What is the definition of Science Fiction? This is not a question destined to be settled soon to everyone's satisfaction, but neither are we who love the genre about to stop discussing the matter.
My own take is that the task of defining Science Fiction is made harder when it is based on a false assumption. Most attempts at defining Science Fiction are backward.
Definitions, in general, are by genus and difference, that is, by categorization and distinction: you identify what category the thing is a member of, and then distinguish it from other members of this category by naming its distinctive feature. For example, if man is "an animal who laughs" the category is animal, of which man is one of many; the distinct feature is laughter, which no animal but man possesses.
The task of defining Science Fiction goes astray because most attempts assume "fiction" is the category, and words are spent trying to find the distinctive feature separating Science Fiction from the surrounding mainstream; saying how SF differs from the Mainstream.
Allow me to suggest another approach. What we call Mainstream fiction is not the genus, but the subset.
Fiction is the exercise of the imagination intended to reveal, by the poet's words, both the great glories and the great sorrows of the world, the sufferings of noble heroes, the antics of simple men, the awe of heaven and the terror of the deep. All fiction is the tale of Jack the Giant Killer, about man facing an overwhelming adversity. When it is told from the point of view of giants, including gigantic figures like Achilles and Hector, it is tragedy, a tale of loss. When it is told from the point of view of jacks, humble men, or men who have lost everything, figures like Job of Uz or Odysseus of Ithaca, it is comedy, a tale of lost things found again.
Fiction, for all of history except the present day, included fantastic elements, the gods and monsters, the ghosts and magicians, saints and devils, as a right and proper part of the tale. The witches in MACBETH, the ghost in HAMLET, the magician Prospero in THE TEMPEST, the angels in PARADISE LOST are none of them characters from SF. They the things of literature, pure and simple: the creatures and furniture of normal story-telling.
Science Fiction, along with its Siamese twin Fantasy and its malformed cousin Horror, is nothing more or less than normal story-telling. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Superheroes, Pulp Fiction, Weird Tales, Ghost Stories, comprise normal story-telling. The allow for strange imaginative efforts: the reader enters a world different from his own. Genre fiction such as spy stories, Westerns, cop stories, war stories are normal story telling where the story is limited to particular imaginative forms. The reader enters a world like what his own world should be like. Mainstream literature is abnormal. It ranges from worlds arguably the same as our own, such as WAR AND PEACE or GONE WITH THE WIND, to worlds clearly inferior and demented, ULYSSES by Joyce. What is called the mainstream is actually a sub-set of literature, a strange corner of the field, which has held popularity for what an historian would call a relatively short time. Hence, what we really need to do is define the Mainstream. It is the ghetto. SFF is everything else.
What is called now the Mainstream is merely one narrow channel occupied by the so-called realistic story. I say 'so-called' because a story of the school of Realism is not realistic at all, merely a story loyal to a certain ideology, one which largely ignores the real heart and soul of life. The ideology is Modernism.
Modernism is a complex ideology, all-pervasive, with infinite nuance and ramification. Here I can touch on no more than a few basic points of Modernism, hoping the reader will recognize the beast if I merely describe its ears and tail, and be able to fill in the rest of the body himself.
1. Modernism holds that there is nothing of significance aside from the physical universe, which is a clockwork mechanism. There are no witches, no ghosts, no spirits. This branch of Modernism is called materialism.
2. Modernism holds than men are animals not significantly different from other animals. It holds that heroes are not demigods, but men with flaws like ours. This branch has no name, being more an attitude than a school of thought, but we can call it pseudo-Darwinism. Real Darwinism is a scientific theory to explain the emergence of species through natural selection, that man and ape spring from a common ancestor; pseudo-Darwinism is an attitude that emphasizes the similarity of man to ape, and mocks the pretension that man is a noble and rational creature.
