Is Science Fiction really a genre?

In summary, Science Fiction is a genre that deals with stories that take place in a world where science plays a pivotal role.
  • #1
BWV
1,465
1,781
So is Science Fiction really a separate genre, or just a way to create a new setting for existing genres (action, war, sea stories, spy, westerns, horror, epic fantasy etc)?
 
Physics news on Phys.org
  • #2
Larry Niven and is ilk explicitly say yes.
It is true that many erstwhile stories are simply love stories or operas transported to a space milieu.
But Larry and others define science fiction as stories where the science plays a pivotal role in the plot.
IOW, you cannot separate the science from the story and still have the same story.

- murder mysteries involving a bathtub on the Moon in one sixth gravity where the water can rise right out of the tub and interfere with a laser beam as the murder weapon.
- flash crowds ramped up by the ubiquity of teleport booths
- defeating a demon using mathematical procedures such as a convergent series.
The list goes on.
 
  • Like
Likes Lren Zvsm, Rive and BWV
  • #3
Did a bit of research, found this article:

"There’s a school of science fiction where the writer decides where they want the story to go and then makes up a world or a technology or a branch of physics that will get it there.

This is not that. Hard SF works the opposite way — it allows its stories to be shaped by what we know about technology and the universe and how they work. With a hard SF writer like Niven, the story emerges out of the world: the world and its rules and laws are what generate and drive and constrain the story."


https://entertainment.time.com/2012/06/13/lord-of-the-ringworld-in-praise-of-larry-niven/
 
  • Like
Likes Rive
  • #4
DaveC426913 said:
Larry Niven and is ilk explicitly say yes.
It is true that many erstwhile stories are simply love stories or operas transported to a space milieu.
But Larry and others define science fiction as stories where the science plays a pivotal role in the plot.
IOW, you cannot separate the science from the story and still have the same story.

- murder mysteries involving a bathtub on the Moon in one sixth gravity where the water can rise right out of the tub and interfere with a laser beam as the murder weapon.
- flash crowds ramped up by the ubiquity of teleport booths
- defeating a demon using mathematical procedures such as a convergent series.
The list goes on.
Sure, a story like Ringworld is 'real' SF. How much of what is called SF actually meets this definition though, particularly on movies and TV?
 
  • #5
BWV said:
Sure, a story like Ringworld is 'real' SF. How much of what is called SF actually meets this definition though, particularly on movies and TV?
Why do you care? Are you going to dis-allow calling a love story set as a Western a Western? Or other kinds of mixed genras? It just gets too confusing. If the author calls it SciFic, what do you care?
 
  • Like
Likes Bystander and russ_watters
  • #6
phinds said:
Why do you care? Are you going to dis-allow calling a love story set as a Western a Western? Or other kinds of mixed genras? It just gets too confusing. If the author calls it SciFic, what do you care?
Don’t care particularly, but thought it might make an interesting discussion
 
  • #7
BWV said:
Don’t care particularly, but thought it might make an interesting discussion
Well, I guess I'm just being a spoilsport this morning:sorry:
 
  • Like
Likes kered rettop, Hornbein and russ_watters
  • #8
BVW is not the first- and won't be the last - to ask this question. It is a hotly-debated topic.
And phinds is not the first - nor the last - to wonder why.

For myself, I am pleased to know that there is a definition, if one wants one, yet it is by no means restrictive.
 
  • #9
BWV said:
How much of what is called SF actually meets this definition though, particularly on movies and TV?
And that's exactly why this question is often asked - and why there are those who have created such a distinction.
 
  • #10
DaveC426913 said:
And that's exactly why this question is often asked - and why there are those who have created such a distinction.
..., so, is Chalker "Fantasy or Sci-Fi?"
 
  • #11
BWV said:
So is Science Fiction really a separate genre
I would say it is primarily a theme (especially regarding the majority of related works), but then there are exceptional cases which turns the thing upside down and inside out, so you just won't find your hat.
And those are a genre of their own.
 
