Definition of Science Fiction

If it wasn’t obvious so far, one of my favorite things is Science Fiction. The worlds we create, that become science fiction, are often so much fun. They are excellent ways to explore the world that we know and live in, as well as to extrapolate the future or what we might do in a wholly new situation.

For instance, here on Comparative Geeks, we look at how science fiction can inform our current world and our near future, how it can make us look differently at current issues or political situations. You can see our posts like this under the heading Science Fiction Today:

I have also started looking at how science fiction and religion interact. Often, religion is strangely absent from science fiction – or is looked at as the mythology of the past. In particular, I have been working from a perspective in a particular science fiction novel, A Case of Conscience by James Blish. His thought was that the existence of aliens would be particularly troublesome to meld with faith. See my posts on this and others like it in Science Fiction and Religion:

However, underlying all of this is a singular question: What is science fiction? What does it mean, and what are we doing when we produce it, or enjoy it? I have a favorite definition, so let’s look at that, and at a few examples.

Frank Herbert on Science Fiction

Because if you’re going to turn to someone for a definition of science fiction, why not turn to one of its greatest creators? From the retelling of one of his friends, I give you, the definition of science fiction.

Frank Herbert's Definition of Science Fiction

That’s a lot to work from. However, I think it explains several things. First, why we love science fiction so much: it is the only genre that tries to explore what it means to be human. It is the fiction equivalent to philosophy… only it’s much more accessible than philosophy.

The absence of magic and the intervention of the gods is also what clearly separates the worlds and events of the genre from mythology, religion, and fantasy. Meaning that by this definition, it actually makes sense that there is a natural tension between science fiction and religion. It also clearly separates out fantasy, despite what bookstores do to combine the two genres.

The focus on invention, however, adds some interesting elements, especially regarding Steampunk. Steampunk can explore the human condition, in an alternate past, where problems are solved by inventing advanced (for their time) technologies, and human ingenuity. Basically, Steampunk is the science fiction of the past.

Now, let’s look at a good representation of science fiction, and a bad representation of science fiction.

Good Science Fiction – Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica is a tale of human survival, human ingenuity, human politics, and generally about humanity. It paints this picture of what it means to be human in sharp contrast to the Cylons – robots who were working hard to be as similar to humans as possible.

In Battlestar Galactica, we get to see some of the best of humanity – struggling and overcoming immense hardship, looking out for each other, working towards a common good – and some of the worst of humanity – violence, hatred, backstabbing, rape. And in both of these cases, the humans were… more than the Cylons. More good. More bad. A full range of life.

Battlestar Galactica was wildly popular, and was the beginning of excellent regular programming on cable. It was the sort of science fiction show fans were waiting for, and for those who were newer to science fiction, it showed them the very best of what science fiction can do – tell us about ourselves.

Bad Science Fiction – Avatar

I chose Battlestar Galactica because it was a very popular representation of science fiction, and introduced new fans to the best of science fiction. I choose Avatar because it was also incredibly popular, and beloved by many viewers – many hailing it as one of the best movies of all time. Certainly its box-office receipts back this argument up.

However, I did not hear much of this opinion from existing science fiction fans. Many of them were impressed by the 3-D, but found the visuals to be things they had seen before in other places (my favorite example being Final Fantasy X), and the plot, even moreso (FernGully, anyone? or how about Dune?). However, rather than try to pick the movie apart based on these issues, let’s look at it based on Frank Herbert’s definition.

In particular, the parts about humanity. Because in Avatar, we are led to sympathize with the aliens, and not the humans. The humans don’t try to understand, and are cruel, and selfish, and pretty one-dimensional. It’s the aliens that have life in the movie, that are the ones we follow in the plot. Except, as many people I’ve talked to have said, we still end up wanting to root for the humans anyway – which makes us feel a little dirty.

This means that, unfortunately, a whole lot of people were introduced to science fiction through a movie that did science fiction wrong. We are supposed to learn something about humanity, about ourselves, through science fiction. Instead, we learn that humanity is awful in Avatar – but, I guess, that through non-conformity, we can stand against the rest of humanity to be good people. Or something complicated like that. I don’t know. Aliens don’t buy this movie, but humans sure did. Creating an unrealistic expectation about what science fiction is, that other movies, shows, and books won’t match for people – which may close the door to science fiction on them. Which makes me sad.


19 responses to “Definition of Science Fiction

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  10. I’m unclear on whether this post is trying to say that science fiction (literature) should concentrate solely on what it means to be human. Yes, the human aspect is important, but human aspects are important in conventional literature as well. If science fiction literature consciously decides to make the human aspect central, then it is not distinguishing itself from conventional literature.

    Dune was not exceptional because of its characters, which are largely generic, but because of the incredibly detailed world it created from scratch. On the contrary, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is literature because, even though it’s about clones, what it really addresses is what it means to be human. In films and TV shows, the world details are conveyed through visuals, so details are not needed. That’s why actors and their ‘humanity’ become the focus.

    Nowadays, exceptional science fiction novels do everything they can to avoid addressing what it means to be human. For example, ‘The Windup Girl’ is allegedly about an automaton prostitute in futuristic Thailand, but really, it’s about much more than that. The title is just a marketing strategy.
    Writers inside the science fiction community are actually very distant from stereotypes constructed by the world at large:


  11. I think really what I was trying to do was spark thought into what the definition of science fiction is. For instance, we read a comment recently on io9 that Battlestar Galactica wasn’t good science fiction because it didn’t have aliens. Is this, then, the definition of science fiction? It has aliens? And Fantasy has Dwarves and Elves?

    I have toyed also with the definition of Fantasy: and approached both definitions again later: I’d love to know what you think!

    I think also where I am coming from is a bit of bitterness from college, feeling that no one understood or appreciated or even particularly liked science fiction. That it just did not belong in academic circles. I did my thesis on William Hogarth, who fought for his satirical works to be considered high art – and thereby protected by copyright. The copyright implications aren’t there anymore, but the “established” arts still have those outside of their circles that they won’t let in!

    And maybe that’s okay. Maybe science fiction is better off without being tied up with literature. However, when “literature” claims works that are in my mind very clearly ones that are science fiction, and does not call them such – because after all, they couldn’t possibly be the same thing! – it makes me upset.

    Thank you for the reading recommendations, though! The Windup Girl is sitting on my shelf now, so I will have to give it a read.


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