. If you accept Clarke’s Third Law, which boils down in the common wisdom to “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” you kind of have to ask, “Do we believe psi is crap because it really is crap, or do we just not have the technology to detect or manipulate it?”

Yes, of course, that way lies madness. But with quantum physicists messing around with teleportation, and computer engineers inching toward a technological form of telepathy, are we really that far off from making at least part of the Campbellian weirdness a reality?

And if that’s the case, where did the psi go? It’s no more improbable than the ftl drive that’s a staple of the space-opera canon. Why is ftl still a thing, but psi is now subsumed under “Magic, Fantasy, Tropes of”?

I’ve written before that I think the definition of science fiction proper is speculative fiction that can’t be ruled out as impossible, but I admitted that there isn’t much actually labeled as science fiction that strictly meets that definition.  Most science fiction is actually a blend of fantasy and actual scientific speculation.

But reading Charlie’s post, something “clicked” for me.  I still think the definition of “hard” science fiction is what I said above, but the definition of the science fiction genre is different.

It seems to me that the science fiction genre is fiction that the general population, or at least the population of science fiction fans, thinks can’t be ruled out as impossible.

I like this definition, because it recognizes that the genre will change.  (Strictly speaking, of course, even hard science fiction changes as science progresses.)  What counted as science fiction in the 70s, such as stories involving psi or ESP (extrasensory perception), doesn’t count today, because most of the population, at least the population that reads science fiction literature, doesn’t see that stuff as scientific any longer.

It also explains why FTL (faster than light) travel remains a staple of science fiction space opera, despite the fact that most scientists see it, or at least most conceptions of it, as fantasy.  The general population hasn’t come around yet on FTL, so it remains science fiction.

Of course, it depends on exactly which audience we’re talking about, and there is a spectrum between diamond hard science fiction (Clarke, Egan, etc) and Star Wars novels.  But all of it comes down to what that audience accepts as still possible.  Most Star Wars readers probably still see what they’re reading as science fiction, even though most hard science fictions fans see it as complete fantasy.  While few readers of Tolkien, Martin, or Howard think they’re reading anything plausible.

Many young readers start out with things like Star Wars or Star Trek novels.  In many ways, these types of books serve as a type of “gateway drug.”  Some graduate to harder science fiction literature.  As they do, their conception of what is scientific probably becomes more rigorous.

This may seem like a minor realization, but for some reason I’m inordinately pleased with it right now.  Of course, I may decide that this definition is wrong later.  I’d be interested in seeing what you guys think.

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50 Responses to The definition of the science fiction genre

  1. I used to define Hard Sci Fi as anything scientifically possible. I may flex to allow for stories that seriously explore the consequences of a scientific or social development, even if those developments themselves are not plausible.

    Also as an aside, Michio Kaku’s “The Future of the Mind” discusses current technologies that (depending on your definition) may already implement psi.

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    • There’s actually a good amount of what could be called engineered psi in SF these days, using involving communication between post-human or technologically enhanced characters. What’s faded is the psi that we’re all supposed to just have naturally.

      The term “soft” sci fi gets thrown around. Sometimes it means things like Star Trek, where the science is shaky, but some people, like Orson Scott Card, use it to refer to sci fi that is concerned with social science concepts. Personally, I tend to think that a story that is concerned with social science theories, but doesn’t violate known science, remains hard sci fi.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Brett says:

    For me, the difference between Science Fiction and what I usually call “Space Fantasy” is about themes and elements – namely, does the story and themes require a futuristic setting for it to work or make sense, or is it just trappings?

    You could tell a story like Star Wars in a more generic High Fantasy setting as well as the Space Fantasy setting it’s already in. Whereas something like A Deepness in the Sky or Rendezvous with Rama require a futuristic society to work, even if some of the technology is nigh-magical stuff.

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    • That’s a good point. Although I wonder if a story set in a scientifically plausible future, but with a plot largely incidental to the setting wouldn’t still be put in the SF genre. A lot of SF is social commentary, with a story set in another time and place to bypass people’s culturally ingrained reflexive biases.

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  3. ejwinner says:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – the problem with this is that it is being used to excuse all sorts of nonsense as ‘scientifically possible.’ I’m sure there’s a percentage of Harry Potter fans convinced that there’s some unrecognizable ‘science’ activating his wands and spells.

