MIND MELD: Today’s SF Authors Define Science Fiction (Part 1)

In our Mind Meld posts, we pose a single question to a slice of the sf/f community and, depending on the question, other folks as well.

This week, we asked a seemingly simple question about the definition of science fiction.

Everyone knows the “Old Guard” definitions of science fiction. As part of the “New Guard,” how would you define science fiction?


Note: Thanks to my poorly worded question, the answers received varied a bit. I meant to ask for personal definitions of science fiction but instead tripped up relating it back to an already-existing set of definitions. Thus my unfortunate use of “New Guard” became the focus of some responses from folks. Nevertheless, I promise the responses make for good reading. :)

Also: The turn-out for this question was higher than expected, so expect a Part 2 in the very near future. (UPDATE: Part 2 has been posted.)

Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds is a science fiction writer and former scientist. He lives in Wales. His next novel is the far-future House of Suns (comming in April 2008 from Orion).

Science Fiction is fiction set in a future which is not inconsistent with our present knowledge of the world, or such knowledge as it exists at the time the work was written. In other words, there must be a logically-consistent roadmap between the present and the future. The future may be the moment immediately after the present, or an arbitrarily distant era. Alternate histories are not therefore science fiction, nor are fantasy works incorporating science fictional tropes. Science fiction works may come to resemble alternate histories or fantasies as they become invalidated by historical developments, but since such works were not intentionally written as AH or fantasy, they are still to be considered science fiction.

Karl Schroeder
Having wracked his brains to be innovative in the novels Ventus, Permanence, and Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder decided to relax for a while and write pirate stories, starting with last year’s Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce. Of course, these novels are pirate stories set in a world without gravity — but hey, swashes are still buckled, swords unsheathed, and boarding parties formed in the far-future world of Virga. He’s currently writing the fourth book of the Virga series (no, it’s not a trilogy) and thinking about how to hammer science fiction into some new shapes based on current research into cognitive science. When he occasionally pokes his head out of the trenches, he blogs about this stuff at www.kschroeder.com.

I hate this question…


Nobody feels the need to define something if they’re secure about it: do you see mainstream authors sitting around struggling to define mainstream literature? Merely asking this question betrays insecurity, and the most honest answer I can give to it is that SF is a marketing category.

However, that’s not very satisfying, is it? — And really, the actual question you’re asking isn’t about SF. What you’ve just asked us is, in a roundabout way, “what defines SF’s new guard?” I can’t speak for anybody else. I do know that I see the world entirely differently than I was taught to, by my schools, my culture and by the science fiction I grew up reading.

Science? To me is science is a class of distributed cognition in which the act of cognition is performed by a combination of human beings, instruments, books, and computers. Science is fully embodied, and has no transcendent elements; there is, for instance, no realm of ‘mathematical truth’ separate from the world of flatbed trucks, stubbed toes and divorce courts. Having this view makes it utterly impossible for me to define myself as a ‘hard SF’ writer in the classic sense because I see no distinction between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences.

Fiction? A highly conventionalized, mannered commercial category largely built around an obsolete, nineteenth-century model of human consciousness. The whole idea of “character change” is suspect, for instance, granted what we now know about how the human mind really works. Fiction is a tiny corner of a larger phenomenon called narrative; even your tax form is a narrative, it has an introduction, development and a climax and resolution (that final slot where the last number goes). Fans worry that SF is dying, but it’s literature itself that’s being exploded by the broader phenomenon of new narrative forms (MMORPGS, for instance, but also increasingly your life itself as technology intervenes to help you make sense of it).

So, granted this science, and this fiction, how can I answer your question in any way that makes sense in ‘old guard’ terms?

I can’t. So I won’t.

Ben Peek
Ben Peek is a Sydney based author. His books include the dystopian novel, Black Sheep, and the autobiography, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth. He keeps a blog, which includes the weekly comic, Nowhere Near Savannah.

Science fiction is just a way of talking about the world, but then most of the literature that resonates with you is, isn’t it? There’s nothing special about science fiction, just as there’s nothing special about any other movement or genre out there. It’s all words on a page. It’s all trying to get you to believe in something.

Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

There is no such thing as science fiction. Which is to say, the term is a rather useful marketing label and a convenient way to talk to people at parties about what we writers do. All fiction is either secret history or alternate history. What we like to refer to as “science fiction” is a certain flavor, ususally featuring some projection through space, time or technology.

(Of course, there’s always the cool stuff with death rays and zeppelins and zombie goats paratrooping into Nero’s Rome, but that’s what we get up to when the respectable world isn’t glaring at us over the top of the New York Times Book Review.)

Matthew Jarpe
Matthew Jarpe is a biochemist for a pharmaceutical company in Massachusetts. Radio Freefall is his first novel and he can be found online here.

Science fiction is what happens to people when things are different. You can’t know what makes people the way they are, because you’re one of them. You can’t ride an ox in search of the ox, as the Buddhists say. In order to understand people you have to step outside and look back in.

The science fiction writer takes you outside yourself. Science fiction takes some aspect of humanity, either the people themselves or the world they have built around themselves, and peels it away, or amplifies it, or warps it. This lets the reader see how the different aspects of our world make us the way we are.

If you want to know what it’s like to be an oppressed woman in Afghanistan under the Taliban, you can read a piece of quotidian (and I mean that in the nicest way) literature like “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” by Khaled Hosseini. But if you want to know what part of our world makes men behave like that toward women, you’d be better off with Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Science fiction helps you see the world you live in now in a new light, and the best science fiction can help you understand yourself and how you fit in the world, and how the world has shaped you.

There are a lot of different kinds of science fiction, but I think this definition grabs them all and picks up a bunch of Fantasy in the bargain. If the world described in the story is not different than ours, it’s quotidian. If there aren’t any people, it’s not a story. And if the difference has no effect on the people and how they act, what’s the point?

Jeff VanderMeer
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer’s latest book is the critically acclaimed Shriek: An Afterword, with The Situation forthcoming from PS Publishing, a new Ambergris novel on the way, several anthologies, including The New Weird and Steampunk, and, last but not least, Predator: South China Sea from Dark Horse. For more information visit his blog at http://www.jeffvandermeer.com

New Guard SF harkens back to the far future SF of Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance, in that it’s willing to use new recombinations of horror and fantasy to fuel its SF setting. The old Scientifantasy rewired is the New Guard in my opinion. You even see elements of this in the works of space opera writers like Alastair Reynolds, which may have some hard science background to them but that are also seriously Weird in a Weird Tales/New Weird way. As a reader who doesn’t respond to hard SF, I can find my way into enjoyment of work by these kinds of writers through that strangeness, which then allows me to appreciate the science. Inasmuch as I have or will again write New Guard SF, it’s always with the dangerous, no-holds-barred thought in mind that anything is possible, and that fearlessly plunging into the heart of the sun or living inside of a giant underground fish is one way to reestablish a sense of wonder and connect with the next generation of readers, while still remaining true to the imaginative and exciting tradition of exploration in SF.

Nick Mamatas
Nick Mamatas is the author of the novels Under My Roof and Move Under Ground, and the editor of Clarkesworld Magazine. His own short fiction has recently appeared in Nature, will soon appear in Weird Tales, and will be collected in the book You May Sleep… in 2008.

Science fiction is that subset of fantasy fiction in which the rationalistic, as opposed to the romantic, inclinations of the audience are valorized by the narrative.

Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress is the author of 21 books of SF, fantasy, and writing advice. She has three more books appearing in 2008, a collection of short stories and two novels. Her fiction has won three Nebulas, a Hugo, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

I guess I’m not part of “everyone,” because I’m not sure who’s Old Guard and who’s New — but surely, since I published my first story in 1976, I’m not new anything? Anyway, I would define “science fiction” as fiction that replaces one or more facts about our current world with speculative element(s) that are presented in a way that does not seem magical. That element might be scientific or technological change, or sociological change, or just a time change — a future reality instead of today’s.

