Author Topic: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples  (Read 2311 times)

Pingers

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Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« on: February 12, 2019, 09:53:47 PM »
I'm not a major sci-fi head, or a drum-banger for the genre, but I have found that there is quite a lot of snobbishness and hostility directed towards sci-fi, with some people considering it a low-brow or non-valid type of fiction. And I do really like some of the sci-fi I've read.

I think sci-fi has a bit of an image problem and is often perceived to be something it's not. For a start, it's not really about space or space travel or space ships. I suspect Isaac Asimov (or some of the covers of his books) have helped to spread that misconception. There are some sci-fi books that do include space ships and space travel; two I've mentioned on here recently are Dune by Frank Herbert, and The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin. Space tavel is a convenient device in sci-fi because it's about trying out new ideas, including new ideas of government and society. In that sense, it can be surprisingly akin to political philosophy. When I studied a bit of political philosophy I was surprised how abstract it often is. John Rawls, for example, writes about theoretical or ideal political systems, not materially existent ones. Sci-fi writers like le Guin will set a novel on another planet to free themselves of the weights of earthly reality, it helps them transcend the inevitable objections of 'that would never happen because...'. Take the setting somewhere new and theoretical and you give yourself some room to move and experiment.

Because I think science fiction would be better called 'future fiction' or 'concept fiction'. Arguably, conventional fiction is concerned more with human feelings and experience, whereas sci-fi is more concerned with ideas, often taking new and emerging developments (computers and the concept of artificial intelligence, for example, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and extrapolate from there, posing questions about the moral dilemmas that might arise if you took those concepts to some of their possible conclusions. Again, I would argue that the genre has some commonality with philosophy here; specifically, the realm of ethics. Sci-fi writers are interested in how novel technologies (or anything novel) might develop and ask us to think about how we feel about that, and which ethical concerns we foresee arising. In doing so they are asking us to examine our present as much as any possible future.

Ursula le Guin said something along the lines of fantasy or sci-fi being more truthful than straight fiction, because it allows you to tell a truth in a way that gets past people's psychological defences, because it's set in a 'different' world even when it is in fact a cipher for our world.

Anyway, what do you think?


Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #1 on: February 12, 2019, 11:46:22 PM »
I have found that there is quite a lot of snobbishness and hostility directed towards sci-fi, with some people considering it a low-brow or non-valid type of fiction.

I think the snobs might be onto something, though. To say that sci-fi is really philosophical concept-fi is to deny the commercial, sensational history of the genre
Phillip K Dick's stuff, as deep as often is, still gets quite a bit of its energy out of being written quickly, for money.
He's not just outside of the mainstream because of the philosophical themes he uses, it's the fact that he crowbars those themes into books that do, sometimes, read like pressured, genre-pleasing hackwork. I doubt he'd be such an addictive writer if he'd taken more time, instead of writing three or four books a year,


Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #2 on: February 13, 2019, 12:02:24 AM »
this all gets answered in breakfast of champions i reckon.

Mister Six

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #3 on: February 15, 2019, 07:48:37 PM »
Fantasy: stories about stuff that isn't physically possible - by a dramatically different degree than "action hero gets shot in the shoulder but shakes it off" - in the real world.

Sci-fi: subset of the above that concerns itself primarily with non-magical/supernatural/theological gubbins.

I don't see much point in worrying about it beyond that. Star Wars is science fiction and so is 1984. Harry Potter is fantasy and so is Animal Farm. Beyond that, who cares and why should it matter?

Pingers

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #4 on: February 15, 2019, 08:42:17 PM »
I think the snobs might be onto something, though. To say that sci-fi is really philosophical concept-fi is to deny the commercial, sensational history of the genre
Phillip K Dick's stuff, as deep as often is, still gets quite a bit of its energy out of being written quickly, for money.
He's not just outside of the mainstream because of the philosophical themes he uses, it's the fact that he crowbars those themes into books that do, sometimes, read like pressured, genre-pleasing hackwork. I doubt he'd be such an addictive writer if he'd taken more time, instead of writing three or four books a year,

I think this is a bit self-perpetuating though. Because sci-fi has a bit of a bad rep, good fiction that sometimes deliberately avoids the label, meaning the genre is seen as more lowbrow than it is. Apparently, Margaret Attwood's publishers told her not to use the term 'science fiction' in relation to the Oryx & Crake trilogy. Those are really good books that have been deemed not to be sci-fi when really they are. The first version of Farenheit 451 ('The Fireman') was published in a science fiction magazine, but I'm not sure many people think of it as sci-fi.

chveik

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #5 on: February 15, 2019, 08:58:13 PM »
Beyond that, who cares and why should it matter?

mate. this is an harmless thread.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #6 on: February 16, 2019, 12:01:35 AM »
Six is right tbf. My initial thoughts were 'you're overthinking this a bit'. I tried to give a helpful answer but then got bored and gave a churlish one.

gib

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #7 on: February 16, 2019, 12:21:51 AM »
I liked the opening post and have higher hopes for this thread than some.