    I was a Dr. Who fan since the mid-’70s; I can hardly watch it now. ‘Technobabble’ usually falls apart on analysis, but if it is even distantly related to actual scientific explanation (or even speculation), it helps edify the audience to the possibilities of discoveries in future research. But what does “timey-wimey” really mean? I found this amusing at first, but really it’s evidence of laziness on the part of the writers- they can’t bother to think of clever science-like explanation, because they don’t think their audience’s understanding of science is important.

    This issue really shows up in current cinema. There is some good sci-fi out there, but there are also ‘sci-fi’ films that are just action fantasies loaded with cgi – and explosions, of course.

    This plays out along a spectrum, of course – Star Trek audiences may grow interested in ‘hard’ sci-fi – maybe even science. Star Wars fans, probably less so. Marvel Comics film fans not at all. And gone are the days when Dr. Who could inspire young people to investigate science (as it once did).

    Indeed, the ’60s were a golden age for sci-fi – Dicks, Azimov, Clarke, all in their prime; Dr. Who, the original Star Trek; Planet of the Apes, 2001. The question of any golden age is two-fold: first, was it real, or were we kidding ourselves? Second (assuming it was real – and I do), how was it lost? Why is it that fewer young people give a damn about the scientific validity or possibility of the ‘science fiction’ or fantasy that they enjoy? These should be troubling questions for science fiction writers; but of course, science fiction is a business, and often there is little time to consider such questions. And that puts science fiction authors in an unenviable position, I’m thinking….

    Give the people what they want, or give the people what they need? Oh, for an H..G Wells or a Philip K. Dick for the 21st century….

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    • I tend to think that golden ages only exist in retrospective. We tend to remember the best from those eras and forget the dreck. You might be surprised by some of the things people will remember fondly from the current period in decades to come.

      Speaking of dreck, the very first SF I ever got interested in was ‘Lost in Space’. (Granted I was 5 years old when I watched its reruns c. 1971.) There was nothing scientific about LiS, but it was enough to suck me in to SF, gradually working my way over to the hard stuff. Of course, lots of people watched LiS and never got into SF any further.

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  4. jyothisarath says:

    Reblogged this on Hearts and Springs.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that’s a pretty good distinction, Mike, and I think I would go along with it.

    I think I still count Star Wars as unadulterated fantasy.

    Mind you, much of fantasy is probably possible in some universe out there in the multiverse, so it can be read without the need for absolute suspension of disbelief if you are so inclined.

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    • Thanks DM.

      Personally, I’d agree about Star Wars, although my 12 year old self probably wouldn’t have.

      On fantasy and the multiverse, that depends on how plausible you find the multiverse. BTW, I completely missed Massimo’s post on Unger and Smolin’s new book until recently. I downloaded the book yesterday. Hope to read it sometime soon. (I have a lot of SF to get through first.)

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  6. M. Joelle says:

    That’s a really cool distinction. I like how it changes over time based in our perception of scientific possibility. I also think it clarifies for me why I like some science fiction, but I’m not always drawn in by “hard” science fiction. I typically prefer fantasy and fantastical science fiction to sic fi that’s too understandable – when an author spends too much time describing how his/her fictional science works, I lose interest, as I’d rather just read non-fiction scientific accounts if I’m going to be putting all that effort into thinking things through logically. It just feels like it’s taking itself a bit too seriously, and missing out on what good sci-fi is really meant to do – set up new ways of seeing the mundane, or to create scenarios of greater wonder or danger or fun that otherwise couldn’t be encountered.

    I do think it is a spectrum though, and that you can go too far with the sci-fantasy (at which point, just call it magic and give up the pretense; embrace it or don’t, really). Perhaps what I’m most attracted to is self-aware writing that knows where it falls on the spectrum and treats the material with the appropriate level of realism, reverence, or revelry. I loved the reboot of Dr. Who when it was a little silly with its B-movie effects because it really allowed the big questions about humanity to really shine out, but lost interest when it got very slick-looking and started to take itself very seriously – that’s ironically when it became silly and superficial for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I think most SF readers would agree with your first paragraph. They want to explore the possibilities, but when such exploration turns into a whole chapter on the science (as sometimes happens in very hard SF), they have a tendency to glaze over. But it is very much audience specific. Someone reading Greg Egan should be prepared for long discourses on mathematics. Someone reading John Scalzi should expect a story with perhaps some deep elements, but not to have them discussed in detail.

