A Beginner's Guide to the Search
for a Definition of SF

Sean Williams

I suppose it is a measure of the richness of the field that no two of its practitioners are liable to agree on even something so fundamental as its definition . . . Isaac Asimov [1]

The search for a brief definition of science fiction (sf) has been exhaustive and, one might argue, ultimately doomed to failure.

In analysing sf, it is simplest to begin with the factors that distinguish it from other genres. By tracing sf back through Speculative Fiction (SF), we can see that it differs from other forms of fiction by virtue of its surreal background, which may be the surface of another planet, may feature alien life-forms, may involve travel (sometimes instantaneous) through space or time, may incorporate technologies and societies that presently do not exist, and so on. The late Isaac Asimov sums up the superficial aspect of Speculative Fiction thus:

"Science fiction and fantasy . . . deal . . . with events played out against social backgrounds that do not exist today, and have not existed in the past."

In order to narrow the definition, he continues:

" . . . the surreal background of a science fiction story could, conceivably, be derived from our own by appropriate changes in the level of science or technology." [2]

This is all very well, but it ignores an essential dichotomy within science fiction which is infrequently acknowledged. When it is, it is usually portrayed as being in conflict with what is perceived to be the "true nature" of sf:

"What I find strange about the term 'sf' is that it is made of two components: 'science', a traditional left-brain activity, and 'fiction', a traditional right-brain activity. No wonder it's so hard to define." [3]

Science fiction combines the rational and the intuitive, the logical and the emotional, in a manner unique to literature. It is itself a contradiction in terms. Where science attempts to increase human knowledge of reality by pushing back the boundaries of mystery, fiction creates unreal states in which unreal characters enact unreal situations. Science has become, in this genre, a tool by which the writer manufactures an illusion that can have little or no basis in the universe that science attempts to understand.

Therefore, in order to understand this uniquely paradoxical genre of (mainly) twentieth-century literature, it would be more appropriate not to begin with the question, "What is science fiction?" but, "What is science fiction for?" and "Why do we need it?"

The hardware in science fiction is vital to its existence-surely sf is the only form of fiction that dares to have a gadget or an idea as a hero. [4] Harry Harrison [5]

Sf, in all its complexity and diversity, is many things to many people. Purely as a form of fiction, it provides the writer with a means of creative expression and a source of income (along with the industry that supports him/her); and it provides the reader with a source of fascination. As with any other genre of fiction, this fascination may be encouraged by emotions (such as fear and curiosity), by plot-devices (eg. suspense or romance), or by cleverly-constructed characters.

With the appearance of purely sf magazines-first in Sweden and then, with considerably greater success, in the U.S.-sf began to receive recognition as a sub-genre of fantasy. The Golden Age of sf, however, which began with Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories in April 1926, had very definite ideas of what sf was for and how it should behave, as distinct from other forms of fiction. Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr. (Astounding Stories) made this absolutely clear in the editorials of their respective magazines.

"Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading-they are always instructive. They supply knowledge . . . in a very palatable form." [6]

Sf (or "scientifiction", as it was first known) was intended not only as a fascination, but as a means of educating the reader via the medium of fiction. Stories heralding the age of space, robots and rayguns may now seem to border on the ludicrous, in light of discoveries since, but they were consistent then. Sf in its purest form did not permit the author to bend the rules of science in order to accommodate the plot, for the perceived purpose of sf-to educate-would thereby have been compromised.

As a consequence, the stories themselves frequently suffered. They presented, quite often, problem-solving dilemmas of a sort normally found in crime fiction, with the "villain" being an aspect of physical science (as in Larry Niven's short story "Neutron Star") rather than a sentient antagonist. In early sf particularly, "the dramatic emphasis is on gadgets and machines and consequently the exclusion of individualistic humans". [7]

Although this idea of sf-as-science-teacher has been largely superseded, the technology-oriented mode of sf has survived in the form of "hard" sf and is still regarded by some, including Gregory Benford (author of Timescape), as "the core of the field". [8]

Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities. Miriam Allen deFord [9]

One important function of sf, and hard sf in particular, is to explore the possible. As the century progresses, this mode has leaned away from household gadgetry to focus its attention on the more arcane implications of the physical sciences. "The science fiction writer can invent anything, so long as no one can demonstrate that it is physically impossible." [10] As fast as scientists produce ideas, sf writers snatch them up and incorporate them into fiction.