3. Modernism holds that good and evil are arbitrary social constructions, a matter of willpower and emotion, not a matter of intellect. Morals, to the modern mind, are something we make up, like a sonnet, not something we discover, like a periodic table. This is called Relativism or, in its most aberrant form, Nihilism.
4. Modernism holds that men are driven by subconscious mechanisms and do things they know not what for reasons they know not why. This is called Freudianism, or, in its most aberrant form, Behaviorism.
This has several immediate implications to the story teller. It touches the scenery, props, plot, characters, but most of all it touches upon a certain theme, a view of mankind and his place in the world. That view is intensely pessimistic and skeptical.
The doctrine of materialism holds that there are no utopias and no otherworldly realms, other dimensions, or other worlds. This not only robs tales of their most interesting locations (what would PARADISE LOST be without a paradise to lose?) but it robs even realistic locations of their realism. If you do not believe in heaven, a heavenly place on Earth, a quiet wood or a happy home, cannot seem realistic to you either. The hellish scenery of NINETEEN-EIGHTY FOUR or ANIMAL FARM is removed from the mainstream of realistic fiction by being placed in the future. They are too extraordinary as scenery to tell a realistic tale, even though, honestly, they are as realistic as Soviet Russia or Cambodia.
Hence the scenery in realistic fiction must be drab and ordinary. Stories can no longer be set in the past as our ancestors, who lived in the past, understood their time: to be realistic, a story can only be set in the modern idea of the past. The stories cannot be set in the future, because there is no realistic consensus as to what the future will hold. The future can only be imagined with an act of speculation, and realism relies for its effect on the absence of speculative or imaginary elements that are found in normal story-telling.
Realism does not lend itself easily to adventure stories, which rely for part of their appeal on the exotic locations, unclimbed mountains, impassable jungles, vast deserts, artic wastes, oriental realms of splendor.
Setting a realistic tale in China brings too much of hint of the air of Cathay, which smells like the air of elfland to those of us from the West, or contains the charm of Arabian Night's Tales, or the menace of Fu Manchu. Realism relies for its appeal on the pseudo-Darwinian conceit that man is not so extraordinary a creature, and this naturally makes writers of Realistic fiction shy away from exotic locales. The mysteries of the Sphinx are not for them; the gold of Ophir is not in their tales. Realistic writers might set their stories in downtown Dublin, or fascist Spain, but not in Tir-n'a-Nogth or Eldorado.
The point here is not that realism necessarily excludes the exotic. One can find real adventure in the real world, in stories of espionage, war, exploration. But the close parallel between real world adventures and fantastic adventures tends to make realistic fiction shy away from them: they seem, oddly enough, to unrealistic. Neal Armstrong was a real person, and so was George Washington or William of Orange. No realistic stories will star such heroes, except in a way meant to discourage hero-worship, for heroes worthy of hero-worship have too much of the glamour of elfland about them, too much of the sacredness of the Temple of Mars. MOBY DICK is set in the real world and is peopled by characters one could have met in Nantucket during the whaling days. And yet the more fantastic elements of the story, the eerie menace of the White Whale, the omens and prophecies that foretell the coming death of the Pequod, give the story an unrealistic flavor.
Here I must make an aside on the role of irony in realistic fiction. Irony is meant to rob any fantastic elements in a story of their fantasy, a thing realism finds disconcerting. So, for example, in MOBY DICK, when some omen, such as the loss of Ahab's cap, or some prophet, the not-so-subtly-named Elijah, prophesizes doom, the event is told with humor and irony, so that the fantastic effect is diminished, robbed of its supernatural mood, and the event can be seen as merely one of those odd and unexplained coincidences. The colorless world of the realistic writer allows for odd coincidences and ironies. Indeed, for realists of the more nihilist school, the unexplained is a welcome element, provided it does not induce awe or respect in the breast of the audience. The realist seeks to produce disrespect for the world, not respect; confusion, not awe; a conviction that the world is mad, and incomprehensible, and that reason of man is too weak to grasp it. With irony, a realistic story teller can reintroduce magical and fantastic elements in his tale, but rob them of their force, so the tale is still bound within what the Modernist ideology allows as being realistic.
