Science Fiction Is? Some thoughts on a genre

Various different discussions have led me to have various thoughts on science fiction lately. I’ve been trying to write about them a little, and not getting very far, so I’m going to try to combine them into one hopefully-not-too-long blog post as a series of interrelated discussion points.

Why does it matter what science fiction is?

Yesterday I started reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and The Human Imagination. She begins by explaining the impetus behind the book: a review of her novel The Year of the Flood by Ursula K. Le Guin in which Le Guin accused Atwood of not “want[ing] any of her books to be called science fiction.” [1] Atwood argues that this is largely a matter of definition: Le Guin defines ‘science fiction’ more broadly than Atwood herself does, in that Atwood thinks of three categories – speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy – while Le Guin limits herself to two – science fiction and fantasy. For Atwood ‘speculative fiction’ covers things that “really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books”, while ‘science fiction’ covers those “things that could not possibly happen”; for Le Guin, science fiction has the former definition and fantasy the latter.

Reading Atwood’s account, I couldn’t help wondering why the question mattered. Le Guin, I think, enjoys rattling the cages of people whom she thinks are self-important as a means of arguing that just because a story has dragons that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say.[2] But when it comes to whether or not things “really could happen” I think we get into shaky territory. Atwood mentions being told that her books are “as much ‘science fiction’ as [George Orwell’s] Ninteen Eighty-Four is”, but then questions “is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much ‘science fiction as [Ray Bradbury’s] The Martian Chronicles?” [3] Since I was born in 1985, I feel reasonably secure arguing that Nineteen Eighty-Four couldn’t actually happen as it is written on the page and while, yes, this is high pedantry, the intent is to make the point that the use of betentacled aliens or technological breakthroughs seems less significant to me than the questions those aliens or technological breakthroughs are used to ask. I’ve said before that the best science fiction asks questions, but it would be entirely reasonable to then ask: is all questioning fiction science fiction?

Is this science fiction?

“Is Star Wars science fiction?” is, I think, a reasonably common question, usually answered in the negative.[4] More importantly, perhaps, is the question “Why isn’t Star Wars science fiction?” It has spaceships and aliens and fantastical elements; what prevents it from being science fiction? Personally, I don’t think that the answer is quite as clear cut as “is Star Wars science fiction” anymore. The Original Trilogy, one might argue, is more fantastical, more mythological – good versus evil, the hero’s journey, etc., etc. – but the Prequels add in elements that I would consider more science fictional – not the midichlorians and attempts to scienceify the Force, but the questions it poses about the rise of evil, corruption in government, and the justification of war. With the new films, I would say that The Force Awakens harkens back more to the series fantastical roots, while Rogue One offers a political parable that tends more towards the science fictional. Herein, of course, you can see my bias: I associate positive qualities that are not necessarily inherent to science fiction with science fiction, thus if something makes me think it is science fictional. On the other hand, associating science fiction more with the Prequels than the Original Trilogy shows that it is not a simple of equation of science fiction equals good.

If I pose the question to a different work, how does that change then answer? I have recently finished reading Kindred by Octavia E. Butler and, unable to get it out of my head, I considered how ‘science fictional’ it was (the back cover of my copy declares it “Science Fiction/African American Literature”).[5] On the one hand, the central premise of Kindred almost certainly couldn’t happen – a contemporary American woman of colour is sent back in time to the antebellum South – but to class such an evocative picture of American slavery as ‘fantasy’ seems terribly awkward when the descriptions seem as real as anything in The Handmaid’s Tale. But there is no technological element to the time travel; the novel is based around a simple metaphor of the relationship between the present and the past that seems ill-served by any genre classification of which I can think. I might class it as ‘magical realism,’ if one considers ‘magic’ to be any supernatural happening that goes completely unexplained, but this seems like a proliferation of genres that lacks tangible limits.

The Handmaid’s Tale too rests on no technological development; in this, it differs from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Oryx and Crake and thus, arguably, science fiction. One could take as a definition of at least one aspect of the genre that it extrapolates the social trends of the presence through the impact of a technological change, a scientific discovery, or a global disaster (thus bringing The Handmaid’s Tale back into the fold, but not Kindred). But in line with Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale one might argue that political change might also be an element of science fiction; thus, the unarguably science fictional Infomocracy by Malka Older relies on as little or perhaps less technological development than Nineteen Eighty-Four, but as major a political development with the revolutionary change to global micro-democracy and on-line voting no more unlikely than the telescreens of Orwell’s future.

But we are still left with Kindred and, arguably, certain Star Wars films that have science fictional elements but no actual science. Is it only my aversion to fantasy that prevents me from classing these works as such? Or is it that too much effort expended on genre classification makes the question seem ridiculous? With regards to Kindred I think it is less fantasy as a genre than it is the general meaning of the word that makes me shy away from it as a description of the evocative descriptions of the actions of human beings not that far in our past. With Star Wars, the urge is different – a desire to approach the Prequel Trilogy, bad as it may be, as something different to the Originals, an attempt at something new; something that, though it failed, was somehow worthwhile if we can draw the right lessons from it.

