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.