Editorial: The Definition of Science Fiction*

Practitioners, critics, academics and fans have so far failed to derive a completely satisfactory definition of this genre over the course of what has now become the better part of a century.

Practitioners, critics, academics and fans have so far failed to derive a completely satisfactory definition of this genre over the course of what has now become the better part of a century.  87 years to be exact.  In March of 1926 Hugo Gernsback offered up the first of what would become a legion of definitions:

“By “scientifiction” I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.”

Ever since Hugo published those words we have been struggling to figure out how and why something as surreal and unscientific as a Poe story is the same as a straight-forward work of Wells’ social satire and is the same as a Verne engineering handbook.

We’ll never be able to.  We’ll never find a definition for science fiction that adequately encompasses everything that has ever been identified as science fiction for the simple reason that we aren’t meant to.

That is because the purpose of attempting to define science fiction is not to inspire us towards finding a perfect definition,  one that can corral the genre behind impenetrable taxonomic walls. I think the real purpose of constantly seeking better definitions for science fiction is to prompt us to continuously discuss and challenge the genre’s nature. (Indeed, by that very nature science fiction seeks to eliminate any of the boundaries we may seek to impose upon it:  a wall is a challenge to science fiction, an obstacle that begs for conquest.)

Every generation has had and will have its own science fiction zeitgeist, a collection of works, experiences and sense-of-wonder moments that serve as a baseline for what science fiction is to them – and every succeeding generation will find much to ridicule and little to admire in what has gone before.

Likewise, every earlier generation will find little to admire and much to ridicule concerning that which science fiction has become.

Solid definition eludes us because the goalposts are ever receding.  Cultural drift contributes, the clock ticks on and in some respects science fiction has only itself to blame, as science fiction directly influences the ever changing landscape that it calls home.

If the purpose of defining science fiction is not a taxonomic one, it behooves us to determine and articulate exactly what other purpose it may serve.  In attempting to do so, I return to Hugo Gernsback’s original definition.

That definition consists of three elements that I find instructive to examine in turn:

Charming romance” references the inherent and necessary entertainment value that must accompany any successful work of fiction.  If the reader is not interested, they will not read.  It also underscores the idea that it is fiction, not a treatise, nor a scientific paper or similar speculative document that may circumstantially incorporate elements of fiction.

Note also that this element comes first in the definition; entertainment value is paramount.  Hugo’s stated purpose was to ‘candy-coat’ the science in order to gain wider acceptance of and involvement by the masses in research, investigation and engagement.  While this may no longer be necessary, the concept proved out with the success of the magazine and the growth of the field.

Intermingled with scientific fact” is the second element and is the one that largely sets science fiction apart from other forms of fiction. In the years that followed SF’s inauguration the form of that intermingling and indeed even the sciences that provided the facts have been stretched far beyond anything Hugo could have imagined; non-sciences have been turned into sciences, soft disciplines have been given harder edges and works have treated this unstated requirement with everything from slavish devotion to disdain.  Yet referencing science in some way shape or form obviously remains – for obvious reasons – a foundational aspect of the literature.

Prophetic vision“.  I know that of late there has been a fairly strong movement that denies the prophetic nature of science fiction.  Yet it can not be denied that from the beginning of the genre and until very recently, the idea that works of science fiction not only hewed to scientific plausibility but sought to envision the manner in which our future would evolve was what its authors believed they were doing.  Not all of the time with every single work, not always seriously and certainly not always rigorously, but speculating, prognosticating, prophesying and extrapolating was absolutely their intent a large part of the time.(1)

Hugo calls for it in 1926; Science Fiction authors answered that call knowingly and with purpose. One can easily find videos of respected authors declaiming that their purpose is to envision the future in an extrapolative manner; quotes along the same lines can also be easily found.  One such quote from Ray Bradbury is extremely telling:

“I don’t try to predict the future. All I want to do is prevent it.”

This quote may be apocryphal (though Ray has made very similar remarks on record). It is telling because it implies actions and goals.  It is deliberative. Science Fiction authors are not idly spinning fancies that may or may not resemble something that will manifest in the distant future.  They are envisioning the possible futures consequent from today’s reality, examining its import, offering a position, illuminating it and suggesting possible solutions – or at the very least erecting navigational sign posts through which we are able to gauge our progress.

To deny science fiction’s speculative purpose is to deny the genre itself.  Not only the genre, but its very purpose, one that it has served so well and demonstrably for nearly nine decades.  Had it not done so the expression “we’re living in a science fiction world” would not be so common nor so true.

Indeed, the special skill of taking plausible extrapolation and infusing it with the human element, of modifying cold equations with the vagaries and unpredictability of human emotion, have been recognized outside the field.  SIGMA, the Science Fiction Think Tank (“an association of speculative writers who have spent careers exploring the future”) provides consultation services to government and military organizations; a predecessor to SIGMA was formed to address space technologies and ended up heavily influencing the Strategic Defense Initiative – the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy.  And at many times and many places, from at least the 1960s on, individuals and groups of science fiction authors have been sought by government and industry to assist in charting out the future.

