Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
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Toward a Definition of Science Fiction: A Reply to James Gunn

by Fred Lerner

When I was in high school, I was fascinated with history. Naive lad that I was, I thought of history as simply a straightforward narrative account of what had happened in the past. Four years as a history major in college cured me of that delusion. I learned that an historian
’s narrative owed something to the events that he described and as much or more to what he meant to do with them.

So it is with the definition of science fiction. There simply is no such thing as the definition of science fiction. How one defines it depends on what one intends to do with it. The reader, the writer, the editor, the publisher, the bibliographer, the historian, the teacher, the librarian, the critic — each has his own concerns, and those concerns necessarily shape, not only his working definition of science fiction, but also his entire approach to the question of defining SF.

Let us begin with the reader. He reads science fiction for enjoyment; his concern is to obtain the maximum amount of pleasure for the minimum amount of effort. For him, the working definition of SF is “the kind of stories I like because...” -- what follows the “because” is an expression of personal preference that need not concern us. And our quest for a definition of science fiction need not concern him. For he is willing and able to pay for his reading pleasure, and the market will evolve a workable definition to guide him to the cash-register. For the writer who hopes to sell his stories, science fiction is defined quite pragmatically: “the kinds of stories that science fiction editors are buying”. The same market forces that serve the reader guide the pen of the writer; and the history of modern science fiction, in America at least, is the working-out of the tension between the writer’s imagination and the demands of the marketplace. But to the writer, the market’s definition of science fiction is all that matters. It governs what he can sell. No other definition can offer any useful guidance to a writer with his own story to tell.

The editor and the publisher are likewise governed by the market. Each is successful to the extent that the stories he chooses for publication attain a lucrative readership. Market segmentation is as applicable to publishing as to any other form of commerce, so each editor or publisher, in seeking his niche in the literary marketplace, defines his own concept of publishable science fiction. But few editors or publishers would confuse these narrow delimitations with the breadth of science fiction itself — a fact demonstrated by the many instances in our field’s history in which a single editor or publisher has produced two or more widely differing lines of SF.

Now, each of the parties I have so far mentioned employs an idiosyncratic definition of science fiction. The reader is answerable to nobody but himself. The writer may present as science fiction anything that his imagination might contrive. And the editor and the publisher may offer as science fiction anything that their readers will buy. As long as the paying customers are satisfied with the bargain, who will argue the matter? De gustibus non est disputandum.

But now we come to some actors who must answer to a wider constituency. If the reader adopts an idiosyncratic definition of science fiction, there is no one to judge him. The writer may define as science fiction anything that he can coax from his imagination; and the editor and publisher, anything that they can coax from their writers or anything their writers foist upon them. It is up to them to convince the readers, either through shrewd merchandising or by exploiting the confidence their previous publications have earned for them, to accept these as science fiction. Whether they be called “thought variant” or “new wave”, there have been successful attempts at expanding the paying customers’ concept of science fiction.

The creators of science fiction (and I include the readers in this category; I’ll explain why a bit later) have this freedom, but the commentators don’t. The nature of their work requires them to deal with the field as it is. If they pronounce on what science fiction should be, nobody will pay them any attention — unless they legitimate their arguments by writing the sort of science fiction they want to see. (Does anyone in this room know who Michel Butor is? Is there anyone here who doesn’t consider his opinions on SF to be utter nonsense?)

Consider the bibliographer. Now, defining “bibliography” is as tendentious a matter as defining “science fiction”, but let’s for the moment use the term in its most commonly misunderstood sense: the compiler of lists of books. His work is pointless unless the books he lists conform to some criterion: origin, provenance, subject-matter, physical format, association, whatever. And if his work is to serve any purpose other than the satisfaction of his own vanity, the criterion he employs must be relevant to the interests of others besides himself. Of what use is a Hemingway bibliography whose compiler insists that Ernest Hemingway wrote the plays of Shakespeare? What use could we possibly make of a science fiction bibliography compiled by a man who defined as SF any story set in North Carolina?

The historian is in the same position, for after all he is really writing bibliography in narrative form. (The broader definitions of “bibliography” include literary history within its embrace. I certainly consider my own writing about SF to fall within the category of bibliographical scholarship.) The historian may define to his satisfaction whatever aspect of science fiction he will study; but his definition is one of the criteria against which his book will be judged. He will not, however, have to answer for the correctness of his working definition, but for its utility: does the definition he employs improve or detract from our ability to learn something valuable about SF from his book?

