What is Science Fiction?


Science Fiction is marked by an odd ability to defy a strict definition, a characteristic evident from the many lengthy and strained attempts at definition by those who write about it.[1]  Many texts about Science Fiction spend considerable time and energy in an attempt only to make the definition so general that it is less than ideal.  Paul Kincaid defines it as “a form of the literary fantastic employing any of a wide variety of commonly recognized themes, techniques and approaches that have tended to braid together over time into something to which we now give the name science fiction.[2]”  As Kincaid implies, even the name of the genre is controversial with many variants such as “scientification” and “scientific romance” being used in the past.  Definitions have tended to emphasize the technological aspects of Science Fiction stories making the improvement in technology a central feature, though that has changed somewhat since the advent of “social science fiction” in the 1970s.[3]   This very problem of definition can tell us something important about the field; it is dynamic, descriptive, interpretive, and interactive while being old-fashioned and modern all at once. In this sense, it mirrors the society that it participates in.  While most definitions of Science Fiction concentrate on literary characteristics, modern multi-media aspects of the genre should also be considered. Science Fiction is made up of many different facets which have many different possible avenues of delivery to its audience.  Further, these facets are not static; they are, in fact, supremely malleable, interacting, changing places, and taking on new roles in different situations.  Fans can read Science Fiction in a book, watch Science Fiction in a television show or movie, then later publish their own story via the web or produce a video critique hosted on YouTube, play a Science Fiction oriented video game and later attend a Science Fiction convention.

Still though, some attempt at a definition must be made.  Science Fiction is a genre that exists in the broader category of Speculative Fiction, which also includes Fantasy, Horror and Gothic Tales, stories of the occult, and more.  Most formal definitions include terms and ideas such as “future technology,” “impact of science,” “utopia,” “dystopia,” “encountering change,” and such.  What these definitions all have in common is a method that Science Fiction uses to radically change the audiences’ frame of reference.  A person’s frame of reference grounds his or her identity and their place in society, these frames of reference are so fundamental that in some ways they are invisible to most of us, despite the power they hold over us.  For example, we believe that because we are Americans we must be “rugged individuals,” we must be either a Democrat or a Republican, we must follow the law, believe in God, and do hundreds of other things just because.   But how does this make Science Fiction different from Fantasy which might transform the protagonist into a unicorn?  The primary differences between Science Fiction and other forms of Speculative Fiction, such as Fantasy, that are important to us are a particular method of “world building” that results in certain expectations on the part of the audience in terms of how the story works.  Unlike Fantasy, Science Fiction must maintain a sense of realism and internal consistency.   So, for us, Science Fiction is a genre that radically changes the audience’s frame of reference, which often challenges the audiences identity at a fundamental level while still keeping the audience in a realistic, internally consistent world.  Through this process Science Fiction encourages questions about how the world works, particularly in regard to power relationships between society and individuals.  This is often accomplished through the introduction of new technology or by envisioning people in a future or significantly different world.


Science Fiction as Genre Fiction


Science fiction has a few other fundamental characteristics which we must take note of.  Unlike other genres, it consciously strives not to have limits.  But to say that an area of literature is a genre is to set limits; Westerns are set in the West, Romances have romance, detective stories have detectives, etc.  But a Science Fiction story can be placed in any time past, present, or future; it can use Western tropes or include romance elements.  Of course, Science Fiction has its own tropes. Where would Star Trek be without spaceships or Star Wars without lightsabers?  However, we should not over-emphasize the importance of these tropes to Science Fiction; they are more important as plot elements than they are in their own right.  Science Fiction and Westerns have many tropes in common, for example, the use of strongly drawn evil characters, gunfights, and the lone hero fighting a lonely battle for good, among many others.  Westerns however are limited in the tropes that they can use; a sheriff cannot have a transporter and an old-time country doctor cannot have a computer.  To do so would fundamentally change the work into a different genre.  Compared to Science Fiction this limits other genres’ ability to engage in social commentary in at least two respects.  First, practically speaking, the use of Science Fiction allows a plot to move in ways that stories in other genres cannot.   For example, a recurring trope in Star Trek has been the use of “replicators” (devices that turn energy into almost any type of matter needed, such as food or other consumer goods) to examine issues around economics and to examine the effects of a post-scarcity economy on the common person.  This has been used to great effect to examine issues in colonialism, racism, and capitalism for example.  It’s difficult to envision how the examination of a post-scarcity economy, or any other issues, could be done within the confines of a Romance or a Detective Story for example.