      I totally agree with shows taking themselves too seriously. I don’t perceive that from Doctor Who, but I did from the movie ‘Sunshine’, which I can’t watch past the first few minutes of. It starts out so serious and somber, and immediately makes so many scientific mistakes, that I can’t watch it. Yet I actually have no problem at all with the silliness of ‘The Princess Bride’ or ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, because they’re honest about exactly what kind of story they want to be.

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  7. James Pailly says:

    You’ve just blown my mind. Just the other day, I caught myself referring to Doctor Who as fantasy rather than science fiction. It wasn’t that long ago that, at least in my mind, Who was clearly Sci-Fi. But I’ve learned a lot about science over the last few years, and during that process the show must have migrated from one category to another… without my even realizing.

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    • Awesome! I agree that Doctor Who is completely fantasy. It occasionally explores profound philosophical concepts, but, unlike Star Trek, I can’t recall any episode actually exploring a straight scientific one, even from the classic series. But there are probably a lot of people who see it as science fiction, if occasionally a bit flighty.

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      • James Pailly says:

        I remember a few scenes in the early, early days of Doctor Who where they tried to squeeze a science lesson into the stories. But those scenes usually come across as, “Listen up, boys and girls, while the Doctor tells us all about magnets.”

        How do you feel about Star Trek? That still feels like science fiction to me, but I have a hard time justifying that feeling sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think the Star Trek TV shows often were. The movies much less so, except perhaps for the first one in the 70s. The TV shows often explored concepts in a way that definitely made them science fiction, even if they were wrapped in a semi-fantasy setting. I give them a break, since it would be tough to make a weekly hard sci fi series.

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  8. Wyrd Smythe says:

    “And if that’s the case, where did the psi go?”

    It’s alive and well in the X-Men and other venues.

    He mentioned McCaffrey’s Pern series, and anyone who classifies that as fantasy “because it has dragons” is just dead wrong in my book.

    Interestingly, McCaffrey also has a Psi series, the Pegasus series, and many of those were published in the 1990s, the most recent in 2000. In those books, Psi is a natural Talent (similar to how in X-Men it’s genetic). That kind of gets us in the gray area between fantasy and SF.

    Bradley’s Darkover series somehow seems more aligned as fantasy to me, perhaps due to the Medieval setting? Maybe it’s due to there being more spaceships in the Pegasus series. In Darkover, the technology has been lost. 🙂

    Norton’s witches? Definitely fantasy to me!

    “Most science fiction is actually a blend of fantasy and actual scientific speculation.”

    Yeah, as we’ve discussed before, all fiction is fantasy on some level (kinda by definition). Speculative fiction all the more so. And certainly we all have our own way of looking at it.

    I realized recently I’ve come up with a SF-Fantasy dividing line that seems more precise than I’ve used previously. (Explored here and more recently here.)

    I was basing the dividing line mainly on machines or a vague definition of “magic”. One problem comes when magic is treated as some sort of (as yet unknown) physical law. That seems to be more SF than fantasy.

    Simply put: SF takes place in this universe using the physics of this universe. Allowances are made for undiscovered physics so long as said discovery more or less fits the existing physics and has some shred of facticity (or truthiness 🙂 ).

    The basic underlying presumption is that SF could come true. Just maybe. (Middle Earth, for one example, will never come true.)

    Or, kind of as you put it, what isn’t clearly impossible.

    So FTL and transporters slide into SF easily, whereas Psi and magic-as-physics have a higher hurdle. They need to be clearly explained as having a physical basis to qualify. (Which is why Pern’s dragons are SF, not fantasy.)

    It really can’t be based on the subject alone; it’s how the subject is presented. If we’re talking this universe and current physical law (plus reasonable discovery), then it’s SF to me.

    (Hard SF to me is when the technology is deeply woven into the story to the point of becoming nearly a character. Any AI story, for example.)

    “It seems to me that the science fiction genre is fiction that the general population, or at least the population of science fiction fans, thinks can’t be ruled out as impossible.”

    Your deeper point, I think, is that we define these things for ourselves, and I agree completely with that. But I’m not generally comfortable with vox populi definitions.

    “I like this definition, because it recognizes that the genre will change.”

