The Literature of the What-if

Not too long ago a fellow writer and I had this conversation:

FW: I wouldn’t say my book is science fiction. Post-apocalyptic, yes. Dystopian, sure. Speculative fiction, Perhaps.

ME: How can your book be post-apocalyptic without being science fiction?

FW: Good question.

A good question indeed. And to answer it, we need to start with another good question. [BTW, we'll assume his book isn't fantasy--because it's not.] What is science fiction? This question is so good that science fiction writers, editors, and scholars have been debating it since Hugo Gernsbeck coined the term in the 1920’s. (He actually called it scientifiction when he created the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. When he started Science Wonder Stories in 1929, Gernsbeck changed the term to science fiction.)

If you look up science fiction in a dictionary, you might get something like this:
a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation in its plot, setting, theme, etc. []


fiction in which advanced technology and/or science is a key element. []

So, I can see where my fellow writer might think his book or a book like Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD is not science fiction. There’s no science or technology left in the world, and the story is character-driven.

To me, the dictionary definition is sort of the layman’s or outsider’s take on the genre. The insiders' take on the field isn't always clear, though. Most writers, scholars, and editors of science fiction seem to have their own definition of the genre. Some say it’s indefinable. Others say it’s nothing more than a marketing category. Some, like Damon Knight, basically said you know when you see it. (Kind of like pornography!) And, those who do try to define the genre don’t always agree. Here are a few opinions:

Science fiction is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together.
- Ray Bradbury

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.
-Theodore Sturgeon

Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions. That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.
- Isaac Asimov

... science fiction is the myth-making principle of human nature today.
- Lester Del Rey

You'll notice that none of these masters of the genre said it was all about the science or technology. It's about their impact on human beings.

Personally, though, I have to go with Orson Scott Card's eminently practical definition in his book, HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION:

Speculative fiction includes all stories that take place in a setting contrary to reality.

Card lumps fantasy and science fiction under the umbrella of speculative fiction, which I think is entirely reasonable. The difference between the two has to do with whether the world obeys the laws of the world as we know it (science fiction) or the world as the author has created it (fantasy).

This is how I think of science fiction and fantasy. Both are the literature of the what-if. What if a comet struck the Earth? What if you could erase bad memories with a pill (and earn frequent forgetting points while doing it)? What if the Victorians had invented computers? What if vampires were real—and sparkly?

In science fiction (as opposed to fantasy), the what-if scenario has to be based on the laws of our universe—which does mean science and technology have to be involved somewhere along the line. They do need to be integral to the plot, but that doesn’t mean the story has to be about ray guns or space ships or mutants. The science doesn't even have to be explained in the story at all. In THE ROAD, the setting is contrary to reality, the world operates according the laws of our universe, but it wouldn’t exist without the impact of science or technology. (The world went to hell for some fathomable reason--war, plague, etc.)

So, yes, my fellow writer(s), your post-apocalyptic, dystopian, perhaps speculative fiction story is science fiction. The fact that THE ROAD and a few other books (like Margaret Atwood's) are shelved in the mainstream fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble has much more to do with marketing and the ghettoization of genre fiction. But that's a whole 'nuther post.

OK, I'm easing off my soapbox--for now. How do you guys define science fiction? Is dystopian its own genre, or is it a sub-genre of science fiction? Do you think it’s even necessary to worry about the labels? Discuss.


Tez Miller said...

How do Soft and Mundane Sci-fi differ? (Having trouble classifying my WIP.)

Mandy P.S. said...

"ghettoization" I love it. :)
It always bothers me when I have to walk over to a mainstream shelf to find a clearly SF/F book. It's as if they're saying they're too good for the SF/F section.

Whenever my friends ask me the difference between science fiction and fantasy, my answer has always been "magic". Science fiction is based on the laws of the universe as we know it. Fantasy is based on a universe that has magical laws. This is why Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern is SF not fantasy, though it has dragons. It's not dragons that make the fantasy novel - its the magic.

I definitely think dystopian is science fiction. Unless its a dystopian society founded on magic...then I guess that's, well, different.

Angie said...

Tez - Mundane sci-fi sees a world where we never develop space travel. Soft science fiction (as opposed to hard) is more about social issues / people, less about technology. There's a lot overlap in the sub-genres.

Bittersweet - I think some people don't read enough of the Pern books (or Bradley's Darkover series) to realize the dragons (and the laran) aren't based on magic--or the writer's whimsy.

Unknown said...

I love your graphic with the different catagories of sci-fi. I'm partial to alternate history, military and some dystopian, but don't care for steampunk or space opera. So, if I told someone I didn't like steampunk, they'd conclude I didn't like sci-fi, but that's not true. I just don't care for certain sub-genres. (I used steampunk here, but I've only read one. I reserve the right to change my mind. ;-)

Charity Bradford said...

Wow, I just typed a long reply and had it disappear into space. So, um, great blog post!

I have no idea really where my book falls specifically, but I know it would be in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the bookstore. Since it has magic and science, I guess it would go into the fantasy class according to Bittersweet. I'm currently calling it Science Fantasy in my query letter. Do you think that is specific enough?

B.E. Sanderson said...

I've always hesitated to call my futuristic work 'SF' because I don't really lean against the science aspect of it. I always felt like calling it SF was cheating. Thanks to you, I can feel more comfortable calling it what it is. =o)

Angie said...

Charity - Science fantasy is legit. I didn't put that on my little chart b/c, but it blurs the line between science fiction and fantasy.

BE - NP! Embrace the SF.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

This is something I have struggled with as well with my WIP. Should I call it SF or Fantasy? My MC has 'Powers' but they are based off the work of ancient philosophers. So, isn't that science enough?

I have always tried to lean away from fantasy in my MS because I am more interested in scientific proof that we can do more (ie. powers) than we thought with our minds/bodies.

What do you think, Angie?

Angie said...

Kathryn - if you have a scientific rationale for the powers in your story, then you could say its science fiction. For instance, in McCaffery's Pern books, the dragons turn out to have been genetically engineered by the first settlers of Pern. However, if there's no science /tech basis for the powers in your story, an editor or agent might read it as fantasy. IMHO.

Angie said...

btw, I did not mean to offend anyone who might be pitching their sf or fantasy books as mainstream for marketing reasons. That's a totally different discussion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Angie! It's very, very informative. And that little chart is an awesome one.

I do think that dystopian falls under sci-fi, the same way paranormal is fantasy. However, when an author says "science fiction," they're usually referring to hard/soft sci-fi -- just as if they say "fantasy," they're usually referring to high fantasy.

So there are the sci-fi and fantasy umbrellas; but, more generally speaking, sci-fi and fantasy can also stand for particular sub-genres within those umbrellas.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love the graphic showing all the genres under the umbrella of spec fiction - good description :)

Kay said...

Enjoyed the discussion. I think my favorite description of the difference between SF and fantasy came from Ursula Le Guin. She described them as two ends of the same continuum. Works for me. In my classroom, I lump them all together on the same shelf for ease of organization.

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