What Is Science Fiction?

Before you start screaming at me for being an ignorant fool, let me explain myself.

A story that involves a mad scientist who invents a super weapon that later falls into the hands of a Third World dictator, who then uses it to destroy the world, sounds like science fiction, right?

Then why isn’t Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (and most of his other work) found in the science fiction of most bookstores or libraries? Has Vonnegut ever won a Hugo? I don’t think so, but why wouldn’t he be nominated?

There’s other authors whose whole body of works (or major chunks of it) could be considered science fiction, but its not placed in that section. What gives? One would think that the science fiction folks would be screaming to get guys like Vonnegut Hugos, but that doesn’t happen. Why?

Vonnegut was nominated for the Hugo for Sirens of Titan, 1960 and Cat’s Cradle, 1964, for the Hugo and Nebula for Slaughterhouse Five, 1970, and for the International Fantasy Award for Player Piano, 1953.

But you have to remember that by 1970 he had for years been loudly screaming that he was not and never had been a science fiction writer, he was a real writer.

And that’s the explanation. Science fiction is looked down upon by the entire mainstream literary establishment and people who want to be accepted by the mainstream will do almost anything to distance themselves from the taint of being labeled sf. Editors and publishers will also work hard to keep the label, the words, and the genre-style cover art off any book that they put out that might be considered sf by any knowledgeable reader, but that the powers that be don’t want placed in the sf ghetto in the bookstore.

People in sf are not bitter about this, no sirree, not at all.

And they have also learned that it is a fool’s game to nominate a mainstream book for a ghetto award, although it has happened several times other than the Vonneguts.

BTW, that works for movies as well. When movies are awarded Hugos and Nebulas, it is a rare event when anyone from the studio deigns to show up for the award, although the people from Galaxy Quest were a nice exception to this rule.

“Science fiction is what I’m pointing at when I say ‘that is science fiction.’”

That is the only accurate definition, since you can’t come up with a definition that includes all instances of what you think are SF while at the same time excluding all instances of what you don’t think should be included.

I’d personally say that SF is literature of the fantastic, where the assumption is that there is a “scientific” explanation for the wonders involved. Fantasy, OTOH, has a supernatural/magic explanation for the wonders. The two genres are very close (see Christopher Stasheff’s “Warlock” series, which has witches, etc., but is SF because there is a scientific explanation for it all).

The working definition for a writer is that a SF story is one where the scientific element is essential to the story.

Writers like Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Jerzy Kosinsky (for “Being There”) have gotten nominations for SF awards, and John Barth manages to write fantasy without the literary crowd complaining (or the SF crowd noticing, alas). Others like Doris Lessing have written SF (usually when a literary type writes SF, they reinvent the wheel – introducing tired concepts as though they were new).

I wouldn’t consider Vonnegut a SF writer. Real SF writers believe in their creations, and take them very seriously - even when they’re joking. They’re not standing on the outside, looking in. As far as as a good science fiction writer is concerned, the world he invented is no less valid than the “real” world in which he lives.

Vonnegut, OTOH, is an allegorist and a satyrist. Noble professions, to be sure, but incompatible with the willing suspension of disbelief which is crucial to real SF.

Now Orwell - that was a science fiction writer.

I would say a very rudimentary definition of it is this:
Science fiction is a story that a) is not true (hence…fiction) and b) uses technology that we do not currently have available.
Maybe this isn’t the best definition, I’ll admit. But it’s a start.

Wild Wild West is sci-fi. So is Contact. So is 20,000 leagues under the sea.
What about Star Wars? Is it science fiction? Fantasy? A space opera? Can’t it be all three?

What I don’t get is why sci-fi is the “kiss of death” in the industry. I figure 90% of the highest grossing films of all time are SF.

I wouldn’t even say unavailable technology is necessary for a story to be SF; similarly, unavailable technology does not make a story SF.

“Star Trek” and all its spin-off are a good example. Many of their plots are not science fiction. They could be set in the Old West, Colonial America, the Roman Empire, 1960’s Berkley, or Moonbase Alpha.

