That’s Sorted, Then

I and a few other science fiction writers define what the term “science fiction” means over at SF Signal. Because apparently there was some question. As extra bonus metareferentialosity, I cite myself! Mmmm… smugtastic.

37 Comments on “That’s Sorted, Then”

  1. Read that earlier today from Jay Lake’s link salad. I thought yours was the best definition there.

  2. I’ve seen some broad definitions, by which all fiction is a subset of fantasy… but that’s silly — most stores don’t have room on the fantasy & sf shelf to put everything there.

    Orson Scott Card’s definition of Fantasy is a story that explores the price of power (see Hart’s Hope). By that definition, much of his SF is Fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But, for instance, The Dragaeran novels by Steven Brust are most certainly fantasy, and no, they don’t often deal with the price of power (especially the early ones). They certainly aren’t Science Fiction either. You could call Jhereg a hard-boiled story, with elves, but the marketing folks would probably object.

    But what’s SF? I still like the classic “literature of ideas” — How does technology, or a sociological change, affect our society or our selves? That covers Old Man’s War, Accelerando, Cherryh’s Foreigner, but say Perdido Street Station not so much. Unless it were established that New Crobuzon is a world we settled 200 years from now in which case all bets are off.

    “So what,” you say, “Does that mean for Dragonriders of Pern?”
    Horror. Oh, the horror.

    No, seriously: it’s a story about dealing with a disaster beyond our capabilities.

  3. That’s an interesting definition. But I’d have to say in some respects it’s too broad. For example, only requiring one of the three would seem to include stuff like the Shannara books. And to me, #3 would be required. It’s hard for me to think of anything I’d consider SF that doesn’t meet it. So maybe make #3 required, with at least one of #1 or #2, and add a #4 – does not contain elves?

  4. It seems like SF should be a subset, if not a proper subset of fiction. If you do not precede your first rule with something like, “The story is fictional, …” then it is hard to rule out Mendeleev’s prediction of eka-aluminum or Einstein’s prediction of the precession of Mercury.

  5. I do like your definition, John, and those of a few others on the list as well.

    I’ve always thought that the name pretty well defined itself, but by this my definition does seem to clash with what many others typically think.

    First, it’s fiction, so anything which is trying to just document reality is out.

    Second, it’s about science or contains a major scientific point of view.

    And that’s pretty much it.

    From this, Star Wars is fantasy, but Stephenson’s Quicksilver trilogy is SF because while historical and fictional, it contains major storylines about people using what at the time passed for a scientific, rational worldview trying to invent the physical and economic sciences. I’d also be tempted to throw in de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall as having major SF elements with regard to how Padway goes about trying to re-create technology back in ancient Rome

    I believe that “futuristic” tropes are irrelevant to the definition, in either direction. Space ships and zap guns do not SF make.

    Also, I think it’s somewhat off the point to argue about which of SF vs. Fantasy is a subset of the other. Any particular work may contain elements of both, tending more towards one or the other, but this says nothing about the genres as a whole.

    All just my own opinion, of course, but I love kicking around this old chestnut.

  6. I like Scalzi’s definition because I think it excludes Singin’ in the Rain, which a lot of SF definitions don’t, but I really like Adam Roberts’, because it pokes gentle fun at the whole exercise.

  7. Definitions of Science Fiction are all well and good but what I really want to know now is when did you eat an entire llama? Did I miss the 1st Annual Scalzi Llama B-B-Q?

  8. I prefer your definition above all others, Mr. Scalzi, if only because you didn’t jump onto the bandwagon that thinks science fiction is some priveleged fiction of ideas, and “putting our lives into a new light.” I always faced that problem when writing my own SF stories, and it always buggered me. Some days I just want to write (and read, and watch, and listen to) something that’s entertaining, without getting too concerned about the “deeper” issues.

  9. (I do want to know how you prepared the llama and which cut you thought tasted best.)

    My personal definition: SF is a story that cannot be told without science that does not depend on a non-physical source of power.

    So you win – yours is the closest to mine.

    Does llama taste like chicken?

  10. >> Because apparently there was some question…

    Well, yes…there was, wasn’t there? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers, all circling around the same landing zone. What’s interesting to me is to see the responses side-by-side and noting similarities and differences – and seeing how people respond to it. The discussion going on right here is a perfect example of that. Well, except the part about the llama, which is still entertaining, but in a real-life scary sort of way. :)

  11. The question of how to distinguish SF from fantasy came up many, many times on SF discussion groups on Usenet. It was eventually recognized that no good answer was forthcoming, and an entry was made in the FAQ file of the principal group to discourage neophytes from raising the issue. The people who are making an issue of this have no idea how much heat has been directed at this topic, and how little light resulted.

    With that in mind, I suggest the topic be avoided, or at the very least that anyone with a burning need to talk about it do a bit of googling before making his proposals public. It would also be useful to put on a bit of humility before doing so, since it is rather unlikely even a very clever definition will neatly crack this nut. I would suggest, at a minimum, testing the proposed definition against some significant body of books which expert opinion has judged to be SF or fantasy. David Pringle wrote two books, one surveying 100 SF novels, and another one doing the same for fantasy. A definition that agreed with his division might be worth some attention.

  12. I am of two minds on this… The first of which is that it defines itself rather well…

    Science – the process by which we try to understand how everything works and how/why it came to work that way.
    Fiction – an imaginative format of story telling.

    My personal definition…

    “If this goes on…” (conceptional!)

    May I get some Llama recopies too???? (The things, of a culinary nature, which I have done to Emus was just WRONG!)

  13. I’ve always wondered how “Alternate History” fiction gets categorized. It can be a fun discussion/argument – depending on how you slice it.

