Damon Knight's definition is inarguable
June 10, 2018 5:11 PM   Subscribe

 
People have been trying to define SF for a hundred years or more, and there is no consensus. Every definition excludes someone's favorite or includes what some would not allow.
This article is a bit sloppy; he quotes Bradbury, then confuses him with Asimov.
posted by librosegretti at 7:58 PM on June 10


I always considered SF as more or less on a continuum from today. Today, we're at this place, so what if in X number of years we get to this place? Fantasy, on the other hand, generally makes no correlation between the two. Fantasy is: there's this world, right? And it just is. You get no backstory, no origin tale. It's connected to our world...kinda sorta maybe, but it doesn't really matter. In SF that correlation, that connection does matter.

Of course, there are a dozen, a hundred examples of works that blur the lines between SF and fantasy. Star Wars looks like science fiction but, given there's no actual science involved, it's clear (to me, anyway) that it's a work of pure fantasy. There's no value judgement there; just as a matter of genre do I make that distinction.
posted by zardoz at 9:17 PM on June 10 [5 favorites]


A subset of fantasy.
posted by Artw at 9:29 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


The thing that science fiction writers write.
posted by kyrademon at 11:49 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


A bit more cheerful (sometimes) subset of Gothic with added shiny bits
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:30 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


My morning caffeine hasn't kicked in yet. I first read that as "Demon Knight" and wondered what the hell a Tales from the Crypt movie had to do with science fiction.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:42 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


In The Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss's history of science fiction, he defines SF as being in the Romantic tradition, and as a sub-genre of Gothic fiction. This is big R Romantic, in the same league as 19th century opera and the Romantic Classical Music of the same era.
It's been a very long time since I read this, but I think he was on to something. Possibility and emotion are invariable motivations for both hard SF and soft Fantasy styles. Even when hard SF turns it's subject into technology and human values are put to the side, a sense of wonder is at the center.
Don't get confused by applying the term Romantic to the dark Dystopian side of SF. Tragedy is a raw emotion that resonates with a Romantic world view.
I do find it a bit puzzling that Aldiss's book was not mentioned in the review. It's considered a landmark historical work of SF criticism, and Aldiss is specifically called out by name.
posted by Metacircular at 2:32 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


What is science fiction, anyway?

If you have to ask...
posted by chavenet at 3:33 AM on June 11


Humans: Terrible? Or Not So Bad? Let's Give Them A New Toy And See What They Do, The Genre

compare to fantasy:

OTHER TRIBES: Smarter? Meaner? Sexier? Let's Find Out! The Genre
posted by effugas at 4:14 AM on June 11 [17 favorites]


Let me give it a shot. The fictional exploration of future or alternative (but, at least narratively, plausibly realistic) realms of human existence and technologies in the broadest sense - not just engineering, but societal, political and psychological as well - and their interaction with intelligent actors. (And yes this is too broad and too restrictive at the same time)....
posted by talos at 5:14 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


SciFi: that thing which is sort like Asimov and Bradbury, or not so much.
Fantasy: that thing which is sort of like Tolkien, or not so much.
posted by signal at 6:34 AM on June 11


Close, kyrademon, but it's the thing that science fiction fans like to read.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 6:52 AM on June 11


I'd try to go descriptivist rather than prescriptivist, and allow that there are multiple equally valid definitions....

Clearly in common usage science fiction is a term used to describe, roughly, any fiction in a non-real setting that is technologically oriented rather than a high fantasy (that is, Medieval Europe + magic) setting. Thus Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Star Trek, and so on all count as science fiction in the common sense of the word.

Essentially in common use fiction set outside the real world is divided, roughly, into fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy has dragons and magic, science fiction has whizzing space ships and laser guns.

Obviously that's a definition that's going to upset the true fans of both genres, but it is a definition that seems to match the common use of both terms.

However, moving away from common use, I'd argue that there's an equally valid, more fine grained, and somewhat more restrictive definition that's a lot like what talos offered above.

That conflict is why we wind up with stuff like Margret Atwood saying that she doesn't write science fiction. Because she's using the common use, whizzing space ships and laser beams, definition not the SF fan definition.

By common usage Atwood is right. She doesn't write science fiction and neither do self admitted science fiction writers like Paolo Bacigalupi, there's not a whizzing space ship or a laser beam to be found, therefore it isn't science fiction (common definition).

However both of them write about plausible worlds [1] centered around extrapolation from current technology, society, and affairs which makes it science fiction by the more fannish definition.

