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Science Fiction

by Robert E. Rogoff

Science fiction is not "the literature of ideas."

One would be hard pressed to find any fiction at all that doesn't contain at least one idea. Even in the most literary of literary fiction, an idea exists.

Once, "the literature of ideas" may have been a (somewhat) useful way to distinguish what was then the science fiction genre from other categories of fiction, when other forms of fiction were concerned primarily with mimesis (depicting reality accurately).

However, science fiction has since become the broader category 'speculative fiction,' which is considered to include science fiction of various kinds, fantasy of various kinds, and alternate history. Some would include horror in there too. I suppose I would too, as long as it's the kind of horror involving speculative elements such as the supernatural or sci-fi monsters (as opposed to shlocky mental-patient- escapes-from- 1960s-style- mental-asylum- and-goes-around- hacking-up- teenage-cheerleaders- having-sex- in-the-woods movies). Perhaps I would want more than just a speculative element. Perhaps I would want an alternate reality.

What do various kinds of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and some horror have in common? Alternate realities. More specifically, alternate worlds. Science fiction has now grown and matured into the literature of alternative worlds. An alternative world is a world that has never existed, except in fiction.

Science fiction has become speculative fiction, the literature of alternative worlds.

Historical fiction is therefore not really sf, yet high fantasy set in a mythical kingdom is. A contemporary reader may find the world in James Clavell's Shogun as exotic as the one in Frank Herbert's Dune. However, Shogun is set in fifteenth-century Japan--which actually existed. By contrast, Dune is set on Arrakis in the far future. Arrakis in the far future seems unlikely to ever exist, except in fiction. So, Shogun is not sf, but Dune is.

Stephen King's output, when set in contemporary settings, is no more sf than the work of John Grisham, also set in contemporary settings. Perhaps a monster running amok can make a good horror story. But a monster alone is just not sf. If the world in which a story is set actually exists, the story might be a thriller, a horror novel, a monster movie, or something else ('sci-fi' maybe?) but not sf. Godzilla is not sf then, but Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is. Michael Crichton's Sphere, by this definition, might not be sf, although his Jurassic Park clearly is. Robert J. Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment might not be sf by this definition, since its setting is contemporary, even though an exciting new discovery is made (albeit one that flies in the face of rational thought). The same logic makes a Twilight Zone-style story, where someone in a contemporary setting discovers something weird, not sf either.

This argument could break down if, as a result of that monster running amok or that weird new discovery, a new world is created that has never existed, except in fiction.

However, in exotic settings which have never existed, interesting ideas will be encountered, almost by necessity. Extrapolative sf starts with an idea and uses that as the foundation upon which to erect an entire world. The idea of plasm obviously shaped the exotic world constructed by Walter Jon Williams in Metropolitan and City on Fire. However, that idea was only the starting point for the setting--a setting that has never existed, except in fiction.

The days of a story consisting of nothing besides an idea have passed. George Scithers called this type of story a "Revelation of Wonders," and suggested that revealing the wonder (an invention, a new discovery, etc.) is not the end of a story, but the beginning of one explaining the impact of that wonder on people and society.

The term 'science fiction' is an oxymoron; after all, the scientific method is the tool humans use to get as close to objective truth as possible.

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Copyright © 1994-2008 Robert E. Rogoff. All rights reserved.