Secondly, Science Fiction provides a means for authors to evade censorship, to tell stories that would be difficult or impossible to tell in any other way.  As Gene Roddenberry said,

 “I was tired of writing for shows where there was always a shoot-out in the last act and somebody was killed. “Star Trek” was formulated to change that. I had been a freelance writer for about a dozen years and was chafing at the commercial censorship on television. You really couldn’t talk about anything you cared to talk about. It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam, and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by, and it did.[4]

Censorship occurs most often when gatekeepers feel threatened by the dissemination of ideas because of commercial, political, or social reasons.  For example, a television network is a gatekeeper in that they control the funding and distribution of television programs.  Television networks are generally for-profit corporations that do not wish to alienate the viewing public and so may be unwilling to broadcast shows that they deem have objectionable material, such as plots that involve LGBTQ characters.  As Roddenberry said, commercial censorship made it difficult to tell stories such as these, particularly before recent times.  But if the characters and relationships were disguised in some way, the impact of the message would be more subtle, and less likely to be objected to by the network.  In 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) aired “The Outcast.”  In this episode, the Star Trek crew are helping an alien race rescue a lost ship, while helping Commander Riker finds himself attracted to one of the aliens.

Soren, the J’naii pilot, is androgynous, while Commander Riker is the most overtly masculine character in the Star Trek crew.  Their relationship is an allegory for the situation that Gay Americans find themselves in.  The relationship is first hidden, then when it is discovered, it is terminated by Soren’s society.  By the end Soren is even put through a medical procedure that renders her “normal” to her society, that is to say, she was made androgynous. While many LGBTQ fans have criticized this episode as being out of touch[5] or for not going far enough in making its intentions clear[6], it was at least aired on a very popular show in America in 1992.

Beyond the obvious, that is set in the future and deals with aliens, why is this an example of Science Fiction?  More particularly, why is this VSF which embodies elements of Political Theory?  After all, it could be thought of as just another forbidden love story, not so different from Romeo and Juliette.  It is because of the way that this episode treats the audience.  The audience identifies Commander Riker as the classic leading man, within the show he has a well-documented romantic relationship with one of the show’s female leading characters.  Despite being a member of the Federation, in spirit, he is the All-American hero who defeats the bad guys and wins the day.  His pairing with Soren is no accident; the use of another less masculine character would not have had the same impact.  Further, at times it is Soren who initiates the relationship, placing Riker in an unusual situation.  Especially for those who identify with Riker (straight White males), this is shocking.  It violates the role that Riker the character is portraying, in-universe, as the first officer in charge of a starship and also in the real world as Jonathan Frakes, since the stars of popular television shows do not normally take a role that would challenge their masculinity.  The audience’s frame of reference is being challenged; Riker is no longer who we thought he was.  On a fundamental level his, and those who identify with him, identities are being challenged.  Without the use of what is clearly a Science Fiction oriented plot device, it is doubtful that this story could have been told on prime-time television in 1992.