    And it’s one reason I don’t! 🙂

    For me, Verne and Wells will always be science fiction, albeit it very dated science fiction. When Arthur Clarke wrote about communications satellites and atomic bombs (and got the government on his case wanting to know who spilled their carefully guarded national secrets), that was — and always will be (to me) — science fiction.

    I’ve always thought part of the wonder of SF was that it did sometimes come true. (In fact, that’s now part of my definition of the stuff!)

    “Most Star Wars readers probably still see what they’re reading as science fiction,”

    Yeah, exactly my point. Star Wars is a fairy tale for children (and the child in all of us). Tell me “Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away” isn’t the dead equivalent of “Once upon a time…” The fact that little kids — really little kids — adore Star Wars is also a huge clue in my eyes.

    So you can’t let people define science fiction. Most of them don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. (To be honest, the opinion of anyone who became a “science fiction fan” post Star Wars is suspect to me.)

    Well, even if we don’t agree on this, the discussion is quite interesting! Thinking about it helps clarify my own opinion on it, even if just in contrast. 😀

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    • “But I’m not generally comfortable with vox populi definitions.”

      Hmmm. You might dislike this statement then. I think all definitions are ultimately decided by the culture. Dictionaries, for example, aren’t authoritarian, they’re lexicographies, in the sense that they compile common usage. This is the main reason I’m generally never interested in what the “one true” definition of something is (something I see as unresolvable), only in how the culture currently uses a word or phrase.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        But dictionaries are compiled by experts in language based on common established usage. It’s not done by popular vote. Dictionaries also distinguish between “slang” and “popular” usage versus formal definitions. And they don’t all agree.

        So if you’re suggesting that a group of experts in the field of science fiction consider common usage in context and define formal and slang aspects, I’m fine with that.

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        • Dictionary lexicographers are experts in how a term gets used in society. They’re not experts in the specific domains of the words they’re recording. When they distinguish between things like “slang” and “formal”, what they’re really doing is showing how it’s used in various sub-cultures.
          http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0032-howaword.html

          Sometimes experts do make pronouncements about a definition (such as the IAU attempting to define “planet”), but society doesn’t always listen.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            We’ve wandered pretty far off the topic here. Look, if a vox populi definition works for you, that’s fine. It doesn’t for me for the reasons I gave.

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  9. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Incidentally, reacting to some comments above, per my definition, Doctor Who and Star Trek are clearly, unmistakeably, science fiction. They take place in our universe and use our physical laws. They presumably could be true without too much contradiction.

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    • I think the majority of viewers might casually see Doctor Who and Star Trek as taking place in our universe and using our physical laws (which essentially meets my definition of the SF genre), but I’m curious how you, with your substantial knowledge of science, comes to that conclusion.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        I don’t see it as a judgement call or a decision on my part. The shows are clearly set in the context of our reality.

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        • I may not be understanding what you mean by “context of our reality”, particularly given Doctor Who’s frequent world wide invasion stories. Interestingly, J. R. R. Tolkien conceived Middle Earth and Robert E Howard conceived the Hyborian Age as being lost ages in our distant past, in other words, in our reality. Of course, science pretty much rules out such lost ages, but then science rules out most of Doctor Who and much of Star Trek. It still seems like the distinction between them is what most of the audience perceives as possible.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “…particularly given Doctor Who’s frequent world wide invasion stories.”

            I’m not sure how that matters… are you saying alien invasion disqualifies a work as science fiction?

            Assuming a key science fiction theme of a “galaxy teaming with life” what about Doctor Who brands it as “impossible”?

            “Interestingly, J. R. R. Tolkien conceived Middle Earth and Robert E Howard conceived the Hyborian Age as being lost ages in our distant past,”

            You don’t see any distinction between imaginary ancient worlds and what could be in the future? Doesn’t your own definition of “can’t be ruled out as impossible” classify both as hard science fiction?

            “…but then science rules out most of Doctor Who and much of Star Trek.”

            And, as we have discussed before, a huge fraction of science fiction.

            “It still seems like the distinction between them is what most of the audience perceives as possible.”

            You mean like how love can conquor black holes? You mean like astrology and the healing powers of copper and quartz crystals? You mean like tarot cards and personal gods who answer prayers? 🙂

            If that works for you, cool! It doesn’t for me. This is one place where I prefer an actual definition, not what most people think. (But then I’ve never cared what most people think. 😀 )

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          • My point about the Doctor Who invasions is that they often have story lines where everyone on Earth is personally affected, something that clearly hasn’t happened in our universe. But I do see it as SF, primarily because most of the viewers see it as something that could happen.

