“Science Fiction University” is a fun new feature over at io9 which goes through some sci-fi basics. Even if you think you’re well beyond an introductory ‘course’ on science fiction, it’s worth checking some of them out as they may provide some food for thought and challenge some of your preconceptions about the genre. That’s the reaction I had when I looked at the article titled “How many definitions of science fiction are there?“, which lists definitions from some of sci-fi’s biggest names. For instance, science fiction publishing pioneer Hugo Gernsback claimed that “Science-fiction…can be defined as: Imaginative extrapolation of true natural phenomena, existing now, or likely to exist in the future.” But where do we draw the line at “true natural phenomena” which are “likely to exist in the future” (a stumbling block that has been raised previously as a recent realisation in the genre)?
These subjective questions I think are at the heart of many debates as to whether something is hard or soft science fiction, and could depend as much on one’s philosophical conclusions about the state of science and our knowledge of reality as anything. Similarly, Ray Bradbury separates sci-fi from fantasy by saying the former is the “art of the possible” whereas “fantasy comes along and says, ‘We’re going to break all the laws of physics’.” Whose to say which laws are immutable? Nevertheless, that sort of definition probably remains a worthwhile yardstick for demarcating the limits of the genre.
When you look at some of the earlier examples of ‘science-fiction’ television and movies it drives home the point I made above – that what seems like ‘the future’ at one point can seem rather funny just a few decades later.
Do you have any suggestions to add to the lists above? And how about books – what are, in your opinion, the essential five books that any science fiction fan has to have on their bookshelf? Is your list a standard ‘sci-fi classics’ list, or does it blow some cliched cobwebs out of the cupboard?