Author Topic: the What Is Science Fiction Declaration  (Read 4625 times)

Father Beast

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on: January 06, 2009, 01:04:26 AM
The problem is, Damon Knight doesn't go far enough. The truth is that science fiction is far more than what he points to when he says it.

OK, here's how it is:

1. Science Fiction is defined as fiction which has some element of the fantastic in it.

2. the differences between science fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, SF, spec fic, paranormal fiction, and whatever else you may have, are all basically cosmetic and arbitrary.

And now for the explanations.
1. Any element of the fantastic turns an ordinary piece of fiction into science fiction. A bit of magic, some telepathy, some new tech, a visit from a god, all these are things which make an ordinary story into the stuff that I want to read.
Some examples:

The Left Behind Series, generally classified as religious fiction, is actually part of the stuff I read, since the occurence of miracles makes it science fiction.

Just about anything by Michael Crichton is science fiction, from The Andromeda Strain, to Jurassic Park. I don't really have to explain this, do I?

The DaVinci code is science fiction for a couple of reasons. One is that it deals with secret societies, which may or may not exist. Just like we sometimes read about magic or telepathy, which may or may not exist. The second reason is that the characters have a distant connection with, well, a god of some sort. OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but the first part certainly fulfills the fantastic requirement.

Obviously, a lot of the movies that make a lot of money are science fiction. All the superhero movies, for instance.

2. Some of you may take exception with me for saying that science fiction and fantasy are the same thing. One of the reasons that I hold to this point of view is that the only hard definition of fantasy is the same as the one for science fiction. That is, #1 up there. Most of you can point to something you call fantasy and have most people agree with you, but popularity is not reality. Some stories mix these supposed genres together, like Star Wars, where you got your spaceships and lasers mixed up with my swords and sorcery (obligatory Reeces reference there). So is it fantasy or SF? Nonsense, it's science fiction, the stuff I read.

In the case of Fantasy, or SF, or Pet Fantasy, or Paranormal Romance, or Military Sci-Fi, the definitions are fast and loose, and they are defined by what you point to when you say it.

You may now all flame me.


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Reply #1 on: January 06, 2009, 02:22:44 AM
Not entirely sure about the Damon Knight thing you're referring to, but I've be under a rock for the past few weeks with things.

Just to provide some footnotes, this topic has been discussed many times on the forums, notably: Hard vs Social -- a useful dichotomy?, DIAF, Fox Mulder (A rant about science in science fiction), The "SciFi" Taboo, and Define the Genres.

I Twitter. I also occasionally blog on the Escape Pod blog, which if you're here you shouldn't have much trouble finding.

Father Beast

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Reply #2 on: January 06, 2009, 05:20:03 AM
Damon Knight is a writer who said something that SFEley makes use of. He says that science fiction is what I'm pointing at when I say it.

I appreciate the thread links. Each of those threads goes further toward proving my point.

And don't forget, by liberal interpretation of Clark's third law, fantasy is literally science fiction.

Russell Nash

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Reply #3 on: January 06, 2009, 08:19:06 AM
The phrase you are looking for is Speculative Fiction.  When people started getting confused about where all of the lines were, editors started to use this phrase to include everything you are trying to classify as Science Fiction.  When people say SF now, they are often referring to Speculative Fiction.

Quote from: Wikipedia
Speculative fiction is a term used as an inclusive descriptor covering a group of fiction genres that speculate about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps with one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, alternate history, and magic realism.
« Last Edit: January 06, 2009, 08:25:55 AM by Russell Nash »


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Reply #4 on: January 06, 2009, 08:32:20 AM
I agree with Russell - we already have a pefectly respectable and functional term for the broad genre that includes all literature that includes fantastic elements. Science Fiction, as a narrower term, serves a useful purpose as well. I don't see what's gained by denying the two.

Note that this is an entirely different issue to "is this particular story science fiction" or "what stories should EP/other science fiction publication carry?". We don't have to make our definitions so inclusive in order to avoid debates on the latter. All we have to do is to agree that even narrowly defined genres are going to have fuzzy edges - and that most stories will sit in the fuzzy part. We have to understand that even if two people agree on a definition of science fiction, that doesn't mean they'll agree on what falls under that definition, and that unless there is some other issue at stake it's normally pointless to debate this.

