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What is Science Fiction?

Updated on May 1, 2011

Science Fiction, also known by the initials SF or as Sci Fi, and even SyFy, is commonly defined as fiction in which some aspect of science forms an element of the plot or background.

But 20th century Sci Fi authors, editors, and critics maintain that an exact definition is difficult (if not impossible) to come by, even as they question that "science fiction" is a suitable name for the genre. The reasons have to do with disagreement about what specific works or what body of literature it includes, as well as with the origin and connotations of the term.

History of Science Fiction

The term "science fiction" and its variant "scientification" were coined by an American electrical engineer, Hugo Gemsback, to identify the tales used to enliven the content of popular-science magazines—among them, Modern Electrics—that he published in the first decades of the 20th century. The popularity of these tales, together with a burgeoning interest in new inventions and technology, led to the appearance in the 1920's of specialized pulp magazines devoted exclusively to "science fiction," the first of these being Gernsback's Amazing Stories. By the 1930's the term, especially in the United States, had become closely associated in the public mind with pulp fiction, or trash.

At the same time, the new term "science fiction" had been appropriated as a label for a large body of speculative and. prophetic works, not merely dating to such 19th and early 20th century masterpieces as Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, but going back to classical and even biblical times. Literary historians, if not the general public, recognized that the prophet Ezekiel was writing "science fiction" when he described the flaming wheels in the sky (Ezekiel 1)—surely a fair approximation of a contemporary UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) report. The Greek satirist Lucian wrote science fiction in such dialogues as his Icaromenippus. Savinein Cyrano de Bergerac wrote it in his 17th century comic "histories" of voyages to the moon and the sun. Rabelais had written science fiction in the preceding century, and Voltaire continued the tradition in 18th century France.

Later examples, in Britain and the United States, of "mainstream" writers who have also written science fiction include Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, Graham Greene, John Cheever, Anthony Burgess, and Kingsley Amis. Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four has some of the qualities of science fiction, and so does Golding's Lord of the Flies. The list is endless.

The contemporary Sci Fi author, editor, and critic Damon Knight has said of the genre: "Science Fiction means what you are pointing at when you talk about it." Frederick Pohl calls it "the literature of consequences"—a fine tool for investigating the results of human acts and inventions. Isaac Asi-mov states that there are three kinds of Sci Fi: "What if . . . ," "If only . . . ," and "If this goes on. . . ." Many Sci Fi stories contain more than one of these motifs, and it is often suggested that speculative fiction" might be a far more accurate term, serving at least to help separate Sci Fi from its more encompassing parent, fantasy.

To many observers, "science fiction" is a misnomer. The word "science," both as defined in dictionaries and as understood by the public at large, has no fixed meaning—or at least none that is helpful in defining and delimiting a literary genre. Yet the root of the word "science"—scientia, meaning "knowledge"—is apt. To regard Sci Fi as "knowledge fiction" is to come closest to its special nature. Its basic ingredient is knowledge—knowledge extrapolated or new knowledge—cast in a narrative that delineates its effects on society or the individual. If this "knowledge" aspect can be extracted from a story, leaving a cohesive narrative, then the original is ersatz Sci Fi—for example, the cowboy story set on Mars, instead of in Texas.

Use of the word "science" to designate a kind of fiction has had some interesting side effects. In a science-worshiping culture, it becomes fashionable or amusing to derogate science, even as in Boccaccio's day it was fashionable or "brave" to scandalize monks and nuns. Such acts represent an obverted acknowledgment of authority, if not a diverted form of worship. Today's science, daily passing miracles while at the same time threatening human existence, has become an unpredictable and totipotent deity, to which obeisance must be made. And a form of popular literature with "science" as part of its name makes an opportune target of derogation.

It is probably for this reason that many readers—and virtually all serious critics—have refused to recognize that Sci Fi contains as much true excellence, as well as trash, as any other form of writing. Yet the same public and the same critics have no difficulty in seeing a spectrum of excellence in other fields, such as mystery-detective or Western stories. The fact is that the best writing in contemporary Sci Fi is quite as good as the best anywhere. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, D. G. Compton, Samuel R. Delaney, Robert A. Heinlein, R. A. Lafferty, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., among many others, produce writing that is of the highest quality.

Since about 1930, Sci Fi has carried with it an ardent and highly articulate following of "fans", who produce their own amateur periodicals and critiques and meet all over the world in clubs, conferences, conventions, and symposiums. The World Science Fiction Convention (World Con), which is held annually, is the scene of the "Hugo" trophy award, named after pioneer Hugo Gernsback, for the year's best novel, novelette, dramatic presentation, or other Sci Fi form. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) provides the "Nebula" trophy, produces anthologies, and functions in matters of collective concern to Sci Fi authors.

A new development is the astonishing growth in the number of courses in Sci Fi as literature offered at the college and university level. Virtually nonexistent in the mid-1960's, these courses numbered more than 100 half a decade later. Teachers and scholars in the field have organized a Science Fiction Research Association, with an official journal, Extrapolation.

Sci Fi magazines continue to publish despite rather severe competition from paperback anthologies of new fiction and the appearance of Sci Fi in general magazines. There are several volumes of annual "best" Sci Fi and numerous anthologies of reprinted stories. The number of hardcover Sci Fi books that are so called—and of books that are indeed Sci Fi but not so called—continues to rise, as does the number of Sci Fi books by "mainstream" authors. Of the last-named group, Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain (1969) and Vladimir Nabokov's Ada (1970) became best sellers.

Sci Fi is immensely popular in Japan, France, and Britain, and in each it has its "fan" followers. It is a recognized force in Soviet literature. The Swedish writer and critic Sam J. Lundwall reports an upsurge of Sci Fi in Romania, Poland, East and West Germany, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries.

The Sci Fi film and cinema came into being with The Laboratory of Mephistopheles (1897) by pioneer genius Georges Melies and reached a new peak with Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on Arthur C. Clarke's story The Sentinel. In between, there have been hundreds of Sci Fi films of all degrees of quality. The Japanese are particularly notable for ingenious and charming special effects and model work. In television there have been many single productions and a number of series, most notably Star Trek, proving repeatedly that Sci Fi and the visual media are admirably suited to each other.


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    • Mr Knowitall profile image

      Mr Knowitall 6 years ago

      I love its escapism. And not just movies, but the novels.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Oh, what a great intro to the genre! I've learned a bunch from your overview. Awesome Hub!