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Definitions of science fiction

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Definitions of science fiction

There have been many attempts at defining science fiction.[1] This is a list of definitions that have been offered by authors, editors, critics and fans over the years since science fiction became a genre. Definitions of related terms such as "science fantasy", "speculative fiction", and "fabulation" are included where they are intended as definitions of aspects of science fiction or because they illuminate related definitions — see e.g. Robert Scholes's definitions of "fabulation" and "structural fabulation" below. Some definitions of sub-types of science fiction are included, too; for example see David Ketterer's definition of "philosophically oriented science fiction". In addition, some definitions are included that define, for example, a science fiction story, rather than science fiction itself, since these also illuminate an underlying definition of science fiction.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, contains an extensive discussion of the problem of definition, under the heading "Definitions of SF". The authors regard Darko Suvin's definition as having been most useful in catalysing academic debate, though they consider disagreements to be inevitable as science fiction is not homogeneous. Suvin's cited definition, dating from 1972, is: "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."[2] The authors of the Encyclopedia article—Brian Stableford, Clute, and Nicholls—explain that, by "cognition", Suvin refers to the seeking of rational understanding, while his concept of estrangement is similar to the idea of alienation developed by Bertolt Brecht, that is, a means of making the subject matter recognizable while also seeming unfamiliar.

The order of the quotations is chronological; quotations without definite dates are listed last. The list below omits Gernback's later redefining of the term "science fiction". According to anthologist, populist and historian of the genre Sam Moskowitz (1920 – 1997), Gernback final words on the matter were: " Science fiction is a form of popular entertainment which contains elements of known, extrapolation of known or logical theoretical science". The list also omits John W. Campbell's infamous "Science fiction is what I say it is."


