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Lasers, rocketships! Bug-eyed aliens and utopian cities!
These are a few of the common images associated with science fiction, reinforced by the media and popular films. But science fiction is more than just its trappings. So what, really, is this thing called "science fiction"?
In the strict etymological sense, it's literature about scientific discovery or technological change, but that definition both misses the mark and constricts the field. Certainly some SF is about those things, but you can find its true essence in the word "change." In fact, many of today's scholars prefer the term "speculative fiction," because more important than the science in SF is the speculation contained.
Consider the history of the genre. Though some SF scholars point to early travel tales such as Lucian of Samosata's True Story or monster epics such as Gilgamesh as its earliest examples, most agree that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the first true SF novel. This iconic story asks the question, If we develop technology to reanimate the dead, how should we use it — if at all? In other words, medical science leads to technological innovation, changing not only how we live but what it means to be alive.
But SF doesn't make predictions or seek answers. According to Theodore Sturgeon, its central tenet is "Ask the next question" (his personal trademark was the letter Q with an arrow through it, signifying the phrase). It embraces multitudinous themes, and approaches questions about change from many perspectives. Sometimes, it provides a view from a distance: On Mars, Earth with all its personal dramas is but a blue dot among the stars suspended in the blackness of cold, hard vacuum.
Or time shifts perspective: Alternate history asks "what if?" about potential changes to historical events, altering everything that follows a single — often minor — change. Many time-travel stories operate the same way. Likewise, setting a story in the future allows a writer to test how current events might play out ("If this goes on, then …"), how scientific discovery and resultant technological change could affect us and our universe ("What if?"). Alien planets can help us better see our own world through the inherent contrasts and similarities. Stories about alien beings allow us to examine what it means to be human, free of racial blinders or cultural expectations.
SF is the literature not just about individual people and their adventures but of the human species as a whole: SF is about how we have changed, how external change affects us, how things we do change the world around us, and how we will continue to change over time. Thus, SF is, as many scholars note, the literature of change, and reflects human experience in a changing world.
Since the dawn of intelligence, humans have always used technology, and that technology has changed us in dramatic and irreversible ways: Consider how much the control of fire changed the course of our development — or domesticating animals, or agriculture. Read any history book and you'll see the power of military technology, from the phalanx to the long bow to the nuclear cruise missile.
But big, dramatic technologies like these aren't the only ones that affect us: Can you imagine giving up your A/C, refrigerator, automobile? How about computers? Books? Eliminating any of these technologies would utterly change the life of anyone living in the modern world. How about even more basic and ubiquitous technologies like water, sewer, or electricity? People do endure the loss of such things during times of war and economic depression, and humans on this very Earth, right now, live without such technologies every day.
Now imagine how a new technology might alter our existence. For example, a magic box that consumes dirt and waste and converts it into food (nanotech); or another type of magic box that can analyze everything that makes you "you," and stores that information for later download into a new body (artificial intelligence and biotech). These technologies are blooming right now as you read this, and once they spread to our everyday lives, we will never be the same, just as we were never the same after fire, or fields of grain, or mushroom clouds.
So SF is the literature of change. But SF is also philosophical fiction that ponders big questions, such as "What is it to be human?" and "What is our real purpose on this planet?" Strip philosophy from SF and it can look bare and shallow, as in much media that purports to be SF. Changed perspectives – distance in time, space, culture, and so forth – grant the SF writer speculative opportunities to consider SF's many philosophical themes.
Core to good SF is a philosophical perspective on what it means to be human in a changing world. Science fiction's readers take the long view. They picture the human animal as part of a species whose skin is multicolored, whose voice is multilingual, whose home is this little planet rather than any single nation, whose future will be different from today. In contrast, adherents to traditional culture see those borders and tongues and hues as signs of difference, and difference as dangerous. David Hartwell describes science fiction readers as having "an impatience with the way things are, an ironic, sometimes sarcastic attitude toward everyday things… a desire for change" (Age of Wonders). They differ from traditionalists who fear and loathe change; who see the future as dangerous, because tomorrow's world will, without doubt, be different from today. James Gunn says, "If threatened by destruction, SF says man will not surrender peacefully; he will struggle to the end, studying how to live underwater, on a frozen or flaming Earth, in outer space, on the most hostile worlds" (Inside Science Fiction). Of course much of SF holds true to this philosophy of the human spirit.
