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Robert J. Sawyer and the Definition of Science Fiction

SF author Robert J. Sawyer is interviewed in the December 2005 issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction. (Requires free registration. If you don’t have an account, get one.)

One interesting topic that we’ve talked about here at SF Signal again and again is the definition of science fiction. Robert J Sawyer addresses that as the very first question:

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

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.

7 Comments on Robert J. Sawyer and the Definition of Science Fiction

  1. I came to the conclusion several years ago that arguing over the definition of terms like science fiction is a fundamentally pointless exercise. Pointless because you’ll never get agreement anyway (science fiction always turns out to mean what the person proposing the definition likes and not what he doesn’t like).

    But also pointless because it really doesn’t matter. Does it make Star Wars better or Worse if its Science Fiction or Fantasy? Neither.

    Still if you’re looking for a pointless intellectual exercise, its always a good fall back. Which is why sites like this (and my own) always seem to come back to it again and again. πŸ˜€

  2. Hal Duncan summarizes the definitions found on this list and sums it up nicely: “There are many definitions of SF. They are all right? for someone. They are all wrong… for someone.” [via Emerald City]

  3. Gentlemen, my polite disagreement. How is discussing the definition of SF any less useful or valid than any other discussion of any definition? The argument is an attempt to discover a common element in a wide number of cases, and explain away exceptions to the proposed common element.

    For example, Mr. Sawyer makes an argument valid in form against the Isaac Asimov definition of SF, by saying “if science fiction is so-and-so, then these writings of Michael Moorcock would not be science fiction; but they are science fiction, ergo the definition is insufficient.” Whether you agree or disagree with this argument, in form it is no different from someone who says, “if man is defined as a political animal, then a hermit would not be a man; but hermits are men, ergo, etc.”

    In the case of Mr. Sawyer’s definition, I politely disagree here as well. He is correctly identifying that all SF&F readers take a leap of imagination to enter a time or a world that is fundamentally alien to our own. But his choice of identifying the presence or absence of explanatory lectures seems to me to be a confusion of an artistic flourish with an essential characteristic. How much or how little you assume your audience knows is a matter of judgment; how gently you are willing to treat that audience is a matter of taste.

    You can write, “The door dilated,” and you are in an SF universe because door’s don’t dilate here and now on Earth. Whether you then explain the door mechanism or leave it up to your reader’s imagination is a matter of taste, not of genre.

    Many an early science fiction tale, for example, H.G. Well’s THE TIME MACHINE, was prefaced with an explanatory scene, where the time traveler explains the concept of time travel, before the fantastic journey begins. After this same concept has been popularized, no such explanation is needed, such as the TV show THE TIME TUNNEL or QUANTUM LEAP. This is because of the change in the assumptions and expectations of the audience, not because the genre of the time travel tale has changed.

    When Scrooge visits the past and future escorted by ghosts, he is on a journey through time, but because his escorts are ghosts, we correctly classify this as outside science fiction. The event is supernatural; a visitation. The mechanism of the supernatural visit is not explained. The audience all knew what a ghost was. Would Robert Sawyer’s definition call A CHRISTMAS CAROL science fiction?

    If you are writing military fiction for an audience familiar with military life, you need not explain what an M-16 or an E6 is or why the first lieutenant is lost. They know these things. For an audience not familiar, you need to explain which is the fire-arm and which is the pay-grade, or describe the role of the sergeant in making sure green officers don?t get lost.

    Likewise, if you are writing SF to an audience familiar with the “vocabulary of ideas” of SF, you can say “hyperspace” and “warp drive” without a lecture on the fourth dimension or the speed of light. But this is only because the audience has read such lectures in earlier science fiction.

  4. I would add my agreement to the discussion argument; just because the definition of sf is widely debated does not mean the debate is futile. Personally, I find these discussions almost as enjoyable as the genre itself which is why, as you mention Eoghann, I keep posting about it. πŸ™‚

  5. Well I would argue that discussion of almost any definition tend to serve little function beyond the entertainment value they provide for the people involved in the discussion.

    The definition of science fiction (and I’ve written at least one post on it myself that I can think of) is just this genres equivalent of “Who would win Hulk or Superman?”

  6. Like everything, there are shallow and profound reasons to debate definitions. One is the mere pleasure of the debate. The other is that we science fiction readers have stumbled over something of wonder and imagination not found in other literature, a magic like the moment before dawn, when the world holds its breath, and we say to each other: what is this thing we have found? What is it?

    And having time on our hands, we talk about it.

    If we all had a crush on the same girl, our conversations would be as shallow, and as profound. We would talk about what we all liked best about her, what makes her unique, which is her best feature. Her flashing eyes? Her floating hair? Maybe someone would say something about her to make us all the more devoted to our lady. For a man in love, that is not a waste of time. (For anyone else, though, what tedium!)

  7. i know that science is important””but only genius humam can answer this question””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””im just want you to renenber it

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