It is the prophetic vision aspect of Hugo’s definition that I find most applicable to Amazing Stories’, to examining our purpose in defining the genre and to science fiction’s own reason for being.

Humankind did not evolve with an operator’s manual in hand. We made it up as we went along and it’s still missing whole chapters, a table of contents and an index.  I believe that one of the reasons we’re so keen on finding an extraterrestrial intelligence is so that we can check our manual against theirs and use theirs to fill in some of the blanks.  Just like that writer without editorial feedback:  We think the work is pretty good, we like it, but there’s that nagging suspicion that somewhere lies an error, or a chapter that ought to be revised, a character repurposed.

We may not have been handed an operator’s manual, but we have certainly developed the tool that will help us create one.  That tool is science fiction. Speculation, extrapolation and imagination are its laboratory instruments.  Science Fiction is humankind’s modelling software.

Like the supercomputers that model the weather, science fiction’s output is not pinpoint precise.  The weather report never says “Tomorrow it will rain for 17 minutes and 32 seconds, depositing 18,000 gallons of water over an area bounded by Maple street and Main street to the north and south and by 3rd and 27th avenues to the east and west.”  The report says “80 percent chance of intermittent rain showers tomorrow afternoon”, and that usually covers a multi-state region. Yet, despite the imprecision, we rely on the models to an ever increasing degree.

Science Fiction’s predictions about the future are more akin to those Hurricane tracks we see on television every year:  one or two tracks prove to be pretty close to the mark, a few less so and they are always accompanied by one or two or three wildly diverging paths that upon resolution prove to bear absolutely no relationship to reality whatsoever.

Saying that the works of science fiction can’t predict the future is like saying that we’d rather do without the hurricane tracking because of those wildly divergent paths.  That’s foolish. It demonstrates an ignorance of the purpose of modelling and it is dangerous.  Far more lives were lost to Atlantic storms before the advent of weather prediction than are lost now. (Sometimes it would take days for the rest of the country to even be aware that there had been a storm.)

Some may also conflate the ill-manner in which we handle the modelling data with the modelling itself.  Our inability to heed our own warnings is legendary.  The Boy Who Cried Wolf was right when it counted.  But ignored and reviled nonetheless.  Where some see the story of a comeuppance for a trouble-maker, I see a lesson in the necessity of maintaining constant vigilance if you don’t want the wolves to get any of your sheep.  In wolf country, it is sheer idiocy to appoint one single boy to watch the entire flock.  We still live in wolf country.

Human history amply demonstrates that we still prefer to appoint one boy, easily bored, distracted and probably off his ADD meds to watch the hen house while the sheep are leaving the barn.  As a species we seem to be far more reactive than preemptive; dollars for emergency rooms rather than wellness care; cleanups after environmental disasters rather than technologies that don’t cause such;  all while having at our disposal the tools and information needed to be effectively preemptive and proactive.  Those tools are, of course, found in science fiction literature.

I want to introduce two other observations before reaching my conclusion, the first addressing the complaints about the prevalence of distopian/apocalyptic themes, the second regarding fannish ideals and the absorption of geek culture by the mainstream.

If you accept the premise that Ray Bradbury put forth, the prevalence of distopian fiction is precisely what we need;  times are very uncertain, technological dangers surround us, societies across the globe are in upheaval and our future is probably more uncertain now than it has ever been before.  If science fiction models our future and informs us (operating manual) of how we are to respond, then science fiction is, right now, offering us the information we need to re-program ourselves (and our cultures) in ways that will help us either avoid those futures or handle their consequences in a more efficient manner.  Asimov’s Hari Seldon foresaw the coming dark ages of humankind’s galactic empire and realized that there was no way to prevent it.  He also foresaw the methods by which their effects could be minimized and their reign curtailed.  He then set in motion a plan to positively affect the course of future history, incidentally marking the difference between the inhabitants of his fictional universe and all of us in our own.

In the Foundation Trilogy, Asimov modeled the way in which science fiction is supposed to be used: model the future and use the insights the model produces to construct a plan for dealing with the future.

Early Fandom was created and fostered by idealists.  Largely young men (much changed now) who were captivated by the wonders of technology, they believed two things very clearly.  First, that they represented a minority, an often ridiculed, if not reviled, sub-culture.  They knew that they did not enjoy the contempt and dismissive attitudes of greater society. They also believed that they had something special to offer.  Their uncomfortable place in society quickly brought them to the realization that what they did not enjoy, others would not enjoy and thus they incorporated concepts of equality and fairness, of seeking out and embracing the other, into their culture. Demonstrating within their own culture the way greater society ought to be. (It is true that these ideals are not always evident, but then in addition to being Slans, Fans are also human.)

