What is Science Fiction anyway?


Tom Dillon over at Pawnstorm has a post on the purpose of science fiction in which he makes this worthwhile point:

[…] only one of Science Fiction’s jobs is to deal with the future. Another is to take situations that we see today and look at them in a different light, from different perspectives, stripped of all the glit that is placed on them by tradition, the media, and society in general.

That strikes me as a very accurate description. It recognizes that SF can serve multiple purposes, not all of them strictly having to do with science or the future. That second purpose, the “different perspectives” one, is certainly characteristic of much of the SF I like to read, and seems especially relevant to that branch of the genre known as “soft” science fiction.

Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of what SF is, from both fans and critics, and it seems everybody has their own slightly different ideas on the subject. And maybe that’s fine. In fact, it’s probably a mistake to look for one single definitive expression for a genre that is so wide-open and flexible. Brunner calls it “the literature of the open mind,” and I think that’s the single best description I’ve ever found.

A while back I was perusing this page containing definitions of sci-fi by the authors themselves. It’s where I found that Brunner quote; and here are some others that demonstrate my own feelings about SF:

Isaac Asimov:

Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions.

Gregory Benford:

Anything that turns you and your social context, the social you, inside out. Nightmares and visions, always outlined by the barely possible.

Damon Knight:

What we get from science fiction—what keeps us reading it, in spite of our doubts and occasional disgust—is not different from the thing that makes mainstream stories rewarding, but only expressed differently. We live on a minute island of known things. Our undiminished wonder at the mystery which surrounds us is what makes us human. In science fiction we can approach that mystery, not in small, everyday symbols, but in bigger ones of space and time.

Alexei Panshin:

… its [science fiction’s] attraction lies … in the unique opportunity it offers for placing familiar things in unfamiliar contexts, and unfamiliar things in familiar contexts, thereby yielding fresh insights and perspective.

Frederick Pohl:

That’s really what SF is all about, you know: the big reality that pervades the real world we live in: the reality of change. Science fiction is the very literature of change. In fact, it is the only such literature we have.

Brian Stableford:

Science fiction is essentially a kind of fiction in which people learn more about how to live in the real world, visiting imaginary worlds unlike our own, in order to investigate by way of pleasurable thought-experiments how things might be done differently.

Alvin Toffler:

By challenging anthropocentricism and temporal provincialism, science fiction throws open the whole of civilization and its premises to constructive criticism.

That last one from Toffler is one of my favorites. But all these authors are making very similar points, of course. Taken together, this collection of quotes does a good job of expressing what science fiction means to me.

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