What is Science Fiction?

What is science fiction? I suspect there are more definitions than authors writing the genre. But one that caught my eye was a definition that Adam Roberts came up with in his History of Science Fiction:

Science Fiction is: stories of travel through space (to other worlds, planets and stars); stories of travel through time (into the past and into the future); and stories of imaginary technology (machinery, robots, computers, cyborgs and cyber-culture).

The examples stated for each is, in my view, limited. Space is what we have seen and in most cases measured. Surrounding our seeable universe is a ‘soup’ of big-bangness stuff – I’m not sure you could call it material – that as far as I’m aware has never been explored (as opposed to mentioned in the background) in science fiction. Time could involve parallel universes – like the what ifs of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Keith Roberts’ Pavanne. Imaginary technology extends beyond the implementation of machinery and use of data to understanding of the impact we can have on the real world such as how we as a race cause climate change (which involves none of the list cited).

Roberts then goes on to indicate that, although he doesn’t add it to his science fiction groups, utopias. He argues they are used as a mirror to reflect what is going wrong in our society. As they can take any method, it is not surprising that they use science fiction themes to produce their satire.

So when did these three streams of the genre start?

Space travel can find its roots in the ancient world stories such as Jason and the Argonauts. Francis Godwin is credited with publishing the earliest story of travelling to the Moon in his The Man in the Moone: Or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger (1638). It was more about a Utopia than anything else, which is why people consider it proto-science fiction. The first serious attempt at realistic space flight was made by Jules Verne in From the Earth to the Moon (in French 1865, in English 1869). Science fiction space flight really took off in the era of Hugo Gernsback pulps, more because of the realisation of so many possibilities, rather than specific breakthrough story. 

Time travel was first significantly employed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843.  However, I would argue that time travel has its roots in a real event in Falun, Sweden. In 1719, miners in Falun’s copper mine found an intact dead body in a water-filled, long-unused tunnel. When they brought the body to the surface, it was identified by his former fiancée, Margaret Olsdotter, as Fet-Mats Israelsson, who had disappeared 42 years earlier. However, the first novel to use a device to travel in time was, of course, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. 

The third category, imaginary technology, does have a definitive point of origin, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. This story was based on the newly discovered property of galvanism, where a frog’s leg could be made to twitch by passing an electric current through it.

The interesting thing in listing those novels I mentioned above are is that apart from Verne and Gernsback, all the initial science fiction forerunners were English authors. Of course being British, I may have a natural bias towards this, but I think there is something else at play here. Not sure what though.

Turning now to the modern day, and bearing in mind that I view today’s e-publishing as yesterday’s pulp fiction.

It is not surprising given the increase in worldwide population that there are more science fiction authors being published today. Science fiction has, like other aspects of society, splintered in factions or sub-genres. For instance, can you see the Alastair Reynolds’s or Peter Hamiltons writing about climate change? This splintering, along with the volume of new stories in each sub-genre, leads to pigeon-holing, by and for both writers and readers.

Which has led to the rise of crossovers between science fiction sub-genres. But that’s what they are limited to, cross-overs between two, and occasionally three of them. But to be fair to the authors, anything more is a humungous task… or is it?


7 thoughts on “What is Science Fiction?

  1. I think his definition is a bit simplistic for today. Or, at least the definition of technology can be so wide that it includes mind-expansion and not just with hallucinogens. I had to do a rethink when reading a novel on the list for my 3d literary book group here in Chester. We read About Grace by Anthony Doerr. A beautifully written novel that made me wish it wouldn’t end and it contained a lot of science. The protagonist is a hydrologist with a fascination for snowflakes. So a lot of 15 billion molecules in every raindrop type stuff leaks out of the narrative. I lapped it up. Not science fiction but fiction with science. Recommended..

    1. Hello Geoff – Thanks for the tip. I’ll keep my eye open for the Doerr novel. I totally agree with you that Adam Roberts’ definition of science fiction is over-simplistic, but it does have the advantage of encompassing a lot of it in an easily understood way – which is good for introducing people to the genre. I have yet to settle on my definition of science fiction… and it won’t be the Damon Knight type either…

  2. Nice stab at a thorny and contentious subject. However, an incident occurred to me yesterday that may be relevant to this issue.

    I had a chance yesterday to examine a new helmet in use by the US Army. In particular, the night vision gear, IR beacons, GPS tracker, V/IR flashlight, composite structure capable of stopping a .357 Magnum bullet (a 10.2 gram projectile moving at 370 meters per second), etc., and I realized I held in my hand an artifact that, a generation ago, would have been considered technically possible but wildly impractical. Which latter phrase is worth considering as part of a definition of SF.

    This very morning I read an article about topological superconductors and understood maybe one word in three, and that’s being charitable. Recently I understand that such things as “time crystals” are now being studied, and computers that employ quantum entanglement are actually in the working prototype stage.

    We still haven’t achieved nuclear fusion or a manned Mars mission, but hey, Rosie, aren’t we LIVING in the age of science fiction? At least, the science fiction I fell wildly in love with as a mere lad?

    Is it possible that SF, as a genre, is becoming less possible to define as our civilization approaches a level of achievement that actually surpasses the imagination of the past?

    Perhaps, as our models, we might look at what I think of as the two truly seminal works of SF, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s A Trip to the Moon. The event at the heart of each story was considered an outright fantasy, even a total impossibility, by most people of the time, and yet there were others who captured the vision inherent in those works. An audience came into being, slowly but surely, fueled by the newfangled wonders of Edison and Tesla, eager for more, and writers came into being to feed that wonder. Hugo Gernsback was certainly one of those!

    On that basis, then, what are the impossibilities of our time? What feats of imagination, set down by writers on paper (that phrase defines me as an impossible old fud!), will arouse in the modern reader that same sense of wonder, that delight in the endless possibilities ahead of us, that I experienced when I first came to SF? I can tell you the very story that did it for me: a YA book titled Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane. If I remember correctly, I was eight years old at the time.

    So, for what it’s worth, my suggestion here is that perhaps we should be looking a little bit more for the forest, because as you rightly point out, in effect, there are a hell of a lot of trees out there!

    Obviously a thought provoking post you have here, Rosie, so good work!

    1. Hello Tom. This post was inspired by the novel I’m currently drafting, a kind of observation on where it’s taking me. It made me realise that science fiction as mainly published today is based on accepted science extrapolations of the past, playing around with single technologies and what they might do in the near future, and snippets of potential human achievement in terms of personal physical and mind enhancements. This falls short of the ambition our forebears of science fiction authors – you only need to look at the scope of subject matter science fiction writers in general covered up to the 1970s to see what I’m getting at e.g. H. G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke.

    1. Hello Tom – TokaMak isn’t the only up and coming fusion generator – there are others! They are now so close to achieving their goal that one of them is bound to succeed within ten years.

      Which leaves an interesting question on what impact will that have on our society? One thing it will do is lead to the phase out of oil and gas power generation plants – just as we’re seeing the phase of coal power generation plants today.

      Of course oil is still needed for various things like cars and cosmetics… wait a mo… aren’t electric cars coming onto the market? And aren’t a lot if not all-based cosmetics being replaced by plant-based products? The oil and gas industry is going to shrink, much like the tobacco industry has done already. Is that why the USA is in a headlong rush to go into the fracking industry to sell its oil before the price plummets?

      It almost feels to me as if someone has been some strategic thinking on the long of the power sector. I could argue the same with the computing industry and it use of rare earths and quantum computers.

      1. Don’t know if the stats are the same, but in 1973 I did a project for a university economics class where I posited a black-box power source that would make oil or other fossil fuels unnecessary for generation of electrical power. The research I did showed that the oil market would shrink by 97%, with the 3% remainder going to lubricants and plastics production. That was technology in 1973, so I’m sure those figures have changed, but I think the basic proportion is sound. Although there’s so much plastic waste that could be recycled maybe I’m wrong. Cheap electrical production using fusion reactors, coupled with more advanced battery technology, essentially meets the criteria I set up. (Which my professor told me was better suited to science fiction…!) As far as long-range planning in the oil industry, who knows? I think since the 1980s “long range” means the next quarterly stockholder report.

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