What Is Science Fiction?

At the start of November, I gave a talk on science fiction as part of a schools conference organised by the UK Space Agency and the University of York. One of the first things I had to do for my audience (mostly school children and parents) was define what science fiction means.

The trouble is, genres can be slippery to pin down, and there are almost as many definitions of science fiction as there are critics writing about it.

I started with this slide, quoting Isaac Asimov:


It’s a pretty good quote. The “changes” it mentions can be changes in technology, sociology, politics, or biology (among others), and the consequences of those changes can certainly drive a story. Take Neuromancer or The Stars My Destination as examples. I’m not so sure about solutions, though. Since Asimov’s time, science fiction writers seem to have become more wary of offering solutions to the problems they write about. Perhaps life seems more complex now. Perhaps we’ve lost that postwar optimism and faith in science.

In contrast to Asimov, JG Ballard (writing in his memoir, Miracles Of Life) described his initial reaction to the genre:

“… science fiction was far closer to reality than the conventional realist novel … Above all, science fiction had a huge vitality that had bled away from the modernist novel. It was a visionary engine that created a new future with every revolution, a hot rod accelerating away from the reader, propelled by an exotic literary fuel as rich and dangerous as anything that drove the surrealists.”

For him, science fiction was a means to stretch and warp reality. It was a tool for examining ourselves. If the business of art was to hold a mirror up to the world, Ballard’s idea of science fiction was that of a funhouse mirror, able to distort and exaggerate certain features for narrative, comedic and metaphorical impact.

For me, good science fiction should blow a reader’s socks off. It should take that whole cupboard of toys and use it to tell stories that just can’t be told within the confines of mainstream literature. And in an increasingly bizarre world, maybe SF is the only literature capable of addressing the things we see on the news every night: cyber warfare; cloning; urban decay; ubiquitous surveillance; global terrorism; encroaching dystopias; etc. Which could be why more and more mainstream writers are finding themselves having to borrow from SF’s toy cupboard in order to tell their stories. But more than all that, it should show readers something they’ve never seen before. It should entertain and stretch their minds, and open them to new possibilities. It should combat prejudice and ignorance. It should educate and provoke and ask the questions no one else is asking, and it should have something to say about what it means to be human in an increasingly baffling world.

Writing in the introduction to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, Bruce Sterling put it like this:

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science fiction writers are its court jesters. We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophecies, and scratch ourselves in public. We can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins makes us seem harmless. […] Very few feel obliged to take us seriously, yet our ideas permeate the culture, bubbling along invisibly, like background radiation.

Maybe because of this ability to seem “harmless”, science fiction also has a secret history of protest. Soviet writers snuck subversive ideas into their science fiction, and writers in the US and UK have long used the genre to air critiques and grievances.

Historically, science fiction has been the literature of subversion and defiance; and as our world continues to change, it will doubtless be again.

“We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.” – Ursula K Le Guin

Science fiction shows us other worlds: worlds for us to fear, and worlds to which we can aspire. It can entertain, provoke and infuriate. In the past, it has been dubbed the ‘literature of ideas,’ but it is more than that; it is the literature of humanity interacting with itself, its inventions, and the wider expanses of time and space. In short, it chronicles our struggle to understand why we’re here, why things are as they are, and how those things might change.

Which brings me back to Asimov’s quote.

Definitions are difficult, and rarely encompass everything they set out to define. Sometimes the only way to find out what a genre is, is to write it. If you want to see whether my work measures up to the definitions above, take a look at my books.

Author: Gareth L Powell