Science-Fiction as Genre of Possibilities. Social Criticism in a Limitless Range of Opportunities?

Seminar Paper, 2018

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Defining Science-Fiction
a. Science/ Technical Definitions
b. Future Definitions
c. Space and Supernatural Definitions
d. Utopia
e. Alternative History
f. Finding an Overall Definition

3. Social Criticism in SF
a. Kindred as Example for Social Criticism. Elements of SF
b. Does Kindred Fit into the Definition?
c. New Parameters

4. Social Criticism Expanding SF as Genre of Possibilities
a. Discussion of New Parameters
b. Set New Definition
c. Chance for Criticism

5. Conclusion: SF as Genre of Possibilities - Social Criticism in a Limitless Range of Opportunities?



1. Introduction

“What is science fiction? That seems to be an easy question to answer. [It] is a literary mode that deals with spaceships. Or aliens. It’s about the future. Or, it’s about technology. There might be some science in it” (Baker 7). Baker herewith opens the topic for the seminar paper, as “new science fiction titles are published by the hundred each year and they are bought and read by the million. It is so diversified a mode, has such a range of form and content, that, ultimately, it eludes definition” (Cuddon, Preston 791). He continues and summarizes this state of affairs with: “We all know what [Science Fiction] is; but it is not easy to tell what it is” (Cuddon, Preston 791). To keep it in Baker’s words: it is highly important to analyse, what »might« be in it, and what might not, because “the formation of a genre is dependent as much on exclusion as it is on inclusions” (Baker 159). This shall be worked out in the paper entitled “Science-Fiction as Genre of Possibilities - Social Criticism in a Limitless Range of Opportunities?”, assuming that it »might be« limitless in its range. With regard to the seminar and to name one special example for social criticism in science fiction, I would like to investigate if Octavia Butler’s Kindred is fitting into the overall definition to be found and, if not, why and how she is exaggerating the genre and its limits.

Definitions what science fiction (SF) includes are to be found in hundreds of references, some even more tolerant than others. Moreover, “constructing generic definitions is a scholarly necessity […]. The fact that so many books on SF begin with a more or less extended discussion of the problem of definition testifies to its importance” (Rieder 74). Nevertheless, it is sometimes hard to sort selected works into a specific genre, although there are hundreds of definitions available. This is supported by Cuddon and Preston: “The Lord of the Rings was read avidly by SF buffs, but whether or not it is science fiction, however that flexible term is interpreted, is debatable” (798). This problem becomes even worse while recognizing that “professional practitioners of the modern horror story (e.g. Stephen King) have recently tended to introduce science fiction elements in their work” (Cuddon, Preston 800). To sum it up: a genre is on an ascending branch and cannot be defined easily. This makes it obvous, why the paper needs to be written: to get an overview and to generate, if possible, an overall definition of SF. Kindred, on the other hand, functions as model to study the limits of the genre.

There are different approaches available to analyze this content. For example, one could work with a historical analysis of a genre, presented in Cuddon/ Preston. On the other hand, no investigation on history could prevent the paper from losing itself in trivialities of change1. For this reason, I will choose a mixed approach, analyzing standard works, dictionaries, companions, and specialist books on different branches of the genre, to be able to summarize all parameters needed to form a profound definition. On the one hand, the paper will therefore work quantitatively in sense of finding as much evidence as possible for each and every parameter. On the other hand, I am going to work qualitatively in sense of investigating one special example (Kindred) regarding the overall contemplation.

Although the paper could never reach representativeness, the selection of possible classifications and definitions is highly important, as they shape the paper’s outcome and final conclusion. For this reason, writers from both sides of the ocean shall be taken into consideration, as they influenced the genre in a wide extent (cf. Cuddon, Preston 797-9), for example in creating the progression of the »New Wave2 « (which will be of importance, later on) and, therefore, might be important for the paper, too. Assuming that, the paper is going to deal with the genre itself, not authors in particular. A distinct theory is not needed, as the structure is set up to be a theoretical one, analyzing the content of a genre and hence works on theoretical constructs itself. Nevertheless, postmodernism will be of a great importance, which will be both introduced and explained in the following chapters.

The paper will be organized in an introduction, presenting the topic, research question, and thesis. Next to that is chapter two, containing definitions, in which parameters from research are being listed to be able to set a definition. Chapter three changes to social criticism in SF and explores, why Kindred is social criticism in the first place, and investigates, if it fits into the definition found in chapter two. Part four will finally merge the two lines of action and set a new and overall definition. It will finally answer the research question, if and how Octavia Butler’s Kindred is exaggerating the definition and verifies or falsifies the thesis.

2. Defining Science-Fiction

In this first attempt, I would like to dismantle definitions found in research, to be able to reconstruct the parameters at the end of the chapter. Attached to all parameter analyzed in subchapters will be an example of literature. However, not all stories can be examined quite easily, why important ones are being chosen as landmarks (cf. Cuddon, Preston 791-800).