  • #12
So you have 'SF' that is not really SF, just epic fantasy like Star Wars or Dune

then 'pure' SF like Ringworld or 2001

But then a good amount of 'real' SF that borrows tropes from other genres but does, as DaveC points out, have science (or made-up science) play a pivotal role in the story

For example, Blade Runner (or the PK Dick book DADES ) uses all this noir detective tropes, but the ultimate themes are SF
 
  • #13
Bystander said:
..., so, is Chalker "Fantasy or Sci-Fi?"
I guess I'll go look up what a "Chalker" is... :sorry:

EDIT: Ah. An author. No way for me to know without actually reading his stories.
 
  • #14
Bystander said:
..., so, is Chalker "Fantasy or Sci-Fi?"
Been so long since I read any of him, I can't remember
 
  • #15
Ultimately all fiction is about human thought and action, ethics and decisions. The classifications we use are convenient labels to guide us towards styles and backgrounds that will explore these issues in ways that appeal to us, and help us avoid those that don't. Any fan of SF (or westerns, or historical novels, etc.) is aware of the diversity within their favoured genre and can quickly identify what doesn't tick all their boxes.

On that basis I consider SF to be a genre.
 
  • Like
Likes BillTre
  • #16
Then of course is the literary vs genre fiction divide, most SF seems to hug the upper left corner

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/literary-genre-fiction_b_1857639

The idea is to plot a novel on the graph based on where it falls on the “stuff/no stuff” continuum and the “easy/difficult” continuum. The closer to the top-left corner, the more genre-ness the work has; the closer to the bottom-right, the more literary-ness.
By “stuff,” I mean things that are out of our ordinary experience, especially things that don’t actually exist (as far as we know): interplanetary space travel, elves, vampires; and, to a lesser degree, things that do exist but that are larger-than-life: serial killers; shark infestations. “Difficult” encompasses dense paragraphs, complex sentences, ambiguity, intellectual complexity, and passages that require re-reading not because they’re unclear but because they’re, well, difficult.

1628112032052.png
 
  • Like
Likes Lunden and BillTre
  • #17
That graph - and its metrics - is/are totally outside my experience. I must read up.

First thoughts:
I've never heard of an axis distinguishing simplicity from complexity. I'm not sure it's a valid parameter.

Which means the distinction becomes a 1D line. And I'd relabel the endpoints "more about ideas" and "more about events".
 
  • #18
DaveC426913 said:
First thoughts:
I've never heard of an axis distinguishing simplicity from complexity. I'm not sure it's a valid parameter.
Harry Potter to Gravity’s Rainbow is not a spectrum?
 
  • #19
BWV said:
Harry Potter to Gravity’s Rainbow is not a spectrum?
I don't see how that makes it a relevant axis.

And in its defense, HP is targeted for young adults.
 
  • #20
DaveC426913 said:
I don't see how that makes it a relevant axis.

And in its defense, HP is targeted for young adults.
You don't see spectrum of literary quality in SF, from mindless pulp to authors like PK Dick or Stanislaw Lem?
 
  • #21
BWV said:
You don't see spectrum of literary quality in SF, from mindless pulp to authors like PK Dick or Stanislaw Lem?
Sure, but I don't see it as a defining parameter that distinguishes genre fiction from literature.
 
  • #22
I suggest that one should keep in mind that a broad genre will have sub-genres. This is true of Romances, Mysteries, Science Fiction, etc. A few examples of Science fiction sub-genres are:
1. Time travel
2. Space travel.
3. An invented culture.
4. An Invented technology.

In "good" Sci-Fi the sub-genre is the basis for the plot. Sometimes it is just a setting for a plot, such as a romance, mystery, adventure, etc.

An example: I find the Outlander series to be very well done. However, it uses Sci-Fi time travel mostly for setting, putting today's technology into the past with a restriction that the past cannot be (significantly) changed. Efforts to cause significant changes do not work out. The plot is a combination of adventure and romance.
 
