In Science Fiction: A Literary History, we are offered several definitions of this wonderful genre, as the book aims to delineate its history. Of course, if we are trying to follow the path of science fiction, we must know what we are looking for in the first place.
In two previous posts, my Review of Science Fiction 101 and The Definition of Science Fiction, I’ve discussed the definition that Robert Silverberg gives in 101 as well as the definition provided by Arthur B. Evans, author of the first chapter of A Literary History.
In this post I’d like to add another definition of the genre, provided by Roger Luckhurst himself in the second chapter of the book.
But first, let’s remind ourselves of the previous definitions we’ve encountered:
“1. An underlying speculative concept, systematically developed in a way that amounts to an exploration of the consequences of allowing such a departure from known reality.
2. An awareness by the writer of the structural underpinnings of our known reality.
3. Imposition by the writer of a sense of limitations somewhere within the assumptions of the story.
4. A subliminal knowledge of the feel and texture of true science fiction.”
— Robert Silverburg, Science Fiction 101
“1. SF comprises works that contain ‘extrapolated scientific content.’
2. SF is a thought experiment that examines some version of reality using the traditional ‘scientific method’ (observation, hypothesis, experimentation).
3. SF entails a ‘distinct level of subjunctivity.’
4. SF is ‘the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition…an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.’
5. Or simply, ‘Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.’”
— Arthur B. Evans, Science Fiction: A Literary History, Chapter 1, “The Beginnings: Early Forms of Science Fiction”
The definitions provided by Evans are not necessarily his own, rather a summary of the known definitions at the time he wrote his essay.
Now for Luckhurst’s own definition in Chapter 2:
“I sometimes define SF as the literature of technologically saturated societies, but this comes with the implication that it limits the genre to advanced industrial contexts. In fact, the experience of modernity could be even sharper where uneven development meant less an immersive experience and more a jagged confrontation of different speeds and temporalities that accompany the process of globalisation.”
I think Luckhurst’s definition is really interesting because he seems to have a natural inclination to define science fiction as “the literature of technologically saturated societies,” but at the same time doesn’t want to box in the genre to futuristic, technological stories, perhaps like Star Wars, Star Trek, or Neuromancer, stories that clearly take place in a scientifically advanced future.
If I’m understanding him correctly, he wants to include in the definition of science fiction stories that show an uneven distribution of advancement, which could cover a wide range of stories and sub-genres. The Hunger Games is an example of dystopian, uneven society, as is 1984, in which the proles do not live the same ordered, “advanced” life that members of the Party do. Of course, there are many more examples as well.
I’ve written before about how science fiction serves us the familiar in strange and unfamiliar ways, acting as a mirror and a lens. And in the first chapter of A Literary History, we learn that science fiction helped writers and readers make sense of all the new technological changes and the fast pace at which life and advancement seemed to be moving in the 19th century. In many ways, sci-fi helps us make sense of the world around us, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the storyworld offered must be technologically saturated. The show Black Mirror does a good job of this.
What I find the most interesting about trying to pin down science fiction is that all of these definitions are at least partially correct. Like Luckhurst, we certainly seem to want to pin it down as a genre of stories that feature advanced, futuristic tech and societies extrapolated from our current time, but that would leave out a great many stories that don’t strictly fit that mold and yet which we are inclined to include in the genre.
From My List alone this would include The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Time Machine, and more. These stories certainly do include advanced tech, but the storyworld is not saturated with it. Rather through the presence of the one advancement, in Jekyll and Hyde the ability to split one’s good and evil sides, and in The Time Machine the machine itself, we are offered an illuminated version of a particular issue to think on.
In any case, the central characteristic of science fiction is certainly some sort of speculative concept, which I’ll write about in later posts. For now, I just wanted to dive in to Luckhurst’s definition a bit.
Stay tuned for more SFN genre theory!