Pingers

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #8 on: February 16, 2019, 12:59:54 PM »
Six is right tbf. My initial thoughts were 'you're overthinking this a bit'. I tried to give a helpful answer but then got bored and gave a churlish one.

You might be right. I was trying to do something a little different from "Hey, let's talk about sci-fi!" and I do think it's a misunderstood or poorly defined term, but whatever.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #9 on: February 16, 2019, 03:02:36 PM »
Fantasy: stories about stuff that isn't physically possible - by a dramatically different degree than "action hero gets shot in the shoulder but shakes it off" - in the real world.

Sci-fi: subset of the above that concerns itself primarily with non-magical/supernatural/theological gubbins.

I don't see much point in worrying about it beyond that. Star Wars is science fiction and so is 1984. Harry Potter is fantasy and so is Animal Farm. Beyond that, who cares and why should it matter?

On this basis wouldn't Aesop be fantasy too, which sounds a bit reductive? I doubt the word is more than half a century old, didn't they use to call them 'Romances'?

Anyway I think my glib definition is similar, Science-fiction is fantasy set in the future, or slightly less glibly, science-fiction is the fantasy of human rationality, making Sherlock Holmes sci-fi.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #10 on: February 16, 2019, 09:08:04 PM »

Mister Six

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #11 on: February 17, 2019, 12:23:37 AM »
mate. this is an harmless thread.

Sorry didn't mean to shut down discussion or mock anyone, that's just my opinion on this. My attitude with sci-fi, comics, video games and other great but critically ignore media/genres is to shrug my shoulders and fuck them off. If a supposed intellectual dismisses the entire fantasy/sci-fi genre(s) because of a knee-jerk reaction (so, ironically, not using their intellect) or tries to exonerate a work by rwclassifying it "speculative fiction" or "magic realism" or something - yes, I find that frustrating but at the end of the day it's their loss. And who wants the acceptance of someone who won't accept you anyway? Academia, as much as I support it in the abstract, is frequently just a bunch of masturbating nerds, and should be afforded about the same level of consideration as someone who posts on an internet message board you don't frequent.

(Unless you work in academia, I suppose, but I don't think worrying about genre definitions will help you there.)

All of this applies to non-academic snobs too, butits the academics that most get on my tits when I think about it.
« Last Edit: February 17, 2019, 12:34:40 AM by Mister Six »

Mister Six

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #12 on: February 17, 2019, 12:33:21 AM »
On this basis wouldn't Aesop be fantasy too, which sounds a bit reductive? I doubt the word is more than half a century old, didn't they use to call them 'Romances'?

Aesop is fantasy, Homer's Odyssey is fantasy, the Bible is fantasy (unless you believe in it, of course), the Epic of Gilgamesh is fantasy.

The age of the word "fantasy" is irrelevant. Modern English is only a few centuries old - do I have to talk about Chaucer in Middle English, or The Iliad in ancient Greek?

Is this scifi, technically speaking?

https://www.cookdandbombd.co.uk/forums/index.php/topic,68877.0.html

Fantasy, I'd say. Unless it turns out to be the result of someone being pulled into a parallel dimension via mad science or something. Looks like the same kind of wacky unexplained fantasy conceit as Groundhog Day or Freaky Friday or something.

chveik

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #13 on: February 17, 2019, 04:24:15 AM »
Sorry didn't mean to shut down discussion or mock anyone, that's just my opinion on this. My attitude with sci-fi, comics, video games and other great but critically ignore media/genres is to shrug my shoulders and fuck them off. If a supposed intellectual dismisses the entire fantasy/sci-fi genre(s) because of a knee-jerk reaction (so, ironically, not using their intellect) or tries to exonerate a work by rwclassifying it "speculative fiction" or "magic realism" or something - yes, I find that frustrating but at the end of the day it's their loss. And who wants the acceptance of someone who won't accept you anyway? Academia, as much as I support it in the abstract, is frequently just a bunch of masturbating nerds, and should be afforded about the same level of consideration as someone who posts on an internet message board you don't frequent.

