A few perennial debates exist within the science-fiction community, one of which is the most basic question of all—what is science fiction? Science fiction is many things to many people, so narrowing that down into something useful for everyone is a difficult task at best—and perhaps a futile one at worst. It’s worth first asking oneself why such a definition should be sought. For the purposes of this article, a definition is being sought to introduce the readers of the Kirkus blog to what science fiction is in the hopes of clearing up any misconceptions.
Read the last SF Signal column at Kirkus.
What misconceptions, you ask? Some of the thoughts I've heard bandied about include: "Science fiction is only about spaceships!"; "Science fiction is for children!"; "Science fiction is too difficult to understand!" All of these notions are mistaken beliefs that only act as barriers between readers and books. And nobody wants that...except maybe the firemen of Ray Bradbury's seminal science-fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, whose job it is not to prevent fires, but to burn books. (See what cool ideas you're missing if you don't read science fiction?)
At a very minimum, we can say that science fiction is that area of fiction that involves one or more scientific principles in a significant way, and usually asks a "what if?" question. That's intentionally a very generic description, because when you start to consider the variety of stories encompassed by the science-fiction label, it gets very tricky very quickly.
To get a grasp of something, it helps to consult experts in the field. Certainly those who work in the field know what science fiction is! One quick-to-use answer to the definition question is to rely upon science-fiction author Damon Knight's statement that science fiction is that which I point at and say is science fiction. In other words, "I know it when I see it." That's useful for avoiding the perennial debate, but less useful for those seeking a handle of the genre.
A while back, someone compiled a list of science-fiction definitions made by classic science-fiction authors. (That original site is sadly gone, but the definitions were thankfully captured at The Internet Archive. These classic definitions include words like "invention," "imagination," "science," "extrapolation," and "technology"—all of which are things you'd expect to be (and are) ingredients of science-fiction. But is there more to it?
Classic definitions are fine, as far as they go, but science fiction, like all literature, evolves. Are there any more recent definitions of science fiction that can pin down what it is? At SF Signal, we asked modern day authors to define science fiction. The responses (in Part 1 and Part 2) use much of the same verbiage and are just as varied, though they do offer a bit more in the way of historical perspective.
It seems from all these definitions (not to mention discussions of definitions) that perhaps there's no single description that is specific enough to apply to all cases, nor general enough to be altogether descriptive. One might define something by describing its properties, of course. For example, we say that science-fiction stories can contain spaceships, or they are set in the future, or they have plots that rely on technology. Certainly these are properties of some science-fiction stories, but they are not properties of all science-fiction stories. So this quickly becomes an exercise in categorization, not definition.
It would seem, then, that a specific definition remains elusive. Perhaps Knight was right: I know it when I see it. Perhaps the best I can do is to dispel some of those misconceptions:
Is science fiction just about spaceships? Absolutely not. Science-fiction stories aren't confined to an outer space setting, nor are they confined to the future. They can take place on Earth and they can take place in the here-and-now. But if you want to read about spaceships or the future, then you can do that, too.
Is science-fiction just for children? Absolutely not. Science-fiction often contains adult themes and can be one of the most literary and challenging of all fiction. But if you want to read a young adult book (or get a kid hooked on reading), then science fiction is a great place for that, too.
Is science-fiction too difficult to understand? Absolutely not. Any good author will explain things sufficiently enough to grasp a concept, but not wallow in the details. However, if you like to revel in the scientific, you can find stories like that, too.
Maybe the takeaway lesson here is that science fiction can be many things. It’s this variety, in fact, that means that science fiction has something for everyone.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.