The Broadest Possible Terms

Let’s return to yesterday’s item from OnlySky, which strikes me as a way to expand one of my key themes. In fact, perhaps we can build one of my hierarchies to begin with the most basic conception of what science fiction is, and then step by step expand on that scope. [[ revised 19jun23 ]]

Begin at the most basic.

So what is science fiction? Science fiction has had an obsession with its own definition, to an extent unlike any other genre. Ever since Hugo Gernsback, who both named and defined his idea of “scientifiction” back in the 1920s, various writers, editors, fans, critics, and scholars have attempted to describe what science fiction is, or ought to be. To Gernsback, for instance, science fiction ideally had a didactic element: the reader would learn something about science by reading a story in his magazine. Later writers emphasized the role of science, either in the sense that a story should conform to known science, or proceed in discovery or exploration along the lines of the scientific method.

Theodore Sturgeon said that a science fiction story is “a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.”

Isaac Asimov said that sf is “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” This has long been my own favorite operational definition of science fiction. It’s not about scientific discoveries or inventions per se, it’s about how people and societies respond to those discoveries, even if there’s no explicit “scientific content” in the story.

And Robert A. Heinlein called sf “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” This strikes me as idealistic, and somewhat overly limiting; some sf isn’t set in the future, and very few sf stories, even implicitly, have anything to do with the scientific method.

Later scholarly definitions sometimes emphasized the effect of sf, e.g. Darko Suvin’s “presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition,” which anticipates the current psychological term “cognitive estrangement,” the mental problem of, in effect, believing two contradictory things at the same time.

And some, like Donald A. Wollheim, consider SF to be a branch of fantasy, which to me is overly simplistic at best. Presumably he means fantasy to be any non-realistic narrative, in contrast to traditional “mainstream” literature about people living now or in the past; and certainly sf stories are non-realistic in that sense. Yet that characters even in “mainstream” fiction are (even if based on real people) imaginary leads some to consider *all* kinds of fiction fantasy, which is an even less-useful.

There is also the perspective of a story’s effects on the reader, and two opposing effects can be identified with the terms “sense of wonder” and “horror.” More on these later.

Missing from most lists of definitions of SF are the superficial descriptions of popular science fiction, i.e. SF in films and TV (though I will neglect comic books and similar media as out of my purview), that are far more widespread than SF in books or short stories.

Ask an average citizens who watches TV and goes to the movies, what is science fiction? And what is fantasy? And the former will typically be something like: stories about the future, about space travel, alien beings, time travel. Fantasy: dragons and witches and demons and magic. Wikipedia’s definition ( is along these lines: SF “typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.” And links to a long list of definitions at

Let’s call this descriptive take on the themes of science fiction “Take 1”.

Then let’s return to the idea of science fiction as concerning, in Isaac Asimov’s words, “the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” These can include changes thrust upon human beings — the consequences of a new invention, say, or the arrival aliens — or pursued by human beings — the exploration of other planets, of the galaxy. These changes can occur at the smallest or broadest of levels, with historical precedents from the way contraception changed dating patterns — or before that, the advent of private automobiles with commodious back seats — to the shift in perspective of humanity’s place in the universe brought about by the astronauts and cosmonauts of the 1960s and 1970s.

The key word in all this is change. Let’s call this notion of what science fiction is about “Take 2”.

In this blog post (here) from last November, I refined this core definition to say: “science fiction is about the understanding and management of change. Of our knowledge about the universe; of environmental changes (which include technological developments) that affect the survival of the race. In the longest of terms, the former might someday be finished, but there is no escape from the latter. The sun will die, the universe will end.”

Let’s call this notion, involving both change and management, “Take 2a”.


Now, prompted by the essay linked yesterday, let’s consider the context of change. The genre of science fiction (as named and defined by Hugo Gernsback) took off in the early 20th century as the effects of industrialization and knowledge of the discoveries of science became widespread. New factories, new railroads; radio broadcasts; airplanes; the time had come when one’s way of life could be noticeably different from one generation to the next, in a way that had never previously happened in human history. In science, our realization of the size of the universe expanded greatly, as did our conception of the fundamentals of reality, as Einsteinian relativity supplanted intuitive notions of Newtonian time and place.