(Unless you work in academia, I suppose, but I don't think worrying about genre definitions will help you there.)

All of this applies to non-academic snobs too, butits the academics that most get on my tits when I think about it.

but the OP, as far as I can tell, wasn't being a snob. if you respect and love the work of art that you're discussing, you might sometimes consider talking about the way they affect the genre they're supposed to be categorised in. and there are a few philosophers that have said some interesting stuff about sci fi, because in those cases they obviously liked the 'genre' and took it seriously. I guess it was because they were more "fans" than academics at this point.

btw I don't work in academia, I could have some at point, but the existence of the wankers you're mentionning was certainly a reason that put me off it. I must confess that I did write a little about scifi in my memoire of philosophy though :) anyway these days I simply prefer to enjoy the stuff, I don't really have the mental faculties for theory anymore.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #14 on: February 17, 2019, 07:16:08 AM »
'Fantasy', as a word, is much older than fifty years.  According to this:

https://www.etymonline.com/word/fantasy

Quote
fantasy (n.)
early 14c., "illusory appearance," from Old French fantaisie, phantasie "vision, imagination" (14c.), from Latin phantasia, from Greek phantasia "power of imagination; appearance, image, perception," from phantazesthai "picture to oneself," from phantos "visible," from phainesthai "appear," in late Greek "to imagine, have visions," related to phaos, phos "light," phainein "to show, to bring to light" (from PIE root *bha- (1) "to shine").
Sense of "whimsical notion, illusion" is pre-1400, followed by that of "fantastic imagination," which is first attested 1530s. Sense of "day-dream based on desires" is from 1926. In early use in English also fantasie, phantasy, etc. As the name of a fiction genre, from 1949.

It also appears in Shakespeare and Milton.

Quote
c. 1599–1602, William Shakespeare, Hamlet, London, Act 1, Scene 1: Is not this something more than fantasy?
1634, John Milton, Comus: A thousand fantasies / Begin to throng into my memory.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #15 on: February 17, 2019, 11:53:13 AM »
Right, but to describe a genre of fiction it will be mid C20 I imagine.
Speculative fiction I think is the 'newer' catch-all title, but is probably used by the same people who call comic books graphic novels.

Mister Six

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #16 on: February 18, 2019, 01:55:53 AM »
but the OP, as far as I can tell, wasn't being a snob.

I wasn't calling them that and didn't mean to imply such.

MojoJojo

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #17 on: February 19, 2019, 04:53:11 PM »
'Fantasy', as a word, is much older than fifty years.  According to this:

https://www.etymonline.com/word/fantasy

It also appears in Shakespeare and Milton.

But as your own quote, fantasy as a genre of fiction dates to 1949 (which isn't really much more than 50 years old).

Pingers

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #18 on: February 19, 2019, 07:20:48 PM »
but the OP, as far as I can tell, wasn't being a snob. if you respect and love the work of art that you're discussing, you might sometimes consider talking about the way they affect the genre they're supposed to be categorised in. and there are a few philosophers that have said some interesting stuff about sci fi, because in those cases they obviously liked the 'genre' and took it seriously. I guess it was because they were more "fans" than academics at this point.

btw I don't work in academia, I could have some at point, but the existence of the wankers you're mentionning was certainly a reason that put me off it. I must confess that I did write a little about scifi in my memoire of philosophy though :) anyway these days I simply prefer to enjoy the stuff, I don't really have the mental faculties for theory anymore.

If you can point me in their direction that would be much appreciated.

I was thinking about why I instinctively thought of Oryx & Crake and Farenheit 451 as being sci-fi, and realised it's because they both deal with issues that were starting to become more evident when they were written (climate change & genetic engineering in Attwood's case and the boom in TV and McCarthyism in Bradbury's case), and both sound warnings about the near future based on what was happening at the time.  To me, that seems to be part of the essence of sci-fi.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #19 on: February 19, 2019, 09:21:50 PM »
But as your own quote, fantasy as a genre of fiction dates to 1949 (which isn't really much more than 50 years old).

70 years is nearly 50% more than 50 years.

As well as that, I was replying to the specific phrase "I doubt the word is more than half a century old"- no qualifiers in there about any particular definition it might be limited to.

