Why is Science Fiction (sf) so notoriously hard to define?
Merriam-Webster defines sf as "fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets." --but this does not quite cover all the bases, does it? What about sf that happens in the past, like Star Wars? Or sf that is not based in scientific inquiry or technology, such as the novels, A Canticle of Lebowitz, or The Road? What about sf stories that do not employ time travel, aliens, or spaceships, such as the famous short story...
Today, I would like to explore the definition of sf--how and why these definitions have come about, and why they are all, essentially, problematic. The scholar David Seed said in his book Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction that to even call sf a genre is not accurate "because it does not recognize the hybrid nature or many Sf works." Seed goes on to suggest that thinking of sf as a mode, or field of writing where different genres can intersect and meld together is a much more useful interpretation. Sf is smaller than fiction itself, but much bigger than any one genre, such as Westerns or Mysteries. In fact, is has become its own kind of new hybrid category.
As a scholar, I believe that science fiction is indeed a mode-- a mode of fiction that depicts a specific alternate reality from the mind of writer, directly influenced by the current social and political anxieties of the time. In other words, sf is not really the writing of the future, but instead, it is writing of the immediate present, full of all hopes, dreams, and fears of the moment-- as if those contemporary hopes, dreams and fears were somehow happening simultaneously.
There are, in my opinion, four major sub genre's within the super-genre of sf. The first to emerge is Hard sf, and is perhaps the easiest to define. Hard sf focuses primarily on the dissemination of science and technology. The sub-genre essentially uses the story as a thought experiment of imagined technologies-- imagining and describing them as specifically as possible. Jules Verne is perhaps the most famous of the "Hard" sf writers, having heavily influenced other "golden age" writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein.
The second major sub-genre is Space Opera, out of which we get Buck Rogers, Star Wars and Star Trek. This particular genre appeared between the World Wards in the United States, and was not so worried about a preoccupation with the terror of mass production and weaponry, but more so with the notion of glorifying the individual, and a struggle to restore freedom and morality. These stories usually follow an idealized male hero, a clear struggle between good and evil (to the point of melodrama), and of course, some ray guns. ;)
Perhaps my personal favorite kind of sf can be described either as New Wave sf or Feminist sf (depending on your preference), but seeing as I am the Artistic Director of a feminist sci-fi theatre company, I will go ahead and say FEMINIST sci-fi is also one of the major sub-genres that solidified in the 1960s. This sub-genre focuses less on science and the process of making a narrative scientifically believably, and more on alternate realities, utopias and dystopias, and entirely new societies. In the sense that this sub-genre makes a point to deviate from the norm, or rather, the dominant sf narratives (both Hard sf and Space Opera), it becomes inherently feminist. Famous examples include The Handmaiden's Tale, The Female Man, and many works by the famous Ursula K. LeGuin.
The final and perhaps newest sub-genre is Cyberpunk, having been single-handedly invented by the writer William Gibson, specifically in his novel Nueromancer. Gibson's work introduced the world to the concept of cyber-space and "jacking into" virtual reality-- a kind of space/non-space that is at once tangible to humans, but has no physical traces. The concept is further explored in the work of Philip K. Dick, and of course, The Matrix films. Gibson continued to dominate this genre for some time, until the appearance of Neal Stephenson-- a contemporary cyberpunk writer who draws clear inspiration from Gibson's work.
Which of the four science fiction sub-genres is your favorite? What kind of sf narratives tend to fit into which sub-genre? And as always, if you have any questions or comments on sf or these ideas, feel free to ask in the comments!