On a recent podcast (plotpoints.com) our new co-host Jeff Lyons was tasked to create a top ten list of science fiction films. These were his choices, not necessarily by any measure of performance or popularity. In other words, they were films he deemed worthy of a top ten list. He did not put them in any order.
His first step was to try to define a genre that has constantly defied definition.
Or has it?
Many say science fiction is about extrapolated science (in any form) impacting the lives of people and civilizations. So "Star Wars" "Ready Player One" even "Downsizing" and "Lost In Space" would fit. But sociological extrapolations of future events or alternate realities or worlds also can be science fiction like "Handmaids Tale."
Some definitions are rather narrow.
Someone who is off-times quoted is Darko Savin, a essayist and academic: Science fiction is "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment.
My hero, Rod Serling, is a bit slippier: Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible
Another literary hero of mine, Isaac Asimov, is very tight in his definition: Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.
Not really agreement here, is there? And there's the rub. A quick visit to Wikipedia reveals dozens of definitions by many well-respected science fiction authors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_science_fiction) Not many of them agree with each other which is exactly the problem.
As a fan of speculative fiction since my youth I find it had to adhere to one strict definition of a genre I adore. I can remember the rockets and ray guns; Tom Swift; then Bradbury Asimov, Heinlein, Ellison, etc. to Gibson, MacDonald and these days Scalzi, Corey, Stephenson and more. I also went through a long sword and sorcery phase with Howard's Conan and Kull, Moorcock's Elric, Burroughs, Tanith Lee, and dozens others. That distinction at least I agree with. They are separate genres.
So what exactly is scifi?
I think my answer is always going to be - it depends on your definition.
I have a student who point blank refuses to allow movies like "Star Wars" and "Alien" to be put in a science fiction movie category. My podcasting co-host agrees - "Alien is a monster movie," he states emphatically on the recent podcast. Yes, it is. But in my opinion, obviously contrary to his, it's still science fiction. Perhaps scifi horror but scifi nonetheless.
Why try to define it at all? I suppose in part it's our 'top ten' or 'best of' fascinations. Most of our world is analyzed and categorized - it probably is a logical extension of a primitive survival instinct in which we have to put threats in context - "Top Ten Eviscerating Predators" by Caveman Mike.
So perhaps is this, as Jeff Lyons jokingly said (jefflyonsbooks.com/storygeeks.com) on the podcast, a matter of I'll know it when I see it, echoing United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he was talking about porn in 1964?
NOTE: BTW, if you're interested this was a 1st Amendment case (Jacobellis v. Ohio) decision handed down in 1964 involving whether the state of Ohio could, consistent with the First Amendment, ban the showing of the Louis Malle film The Lovers (Les Amants), which the state had deemed obscene.) Wikipedia
Today this film would probably be barely a PG-13. European films today regularly show erections, oral sex, and penetration. How times have changed.
My tendency as a fan and writer of this wonderful genre is to be more inclusive than exclusive. There are mos def sub-genres of scifi and that should be enough. In literature, science fiction has always been broken into two major sub-genres. Broadly speaking, they are hard science, science fiction and soft science, science fiction. I think that should cover it.
Bradbury was almost always a soft science dude. His people ended up in space or on Mars but he didn't give a shit how that happened. Larry Niven was a hard science scifi writer as was Arthur C. Clarke. Devices had to work based on scientific principles. No fuzzy science here. If a laser functioned it was because it was theoretically possible to create even if we didn't possess the technology yet to make that happen. Gravity was never taken for granted in space in those stories. How many rotating inner cores did I read about that allowed (theoretically at least) for artificial gravity?
So the debate rages: Is "E.T." science fiction? How about "Back the the Future?" "Star Trek?" What about those TV shows we had everywhere for a while about an alter-ego that manifested in some sort of animal that talked? (Actually they were even worse - it was usually just a grown person in an animal suit to abstract the inanity even further.) Are those alternate history shows science fiction? The ones where Germany won WWII? How about shows or movies with magic in them like "Harry Potter?" Surely this isn't scifi but rather fantasy.
So ,how about using either the Hugo or Nebula Award definitions - surely they know what they're giving awards for?
The Hugos at least are very inclusive: While the organization sponsoring the Hugos is named the World Science Fiction Society, our charter explicitly makes fantasy as well as SF eligible for our awards. Works of fantasy have often won Hugos, and, in fact, Hugos have been won by works that some people consider horror or even mainstream.
The Nebula Awards are similarly inclusive in their language which leads me to believe that men and women smarter than me have faced this question and decided to just allow it to expand as needed.
Perhaps we should just call it speculation/speculative fiction and leave it at that. But I'm sure then that fans would want a sub-category for science fiction so there we are again back to start and specfi doesn't really sound nearly as cool as scifi.
I think you can drive yourself to distraction trying to do the math on all this but I also think I'm going to continue to try and find a definition that I like that is more inclusive than some of the ones I've seen.
How did my podcast define all this? It'll drop on the weekend of April 28th and you can hear either by going to iTunes (LINK TO SHOW) or you can listen to it on this site on the home page (scroll down under the slideshow.)
So, my definition at this time is this: anything that speculates, extrapolates, interpolates, or otherwise fundamentally changes our view of the "real" world is okay by me to call scifi.