To start with a definition, one could say that SF is “rarely openly ‘interfictional’” (Hollinger, Science Fiction 234). This is not quite informative, although it treasures the first parameter fictionality, which will be of importance throughout anything to come.

As to what it is about, this is not easily classifiable. Such stories are about an amazing variety of things, topics, ideas. They include trips to other worlds, quests, the exploration of space, visits to other planet and interplanetary warfare. Some SF stories are concerned with utopia and utopist visions, and also with dystopia. Others are set in the future […]. Many have a contemporary setting […] [dealing with] the arrival or invasion of alien beings. […] They are also concerned with technological change and development, with scientific experiment, with social, climatic, geological and ecological change. Some are concerned with supernatural forces and agencies. They are often fantastic […] [and] stretch the imagination (Cuddon, Preston 791).

This quote by Cuddon and Preston is more descriptive, defining several parameters, which will be processed in the following.

a. Science/ Technical definitions

As the name of the genre already implies, science (or technical aspects) is a crucial point in approaching with its “regions, other[s] have ignored” (Purdom 131). Historically speaking, “[in the late 1920s], ’Science Fiction’ gradually replaced the term ‘scientific romance’” (Cuddon, Preston 792), which means that “the truth of Science may be given” (Cuddon, Preston 791), but maybe not. As an important distinction it leads into the field of imagination. This is supported by Cuddon and Preston, who claim Frankenstein to be a good example for this type of genre stories:

“A key work - perhaps the key work - in the evolution of science fiction was Mary

Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) [as it deals with] the product of scientific research, knowledge and skills. The doctor imparts life to a composite being constructed from bits of corpses” (793).

This way of writing is being called »hard science fiction« (cf. Cramer 186-96) and it enables authors to write in a wide range of possibilities. Not just to mention that a story could be wrong or made up at all, but they could also lead society back to normality (cf. Pudrom 134). This relates to both, technical terms in sense of mechanisms to win wars (for instance), but it also changes the way of writing and reading into an “analytic phantasy” (Cuddon, Preston 794). Some authors were even trained scientists (Cuddon, Preston 795), as a “major part of [scientific science fiction] is to make scientific expertise plausible” (Cuddon, Preston 794). Finally, Davidson describes this parameter as vital and the most important one, as it distinguishes between SF and fantasy, which “has no science in it” (Davidson 142).

b. Future Definitions

“SF is more than just changing names and applying a thin layer of technologies and jargon. […] [Nevertheless], even intelligent people write that way because no one taught them how to look at the future” (Dozois 113). This quote by Dozois explains the second parameter and possible content of SF: “living the future” (Dozois 111). This pseudo rational “Ausgestaltung der Zukunft unter der Bedingung eines hypothetischen oder tatsächlichen »Novums«“ (Weber 1178) creates a vision of the future, dealing with paraphernalia which is currently still unfamiliar to mankind. Moreover, wars could be content, too, as major ones could possibly end the world (cf. Cuddon, Preston 794-6), although this doom-mongering “is of only marginal importance” (Cuddon, Preston 794) for the genre. At the same time, it is “making an important contribution to environmentalist science fiction” (Booker, Thomas 18) because one could ruminate about possible consequences.

Time travel, as part of SF, is always related to future worlds, as well (Baker 8- 9), which is “an extremely rich science fiction motif offering numerous possibilities, not only for inventing plotting, but also for speculation on the fundamental nature of time” (Booker, Thomas 15). Future time travel is one of the most “favorite science fiction subgenre on television and in film”, too (Booker, Thomas 15). E.g. Rip van

Winkle (1819), or in “Looking Backward (1888), whose protagonist goes into a hypnotic trance in 1887 and awakes to a utopian world in the year 2000 (Booker, Thomas 15). This narrative device connects multiple elements of SF such as science, future, and utopia, which enables it to “explore the future course of human evolution” (Booker, Thomas 17). Rockwood exaggerates this thought and even speaks of SF looking at “being human” (Rockwood 17-34), giving a sense of philosophy to the genre. “Meanwhile, the use of the parallel universe motif in so many time-travel narratives […], also indicates a kindship between the time-travel subgenre and the alternate history subgenre, which explores different courses that might have been taken by history had certain events turned out differently” (Booker, Thomas 22-3). Time travel and future SF hence limits itself on the view into a »crystal ball«.

c. Space and Supernatural Definitions

Another aspect SF stories could deal with, is space and supernatural power. This is of course closely related to future definitions of futuristic techniques, humankind is currently unaware of - but not necessarily. The main aspect of space approaches is that “you must teach your eyes to see. One of the premier values of science fiction as literature is that it enables us to look at ourselves through alien eyes” (Dozois 115), because, in one sense, “aliens [could stand] for the dispossessed” (Butler, A., Human Subjects 5). This is not just one of the most famous approaches of SF, but one of the oldest ones, as well: “Space opera is the most common, and least respected, form of science fiction. Its popularity in magazines of the 1920s and 1930s helped establish science fiction as a genre, and it continues to find appreciative readers, even while scorned by learned commentators” (Westfahl 197). Moreover and “although chastised for lacking merit and damaging the reputation of sf, space opera has endured, evolved and grown, so that sophisticated writers and scholars increasingly look to the form with bemused affection, or even genuine admiration” (Westfahl 197). A famous example is Robinson’s 2312 (2012).