Last edited:
  • #23
DaveC426913 said:
Sure, but I don't see it as a defining parameter that distinguishes genre fiction from literature.
I took it as the chart replaces the arbitrary binary distinction between literary and genre fiction - there is stuff termed genre fiction that is better literature than most literary fiction. then you can put westerns in the box on a spectrum from Zane Grey to Cormac McCarthy and don't have to answer questions like did Borges write SF

http://thresholds.chi.ac.uk/did-borges-write-the-sci-fi-masterpiece-of-the-20th-century/#:~:text=This%20makes%20Borges%20an%20unlikely,writer%20of%20the%20twentieth%20century.
 
  • #24
The first definition I get of genre is "a style or category of art, music, or literature." I would say that today's "literary fiction" is also a genre. It is a very restrictive genre at that. I noticed that every such book begins with two literary quotations. Not one. Not three. Two. Every time. And that's not all.

Genres are very loose categories that come from marketing. What it really means is, in which section of the store is your book sold. If your book does not fit into any genre then you will get no shelf space and sell no books. Writing a cross-genre book is possible but a big disadvantage. Your audience will be those who like both genres, which is not going to be very many. So professional writers make a big effort to conform to the norms of a genre.

Writing and films have just a few genres but music has split into a ton of them. One day I posted some music Soundcloud. They required that I choose a genre. Back in the old days "rock" could be just about anything done by people with long hair, but today there are at least a hundred genres. I didn't know what most of them were so I picked one with a funny name ("shoegazing"). I see this as consumers clinging to tiny islands of conformity in an ocean of possibility.

Marketing of music and books revolves around genre. Buyers have the attitude of "I'm a metal fan." They identify with that and may refuse to listen to anything else as uncool. They can go to spotify and get nothing but metal, or country, or whatever. Today's "country" music can be rock as long as you sing with a grossly exaggerated accent. I lived in the South for a couple of years and never heard anyone talk like that.

When I lived in northern Michigan they had a series is ten concerts in the city park. Nine of the ten were "tribute" bands. They choose an act of the past and try to copy it as exactly as possible. How generic can you get? I didn't attend. Today I live in Japan which is the diametrical opposite. Maybe 99% original music.

Getting back to fiction, one of the libraries has Japanese fiction translated to English that you can't get in the West. I picked up a book by Naoki Inose that I thought was as good as the writing of Borges. Very concise and effective, too original to be in any genre. Then I found out Inose was elected governor of Tokyo! Writers and books are held in very high esteem. I once saw a Japanese edition of Cosmopolitian. Instead of cosmetics the ads were for books.

Well that's wandered away from genre, but what the heck...
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes BWV, Choppy and BillTre
  • #25
This could be set up as a social science experiment.

I have been told that you can switch coffee and tea and most people do not like it. It could be coffee that the person would otherwise like but because you switch them and they expected tea they think it is really bad coffee. Likewise it could be tea the person would otherwise like but because we offered "a cup of coffee" they do not like the taste of that good tea.

A second test is more a library science question. How long does it take you to find what you are looking for? At my home public library there is an adult fiction section separate from the non-fiction. There are not any sub categories and they are sorted by author. It takes a long time to find anything that I want to read. A library near my parents house as the adult fiction broken up into romance, western/historical, and science fiction/fantasy sections. I can find a book I want in remarkably less time. I recently walked into a book store and found "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir within a few seconds of walking in. I was a bit confused because I was not accustomed to finishing searching that fast. I thought I should look around. The clerk asked if she could help me find anything and I told her I was checking for science fiction. She told she was half way through reading Weir and it was good. I bought it and I was glad that I did.

For librarians it might be difficult to decide which genre to place a book. If you know which book you want and you know the author it is certainly faster to have all the books sorted by author's last name. It is less work to re-shelve books if they are sorted by last name.
 
