“Which is the real science fiction, or, if they are all equally but differently science fiction, what is this genre?”— Sheryl Vint, Science Fiction. A guide for the perplexed.
I. Defining Science Fiction before going any further
Science fiction is a genre that has been long established in literature, it is characterized by its ability to explore the possibilities of science, technology and its effects on human society and the world. Its stories often set in the future or in alternative worlds, in which it uses scientific concepts and technologies as a tool for exploring fundamental questions about the human experience. The genre has a rich history, with early examples dating back centuries, such as Johannes Kepler’s “Sonnies” (1600-1632), Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516), and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) but Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) is considered the first true science fiction novel. Along with providing a new language to talk about science and technology and its impact on our lives and our world, science fiction also provide us with new myths, similar to other contemporary and modern genres like the superhero genre, and it’s the cultural work of imagining new worlds and creating new mythologies that helps us to rethink our own world, and our experience of human life in a world dominated by scientific thinking.
One of the defining characteristics of science fiction is that it is not bound by scientific fact. While it may use science and technology as a starting point, the genre is more concerned with the implications of those concepts, rather than their accuracy. As seen in Frankenstein’s creature and its origins. This allows for a wide range of possibilities, and for science fiction to explore different worlds, societies, and technologies in an imaginative way. The genre is considered a cultural mode, where it serves as a means of exploring the social and philosophical implications of scientific and technological advancements since the industrial revolution. Science fiction provides a language with which to talk about these topics and how they might change our world and our selves, it’s the multiple, networked text of linked images and themes, that creates a scope for a new and novel connections.
II. Children read Science Fiction while Adults read Speculative Fiction
Science fiction, also known as speculative fiction, is a genre of literature that explores the possibilities of science and technology, often set in the future or in alternative worlds. The origins of science fiction are difficult to pin down, and it can be difficult to define what constitutes as science fiction. However, despite the complexity of the genre, it has been traditionally seen as “cheap literature” and not considered as “high” literature.
The term speculative fiction has been used as an alternative to science fiction, by some authors and readers, to give it more literary credibility. Margaret Atwood is a notable example of an author who prefers to use the term speculative fiction, because it implies that the genre is more literary and deals with the possibilities of a society that have not yet been enacted. The use of the term speculative fiction implies that there is a difference between high and low literature, with speculative fiction being considered the former and science fiction being considered the latter.
Critics of this distinction argue that the term speculative fiction is too broad, and that it englobes all variations of science fiction, as well as stories that take place beyond our known world. They argue that the term is used to exalt some works over others, implying that stories that depart from consensus reality or embrace a different version of reality are not considered “Literature” by some.
The fuzzy set field understanding of speculative fiction is an attempt to avoid such distinctions and include a broad range of narrative forms that subvert the post-Enlightenment mindset. It acknowledges that, in reality, all works of fiction are speculative in nature as they explore different possibilities than our own reality, making it difficult to classify them into a single genre or set of rules. Ultimately, the way we choose to label and classify works of science fiction can shape our understanding of the genre and the implications it has on our understanding of science, technology and society.
Instead of choosing either Speculative or Science Fiction, in which one is regarded as more prestigious than the other, think of Science Fiction as part of a wider response to literature that must be realistic.
It is important to consider Science Fiction as part of a wider response to literature that must be realistic. In this context, it is also important to note that speculative fiction refers to a group of genres and not a particular medium. It is a fuzzy set supercategory that houses all non-mimetic genres, which depart from imitating consensus reality. These genres include fantasy, science fiction, and horror and their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres such as the gothic, dystopia, zombies, vampire and post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, weird fiction, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, retold or fractured fairy tales and many more. By understanding speculative fiction in this way, we can see Science Fiction as just one part of a larger, interconnected literary landscape.
III. Types of narratives in science fiction
Science fiction encompasses a wide variety of sub-genres, each with its own unique characteristics. These sub-genres are not mutually exclusive and can often overlap. As a whole, science fiction has become a popular platform for creatively exploring the deepest desires and anxieties of society. Examples of sub-genres within science fiction include:
- Sci-fi fantasy fiction: This sub genre combines the elements of science fiction with fantasy, creating a unique blend of technology and magic. These stories are often inspired by mythology, folklore, and fairy tales and can explore themes of identity, power, and societal norms.
- Space opera fiction: This sub genre takes the term “soap opera” and applies it to outer space. These stories are often epic in scale, filled with interstellar conflict, romance, and adventure. They can be an exciting way to explore themes of power, ambition, and survival in the vast expanse of space.
- Utopian fiction: These stories take place in civilizations that the author deems to be perfect, ideal societies. They tend to be optimistic and can be used to explore themes of progress, social cohesion and prosperity.
- Dystopian fiction: The opposite of Utopian fiction, dystopian stories describe societies that the author finds problematic within the world of the novel, often satirizing government rules, poverty, and oppression. These stories often serves as a cautionary tale, warning against the dangers of absolute power and societal decay.
- Apocalyptic fiction: This sub genre tells stories that take place before and during a huge disaster that wipes out a significant portion of the world’s population. The stories center around characters doing everything they can to stay alive and can be used to explore themes of survival, hope, and humanity.
- Post-apocalyptic fiction: This sub genre takes place after an apocalyptic event and focus on the survivors figuring out how to navigate their new circumstances.
- Cyberpunk fiction: A sub-genre of science fiction that emerged in the 1980s, characterized by a futuristic setting that combines high technology and low life.