Two notable writers of this mode are Robert L. Forward (Dragon's Egg, Starquake) and Arthur C. Clarke (2010: Odyssey Two, The Ghost of the Grand Banks). Both take great pains to comply with known scientific laws, while at the same time producing locales or situations that seem utterly fantastic. Significantly, quite apart from their successes as sf writers, both are qualified scientists. In the fiction of both, characterisation and plot take a back seat, acting as mere vehicles for the exploration of the possibility that confronts the reader.

There are, despite this drawback, numerous successful writers of the mode (including Greg Bear, Charles Sheffield and Kim Stanley Robinson), which suggests that it may have some bearing on the overall purpose of sf. Although it demonstrates the gadgetry of earlier sf expanded to a much larger scale (and Clarke himself is one of the most successful "gadgeteers" to have emerged from science fiction's Golden Age), there is one crucial distinction that enables it to flourish.

This mode of sf evokes (or aims to evoke) the much-lauded Sense Of Wonder, that "basic science fiction energy" [11] which is elusive and highly sought-after, and regarded by some as the most desirable aspect of sf. It reawakens our amazement at the universe, produces an almost religious feeling of awe and reaffirms our belief in Mystery.

Just as "art, concerned with the unknown, strives towards the unknowable," so too does this mode of sf remind us that "mystery has energy" [12], all the while without breaking the code of Gernsback and Campbell. In this sense, "science fiction is fantasy fiction written under the strict, new rules of science". [13]

Of course, if the Sense Of Wonder becomes the principal aim, then the laws of science will inevitably begin to flex, in order to provide the reader with a bigger and better thrill. Good examples of this include Ringworld (by Larry Niven) and Orbitsville (Bob Shaw). Both novels explore artefacts that are so huge as to be incomprehensible (especially the latter) which do not themselves contradict scientific laws although other aspects of the stories definitely do (including such well-known sf tropes as faster-than-light travel, instantaneous matter-transportation and artificial gravity).

It is by following this scent of Wonder that the reader may eventually find himself reading fantasy, provided he is prepared first to bend and then to forgo entirely the laws of science.

[Science fiction] allows us to try out many different futures without getting hurt. Sean McMullen [14]

Another aspect of sf is its use as a predictive tool. By extrapolating the present-most importantly, its rate of technological progress-the sf writer can attempt to build a model of the future. This speculative device is often highlighted as one of the main purposes of the genre.

The facts that Arthur C. Clarke presaged geostationary communication satellites decades before they were placed in orbit and that H.G.Wells similarly presaged the use of weapons of large-scale destruction in global warfare are often used to give credence to this theory. These two may, however, have been the only writers ever to get anything right so far in advance. In the words of Jerry Pournelle:

"Technological projection isn't easy, but the science fiction writer doesn't have to do it. We don't need to predict the real future; we're only interested in a plausible one." [15]

That is, no sf writer seriously believes that the future will occur the way in which he has envisaged it to do so. He is simply constructing a convincing fabric into which he will weave his characters. (Neuromancer, by William Gibson, demonstrates this more than adequately, with its vision of techno-anarchy in the shadow of intercontinental corporate power.)

Most commonly, if the writer is genuinely concerned with prediction, he will begin with a society that presently exists and then explore the ramifications of one change imposed upon it. Such ceteris paribus conditions were used in John Brunner's The Stone That Never Came Down, in which the author explored the effects on the individual and on society (a "near-future" Great Britain) of a technological breakthrough that resulted in increased empathy and better memory-recall. In similar ways have other writers attempted to "perceive the potential of new technologies." [16]

Far from taking us on a journey to meet the future, this branch of sf attempts to demonstrate what will happen when the future meets us.

