What is Science Fiction?

9262561366_05ea466cff_bMy family and I discussed some of the more recent Frankenstein movies, and the conversation drifted into the original novel by Mary Shelley. Inevitably, that brought out discussion of the original novel being the first science fiction novel. Apparently, this was a position Brian Aldiss held as well.

Now, I believe that science fiction, as a form of literature, is not so easily defined. As such, a distinct division between what was and was not science fiction is nearly impossible. However, I believe that there are various requirements that a story should meet to be considered science fiction:

1. It must have been written during or after the Enlightenment.

I would argue that science fiction didn’t exist until the Enlightenment. I would say that prior to this, any sort of fantastical or imaginative speculative fiction wouldn’t have had any concern for scientific ideas.

Now, the timing is intentional. Books like Gulliver’s Travels and Icosameron fit this element.

2. It must have been concerned with a scientific idea.

Even if that idea is as simple as “could we go to another planet?” or “what will life look like in 1,000 years?” Works that explore the possibilities of a hollow earth or people who live on the moon also fit this requirement, and if they were after the Enlightenment, fit the first as well.

I would also include some “soft” scientific ideas in here, such as psychology or politics. Thus, utopias or dystopias can be explored in detail in science fiction. I would exclude current politics or military science from this, if they were by themselves as scientific ideas.

3. It must have been concerned with speculation.

This means that a direct, realistic explanation of an even does not fit. Likewise, general fiction that doesn’t speculate anything isn’t a science fiction novel.

Now here’s the issue: space opera and military science fiction can speculate on the use of space faring technology or fighting aliens, but they don’t expound on those ideas. Nor do they need to!

I think these three elements must be included. Rod Serling once said, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible”.

So was Frankenstein the first sci-fi novel? No, I don’t think so, though it may have been the first “hard” science fiction novel, but that’s a different story. Perhaps this is overthinking it, or maybe I’m missing some element that would define certain stories and not others.

What do you think?


You may like some of my other work on this site. Make sure to check me out on Twitter and Instagram.

Maybe some of my reviews:

Book Review: The Gray Prince by Jack Vance

Book Review: The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Maybe some of my work on writing:

Writing Descriptions

Finding Your Writing Style

Maybe my poetry:

Poetry: “Cardinals in Spring Snow”

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