So, Science Fiction has a Monopoly on Change?

What is science fiction? Define it. It seems that everyone who writes in the S.F. genre has their own, different definition. Here’s my definition: Science fiction is a branch of speculative fiction or fantasy that extrapolates from known or speculated science to produce a fictional work. It is simple and focuses on the science.

I mentioned yesterday that I was wanting to look at David Brin’s incorporation of concepts of change into the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. For Brin, science fiction is all about the change. Science fiction is about the possibilities of human progress and improvement. Fantasy is contrasted for its unchanging nature. A dark lord may be overthrown, but it is likely that the social structures in place at the beginning of the novel or series is still going to be in effect. It is understandable, then, that I have a problem with this definition.

My problem with Brin’s definition is that it opens up a binary that raises science fiction to a position of privilege. Science fiction= progress= good; fantasy= stasis= bad. This is bullshit.

Now, I understand some of the issues that Matthew David Surridge has with Brin’s contribution to the Polansky-Wright debate.  The context of his comment about palantirs in every home is rather more problematic than I had originally thought.

Personally, I’m less disposed to Brin’s comments now than I was. It also raises the question of whether or not fantasy can be progressive. For Brin, that is an impossibility.

The one fantasy he points to that is progressive, Pratchett’s Discworld, he claims as science fiction. If that is the case, then so should The Lord of the Rings be considered science fiction because the entire novel is about change. The age of myths, of the elves, passes for the age of humanity. Now, the social structure does not change, but things are irreparably changed. In the end, his argument falls apart, I think.

While concepts of change makes for an interesting element to definitions of science fiction, it also causes a major bias to be introduced when contrasted to fantasy. That science fiction is being privileged over another genre, namely fantasy, is, I think, a troubling position.


Posted on February 7, 2012, in Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’ve written far too much on this topic already. It’s essentially the academic version of a fandom war, and about as stupid.

    • Michal,
      Yeah, I’m increasingly finding internet criticism increasingly stupid, too. And I really should just stop paying as much attention to it and focus more on other things.

  2. Christopher Lampton

    Any attempt to define science fiction narrowly — saying that it’s fiction about change or fiction about technological advancement — is pretty much doomed to failure. Science fiction is essentially the conjoined twin of fantasy and any attempt to define the separately or to make one superior to the other will always fail. Here’s my (rather broad, I think) definition of both sf and fantasy: They are works of fiction that take place in a world that in some important way differs from our own. In science fiction that difference is rationalized as falling within the bounds of what is currently believed to be technically possible; in fantasy, no rationalization is attempted. Does it make sf superior that the author rationalizes the point at which the story departs from reality? Not really. Often, it makes it more cumbersome, and certainly it lends the story to dating rather quickly as the bounds of science and technology expand or change. (I might add, though, that certain types of story are sf or fantasy simply by convention. Stories about time travel are sf, whether or not time travel is even theoretically possible. Stories about hobbits are fantasy, even though hobbits could as easily exist in some unobserved pocket of the universe as Martians could. And stories about magic…well, it depends on whether the magic is performed by a scientist or a mage, even though a scientist is just a mage with a degree in physics.)

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