And that more fannish definition tends to exclude stuff like Star Wars which is, after all, not especially plausible even leaving out the magic, and is explicitly not extrapolated from modern technology, society, and events. Thus people like zardoz who say Star Wars is quite clearly not science fiction and is more closely related to Tolkien and Martin and other writers of pure fantasy. Whizzing space ships and laser beams as pure set dressing don't make something science fiction (fannish definition).

I don't think there's ever going to be any unification of the definitions, nor do I think it's particularly a bad thing (other than a bit of confusion) that there are such radically different definitions existing simultaneously. Both are valid, much as it may annoy both the Atwoods tha the fans classify her as SF and the fans that the great unwashed masses classify Star Wars as SF.

Common use vs. in group use of terms is often a source of friction and confusion.

[1] Well, mostly anyway
posted by sotonohito at 6:57 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


Definitions of science fiction (Wikipedia).
posted by bouvin at 6:58 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


SciFi: that thing which is sort like Asimov and Bradbury, or not so much.

Rap: that thing which is sort of like the Sugar Hill Gang and Vanilla Ice, or not so much.
posted by y2karl at 7:46 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


Science fiction is that thing we point at when we say science fiction -- Damon Knight.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:53 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


...yes, that's the title of the post.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:54 AM on June 11


Pffft. Who reads titles?
posted by MartinWisse at 7:56 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


By common usage Atwood is right. She doesn't write science fiction and neither do self admitted science fiction writers like Paolo Bacigalupi, there's not a whizzing space ship or a laser beam to be found, therefore it isn't science fiction (common definition).

Yeah um nope.
posted by Artw at 7:59 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


And you, The Road, don’t think I don’t see your Fallout looking ass lurking there.
posted by Artw at 8:03 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Sturgeon's definition is the one I remember and I think the best :

"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."
posted by rfs at 8:45 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Heavy quotes around the “scientific” there since it also includes straight up fantasy elements like time-travel, assuming a sufficiently technological looking box is put around them. Would also exclude a bunch of social SF and alt-history, and possibly even older SF where scientific advances make the “science” part a counterfactual.
posted by Artw at 8:58 AM on June 11


SF critic John Clute on SF vs fantasy:
Science fiction: the model is that it is a kind of story which argues from this world a kind of possible outcome. It's possibly an improbable outcome, but it is arguable. Fantasy essentially, as I have been seeing it, is a series of stories, self-coherent stories (a term we use, kind of a bad neologism to describe stories which as [it] were understand themselves as stories; they're told stories), that are set in worlds that are technically impossible, that we can't argue. We may believe in them, but we can't argue them.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:19 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Most definitions of sf that are basically 'robots, blasters, rocket ships... that even if they are not strictly speaking scientifically accurate are still kind of sciencey science stuf' have to tack on '... and steampunk and time travel romances where you travel by looking at an old painting and alternative history and discovering dinosaurs on lost mesas in South America and...'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:37 AM on June 11


Oh and superheroes? Do you include superheros?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:38 AM on June 11


I usually would as a subgenre though I’d argue that the real think defining a proper superhero story are a set of narrative conventions like superhero’s not being in every aspect ridiculous in universes where they exist. Yes even “realistic” Batman vigilantes.
posted by Artw at 9:49 AM on June 11


Here's a list from the rec.arts.sf.written FAQ small>(oh God, I'm old) of "are these SF or fantasy?" works:


Poul Anderson's "Operation" stories, in OPERATION CHAOS
Piers Anthony's "Apprentice Adept" series
James Blaylock's "Elfin Ship"
Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Darkover" series
David Brin's PRACTICE EFFECT
Rick Cook's "Wizard's Bane" series
L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt"s "Incomplete Enchanter" series
Charles de Lint's SVAHA
C. S. Friedman's "Coldfire" series
Lyndon Hardy's "Master of the Five Magics" series
Robert A. Heinlein's MAGIC, INC.
Rosemary Kirstein's STEERSWOMAN and THE OUTSKIRTER'S SECRET
Julian May's "Pliocene Exile" series
Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonrider" series
Walter M. Miller's CANTICLE FOR LEIBOVITZ
James Morrow's THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS
Kristine Kathryn Rusch's ALIEN INFLUENCES
Robert Silverberg's "Majipoor" series
Christopher Stasheff's "Warlock" series
Michael Swanwick's IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER
Sheri Tepper's "The World of the True Game" books
Lawrence Watt-Evans's "Three Worlds" series
Lawrence Watt-Evans's CYBORG AND THE SORCERERS and THE WIZARD AND THE WAR MACHINE
Walter Jon Williams's METROPOLITAN and CITY ON FIRE
Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun"
Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT
(anything with faster-than-light (FTL) travel, time travel, parallel worlds/universes, psionics, or shoddy science)
posted by Chrysostom at 10:02 AM on June 11


Folks, it's spelled SyFy.

