Tomorrow in the first session of the social/science/fiction course I want to have a discussion about what "science fiction" is and what "social science" is, and what we might gain by juxtaposing them as I have tried to do in the syllabus. So naturally I've been thinking a great deal about this issue over the past few days, especially in terms of the definition of "science fiction" ("social science" is easier, since there's a nice definition that I like and am in print as using and advocating).

Here's the dilemma: this is what I've been thinking about so logically I should blog about it here. (I do have an anonymous blog out there too, but reflections like this aren't so appropriate for that forum.) But if I do, then someone in the class might read my reflections here and that might shut down the conversation in class tomorrow. After all, what I want to do is to have the discussion, not simply provide the class with a definition and have them scribble it down in notebooks. (Truth to tell I'm not certain that there is a final answer to the question "what is science fiction," anyway. But a course on science fiction and social science needs to have working definitions of its subject-matter, if only to rule works like The Lord of the Rings out of consideration.) What to do, what to do…

A compromise: three definitions of science fiction by respected science fiction authors (would anyone deny that these three are science fiction authors? I think not -- even if those who aren't fans of the genre might not recognize John Brunner's name off the bat, and might not know his classic exploration of overpopulation Stand On Zanzibar) that I think are interesting. Not necessarily right or wrong, but interesting.

The first is by Ursula K. LeGuin:
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. … The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is to tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. … All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, draw from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor. [“Introduction,” The Left Hand of Darkness (1976)]
A second comes from Robert Heinlein:
Science Fiction is speculative fiction in which the author takes as his first postulate the real world as we know it, including all established facts and natural laws. The result can be extremely fantastic in content, but it is not fantasy; it is legitimate—and often very tightly reasoned—speculation about the possibilities of the real world. This category excludes rocket ships that make U-turns, serpent men of Neptune that lust after human maidens, and stories by authors who flunked their Boy Scout merit badge tests in descriptive astronomy. [“Ray Guns And Spaceships,” in Expanded Universe (Ace, 1981)]
Finally, some thoughts by John Brunner:
As its best, SF is the medium in which our miserable certainty that tomorrow will be different from today in ways we can’t predict, can be transmuted to a sense of excitement and anticipation, occasionally evolving into awe. Poised between intransigent skepticism and uncritical credulity, it is par excellence the literature of the open mind.
And just for the heck of it, some thoughts by the editor John W. Campbell, Jr., whose magazines helped to create the genre as a sociological category of the American publishing industry a half-century ago:
The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along … The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition--then develop its consistent, logical consequences.” [“Introduction,” Analog 6, 1966]
That should be enough food for thought for now. I'll weigh in again on this after we have the class discussion tomorrow.

[Posted with ecto]

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