What Is Science Fiction?

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about SF lately, as I’ve been planning the introductory lesson for The (K)indred Experiment. My big question is two fold: what is Science Fiction, and then, how do I explain an entire genre to a group of kids who may or may not have been exposed to it, at least, in terms of that label?

SF is pervasive to our culture, now, and has been pretty consistently since the publication of Frankenstein. That’s awesome, but it’s frequently cast aside as a fluff genre and we don’t often talk about it in terms of what we can learn from it, the way we do with “literature,”especially in school. I didn’t have the opportunity to study SF until grad school, and I’d hardly encountered it all in school before a college professor assigned Slaughterhouse Five in a class called Literature of War.

I realize that Slaughterhouse Five teeters on the edge of being SF, but that brings me back to the question of how we define SF and Fantasy. Where is the line between SF and Fantasy? Are they different than, or included in, the category of Speculative Fiction? Is Spec Fic even a real genre or is that just a term we like to throw around to categorize things which are otherwise hard to define? I’m guilty of this–what do I call my novel? Well… it’s a speculative fiction, alternate history, SF thing.

Reading others’ definitions of what SF is to them put into perspective a few things I already knew, at some base level, but hadn’t really given much thought to, and certainly not from the angle of teaching it to someone else.

The best definition of SF that I’ve seen in my travels is from Rod Serling, weird fiction extraordinaire, and creator of the Twilight Zone. He said “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.”

This is still not a completely concrete definition, but it gives us a place to start. Are there dragons, wizards, unicorns or other things that are generally considered mythical, or in other words, impossible? Then you’re writing fantasy. Is your story set on some distant planet populated with alien life, or is it about some technology of the future of which we can only dream right now, but it isn’t absolutely outside the realm of possibility? Science Fiction.

Of course there are subcategories of both that I plan to talk about with students as we discuss the genre as a whole: space odyssey, dystopian–both of which they should at least be familiar with in the form of movies, if not the technical labels–climate fiction, and of course the punks: steam, cyber, diesel, etc.

Could you make the argument that perhaps there’s a planet we haven’t discovered that is populated with dragons and unicorns due to some methane-rich atmosphere and the evolution of seafood-loving horses that needed some way to spear fish? You could. And because The (K)indred Experiment is being piloted with 11 and 12-year-olds, someone undoubtedly will.

That’s okay, because it’s an excellent segue into the fact that while everyone has their own definition of what counts as SF, it’s all a little vague. To me, what’s important about SF is not a solid definition of a finite number of things that could be considered SF, but rather the freedom that comes from the lack of definition. SF is ripe with possibilities, precisely because it doesn’t fit neatly into a box.

That brings us to the second half of the question: the unspoken why. Why should we study science fiction? Why choose this genre as the basis of a workshop? First, because it’s fun. I enjoy reading SF, and I think a majority of students will, too.

Second, because it’s not something that gets taught too frequently in schools as part of their regular curriculum. Third, because the previously mentioned possibilities of SF give students a chance to be as creative as they want to be. In a school day that’s increasingly restricted by testing and common core requirements, reading and writing SF allows for a certain amount of escapism to occur.

Finally, and most importantly, because Science Fiction is a way to analyze our current trajectory as humans, and become aware of some of the possible outcomes if we continue on the path we’ve set for ourselves. Through SF we can critique humanity by distancing ourselves from it. We can set our current problems in a completely different story line, which makes it easier to play out different options.

Through SF we can write out as many possible futures as we can envision, and work through the issues now, in fiction form, with the intent that the most dystopian of futures never comes to light. SF is studied to analyze the mistakes we have already made so we can avoid even worse mistakes later on.

We study science fiction, not with fear of the future, but with hope.

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