What IS science fiction?

Recently, Black Gate wrote a retro review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and it was a fair review of a beloved 30+ year old sci-fi flick, obligatory remarks about Shatner and Montalban’s hammy acting and all. One part stuck out for me though:

“But while it features all of Star Trek‘s usual array of SF trappings you could make the argument that at the heart of things Wrath is not really a science fiction story at all — which might be beside the point. It could probably have worked just as well with Khan the pirate being marooned on a remote island in the Caribbean or Khan the ex-con getting out of prison and seeking vengeance on the person who put him there. It’s all about the revenge, after all.”

It’s pointing out the obvious, what we all (or most people who’ve watched Trek) have known. How many Trek stories can this be said of? How many are naval engagements, colonial encounters, or even fairytale flights of fancy with some machine or superalien in the role of Mab & Oberon? So why point it out?

I wonder what constitutes a sci-fi story. About how many seminal works of science fiction could one say that it “is not really a science fiction story at all”?

While Lengeman may be making an innocuous point here, the “not sci-fi” or “not serious sci-fi” trope has long been an issue in fandom, whether it’s the ghettoization of retail shelves following the Fantasy market being broken off or alleged marginalization of women writers for not writing hard enough sci-fi. It’s not new. But really, why point out that Star Trek whatever is “not really a science fiction story” unless you are going to present a clear definition of what a sci-fi story is?

Sci-fi is more a combination of setting and aesthetic than story. In fact, I would go so far as to posit that there is no such thing as a “sci-fi story”.

Short Review up later today.

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2 responses to “What IS science fiction?

  1. Haven’t you heard? Science Fiction is whatever John Scalzi and David Gerrold say it is.

    But, seriously, the problem that I see is that there are too many definitions, which I think, can be categorized as either defining the genre by externalities or by story structure.

    First, the most obvious (and probably more useful) definitions that rely on who, what, where, and when. If a story has aliens, ray guns, takes place on another planet, or is set in the future, it’s Science Fiction. We may quibble about which elements qualify for what schism of speculative fiction, but that the existence of things in the story which do not exist in the real world is the primary characteristic.

    Therefor, setting old stories in new places–“Forbidden Planet”, for example, or “The Wrath Of Khan”–transforms them from their original genre into Science Fiction. There’s much to be said for this approach in terms of clarity–although, as I said, there are demons in the details. “Gravity”, for example, is often called “Science Fiction” because it takes place in near Earth orbit, but I consider it more of a wilderness survival film because the technology is no more speculative than most action movies, and less than many.

    Then there is the matter of story structure. A more rarefied definition exists that Science Fiction should be limited to those stories that do not simply contain fantastic elements, but could not be told without those elements. Defining the genre thus involves some fine paring of philosophical nuance. How much can be changed in a story before it ceases to be the same story?

    Could “Dune” be transported to an oil-rich kingdom in North Africa and still retain its essential nature? If one replaced alien arachnids with hostile humans in “Starship Troopers” would the story of Johnny Rico remain the same? Much of what was once fantastic in “Nineteen Eighty Four”, “A Clockwork Orange”, and “Fahrenheit 451” is now not only possible, but commonplace. Are those still “Science Fiction” or have they become realism?

    And what of stories in which the fantastic is implied, but never directly exhibited? Fritz Leiber’s horrifying “You’re All Alone”, Phillip Dick’s maddening “VALIS” are non-falsifiable in a realistic sense –there is nothing there that one could point to and say, “This does not exist.” Yet the stories themselves are impossible. (Or so we hope).

    I don’t have answers, which is one of several reasons that I no longer use the phrase “Science Fiction” to describe my own work.

    • It’s certainly a quandary. If either everything or nothing could be plausibly fit into it as a category, then what good is it as a category? Yet everyone knows, or at least thinks they know, what it means when something is called science fiction; they at least get some idea in their head. But as Jeffro’s pointed out in his Appendix N series, what was called science fiction before SF split from Fantasy in retail marketing terms is very different from what the term evokes for many people. I mean, if Nine Princes in Amber is Science Fiction, then so is the Phantom Tollbooth!

      And of course, there are those who have very rigid ideas of what is and is not science fiction despite the tons of cultural evidence to the contrary. It’s one big No True Scotsman.

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