Tuesday, March 3, 2015

BLOGTABLE III: Defining Science Fiction

Welcome to the third episode of Blogtable! Here's how it works: a prompt is issued by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by three guest bloggers in turn. Crucially, each guest blogger will also respond to each preceding respondent. This episode's cast o' characters:

The G (Prompter)

The G is founder and co-editor of ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F, crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

Ian Sales (Respondent #1)

Ian Sales is the author of the award-winning Apollo Quartet, the final book of which, All That Heaven Allows, will be published soon. The first novel of a space opera trilogy, A Prospect of War, will be published by Tickety Boo Press in July 2015. He can be found online at
iansales.com and tweets as @ian_sales.

Aliette de Bodard (Respondent #2)

Aliette de Bodard is an engineer, a science fiction and fantasy writer and a keen amateur cook. Her stories have appeared in venues such as Clarkesworld or Interzone, and her novel The House of Shattered Wings, a murder mystery set in a post-apocalyptic Paris ruled by Fallen angels, will be released by Gollancz and Roc in August 2015. She blogs (and cooks) at http://www.aliettedebodard.com.

Paul Kincaid (Respondent #3)

Paul Kincaid is the author of two collections of essays and reviews, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call and Response, and he is currently working on a book about Iain M. Banks. He has received the Thomas Clareson Award from the SFRA and the BSFA Non-Fiction Award.
EPISODE II: In which The G asks our respondents what it is, exactly, that makes science fiction science fictional...


What does the term “science fiction” denote to you?

  • Do you favor a broader or narrower definition of what science fiction “is” or “isn’t?”
  • How central is speculative science to science fiction, and how rigorous or “hard” does that science need to be?
  • More broadly, what, if anything, makes a story “science fictional?”

How important is it for science fiction to have a clear identity--as distinct from fantasy or mimetic/literary fiction? 

  • What are the potential benefits and pitfalls of transgressing genre boundaries, such as those delineating science fiction from fantasy or mimetic/literary fiction?
  • How does the transgression of genre boundaries affect the kinds of stories being told and range of literary statements being made?
  • What about staying within definitional boundaries--does this (generally) serve as a means of focus or constraint?


Like many people involved in science fiction--reading it, writing it, commenting on it--I’ve had a go at defining the genre. To me, it’s more just than a toy box for writers to play in, it’s a mode of fiction, and understanding how that mode works is useful when writing, or writing about, sf. In my definition, the four modes of fiction--science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and mimetic--are characterized by differing levels in narrative agency and deployment of wonder. In science fiction and mimetic fiction, agency is conferred on objects systematically by the natural world - for example, the laws of physics. But in fantasy and magical realism, that agency exists purely due to authorial fiat. Wonder, on the other hand, is a consequence of the manipulation of scale and expectation. In science fiction and fantasy, this is set at a high level; in magical realism and mimetic fiction, it is low. As a result, I don’t believe science and/or technology is central to science fiction, but a rational and/or scientific worldview is. The degree of “hardness” is pretty much irrelevant.

By this argument, the defining characteristics of science fiction are structural rather than a consequence of the presences of certain tropes. After all, how we treat tropes does, in part, tell us which genre we’re reading. For example, a dragon is fantasy, but Varanus Cryptodraconis is science fiction; a spaceship traveling faster than the speed of light using a hyperspace drive is science fiction, but a spaceship powered by someone waving their arms and spouting gibberish is fantasy.

When knowledge of the underlying elements and operating mechanisms which together form science fiction is lost or ignored, people just use it as just a box of tropes. And when people treat it like that, they also feel free to mix and match those tropes according to some artistic agenda. Which I think does science fiction a disservice. The true boundary works, the real edge-cases, are not those which jumble up tropes from, say, sf and fantasy, but those which work at a lower level, making play with the operating assumptions of more than one genre.

Given this, it’s no surprise I believe science fiction is distinct, that it’s not simply one flavour of something called “speculative fiction” (a term I hate, since all fiction is essentially speculative--you might as well call literature “fictional fiction”). Mungeing all genres into one doesn’t actually give us anything new or innovative. Thanks to this fallacy, much of the innovation we’ve seen in sf short fiction in the past decade or so has all been in terms of literary style--driven, I suspect, by creative writing courses and workshops...

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point someone realised that genre fiction itself could be used a tool because it allowed writers to literali
ze a metaphor. This then spread into genre writing, and now half the sf and fantasy stories we see published use the technique. More recently, many genre writers have turned it on its head and use metaphors to disguise the common genre tropes they deploy. I’m not convinced this is any better. In fact, this latter technique seems to have led to a preponderance of over-writing in genre fiction. 

Basically, I believe that just as you have to understand a rule before you break it, so you have to understand science fiction before you can bend and twist it and do interesting things with it. And I’m not convinced every genre writer currently being published does really understand it. For many, it’s not an issue--they’re working in the core genre landscape, where the signposts are plain to see (and I’m mixing metaphors like mad here), so they’re writing down well-traveled lines. But there are also a number working at the edges, and it often strikes me that for many of those writers their approach to genre is nowhere near as sophisticated as they like to think it is.


