I finally read through the whole Wikipedia articles on science fiction + definitions, wanted to highlight some favorite passages.
This is interesting re: tensions between literary and genre fiction and the certain degree of arbitrariness in how a book is defined and marketed:
David Barnett has remarked: “The ongoing, endless war between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre’s foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes.” He has also pointed out that there are books such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which use recognizable science fiction tropes, but whose authors and publishers do not market them as science fiction.
From the definitions article, sounds like this one is regarded as at least among the most useful for sparking debate. Very academic, not entirely sure what’s meant by “estrangement and cognition”, but I like the idea of the “imaginative framework” / alternate reality as key:
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction…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”.
A pretty nice simple definition from Robert Heinlein:
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’.
A super pithy one by Rod Serling:
Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.
And I love this, from Ray Bradbury; not a rigorous definition but some nice passages getting at science fiction’s aims:
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. … It triangulates mankind amongst these geometrical threads, praising him, warning him. … 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.
And from Philip K Dick; I like the crux of a “conceptual dislocation” resulting in a new world, based on our own yet somehow transformed, as the basis for a story:
…So if we separate SF from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called SF? We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society—or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one—this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.
Fun reading the wide variety and evolution of definitions!
I’ve heard very good things about some of his books, but haven’t yet read any. Embassytown and The City & the City are both on my list. It seems like he crosses both genres and probably others as well. As with Le Guin my impression is some books may lean sci-fi, some fantasy, some kind of in the middle / both / neither. I feel like books where the genre is hard to pin down are often the most interesting!