The precursors of the Gernsbackian genre SF, from Mary Shelley to Poe and Verne and Wells, took place in the light of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, as some people understood that world, on its face, was vaster and more interesting than as described by the ancients, not just in religious books, but even by the Greeks, who drew many provisional conclusions without bothering to verify them with evidence. So this broader era of SF, as influenced by history since the Enlightenment, is an earlier, broader form of the genre we’ve called science fiction only since the 1920s. Let’s call this take on what science fiction is all about, extrapolating on the discoveries and insights of the Enlightenment, “Take 3”.

Before *that*, for centuries, changes were political, social, and religious. And individuals mostly did not notice. People lived their lives without much awareness of the wider world (usually, literally, rarely traveling more than a day’s walk from where they grew up, in their entire lives), and the way one generation lived their lives was much the way previous generations had lived their lives.

Now, expand the context again. Consider deep history, at least the history of the human race, as far as humans remember and have recorded it. It’s curious and significant that since humanity’s holy books go back only a few thousand years, many people today think the entire universe is only that many years old. (Otherwise, what’s the point?) But there’s evidence of human history going back much farther, of course, especially back to the transition, some 12,000 years ago, from tribal hunter-gatherers, with the invention of agriculture, to permanent settlements and relatively sedentary ways of life.

This was probably the most significance, and *stressful*, change in the history of the species. It’s what Jared Diamond called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” And it’s this change that has driven divides all the way to today.

This has been recognized in various ways. Recall that book by Carel Van Schaik & Kai Michel, THE GOOD BOOK OF HUMAN NATURE: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible, which considers the Biblical stories as a kind of collection of “lessons learned” about the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one. (See my provisional take here.)

And in the article linked yesterday, the discussion of that book by Berman, which was all the discomforts of modernity. And the items in recent days about the book about instituting a “regime change” for the “common good,” whose author presumes what that might be.


And so, here’s my insight since reading that item yesterday.

We can concede that the conservative yearning for a simple past is valid in a sense – but what they’re yearning for isn’t the 1950s of their childhood, it’s the childhood of the race, thousands of years ago. The belonging to a small, homogeneous tribe, the shared understanding and acceptance of tribal myths, the suspicion and rejection of anything – other tribes, any kind of sexual activity that could not result in reproduction, even valid, objective knowledge – that would threaten those myths and thus tribal solidarity. All of which would threaten the survival of the tribe.

Do they really want to go back to that? In a sense they do, without realizing what they would give up by rejecting modernity.

And so here we can tag a “Take 4.” The idea of science fiction as considering the objective universe, but being inevitably biased by a human nature built upon primeval survival instincts.

Human nature hasn’t changed much if at all, over 10 or 12 thousand years. These tendencies will never go away. While fantasy indulges those tendencies, the project of science fiction, as I see it, ideally, is to see through them – to think our way around the problem [of human nature] (to paraphrase R.E.M.) – in order to perceive what is “real” independent of the protocols and biases of human nature. This project isn’t for everyone. Actually only for a small number. Most people will prefer to live among those like themselves, and believe simplistic myths about human’s role in the cosmos that in actually promote survival of the tribe, and by extension the species. Is there a paradox here between understanding reality, and survival of the species? Yet, I think, that’s the core issue that science fiction, ideally, should address.

Let’s repeat this quote from yesterday:

Less ignorable than the whirling ball is the crushing anxiety and uncertainty and unfairness and loneliness and vulnerability of daily life in an alien world, a world for which we are not adapted. To our Stone Age brains, this is all terrifying, alienating, anxiety-producing.

Our situation is not okay. It’s hard, and unacceptably so.

So we declared it untrue and wrote a better story. I am loved and protected, and Everything is Part of a Plan, even if I can’t see it. When I die, fingers crossed I will live in eternal bliss, reunited with those I’ve loved and lost.

See? Much better story.

Humans live by stories. Not reality.

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