I have to admit that I'm coming from a slightly different position on categories (SF vs fantasy, SF vs mimetic, etc). I think they're very useful for setting expectations--both of what the reader is getting, and also for posterior analysis, to gather together movements and trends. Saying a book is "science fiction" means the reader expects something, and is going to be sorely disappointed if the plot turns out to take place in the 19th Century, feature a romance and no science whatsoever!

They also make it easier for readers to find books by grouping them by similar themes and features; they create a shorthand of common language based on common tropes (space travel, time travel...), and common expectations (sense of wonder...), which can be very useful both for building a story: for instance, I can use the term "ansible" in a science fiction story, or refer to generation ships, and most people familiar with the genre will know what I'm talking about, without the need for me to pause and explain for paragraphs on end!

The issue I have with them is that, like any common languages, categories can be used (and are used) to leave people out, in particular marginali
zed people. There is a very easy drift I see, time and time again, of saying that "this isn't SF because..." that gets applied with a particular vengeance to women/non-binary folks, or POCs, or people from outside the Anglosphere, or marginalized in other ways. Because, of course, the drawback of a common language and a common shorthand is that people who do not share this are in many ways left in the cold--when you don't speak this language or are not in conversation with the right background (as a reader, as a writer), what are you meant to do? (I have seen people, for instance, insist that one should read the classics before going on to read any science fiction--which is a heavy onus to place on readers who are probably just here for pleasure). 

I know it's a line, and that where it's drawn is a complicated matter--on the one end, excluding all but a narrow subset of people; on the other, putting everything into the same confusing, grab-bag category--; but it's just something I like to be aware of when it comes to categories.

And, indeed, as a writer, I feel like categories can be more of a cage than a focus; because they set rules of what is and isn't acceptable; because those rules are so easy to learn, continuously reinforced, and can take years if not decades to unlearn. And because you need people to set new boundaries for science fiction for the genre to renew itself (I'm aware people not everyone will agree with me there!); and this will not happen if everyone remains hemmed in by narrow definitions of the category (some of the most intriguing and fresh genre stories I read came from outside the Anglophone world, and were based on different traditions and different genre breakdowns).

At the same time, I do agree with Ian that it's useful to know the rules, especially if you mean to break them: partly because it's good to know what's gone on before or what's going on at the moment, and partly because what makes a story satisfying to an audience depends on the category (a science fiction story that ended up saying science is useless would not go down well with the SF audience, although I'm sure there would be ways to make it work!)--and that if you're going to stray from what people expect, I think it helps to know, as a writer, why you're going uphill and what you can do to make things work for your readership. 

I'm tempted to say that one of the defining characteristics of science fiction is that it should deal with science and the future in some way; but then I run into several problems: the first, of course, is that not all science fiction is concerned with the future (should we argue that even stories, say, of time travel or alternate histories set in the past are about our future? But then surely all fiction is about our present, and even our vision of the future is rooted in our present? Just compare Jules Verne's works to current ones, and it's easy to see that the 19th century vision of a Frenchman is quite distinct from, say, the 21st-Century vision of a U.S.-ian).

The second is that science is not fixed. By that, I don't mean completely without rules, of course; but Clarke was right when he said that science and magic became indistinguishable: one of the core characteristics of science is that it's always evolving, always contradicting and extending itself. The tail end of the 19th Century/20th Century gave us quantum mechanics and general relativity, two theories that profoundly changed our understanding of current physics (and likewise for other sciences; I'm just taking physics as something I'm particularly familiar with). It's likely that in a few centuries' time, science will have changed so much that all that we currently know will be outdated, inaccurate or outright false.

I've seen the writing advice that no story should break the laws of physics; the catch, of course, is that the laws of physics are not absolute, and that they almost certainly subject to revision in the future: to say that something is implausible or impossible four, five centuries into our future feels particularly inappropriate. With that in mind, I'm of the opinion that being "rigorous" or "hard" in a story means following the usages and storytelling modes of hard science fiction: I don't think hard SF has any kind of intrinsic superiority to other sub-genres of SF; though of course that doesn't mean hard SF stories have no attraction (I actually quite like hard SF stories because it's quite good fun to see the kinds of geeky space things people come up with!). Personally, I like to play with science and the evolution of science in my stories because it's something that fascinates me (but I totally understand that other writers have different ideas on this!).

So I guess what I'm trying to say that I'm more on the "broad definition" term of the spectrum; and that I would prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusionary. 


Although there are fundamental differences between what Ian and Aliette say, I found myself nodding in agreement as I read both of them. I started thinking of a post that would somehow tie them together, draw out the commonality, agree with what they are saying. Then I changed my mind. It is not that I suddenly decided that science fiction should be narrowly defined (I don't think that), or that I
realized Ian and Aliette were wrong (they aren't, that's part of the point). It is more that I recognized that I was seeing science fiction differently.

