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It would exclude from the category "science fiction" much of Mr. Sturgeon's best work, stories which are to my mind speculative rather than fantastic. There are many stories that are lumped into the class "science fiction" in the minds of most people and in mine which contain only a detectable trace, or none, of science—for example, Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here , Fritz Leiber's great short story "Coming Attraction," Thomas F.

Tweed's novel Gabriel Over the White House. All three stories are of manners and morals; any science in them is merely parsley trimming, not the meat. Yet each is major speculation, not fantasy, and each must be classed as science fiction as the term is commonly used. Reginald Bretnor, author, editor and acute critic of this field, gives what is to me the most thoughtful, best reasoned, and most useful definition of science fiction.

He sees it as a field of literature much broader than that most often termed "main-stream" literature—or "non-science fiction," if you please—science fiction being that sort in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the human activity known as the scientific method, shows equal awareness of the great body of human knowledge already collected through that activity, and takes into account in his stories the effects and possible future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact.

This indispensable three-fold awareness does not limit the science fiction author to stories about science—he need not write a gadget story; indeed a gadget story would not be science fiction under this definition if the author failed in this three-fold awareness. Any subject can be used in a science fiction story under this definition, provided and indispensably required that the author has the attitude comprised by the three-fold awareness and further provided that he has and uses appropriately that body of knowledge pertinent to the scope of his story.

I have paraphrased in summary Mr. Bretnor's comments and I hope he will forgive me. Bretnor's definition gives the science fiction author almost unlimited freedom in subject matter while requiring of him high, rigorous, and mature standards in execution. In contrast to science fiction thus defined, non-science fiction—all other fiction including the most highly acclaimed "literary" novels—at most shows awareness of the by-products of scientific method already in existence. Non-science fiction admits the existence of the automobile, radar, polio vaccine, H-bombs, etc. It is a static attitude, an assumption that what is now forever shall be.

An example of the great scope of this definition is Sinclair Lewis' novel Arrowsmith , a story motivated by the human problems of a man aware of and consciously trying to practice the scientific method in medical research in the face of difficulties. Arrowsmith was not labeled science fiction by its publisher, it is not concerned with space ships nor the year ; nevertheless it is science fiction at its best, it shows that three-fold awareness to the utmost and is a rousin' good yarn of great literary merit.

Let's back off for a moment and compare science fiction with other forms of fiction. First: what is fiction? These reasonably equivalent definitions are all based on the common element "imaginary"—so let's put it in everyday words: Fiction is storytelling about imaginary things and people. These imaginary tales are usually intended to entertain and sometimes do, they are sometimes intended to instruct and occasionally manage even that, but the only element common to all fiction is that all of it deals with imaginary elements.

Even fiction of the most sordid and detailed ash-can realism is imaginary—or it cannot be termed fiction. But if all fiction is imaginary, how is realistic fiction to be distinguished from fantasy? The lexicographers cited above are not quite so unanimous here. However, I find certain words used over and over again in their discussions of fantasy: "dream, caprice, whim, fanciful, conceit, figment, unreal, irrational.

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I therefore propose to define "fantasy" in accordance with the implication common to the remarks of these lexicographers. There have been many wordy and fruitless battles over the exact meaning of the word "fantasy"; I have no intention of starting another. I ask merely that you accept for the purpose of better communication during the balance of this essay a definition based on the above. When I say "fantasy fiction" I shall mean "imaginary-and-not-possible" in the world as we know it; conversely all fiction which I regard as "imaginary-but-possible" I shall refer to as "realistic fiction," i.

I am not condemning fantasy, I am defining it. It has greater freedom that any other form of fiction, for it is completely independent of the real world and is limited only by literary rules relating to empathy, inner logic, and the like. Its great freedom makes it, in the hands of a skilled craftsman, a powerful tool for entertainment and instruction—humor, satire, gothic horror, anything you wish.

The Atom Age of Sci-Fi

But a story is not fantasy simply because it deals with the strange, the exotic, the horrible, the unusual, or the improbable; both fantasy and realistic fiction may have any of these elements. It is a mere provincialism to confuse the wildly strange with fantasy; a fantasy story is one which denies in its premise some feature of the real world, it may be quite humdrum in all other respects, e.

Conversely, a realistic story may be wildly strange while holding firmly to the possibilities of the real world—e. Smith's Gray Lensman. The science fiction author is not limited by currently accepted theory nor by popular opinion; he need only respect established fact.

Unfortunately there is never full agreement as to the "established facts" nor as to what constitutes the "real world," and definitions by intention are seldom satisfactory. By these two terms I mean the factual universe of our experience in the sense in which one would expect such words to be used by educated and enlightened members of the western culture in Even this definition contains semantic and philosophic difficulties but I shall not attempt to cope with them in this limited space; I will limit myself to pointing out some stories which, in my opinion, deny some essential fact of the real world and therefore are, by the "imaginary-and-not-possible" definition, fantasy:.

My story Magic, Inc. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros ; the Oz books; stories using talking mules, or Seacoast Bohemia, or astrology treated as if it were a science; any story based on violation of scientific fact, such as space ship stories which ignore ballistics, stories which have the lizard men of Zlxxt crossbreeding with human females, stories which represent the surface conditions of Mars as being much like those of Earth. Let me emphasize: Assumptions contrary to fact such as the last one mentioned do not in themselves invalidate a story; C.

