Robert J. Sawyer and the Definition of Science Fiction
James Palmer [IROSF]: What is your definition of science fiction?
Robert J. Sawyer: That’s a very contentious question, but I do have a definition. Science fiction is the mainstream literature of an alternative reality. I think that actually does better than most of the other attempts that people have tried to define this thing. It is told just like any other kind of story, as if the reader of the story was already familiar with the milieu of the story, the backdrop of the story. But of course, the reader actually isn’t, so the special storytelling trick is to talk-if your story is set on Mars in the year 2500, you’re writing to an audience that is already familiar with Mars in 2500 and you just plunge them into this the way you would plunge them into a story set in New York City in 2005, without stopping to say, “Well, you know, New York City was founded in this year, it’s named after York in England.” You don’t build up the background and dump the background information on them. You assume they’re already familiar with it. One of the reasons why Star Wars is fantasy as opposed to science fiction is that it assumes its audience is not familiar with the background, which is why you have the great crawls at the beginning of the film to tell you what the situation is. If it was a science fiction film, you would’ve been dropped into the story without ever having any introduction to the universe you were in, and you would pick it up by gathering clues as you go along through the narrative. So the mainstream literature of an alternative reality works for me.
JP: It’s like John W. Campbell said, it should be like you’re reading a newspaper from the future.
RJS: Yes. Absolutely, I agree with that. And I don’t agree that any definition of science fiction has to have “science” as part of the definition. You know, Isaac Asimov defined it as “that branch of literature that deals with the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology.” I think that’s right for what Isaac Asimov wrote, but it isn’t right for what an awful lot of science fiction writers wrote. Michael Moorcock does not write about the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology, yet is clearly a science fiction writer.
Hmmm…Some interesting statements in there…
The Star Wars thing is interesting, but it sounds to me like a forced example of his own personal definition. The addition of the opening crawl or similar “world explanation” does not magically transform science fiction into fantasy, does it? It’s just a decision the filmmaker (or, for a book, the author) made in how to present the story. Couldn’t RJS have made the decision to put a brief scene-setting opening into one of his award winning science fiction books? Of course he could have. But that wouldn’t have made it any less a work of science fiction.
That said, I personally teeter back and forth on whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy – I can see both arguments. I do see a very strong likeness between SW and an old time western. Just replace the lasers with guns, the lightsabers with swords, and the story doesn’t have to change one bit. (While you’re at it, replace the stultifyingly bad acting with the cast of Saved by the Bell – it has to be an improvement. Seriously, George, how the heck can you get a bad performance out of Samuel Jackson? Samuel Jackson! …Ahem.) I can also see the argument that Star Wars is science fiction with it’s planet-killing weapons like the Death Star (can’t get that in the Old West, although apparently you can get giant steam-powered spiders.) Now the Force, I’m not too sure about. It had an unexplained, mystical presence up until the disastrous appearance of the midi-chlorians, where Lucas attempted to give some scientific explanation for the Force.
I’m also having a hard time accepting the definition of sf that lacks science. Maybe his definition of science does not include the “soft sciences” category like sociology psychology, anthropology, etc.? It’s hard to fully understand the definitions without showing examples of what is and is not science fiction (at least within the realm of things that are considered by some to be science fiction).
Sawyer is right saying this a contentious question. I think the safest thing to say is that everyone has their own personal definition of what it is. For example, John C. Wright and John Scalzi have their own working definitions as do other authors
Filed under: Books
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!