            “You don’t see any distinction between imaginary ancient worlds and what could be in the future?”
            It depends on what’s being imagined. A lot of Atlantis stories are in the science fiction genre, I think because they seem like a plausible past to a lot of readers. The Shannara books take place in the future, but have magic and elves, which most readers see as fantasy.

            “You mean like how love can conquor black holes? ”
            Lamentably, a sizable portion of the audience probably does think something like that is possible, enough for a lot of movies and tv shows to get away with it. Of course, the other things you mention all have their adherents.

            Regarding the difference between us on definitions, that’s fine. We disagree, which we’ve always been able to do amicably.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “My point about the Doctor Who invasions is that they often have story lines where everyone on Earth is personally affected, something that clearly hasn’t happened in our universe.”

            That it hasn’t actually happened isn’t a disqualifier for science fiction. Maybe we have gotten hung up on the phrase context of our reality from when I said “The shows are clearly set in the context of our reality.”

            I was referencing what I said the first time: “They take place in our universe and use our physical laws. They presumably could be true without too much contradiction.”

            Which I think is a very good dividing line between SF and Fantasy.

            So, to the extent an ancient and advanced Atlantian civilization can be realized without contradiction to our reality, stories about Atlantis would be (historical) science fiction. So are alternate timeline “history” stories, which are a sub-genre of SF.

            But throw in elves or magic, past or future, and now you are contradicting this reality (as far as we know), so now you’re talking Fantasy.

            “Lamentably, a sizable portion of the audience probably does think [love conquering black holes] is possible”

            Exactly my point (the lamentable part), and exactly why a vox populi definition of science fiction leads one down some strange paths.

            For example, Paranormal Activity was such a pop hit that it spawned three sequels and, apparently, some other spin-offs. (Ghost hunter TV shows are extremely popular, too.) And while I’d like to hope a goodly chunk of the audience knows — for sure — that ghosts are pure fantasy, I know that many people do believe in ghosts.

            Contrariwise, Europa Report wasn’t nearly the hit (IMDB reports a gross of $107,917,283 for the first, but only $125,474 for this one — nearly two orders of magnitude difference. I can imagine a more select audience saw this film, and I would bet you that many — if not most of them — don’t really believe life on Europa would be like that.

            My point is that, given the huge numbers of people who believe in ghosts and think Paranormal Activity is without contradiction compared to the, I’m sure, much smaller number who might think Europa Report is without contradiction (and I’m sure not one of them), your definition seems to make Paranormal Activity more SF than Europa Report.

            Yet the latter is hailed as one of the better SF films to come down the pike (I’m not one of them — I didn’t care for it — but I still see it as way more SF than a ghost story).

            For that matter, supposedly, in the USA, roughly 80% of people polled believe in angels. So they would see stories about angels as being without contradiction (and thus SF?).

            I do think that, had SF not gone mainstream post-Lucas, a vox populi definition of science fiction would be more workable.

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          • I think there are two question here, and it might be that we’re tangling them up.

            1. What should the definition of science fiction be?
            2. What is the de-facto definition of the science fiction genre?

            On 1, I don’t have particularly strong feelings. I’m content to go with the flow on this. (Which I know you disagree with.) I know that the type of SF stories I currently prefer are ones with more plausible science, but that has varied over the years, and I make lots of exceptions. Ten years ago I was in a fantasy phase.

            On 2, I think the definition I lay out above is close to that reality. Of course, there are exceptions and gray areas. There always will be.

            One last point on vox populi (sorry, but you do keep bringing it up 🙂 ), language is constantly changing. The English words we’re using in this conversation didn’t exist millenia ago, or meant radically different things. The word “gay” means something totally different than it did in 1940. Across that backdrop, looking for the “official” definition of something seems a lost cause. All we can do is ascertain how society currently uses a term, as lexicographers do. We can advocate for a new usage, as homosexual activists did for “gay”, but success in that is never guaranteed.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I don’t know that they’re tangled so much as that I reject de facto definitions as usually wrong, and a big part of my life is devoted to getting things right. (I’m not saying I always do… just that it’s a key goal. 😀 )

            If you’re happy with a definition (of something that you presumably love) that seems to position Paranormal Activity as more science fiction-y than Europe Report, then that’s certainly your choice.

