The Definition of Science Fiction – Throwback Thursday

Over the course of Comparative Geeks, I crafted a series exploring this question of the definition of science fiction, by comparing it to fantasy, and by exploring the question from other angles. Each post was originally separated by months, so I’m going to pull it all back together and run it as a weekly Throwback Thursday for the next few weeks! 

I hope you enjoy, and the conversation is certainly not closed on these – tell me what you think!


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: https://comparativegeeks.wordpress.com/category/science-fiction/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: https://comparativegeeks.wordpress.com/category/science-fiction/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.

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.

5 responses to “The Definition of Science Fiction – Throwback Thursday

  1. I like Ursula Le Guin’s definition of science fiction in the intro to The Left Hand of Darkness – OK, it’s been about 35 years since i read it, but what it said is that science fiction allows an author to take an idea or problem and distill it down to its basic properties and then dissect it, find out what makes that issue tick. I’m not a fan of Avatar, but that’s what it is about – it takes some of these problems we as humans face, that is our greed and our need to control everything and destroy what we can’t control. It then isolates them from the messy, complicated real world so they can be seen and dissected. I think of, for a better example, Enemy Mine. It is about the nobility in the human race, but shows it in an alien race while humans are far less than noble. Anyway, just my two cents (I never saw Battlestar Galactica because I was around in the 70s and couldn’t get past the hokey TV show from back then. Though it was better than 70s series of Buck Rogers….)

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    • In a later post, I remember breaking away into a new definition: “Speculative Fiction.” And Le Guin’s definition that you list sounds like an absolutely perfect definition of Speculative Fiction. Take an idea, leave lots of other parts of the story alone or make them archetypes or stereotypes (effectively making them into the Control if we think of this as an experiment), and then dissect the idea. I think this applies to a lot of classic science fiction, they would be heavily based on the ideas. A lot of classic science fiction also had its start as short stories, printed in magazines and anthologies, later pieced together into the novels and such we know today – that idea dissection seems to work better on the smaller scale. So like a writer like Philip K. Dick, where most of his work seems to be short stories, is just distilled idea exploration. Which has also made it perfect fodder for movies!

      The question then becomes: is all science fiction speculative fiction?

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  2. Pingback: The Definition of Fantasy – Throwback Thursday – Comparative Geeks

  3. Pingback: Star Trek vs. Star Wars – Throwback Thursday – Comparative Geeks

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