It should come as no surprise, then, that SF has always been popular among young people. And well it should, because it "stretches the imagination and exercises the mind; it can dramatize contemporary problems and help consider other ways of existing, behaving, organizing, perceiving, thinking… It is a literature of ideas… and can be a literature of education" (Gunn, Inside Science Fiction). Similarly, survey any group of scientists or engineers, and you are as likely as not to discover they were inspired to their fields by glimpses into undiscovered worlds that SF provided. The young are used to change, because it is all they know, so SF is a natural literature for them.
Today even literary authors have embraced SF. Consider Philip Roth's alternate history, The Plot Against America, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. No "great literature" reading list is complete without works such as Fahrenheit 451 or Slaughterhouse 5. In fact, I would argue that it's difficult to write anything new and relevant in today's rapidly changing world that doesn't use some of the elements or tools of SF. Popular contemporary authors such as Michael Chabon, John Crowley, and China Miéville are celebrated by the literary world and academia despite the fact that they write SF.
And SF is not just an American or even English-language phenomenon: It empowered Soviet authors to criticize their leadership behind the mask of writing about other worlds and cultures, and from these dissident origins has grown a vital SF culture in Eastern Europe and other former Soviet republics. Similarly, SF magazines in China enjoy circulations in the millions, allowing Chinese SF authors and readers to enjoy similar creative freedoms. South and Central America also enjoy a strong speculative fiction. And the list goes on, with SF now an important mode in most literary cultures.
So the genre is growing in acceptance as well as in relevance.
But more than just a literary mode, SF offers us an ongoing conversation. It is a community of writers, educators, librarians, scholars, and fans. They form professional organizations and local reading clubs. They gather at academic conferences like SFRA and ICFA, at broader conferences like World SF and the Nebula Awards Weekend, and at fan conventions that are in session somewhere in the world almost every week. The SF community is unique in that all these groups comingle and usually fit into one or more of these categories. In fact, it is a rare author who did not emerge from "fandom," as many fans strive to become authors, participating in the wide variety of writers' workshops or writing popular "fanfic" (or "slash" — romantic or sexual stories) based on existing characters.
So SF is not just a literary genre; it is a living, dynamic, and growing family that enjoys all the benefits and suffers the same difficulties as any other family. SF itself changes with each new voice; as critic and author Tom Shippey says, "Science fiction is hard to define because it is the literature of change and it changes while you are trying to define it" (The SF Book of Lists). Science fiction is a discussion about what it means to be human in a changing world, and everyone is invited—including you.
Following the links provided below will open a door to the world of science fiction. Welcome to the conversation.
SF Resources for Librarians
The Center for the Study of Science Fiction offers a wealth of information for librarians. Be sure to check out "A Basic Science Fiction Library" to see a growing list of important novels. The site also includes a number of essays by noted scholar James Gunn, including "Libraries in Science Fiction." Also on the site is an exhaustive list of links to "Science Fiction Websites and Other Resources," including information for writers, educators, librarians, and scholars.
AboutSF is an outreach program for speculative literature, dedicated to helping educators, librarians, researchers, and fans learn more about the field. It includes teaching plans and other "Educational Resources," tools for finding speakers, "Research Libraries" holdings, and much more.
Gunn, James. Inside Science Fiction: Essays on Fantastic Literature. The Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Hartwell, David. Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction. Tor Books, 1996.
Shippey, Thomas. The SF Book of Lists. Ed. Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski, Berkeley, 1982.
Parts of this article were first published in World Literature Today Volume 84, Number 3 (May – June 2010), p. 18 – 19, and on the companion website. Reprinted by permission.
CHRISTOPHER MCKITTERICK is an author, editor, technical writer, teacher, amateur astronomer, and backyard engineer. Chris’ short fiction has appeared Analog, Artemis, Captain Proton, Extrapolation, Mythic Circle, Ruins: Extraterrestrial, Sentinels, Synergy SF, Tomorrow SF, Visual Journeys, and elsewhere. This year he edited the "International Science Fiction" issue of World Literature Today. He teaches writing at the University of Kansas, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He recently finished a far-future novel, Empire Ship, and his first novel, Transcendence, will appear in 2010 from Hadley Rille Books. For more, check out his website and blog.
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