Chris Roberson
Chris Roberson’s novels include Here, There & Everywhere, The Voyage of Night Shining White, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, X-Men: The Return, Set the Seas on Fire, The Dragon’s Nine Sons, and the forthcoming End of the Century, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird, and Three Unbroken. His short stories have appeared in such magazines as Asimov’s, Interzone, Postscripts, and Subterranean, and in anthologies such as Live Without a Net, FutureShocks, and Forbidden Planets. Along with his business partner and spouse Allison Baker, he is the publisher of MonkeyBrain Books, an independent publishing house specializing in genre fiction and nonfiction genre studies, and he is the editor of anthology Adventure Vol. 1. He has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award three times-once each for writing, publishing, and editing-twice a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and twice for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form (winning in 2004 with his story “O One”). Chris and Allison live in Austin, Texas with their daughter Georgia. Visit him online at www.chrisroberson.net.

Science fiction? That’s the one where the elves are called “aliens,” right?

But seriously…

I self-identify as a “science fiction writer,” and even though I’ve written things that fall into the genres of fantasy and horror, in my head I know that they’re really just science fiction in other genre drag. But when I try to pin down just why I’m a science fiction writer, as opposed to some other variety, or just what science fiction is, things get a little slippery.

See, I know that there are people who don’t consider alternate history to be science fiction, since a story set in a world where China rose to world domination in the 16th century, for example, simply couldn’t happen. (Well, it could, and if you don’t believe me you should check with Hugh Everett, but that’s a debate for another time.) And there are those cheerful types who insist that no story that features aliens, or alternate dimensions, or time travel, or Faster-than-light drives categorically can possibly be science fiction, since we don’t have time travel, or FTL, or aliens. This kind of prescriptivist stance says that science fiction should only be the kind of thing Heinlein meant when he described sf as “realistic speculation about possible future events” (but he had aliens, the mundanistas will say, so what did he know…).

But see, the problem is that I like the alternate histories, and the time travel, and the FTL and the aliens. When I think about science fiction, that’s the kind of thing I’m often thinking about. Sure, sober and well-considered speculations about the near-term ramifications of the latest computing technology in a world impacted by global climate change is important, but is it really that much fun? And at the end of the day, as writer and reader, it’s the fun that really keeps me coming back.

So what is science fiction, then? Well, I’ve just about given up on the question entirely. Lately I’ve trended more and more to something that might well be called Anti-Mundane-SF (hey, should I start a movement?), in which everything I like is science fiction. Why not? I like Lost, is it science fiction? Sure, you can make a strong case. And Pushing Daisies? Absolutely. Hell, James Bond does all kinds of stuff that isn’t possible in the real world, so we’ll call that sf as well, and if we have Bond we’ll take Superman and Batman as well. And we’ll claim as sf The Venture Bros and Avatar the Last Airbender and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. What the hell, toss in Flight of the Conchords too, I’m sure they did something sfnal at some point (for all I know New Zealand could be imaginary…).

As for the printed word, just about everything I read already is science fiction anyway, so that’s not much of a stretch. The story has magic in it? No problem, just reverse Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum about magic and technology and we’re home free. Fairies? They’re just ultraterrestrials from another spacetime continuum. Magic swords? Easy, it’s artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, something like that.

My friend Hal Duncan has been laboring (with a series of lengthy and well-considered blog posts on the subject) to convince the world that it’s all just really fantasy, after all. That science fiction is just that variety of fantasy in which the deviation from reality is rationalized rather than mythologized, or something like that. More power to him. But he’s a fantasy writer, so what does he know, anyway? Me, I’m a science fiction writer, aren’t I? It says so right on my website. So who are you going to believe?

So to answer your question, What is science fiction? Brother, it’s all science fiction, all the way down.

John Scalzi
John Scalzi once ate an entire llama.

I answered this for my non-fiction book The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. There, I said something is science fiction if at least one of the following three conditions are met:

  1. It takes place in the future (or what was the future at the time of writing);
  2. It uses technology that does not exist (or didn’t exist at the time of writing);
  3. The speculative elements of the story largely have a rational rather than magical basis.

This is a fairly inclusive definition.

There are lots of folks who will include puffery about how SF is a true literature of ideas, etc., but it’s fairly obvious there’s a goodly amount of brainless science fiction about, so let’s not pretend science fiction is somehow privileged in this regard. On a practical level, what defines SF are the three elements above; what makes SF good or bad or a literature of ideas is the intent and skill of the writer him or herself.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts was born two-thirds of the way through the last century; he presently lives a little way west of London, England, with a beautiful wife and two small children. He is a writer with a day-job (professor at Royal Holloway, University of London). The first of these two employments has resulted in eight published sf novels, the most recent being Splinter (Solaris 2007) and Land of the Headless (Victor Gollancz 2007). The second of these has occasioned such critical studies as The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006).

