What is Science Fiction? Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)
By Paweł Frelik, University of Warsaw Professor of American Studies and 2023 Visiting Professor at Oregon State University
Science fiction IS NOT three things and it IS five things. Or seven. Or more. Probably more. Definitely more.
What is it NOT? That part is easy.
Science fiction is NOT a forecast of the future. It is NOT a prediction of the future. It is NOT a blueprint for the future, either. I am pretty sure you have seen headlines like “The 7 Space Predictions from Arthur C Clarke That Came True!” As much as we (when I say “we” I mean people who love the genre as readers or researchers) would probably like to see it vindicated in the bigger world, where it has a long history of cultural ghettoization, this is not how science fiction works.
What IS it, then?
Science fiction is a narrative format, initially literary and later cinematic and televisual, that uses predominantly adventure-driven formulas to talk about the future. Or futures. Or the past. Or the alternate present. Unlike other genres previously known as popular, science fiction cannot be reduced to a single scenario. The end of the world (as we know it), a miraculous invention, alien contact, space travel, and cutting-edge science are merely a few among an extensive repertoire of science fictional tropes.
There is a long debate among researchers and critics about the beginnings of science fiction. The name itself did not appear until the late 1920s, but stories that are described with these two words existed long before. One of the most commonly accepted starting dates is 1895, the publication year of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine. Many critics like to think about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the genre’s 1818 ur-text. Some push it further back to Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, published in 1608. One of the earliest texts denominated as science fiction is A True Story by Lucian of Samosata, a 2nd century satirist. The stakes of pushing back the genre’s calendar are clear – who wouldn’t want a literary progeny that long?
Science fiction is a mode of storytelling that – beyond literature and other narrative media like film, television, and comics – has registered is every medium and cultural form. There are, thus, science fiction short films (in fact, their number has exploded in the last decade), theater and ballet, music videos, video games, board games, illustration and graphics, media installations, and GIFs. Science-fictional visual sensibilities have also imprinted themselves on commercial advertising, product packaging, and industrial design.
Science fiction is a cultural discourse, which, arguably, provides excellent conditions for philosophical and political reflections on the Western – although that part has started to change – ideas of self, intelligence, society, and progress.
But there is more. Sure, many types of stories can be about things beyond their immediate plotting, but there is really no other cultural conversation that engages so centrally and so systematically every single challenge, issue, and problem of the contemporary world, whether geopolitical, cultural, economic, social, ecological, or technological.
Elsewhere, fantastic figures such as aliens, clones and cyborgs are allegories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness, and other dimensions of individual subjectivity. Like video games, science fiction assumes and builds around complexity, without doubt the most important parameter of our 21st century planetarity.
Science fiction is a privileged global genre of diversity. Its roots are, indeed, in the western adventure narratives that historically supported the institutions of white Western imperialism and colonialism. By the early 21st century, though, it has expanded and embraced other traditions of futurity: Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurisms, Sinofuturism, Gulf Futurism, and many others.
Through these, other ways of seeing the future (or the past; or the alternative present) and other ways of understanding the world can be gleaned.
Science fiction is, finally, one of the many manifestations of cultural speculation, of a deeply-seated desire to think with and through the event horizon of our future(s). It is not only a commercial genre, but also as a point on a broader spectrum, which is continuous with such cultural phenomena as theoretical science, world exhibitions, amusement parks, parascience, design fiction, visionary architecture, futuristic design, and transhuman philosophies.
Thinking about science fiction as part of that spectrum helps us account for the multidirectional flows of inspirations, influences, tropes, and icons that transcend institutional barriers separating academia, artworlds, industry, and various subcultures.
So these are the first five things science fiction is.
There are probably more.
Oh, and, please. Don’t say “sci-fi.” It’s sf.
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