About Science Fiction

The theme of this blog, as it has evolved, is how science fiction informs certain big issues, including the scientific way of understanding the world and the universe against rival (religious) claims of certain knowledge, the idea of progress and its opposition, and progressive social issues. Science fiction isn’t escapist, it isn’t about prediction, and its worst examples are generally those in film and television. Literary science fiction I’ve come to think is a kind of heuristic, a set of philosophical thought experiments: what the consequences would be if things were different, and therefore to challenge the common presumption that how things are, are the way they must be. This is important because things *are* changing, and have been for a couple centuries. Science fiction is a way of trying to understand humanity’s developing relationship with the external universe.

On this page I’m compiling various characterizations I’ve made of science fiction so far in this blog (as of April 2014) and earlier.


From this post:

I think of *science fiction* as an intuition pump, to the extent that it is “suppose for the sake of argument” speculation. A turning of the knobs on reality, or at least on the particulars of one’s culture, background, and experience. (As history is, in another way.) Knowing that these variations exist, or can be imagined, helps defuse the tendency toward fundamentalist belief systems, or cultural presumptions.

Jootsing is one particular way in which SF works this way.

If I have a theme to this blog, it is how science fiction is a bridge, a tool, to thinking about the most important questions in life.

(The context here is Daniel Dennett’s idea of ‘intuition pumps’, one being ‘Joosting’, or ‘jumping out of the system’: “learn the rules and current standards before trying to create something novel. Creativity violates rules, but you have to know what the rules are first; you must know tradition to subvert it.”)


From this post:

Science fiction, ultimately, is about how people react to change; about how human beings think about themselves in relation to the rest of the universe; about how human experience would be different if the world or the universe itself were different. As a literary form it arose out of the realization, beginning a couple of centuries ago, that change was something experienced within a single lifetime, in relative contrast to the entire previous history of the race, and was something that people reacted to quite differently. And the rate of change just keeps increasing – scientific (bosons, extrasolar planets, nanotubes, genomic sequencing), technological (bionic limbs, stem cell therapy, the internet, the iPhone), and social (black president! Gay marriage!). It’s no surprise that some people just check out and reject it all (except maybe for the technological part, which they accept and use unironically, since the technology follows from the sciency stuff) and take refuge in religion or paranoid politics. It’s so much simpler to think in terms of black (people who are different from you) and white (people who are like you), or that the answers to all the important questions reside in selective passages from one or another single book, trumping anything the race has learned or experienced in the past three millennia. Those attitudes strike me as blinkered and deeply self-centered, as if an adult was content to never expand upon the knowledge and beliefs of his or her 6-year-old self, and resented the idea that he or she should. Science fiction, in contrast, at its best and most sophisticated, takes an adult’s self-awareness about one’s place in the world, an openness to finding out what one doesn’t already know, a willingness to consider alternatives to the way things have always been done, and a denial that anything is sacred or immune from re-examination and questioning. We keep exploring. There are always new places to explore, new things to learn, old things to unlearn, and new ways to expand human options and increase overall human understanding and well-being.


More basically, here is an essay I wrote in about 2000 for the first version of the science fiction awards index, attempting to clarify the differences between science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

First, informal descriptions: “everybody knows”, more-or-less, that

  • Science fiction is about the future; technology, spaceships; aliens, time travel…
  • Fantasy is about magic, dragons, imaginary worlds…
  • Horror is about monsters, evil, the supernatural…

More abstractly, SF is about the impact of science and technology on the human condition, and typically depicts the consequences of speculative premises made plausible by scientific rationalism, at least implicitly. Fantasy explores imaginary worlds or imaginary premises with no appeal to the reader’s understanding of the past or present world; the appeal of fantasy instead lies in psychological, social, and mythological expressions of the human condition. Horror lies on a different scale, since it does not necessarily entail fantastic (i.e. supernatural) premises, but is more concerned with expressions of fear and anxiety about either the known or the unknown world.

While most genre stories fall clearly into one camp or another, mixes are not uncommon: fantasy that has horror elements is often called dark fantasy; blends of SF and fantasy are sometimes called science fantasy; even SF and horror can mix, as in tales of grotesque aliens invading spaceships.

Several varieties of SF need justification since they may not fit the typical description involving science and technology. Alternate history is considered SF, because the implicit rationale of its speculation is historical principle, in contrast to imaginary worlds of fantasy that have no implied physical or temporal relationship to our own world. Tales of time travel, faster-than-light space travel, or extra-sensory perception and telepathy, all concepts whose physical validity is questionable at best, are still SF when stories presume scientific rationales, or at least rational principles, in their workings. That said, stories relying on flimsy or obsolete science (e.g., TV series full of double-talk, stories that assume clones would be telepathic, etc.) may be bad SF, but they are not fantasy, as some defenders of rigorous “hard” SF would dismiss them; fantasy is something else again. Finally, even pre-historic tales about early humanoids can be viewed as SF if they are fundamentally about discovery or exploration of an unknown world and how that affects the human condition. To summarize,

In contrast with traditionally realistic (“mainstream”) fiction, which is about exploration of the human condition in a known universe, science fiction is about exploration of the unknown universe (where such exploration is advanced via the rationality of science, and often expressed via the impact of technology) and its affect on the human condition, fantasy explores imaginary worlds inspired by the known human condition yet unconstrained by limitations of the known universe, and horror is ultimately about humanity’s fear and dread of both the known and unknown universes.

For a collection of definitions of SF, see Definitions of SF; among the most apt or well-known are those by Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Stableford, Sturgeon, and Wollheim.