When examined closely, the alien in science fiction is most of it. Chris Morgan [17]

Just as the Sense Of Wonder began to overtake the scientific sensibilities of early sf, so too did the emphasis itself of sf begin to change. Spearheaded in Britain by Michael Moorcock during the 1960's and becoming a self-professed "movement" world-wide by the 'seventies, sf's New Wave attempted to shift the focus away from the universe and technology, back to the human condition, by rebelling against the "power-fantasies and speculative notions of the old science fiction". [18]

Instead of being a means of exploring the possible, sf became a means of exploring the boundaries of humanity. Using the tools of sf as a means to an end, rather than the end itself, such writers as Christopher Priest, Ray Bradbury, J G Ballard and Roger Zelazny attempted to prove to the world (in general and sf-fandom in particular) that "inner space rather than outer space is the most fruitful subject matter for sf". [19]

The sur-realities in which the protagonists found themselves rarely warranted more than a brief paragraph or two of scientific rationalisation, and little of that would have held its own in the face of hard sf, thus propelling the reader into the world of Fantasy. Science had gone out the window, it would seem, and sf had become a vehicle for contemporary commentary "that [wasn't] seen as philosophical or religious proselytising". [20] One could even argue that, on occasion, physical impossibilities were actually flaunted in order to distinguish the new "type" of sf from the old.

Hand-in-hand with this shift in perspective came a dawning awareness of Golden Age sf as a child stunted by "awkward characterisation and workaday prose". [21] A new generation of sf "poets" emerged, concerned with qualifying sf as truly a genre of "literature" rather than a mere juvenile entertainment. Whether the efforts of the New Wave movement in this particular area were successful is still open to debate.

Naturally, New Wave was a backlash against technology and authority similar to that of the Free Love movement of the same time. Much of its produce may seem, today, to be "trite, obscure, or self-indulgent", but, "the movement as a whole can now be seen as the single most important development in the science fiction genre". [22] As sf has matured into the 'eighties and 'nineties, the sentiments of both the Golden Age and the New Wave have been assimilated quite satisfactorily.

It is now generally accepted (and indeed demanded) that good sf should in some way comment upon the human condition. Some believe that it is "concerned with the dehumanising tendencies inherent in an ever-increasing stress upon . . . technology" [23]; others that it "liberates us from the narrowness of our humanity". [24] It also provides, by means of its surreality, a method of analysing our own society. "Science fiction, at its best, illuminates our time by turning a mirror towards the future." [25] If not literally the future, then the alien (within the society or the individual) will do just as well.

Science itself has returned in the wake of the New Wave, because, "any fiction which discusses these issues [those of the nature of humanity, of consciousness, and of reality] is, almost inevitably, science fiction, for these are scientific issues". [26] Also, although "science and technology are often seen as the domain of sf, . . . psychology, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics are also part of that domain". [27]

The sf of the eighties and nineties still has robots and rayguns, but now has people as well. And herein lies the conflict discussed in the introduction to this essay:

"To the sf writer there is a fundamental crisis of importance; to concentrate on fiction is to deny space to the fascinating but superficial features that make sf different." [28]

Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts.

Brian Aldiss [29]

The fifth and last purpose of sf as a genre is simply to provide entertainment, without regard to either scientific accuracy or literary merit. Although this form of sf (often termed "pulp" or "sci-fi") flourished in print up until the early 'sixties (including the "Norstrilia" fantasies of the late Cordwainer Smith), it is best exemplified by television space operas (Dr Who, Star Trek or UFO) and, later in this century, motion picture films (Terminator, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Planet of the Apes, amongst many others).

Indeed, the progression from magazine to TV to motion picture is itself noteworthy, for it demonstrates the innate purpose of pulp-to make money-and highlights the media best-suited to the achievement of this purpose at different times in the last seventy years. In order to ensure its profitability, pulp sf provides visceral rather than intellectual excitement, thus guaranteeing itself the widest possible acceptance, by planting tried-and-true plots on an sf base.

Sf as whole "eases the 'willing suspension of disbelief' on the part of its readers by utilising scientific credibility" [30], but pulp sf does far more than this. It is "a form of fantastical fiction which exploits the perspectives of modern science". [31] It takes for granted certain aspects of sf (such as matter-transportation, time travel, faster-than-light propulsion, alien life-forms, artificial intelligences, etc), offers no explanation for their manner of operation (thereby relaxing the prerequisite of intelligence in its patrons), and simply uses them as "spice" in a otherwise unoriginal recipe.