The irony and humor in MOBY DICK, the gravity of the theme, and particularly the pessimism of the theme, allows it to remain in the mainstream of realistic fiction. If the tale had been told without the droll exaggerations of Ishmael's dialog, if the story had been a story of Christian redemption rather a paean to pagan fatalism and agnostic pessimism, it might have been too fantastic and too imaginative for the school of realism.
As with the scenery, so with the props. The great sword Excalibur, or the Ark of the Covenant, or Peaches of Immortality, cannot make an appearance in realistic fiction. The attempt to introduce a prop with some significance and grandeur tends to move the story outside of the stream of realism, and into Pulp Fiction or Boy's Adventure Tales. The special gadgets of spies and heroes, jet-packs or bulletproofs cars in GOLDFINGER or GREEN HORNET or even JONNY QUEST make the story less realistic, even though jet-packs and armored cars actually do exist. The "McGuffin" was Hitchcock's word for whatever the object is that drives the plot: the thing the spies care about but the audience does not.
When the McGuffin is something that can save or doom the world, launch an atom bomb or decode all the enemy messages, it tends to have that glamour of elfland around it, like the one magic sword that can save the kingdom, the one magic ring that curses gods and heroes. Realistic fiction tends to do without props of any particular note. They don't like McGuffins. Modernism emphasizes that all objects are inanimate and fungible, merely goods for exploitation, not things of value in and of themselves. Tales about real things that exist, such as the Hope Diamond, which famously brought bad luck to all who owned it, cannot comfortably be fit into a realistic tale. Leopold Bloom is not going to come across the Hope Diamond in his adventures, because he does not have adventures. The fact that the Hope Diamond really exists does not mean it can appear in a realistic story, because realistic stories are never about the extraordinary.
A plot is a structure of events such that each event is a painful choice between two or more alternatives dictated by the previous events. All the events must be meaningful; crucial. A tense and fast paced plot moves from crisis to crisis with no room for error. A chessgame has a plot: each move is narrowed to specific possibilities by the move of the opposing side. Spy thrillers, detective novels, adventure stories, and other normal story-telling fiction outside of realism, all have plots and concentrate on plot reversals and surprises. In a chessgame, with its highly structured rules, reversals can be sudden and absolute. A chessman can escape from check and checkmate his opponent in one move.
This is why, in boy's adventure stories, Superman is vulnerable to Kryptonite: the presence or absence of the one glowing green stone can suddenly reverse the plot. This is why the One Ring can destroy the Dark Lord even at the highest peak of his dread power: because there is more drama, more hopes and fears bound up into a smaller space of time, if the villain is defeated at the moment of his utmost strength. The rare green rock, or the one magic ring, becomes as important as the King in chess: it is the one piece that can win or lose the game.
Realistic stories shy away from plots for the same reason they shy away from McGuffins. A plot requires that one event, a climax, determine the outcome of the story. A climax is hence an extraordinary event, not merely one meaningless happenstances following another meaningless happenstance. Realism shuns the extraordinary for the ordinary. Hence, realism tends to prefer pointless and meandering stories, rather than plot-driven stories. ULYSSES by James Joyce has no more plot than ALICE IN WONDERLAND: things simply happen, one after the next, but no extraordinary events that reverse the direction of the plot or drive the plot to a climax.
Relativism begins as a caution against judging the actions of men of other lands and ages with our modern standards, but ends with a standard so judgmental that it is useless as a standard: namely, that one must never judge anything to be meaningful. What begins as simple courtesy or justice toward strangers ends in nihilism. This absence of moral meaning in the Modernist ideology makes stories loyal to that ideology uncomfortable with ascribing meanings even to simple acts.The effect is to rob realistic stories of their moral meanings. Even a simple moral, like a pulp novel's 'crime does not pay' comes across as too fantastic, because unrealistically simplistic, to the sophisticate of realism.