Second, they believed that technology and creativity could be used to invent a future that reflected their ideals.  Science Fiction wasn’t just about coming up with nifty-cool concepts, it was also about figuring out which concepts were desirable AND about manipulating our present in ways that would instantiate those futures.

I am sure that I am not the only fan of science fiction that realizes a tremendous amount of daily frustration with the world as it is today:  I’ve seen the future on any number of occasions – many of them futures I’d like to inhabit.  My frustration derives from the fact that many of those futures are achievable within my lifetime and yet we will probably never realize them because the rest of the world lacks vision, or is caught in reactive programming loops, or both.

Today in the 21st century, four plus generations into the Science Fiction Age, we are just beginning to realize the full effect that the genre has had on our society.  Several generations have been inspired by that Buck Rogers stuff, have taken those fannish ideals to heart and have set about turning fictional wonders of the future into today’s reality. Science Fiction fans and readers turned scientist and engineer took us to outer space via the space program, to inner space via the internet and are even now surprising us with technological wonders on a daily basis – genetic research, medical technologies, renewable energy, crowd-funded space telescopes, asteroid mining, space tourism.  Nearly every one of them presaged, in one form or another, in the literature of science fiction.

Society itself has been inspired by those same fannish ideals; it is not enough to pay lip service to our Declaration or Constitution or Bill of Rights.  Their inspiring words MUST be realized for all, now, not later.  Our discourse must be founded on logic and reason, not superstition and ignorance.  The individual must be empowered, must be allowed to speak to authority.  Information should and must be shared. If you have a better idea for tomorrow, don’t just talk about it, go out and do.  It’s ok to express yourself; it’s ok to share your enthusiasms, it’s ok – and valuable – to be different.

And now I think it is just about time for Science Fiction and its creators and fans to be fully recognized for everything they have wrought.  Not in a passingly familiar way (we’re living in a science fiction world) but in an actualized, meaningful way.  The influences and benefits of learning from science fiction are evident all around us.  Time and again we have turned to the Manual of the Future and have found ourselves better off for it.  It is now time for science fiction and its practitioners to take full credit for everything they’ve done for us – and to demand that they be treated accordingly – to be given the recognition they deserve and to have what they do respected at all levels of our society.

We owe it to ourselves and to those who have gone before us to consciously write that user’s guide, humankind’s manual of the future and to bring it to everyone’s attention.  We need to tell everyone that there IS a way – a time tested and proven method – to chart out our future course, to determine the kind of future we would all like to live in and then actively participate in going there.  We need no longer remain passive observers of unfolding events.  We can actively invent the future.

The Definition of Science Fiction is not a collection of words that describes a particular sub-set of literature.  It is an on-going process of modelling mankind’s possible futures, the ways in which our technologies can and will affect us, an examination of our ethics and moralities and their suitability for the future, a scouting expedition into places both dark and light, a report back on the road conditions ahead.

We need our creators, those wonderful, inventive, prescient science fiction creators to accept this mantle, to find an unfinished chapter in that manual of the future and to start filling it in.  We need to know where we should go and the places we should avoid. What kind of people should we be?  How should we go about solving our biggest issues and what are the consequences of not only doing so but the ways in which we go about doing  it.  We need science fiction, a fully matured and confident science fiction to start modelling in earnest, conscious of the fact that it may very well have a profound effect upon the future of mankind.  We need our creators to be entertaining – so much so that the skeptical and dismissive among us won’t realize it’s medicine that they’re swallowing; we need works solidly grounded in scientific reality so that what was once regarded as outlandish foolishness will be seen as reachable goals and we need vision – prophetic vision – to inspire the next generation to strive and create, wonder and believe.

What kind of science fiction will Amazing Stories be looking for when it begins accepting fiction?  Anything and everything that the editors deem to fit under the broad headings of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror – presuming that they are well-written and entertaining.  Hopefully, some of those offerings will be  stories that help us fill in that Manual of Humanitie’s Future. Hopefully, some authors with the gift of prophetic vision will send us stories that teach us lessons about ourselves – who we are, why we are and what we might like to be.  Stories that show us how to get from here to there.  Fun stories, scary stories, love stories.  Stories that show us how we can better ourselves and why we’d want to do so.  Stories of set-backs and how we overcome them.  Stories of triumph that show us how to handle success.  Stories of mankind’s evolution into a self-aware creature that takes conscious responsibility for himself and continuously seeks to improve because he knows he can do so.

Stories that remind us that we can invent the future.

(1):  Arthur C. Clarke “predicting” the future; More;  More. Ray Bradbury touches on the subject  Isaac Asimov “predicting” the future

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1 Comment

  1. I think this is excellent Steve; this really hit the mark with me. It’s so difficult to develop a taxonomic purpose and I’m often doubtful that such efforts will serve a useful purpose. I’m in agreement that science fiction needs that prophetic element. I also believe in the H. G. Wells tradition that some kind of discussion of social responsibility, woven into the story line, is what makes SF fiction not only unique in literature, but so powerful and effective an influence upon its readers. A great article.

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