In chronological order

  • Hugo Gernsback. 1926. "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision ... Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. They supply knowledge . . . in a very palatable form ... New adventures pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow ... Many great science stories destined to be of historical interest are still to be written ... Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well."[3][4]
  • J. O. Bailey. 1947. "A piece of scientific fiction is a narrative of an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences and consequent adventures and experiences ... It must be a scientific discovery -- something that the author at least rationalizes as possible to science."[4][5][6]
  • Robert A. Heinlein. 1947. "Let's gather up the bits and pieces and define the Simon-pure science fiction story: 1. The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem itself—the "plot"—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts, i.e., if you are going to assume that the human race descended from Martians, then you've got to explain our apparent close relationship to terrestrial anthropoid apes as well."[7]
  • John W. Campbell, Jr.. 1947. "To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made."[7]
  • John W. Campbell, Jr.. "Scientific methodology involves the proposition that a well-constructed theory will not only explain every known phenomenon, but will also predict new and still undiscovered phenomena. Science-fiction tries to do much the same—and write up, in story form, what the results look like when applied not only to machines, but to human society as well."[notes 1]
  • Damon Knight. 1952. At the start of a series of book review columns, Knight stated the following as one of his assumptions: "That the term 'science fiction' is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein's suggestion, 'speculative fiction', is the best, I think), but that we're stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like 'The Saturday Evening Post', it means what we point to when we say it." This definition is now usually seen in abbreviated form as "Science fiction is [or means] what we point to when we say it."[9]
  • Theodore Sturgeon. 1952. "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."[10]
  • Basil Davenport. 1955. "Science fiction is fiction based upon some imagined development of science, or upon the extrapolation of a tendency in society."[11]
  • Edmund Crispin. 1955. A science fiction story "is one that presupposes a technology, or an effect of technology, or a disturbance in the natural order, such as humanity, up to the time of writing, has not in actual fact experienced."[12][13]
  • Robert A. Heinlein. 1959. "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. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of 'almost all') it is necessary only to strike out the word 'future'.[14]
  • Kingsley Amis. 1960. "Science fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin."[15]
  • James Blish. 1960 or 1964. Science fantasy is "a kind of hybrid in which plausibility is specifically invoked for most of the story, but may be cast aside in patches at the author's whim and according to no visible system or principle."[16]
  • Rod Serling. 1962. "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible."[17]
  • Judith Merril. 1966. "Speculative fiction: stories whose objective is to explore, to discover, to learn, by means of projection, extrapolation, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper-experimentation, something about the nature of the universe, of man, or 'reality' ... I use the term 'speculative fiction' here specifically to describe the mode which makes use of the traditional 'scientific method' (observation, hypothesis, experiment) to examine some postulated approximation of reality, by introducing a given set of changes—imaginary or inventive—into the common background of 'known facts', creating an environment in which the responses and perceptions of the characters will reveal something about the inventions, the characters, or both".[notes 2]
  • Darko Suvin. 1972. Science fiction is "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."[4][20]
  • Thomas M. Disch. 1973. "The basic premise of all s-f--that Absolutely Anything Can Happen and Should--has never been so handsomely and hilariously realized as in An Alien Heat." (Cover blurb for the 1973 Harper and Row edition of the novel by Michael Moorcock).
  • Brian Aldiss. 1973. "Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould".[21][6] Revised 1986. "... a definition of mankind ...", "... post-Gothic mode."[22][4]
  • Ray Bradbury. 1974. Science fiction is "the one field that reached out and embraced every sector of the human imagination, every endeavor, every idea, every technological development, and every dream." "I called us a nation of Ardent Blasphemers. We ran about measuring not only how things were but how they ought to be. ... We Americans are better than we hope and worse than we think, which is to say, we are the most paradoxical of all of the paradoxical nations in time. Which is what science fiction is all about. For science fiction runs out with tapes to measure Now against Then against Tomorrow Breakfast. It triangulates mankind amongst these geometrical threads, praising him, warning him." "For, above all, science fiction, as far back as Plato trying to figure out a proper society, has always been a fable teacher of morality...There is no large problem in the world this afternoon that is not a science-fictional problem." "Science fiction then is the fiction of revolutions. Revolutions in time, space, medicine, travel, and thought...Above all, science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines." "So science fiction, we now see, is interested in more than sciences, more than machines. That more is always men and women and children themselves, how they behave, how they hope to behave. Science fiction is apprehensive of future modes of behavior as well as future constructions of metal." "Science fiction guesses at sciences before they are sprung out of the brows of thinking men. More, the authors in the field try to guess at machines which are the fruit of these sciences. Then we try to guess at how mankind will react to these machines, how use them, how grow with them, how be destroyed by them. All, all of it fantastic." [23]
  • David Ketterer. 1974. "Philosophically oriented science fiction, extrapolating on what we know in the context of our vaster ignorance, comes up with a startling donnée, or rationale, that puts humanity in a radically new perspective."[4]
  • Norman Spinrad. 1974. "Science fiction is anything published as science fiction."[4][6][24]
  • Isaac Asimov. 1975. "Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology."[25]
  • Robert Scholes. 1975. Fabulation is "fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way."[4][26]
  • ―. 1975. In structural fabulation, "the tradition of speculative fiction is modified by an awareness of the universe as a system of systems, a structure of structures, and the insights of the past century of science are accepted as fictional points of departure. Yet structural fabulation is neither scientific in its methods nor a substitute for actual science. It is a fictional exploration of human situations made perceptible by the implications of recent science. Its favourite themes involve the impact of developments or revelations derived from the human or physical sciences upon the people who must live with those revelations or developments."[4][26]
  • James Gunn. 1977. "Science Fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger."[27]
  • Darko Suvin. 1979. "SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional "novum" (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic."[28]
  • Patrick Parrinder. 1980. "'Hard' SF is related to 'hard facts' and also to the 'hard' or engineering sciences. It does not necessarily entail realistic speculation about a future world, though its bias is undoubtedly realistic. Rather, this is the sort of SF that most appeals to scientists themselves—and is often written by them. The typical 'hard' SF writer looks for new and unfamiliar scientific theories and discoveries which could provide the occasion for a story, and, at its more didactic extreme, the story is only a framework for introducing the scientific concept to the reader."[29]
  • ―. 1980. "In 'space opera' (the analogy is with the Western 'horse opera' rather than the 'soap opera') the reverse [Parrinder is referring to his definition of "hard sf"] is true; a melodramatic adventure-fantasy involving stock themes and settings is evolved on the flimsiest scientific basis."[29]
  • David Pringle. 1985. "Science fiction is a form of fantastic fiction which exploits the imaginative perspectives of modern science".[30]
  • Kim Stanley Robinson. 1987. Sf is "an historical literature ... In every sf narrative, there is an explicit or implicit fictional history that connects the period depicted to our present moment, or to some moment in our past."[4][31]
  • Christopher Evans. 1988. "Perhaps the crispest definition is that science fiction is a literature of 'what if?' What if we could travel in time? What if we were living on other planets? What if we made contact with alien races? And so on. The starting point is that the writer supposes things are different from how we know them to be."[32]
  • Isaac Asimov. 1990. "'[H]ard science fiction' [is] stories that feature authentic scientific knowledge and depend upon it for plot development and plot resolution."[33]
  • Arthur C. Clarke. 2000. "Science fiction is something that could happen - but you usually wouldn't want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn't happen - though you often only wish that it could." (emphasis original) [34]
  • Jeff Prucher. 2006. Science fiction is "a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms."[35]