We have, for example, sci-fi adventures borrowed more or less blatantly from other sources: Alien Nation (alias Dragnet or any "buddy" cop story), Outland (alias High Noon), Lost In Space (alias Robinson Crusoe), Battle Beyond The Stars (alias The Seven Samurai), etc. And there are films that lean heavily upon other genres for inspiration without actually committing plagiarism (Bladerunner, Alien and Star Wars are three notable examples). All more or less fail to meet the standards of true sf:

"Sci-fi is fantasy dressed in hi-tech with its own laws of science-very similar, indeed almost indistinguishable, from reality ..., but desperately wrong nonetheless." [32]

Is it any wonder that some writers and editors, seeing their beloved genre invaded by poorly-regarded pulp, have bewailed the fate of sf? "Many modern science fiction writers . . . do not hesitate to throw scientific plausibility overboard, and embark upon a policy of what I might call scientific magic, science that is neither plausible nor possible". [33] "If the 'proper study of Mankind is Man' . . . [then] conventional sf has contributed little since Orwell's 1984". [34]

It should, however, be noted that this form of sf is probably the most lucrative and well-known-definitely if cinematic sf is included-and therefore cannot be dismissed entirely. The question is: should it have more merit, when discussing the purpose of science fiction, simply because it is more popular?

John W Campbell . . . once said, 'Science fiction is whatever science fiction editors buy.' . . . It is probably more accurate nowadays to say science fiction is whatever sf book publishers will place under their sf label .... Dirk Strasser [36]

So, what is science fiction for?

The five answers to this question provide a means of categorising sf, as well as illuminating some of the difficulties inherent in any attempt to define the genre. Sf is obviously many things to many people-from science manual to "serious" literature-and has become too wide a genre to be glibly encapsulated. The closest one could come would be to say that, if a work of fiction contains a measure of "hard" science without which the plot would be rendered meaningless and/or inspires a sensation of awe at the potential of the universe and/or speculates on the effects on the individual as a response to societal change (or vice versa) and/or uses the mechanisms of science to tell stories about people and what makes them tick and/or presents basic entertainment behind a technological mask, then it is probably science fiction.

At least, however, the individual works can be classified.

Why do we need it?

There remain, even so, a few works that are not easily compartmentalised. Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, readily fulfils the Sense of Wonder criteria, while at the same time provides insights into the nature of self-awareness. Interwoven throughout are instances of Pulp Entertainment (employed by most sf writers as a means of ensuring that the readers remain fascinated). It also presents us with a number of predictions for the distant future, and consciously mimics one of the oldest literary forms (the collection of the travellers' tales).

This cross-referencing is not merely confined to works written on such a large scale. Edward Bryant's "Particle Theory" [36] uses the mysterious worlds of subatomic physics to explore a cancer victim's relationship with the universe in a manner not dissimilar to that of the New Wave exponents. It is well-written; it is compassionate and dramatic; it features technology and medical techniques that lie in the near future; and it evokes, above all, a powerful sense of Mystery.

It is worth noting that both Hyperion and "Particle Theory" received acclaim from editors and readers. Each is eminently satisfying as a work of fiction and as a work of science fiction. Perhaps the ultimate work of sf would contain all five of these elements, in perfect balance, instead of just one or two.

So, from the emotional depths of Moorcock's Breakfast in the Ruins to the giddy intellectual heights of Bear's Eon, the sf reader is alternatively entertained, educated and amazed. It may well be that-having graduated from the infantile preoccupations of the Golden Age and the adolescent rebellion of the New Wave, and by learning to mix science and humanity in a manner similarly demanded of this planet's ruling species at this period in its history-sf is becoming an adult, at last.


  1. From his Foreword to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p.6.

  2. op cit.

  3. David Tansey, from a personal letter to the author.

  4. Except, perhaps, for some childrens' stories (eg. Thomas the Tank Engine) and fairy-tales (which are themselves fantasy).