The Believable and the Unbelievable


Science Fiction draws its strength through embodying a tension between what is believable and what is unbelievable.  How can we expect a genre such as Science Fiction to comment on important questions such as “Are people fundamentally free,” or “Is Democracy better suited to America than Fascism” if Science Fiction is literally unbelievable?  Fundamental to Science Fiction is the concept of “the suspension of disbelief.”  Science Fiction owns a debt to Gothic Literature, from which it flows naturally, in this way Science Fiction has incorporated many unique traits from the Gothic, particularly its use of metaphor, terror v horror, the fantastic, and its expectation of the consumer’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Unlike other genres whose origins can be debated, we can trace the birth of Gothic literature to the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto on Christmas day 1764.[7]  Written during, and likely as a response to, the Enlightenment, The Castle of Otranto is filled with all the elements that we have come to associate the Gothic Tale with today; the supernatural, ghosts, skeletons, dark moody forests, strong villains, emotional distress, and romance.  Although somewhat forgotten today it is impossible to underestimate the effect this work had on 18th Century European and American culture.  As Clive Bloom says:

“The gothic is a ‘feeling’ expressed by certain formulas which have been readily expanded upon ever since the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  These gothic feelings took shape in architecture, poetry, novels, short stories, pornography, romance and painting; they had political and ecclesiastical ramifications and formed a coherent philosophy of living.”[8]

Referring to the Gothic as a “feeling” is an indication of the relationship it has to the Romantic period and as such how it stands in (partial) opposition to the ideas of the Enlightenment.[9]  Walpole started a process in which fantastic ideas migrated from the realm of the mythic into our everyday world.  Fantastic ideas and circumstances were no longer dictated by the Gods but were placed in our everyday world.  Yet these fantastic ideas (such as “living skeletons” and animated suits of armor) were incredible.  They required the audience to negotiate between elements of fantasy and reality in ways that they can draw out meaning despite the implausible story elements of Gothic (and later Science Fiction) stories.

This tension between belief and non-belief places a burden on the audience to determine what aspects of a story can contribute to a greater understanding of what the story is commenting on, and which should be discarded.  This process is vital to our understanding of the social commentary embodied in the work in question, Stuart Hall has called this the “active audience” theory.  It describes a process in which the person consuming the media actively accepts elements of the story which they find pertinent, those story elements then become a filter through which reality is viewed.  Through this process, a living skeleton in The Castle of Otranto is no longer an unbelievable story element but is changed into the guilt a father feels for the death of his son.  This conception of what a story is has continued in Science Fiction so that now audiences have no issue with accepting elements of, for example, Star Trek as commentary on today’s political themes.  Further, it legitimizes how two people may draw different meanings from the same source material through subjectively accepting or disregarding various story elements.

David Easton said

“The task of the social scientist has been too sharply and artificially divorced from that of the politician. The function of the latter, it is said, is to sense human purposes and to reconcile them into a viable political order, whereas the task of the social scientist is to accumulate data about the relation of facts.” But this distinction is only partly true. Between these two tasks there lies yet a third which by oversight has been assigned to no one. This is the function of sensitively responding to the urgent problems of society and to the emerging social needs so that it becomes possible to articulate a sophisticated system of values that will help both the citizen and the statesman to define their situation.[10]

While some may argue with Easton’s conception of the role of a “social scientist,” this does highlight a role in which Science Fiction provides significant value to both the public and the field of Political Theory.  Easton believed that theorists had “shirked” their role of being political advisors because they conflated emotions with values.  Because of this, he said, “we do need some serious political guidance, in the broadest and most sophisticated terms; and by “we,” I mean the politician as well as the humble citizen.”[11]  To remedy this Easton proposed a three-step process that, when a Political Scientist was examining a problem, would constitute proper Political Theory; these three steps are 1) a statement of the actual situation, 2) a statement of the goals that should be sought, and 3) a means to achieve the goals.[12]  So we must ask, do we see these elements in Science Fiction?


Is The Comet Political Theory?


