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Categorizing Science Fiction

I ran across a Cliffs Notes book called Science Fiction: An Introduction, written in 1973 by L. David Allen, M.A. from the Department of English at the University of Nebraska. (Not that I troll used book stores looking for books about science fiction or anything.)

The first section of the book interestingly talks about categorizing science fiction:

Although it doesn’t really prove anything, and although there are as many dangers to pigeon-holing as there are advantages, it is sometimes helpful to have some kind of categories and subcategories to help one sort things out. It is important to remember that any label emphasizes a single aspect of a work and plays down all the rest of the work; consequently, if such labeling becomes an end in itself, rather than a momentary convenience, the richness and worth of the literary work is virtually destroyed. Furthermore, many sets of labels take no notice of gradations in emphasis, leaving little room for a work that is not purely one thing or another-and most literary works, or anything else for that matter, are not pure anything. Finally, any set of labels can be argued with and rejected by anyone with a different point-of- view. Even with these warnings, it is with some trepidation that the following set of categories for science fiction are offered.

The author goes on to describes a hierarchy of categorizations of science fiction and states that a book often falls into two of these categories (mostly the combination of both hard and soft sf). To summarize his categorization hierarchy:

  • HARD SCIENCE FICTION – the major impetus of which is an exploration of the “hard” or “physical” sciences (chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, geology and mathematics, among others).
    • Gadget Stories – involving the development or working of some machine or technology.
    • Extrapolative Stories – takes some current knowledge from the hard sciences and projects its next steps.
    • Speculative Stories – Same as extrapolative, but projected much further in the future.
  • SOFT SCIENCE FICTION – the major impetus of which is an exploration of the “soft” sciences which focus on human activities and are neither as rigorous nor as predictive as the hard sciences (example include sociology psychology, anthropology, political science, theology and linguistics).
    • Extrapolative Stories – takes some current knowledge from the soft sciences and projects its next steps.
    • Speculative Stories – Same as extrapolative, but projected much further in the future.
  • SCIENCE FANTASY – assumes and orderly universe and explicitly proposes that the natural laws are different than those from which we derive our own current sciences.
    • Alternative Stories – the underlying natural laws are of a different kind than those we know, like telepathy and the laws of magic.
    • Counter-Science Fantasy – uses scientific information which has already been shown to be incorrect before the story was written (not when it is read).
    • Sword and Sorcery – primarily adventure stories in which the culture requires “primitive” weapons rather than modern ones and the laws of magic play a part.
  • FANTASY – has minimal connection with the sciences, assumes an orderly universe with discoverable implied natural laws. (“…if a reader is sufficiently interested, he can formulate the laws governing this fantasy world, but the author gives him little or no assistance.”)

I believe that such categorizations are helpful when reading and reviewing science fiction. In those contexts, I find several interesting things in this discussion.

First, that statement “…any label emphasizes a single aspect of a work and plays down all the rest of the work.” This is a nice way of saying “look beyond the n-star rating and read the review.” The quick-glance summary of Pros and Cons in a review are nice, but the full text of the review gives them meaning.

Another statement, “…most literary works, or anything else for that matter, are not pure anything”, exemplifies the layered qualities of fiction. There are many things that I can enjoy about reading, from story elements (plot, characters, sense of wonder) to writing technique (storytelling, ambiance) to writing style (verbiage, pacing). Excellence in every area is not necessarily required to enjoy a book, but every bit helps. In the end, enjoyment level is a combination of the effects of all these elements.

Concerning the hierarchy of categories, I find it interesting to include fantasy at all. They are closely related in characteristics, sure, but they are usually segregated from most discussions on science fiction. I do find it a welcome observation, though. Some stories do contain fantastical elements and can be easily classified as one, the other or both.

The quote given above in the Fantasy category makes me wonder some more about why I prefer science fiction over fantasy. Is it because an author offers “little or no assistance” to the reader in defining the rules of the world? My initial answer is yes. To my (somewhat) logical way of thinking, some unexplained magical happening in a fantasy story can easily come off as contrived for the sake of plot rather than being a natural and explainable occurrence. Or maybe I’m just a lazy reader. I often say that there is significant enjoyment that can be had from “dumb” science fiction in addition to high-brow literary works. Sometimes I’m looking for mindless entertainment as a way to escape the everyday toils of life. (Like blogging about Star Wars ad nauseum :)) Is it me, or is there a stigma over finding enjoyment in the low-brow science fiction?

I do wish that the book’s discussion about categorization contained some mention of science fiction themes, though. (By themes, I mean classifications such as military, time travel, cloning, space opera, etc.) Oftentimes, I mentally pigeon-hole a book into its appropriate theme box. But there, too, there is often overlap in theme just as there is overlap in category. Hence the oft-used theme of time-traveling Nazi zombies. 🙂

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on Categorizing Science Fiction

  1. Have you ever noticed that the only genres that sub-divide themselves so fervently are SF/F and porn?

    There are no “soft westerns,” “Extrapolative mysteries,” or “counter-historical” novels.

    Perhaps SF should be promoted like porn:

    This novel contains:

    3 Alien Cultures!

    Space Armada vs. Space Armada Action!

    Planetary Bombardment!

    Planetary Destruction!

    See Black Holes Plyed!

    See Laws of Physics Violated!

    God, I’m so turned on…

  2. :-@ I saw Star Wars today and it was so skiffy hot

    Too bad it is not up with epsidodes 4 and 5 on the babe factor.

    I’m also playing out a Space Empires scenario that ended just to build a Ringworld and see what hitting all non-race specific techs looks like.

    My phased polaron beams in battle cruisers raped those undulating Cue Cuppas with their trembling telekinetic blasters and non-phased shields.



    #1 on Google for Easter Lemming

    Top #10 for liberal news

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