Friday, May 18, 2007

What is science fiction?

For much of my reading career, I've been reading science fiction and fantasy.

I have noticed a trend among science fiction readers to discriminate against fantasy as if it is some sort of lesser fiction.

Well, it is quite ironic that science fiction readers would do this, considering that science fiction itself has been considered inferior for most, if not all of its existence, something that continues to happen now.

It brings up the question of "what is science fiction?". Most people know it when they see it, but having discussed this in detail with a group of friends, I realize that there is disagreement and no clear definition.

Is there anything that automatically makes a novel science fiction? I think there is... time travel, stories set in the future, stories with technology that doesn't exist yet. That all seems reasonable to me. Still, there are probably plenty of examples of these where a novel or story has these elements but aren't considered science fiction.

Some examples of "disputed science fiction" are: "A Handmaid's Tale", "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "Slaughterhouse Five". The only reason that they aren't considered science fiction is because their author says that they aren't, or they don't "feel" like science fiction. I think they all are.

It is possible for a story set in the future NOT to be science fiction? Is is possible for a story with time travel in it not to be science fiction? What about aliens? What about new, future technology?

I'm tempted to say "No, it's not possible.", but I'm willing to listen to counter arguments.


Writing Angel said...

I think you're right. The only reason I didn't think of 'The Time Traveller's Wife' as science fiction was because it was market as popular fiction and had a strong romance element to it. I would say that the romance element was no less than the sci-fi element and indeed wouldn't have been possible without it.

Determinist said...

You weren't the only one who thought that way - I had at least two other conversations along the same lines where people shook their heads and said, "Nah... that's not REALLY science fiction."

Also - I noticed several articles about this, including Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood strongly disagreeing that their books are science fiction - take a look at Margaret Atwood versus SF. Kurt Vonnegut also tried really hard to distance himself from science fiction, not because he didn't write it, but because serious critics never took science fiction seriously.

Maple Kiwi said...

I think to some extent you have to consider intent. Did the author want to make their book science fiction, or was setting it in the future (or whatever) just a plot device to create the situation they wanted.

I'm sure if you turned it around and labelled every sci-fi book with a sexual relationship in it as a romance novel, the authors would be very resistant to that. No way of categorizing fiction is perfect, but I think the author's intent is the most important factor. But that's just me.

Determinist said...

There are science fiction novels that are romance (see They aren't mutually exclusive.

What Margaret Atwood is saying when she says (about "A Handmaid's Tale") "No, it certainly isn't Science Fiction. Science Fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that." is that she doesn't know what science fiction actually is and has accidentally written some without knowing it.

I'm not labeling Margaret Atwood as a science fiction writer - most of her stuff is outside of science fiction. At the same time, there is science fiction out there that has fewer SF plot devices than "A Handmaid's Tale" that are still called science fiction (" comes to mind).

Violet said...

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is very much science fiction as far as I can tell, more so than A Handmaid's Tale. Perhaps she's started to think differently about the genre.

Determinist said...

I read that while looking up "A Handmaid's Tale" on-line. Apparently, she thinks "Oryx and Crake" is also "not science fiction".

Reading about it though, it seems that she's not so much putting down SF as she is protecting her own market, who are probably decidedly not SF fans.

Most reviews of "Oryx and Crake" say that as SF goes, it's not particularly good, the kind of stuff they haven't published since the early 70's.

Anyway - haven't read it and can't actually say for sure. It's interesting how hard she fights for her non SF status even though it's quite obvious to any casual reader that it is what she is writing.