- Solar punk fiction: A relatively new sub-genre of science fiction that emerged in recent years, characterized by a focus on renewable energy and sustainable living. The stories typically take place in a future world where society has transitioned away from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydro power. The genre often explores the impact of this transition on society and culture, depicting a world where environmentalism, equality, and sustainable living are the norm and the earth is more resilient and green. Solar punk often reflects a hopeful and optimistic vision of the future, where technology, ecology and humanity coexist in harmony. It explores themes such as the decentralization of power, sustainable urbanism and green technologies and the impact of it in individual lives and in the global society. It’s a call for a sustainable and equitable future, with the use of green technologies as a means of reaching a desirable post-carbon society.
This list is not comprehensive as Science Fiction can come in many forms and mediums and often overlaps with other literary genres making it difficult to classify these works as purely science fiction. Although it may seem simple to differentiate science fiction which deals with science, technology, space exploration and future worlds, from fantasy which deals with magic, folklore and past worlds, both genres often blend and overlap in many works. One prominent example of this is the Star Wars franchise, which appears to fall under science fiction due to its setting in space with advanced technologies and aliens. However, the franchise also includes elements of magic in the “force” and is set in a past era, making it also fall within the realm of fantasy. Therefore, many people classify Star Wars as a “science fantasy”, which is a genre blend of non-realist fiction.
I cannot stress this enough… “our understanding of science fiction must necessarily be multiple” (Vint)
IV. A brief yet comprehensive history of Science Fiction as a literary genre
“A charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision”Hugo Gernsbeck
Hugo Gernsbeck is credited with popularizing the term “science fiction” in his magazines “Amazing Stories” (1926) and “Science Wonder Stories” (1929). The purpose of this naming is unclear whether it was to create a new literary form that fit with technological age, or to standardize, monetize, and compromise an already existing literary form that includes themes such as fantastic voyages, utopias, disaster fictions, tales of inventions, and scientific romances. We just don’t know. But, how much of Hugo’s description of science fiction holds up?
How much of Hugo Gernsbeck’s description of Science Fiction was just marketing? And was he being more descriptive of prescriptive? Was Hugo trying to get writers and readers to repeat and imitate these qualities?
This vision of Science Fiction as a genre was informed by three major writers that Grensbeck chose to draw inspiration from: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe. Despite the fact that these were all English speaking white men, they all had very different, contradicting and at times opposing interests and sensibilities as writers.
To make matters worse Verne rejected any comparison between his work and Wells’s:
I (Verne) make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannonball, discharged from a cannon. . . . He (Wells) goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation,” which is all very entertaining, he concludes, but “show me this metal.”Jules Verne
Hugo Grensbeck envisioned Science Fiction as a genre that incorporates these elements from previous authors:
- Verne: A genre that wrestle with the extraordinary pace of change and revels in the wonders of modern science and discovery (Vint, 10).
- Wells: A genre that focuses on the philosophical and social implications of scientific discoveries such as our understandings of our ethical choices and perceptions of our material world which cannot remain static as the scientific worldview permeates (then) Victorian society and rewrites common knowledge (Vint, 11).
- Poe: He “brings to this early configuration of sf a version of the sublime that resists its transmutation into the more comforting sense of wonder associated with the technological sublime” (Vint, 11).
Trivia: The Science Fiction awards known as Hugo Awards get their names from Gernsbeck. Now you know why, you are welcome.
During the 20th century, science fiction began to focus on the technological sublime, which places objects of technology at the center of our experiences. It divides people into those who “understand and control machines from those who do not.” Through its exploration of this theme, science fiction creates a sublime “made possible by the superior imagination of an engineer or a technician (or a writer) who creates an object that overwhelms the imagination of ordinary men.”
Perhaps they wish to help our infant civilization. But they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young” (249).Arthur C. Clarke, “The Sentinel” (1951).
This technological sublime can be observed in stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” and in its adaptation “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) by Stanley Kubrick. However, the technological sublime isn’t the only relevant aspect of contemporary science fiction narratives.
It is essential to approach science fiction as a genre that is always evolving, with many stakeholders involved in defining what is and isn’t considered science fiction. Additionally, it is important to recognize the influence of the anglo-speaking world on our understanding of the genre, including how works originally written in other languages are translated and interpreted in English. It is crucial to keep in mind that Science Fiction is not only a product of scientific accuracy but also of imagination and exploration, it’s a genre that reflects on the present, and explores the future possibilities of technology and human experience.
- Eaton, Mckayla. “Speculative Fiction and the Western Canon.” Capital Letters, Medium, https://medium.com/capital-letters/speculative-fiction-and-the-western-canon-587b61838c9d. Consulted today.
- “What Is Speculative Fiction? Defining and Understanding the Different Genres of Speculative Fiction.” Masterclass, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-speculative-fiction-defining-and-understanding-the-different-genres-of-speculative-fiction
- Glatch, Sean. “What Is Speculative Fiction? Definition and Writing Tips.” Writers.com, https://writers.com/what-is-speculative-fiction
- Flynn, Brighid. “A Guide to Speculative Fiction with Recommendations.” Skillshare, https://www.skillshare.com/en/blog/a-guide-to-speculative-fiction-with-recommendations/.
- “Imagining the end. Why write speculative fiction?” The Ohio State University, https://u.osu.edu/lemon243eng4563/
- Milner, Andrew. “Getting Under the Skin of Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction and Scientific Romance.” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/getting-under-the-skin-of-speculative-fiction-science-fiction-and-scientific-romance-43107.
- “Literary Terms: Magical Realism, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.” The Masters Review, https://mastersreview.com/literary-terms-magical-realism-science-fiction-and-fantasy/
- Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Oxford University Press, URL
- Booker, M. Keith, and Anne-Marie Thomas. “The Science Fiction Handbook.” JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24352214.
- Vint, Sherryl. Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
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