[The definitions below are available for download as a Definitions of Science Fiction. Feel free to use as you see fit.]

In the past few days, I’ve gotten two different requests for resources and suggestions for teaching a course on science fiction. Having taken, TA’d, or taught science fiction and fantasy courses at the University of Colorado, Portland State University, and Saint Louis University, I can say with some certainty that the majority of students in such a class will not be regular readers of the genre, which suggests to me that one should begin such a course by providing some initial definitions of the genre.

I like to begin the first day by asking students to define science fiction and the initial definitions usually involve space ships and robots, rely heavily on technology and science, and is set in the future. Those students widely read in SF will help problematize these pop-culture assumptions by mentioning works from subgenres such as alternate history and psychomyth which can have little to do with technology or science and be set in the past or the never-time of myth. As we begin to define science fiction, I identify some subgenres to give a sense of the broad range of texts science fiction covers (alternate history, space opera, posthistory, psychomyth, fantastic voyages, near future, steampunk) and we discuss the difference between hard and soft science fiction. I then hand out the following definitions, and we go over them. We return to these definitions throughout the course and I encourage students to find or develop their own. Feel free to make use of any of this.

Science Fiction as the Literature of Change
“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.” – James Gunn (The Road to Science Fiction: Volume 2: From Wells to Heinlein. 1)

Science Fiction as “What If” Literature
“Science fiction is What If literature. All sorts of definitions have been proposed by people in the field, but they all contain both The What If and The Serious Explanation; that is science fiction shows things not as they characteristically or habitually are but as they might be, and for this “might be” the author must offer a rational, serious, consistent explanation, one that does not (in Samuel Delany’s phrase) offend against what is known to be know.” – Joanna Russ (“The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” Vertex 1 (February 1974): 32)

Science Fiction as Speculation
“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, of ‘reality’.” — Judith Merrill (The SF Book of Lists. 257)

Science Fiction as Exploration of Effects
“The 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.” — Barry M. Malzberg (Collier’s Encyclopedia)

Science Fiction as Cognitive Estrangement
“SF is, then, 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.” —Darko Suvin (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. 8-9.)

Science Fiction as the Fabril Tradition
“A revealing way of describing science fiction is to say that it is part of a literary mode which one may call ‘fabril’. […] Fabril literature (of which science fiction is now by far the most prominent genre) is overwhelmingly urban, disruptive, future-oriented, eager for novelty; its central image is the ‘faber’, the smith or blacksmith in older usage, but now extended in science fiction to mean the creator of artifacts in general-metallic, crystalline, genetic, or even social.” – Tom Shippey (Introduction. The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. ix)

Science Fiction as the Mythos of Scientism“Materialistic cause and effect; the universe conceived as comprehensible object of exploration and exploitation; multiculturalism; multispeciesism; evolutionism; entropy; technology conceived as intensive industrial development, permanently developing in the direction of complexity, novel, and importance; the idea of gender, race, behavior, belief as culturally constructed; the consideration of mind, person, personality, and body as objects of investigation and manipulation; such fundamental assumptions of various sciences or of the engineering mind underlie and inform the imagery and the discourse of science fiction.” – Ursula K. Le Guin (Introduction. Norton Book of Science Fiction. 23)

Science Fiction as Discourse
“A number of times I have written extensively about the way the discourse (the way of understanding, the way of responding, the way of reading) called science fiction differs from the discourse called literature, particularly that bulk of literature we SF readers call mundane fiction (from mundus, meaning the world; stories that take place on the Earth in the present or the past. Any other connotations? Well, turnabout is fair play). There are clear and sharp differences right down to the way we read individual sentences. ‘Then her world exploded.’ If such a string of words appeared in a mundane fiction text, more than likely we would respond to it as an emotionally fuzzy metaphor about the inner aspects of some incident in a female character’s life. In an SF text, however, we must retain the margin to read these words as meaning that a planet, belonging to a woman, blew up.” — Samuel R. Delany (“Science Fiction and ‘Literature”—or, The Conscience of the King,” Speculation on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Ed. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria. 102-103.)

Science Fiction Thinking
“I use this purposefully fuzzy term in lieu of a definition of science fiction because it allows me to cover three different aspects of the culture of SF, as these aspects have developed through time. First, science fiction thinking encompasses the all-important fact that science fiction has moved in the twentieth century from being only a literary category to being a set of attitudes and expectations about the future. These attitudes reveal themselves in almost every medium and are prevalent throughout contemporary culture, more than justifying Paul Alkon’s observation that “common habits of thinking have become science fictional” (8). Secondly, science fiction thinking refers both to the assumptions and protocols that are central to its reading. And finally, science fiction thinking is a term that can reflect that during the twentieth century, we have evolved a number of generally agreed upon ways of thinking and talking about science fiction as a body of literature. Terms such as “icon,” “sense of wonder,” “hard and soft SF,” “cognitive estrangement,” “subjunctivity,” “genre SF,” and “fandom” make the discussion of SF a fairly specialized activity, and at least a general introduction to these terms and the concepts they represent is crucial to the understanding of the critical enterprise that has grown around SF since 1900.” – Brooks Landon (Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. 4)

Science Fiction as Postmodernism
“Sf is that species of storytelling native to a culture undergoing the epistemic changes implicated in the rise and supercession of technical-industrial modes of production, distribution, consumption and disposal. It is marked by (i) metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics, (ii) the foregrounding of icons and interpretative schemata from a collectively constituted generic ‘mega-text’ and the concomitant de-emphasis of ‘fine writing’ and characterisation, and (iii) certain priorities more often found in scientific and postmodern texts than in literary models: specifically, attention to the object in preference to the subject.” — Damien Broderick (Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. 155).

Heinlein’s Rules for a “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 condition 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 human 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.”

– Robert A. Heinlein (qtd. in Brooks Landon, Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. 61).

The next time I teach a SF class, assuming there will be a next time, I want to begin with the following short stories: Ursala LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” or “Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-10,” Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire,” Kate Wilhelm’s “Forever Yours, Anna,” Walter Miller’s “Crucifixus Etiam,” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” While all of them are science fiction, most students will only recognize Miller’s “Crucifixus Etiam” as science fiction proper, which lets us apply the above definitions to specific texts.

Update (2/13/2007): More definitions of science fiction compiled by Neyir Cenk Gökçe.

Update (5/13/2013): Added definitions “Science Fiction as Exploration of Effects” “Science Fiction as Speculation,” reordered the entires, and added a downloadable handout.