Can these same elements be found in Science Fiction?  In 1920 W.E.B. Dubois published The Comet, later hailed as an early example of Afrofuturism, the story tackled the issue of racism as it existed in early 20th Century America.   The main character, Jim, an African American, works in a menial job in a bank in New York City.  The bank’s vault has been flooded and Jim is asked (though for all practical purposes he is told) to retrieve a few valuable ledgers. Retrieving the ledgers is a dangerous disagreeable job that would not be given to a White employee.  The bank President asks “Well, Jim, are you scared?”  Although he answers no he thinks to himself “they wanted him to go down to the lower vaults. It was too dangerous for more valuable men.”  So, Jim must endure the ensuing danger and discomfort because he is a Black man.  While he is in the vault a catastrophe befalls the city as it is subjected to the poison gases from a passing comet; in a turn of fortune, Jim is protected by the very vault which he was forced to enter.  Upon emerging he finds that all the people around him are dead.  He then experiences the city as he could not before, realizing that it took a tragedy for him to enter a fancy restaurant to find food.  So the first element is established, racism is real, and Jim suffers its effects for no other reason than the color of his skin.

After a while, Jim does find one other survivor, a financially well-off White woman who is overjoyed to find another.  In fact, she is so happy at first, she “had not noticed before that he was a Negro.”  For his part, Jim had not “thought of her as white. She was a woman of perhaps twenty-five—rarely beautiful and richly gowned, with darkly-golden hair, and jewels. Yesterday, he thought with bitterness, she would scarcely have looked at him twice. He would have been dirt beneath her silken feet. She stared at him. Of all the sorts of men she had pictured as coming to her rescue she had not dreamed of one like him. Not that he was not human, but he dwelt in a world so far from hers, so infinitely far, that he seldom even entered her thought.”  Because these circumstances are presented as a story it may not at first be apparent that this is a way of stating a goal.  The audience is required to put themselves in the place of Jim to understand the implications; that it was wrong before the catastrophe to treat people unfairly because of their race and it should not take the deaths of so many for two people from different social backgrounds to see each other as human.  It is unfortunate that we can imagine African Americans would be more likely to understand this than White Americans would, but this does satisfy the requirement that a goal should be stated, namely that racism is evil and should be eliminated.

The Comet presents two survivors of a catastrophe as a new Adam and Eve, “She was neither high nor low, white nor black, rich nor poor. She was primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life. She looked upon the man beside her and forgot all else but his manhood, his strong, vigorous manhood—his sorrow and sacrifice. She saw him glorified. He was no longer a thing apart, a creature below, a strange outcast of another clime and blood, but her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.”  This satisfies the last step, a means to achieve the goal previously stated.

W.E. B. Dubois did not of course think of this in any way as a reasonable course of action, it is a story meant to illuminate themes that were difficult to talk about.  As a story, it might reach an audience that would not be responsive to these issues in any other way.  It is a thought experiment that explained the difficulties that so many people at the time experienced, and it pointed out just how hard it might be to overcome these issues.


[1] Asimov, Isaac, and Roger Zimmerman. Asimov on Science Fiction. Doubleday, 1981.

[2] “Through Time and Space.” Teaching Science Fiction, by Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright, Basingstoke Hampshire, 2011, p. 22.

[3] Asimov, Isaac, and Roger Zimmerman. Asimov on Science Fiction. Doubleday, 1981.

[4] Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. An Oral History of “Star Trek”. 1 May 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/oral-history-star-trek-180958779/.

[5] Sandifer, Elizabeth. “Born This Way”: The Outcast. 2015, www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/born-this-way-the-outcast/.

[6] Kay, Jonathan. “Gay ‘Trek.’” Salon, Salon.com, 25 Sept. 2011, www.salon.com/2001/06/30/gay_trek/.

[7] In fact, the genre takes its name from Horace Walpole’s subtitle, “A Gothic Tale”.

[8] Bloom, Clive. Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present. London: Continuum, 2010. P. 2

[9] It’s important to note that like many literary genres historical periods do not necessarily have precise definitions or timeframes.  Various experts have different viewpoints and different societies often date the start and end of historical periods based on local events.  For example, the English speaking world often uses 1687, the publication date of Isaac Newtons’ Principia Mathematica as the beginning of the Enlightenment while the French speaking world often uses 1637, the publication date of Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method.  Given this lack of definition historical periods, like literary periods, can often overlap.

[10] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P. 48

[11] Ibid. p.47

[12] Ibid. p.48