    I’ll use the classic example “Guns of the South” by Turtledove.

    Guns of the South, adheres to John’s 3 rules:

    1. It takes place in the future (or what was the future at the time of writing);
    2. It uses technology that does not exist (or didn’t exist at the time of writing);
    3. The speculative elements of the story largely have a rational rather than magical basis.

    Yet on the other hand, there are elements of “fantasy” woven into the GOTS because the science is never really explained – and it also takes place during real events (which makes it fiction, but not fiction).

    Anyhow, I’m just blathering.

  14. Remember in the old days when it was called “scientifiction”? (I don’t actually remember those days I just see it when I read the old-school stuff.) I’m sure glad that name didn’t stick. I agree with Johan that this exercise is largely futile. We don’t even have an agreed-upon definition for life yet! Though surely SF is easier to define than life.

  15. My problem with “scientifiction” is that “fic” is a non-stressed syllable in “scientific” and a stressed syllable in “fiction”, so I wind up stumbling over the non-rhythm and saying “scientific-ic-tion” or some such.

  16. Actually, I’d like to *see* that conversation about Science Fiction vs. Fantasy, as the lines tend to get awfully blurry at times (hence, I presume, the more fuzzy Speculative Fiction which I think warms the cockles, speculative or otherwise, of very few.)

    I’m more interested still in understanding this: Where, in this speculative fiction genre continuum, one would now suggest Horror belongs? There’s a whole new camp of campy authors out there whose writing ranges from all things vamp to suspense of all stripes, and I’m gee whizzed if I know where they belong these days.

    All this, of course, is by way of wondering which slush pile I should be targeting when I finish this bloody manuscript. ;)

  17. “It takes place in the future (or what was the future at the time of “writing)

    Steampunk doesn’t count as science fiction?

  18. Moderator! Please deal with the spammer @28!!

    Surely fiction is a subset of science-fiction, as it has smaller thematic boundaries, but no practical difference in implementation.

  19. OK, fine, in a wild fit of dyslexia I missed the “if at least one of the following three conditions are met”

    I sit corrected.

  20. I think the “set in the future” option needs some refinement. It’s easy to set a tale in the future, but have that difference be immaterial to the story.

    Imagine Charles Dickens saying that one his novels was set 20 years in his future. Present day readers might not notice a thing, and even his contemporaries might just see some occasional reference to better public sanitation facilities or slightly faster steam-driven transport. Absolutely or relatively, this does not seem science-fictional.

    OK, so now fast forward into our future to a time when readers are a bit hazy about the relative timing events, or simply see the changes wrought across our century as being minor relative to theirs*. Would they retrofit our ideas of science-fiction?

    *In Donald Kingsbury’s “Psychohistorical Crisis”, set in the 761st century, the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and rock-and-roll are seen as more-or-less contemporaneous.

  21. Does anyone bother to actually read what I write?

    Of course we do, otherwise we wouldn’t know which way to head off in as a tangent, now, would we?

    Now, if you mean, ‘Does anyone read the things I link to?’, well, that’s a whole different kettle of weasels.

  22. I have no opinion on the precise definition of science fiction, but I do think that any definition of science fiction properly ought to include bad science fiction, which, after all, is a lot of it. Too often this discussion veers into people defining what kind of fiction they like (which is just the flip side of non-SF fans defining it as something they don’t like, and insisting that Brave New World and Slaughterhouse-Five are not science fiction because they’re too good).

  23. Scalzi
    Does anyone bother to actually read what I write?

    YES!!! Hell man, like most here I RE-READ you! I almost grok you… a warm fuzzy if ever there was one… :D

    “Science Fiction vs. Fantasy,” & “….Horror…”.

    Personally I have always made a literary distinction between SF, Fantasy & Horror as each, to me, is its own distinct genre.

    I believe the line here was blurred by that frankensteinian epic… “Frankenstein”. I have oft heard the argument that Frankenstein is a SF story due to the distinct use of science to create Le Monster. Uh… okay, I will grant that the literary ‘device’ used for this was science but… the OBJECT of the story was to horrify.

    You can say all you want about “Science kills GOD” and what all of that means… I still steadfastly believe Ms Shelly was simply writing a scary story and using the, to her, still very new discovery of electricity (IE not that it exists but that we could actually DO things with it… and the ‘new’ is often Scary init?)

    When I write, when the muse is upon me, I am not ‘thinking out’ any comments, deep or shallow, on the Existence of Mankind… I am ‘reading’ the story as though I am not the one also typing it… I love the muse!

    For myself, I feel the OBJECT of the writers intent… through painting pictures in the mind… whether it be to excite through fear; to escape the hum drum into realms of magic; to explore the impacts of new technology (and imagined discoveries in the multitude of other sciences)… these are the defining elements of a genre.

    So, for moi…
    Science Fiction is a genre.
    Fantasy is a genre.
    Horror is a genre… each separate and distinct.

    Obviously the Sci-Fi channel thinks ECW is SF… well, ok it IS fiction, but science??

  24. Exploration of possibilities, however mundane, is part of all fiction. A science-fiction writer may wish to elicit feelings of horror, wonder, anger, amusement, …. or all of the above, through their exploration of scientific themes.

    There is no reason why I couldn’t have a romantic horrific science-fiction story or some other genre-combination.

    As for ECW (which I had to go look up) – I guess that is pulp(ing) science fiction.

  25. As a specific case in point for comment 31: Chesterton’s ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’ is set in the future (from the point of view of the time of writing) but makes a point of the fact that nothing has changed, except, rather oddly, the method of selecting the monarch of the UK. I think it would be stretching things to call this science fiction.

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