Stories with an obvious moral meaning, where a hero prevails because he is faithful, or trusting, or pure, or does not break his word, moves out of the realm of realism and back into normal story telling. In the movie SIGNS by M. Night Shyamalan, what seemed to be unconnected coincidences actually turn out to be the signs of an underlying pattern of events, a divine providence unheard-of in realism, but common in ghost stories and other normal story-telling. Nothing is fated and no fate is deserved in realistic fiction. Normal story-telling, from OEDIPUS REX to RETURN OF THE JEDI is all about fate, and also in any time travel story where the character's actions cannot break the pattern of events: Fritz Leiber's THE BIG TIME or Heinlein's 'All You Zombies.'
Science Fiction differs from other normal story telling in that the moral purpose of the events is usually tied into the scientific world-view or the philosophy of reasoning and enlightenment. Logical thinking, the men of the mind, are the heroes in science fiction tales, the people who think the way the universe itself thinks, which is to say, logically. Detective fiction also has this same logical cast to it.
Character development is likewise lacking in imagination in a realistic story. There are heroes in real life, every one from a soldier, to a fireman, to a boy scout lost in the woods who uses his wits to find rescue, displays some element of courage and greatness. But Modernism, thanks to Freud, no longer believes man is responsible for the content of his character for good or for ill. If one man seems heroic, it is either a falsehood perpetrated by the press for propaganda reasons, or his lack of fear is due to a genetic accident. Consider the difference between a phobia and a fear. A phobia is something one cannot cure by reason. Hector can be afraid of Achilles, and yet he can be encouraged to go fight him, prodded by shame or inspired by virtue to do the right and excellent thing, and die like a man rather than like a coward. But victims of phobias are not cowards: they suffer a traumatic malfunction of their thinking machinery. There is no excellence and no honor in their world: one is either irrationally afraid or irrationally lacks fear, and there is no rhyme or reason as to why one man has good character or one bad. Well, not only have you no heroes in realistic fiction, you have no villains either.
A real villain, such as a Nazi war criminal, an apologist for Communism or a serial killer cannot be placed in a realistic novel without moving it into the realm of thriller, war story, detective novel or horror. The worst villain (indeed, the only villain) in a modern realistic novel is the hypocrite, because this is the only sin in their psychoanalytical theory of the character of men.
Character development in the modern novel is as lacking in development as the plot is in motion: character studies generally tend to look at the sick, the mad, the dipsomaniac, the loser, the fraud, the zero. The characters of realistic novels do not even contain the virtues and vices of real people, but instead turn out the inmates of Bedlam for their cast of characters. Heroism is regarded as unrealistic and childish, and perhaps slightly sinister.
Even such simple human emotions as love and romance, because these also contain a hint of the air of Elfland, a memory of paradise before the fall, cannot be tolerated in mainstream literature, but must be moved to their own special genre, that of romantic fiction. A realistic novel, such as LOLITA, must treat romance as some particular type of sickness, as something without meaning, not something that ennobles and uplifts. If the romance uplifts the hero to greatness, as in CYRANO, the story becomes too adventurous and too exotic for realism.
All these things combine to one theme, which is pessimism or irony. We can see a pattern in the realistic fiction: the scenery is mundane and unimaginative. The props and events are ordinary rather than extraordinary, and hence unimaginative. The events also must lack the one thing the human imagination always reads into events, that is, a moral purpose or providential meaning. The way a dull and unimaginative mind sees life, as a flux of events in which no pattern can be found, is the viewpoint of modernism. No extraordinary characters, no men of sterling virtue or villains of blackest vice, can exist in modernism, because there is nothing extraordinary in their world. It takes an act of imagination to picture the personality and behavior of a saint or a serial murderer.
