What Is SF?

As if you haven’t sat through this panel at least twenty times at some con or other, right?  But that won’t stop me.  Not when I’m eighteen months into writing my first SF novel after years of writing fantasy.  Besides, what’s the point of blogging if you can’t write about whatever you want?

I must confess, as a mostly fantasy writer, I subscribe to the notion that all fiction is fantasy.  And most memoirs, too.  If you make it up, it’s fantasy.  And fiction, by definition, is all made up.  Or at least it should be.  The whole personal experience school of writing that cropped up in the early twentieth century is not something I subscribe to.  (As explained in an earlier post, Write What You Don’t Know.)

Most literary types hate the above definition.  Art is not fantasy!  Truth is not fantasy!  The cynic in me, however, believes they’re wrong.  Hardcore SF fans also tend to hate the idea of SF as a subset of fantasy, but let’s face it;  most SF posits technology that’s about as currently possible as level ten fireballs.  Which is why it’s so cool.

But that’s not really the question here, is it?  The question is, what is SF?  Or Scientifiction, or Spec Fic, or whatever you want to call it.  To my mind, the answer is, whatever you want it to be.  Within reason, of course.  We don’t want be perceived as too radical here at SFNovelists.  Some science should probably be present, somewhere in the story.  Though that still gives the definition a lot of leeway.  If psychology is a science, then we’re right back where we started with fantasy.

But only if psychology is a science.

My own take on the question is that SF is anything where the ideas in a story are at least as important as the characters.  Or any story that has rockets.  My only caveat is, if the story sets out to be literary from the start, then I’m happy to let the lit crowd have it.  I probably won’t like it anyway.

What do you think is SF?

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  1. 1. Chrystoph

    I think an important element of Science Fiction is that the technology is used to point out some aspect of humanity.

    All writing is really about people, either on he person level or on some societal level. Good science fiction still works this way, but often with the caveat of saying, “Look, the tech changes, but people are still people.”

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    I love your allusion of psychology to science as fantasy is to scifi. Especially in respect to all the Freudian slips showing under many SF/F stories, if not entire tropes.

    Even for a holiday lull on the comments board, this should get good.

  3. 3. Mary

    SF is that branch of literature that attempts suspension of disbelief by appeal to the authority of science.

  4. 4. Forrest X Leeson

    What’s SF? Well, what’s science? The word goes back to the Sanskrit word meaning “he cuts off”. Wiggle it around a bit and we’re talking about purposeful analysis. And fiction? Any piece of writing about the world as other than it is. Thus any story about the world other than as it is, and involving the purposeful analysis thereof, is science fiction.

    At this point I’d introduce the notion of phase space as exemplified by a Rubik’s Cube. The world as it is = solid-colored sides. Can you get from the solid colored cube to a particular hash by mere twisting? That’s the realm of possibilty, and thus trivial science fiction. I could write a story about myself eating a steak sandwich tomorrow at noon and how I got there. It’s set in the future, I don’t have the makings of a steak sandwich today, and I’m a vegetarian. How is that not SF? Quite a lot of mainstream fiction lives in this realm.

    SF “as we know it” involves getting to arrangements that require N moves in fewer than N moves; fantasy “as we know it” involves taking a screwdriver to the cube to create an illegal arrangement; .true fantasy involves breaking up the cube.

    A story about NASA landing a man on the moon tomorrow and returning him safely to the Earth next Tuesday is the former, being only conditionally or accidentally impossible (we could have gotten to that arrangement in N moves, we just didn’t); getting him there by cannon or swan is fantasy “as we know it”. But only stories that reject the concept of purposeful analysis are true fantasies. There are some mainstream examples.

  5. 5. NewGuyDave

    Science Fiction is about spacecraft that fire laser beams (with sound in space) and travel faster than light (or faster than we suspect is possible), manned by aliens that are coincidentally all bi-pedal but different colors than humans (heaven forbid aliens look anything different than we do).

    Okay, that’s not my version but a mash-up of specific pop culture stuff. But I can’t poke fun at Roddenberry and Lucas, who can I poke fun at?

    Seriously, I think it’s a story where the science is fictional, but plausible within the presented reality. Regardless of what current scientific laws are broken or bent to tell the story, the world must allow the reader to suspend disbelief.

    In the end, the story should still be about the characters as with most good fiction (and bad).


  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Chrystoph – I like your definition up to a point. But where does that put the sort of adventure SF described by NewGuyDave? A type of SF that I have to admit I have a very soft spot for. FTL and lasers! Long live E.E. (Doc) Smith!

    Elias – I was actually trying to bring the reference to all fiction being fantasy back full circle. A lot of lit fic is prized for its psychological insight. But, if that insight is only possible because of the science of psychology, then it’s science fiction, right? Glib and solepsistic, of course, but that’s the kind of guy I am.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Mary – Though sometimes I think SF uses science to make the disbelief jawbreakingly astonishing, as in the best of Van Vogt, with no attempt at justification at all. You remember Clarke’s law about science and magic?

    NewGuyDave – Who says FTL and lasers aren’t the very essence of SF? Not me. But you’re absolutely right about the characters. Either they engage us, and we care; or they don’t, and we don’t either. Though there are some hard SF stories that I think come perilously close to Asperger’s Syndrome.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Forrest – I definitely think your steak sandwich is science fiction, but then my definition of SF is pretty easy. I do, however, think that a lot of the science in SF is not as scientific as a lot of folks would like to believe. Things are a little better today, what with everyone seeming to have thrown in the towel on FTL. But we still posit black holes and gates instead, which I consider to be as fantastical ideas as FTL.

    Then again, I’m not a physicist, chemist, or biologist, so it’s all magic to me. Clarke had it right. Any sufficiently advanced science will have the appearance of magic to the less advanced.

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, I get ya’ but I don’t know that those rubes at the Nobel book club do. Bad jokes aside, I honestly don’t know that the writer gets to make distinctions of genre. It’s like saying I’m not a racist, sexist, ageist, etc. Other people decide.

    To steal from my writing coach, literature is what they call your work when they don’t know where to shelve it at Borders.

    I think the same is true of scifi. Mr Ellison may wish to refer to his work as spec fic, but most of us think of it as scifi. Conversely Mr. Dick, (juvenile giggles bludgeoned by mature-ish attempts at respect) may have thought his work was scifi but to me it’s more drug-lit, a la Dr. Castaneda.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Elias – Couldn’t agree with you more about Mr. Dick.

    And I think writers can make genre distinctions about their work. The might be wrong, but that shouldn’t stop them.

  11. 11. Daemon

    To paraphrase Clarke: Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science.

    Magic is a part of the physical laws of most fantasy worlds.
    In many such worlds, the laws that magic operates by are as unchangeable as the laws of physics in our own world, only different.
    There is essentially no reason magic couldn’t be researched via the scientific method.
    Given time, magic becomes science. Fictional science, admittedly, but so is travelling through black holes without dying.


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Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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