Undated (alphabetically by author)

  • John Boyd. "... storytelling, usually imaginative as distinct from realistic fiction, which poses the effects of current or extrapolated scientific discoveries, or a single discovery, on the behavior of individuals [or] society."[36]
  • Barry N. Malzberg. Science fiction is "that branch of fiction that deals with the possible effects of an altered technology or social system on mankind in an imagined future, an altered present, or an alternative past."[6]
  • Tom Shippey. "Science fiction is hard to define because it is the literature of change and it changes while you are trying to define it."[6]


  1. ^ From the introduction to George O. Smith's Venus Equilateral series, originally published in 1947.[8]
  2. ^ Originally published in the May 1966 issue of Extrapolation.[18][19]


  1. ^ For example, Patrick Parrinder comments that "[d]efinitions of science fiction are not so much a series of logical approximations to an elusive ideal, as a small, parasitic sub-genre in themselves."  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Originally published in the April 1926 issue of Amazing Stories
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Quoted in [1993] in:  
  5. ^ Originally published in Pilgrims of Space and Time (1947)
  6. ^ a b c d e Quoted in  
  7. ^ a b Originally in  ; cited from 1964 reprint.
  8. ^  
  9. ^   Punctuation was misprinted in the original magazine; the quote is punctuated as Knight had it in his collection of essays In Search of Wonder, Chicago: Advent, 1956.
  10. ^ James Blish, writing as William Atheling, Jr., cited this definition of Sturgeon's from a talk he had given. Blish's article was published in the Autumn 1952 issue of Red Boggs' fanzine Skyhook. Sturgeon subsequently complained to Blish that he had intended the definition to apply only to good science fiction. 
  11. ^  
  12. ^  , quoted from the Penguin reprint; the original publication was 1956 by Michael Joseph.
  13. ^ "Definitions of Science Fiction". Archived from the original on 18 October 2006. Retrieved 3 December 2006. 
  14. ^ From Heinlein's essay "Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues", originally in  
  15. ^  
  16. ^ In "Science-Fantasy and Translations:Two More Cans of Worms", by James Blish. Cited from a 1974 reprint of  . According to the front matter, this essay was originally published in two parts, in 1960 and 1964. Blish lists a variety of sources, some fanzines and some professional magazines, from which the book was drawn, but does not specify which particular sources formed the basis of this essay.
  17. ^ Rod Serling (1962-03-09). The Twilight Zone, "The Fugitive". 
  18. ^  
  19. ^  
  20. ^ Originally published in 1972
  21. ^  
  22. ^  
  23. ^ Farrell, Edmund J.; Gage, Thomas E.; Pfordresher, John et al., eds. (1974). Science Fact/Fiction. Scott, Foresman and Company.  Introduction by Ray Bradbury.
  24. ^ The quote is from the introduction to  
  25. ^ Asimov, "How Easy to See the Future!", Natural History, 1975
  26. ^ a b  
  27. ^ Road to Science Fiction Vol 1. 
  28. ^ Metamorphoses of SF No 63. 
  29. ^ a b  
  30. ^  
  31. ^   Archived December 1, 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^  
  33. ^  
  34. ^ Clarke, Arthur C. (2000). Patrick Nielsen Hayden, ed. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. New York:  
  35. ^ Prucher, Jeff (2007).  
  36. ^ Pandey, Ashish (2005). "Academic Dictionary of Fiction". Delhi, India: Isha Books. p. 137. Retrieved 3 October 2011. 
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