Science Fiction used to be the literature of the twenty-first century. It has, suddenly and rather magically, become the literature of the twenty-second century. I’m happy to have been present at such an auspicious metamorphosis.

Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 25 years, accumulating close to 150 stories and twenty-five books in the process. His newest book, Cosmocopia, will soon appear from Payseur & Schmidt, with art by Jim Woodring. His website can be found at www.pauldifilippo.com and he blogs at http://community.livejournal.com/theinferior4/.

First off, I’/m thrilled and honored to still be seen as one of the “New Guard.” Having published my first story in 1977, I’ve had this bizarre, undefinable gig for thirty years now, but have always tried to stay fresh and remain at the monomolecular edge of the field.

My hope for the future of SF is that it continues its current ascent as the dominant mode of fiction until it reaches the point where THE DEFINITION OF SF IS IDENTICAL TO THE DEFINITION OF FICTION–whatever that might be. Thus, if we choose to define fiction very broadly, say, as “A creative response to the exigencies of existence,” the literate person who hears that definition will be primed to immediately think of, say, Steve Aylett rather than Danielle Steele. Writers like Steele and a host of bland mimetic wankers will be consigned to some bin not even labeled “fiction.”

Marianne de Pierres
Marianne de Pierres is the author of the award-nominated Parrish Plessis and Sentients of Orion series. Her short fiction has appeared in various anthologies and magazines. She is currently working on a SF film project for Sydney-based, Enchanter Productions, called Stalking Daylight, and her new novel Mirror Space. 2008 will see the release of Chaos Space and her shared world fantasy novel for children, Citrine.

I don’t think I would presume to define something as immense as Science Fiction – this has been attempted by many others who mostly acknowledge its elusiveness. But as someone currently writing in that genre I see it as splendidly fluid beast that has evolved past its rational origins and entered the realms of something far more mysterious and eclectic.

Chris Dolley
Chris Dolley is the author of Resonance and Shift, a pioneer computer games designer, and the man who convinced the UK media that Cornwall had risen up and declared independence. His website is: www.humor.me.uk/mambo.

Thinking musically, science fiction is what you get when fiction goes electric. You plug ideas into an effects box and play with all the settings – adding distortion, harmonics, sustain, feedback and maybe a little echo. Then you turn all the amplifiers up to eleven.

[Stay tuned for Part 2!]

14 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Today’s SF Authors Define Science Fiction (Part 1)”

  1. What about fiction that takes place thousands or even millions of years before humanity, with aliens in spaceships? Is that considered “alternate history” too?

  2. I love the range and variety of responses. I’m glad to see as many viewpoints and approaches as there are writers – it means we’ll get a great collection of unique stories from them in the future and that’s what I love.

  3. Most people can agree science fiction is about speculation – about imagined futures, imagined worlds, imagined societies, imagined technologies — the “what if?” theme is foremost.

    It’s harder to agree on the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The question of definition keeps popping up year after year because one can split hairs endlessly about what is realistic vs. what is magical. In the end it comes down to the author’s intentions — the agreement the author seeks to make with reader about the fictional world that is co-created. Science fiction seeks the experience of being extrapolated scientifically from the natural world, even when the fictional, extrapolated world is entirely supernatural.

  4. Ask a 1,000 people and you’d get 2,000 responses.

    I don’t think science fiction needs to be set in the future anymore then I think it Fantasy needs to be set in the past.

    2001:D

  5. Nice definitions (Nick Mamatas’ is especially to the point)… but sometimes I wonder if the best thing wouldn’t be to get rid of the label “science fiction” (and all the negative baggage it has been dragging around), and use something else — say, “Speculative Lit” or “Fantastika”…

  6. This is a fascinating topic and the source of debate at every convention I’ve attended. My own definition:

    Science fiction describes any story in which the characters face believable challenges in a setting or circumstance that the writer convinces the reader is possible, but not in our present-day real world.

