Visions of Paradise

Friday, March 02, 2007

Science Fictions

What do we mean when we use the phrase science fiction?

I am not referring to a definition of science fiction here. Been there, done that, with varying degrees of success. Besides, a definition is as really more of a marketing term than a purpose or defining force. Hugo Gernsback, the sometimes father of science fiction, invented the phrase, as he invented the prior phrase scientifiction which he lost with the rights to the magazine Amazing Stories. That is just as well, in my opinion, since the former name was more of a tongue-twister than the simpler science fiction. In a talk at MIT in 1963, Gernsback stated what he considered science fiction to be:

I insist that science fiction should and must have true science in its content. If it degenerates into fantasy sans science, then it should not masquerade as science fiction.

But as science fiction magazines proliferated in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, they spread their tentacles wider than Gernsback’s scientific and technologically-based fiction, enveloping Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “scientific romances,” as well as tales of future history based on sociology rather than hard science. Steadily the field spread wider, taking in tales of alien contact, stories set in the past or present concerning evolved super-humans, time travel and interstellar military adventures. In the 1980s near-future cyberpunk crowded under the umbrella. Soon alternate history was swallowed by the omnivorous phrase science fiction (although some historical fiction fans consider alternate history to be a sub-category of historical fiction rather than of science fiction; personally, I think they might have more validity in their claim than sf has in its claim).

The truth is that science fiction, which began as a convenient title for Hugo Gernsback’s favored stories about the development of science and technology, has become less of a self-contained genre and more of an umbrella title for various forms of fiction which happen to be enjoyed by many of the same readers. Is there a commonality in all these science fictions? Probably the answer to that question tends more towards yes than towards no; the very validity of the question explains the difficulty critics have had for decades attempting to define science fiction as if it is a singular name rather than a plural one.

This situation does not occur in other genres such as mysteries (which are invariably based on learning the identity of some perpetrator of a crime), westerns (all of which take place in the developing lands of early America), romances (*sigh*) or pornography (make up your own description here). Those are specific genres, which science fiction definitely is not. Which is why the phrase science fictions is probably more accurate if, admittedly, not as natural rolling off the tongue.

To illustrate some of the disparate types of science fictions, here is a partial list of some widely-different types of stories currently published under the marketing phrase science fiction. When you consider the wide range of stories, is it any wonder why most sf fans do not enjoy every type of sf novel found under that title in the bookstores?

List 1: Old-timers

Title /Author / Description
Neuromancer / William Gibson / Near-future technological advances
Dune / Frank Herbert / Culture-building
The Dying Earth / Jack Vance / Far-future culture-building
Tau Zero / Poul Anderson / Extrapolation of scientific theory
Skylark of Space / E.E. Smith / Military adventure
The Space Merchants / Pohl & Kornbluth / Satirical dystopia
The Man in the High Castle / Philip K. Dick / Alternate history
A Princess of Mars / Edgar R. Burroughs / Planetary romance
The Time Machine / H.G. Wells / Future sociological study
Childhood’s End / Arthur C. Clarke / Alien contact

List 2:New-timers

Title / Author / Description
Accelerando / Charles Stross / Near-future technological advances
Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh / Culture-building
Book of the New Sun / Gene Wolfe / Far-future culture-building
Revelation Space / Alastair Reynolds / Extrapolation of scientific theory
Barrayar / Lois McMaster Bujold / Military adventure
Forty Signs of Rain / Kim Stanley Robinson / Satirical dystopia
Ruled Brittanica / Harry Turtledove / Alternate history
Titan / John Varley / Planetary romance
The Dispossessed / Ursula K Le Guin / Future sociological study
Learning the World / Ken MacLeod / Alien contact

That’s a fairly wide list of story types, and I’m sure there is something on it appealing to all readers of science fiction. Or perhaps something that does not appeal to each reader. Personally, I do not enjoy the near-future technological advance stories of Gibson or Stross. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. If every type of science fiction story appealed to every single reader, the field would be reduced to a lowest-common denominator field with nothing written on the fringes. And wouldn’t that be somewhat dull?

The above article originally appeared in slightly-altered form in The Resplendent Fool, Tom Sadler’s wonderful fanzine.


  • The mystery field, at least, is more diverse than you think it is. There's a mystery/thriller split which has many of the attributes of the SF/Fantasy debate in our neck of the woods. And there are other sub-genres (or outright full genres) in that area, like the crime novel, that don't fit your definition of "mystery," but are still seen as part of that area.

    I know less about the romance world, but I bet similar things are true there. SF is not unique in having very different stories under the same umbrella genre descriptor.

    By Blogger Andrew Wheeler, At 10:33 AM  

  • Sci fi was just one small side of Gernsback. He was a prolific inventor and publisher of electronics magazines. A new un-accredided autobiography is ready for distribution by Available in both soft and hard cover within the next few weeks.

    Got questions?

    I've got most of the answers.

    By Blogger lartronics, At 2:41 PM  

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