Where the historian attempts to elucidate science fiction's past, the critic tries to illuminate its present. His job is to help us to read more efficiently: to examine the words in a story and the way in which they're put together. As to how he should do this — well, there's plenty of disagreement about that, and I’ve no intention of jumping into that donnybrook. But no matter what his methodology, the critic, like the historian, can communicate his findings only to an audience with whom he shares a common vocabulary.

The teacher and the librarian are still more constrained. Unlike the historian and the critic, they are neither expected nor desired to bring any great degree of individuality to their work. Their value to student or library patron is in direct proportion to the conventionality of their approach. Both must seek to inform their work with consensus rather than originality, for unlike the readers of the historian or the critic their audiences have few if any alternative sources for their services.

Given all these components to the science fiction community — and given the considerable variety within each of these components — it’s hardly surprising that we have, not only no consensus as to the definition of science fiction, but not even any consensus as to how we should go about the process.

The dozens of attempts at defining SF that I’ve seen can, I think, be assigned to three categories, which I call thematic, strategic, and empirical.

A thematic definition of science fiction is based in some way upon the subject-matter of the SF story. Most thematic definitions, like the various definitions that James Gunn has quoted in the first part of his talk, attempt to define SF in terms of its scientific content. Some of these definitions are prescriptive, others ostensive. Alastair Cameron’s Fantasy Classification System, a thematic decimal classification of fantasy and scientific stories, attempts to include all of the “fantastic properties of the elements which make up a story”. This of course makes it a 52-page definition of the genre — but an unsuccessful one: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, arguably the most important SF novel of the past twenty years, cannot be accounted for under Cameron’s scheme.

More recently, “change” has replaced "science" as the touchstone. Gunn has summarised this viewpoint: “Science fiction is the literature of change. Change is its subject matter and its method.”

“...And its method”. That provides a convenient transition to the second of our categories of definition. The “strategic” approach to defining science fiction focuses not on what the story is about, but on how it is written, and read. The pioneers of this approach to science fiction, Darko Suvin and Samuel R Delany, may intimidate us with phrases like “cognitive estrangement” and “subjunctivity level”: but their basic argument, that form and content are essentially identical, offers a fruitful way of looking at science fiction. Closely related to this is the notion that the label “science fiction" is a set of “author’s instructions on how to read a work”, as Jim Gunn has suggested.

That is why I included the reader among the “creators” of science fiction a few minutes ago. For in following or disregarding, to whatever extent it pleases him, the “instructions” that the author has (consciously or unconsciously) embedded in his story, the reader plays his part in the story’s creation, just as the musician plays his part in realising the composer’s intention.

The “empirical” definition comes in many flavors, from Norman Spinrad’s “science fiction is anything published as science fiction” to my own favorite definition: “science fiction is the stuff on the brown bookshelves upstairs in my study”. When I was studying the changes in modern science fiction’s reputation in this country since 1926, it was an empirical definition that I used. I was concerned with how outsiders viewed the field, and their conception of science fiction was necessarily shaped by what was presented to them as science fiction.

My own suspicion is that the search for the perfect definition of science fiction is a futile one. It can be fun, just like choosing the opposing line-ups for an imaginary all-time all-star game between the American League and the National League can be. But, like that activity, it is a pursuit better suited to the saloon than the seminar room, and should really never be approached without a goodly supply of beer within reach.

The attempt to arrive at a perfect definition of science fiction is doomed to failure. Any attempt to define SF, except perhaps for a purely empirical one, pits the ingenuity of the definer against a truly irresistible force, one that we are all gathered here in Atlanta to celebrate: the collective imagination of the world’s science fiction writers. 

This was originally presented at the 44th World Science Fiction Convention (Atlanta, 1986) as a contribution to a panel on Defining Science Fiction, in which David Hartwell and I critiqued a definition proposed by James Gunn.  So far as I know neither Gunns nor Hartwells contribution has been published. Mine appeared in Lofgeornost #8 (November 1986) and in A Bookmans Fantasy (NESFA Press, 1995)