            In your post you wrote, “Of course, I may decide that this definition is wrong later.” I was just hoping to help you get there sooner rather than later. XD

            As for “gay” Wiktionary still lists as the #1 definition, “Happy, joyful, and lively.” and “Festive, bright, or colourful.” so while it’s labeled as “(dated)” lexicographically speaking the word retains its original meaning.

            It’s actually a good example of the difference between what the MOTS thinks versus what the cognoscenti think.

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          • LOLS! Tell a laughing member of any cognoscenti that they’re acting “gay” and they’ll almost certainly misunderstand your meaning.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            OTOH, ask them what “gay” means, and you’ll get a correct and full answer. Context, after all, is significant.

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  10. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Your question about Doctor Who and Star Who made me think of something we’ve not touched on: The intent of the author.

    Ultimately, isn’t Anne McCaffrey the one who really gets to define whether Pern is SF or fantasy? (Isn’t her explicit use of genetics with regard to the creation of the dragons significant?)

    Likewise, the intent of Gene Roddenberry was clearly to depict a possible future for mankind. If science liberties are taken for the sake of storytelling, does that really change anything?

    The creators of Doctor Who are, at least to my perception, equally clearly talking about this reality. A key theme in Who is the “earthmen über alles” idea that, despite our flaws, we’re still the greatest. The Doctor loves Earth and Earthlings and goes to great lengths to protect us.

    Star Trek also often expressed that theme, usually via an impassioned speech from Kirk.

    The consumers of any art have their own ideas about that art — and so they should — but ultimately it’s the artist’s intent that (for me) really defines the nature of the work. My job, as consumer, is to understand their intent as well as I can. What others think is irrelevant to me.

    As Opus Penguin once said, “If two-million people do a stupid thing, it’s still a stupid thing.”

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    • I’m not sure that I’d agree that the intent of the author is the deciding factor. The Left Behind authors intend to convey a future they see as not only possible, but inevitable, but I don’t know of any inclination to categorize their work as science fiction. (Of course, in their case, it would be a bad move commercially. They want to be in the religious section of the bookstore, not the SF one. But even if they did want to be in the SF section, most SF readers wouldn’t accept their stuff as SF.)

      Far be it from me to dispute the sage Opus, but if millions of people think doing something is a good idea, and I think it’s stupid, I’m going to have at least a little doubt that maybe I’m overlooking something.

      I do want to clarify one thing in relation to something you said above. I do think whether or not something is SF depends on scientific understanding when it was written. So, I’d agree that Jules Verne stories that are now known to be impossible are still in the SF genre. But George R. R. Martin’s commissioning of new stories set on “old Mars”, that is Mars as it was conceived before the NASA probes, seem more like fantasy. (Although I suppose someone could always blur the distinction by insisting that they take place in a parallel universe. Of course, that’s a move that could be done with anything.)

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        “I’m not sure that I’d agree that the intent of the author is the deciding factor.”

        Are you saying the readers know better than the author?

        “The Left Behind authors intend to convey a future they see as not only possible, but inevitable, but I don’t know of any inclination to categorize their work as science fiction.”

        I can’t imagine any reason they would given — as you say — they don’t even see their work as fiction (let alone science fiction).

        In fact, given the criteria “what most readers believe is possible” and ignoring the intent of the authors, wouldn’t your definition tend to classify those as science fiction?

        “So, I’d agree that Jules Verne stories that are now known to be impossible are still in the SF genre.”

        Of course they are. Historical context is important. We might recognize them as silly now, but that doesn’t change their inner nature or the author’s intent.

        A mud hut is still a domicile even if it’s not one most would consider as such.

        “But George R. R. Martin’s commissioning of new stories set on “old Mars”, that is Mars as it was conceived before the NASA probes, seem more like fantasy.”

        Or, like steam punk, a kind of quaint historical science fiction. (Do you consider steam punk SF or Fantasy? I see it as a bit borderline, but as definitely having one foot in the SF world. It’s even a really odd kind of hard SF in how it focuses on the technology.)

        Bottom line: I just don’t see how we can define a genre on “what most people think” rather than the inner nature of the work, and I definitely believe very strongly that the author’s intent is a key part of that.

