I finally started reading Science Fiction: A Literary History, and it’s proving to be an excellent resource. I’ll write a review post once I’ve finished reading it, but right now I’d like to take a dive into the first chapter of the book, which discusses early science fiction (roughly the 1500s to the 1800s), and begins with the idea that the genre itself cannot be defined so neatly. The definition of the genre is an interesting and important topic for this blog, of course, and something I find fascinating.
The author of the chapter, Arthur B. Evans, offers several definitions of science fiction that have been put forth by other authors and critics over the years:
SF comprises works that contain “extrapolated scientific content.”
SF is a “thought experiment that examines some version of reality using the traditional ‘scientific method’ (observation, hypothesis, experimentation).”
SF entails a “distinct level of subjunctivity.”
SF is “the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition...an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”
Or simply, “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”
In Science Fiction 101, Robert Silverberg offers a four-point definition, which I discussed in my review of that book. His definition lines up pretty well with the above-mentioned points: an underlying speculative concept, an awareness of the structural underpinnings of reality, a sense of limitations within the assumptions of the story, and a subliminal knowledge of the feel of science fiction.
As Evans writes in his chapter, “the SF genre cannot be defined as a single, fixed conceptual object; it is a continually shifting matrix of megatexts...” All of the above definitions collectively work together to inform our idea of the science fiction genre. No one definition can capture all that we understand and mean when we say science fiction. And if we were to try to pin it down to just one definition, I think it would inevitably feel to be lacking.
In previous posts, I’ve written about why I love science fiction. I love it because it’s a mirror and a lens through which we can look at ourselves, at where we've been, where we are, and where we’re going. It’s a lens because we’re looking at the human condition through a different set of circumstances than our own, whether those circumstances are a futuristic world with crazy cool technology, or our current world revved up a little. And it’s a mirror because it has the ability to reflect who we are and what we’re doing in a way that offers us clarity and insight.
I’ve also written that I think the best science fiction is jarring. It takes the familiar and makes it unfamiliar, thereby acting as lens and mirror.
If I could be so bold as to add my own definition to the list, I would say that science fiction as a genre comprises stories that place their characters in an environment meant at once to be familiar and unfamiliar, and which thereby shows us something that we didn’t consciously know before.
Perhaps my working definition will change over time. For now, it’s similar to what Ursula K. Le Guin conjectured about science fiction and storytelling in The Parise Review: it’s “recognizing the things around you more deeply, but they also seem new. So the seeing-as-new and recognition are really the same thing.”
Sometimes it takes a completely different perspective to recognize a basic truth. And science fiction is really good at doing that.
I can’t wait to read more of Science Fiction: A Literary History. And I’ll defiitely be posting more thoughts on it as I do so.
Ciao for now,