A meaty small book could be filled with definitions of science fiction and expositions of them. The reason for this plethora of definitions is that none wholly satisfies.
The one that comes closest to acceptability is Damon Knight’s apothegm that “Science fiction is what we point at when we say, ‘This is science fiction’.”
We all agree with this, however much we might disagree with the list of things Knight would point at. We each have our own lists.
I think Knight is on the right track here — rather than trying to *define* science fiction, we should instead try to *describe* it.
A proper description might just show us how and where the definitions fail and show the relationship if any, of science fiction to fantasy. Below, then, are my own descriptions of these curious, related genres, and two more needed ones.
- “Science Fiction” is that branch of Imaginative Literature which deals with *ideas*. It therefore appeals primarily to the intellect.
- “Fantasy” is that branch of Imaginative Literature which deals with *images*. It therefore appeals primarily to the emotions.
- “Pseudo-Scientific Fantasy” [PSF] — a term coined by Heinlein; his definition was “fake ‘science’ fiction.” I would define this very useful term as: “fantasy that uses the images associated with science or science fiction.”
PSF includes what we call Space Opera or “sci-fi”. Witness the STAR WARS films, actually a fantasy complete with wizard, wands, and magic. This is not necessarily a debased medium: consider the career of Ray Bradbury. However, it comprises most of the “science fiction” we see on screen, tube, and rack.
- “Pseudo-Fantastic Mainstream” [PFM] fiction. I use this term to describe the debased popular fantasy genre, lacking all imagination and filled with borrowed images. Some common types are: Romance novels in “magical” pseudo-medieval settings; collections of puns involving whimsically-named characters in whimsically-named settings; fat, pretentious novels of political intrigue set in a relentlessly “magical” Poughkeepsie. Etc. Bat Durston rides again.
For authority, I refer the reader to Ursula Le Guin’s essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”. PFM fiction also needs not be debased, for example, see Guy Gavriel Kay’s TIGANA, a thinly-disguised historical novel about Italy.
These various relationships can best be represented by a chart, worth at least a thousand words:
“Magic Realism” is not in the diagram. It’s left as an exercise for the reader. It has been called “mainstream with fantasy elements”.
It seems to belong to that mainstream genre that likes to be called “Literature” but which should more accurately be called “Pseudo-Literature”.
That is, fiction written to the tenets of the Professors of Literature. Real Literature, from Chaucer to Clemons, is not written to theory.
The science fictional versions of Magic Realism tend toward pseudo-literature. However it seems to me that they deal as much in idea as in image, and therefore classify as SF. Perhaps we need two circles on the diagram?
The identification of such sub-genres as PSF and PFM helps to clear up much underbrush, and the chart helps still further by showing how, in my opinion, these various genres overlap. The existence of PSF and PFM, and the overlapping of genres, explains many problems with a definition.
For me, the above descriptions are more useful than any definitions I have encountered, particularly when it comes to the relationships between the genres. For a definition must *exclude* in order to define, whereas a description is *inclusive*.
The puzzling tendency of some people to call one work science fiction while others call it fantasy is now more understandable. If one perceives a work primarily in terms of its ideas, it will “feel” like science fiction. If one perceives it primarily in terms of its images, it will “feel” like fantasy.
This, in turn, throws light on an attitude I’ve seen expressed repeatedly. It is the attitude that says: “Science fiction is just a branch of fantasy.”
This is usually “proven” by the observation that science fiction commonly makes use of impossible tropes such as — the three almost invariably cited — immortality, faster than light travel, and time travel, and therefore must be fantasy.
A curious argument. The notion that science fiction cannot deal in impossible ideas is of course false. The impossibility may simply be used to take us someplace where we cannot otherwise go. What follows is often as rigorously “scientific” as the author can make it.
It seems to me that these people seek to define science fiction out of existence as “actually” fantasy because they think best in images. They, therefore, perceive the images in science fiction more strongly than the ideas.
To them, then, science fiction will “feel” like fantasy. Science fiction that is low in images and high in ideas will not appeal to them at all. How many people who believe that “SF is just fantasy” are fans of Isaac Asimov?
Why this strong need to annex science fiction to fantasy? Why the equally strong feeling on the other side, that science fiction is different from and superior to all other forms of literature?
As I see it, there are two modes of thinking here, one that deals best with images and one that deals best with ideas. These two ways of thinking go far to explain the difficulty we have long experienced in defining science fiction. Naturally, these two types of readers will find it difficult to agree on a definition.
Moreover, if the author is any good, he/she will use images *and* ideas, both to make you feel and to make you think. If you do both, you may be puzzled as to whether to point at the work as science fiction or as fantasy.
The existence of Pseudo-Scientific Fiction and Pseudo-Fantastic Mainstream further complicate the picture. For my money, these are “mainstream” fictions. If I had to describe (not define) the mainstream in one word, it would be “cuddly”.
Fiction that reinforces all the currently accepted cultural imperatives and shibboleths. PSF and PFM definitely do that. No wonder Brian Aldiss publicly wished we could outlaw SF again, as it was in the wild old days. I suggest that *real* SF is still outlawed, that what is popular is PSF and PFM. As Damon Knight said, “Science fiction will never be popular. It can’t stand the suppression.”
The classic science fiction idea story (i.e. “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, “The Roads Must Roll” by Heinlein, “The Equalizer” by Jack Williamson) is subversive, not cuddly. It tells us that Change occurs. That is revolutionary; earth-shaking. No wonder academe still resists science fiction, no wonder it loves fantasy, of whatever mode.
To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Yon genre has a lean and hungry look; it thinks too much; such books are dangerous.”
Popular fantasy is always conservative; its made-up societies are always reactionary, even when they try to be “relevant” and “liberated”.
Do I decry fantasy? No; real fantasy, the rare stuff, the stuff from Elfland, not Poughkeepsie, is as dangerous in its way as science fiction. Real fantasy is not about the gingerbread house or the witch, or even the oven and the fate contemplated.
It’s about the wicked stepmother, who is as much alive in these dark days as ever in the Schwarzwald. The fantasy that does not confront her, and the other things that fantasy (and all literature) is really about, is not fantasy at all, it is merely “pseudo-fantastic mainstream” fiction.
Fantasy and science fiction are equally valid, but they do different things. They are not identical, they cannot even be compared. We bracket them together because the ideas of science fiction generate images that affect us as strongly as any archetype in the vaults of fantasy.
Indeed, science fiction’s most powerful idea, The Future, is as mythical and fabulous as any of them, so much so that we have generated hundreds of fantasy images to symbolize it.