I don't want to flame you, Father Beast, but it reads to me like you're basically saying "giving a narrow definition of science fiction is hard, so let's not". But from my point of view, the fact that something is difficult doesn't make it less worthwhile. On the contrary. Imagine that scientists would just have given up every time the explanation for some phenomenon proved difficult. Why expect any less from literary criticism than we do from physics?

Father Beast

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Reply #5 on: January 07, 2009, 02:37:12 AM
You say Speculative fiction, I say Science fiction. The wikipedia entry for speculative fiction more or less describes what I mean by science fiction. I suppose If I wanted to use the language a lot of other people use, I would get with the program.

Nevertheless, I think my point that all further subdividing is basically arbitrary to be correct. For example, nearly every story (and I say "nearly" merely because I don't want to examine them all. it could well be every) here on Escape Pod could be defined as Fantasy. And many as Horror. And so on. I believe that anything that is science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer) is suitable for stories both on EP and my own reading list. This is the stuff.


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Reply #6 on: January 07, 2009, 03:36:41 AM
Father Beast - there really isn't anything to flame - it's your opinion so fine.  But why not expand your definition to include fictional Westerns or World War II stories - the story include towns or countries or people or battles that didn't really exist, they are speculative, aren't they? They could have happened, but didn't.

What you wrote is no different than saying "I will refer to all hats as Hats.  And my store sells Hats.  This includes baseball caps, fedoras, construction hardhats, hats for my Barbie dolls and costume hats I put on my dog."  That works for you, no problem, but most others put the Barbie hats in the toy store and the dog hat in the pet store - it's where I would go for those things. 

It's why this topic comes up in regards to EscapePod.  If I get a story with a Dragon or an Ape that talks with sign language then I'll be disappointed.  If I'm busy looking for a soccer ball, and the sporting goods store only has basketball related paraphenalia, I'm moving on - even if I like basketball - and I'll think of that place as the Basketball store, go there when I need hightops.

Robots aren't golems and flying cars aren't pegasi.  There is a mental flavour that each has.  Racquet ball isn't Squash, Baseball isn't Cricket regardless if their similarities are greater than their differences.  If I want to go to a rugby match and you take me to a football game and say, "well they're close enough", I just won't ask you for tickets anymore.

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Reply #7 on: January 07, 2009, 06:33:00 AM
There's definitely a continuum of sorts between fantasy and science fiction.*  But if you take C. S. Lewis and Greg Egan, and lump them together into the same genre of Science Fiction, you'll probably confuse the hell out of Lewis' ghost and hugely piss off Egan.  Most of us have a definite idea of what constitutes fantasy and what constitutes science fiction, and while there's some mixing in the middle the exemplars of each genre are pretty well defined.  (And that's not even touching on related genres and styles such as magic realism, alternate history, and so on.)

It's hard to precisely define the edges of the greater Speculative Fiction genre.  Recently I read The Alienist by Caleb Carr.  It's historical fiction set in the 1890s and takes place entirely within The Real World.  No anachronistic technology, no visits from aliens, no time travelers.  But it feels like science fiction.  It's got a very science-fictiony way of looking at the world.  You could put half of Neal Stephenson's work in the same category.  Is it science fiction/speculative fiction?  I don't feel comfortable expressing a definite opinion and I could see reasonable people disagreeing. 

* Horror stories can fall at any point along the continuum, or be off it entirely.  There have been more than a few Pseudopod stories without any fantastical elements at all, but that doesn't mean they're not horror.
« Last Edit: January 07, 2009, 06:36:13 AM by Boggled Coriander »

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Reply #8 on: January 07, 2009, 07:40:05 AM
Nevertheless, I think my point that all further subdividing is basically arbitrary to be correct.

Arbitrary? Sure.  But that doesn't make it useless. The difference between the meaning of the words "door" and "window" is arbitrary - someone may easily come and argue "oh, they are both just holes in walls", and that all the other features we associate with them have exceptions (French doors, for instance, have big panes of glass, like windows. Shop windows are tall enough to allow a person to walk through if they were open. And so forth and so on). Still, when you're building a house and looking at architectural plans, you'll certainly want to know whether a particular hole in a wall will be a window or a door.

Let me reiterate something I said above - giving definitions for the terms "science fiction" and "fantasy" is a totally different question than whether we can make the decision for any individual story. Even if we had really clear genre definitions, stories can, and often do, straddle multiple genres. That doesn't mean that the genre definitions are useless or that they should be abandoned.