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Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Definition of Science Fiction

Pondering lists of movies got me thinking, in true stream-of-consciousness fashion, about what actually defines the genre. After all, quite a lot of purists have tried to say that Star Wars should be rightly categorized as Fantasy, and the Incredibles-- and superhero stories in general-- seem to step outside any sort of plausible outlines of what even might be possible. And another part of many lines people draw between SF and Fantasy is one based on possibility/impossibility.

This is an oft tackled question, but it's my Blog so I'll have a go at it.

First off, let's just toss the whole possible/impossible business out the window. It's fiction. Anything is possible in an imaginary narrative, and placing this kind of criteria on fiction forces us to reassess every story where there's a factual error, (extreme example: the first edition of Ringworld where the Earth rotates the wrong way) or whenever our understanding of science changes. . . It may be fun for pedants, but it doesn't help as a defining criteria. Not to mention it kicks all the stories whose point is to play with the laws of nature into the wrong category. (Raft anyone?)

So what are we left with? Well, if we look at what we instinctively categorize as SF, and what we don't, I believe a pattern emerges. Go into a bookstore, and you will see dozens of techno-thillers that use near-future settings and SFnal equipment up the wazoo, you'll see the occasional novel about UFO aliens. . . not many of which would be comfortable on the SF shelf. Conversely you'll find the occasional SF author tackling elves or dragons or vampires (guilty on all three counts) and it will come across as more SF than a lot of stuff published with SF on the spine. What does the latter have that the former doesn't?

SF is SF because the author consciously or instinctively believes that the universe runs by predictable and knowable laws. In addition, the author's world, while radically different from our own, is achieved by applying some sort of transformation on our world as the author knows it. The fantasy is created from whole cloth, the author's world is just plain different and goes from there. In SF, there's the unspoken premise that, given the author's assumptions, we could have gotten from here to there. This rational chain of logic is what makes a story feel like SF, even if it has elves and vampires in it.


John said...

Good definition. But I wonder if being 'possible' is what most people mean by the same thing you means, when you talk about 'getting there from here'?

John C. Wright

S Andrew Swann said...

The key here is "given the author's premise." The premise can be completely impossible by definition — a machine that manipulates the value of pi, much alternate history, most ideas of FTL travel — but still result in an SF story as long as the consequences are treated in a rational manner.

Lionel said...

"It may be fun for pendants"
Pendants are things you hang from a neck, pedants are things you hang by the neck.

(And please tell me your mistake was deliberate. ;)

S Andrew Swann said...

Typo corrected... oops.