Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is Science Fiction Hard to Define? [Genre]

I often hear how science fiction or speculative fiction is hard to define, but I don't really think it is. Wikipedia describes it this way:
Science fiction is a genre of fiction with imaginative but more or less plausible content such as settings in the future, futuristic science and technology, space travel, parallel universes, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas". Science fiction has been used by authors and film/television program makers as a device to discuss philosophical ideas such as identity, desire, morality and social structure etc.
Emphasis is mine. Speculative fiction incorporates scientific elements that don't really exist yet. If you're writing about a man who can travel through time using a machine or a drug, it's science fiction. If you're writing about a man who can travel through time by using his mind or waving a magic wand, it's fantasy.

But scifi does encompass a lot of different elements. It can range from a story about robotic warriors battling aliens on a spaceship to a story about a modern-day woman who falls in love with a man traveling through time. That's more what's come to be hard and soft science fiction. We'll talk more about that later.

Still, there are authors like Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut, who write about futuristic dystopias and time travel, but refuse to call their work "science fiction." I find a reluctance in some authors to define themselves as scifi is more about the author's reluctance to pigeonhole themselves than about the genre itself.

What do you think? Can you define science fiction? Or is it a term that has no meaning?


  1. Some good, clear points on the complexities of definition in a nicely succinct post. I'm interested in transrealism (in fiction and poetry) - and I'm a reader of Atwood, Vonnegut, Coupland (and love their books; some more than others) – but it feels to me a term similar to magic realism in that it's science fiction in a cap 'n' gown (just as magic realism is for fantasy) - a sort of laying down of credentials. And yet much science fiction, fantasy and science fantasy has credentials in spades, without needing to be re-labeled. I always think of HG Wells, Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley who were just plain and simple writers.

    It's a topic that demands more thought. I need to put my thinking cap ('n' gown?) on.

    Cheers for posting this.

  2. A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content. - Theodore Sturgeon


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