Cognition Engine

The debate concerning the proper definition of SF is extensive. The 1979 edition of the The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction gave over twenty definitions. By 1993 editorial staff had whittled it down to eleven. The Science Fiction Reference Book quotes sixty-eight definitions. The majority of such definitions of SF are unsatisfactory, some are flippant and most miss something crucial…

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The debate concerning the proper definition of SF is extensive. The 1979 edition of the The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction gave over twenty definitions. By 1993 editorial staff had whittled it down to eleven. The Science Fiction Reference Book quotes sixty-eight definitions. The majority of such definitions of SF are unsatisfactory, some are flippant and most miss something crucial. One cannot say that SF is realism because it is not limited to the methods of realistic description: for the same reason SF cannot be classed as naturalism. To define SF as “narratives of the future” is also mistaken. As Philip K.Dick writes, “it is not the job, really, of Science Fiction to predict. Science Fiction only seems to predict. It’s like the aliens on Star Trek, all of whom speak English. A literary convention is involved. Nothing more.”Dick gives another very simple reason why SF cannot be defined as fiction of the Future; namely there can be science fiction set in the present; the alternate world story or novel.

If SF can neither be defined as narratives of the future, nor as technological fiction and if it is not realism, naturalism or myth, then what exactly is it?

Hugo Gernsback’s definition “of a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” identifies only SF’s “lower stages of development”, in the view of Darko Suvin, as does any definition which focuses on advanced technology, rather than on the “social arrangements these advances give rise to.” “Getting the technical details right” is not, according to Parrinder, the defining feature of SF. This is because SF writers deal with non-technologies — namely social and institutional extrapolations: living arrangements, norms of sexual behaviour, religious cults, even future art forms and board games. Williams makes the same point when he states that SF, in addition to exploring new technologies, can explore a new set of laws, such as new abstract property relations — what he terms “new social machinery.”

The Science of Fiction, New Humanist

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