  • #26
stefan r said:
... "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir...
🥰

(There are some subtle aspects of the story that lead me to lean toward categorizing it as science fiction. :wink: )
 
  • Like
Likes stefan r
  • #27
I'm late to this party, but I've written three novels that I contend are entirely sci-fi and I expect most readers familiar with similar books would agree it is. But I've also written a 'techno thriller' that uses science fiction elements as plot scaffolding, but is not in my mind a science fiction story.

What's the distinction?

I'm not sure that's readily explainable, even as I feel they are correctly categorized. But all of them are speculative, futuristic, involve invented physics, advanced technology...and lots of violence, though that's probably irrelevant.

Could it be that like many artistic endeavors, science fiction is in the eye of the beholder?
 
  • Like
Likes BillTre and Bystander
  • #28
Melbourne Guy said:
Could it be that like many artistic endeavors, science fiction is in the eye of the beholder?

Genres are just loose marketing categories. As with many vague but useful categories, there is no official definition.
 
  • #29
Melbourne Guy said:
Could it be that like many artistic endeavors, science fiction is in the eye of the beholder?
1633525213531.png


1633525318222.png


It is tough sometimes. How could you possibly tell which of these films is science fiction without going to see them?
 
  • Haha
Likes BillTre
  • #30
PeroK said:
It is tough sometimes. How could you possibly tell which of these films is science fiction without going to see them?
I love cherry picked data, you can draw whatever conclusion you like from it :wink:

But what about when the poster doesn't have a robot on it? Would anyone see this and immediately think, "Cool, a science fiction romance movie, I's got ta see that"?

Her2013Poster.jpg
 
  • #31
Melbourne Guy said:
Would anyone see this and immediately think, "... I's got ta see that"?

View attachment 290293

Yes. Lot's of people:
1633556146309.png


That's the seller.

I suspect that putting anything computer- or robot-like on the poster would actually narrow the target audience.
 
  • #32
I can't disagree, @DaveC426913, if you clip out the 'science fiction' words from my comment. Of course, Scarlett J. is definitely a drawcard for a romance movie :biggrin:

And yes, robots would likely turn potential views off. But this was counterpoint to @PeroK's posters, with a movie that is sci-fi but how would you tell that from the poster?

(And hopefully, having raised Scarlett J., we can avoid a discussion about Ghost in the Shell, which though it meets the OP criteria, was another cringeworthy movie.)
 
  • #33
DaveC426913 said:
(There are some subtle aspects of the story that lead me to lean toward categorizing it as science fiction. :wink: )
Hi @DaveC426913:

I recommend that you use Wikipedia to help you regarding genres.

Regards,
Buzz
 
  • #34
Buzz Bloom said:
Hi @DaveC426913:

I recommend that you use Wikipedia to help you regarding genres.

Regards,
Buzz
Er. That link has absolutely nothing to do with genres. I have no idea what makes you think it might help.But it is, ultimately, the original source of the title for Weir's book.

"A Hail Mary pass is a very long forward pass in American football, typically made in desperation, with an exceptionally small chance of achieving a completion. Due to the difficulty of a completion with this pass, it makes reference to the Catholic "Hail Mary" prayer for divine help."
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hail_Mary_passWeir's Hail Mary is straight up sci-fi, and that description of a Hail Mary pass is the story of the book in a nutshell.
 
  • #35
Hi @DaveC426913:

I apologize for misunderstanding the intended meaning of the quote I included with my post #33.

Regards,
Buzz
 

Similar threads

  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
Replies
17
Views
3K
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
Replies
3
Views
2K
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
Replies
9
Views
2K
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
Replies
22
Views
3K
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
Replies
31
Views
3K
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
2
Replies
63
Views
7K
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
Replies
10
Views
2K
  • Sticky
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
Replies
3
Views
14K
Replies
4
Views
291
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Media
2
Replies
54
Views
8K
Back
Top