Bear with me, I've been working my way painstakingly towards these ideas for a decade or more, and I've still not reached a point where I am wholly satisfied with my position. This is a work in progress, if you like. My starting point is that science fiction is not a genre. I know we (including me) regularly refer to it as such, in fact it is often talked about as "The Genre" as if it's the only one. We are wrong.

There are two ways of talking about genre. (Actually, there now seem to be three ways: I've started to see anything that might link disparate bits of writing together being described as a genre. Fiction by British-Asian writers: it's a genre; fiction by women: it's a genre. So far as I can see, this is a completely useless and meaningless employment of the term, but beware, it's out there.) The oldest and broadest and, for some people, still the only correct way to use genre is in terms of type of writing. Prose, poetry, drama: these are genres; science fiction, in this context, clearly isn't.

The more recent, and now more generally accepted use of the word is as a
characterization of story. Here we know the basic structure of the story, we know the end point towards which we anticipate the story will lead us (or which may be subverted, but you need to recognize where it should go in order to recognize the subversion). Crime is a genre: it leads us to the solution/restoration; coming-of-age is a genre: it leads to personal growth; quest is a genre: it leads to the finding of what was lost; romance is a genre, bildungsroman is a genre. Genre is what shapes the story we are reading. Science fiction is not a genre, there is no natural end point towards which a science fiction story leads (a point made in very different ways by Brian Stableford when he talks of an sf story having no ending, and by Brian Attebury when he describes science fiction as a parabola open to infinity); on the contrary, science fiction can employ any of these genres. Science fiction, in other words, is what enables the story, not what shapes it. The same is true of historical fiction, for instance, or contemporary mainstream literature.

I have taken to imagining these enabling features as a field. Perhaps we might say it stretches between the fantastic and the real along one edge, between the past and the future along the other. Story (in terms of genre) may spring up anywhere within the field; whereabouts within the field will lead us to identify it as science fiction, or fantasy, or magic realism, or mainstream. (I'm using Ian's four-fold division here, because it helps to illustrate the point, and because it shows a certain continuity in our thinking, but I don't fully agree with it. Science fiction, fantasy and magic realism are all variations within what we might term the fantastic; mainstream can be similarly broken up into as many or more subdivisions. So I think this four-fold pattern significantly undersells the variety of literatures. Nevertheless, as I say, it is illustrative.)

This is too simplistic an analogy, of course. Think of something like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas: that consists of six different genres, but it also relates to six different portions of the field. There is no definitive argument that allows us to say this book belongs at that point, and that point only, within the field. Besides, the field is not neatly and clearly divided up. Let me mix my metaphors for a moment; have you seen those color wheels you get when you are trying to define the color for a website or an InDesign document? The whole array is filled with a dense mass of colors. Place the cursor at random at any point on the array and you may pick a light blue. Move the cursor slowly in one direction and the colour gradually changes until all at once you have a bright red, without ever passing one identifiable point where you could say it has stopped being blue or started being red. 

Indeed, moving in one direction you might come upon a value that you consider still counts as blue, whereas someone moving in the other direction might identify the same value as red. And you could both be right. The same thing happens in fiction. Think of something like Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary: approach it one way and you might decide it is mainstream, from another direction it might appear fantasy, from still a third it is science fiction.

The point I am making is that these various enablers of story cannot be defined in such a way that their borders are sharply and clearly delineated. Not only do they all merge into one another, but they must merge. Just as no value on the color field is exactly the same as even its closest neighbor, so no point in the literature field, no story, is exactly the same as its neighbor. They will share some characteristics (what I have called family resemblances) with the fiction to one side, but they will also share different family resemblances with the fiction on the other side. (It is possible to think of these family resemblances in a Delany-esque way as a shared language, but I have resisted that usage partly for the point that Aliette makes about language as being exclusionary.) There is no work that is entirely and purely science fiction, just as there is no work that is entirely and purely historical fiction or contemporary realist fiction or fantasy or ...

So, to go back to your original questions: What does the term "science fiction" denote to me? It's a story that shares recogni
zable characteristics with other stories that I have chosen to call science fiction. And everyone will see those characteristics differently, will approach individual works from different directions, so a broad or narrow definition is actually irrelevant. As is the centrality of science or technology; for me science is not a necessary component of sf, but it is likely to be more important for others. So two of us might stand on the exact same spot in the colour field and I think this is still a shade of blue where they think it is now certainly red.

And if you bear all that in mind, then when you ask: How important is it for science fiction to have a clear identity--as distinct from fantasy or mimetic/literary fiction? The answer is inevitable: not only is it not at all important, it is actually impossible. And personally I find works that cannot be delineated, that merge characteristics from all over the field, to be far more interesting, innovative and rewarding (I like how Ian puts this: "making play with the operating assumptions of more than one genre", though you'll understand that I quibble over the word genre).


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).