“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

-Arthur C. Clarke.


Attempting to define any genre within firm, elegant parameters is a notoriously difficult task because the concept of ‘genre’ is an artificial construct better designed to serve consumers than accurately describe the work of creators; Nowhere is that more clear than in the long-running debate over what constitutes “Science Fiction.”

Asking a half-dozen educated people to define the term has, in my experience, returned six different answers. Some intrepid explorers of semantics offer typologies based on the accuracy and intensity of the “Science” or the “Fiction” portion of a piece, choosing to divide texts into ‘Hard Sci-Fi’ and ‘Soft.’ Others attempt to bridge the gap between Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Magical Realism, by touting the recent mantra of ‘speculative fiction,’ which is a more respectable and useful term to my mind than any other, if for no other reason than that it is currently devoted to legitimizing these works as valid forms of Literature with a capital ‘L’ but still suffers as a definition by virtue of simply being redundant: all fiction is inherently ‘speculative.’

To be fair, any of the varied, divisive definitions of the genre may provide useful categories for book shelves and syllabi, add to the respectability of the invested writers and their work, and offer ample opportunity for caustic forum posts, but I subscribe to a different view:

I like to imagine genre as a delicious-looking ephemeral pie. A spectral pie. A ghost pastry that we place understandable but undue importance on carving up into easy-to-digest morsels. It’s a pie that seems viscerally real because of its appeal, and because there are clear differences between flavors of pie: apple pie, cherry pie and meat pie are all pies, but most folk would be more likely to pair apple and cherry together while an educated subset might remark that the traditional crust of a cherry pie is actually more similar to that of a traditional meat pie much in the same way that War of the Worlds, Bioshock, and Fahrenheit 451 are all dystopian fiction but it might seem more intuitive to align the comparatively similar pieces to each other and see Bioshock and Fahrenheit 451 as more closely related because they lack extraterrestrial influence or Bioshock and War of the Worlds together for their focus on technologically mismatched societies, or any other of a million defensible dichotomies. This isn’t inherently bad, just somewhat sympathetically misguided. It’s so tempting to try and categorize things perfectly by way of individual similarities and differences, because the genre pie is always floating deliciously just out of reach, with blurry but suggestive boundaries and alluring shimmers of a ‘real,’ ‘objective,’ form. But that platonic form is a lie. If we return to the problem of the Science Fiction Ghost Pie again, it’s important to acknowledge the multitude of opinions that all make perfect sense in the moment but are too simplistic writ large. For instance, envisioning science fiction as that slice of the pie that concerns itself with humanity’s relationship with technology, or with entities beyond our known earth, or with the nebulous future writ large. At other times the genre can be usefully reduced to media about discrete manifestations of unimaginable entities— specific wonderous things like flying cars or phasers or spaceships or aliens or The Future™. Whatever the metric, most typologies I’ve seen break down when subjected to rigorous testing against a ‘top 30’ list from within the genre. Ironically, whatever criterion are used to categorize work within a genre can usually be confounded by at least a handful of that genre’s own ‘genre-defining’ classics.

Moreover, a shocking number of well-regarded authors (including Bradbury and Leguin) within and beyond speculative fiction make a point of describing fiction and literature as vehicles for presenting lived experience through a blind of storytelling and that fiction’s primary concern is to deal in connection and relation with the author’s lived experience rather than being specifically predictive of society at large. I agree: I think fiction could roughly be described as intense storytelling made-up by a human person or persons. If that is the case, and I see no reason why it should not be, then all fiction—science or otherwise—is primarily concerned with real, contemporary life. Does it really matter if there are flying cars? I suppose if you’re the kind of person who hates the idea of experiencing any art with flying cars in it, genre serves you well. It serves you well at the movie theatre and it serves you well at the bookstore, which is the main point of the thing; Genre is a marketing construct; it exists to help human consumers categorize their consumption effectively to their liking.

So the whole thing of science fiction as a genre is just one big confusing delicious-looking and entirely make-believe dessert. This is true, but it would be remiss to trash-talk the entire concept, flawed as it may be, without also acknowledging that when asked to describe my personal ‘consumer’ definition of Science Fiction, the one I use when I’m choosing what to watch at night or when I’m analyzing a text, I can do that with much less hemming and hawing than when I am prompted to write about delineating the genre definitively for society:

If I’m trying to decide if something is sci-fi for entertainment, I’m usually comparing it against a subconscious matrix that looks for signifiers like “outer space,” “aliens,” “entertainment,” “spectacle” “technology pushed to an extreme,” the sort of stuff that U.K. Leguin lays out in her introduction as sort-of public conception of the genre.

If I’m analyzing a text, I generally assume that genre is a human construct of limited use. Instead, I try to apply a rule of thumb that often helps me divide fiction into two broad types and is especially effective with ‘fantastical’ writing of any kind: I ask myself if, by intuition and examination, the text seems more concerned with the lives, identities, and interactions of its characters or if it feels more preoccupied with some internal thought experiment. As Leguin said, all fiction is lies, and I’d also add that all fiction is experimental, but I do find that it is sometimes useful to have an internal compass with poles set to ‘experimental’ and ‘psychosocially-centered’ if only because it helps me decide what kind of story I’m in the mood for and perhaps offers insight into the perspective of the author and does little of value beyond that.

Genre debates—and science fiction’s especially—are classical examples of gooey, messy, sinfully tempting, delicious, divisive and utterly make-believe human theoretical discourse privately wrapped up in larger issues of consumerism and stumbling on the impervious block of semantics, but it does have its uses, whether it’s a store-bought, mass-produced definition or a humble home-cooked preference. Just think of buying an unlabeled pie at the grocery store: when you get home and discover it’s meat instead of cherry, and nobody told you because they’re both technically pies and now your thanksgiving dessert is flummoxed and your family is frustrated, you may find yourself pining for basic labeling, no matter how flawed.