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        • “Do you consider steam punk SF or Fantasy?”
          Along the lines of my response above, I think they’re part of the SF genre. Some steampunk is more plausible than others. Alastair Reynolds did a steampunk that was set on a terraformed Mars in a society in a semi-dark age, which I would consider hard sci-fi.

          “Bottom line: I just don’t see how we can define a genre on “what most people think” rather than the inner nature of the work, and I definitely believe very strongly that the author’s intent is a key part of that.”
          I think I’ll just link to my response above. (Sorry, but it seems like I’d have to repeat it here to answer.)
          https://selfawarepatterns.com/2015/04/30/the-definition-of-the-science-fiction-genre/comment-page-1/#comment-9934

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Let me put it this way: There’s no way, no way at all, that my sister’s (unsellable) novels about angels are “science fiction” no matter what eight out of ten Americans think! o_O

            And, frankly, it blows me away that you would dismiss the author’s intent and the nature of the work itself in favor of what the masses think.

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          • I doubt eight out of ten SF readers would accept a novel about angels (in the traditional conception of the term) as science fiction. (Although, given that many people accept CS Lewis’s Space novels as science fiction, if it’s done in a way that looks sci-fi, some might.) Too many Doctor Who episodes have things like gods, demons, paranormal activity, and similar notions, but Doctor Who continues to be considered science fiction.

            So, on the author’s intent, if your sister insisted her angel novels were science fiction, that would make them so? On the nature of the work, who determines which aspects of a work’s nature make it science fiction, if not the readers (or audience)?

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            If “what readers think is possible” is the criteria, why wouldn’t they be?

            If “takes place in this reality without contradiction” is the criteria, then her claim is clearly wrong.

            Which is my point.

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          • But who decides whether it “takes place in this reality without contradiction”? Scientists? If so, then only fiction that scrupulously maintained scientific accuracy would be science fiction. Then who is letting Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars into the science fiction genre?

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            No, not scientistsscience. As in “science fiction.”

            There is some wiggle room, of course, because the point isn’t “scrupulously maintained scientific accuracy” but respect for science in the service of good storytelling.

            That wiggle room allows for some to debate whether Doctor Who is SF or Fantasy (I’d say it’s definitely SF, but I can see why others might disagree; it does tug at the borders a bit), but clearly marks Star Trek as SF and Star Wars as Fantasy.

            Which brings us back to the main point that, given the poor grasp so many SF fans have of science (I’m dead certain love doesn’t conquer gravity, for example), a definition based on what they think scrambles the lines way too much for me.

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          • So, sorry to keep picking at this, but it gets to my main point. If not scientists and not science fiction fans, then who judges the science and/or respect for science in science fiction? The authors? We’ve already established that some authors aren’t going to be competent to do so. The publishers? But what do publishers do other than try to gauge reader’s interest? (Certainly they don’t ignore it.) So who is the judge? Who is left?

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “…who judges the science and/or respect for science in science fiction?”

            This is like asking who judges the coherency of a math or physics problem. Obviously anyone can, but the judgement will be valid or not with reference to mathematics or physics.

            More to the point, if two-million people decide that 2+2=5 (for very large values of 2), they’ll still be wrong. There’s a ton more fuzz in science fiction definitions, but there is a reference standard, and it’s not “what most science fans” think is possible.

            By appealing to science we at least have a reference for debating whether a given work is science fiction or fantasy or just plain old fiction.

            “The authors? We’ve already established that some authors aren’t going to be competent to do so.”

            What, my sister and the authors of Left Behind? The latter don’t think they’re writing fiction at all, and my sister is a lovely person but utterly clueless regarding science fiction. She’s one of the 8-in-10 that really, truly believe in angels.

            I said before that I think the artist’s intent is crucial, but if my sister did label her books as “science fiction” she’d be demonstrably wrong.

            At least according to how I define it. A vox populi definition would probably have to admit that she’s right. [shudder] 😀

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          • The problem with the comparison to mathematics is that the equivalent would be whether or not a story adheres to science. But that ship sailed long ago. Authors since at least HG Wells have been writing stories that didn’t meet that test and readers have been happily shelling out money for them.

            You advocated the looser standard of respecting the science, essentially a value judgment. But what would be the equivalent of mathematics? Accepting 2+2=4.01? Who judges whether or not that’s respectful?

