The Struggle to Characterise and Define the Genre of Science Fiction


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The Blank Entry: Finding a Definition for Science Fiction

Science fiction is a mammoth of a genre. Arguably the largest and most diverse category of literature and film, science fiction is incredibly versatile and therefore nearly impossible to label with a single definition. Part of what makes classification so difficult is the existence of numerous subgenres, from alternate history to post-apoctolyptic fiction. There is also a tendency to classify stories as both sci-fi and fantasy. For example, there are entire websites dedicated to arguing whether the movie series Star Wars should be classified as science fiction, fantasy, or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, for categorical purposes, many other stories, books and movies fall into similar genre “gray areas”. While there will always be debate over labeling superhero fiction as sci-fi, for example, there do exist three specific elements every story needs to have in order to truly be considered science fiction.

Before we start discussing the specific elements of science fiction, it first seems appropriate to differentiate sci-fi from its oft-related sister genre – fantasy. While fantasy has existed since primitive man told stories huddled around a fire, science fiction didn’t become an established genre until the Age of Enlightenment. During this time period, the scientific method was popularized, and much of the fiction was based on scientific concepts. Of course, fantasy has no such limitations, as it often contains mythological or supernatural figures, including, but by no means limited to, orcs, elves, vampires and wizards. As famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen – though often you only wish it could.” Fantasy, essentially can’t be explained rationally, and has no basis in known science. Science fiction of course, does. This is the key distinction to remember.

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Now that we have drawn a distinction between science fiction and fantasy, we can now start to examine certain elements science fiction must contain in order to be defined as such. First, all science fiction must include dissociation. Essentially, in order to be classified as sci-fi, the story, movie or other medium must contain certain elements that are profoundly alien to the reality of the reader. There is a wide range of possible concepts to include, but one of the most common are technological advancements. Many science fiction works, such as Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations for example, include starships, colonized worlds in other galaxies, teleportation and other concepts that are, at least in our current state, impossible. Of course, there are other ways to dissociate the reader. In sci-fi stories such as Octavia Butler’s Speech Sounds, and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula Le Guin, it is the society, and the standards within these fictional societies, that are alien to the reader.

Additionally, in order to be categorized as science fiction, the story must take place in the future. This is an important requirement for sci-fi, for in order for dissociation to be present, the story must be set in the future where it is conceivable that technology would be advanced enough where concepts like terraforming and time travel could exist. Alternatively, the story could exist in an alternate dimension or a completely fictionalized setting. For example, the universe of Star Wars, even though it technically takes place in the past, is very similar to a state our actual universe could be thousands of years in the future. Also, the sub-genre of alternate history is heavily present in science fiction. For example, both Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, and the movie Cowboys and Aliens, take place in the past. However, historical events, like the existence of an alien race, are fabricated. Even though both examples are set in the past, they contain futuristic elements, which is enough to give them this second requirement. Sci-fi stories can take place anywhere from the near future to millions of years from now, as long as there exist certain elements that are considered futuristic in nature, from technological advances to dystopian settings.

Finally, science fiction must deal with scientific progress in at least some fashion. It is important to note, however, that this by no means must be the only, or even the largest focus of the story. It simply must exist. For example, Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, Dune, is primarily concerned with economics and societal standards. Similarly, the main focus of Orson Scott Card’s book, Ender’s Game, is war simulations and tactical strategies. Nevertheless, both books view their respective topics through the lens of scientific advancement. Starships, advanced weaponry and alien races play key roles in both building the setting and advancing the plot, as well as providing a catalyst for social commentary. Additionally, there is an inherent assumption in science fiction that it is at least possible, if not probable, that the specifics of the story could actually occur in real life, given enough time. Because much of the plot and setting is based on established scientific fact, along with what path the author thinks technology is taking us, nearly every science fiction story could conceivably happen in the future. For example, in Harlan Ellison’s story, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, artificial intelligence could progress to the point where a computer similar to AM could actually exist.

While there will most likely never be a clear definition of science fiction accepted by the literary community, there certainly do exist certain requirements fiction must meet before it gains the qualifier of “science”. In addition to taking place in the future, sci-fi must contain elements foreign to the reality of the reader. It must also focus at least in part on scientific progress. This qualification carries along with it the inherent assumption that futuristic elements of the fiction must, at the very least, be rooted in scientific fact, and therefore may possibly exist in the future. As with any scholarly definition, there will always be exceptions. Such is the power of the human mind: to somehow find a way to expand the limits of the current literary establishment. And yet this is best quality science fiction possesses. It routinely pushes our boundaries, and makes us examine the morality and social impacts of topics and issues that don’t yet even exist. As famed author Ray Bradbury stated, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.” Perhaps the lack of a formal definition is what makes science fiction such a unique genre. The constant evolution of sci-fi ensures that it will never be limited to the sort of definition you might find in a dictionary. Personally, I view this as science fiction’s greatest achievement.

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