Saturday, July 04, 2009

One of Many Half-Assed Stabs at Defining Science Fiction

Today is the 4th of July, the national holiday of the USA, and, as such, I'd be unpatriotic if I did anything productive. So, instead, I'm digging into the archives for new Antick Musings content.

Over on the Straight Dope Message Board, in the year Four, there was a thread about Robert Harris's novel Fatherland, centering on the question of whether it was SF -- since it was, first, alternate history, and, second, published outside of the genre. (Though those weren't precisely the terms used.) I jumped in with these thoughts, lightly edited to make them read more smoothly in isolation:

This is a "definition of science fiction" conflict, and so cannot be answered definitively. But it looks like your definition of science fiction has, lurking somewhere in the hinterlands, a caveat that such stories cannot be about "characters." I'm not sure what you'd say that science fiction stories must be about, but my definition absolutely includes stories of character. (Sturgeon's "The Man Who Lost the Sea," for example, is one of my all-time favorite stories and is purely a character piece.)

I'd say that, if a story's setting is fantastic in some way (alternate past, different present or postulated future), then that story is somewhere in the realm of speculative fiction. The specific type of setting -- a secondary world where magic works, for example, or a hollowed-out asteroid in the near future -- further defines what kind of speculative fiction that story is. A story can, of course, be more than one thing -- you can have a romance western SF tale set among the DNA-altered-cow ranchers of Mars, if you want -- and thus being one thing does not necessarily preclude a story from being something else. But a story set in an alternate history is science fictional because of its setting, no matter what else it might be. It might not be part of the modern commercial publishing genre of "science fiction" and it might not have a little rocketship on its spine in the library, but that's not the same thing as "not being science fiction."

Listening to: Faith No More - Midlife Crisis (live)
via FoxyTunes

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