Should there be/can there be/is there a ‘canon’ of science fiction?

Given the difficulties had simply by trying to define the genre, the attempt made by a friend of mine and her boyfriend/flatmate to list the ten science fiction and ten fantasy books that you would expect someone who was a fan of the genre to have read ran into some difficulties. Attempts were made to split each genre into ten sections (easier with fantasy, although arguable some subgenres cross over). I have thought about this a lot since, and think that it really comes down to two things: what kick-started an aspect of the genre (thus, The Lord of the Rings would unarguably be the canon of epic fantasy; Neuromancer of Cyberpunk, etc.)? And what work had the biggest impact on this part of the genre?

I objected to the proceedings on several grounds, but they ultimately come down to one thing: on whose authority? Picking out the tangled web of influences behind authors’ works is a difficult task that is only complicated more by the different times in which they lived, the availability of works, contemporary ideas about everything and anything, and their cultural background. As I read on in In Other Worlds to Atwood’s discussion of superheroes, I already have more background knowledge about their creation because I am a thirty-one year old more interested in their creation than their on-going adventures, while she is a woman in her seventies [6] looking back on herself aged six-or-seven when such background stories were not widely advertised (particularly that of Wonder Woman, I suspect). Besides which, how does one judge the defining work of a genre? Is Neuromancer really more significant for cyberpunk than The Matrix? [7] Which, in turn, raises another question about science fiction, which is how can one define it as a genre without including films and television? I tend to prefer the novels, but it is impossible to argue that the likes of Star Trek and so on have not had an impact on the genre, especially the public perception of it.

I thus came to the following conclusion: it is better to think about recommendations than canon. So, for example, if one is interested in reading political science fiction one might point a new reader to Nineteen Eighty-Four, then perhaps Brave New World, and ultimately into works like Infomocracy or The Handmaid’s Tale, the former of which is on the one hand more optimistic and on the other more concerned with political science; the latter more concerned with the consequences of certain directions in politics. If one enjoyed The Matrix, one might try to read Neuromancer, or “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr. I tried to express this point through the creation of a table, [8] which I include below, incomplete, because how could I complete it? I haven’t read widely enough in this genre to do that. There are aspects of this genre that I simply have no interest in (largely on the fantasy side, in fairness).

Final thoughts?

I don’t have a conclusion, or even a way to end this discussion. I’m not entirely sure if or why it matters what science fiction is. What matters, perhaps, is that fiction, science or no, leaves us asking questions and thinking about the world in which we live. Or maybe it’s that fiction is engrossing and entertaining, whatever that means. I was engrossed by Kindred, and remain so, as well as being left with questions. Maybe what matters is that we are left understanding the world, and the people in it, a little better. Or maybe I’m just searching for a concluding line that sounds profound, who knows?


[2] See also her dispute with Kazou Ishiguro with regards to his (fantasy) novel The Buried Giant:

[3] I haven’t read The Martian Chronicles, but find it difficult to argue that Nineteen Eighty-Four is distinct, genre-wise, from Fahrenheit 451, thus it is possible that even if The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t fall into your definition of science fiction, the Madd Adam trilogy still could.

[4] Including George Lucas, arguably:

[5] Atwood opens her introduction to In Other Worlds with an Octavia Butler quotation, but makes no further reference to her as an author of science fiction or otherwise.

[6] Or near enough, when she was writing In Other Worlds, published 2011.

[7] I have not read Neuromancer, so this question is not entirely rhetorical.

[8] The genres included in this table are based on a Tweet by someone in the publishing industry which can be read here (it’s part of a thread that’s worth looking at):

Subgenre Expected to have read Should actually read (instead?) I should have read
Dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood  
Hard SF     I, Robot
Soft SF The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin All of the Ekumen books Binti: Home
Steampunk The Difference Engine, I guess??? Mortal Engines The rest of The Difference Engine, I guess??
Alt. History The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick   United States of Japan by
Cyberpunk Neuromancer by William Gibson “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree Jr/“Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M. Valente Synners by Pat Cadigan (and probably, to be fair, Neuromancer).
Military Starship Troopers The Forever War  
Space Opera Not read, but seen, the Star Wars trilogy (what do you mean “which one”?); perhaps The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy The Culture Series The rest of the Culture series
Mundane SF It turns out this is a genre that was invented in 2009 or something? idk    
Utopian Brave New World by Aldous Huxley The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin.  
High Fantasy The Lord of the Rings The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula K Le Guin The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin
Urban Fantasy Perdido Street Station/Bas Lag novels The Lies of Locke Lamora  
Paranormal Fantasy Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice Watch all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of reading. Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice
Dark Fantasy The terribly racist works of HP Lovecraft Probably Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
Historical Fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke Among Others by Jo Walton (the 1970s are totally history) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
And now for something completely different (i.e. things I couldn’t fit into those genres)   Planetfall

Station Eleven

The Sparrow

vN by Madeline Ashby

Always Coming Home by Ursula Le Guin


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