  5. Harry Harrison, "Machine As Hero", Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p.88.

  6. As quoted by Robert Holdstock in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p.10.

  7. Dr B.H.Slater, as quoted by Frank C. Bertrand in "The Arena", Science Fiction Review, #26, p.46.

  8. Gregory Benford, "How to Sound Like an Expert", from Writers of the Future, Vol.2, p.203.

  9. From her Foreword to Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Elsehow, as quoted by Brian Aldiss in Trillion Year Spree, p.30.

  10. Ben Bova, "John Campbell and the Modern SF Idiom", from Fantasy Review, Vol.9 #7, p.13.

  11. Jack P. Rawlins, "Confronting the Alien: Fantasy and Anti-Fantasy in Science Fiction Film and Literature", from Bridges to Fantasy, pp.160-174.

  12. John Fowles, as quoted by Robert Holdstock in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p.11.

  13. David Kyle, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction, p.10.

  14. From a brief biographical passage in Glass Reptile Breakout, p.156.

  15. "Building Plausible Futures", Writers of the Future, Vol.2, p.357.

  16. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage [sic].

  17. "Alien Encounter", from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p.106. (Also worth noting is a comment by Michael Tolley, from "Mastercard", Aphelion #4, p.48: "Science fiction is written by aliens . . . ")

  18. Christopher Priest, "New Wave", from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p.165.

  19. Malcolm Edwards, "Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow", from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p.178.

  20. Orson Scott Card, as quoted by Francis Spufford in TLS, 12th April 1991, p.12.

  21. M.H.Zool, Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction, p,37, referring to Arthur C. Clarke in particular.

  22. Christopher Priest, op cit, p.164.

  23. Kirpal Singh, as quoted by Dr B.H.Slater in "Lesser Literatures?", Science Fiction Review, #21, p.69.

  24. Terry Carr, Bridges to Fantasy, p.164.

  25. Robert Silverberg, source unknown (quote courtesy of Michael Tolley).

  26. Greg Egan, from a brief biographical paragraph in Glass Reptile Breakout, pp.153-154.

  27. Van Ikin, from his Introduction to Glass Reptile Breakout, p.6-7.

  28. Robert Holdstock, op cit, p.9.

  29. From his Introduction to Penguin Science Fiction, as quoted by Steven Paulsen, Australian Science Fiction News, #1.

  30. Sam Moskowitz, Seekers of Tomorrow.

  31. David Pringle, as quoted by Jeff Harris in "An Oddly-Shaped Tree Root", this author's italics.

  32. Robin Pen, "Critical Embuggerence. A Jungian Analysis of Rubber-Suit Monsters Part Two: The Latex and the Self", from Eidolon, Vol.1 #3, p.45.

  33. Hugo Gernsback, op cit.

  34. George Turner, "Science Fiction, Parafiction, and Peter Carey", Science Fiction Review, #28, p.15.

  35. From his Editorial, Aurealis, #6, p.4.

  36. First published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, February 1977.


  • Bridges to Fantasy. Slusser, G.E., Rabkin, E.S., and Scholes, R., edd. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

  • Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction. Holdstock, Robert, consultant ed. London: Octopus, 1978.

  • Glass Reptile Breakout. Ikin, Van, ed. 1990.

  • Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy. Zool, M.H.. Bloomsbury, 1991.

  • The Legend Book Of Science Fiction. Dozois, Gardner, ed. Great Britain: Legend, 1991.

  • A Pictorial History of Science Fiction. Kyle, David. London: Hamlyn, 1976, p.10.

  • SF: Definitions. Tolley, Michael. A collection of useful quotations and references, 1992.

  • Sci-Fi Now. Frank, Alan. London: Octopus, 1978. Trillion Year Spree. Aldiss, Brian. Great Britain: Paladin, 1988.

  • Writers of the Future, Vol 2. Budrys, Algis, ed. United Kingdom: Bridge, 1987.

Thanks to Michael Tolley, David Tansey and Shane Dix.

Originally appeared in The Mentor, #79, July 1993.
Copyright © 1999 Sean Williams.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

Eidolon Publications 1995-2005

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