I was recently interviewed on some university’s radio station, and was confronted by a professor who insisted that he, and he alone, knew the true definition of science fiction, and if something didn’t fit into his definition it clearly wasn’t science fiction.
Well, he’s happy with his definition (whatever it may be), but he is far from the first. Let me tell you a little something about our critical prognosticators of the past century.
The first guy to define science fiction was Hugo Gernsback, the man who created the first all-science-fiction magazine (Amazing Stories, back in April, 1926). He’s the guy our most prestigious award is named after, even though he had some difficulty speaking English, clearly couldn’t edit it, and usually refused to pay for it except on threat of lawsuit.
Hugo declared that “scientifiction” (his first term for it) existed solely to interest young boys in science. (Young girls, presumably, were too busy playing with their dolls.) The science had to be reasonably accurate, and central to the story.
Now, at about the same time Hugo was creating science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft was perfecting a fantasy fiction that rarely involved science (although he did sell a few pieces to Astounding in the 1930s), and clearly wasn’t meant for the impressionable young boys Hugo saw as his audience.
Okay, move the clock (the calendar?) ahead 80+ years. Lovecraft is just about a household name. Eleven of his books are still in print. You’d need extra fingers and toes to count the movies adapted from or suggested by his work. Science fiction is happy to claim him as one of our own, at least a close cousin if not a wandering son.
And Papa Gernsback of the rigid definition? Not a single word he wrote in his entire life – and that includes novels, editorials, non-fiction, the whole shebang – is still in print.
The first major critic to come along was Damon Knight. Damon knew that science fiction was the pure quill. It annoyed him when science fiction writers didn’t know the craft of writing, and it annoyed him even more when they got their science wrong.
But what really drove him right up a tree was when they didn’t even try to make the science accurate. When, for example, they put the key in the ignition and the spaceship started up just like a car. When, for example, they put an oxygen atmosphere on Mars.
When, for example, they were Ray Bradbury.
Damon acknowledged that what Bradbury did was Art; he knew his craft too much to argue with that. But Art or not, it sure didn’t fit his notion of science fiction, and his criticisms and essays left no doubt that Ray Bradbury was a gifted imposter who should either mend his ways or stop posing as a science fiction writer.
The result? Almost every word Ray Bradbury wrote during the past 70 years is still in print, and just before his death the Pulitzer committee honored him for a lifetime devoted to science fiction. Of all the dozens of pure science fiction books Damon Knight wrote or edited, only two are in print today.
The next major critic was James Blish, perhaps not quite the writer Knight was (though a good one, no question about it), and a hell of a lot nastier, but he knew his stuff, and that meant he knew science fiction was Important (note the capital I), that no practitioner dared take it lightly, that it was just this side of sinful to be flip and flippant, which meant that the greatest offender was probably Robert Sheckley. How dare he make fun of the honored tropes and traditions of science fiction?
Okay, move the clock ahead a quick 60 years and (you saw this coming, right?) there are 11 Sheckley books in print. Of all the books, fiction and non-fiction, that James Blishwrote, only two remain in print. Even his Star Trek books have gone the way of the dodo.
But more to the point, no one argues any longer that humor cannot be valid science fiction (and indeed, such humorous stories as Eric Frank Russell’s “Allamagoosa” and Connie Willis’s “Even the Queen” have won the Hugo). Today no one says that the science is more important than the emotional impact of a story, by Bradbury, by Zelazny, by anyone. And no one denies that horror and supernatural fiction (perhaps excepting those vampire novels that are thinly-disguised category romances and outsell science fiction ten-to-one) a place in our family tree.
Now you would think that after the originator of our field and our first two major critics all fell on their faces trying to keep science fiction within their rigid definitions, future generations of self-appointed Keepers of the Flame (or the Definition) would have slunk off into the shadows. But they didn’t.
At the midpoint of the 20th Century, everyone knew that sex had no place in science fiction. Our field was like a George Bernard Shaw play, which is to say that an alien, reading (or watching) it, could learn everything there was to know about human beings except that we come equipped with genitals and an urge to use them. Then along came Philip Jose Farmer with “The Lovers” and its sequels, and when God didn’t strike him dead, all the writers who had been avoiding Topic Number One for years, even such traditionalists as Heinlein and Asimov, began making up for lost time…and by the mid-1960s it was never again suggested that sex had no place in science fiction.
J.G. Ballard got a lot of grief because clearly you couldn’t fool with the actual form of the science fiction novel. But after he did it, so did dozens of others, experimenting every which way as the New Wave was born, fought for its right to exist, and was finally incorporated into the body of the literature.
So okay, they lost a lot of battles, but there was one thing the traditionalists knew would never change, and that was that science fiction took place in outer space. Then Robert Silverberg began exploring “inner space” with books like Dying Inside, Barry Malzberg explored it with Herovit’s World, the Defenders of the Faith howled like stuck pigs, and a few years later everyone agreed that Outer or Inner Space were equally valid venues as long as the story worked.
Alternate history was okay for historians like McKinley Kantor and politicians like Winston Churchill, and the very occasional science fiction short story, but everyone knew it wasn’t really science fiction — until Harry Turtledove began proving it was on a regular basis, and suddenly dozens of writers followed suit. Now there’s no more controversy. Of course alternate history is science fiction.
And what’s driving the purists crazy these days? Just look around you.
Connie Willis can win a Hugo with a story about a girl of the future who wants to have a menstrual period when women no longer have them.
David Gerrold can win a Hugo with a story about an adopted child who claims to be a Martian, and the story never tells you if he is or not.
I can win Hugos with stories about books remembered from childhood, about Africans who wish to go back to the Good Old Days, about an alien tour guide in a thinly-disguised Egypt.
The narrow-minded purists to the contrary, there is nothing the field of science fiction can’t accommodate, no subject – even the crucifixion, as Mike Moorcock’s Nebula winner, “Behold the Man”, proves – that can’t be science-fictionalized with taste, skill and quality.
I expect movie fans, making lists of their favorite science fiction films, to omit Dr. Strangelove and Charly, because they’ve been conditioned by Roddenbury and Lucas to look for the Roddenbury/Lucas tropes of movie science fiction – spaceships, zap guns, cute robots, light sabres, and so on.
But written science fiction has never allowed itself to be limited by any straitjacket. Which is probably what I love most about it.
About the only valid definition that I’m willing to accept is this: all of modern, mainstream, and realistic fiction is simply a branch, a category, or a subset of science fiction.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is a popular and prolific American science fiction author. He is, according to Locus, the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short science fiction. He is the winner of five Hugos, a Nebula, and other major awards in the United States, France, Spain, Japan, Croatia and Poland and has been short-listed for major awards in England, Italy and Australia. He is the author of 75 novels, over 275 stories, and 3 screenplays, and is the editor of 42 anthologies. His work has been translated into 27 languages. He is currently the editor of Stellar Guild books and Galaxy’s Edge magazine. He is the Guest of Honor at the 2012 Worldcon and can be found online as @ResnickMike on Twitter or atwww.mikeresnick.com.