A Defining Moment for Science Fiction

The foundation of Science Fiction resides in its vaporous definition
The foundation of Science Fiction resides in its vaporous definition

Over the years, Amazing Stories has compiled an extensive collection of tales with fantastic visions of the imagination. A staple in Science Fiction fandom, the magazine forged a hard nose following. But what is Science Fiction? On the outside it may seem recognizable, but on the inside SF covers a broad spectrum in literary language. Face it, there are so many sub-genres out there now falling under this category, some people (even those within the fandom) can get confused as to what is and what isn’t science fiction. The word “science fiction” is recognizable to the average fan, but the definition can easily become indistinguishable from other genre without taking a much closer look. So I thought about trying to narrow it down.

First, we’ll go old school and do what most people do when looking for a definition – look at it up! Let’s try Merriam-Webster.

“: fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component”

Is this vague enough? The use of “actual or imagined science” covers just about anything one’s twisted mind can conjure up. I’m convinced that if you scrutinize a work of literature long enough, even the slightest element of science could file that work under the umbrella of SF. No, this definition is too unclear. On the other hand, this definition does shed some light on how something like Fantasy or Horror can sometimes end up on a bookshelf dedicated to SF. With slippery interpretations, only a diehard fan will know the difference.

As mentioned earlier, another loophole people may find in the science fiction category is by sneaking it in under one of the many sub-genres. There are a lot of them, and maybe that is part of the confusion. Here are just a few:

Alternate History; Apocalyptic / Post Apocalyptic; Contemporary/Near Future; Cyberpunk; Dystopian; Hard Science Fiction; Science Fiction Western; Shared World; Slipstream; Soft Science Fiction; Space Opera; Steampunk; Superhero, Time Travel; Weird Tale.

With the slightest twist of insinuation or interpretation, it’s clear that literary fiction has a vast field to play with and can easily fall under the banner of Science Fiction. I often wonder if even the purest work of fiction could be considered sci-fi, simply because the author (or publisher, or reader, or etc.) can just claim it as an alternate universe. Under the Merriam-Webster definition above, could Shakespeare’s Macbeth be considered as SF? Hey, it’s fiction. It’s imaginary. This is obviously an extreme example, but it does show the vagueness of the SF title.

Even Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame gave the argument a try with, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.” This is a good definition as long as you’re talking to the right person or group. Time of publication plays a big role in this. Which genre would a story about Copernicus have fallen under if during his time you were writing a fictional story about his work?

But in this forum, we may want to look at the perspective of SF in the context of Amazing Stories. So let’s go back to April 1926 and look at the very the very first edition of Amazing Stories. Founder Hugo Gernsback coined “scientifiction” in his introduction titled “A New Sort of Magazine” for Volume 1, Number 1 of the magazine. Like most other attempts, it may not be a crystal clear definition. But it does give us a unique direction, a line in the sand to start from. Gernsback noted, “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allen Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.”

Okay, Gernsback may not have narrowed it down as much as we would have liked, but he sure provided a distinct opinion. Science Fiction does not have to be equal to the genius of Verne, Wells and Poe (after all, the probability of this would be – well, it would fall under the genre of Fantasy). It should however exalt the passion and loyalty of its fandom while maintaining the integrity of what Amazing Stories has provided over the years.

What is Science Fiction? Is it the thin line between an unrefined reality and an acute madness? Or is it just a combination of the imagination gone wild while remaining honest with the reader? Maybe the foundation of Science Fiction simply resides in its vaporous definition. Perhaps this vague definition is by design, allowing the readers to broaden their focus. In my opinion…you’ll know Science Fiction when you see it.

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  1. Excellent article. You bring up several good discussion points. Depending on what you like to read, a definition for Science Fiction is a rather slippery slope, as the lawyers like to say.

    I did graduate studies on history and have worked on various history projects. There's a distinct boosterism to the whole field when you get involved with small towns looking for tourist dollars. People tend to leave out "inconvenient facts" for the greater good.

    The same thing occurs in science fiction. There's some vested interests at stake, I imagine. For myself, I'm inclined to look at some exposition of logic that indicates the author is reaching for truth. It doesn't have to BE true. I don't blame past authors for making bad predictions about where science is going. But like a cat burglar who's caught halfway through the window, when the story doesn't hold up, what are you supposed to do?

    Well… bring the criminal to account, I suppose. Ultimately, if the author can't suspend the reader's disbelief, then the game is up. So I suppose you're right. I'll know it when I read it.

    Theodore Sturgeon would probably butt in and "Ask the next question?" Since he's not here, I'll jump in. Don't we need a usable definition so we aren't just arguing semantics?

    The problem is, will stories like Star Wars survive the cut?

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