With this view, one can already identify common aspects in SF, i.e. a critical view and a possible correction of humankind through different perspectives.

d. Utopia

The very implementation of the idea of correction mentioned above is another parameter of SF stories: uopia3 and dystopia. These are both a “propensity and capacity for alternative worlds represent an expression of dissatisfaction with the world men and women actually live in and on is a debatable issue” (Cuddon, Preston 792) and could mention war, too. Whether this is due to the description of total peace on earth as utopia (cf. Cuddon, Preston 794-6) or due to describing total destruction through weapons of mass destruction (cf. Davis 145-56) or apocalyptic fiction (Booker, Thomas 53-64), which would be called dystopia4. This dark imagination of life has of course a very dark origin on earth: “the ability of the writer to imagine a better place in which to live died in the course of the twentieth century, extinguished by the horrors of total war, of genocide and of totalitarianism” (James 219). Moreover, utopian stories could also handle other aspects than »paradise or hell«, e.g. feminism (cf. Baker chapter 7; or Booker, Thomas 86-97), creating a world of harmony and equality as utopia.

As a very role model for utopian stories, “Thomas More’s Utopia was published in 1516” (Cuddon, Preston 792). George Orwell has published the most famous one: 1984 (cf. Cuddon, Preston 796).

e. Alternative History

Finally, alternative history is to be mentioned as last subchapter of possible SF content. “Alternative History5 is not a history at all, but a work of fiction in which history as we know it is changed for dramatic and often ironic effect. Often an alternate history dramatizes the moment of divergence from the historical record, as well as the consequences of that divergence” (Duncan 209). It is, though, of great importance to look into detail, as “alternative history novel typically looks at a single crucial turning point in history (the point of divergence) and then attempts to explore the different ways history might have proceeded” (Booker, Thomas 23). Oone special event in time is thus being changed and described with all of its results in the aftermath. It is not about describing history, but changing the entire history through one event, e.g. the “assassination of Queen Elizabeth I and the victory of the Spanish Armada” (Booker, Thomas 23). This could be a kind of utopia, too, if one would choose an appropriate topic. We could, for example, all speak Spanish now instead of English (might be utopia for someone), or Hitler would have been killed in 1933 (this might be utopia for the most). Nevertheless, alternative history is not just connected to utopia, but to future, as well: “Time travel is an extremely rich science fiction motif offering numerous possibilities, not only for inventive plotting, but also for speculation on the fundamental nature of time” (Booker, Thomas: 15). So, we could change our present time through views into the future, which, of course, would belong to future definitions.

All in all, “alternative Geschichte [beschäftigt sich] mit der imaginativen Extrapolation der Folgen eines bestimmten fiktiven Ereignisses in der Vergangenheit, [z.B. wie] außerirdische Invasoren den 2. Weltkrieg unterbrechen“ (Weber 117-8). So, it is about the question: “Was wäre geschehen, wenn...” (Weber 120).

f. Finding an Overall Definition

After having analyzed several different contents of SF, the paper is now able to find an overall definition, which includes and involves all aspects mentioned above. First of all, SF is creating something in your mind which is not real or here - mostly: understanding. It is about imagined worlds: “More than in any other fiction, in SF the imaginary setting is a major character in the story - and this fictional surface is held together by the highly foregrounded description of unreal objects, customs, kinships, fashions, that can be identified and decoded by the reader” (Jones 163). This is being reached through hypothetical or actual novelties, often located in the field of science and future, because “in all of these examples, fictional worlds are felt to be plausible because they are coherent and consistent with scientific principles” (Kneale 429).

To put it in one word: the paper defines SF as a genre of imagined worlds which are depicted through technical, scientific, futuristic, or utopistic, and overall hypothetical effects of telling.

After having analyzed and set the definition, the paper is going to handle social criticism in SF, represented by Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and investigates the plausibility of both, definition of the genre, and story, in regards of coherence.


1 For further information cf. Rieder 74-6.

2 For further information cf. Latham 202-16.

3 For further information cf. Davidson 892-4.

2 For further information cf. Voigts-Virchow, Boller.

5 For further information cf. Duncan 209-18.

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Science-Fiction as Genre of Possibilities. Social Criticism in a Limitless Range of Opportunities?
University of Würzburg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
Science Fiction and Social Activism
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B.A. Philipp Freund (Author), 2018, Science-Fiction as Genre of Possibilities. Social Criticism in a Limitless Range of Opportunities?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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