....SyyyyyFyyyyyyy
posted by lumpenprole at 10:24 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Sez hoo ?
posted by y2karl at 10:48 AM on June 11


I'll admit one of my own weird fannish things is that I absolutely hate and loathe "sci-fi" as a term. Initialize it and make it SF, but bleh, "sci-fi" just sounds awful to me. And when the Sci-Fi Channel changed to the SyFy Channel it just got even worse.

I don't know why, but sci-fi just sounds juvenile or even like babytalk or something to me.

artw I'm just saying that the common use of the term science fiction is about scenery and set dressing and little else.

You can argue that the common use term is not what you like or that you'd rather common use had latched onto a different term for that genre, but I don't think it's really arguable that in common use that's what science fiction has come to mean. Descriptivist vs. prescriptivist.

Personally, while I enjoy the occasional whizzing space ship, blaster, and robot type story I'm not especially fond of it and prefer stuff that fits under the fannish definition of the term (give me Bacigalupi over Lucas any day please). But stop 100 random people on the street, ask them to tell you what science fiction is, and they'll bring up whizzing space ships, robots, and ray guns.
posted by sotonohito at 11:02 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


he quotes Bradbury

I'm aware of his work.
posted by The Tensor at 11:41 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


are these SF or fantasy?

The answer is always yes.
posted by Artw at 11:45 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


Speculative fiction.
posted by porpoise at 12:40 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Speculative fiction.

Let’s say it’s a synonym then never use it.
posted by Artw at 12:43 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


That was a weird omission, Metacircular.
It was also strange to read the author seeing the New Wave as being entirely driven by Harlan Ellison, without a Brit in sight.
posted by doctornemo at 1:07 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


"I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli…. But show me this metal. Let him produce it."

Yeah, well, show me that cannon and the people who made it to the moon in a cannonball and then you can talk.
posted by GoblinHoney at 1:45 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


My favorite take on this comes from the late, great Dead Authors Podcast. Paul F. Tompkins, hosting in character as H.G. Wells had a recurring bit where he would argue that he was the sole originator of the genre of Science Fiction, and that he shouldn't have to share the honor with Jules Verne. He argued that Verne simply took things that already existed and made them bigger, whereas he invented whole new ideas, such as time machines and invisible men. As performed by Mr. Tompkins, it is a great take on both genre pedantry and the creative ego.
posted by Anoplura at 2:36 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


"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."

Does this mean stories that aren't from a human POV aren't SF? Wikipedia lists Gandahar as a "science fantasy." But Wall-E, while it contains humans, is not about a human problem or human solution.

Hrm. Dark Crystal is listed as "high fantasy," even though, had the gelflings been humans and the world stated to be a lost colony, I could easily see it pitched as SF.

(Star Wars technically has no humans - "galaxy far far away" and all that - but nobody's claiming it's a movie not about human problems/human solutions. They're debating whether the content is scientific enough.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:41 PM on June 11


Classifying works into genres seems like a classic machine learning problem to me. We have a bunch of samples (i.e. works of fiction), each with a label (e.g. this is generally agreed to be science fiction, but that is fantasy), and a set of features that be applied to each (Does it have robots? Dragons? Does it take place in a timeline that includes present-day Earth?). This is all you need to start feeding data into your favorite machine learning algorithm to produce a classifier that predicts what genre an unknown work is likely to be placed in by most readers.

What you generally find when you perform this type of analysis is that a holistic approach to classification will produce the expected answers far more reliably than any simple heuristic. The fact that we've been arguing over the definition of science fiction for over a century tells me there are simply no heuristics good enough to gain widespread acceptance. The fact that people mostly agree most of the time about whether a particular work should be considered science fiction tells me there are objective criteria that most people use, perhaps subconsciously.

Now I just need to coax a bunch of fans into classifying a few hundred (or a few thousand) works along a few dozen carefully-chosen dimensions, and we can answer this question once and for all. Once and for all!
posted by shponglespore at 2:46 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Does this mean stories that aren't from a human POV aren't SF?

Yeah, I think we have to change human to "sentient beings" and even then, I'm sure we could think of other exceptions.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:50 PM on June 11


Anoplura: "Paul F. Tompkins, hosting in character as H.G. Wells had a recurring bit where he would argue that he was the sole originator of the genre of Science Fiction, and that he shouldn't have to share the honor with Jules Verne. He argued that Verne simply took things that already existed and made them bigger, whereas he invented whole new ideas, such as time machines and invisible men."