            Interestingly, Jules Verne reportedly detested HG Well’s fiction, because Wells was far too loose with the science for him. Despite that, Wells’s works enjoyed immense popularity. Together they founded the modern science fiction genre. But whose judgment decided that Verne’s and Well’s stories belonged in the same genre? Clearly it wasn’t Verne’s.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “The problem with the comparison to mathematics…”

            I said, “math or physics problem,” and it was a metaphor. An example like 2+2=5 is obviously wrong (only intended as a simple illustration), but there are many problems where things are less clear, where there is reasonable debate.

            (For example: Is the Mandelbrot the most complex mathematical object or is it the E8 structure or is it something else?)

            The point is that there is a reference standard involved for these debates. It’s not just a matter of what people think — there’s more to it than that. You have to be able to support the debate with reference to science.

            The three names we’ve tossed around, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who, are all labelled “science fiction” and all widely considered by fans as “science fiction.”

            A vox populi definition seems to agree with that. A reference definition sees Star Trek and Doctor Who as clearly SF (while allowing wiggle room on the latter, but much less on the former) and Star Wars as equally clearly Fantasy.

            Do you agree all three are science fiction per the former definition? Or do you see them differently per the latter?

            “Who judges whether or not that’s respectful?”

            As I said last time, “Obviously anyone can, but the judgement will be valid or not with reference to mathematics or physics.”

            The point is, at least with a reference standard, there is a possible debate.

            “Jules Verne reportedly detested HG Well’s fiction, because Wells was far too loose with the science for him.”

            And you detest Sunshine for, in part, the same reason. So what? Different fans have different tastes and different thresholds.

            The real question is: Do you think Sunshine is not an SF movie? Or is it (as I feel about Europa Report) simply a bad SF movie?

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          • “Do you agree all three are science fiction per the former definition?”
            I see all three as being in the SF genre. ST on TV is definitely more science oriented (the movies are mostly not). In my view, DW pretends to be science oriented, but really isn’t. SW pretends only to the extent of the appearance of its settings.

            “The real question is: Do you think Sunshine is not an SF movie? Or is it (as I feel about Europa Report) simply a bad SF movie?”
            I think both are in the SF genre. I couldn’t watch much of Sunshine, which obviously colors my opinion. (But who knows? If I’d made it to minute 10, I might have been in cinema nirvana.) I did enjoy Europa Report.

            I suspect we’ve worked this horse for everything it’s going to give us. I’m actually more certain of my position then before we started, but I suspect you are as well. I’m not sure our differences here are stark enough to be worth continued debate. Agree to disagree?

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “Agree to disagree?”

            No, no, no! Must convince you of your wrongness! XD

            (Just kidding. Yeah, we can wrap this up.)

            Just to be sure we do agree on what we’re disagreeing about:

            I asked: “Do you agree all three are science fiction per the former definition?”

            You replied: “I see all three as being in the SF genre.”

            So, yes, you agree all three are science fiction. I don’t (SW, especially, which I consider Fantasy, a fairy tale).

            You never did respond to the idea that Paranormal Activity also seems to be science fiction per a vox populi definition. Where do you stand on that one? (I’ll let you have the final reply. Over and out!)

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          • Noooo! Somebody is WRONG on the internet (to quote xkcd) 🙂

            I’ve never seen Paranormal Activity. I have to admit that I hope I never do, so I’m not sure what kind of impression it makes. It doesn’t seem to be considered science fiction based on the quick google I just did, which hopefully means the general audience doesn’t perceive it as possible. (Although based on surveys, I know a portion will.)

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I would say more people believe in the possibilities of ghosts than in Jedi Knights, clone armies, or Death Stars. Possibly even more than believe in transporters, holodecks, warp drive or intelligent time-traveling spaceships disguised as old-style British police boxes!

            (That’s one of my favorite xkcd comics. Glad you caught the reference! 😀 )

            Liked by 1 person

  11. Julian says:

    It used to be that the limit between science fiction and fantasy was the blurry one, but as technology catches up with what was once deemed fiction, it’s starting to get hard to distinguish science fiction from “normal” fiction. Case in point: a lot of people think of “Gravity” as a science fiction movie, simply because it occurs in space, even though the technology shown in the movie is pretty much real. As technology advances, we will see more and more of the usual tropes of science fiction introduced in stories that are aiming for realism.

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  12. Pingback: Diamond Rain, by Michael Gallagher, Reviewed. | Stuart Aken

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