Mister Six

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #20 on: February 20, 2019, 01:51:38 PM »
Right, but to describe a genre of fiction it will be mid C20 I imagine.
Speculative fiction I think is the 'newer' catch-all title, but is probably used by the same people who call comic books graphic novels.

You can still call a pre-mid-20th century book fantasy. Genres are malleable, vague and entirely fabricated things. I don't know anyone who wouldn't call, say, The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds science fiction, but they predate the earliest use of "scientifiction" - THE term invented by the bloke the Hugos are named after - by about three decades.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #21 on: February 21, 2019, 01:16:02 PM »
Olaf Stapleton's First and Last Men is a really nice sci-fi novel written by a philosopher- he uses fiction as a sandbox to test out different ethical ideas. It has a lot of similarities with The Dispossesed, being a kind of history book of the future, each chapter being a quick, sketchy portrait of the way different future societies will work, or fail to. For example, in one society he writes about, teenagers are sent out into the wilderness to live ferally and fight each other until they've got it out of their systems.

A few philosophers have played around with sci-fi ideas, but quite often its the silliest, most escapist elements that they've found useful.  Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons uses the idea of teleportation to illustrate what he wants to say about personal identity, for example.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reasons_and_Persons#Personal_identity

 

touchingcloth

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #22 on: February 21, 2019, 11:44:00 PM »
Sci Fi is when there’s robots.

Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #23 on: February 22, 2019, 01:14:53 PM »
The famous definition by Brian Aldiss is hubris clobbered by nemesis.

Dannyhood91

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with example
« Reply #24 on: February 23, 2019, 06:35:22 PM »
Sci - Fi as a historical allegory can be read in Isaac Asimovs Foundation series. It's all a retelling of The gradual decline of the Roman Empire and generally seen as more high brow than your run of the mill sci fi.

Alberon

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #25 on: February 25, 2019, 11:01:58 PM »
Science Fiction is a catch-all title, very little of it is actually fiction about science. It can be set anywhere and anywhen. Any possible world and any impossible world.

Science Fiction can contain all forms of literature so one way of looking about it is that contempory literature (for example) is just a form of Very Hard Science Fiction.

The prejudice against Science Fiction has certainly dropped off in the last couple of decades. I think the main problem is that most people only get exposed to SF in big budget films. Unfortunately such big budget films tend to be deliberatly very stupid, as that's the best way to make a profit. In recent years low budget intelligent films like Arrival and Annihilation have helped matters and generally the written genre is better received.

Zetetic

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #26 on: March 02, 2019, 08:11:46 AM »
I sometimes wonder about The Memoirs of a Survivor and Lessing's Shikasta works. I'm extremely enamoured with the former - and I guess it's "sci-fi", but weirdly put-off making any headway into the latter (despite liking Lessing in general, like sci-fi to the point of it being comfort blanket of sorts).

I'm not at all sure why. Perhaps I worry about the self-conciousness of the Shikasta stuff and what choosing to write in sci-fi meant to the author, possibly compounded by believing that Lessing seemed to prefer different sci-fi to me (she specifically cites Blood Music as 'classic' science fiction she admires, but reading the quote again it's more that she's contrasting with the sort of sci-fi that constitutes 'the best social fiction of our time').

Anyway, I think there's something interesting in authors coming from outside of 'genre' fiction then choosing to adopt a genre and why, even if I can't bring it out. (Possibly a more pleasant approach than why other people don't take it seriously, regardless.)

Zetetic

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with examples
« Reply #27 on: March 04, 2019, 12:16:21 PM »
Or perhaps that's a terrible approach, given that suggesting it has murdered the thread to death.

Default to the negative

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with example
« Reply #28 on: April 12, 2019, 09:32:32 AM »
Sci - Fi as a historical allegory can be read in Isaac Asimovs Foundation series. It's all a retelling of The gradual decline of the Roman Empire and generally seen as more high brow than your run of the mill sci fi.

Yeah but it also has characters saying 'By Space!' instead of 'By God!' and other space-themed exclamations like 'Great Galloping Galaxies!' which drag it down in the eyes of snobs.

Dannyhood91

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Re: Let's try to define 'science fiction' - with example
« Reply #29 on: April 12, 2019, 08:43:21 PM »
Yeah but it also has characters saying 'By Space!' instead of 'By God!' and other space-themed exclamations like 'Great Galloping Galaxies!' which drag it down in the eyes of snobs.

Yeah but people in the future will talk like that I think because there will be loads of space and stars and that.