One thing that's been interesting for me in following the Wells bibliography blog has been learning that almost all of the SF he's justly remembered for was written in the first few years of his career. He spent much more time on his political/journalistic stuff and mainstream fiction.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:58 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


> "Paul F. Tompkins, hosting in character as H.G. Wells had a recurring bit where he would argue that he was the sole originator of the genre of Science Fiction, and that he shouldn't have to share the honor with Jules Verne."

While Mary Shelley snorts with derisive laughter at the idea that anyone considers either of them to be the originator of the genre?
posted by kyrademon at 2:58 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]


(And if you want to make the -- to my mind silly -- argument that Frankenstein somehow isn't really science fiction, she wrote The Last Man in 1826 when Wells was negative forty years old and Verne was negative two years old, so unless one of them really had access to that time machine they ain't no genre originators nohow.)
posted by kyrademon at 3:05 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Verne thought (as I recall) that his hollow cannonball voyagers would feel a gravitational force from the Earth which would keep them pressed to the floor until they got to the point where the Moon's gravitational pull was stronger, and then they would be pressed to what used to be the ceiling.

Free fall confuses a lot of people, though. I was tutoring a student taking a summer non-majors physics class at the University of Washington in Seattle as one of the basic science courses he needed to get into medical school, and when he brought me the midterm, on which he'd gotten a low C, one of the questions asked students to calculate how much less a person who massed 150 lbs. would weigh when the Moon was directly overhead than when it was on the other side of the Earth.

The professor thought the answer was twice the force the Moon would exert on a 150 lb. mass at the distance of the Earth.

I felt bad for the prof, but my student had to have excellent grades for his medical school application, so I prepared him to challenge the answer, and he was the only one who did.

Science Fiction doesn't really need a definition, which is fortunate since defining it doesn't seem to be possible -- but even if by some miracle you succeeded in giving it one, the definition would probably be obsolete by mid-afternoon the next day.
posted by jamjam at 8:30 PM on June 11


I think we have to change human to "sentient beings" and even then, I'm sure we could think of other exceptions.

I went looking for movies with all-nonhuman characters; I got a list of Pixar's best. None of them is considered SF, although Cars is in that nebulous "well, it's kinda not fantasy, probably" category.

Books with no human characters - hey wait! Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is SF about nonhumans. Yay. Reddit suggests a few more, although many of them are not so much "nonhuman" as "what humans evolved into."

So, "sentient beings solving sentient problems with tech," although that starts getting a bit fuzzy. (Does that mean Flatland is not SF? I don't think any of its problems get solved with tech; it's basically an alien visitation story.)

Hm, now I want to make a detailed list of media with nonhuman protagonists, with the rule that "evolved from human" or "genetically engineered human" or "text says they're not human but they are totally human; I'm looking at you, Mr. Skywalker" don't count. I know there's a number of stories that are "alien race finds a single human;" I'm debating whether those count, since the story revolves around the human even if that's not the POV character.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:07 AM on June 12


rasfw FAQ again, on works with only non-human characters:


Robert Asprin's BUG WARS
John Brunner's CRUCIBLE OF TIME
Mary Caraker's WATERSONG
Arthur C. Clarke's "Second Dawn"
Samuel R. Delany's EINSTEIN INTERSECTION
Diane E. Gallagher's ALIEN DARK (mostly)
Raymond F. Jones & Lester del Rey's WEEPING MAY TARRY
Ross Rocklynne's SUN DESTROYERS
H. Beam Piper's FIRST CYCLE
Robert J. Sawyer's "Quintaglio" Trilogy: FAR-SEER, FOSSIL HUNTER, and FOREIGNER
Robert Silverberg's AT WINTER'S END and THE NEW SPRINGTIME
Olaf Stapledon's STAR MAKER and NEBULA MAKER
James Tiptree's "Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death"

I know there's a number of stories that are "alien race finds a single human;" I'm debating whether those count, since the story revolves around the human even if that's not the POV character.

I'd throw Alan Dean Foster's Nor Crystal Tears out for that - the protagonist is non-human and the first maybe 2/3 of the book is solely in the non-human culture.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:56 AM on June 12


It's all a continuum of fiction. And really, what is fiction but lies that tell us possible truths?
posted by Fence at 8:30 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is: No.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:19 AM on June 12


A story starring rats (or robots or aliens or whatever) is not the same as a story about rats (or robots or aliens or whatever).
posted by Nonce at 10:52 AM on June 12


Okay, but The Crucible of Time has no humans at all, anywhere. As far as we know, they do not exist in the universe. The protagonists are this species. The story is *about* their struggles for survival on a hostile planet.

By the way, it's pretty great.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:33 AM on June 12


Beard Subgenres
posted by Artw at 12:36 PM on June 12


While Mary Shelley snorts with derisive laughter

...and gestures toward Margaret Cavendish.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:12 PM on June 13


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