Lewis' powerful Out of the Silent Planet is not spoiled thereby as a religious parable—it simply happens to be fantasy rather than science fiction. Very well—from here on "fantasy" will be considered identically equal to "impossible story. All other fiction including science fiction falls into the category "imaginary-but-possible. Smith's galactic romances, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders ; stories about time travel, other dimensions, speeds faster than light, extra-sensory perception; many ghost stories, ones about extra-terrestrial life, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

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You will have noted that I make the category "possible" very broad. Faster-than-light, time travel, reincarnation, ghosts, all these may strike some of you as impossible, contrary to scientific fact. No, they are contrary to present orthodox theory only and the distinction is extremely important.


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Such stories may be invalidated by their treatments; they cannot be ruled out today as impossible simply because of such themes. Speeds faster than light would seem to be excluded by Einsteinian theory, a theory which has stood up favorably under many tests, but such an exclusion would be a subjective one, as anyone may see by examining the equations; furthermore, Dr. Einstein's theories and related ones are now being subjected to careful re-examination; the outcome is not yet. As for time travel, we know almost nothing about the nature of time; anyone who has his mind made up either pro or con about time travel is confusing his inner opinions with objective reality.

We simply don't know. With respect to reincarnation, ghosts, ESP, and many related matters concerning consciousness, the evidence concerning each is, in , incomplete and in many respects unsatisfactory. We don't even know how consciousness anchors itself to mass; we are short on solid facts in this field and any opinion, positive or negative, can be no better than a tentative hypothesis today. Hypotheses and theories are always expendable; a scientist modifies or discards them in the face of new facts as casually as he changes his socks.

Ordinarily a scientist will use the convenient rule-of-thumb called "least hypothesis" but he owes it no allegiance; his one fixed loyalty is to the observed fact. An honest science fiction writer observes the same loyalty to fact but from there on his path diverges from that of the scientist because his function is different. The pragmatic rule of least hypothesis, useful as it may be to orderly research, is as unfunctional in speculative fiction as a chaperone on a honeymoon.

In matters incompletely explored such as reincarnation and time travel the science fiction writer need not be and should not be bound either by contemporary opinion or least hypothesis; his function is to speculate from such facts as there are and to do so as grandly and sweepingly as his imagination permits. He cannot carry out his function while paying lip service to the orthodox opinions or prejudices of his tribe and generation, and no one should expect it of him.

It is difficult enough for him to bear in mind a multitude of facts and not wander inadvertently across into fantasy. I have made perhaps too much of this point because it is a sore one with all science fiction writers; we are regularly charged with "violating fact" when all we have done is to disregard currently respected theory. Every new speculation necessarily starts by kicking aside some older theory.

To categorizing there is no end, and the field of prose fiction may be classified in many different ways: by length, plot, subject, period, locale, language, narrative technique; or by intent—satire, romance, burlesque, comedy, tragedy, propaganda. All these classes blend together and what categories a critic chooses to define depend upon his purpose. We have divided fiction into possible and impossible; now let us divide again by temporal scene:.

Class 3 contains only science fiction; a small amount of science fiction may also be found in class 1 and class 2. In the second division, good fantasy, consciously written and skillfully executed, may be found in all three classes.

But a great quantity of fake "science" fiction, actually pseudo-scientific fantasy, will be found there also, especially in class III, which is choked with it. A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.

To make this definition cover all science fiction instead of "almost all" it is necessary only to strike out the word "future. As always, categories tend to overlap, or stories turn out to overlap the categories. We will not offer them Procrustean hospitality—a story is what it is, regardless of a critic's classifications. Frank G. Slaughter's Sangaree is a fine historical novel which is also a science fiction novel; Lion Feuchtwanger's Success is an historical novel laid in the present and told as if the narrator were in the future; Maxwell Griffith's The Gadget Maker , Philip Wylie's Tomorrow , and Pat Frank's Forbidden Area are examples of science fiction laid in a future no later than tomorrow morning.

Some stories are such exotic creatures as to defy almost any method of literary taxonomy. A skillful writer could combine in one story an element of fantasy, some of science fiction, a contemporary story, an historical and a bit of the future, some comedy, some tragedy, some burlesque, and a little straight hortatory propaganda—in fact I have seen one which includes all of these elements: Vincent McHugh's Caleb Catlum's America. But realistic speculation—science fiction—is usually laid in the future, because it extrapolates from "what is" to "what might be.

We have the dead past, the dying moment and the ever-emerging, always-living future. Our lives always lie in the future; a casual decision to scratch oneself must be carried out at least an instant in the future. The future is all that we can change—and thank Heaven we can! If the future were not real, no insurance company could stay in business.

All our lives we are more deeply concerned with what we are going to do than with what we are now doing or have done. The poet who said that every child is the hope of the world understood that. This process is time-binding, the most human of all activities, observing the past in order to make plans for the future.


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  4. This is the scientific method itself and is the activity which most greatly distinguishes man from other animals. To be able to grasp and embrace the future is to be human. For this reason I must assert that speculative fiction is much more realistic than is most historical and contemporary-scene fiction and is superior to them both. On the other hand, science fiction is often prophetic.

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    There was once a race track tout who touted every horse in each race, each horse to a different sucker. Inevitably he had a winner in every race—he had extrapolated every possibility. Science fiction writers have "prophesied" if you will excuse a deliberate misuse of the word so many things and so many possible futures that some of them must have come true, with sometimes rather startling accuracy.