    What irritates me more is the “Mainstream” or literary works that deny the Science Fiction moniker.

    Last year I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger about a man and woman who are in love but moving in opposite directions in the time stream. It was sold as mainstream. This year I read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a story about a Jesuit priest who leads a doomed mission to a newly discovered planet where they discover a completely different by equally intelligent alien species. It was touted as a beautiful human story, but mainstream. Margaret Atwood hates to be labeled a science fiction writer, but her Handmaid’s Tale was about a future culture which uses strict biblical standards to oppress women and control the rest of the population and her Oryx and Crake was a dystopian story about the virus that destroys humanity and the one person who survives it. Mainstream? No.

  7. CV Rick : “This year I read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a story about a Jesuit priest who leads a doomed mission to a newly discovered planet where they discover a completely different by equally intelligent alien species. It was touted as a beautiful human story, but mainstream.”

    Mary Doria Russell says _The Sparrow_ and its sequel are science fiction books, and that she wanted the original marketed as science fiction, but that her publisher obviously had the right way of it because of how successful her numbers have been. She has a huge audience, and she says her worry was not grounded since the sf folks found her anyway.

    Atwood admits her books are SF and then denies it, depending on the audience. It’s ridiculous.

    —-

    I actually have lots of fun in defining science fiction and watching people try to define it, but I don’t get UPSET at about the definitions or really care in in the end–as long as I get to read it!

  8. Science fiction is stuff set away from Earth or in the future and/or uses technology that does not exist now.

    Also it does not involve fantasy (i.e. no magic soul stuff). I typically define stuff involving futuristic settings and tech and huge amounts of supernatural stuff as “science fantasy”. And if it does involve supernatural stuff, there should be at least some attempt at describing it in scientific terms.

    To clarify: stuff like Revelation Space is science fiction; stuff like star wars and the night’s dawn is science fantasy. Pure Fantasy is any fiction that has supernatural stuff, but no technology beyond our own level. (Or whatever the level was when it was written). Adding “science fantasy” as a category makes it a lot simpler to define.

    Shortened version:

    Science Fiction: Advanced tech, no supernatural.

    Science Fantasy: Advanced tech and supernatural

    Fantasy: Supernatural, no advacned tech.

    And no, I didn’t invent the term science fantasy. Put it into wikipedia.

  9. If you were to invent a story in the way you would create a new tool, entirely built with realism, and you would observed it grow beyond all that you took for granted before, I guess you would be entitled to call it “science fiction”, then.

  10. Science Fiction? It is an interesting concept when you think about it. Was Jules Vern’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ or H.G.Wells ‘War of the Worlds ’considered‘ science fiction’ when they wrote them? Probably not. They were just fiction. Somewhere along the line, publishers started using the term to denote a work of fiction that didn’t fit into the nice clean category of ‘General Fiction’ or ‘literature’, whatever that is.

    Any writer that tells a story that isn’t fact, history or a biography is by definition fiction, and (sometimes even then some of it should be called fiction). That’s the easy part and easily understood by most, it’s when the science part comes into the picture that things start to get murky. Stories like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Independence Day’ and the like are easy it to identify as Sci-Fi, but what about George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, is that Sci-Fi or Sci-fantasy? In truth its neither, it’s a political commentary on communism and totalitarian forms of government. Even some of the better know biblical story rightfully should be classified as Sci-Fi, but they aren’t. I have read several stories by Louis L’Amour that had strange elements in them, but no one would dare place them in the Sci-Fi or Sci-Fantasy category.

    In the end, no matter what the literary agencies, publishers or marketing departments like to call it, it all comes down to a writer telling you, the reader a story. Like any fiction book you pick up, no matter the genre, the author is tactfully asking you to suspend your belief, and if the writer is any good, where the story is set, be in the 16th. Century, last week, in this country or some other makes no difference. It’s the story itself that counts and whether you can relate and believe in the characters, story line, or plot, is what matters. If you can, then it makes no difference if the story is set on Alpha Centurion, or in Peoria.

    One final note. The one phrase that might define science fiction is the one George Lucas used at the beginning of ‘Star Wars’ …A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…

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