In sum, the realistic novel is the novel that is as unimaginative as possible in all areas of scenery and setting, props and plots, characters and themes. The only area left for the imagination is cleverness of presentation, symbolism, dialog: hence these are the areas on which writers and critics of this genre concentrate. It is all form with no substance. Even here their contempt for the extraordinary has prevented another Milton or Shakespeare from emerging from the ranks of the modernists. One can find, at best, clever gibberish or plays on words in James Joyce, but you will not find a St. Crispens' Day speech which could be profitably read to a craven man to restore his flagging courage.
Fiction is an exercise of the imagination. Realism is that particular type of fiction which uses as little imagination as possible, and in ways means to inspire as little as possible.
Normal story telling is everything else: everything in the land of imagination, everything that stirs the heart to heroism or devotion, from fearless detectives to brilliant scientists to clean-limbed fighting men of Virginia teleported to Mars to men raised by apes to British spies cool under pressure with a garrote in his wristwatch and a bomb in his briefcase.
Having defined this, the boundaries of the various genres of normal story telling fall across the expectations of the readers for the story. Each genre can be defined by where it is free to be imaginative, and where it restricts itself to certain conventions.
Genre fiction, such as adventure stories, Westerns, detective novels, are free in various dimensions except their particular limits. Westerns not only must take place within a given span of years in the American West, but they also must contain the props and characters unique to the Cowboys-and-Indians genre. Merely a story set in the Navaho Territory in 1890 but which had no cowboy, no sheriff, no pioneers, no Indians, no horses, nothing that identified it as Western, would no longer be a western. Likewise, adventure stories need adventure and detective stories need detectives. In the first case, the readers seek the thrill of heroism, danger and great deeds; in the second, the intellectual and emotional satisfaction of seeing crime discovered and punished, or, in darker versions, the bitterness of life's injustice when it is not punished. Any story that satisfies the specific need of the audience is within its particular genre.
If he reads to be horrified, the reader seeks horror. Horror can contain either human bloodshed or supernatural enigmas, just so long as what the characters confront is the unknown. If he reads to be swept away by sentiment, the reader seeks romance. Unusual coincidences, even the old fashioned tropes of love philters or sudden bouts of amnesia are accepted in this genre, if they lend to the effect of producing a heartbreaking and heart-mending romance. Horror and romance are basically free to do anything that will produce the emotion, be it fear or love, they seek to produce.
Science Fiction is simply the opposite of horror: it is the genre that looks at the unknown, and seeks the romance, the sense of wonder, hidden behind the veil. Science Fiction is about as realistic about science as spy novels are about spies or romance novels about marriage, which is to say, the science is only as realistic as will serve to lend an illusion of authenticity to the tale. Science fiction is free in all dimensions but one: it has to be a story within the scenery and setting, the props, of an arguably scientific universe.
This scenery blends into fantasy somewhat. Any magic that happens, such as telepathy, teleportation, time travel or faster-than-light drive, must be presented as a product of scientific investigation, the discovery of added laws of nature, not the product of gifts from the gods and genies. Even "The Force" must be described as an energy field surrounding the galaxy, not as a spirit.
The same way Science Fiction is a romance about the unknown future, fantasy is a romance about the forgotten past: it is the artificial attempt to tell a tale, not in the past as we understanding it to be, but in the past as our ancestors actually lived in. High fantasy contains the tropes and themes of medievalism, as in Tolkien; low fantasy contains the tropes and themes of paganism, as in E.R. Eddison, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard. Oriental fantasy, as in Jack Vance, attempts to capture the glamour of an Arabian Night's Tale, the strangeness of exotic cities with onyx towers rising like a mirage from the desert, or the pearl-crusted pagodas of Cathay and Taprobane.
In short, what is called mainstream fiction is a ghetto genre, destined to be forgotten, consisting of unimaginative stories set in mundane worlds. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Pulp Fiction, Superheroes, Weird Tales, Horror, Ghosts Stories, and in short, what by rights should be called normal story telling is simply everything else.