I agree with RealityChuck when he said, “Science fiction is what I’m pointing at when I say ‘that is science fiction.’” :smiley:

Spaceships, man! ZOOOOOOOOOOM! :smiley:

Seriously… I vote for defining science fiction as fictional stories in which some sort of scientific principle/device/law plays a key role. Take away that key item, and you can recast the story into any other era or genre without difficulty (as AWB mentioned, not all Star Trek episodes are science fiction).

Ray Bradbury on the definition of Science Fiction: “Science Fiction is fiction about the effects of new technology on people. Of course, that makes ‘Singin’ in The Rain’ a science fiction film.”

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (Nichols originally, then Nichols and Clute) devotes an entire entry to this question. It ain’t trivial. Although I’d agree that the impact of science on people’s lives comes pretty close, with the proviso that it shouldn’t be a story that a trivial change could make into another genre. writer/editor Ben Bova called this the “Hat Test”. If you could make a small change and it becomes a Western, it ain’t SF. By this definition, the film Outland isn’t really SF – it’s “High Noon” in space (and bad High Noon at that – see Harlan Ellison’s scathing, dead-on critique in Daniel Peaery’s collection Science Fiction Films.)

What I, and, I think, most SF fans really hate is defining SF as “all that childish space-ship, ray-gun, and computer escapist literature. If it’s good, it’s not SF”. I think a lot of people use this, if only subconsciously. writer/editor John Campbell said that Fail-Safe was SF, although most people didn’t realize it. Just hbecause Vonnegut’s stuff is satire doesn’t make it not SF – a lot of sf is satirical. The movie Creator is SF, even though it’s got not f/x. If you try to pull out the sf elements, it falls apart – it’s a movie about cloning and whether you should clone or not. Lester Del Rey’s novel Nerves is sf – it’s about a potential disaster at a nuclear power plant. Although he got a lot of the science wrong, it involved speculation about the technology and even the politics of nuclear power, which might be a reality today, but wasn’t when he wrote it back in the 1940’s. Ditto for Heinlein’s Blowups Happen. For that matter, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is SF, even though we now have technically advances submarines.

The only definition of sf that works on an everyday basis is that sf is that subset of fiction that is labeled science fiction and shelved in the sf section of a bookstore. In other words, sf is a commercial category, not a critical one.

This definition, which has been put forward seriously by a number of people in the field, is useful because it immediately makes a lot of things clear. It explains the OP, for example. If someone – the publisher, editor, marketer, or perhaps even the writer – doesn’t want a book to be thought of as sf, it is easy to arrange so that virtually everybody except a few busybodies will agree.

It means that fantasy, for all intents and purposes, is synonymous with sf. Where the line is drawn depends therefore mainly on cover art and not content, the boundaries of which nobody can agree upon anyway.

Horror, however, is not part of sf or fantasy, dark fantasy notwithstanding. Horror has its own separate section of the store, ergo it is a different category.

Librarians don’t have to scratch their heads about where to shelve a book, either. If it’s labeled sf, it gets one of those atomic symbols and (usually) its own section. Only really dim librarians shelve Mr. Sammler’s Planet in with the sf.

Movies are not sf, they are sci fi. Therefore they can become huge megablockbusters (but still not be taken seriously for the Oscars).

All clear now? :slight_smile:

Quantum Leap, as an example, doesn’t really qualify as science fiction because if the show had been reworked just a little, it would have been fantasy. Replace time travellers with angels and you get the same storylines. Even more so, actually, since in every episode they were doing good deeds, while technology in science fiction tends to be more morally neutral (or even evil).

Are comic books science fiction? On the one hand you have aliens, time travel, alternate universes, bad guys with ultra-advanced machines and weapons, etc. On the other hand 90% of the heroes/villians have “super” powers with grossly irrational psuedo-scientific explanations. And until recently the whole “superhero” genre presented an unrealistic view of what a world with paranormal people and events would really be like. I’ve heard purists claim that comic books should be considered “heroic fantasy” rather than science fiction.

John Campbell defined science fiction as “anything published by science fiction editors”. Of course, that’s not too useful. Personally, I’d say that it’s speculation concerning some existing or potential scientific or technological principle. Even that needs some stretching, though. I read a story once, for instance, classified as SF, about the first human being to come up with the idea of adding salt and garlic to his boring stewed meat. Speculation, certainly, but where’s the science? The best I can offer is that cooking is a technology… But that’s a stretch.