What Is Science Fiction?

Genre categories are notouriously hard to define, providing lots of fodder for pointless late-night disputes: Is Casablanca a war movie? Is The Merchant of Venice a comedy? The worst offender in this category certainly must be science fiction. The Authority on Everything naturally has an article specifically entitled "Definitions of science fiction". After noting that the term is "notouriously hard to define", it goes on to prove this by giving us a long list of attempts. Excerpts:
  • Hugo Gernsback. 1926. "[...] a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision [...]"[3][4]
  • J. O. Bailey. 1947. "[...] a narrative of an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences and consequent adventures and experiences [...]"[4][5][6]
  • Robert A. Heinlein. 1947. "[...] 1. The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem itself—the "plot"—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. [...]"[7]
  • John W. Campbell. 1947. "To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made."[7]
  • Damon Knight. 1952. At the start of a series of book review columns, Knight stated the following as one of his assumptions: "[...] Science fiction is [or means] what we point to when we say it."[8]
  • Theodore Sturgeon. 1952. "[A] good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content."[6][9]
  • Basil Davenport. 1955. "Science fiction is fiction based upon some imagined development of science, or upon the extrapolation of a tendency in society."[10]
  • Edmund Crispin. 1955. A science fiction story "is one that presupposes a technology, or an effect of technology, or a disturbance in the natural order, such as humanity, up to the time of writing, has not in actual fact experienced."[11][12]
  • Robert A. Heinlein. 1959. "Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of 'almost all') it is necessary only to strike out the word 'future'.[13]
  • Kingsley Amis. 1960. "Science fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology [...]."[14]
  • James Blish. 1960 or 1964. "[...] a kind of hybrid in which plausibility is specifically invoked for most of the story, but may be cast aside in patches at the author's whim and according to no visible system or principle."[15]
  • Darko Suvin. 1972. "[...] a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."[4][16]
  • Brian Aldiss. 1973. "[S]cience fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode".[4][6][17] Revised 1986. "... a definition of mankind ..."[18]
  • Norman Spinrad. 1974. "[...] anything published as science fiction."[4][6][19]
  • Darko Suvin. 1979. "[...] is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional "novum" (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic."[21]
  • David Pringle. 1985. "[...] a form of fantastic fiction which exploits the imaginative perspectives of modern science".[23]
  • Christopher Evans. 1988. "[...] a literature of 'what if?' [...] The starting point is that the writer supposes things are different from how we know them to be."[25]
  • Jeff Prucher. 2006. "[...] a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms."[27]
Let's not dwell on these for too long and just note that some are not definitions at all (some seem to be mission statements), many cover stuff that's not typically regarded as science fiction, many fail to cover stuff that's typically regarded as science fiction and none of them is particularly clear. I propose the following, which I think is a fair representation of how the term is actually used:

Science fiction is any narrative which features prominently at least one of the following elements:
  • fictional science, i.e., scientific operations (or consequences thereof) that are not actually possible at present (e.g., teleportation) and which were developed by humans (S);
  • aliens (A);
  • the future as a setting (F)
I initially wanted to include "space and other planets as a setting" as a criterion, but decided against it: Apollo 13 is not a science ficiton film. Quick check. The 50 highest-rated science fiction films at IMDb (the numbers after the ranks are the weighted average votes):

1. 9.1 Inception (2010) S
2. 8.8 Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) S, A
3. 8.8 Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) S, A
4. 8.7 The Matrix (1999) S, F
5. 8.5 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) S, (F)
6. 8.5 Alien (1979) S, A, F
7. 8.5 WALL·E (2008) S, F
8. 8.5 A Clockwork Orange (1971) S, F
9. 8.5 Aliens (1986) S, A, F
10. 8.4 Metropolis (1927) S, F
11. 8.4 Back to the Future (1985) S
12. 8.4 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) S, A, F
13. 8.3 Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) S, A
14. 8.3 Blade Runner (1982) S, F
15. 8.3 Avatar (2009) S, A, F
16. 8.2 District 9 (2009) A
17. 8.2 The War Game (1965) (not seen)
18. 8.2 Donnie Darko (2001) (not finished)
19. 8.2 Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973) (not seen)
20. 8.1 The Thing (1982) (not seen)
21. 8.1 The Terminator (1984) S, F
22. 8.1 Star Trek (2009) S, A, F
23. 8.1 V for Vendetta (2005) F
24. 8.1 Twelve Monkeys (1995) S, F
25. 8.1 King Kong (1933) (not covered)
26. 8.1 Frankenstein (1931) S
27. 8.0 Stalker (1979) (not finished)
28. 8.0 Children of Men (2006) F
29. 8.0 NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind (1984) (not seen)
30. 8.0 Bride of Frankenstein (1935) S
31. 8.0 Planet of the Apes (1968) S, (A), F
32. 8.0 The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) A
33. 8.0 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) A
34. 8.0 Kin-Dza-Dza (1986) (not seen)
35. 8.0 Solaris (1972) (not finished)
36. 8.0 The Face of Another (1966) (not seen)
37. 8.0 Young Frankenstein (1974) (not seen)
38. 8.0 Brazil (1985) (not finished)
39. 8.0 The Man from Earth (2007) (not seen)
40. 8.0 Moon (2009) S, F
41. 7.9 Iron Man (2008) (not seen)
42. 7.9 The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) (not seen)
43. 7.9 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) A
44. 7.9 The Iron Giant (1999) (not seen)
45. 7.8 Sexmission (1984) (not seen)
46. 7.8 Serenity (2005) (not finished)
47. 7.8 Jurassic Park (1993) S
48. 7.8 Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997) (not seen)
49. 7.8 Akira (1988) (S?), F
50. 7.8 Open Your Eyes (1997) (not seen)

I've indicated if I haven't finished a film or haven't seen it at all, so I can't speak about it with any authority. Even so, it's been a while in many cases and not every film has left much of an impression; hence corrections regarding categorization are welcome. In some cases, the labels for the elements are in brackets: Concerning Terminator 1 and 2, I seem to remember that parts of both films are set in the future, but I'm not sure, and anyway it's debatable whether that fulfills the definition's "prominently" criterion. In the case of Akira, I think there were some fancy technology thingies, but I saw it ca. 1996 and was asleep some of the time. Regarding Planet of the Apes - well, that would be a spoiler.

More importantly, for each element, there is at least one film which features only this one and none of the others, suggesting that the definition's postulate that one suffices is correct: Inception, Back to the Future, the two Frankensteins and Jurassic Park in the case of fictional science (S); The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and E.T. in the case of aliens (A) and Vendetta and Children of Men in the case of a film being set in the future.

And I postulate that whoever classified King Kong as a science fiction film was an idiot.


No comments: