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An epistemological model of (speculative) fiction


All too often people point at the trappings of a fiction and claim that they identify it. Book A contains spaceships and robots, therefore it must be science fiction. Book B has dragons and castles, so it must be fantasy. But as a means of defining a fiction, it’s imprecise, often inaccurate and very much open to abuse. For every book which can be definitively identified by its tropes, there are countless others that can’t, or that require the trope itself to be re-defined. Tropes do not identify a genre: if you paint a car yellow, it does not make it a banana.

To date, the one definition of science fiction that has generated the least argument is Damon Knight’s 1952 comment, science fiction “means what we point to when we say it”. It makes the definition purely personal and subjective. Which makes it completely bloody useless as a tool. And I think it’s important to know what science fiction is you’re going to write it or write about it. Having said that, most of the definitions of sf in Wikipedia – see here – are by sf writers. And most of those definitions are completely ineffective.

A useful definition has to describe something intrinsic to the text, not something extra-textual. We don’t, for example, assume every book with a robot on the cover is science fiction – though many sf novels have robots on the cover, and many books with robots on the cover are sf. And to assume that every book which features a robot in the story is science fiction is identification by trope, which is also wrong. A bildungsroman novel set in a car factory, for example, would feature robots.

I’ve been thinking about agency in fiction and how it can be used to differentiate between fantasy and science fiction. In fantasy, objects which do not have agency in the real world are given it by authorial fiat. In science fiction, the agency is applied systemically by the natural world – the laws of physics, cosmology, biology, etc. Just like it is in mimetic fiction. Things happen in mimetic fiction as the real world dictates they happen – planes fly because their wings generate lift, boats float because they displace water equal to their weight, apples fall from trees because of the law of gravity, and so on. The same holds true in science fiction, though some of the elements of the natural world may be invented, such as that allowing FTL travel.

Also important in science fiction is wonder, which is the bit that fills your imagination up to the brim and then spills over. It is the chief reason people read science fiction in the first place. But wonder also applies to fantasy – dragons are objects of wonder, for example. I have in the past had a go at defining wonder – see here – and even managed to turn it into a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) equation.

Then it occurred to me that if I used both agency and wonder, it gave me a handy way to categorise fiction:


Works can, of course, straddle borders, which can lead to interesting effects. But as means of distinguishing between various genres, the above chart doesn’t rely on tropes – in fact, it completely ignores them. A story can, for example, feature dragons, defined as cryptozoologic reptiles, and be science fiction. A fantasy novel can feature spaceships which fly between worlds because some person in a cloak waves their hands and mutters gibberish.

Now, of course, someone is sure to think of examples where my definition doesn’t fit…


14 thoughts on “An epistemological model of (speculative) fiction

  1. Hmm.

    This sort of division does lead to some interesting re-classifications.

    For example, Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid novels feel mostly to me like fantasy, although you can argue that they are science fiction. Your schemata places them firmly as science fiction, since dragons and other beasties are firmly cryptozoologic in nature (although some do seem to have ‘magical’ powers)

    This definition does have the effect of putting a fair amount of what we call “science fantasy” firmly into the fantasy camp.

  2. As you probably know by now, Ian, I’ve never really seen the point of categorisation in the first place, at least from the author’s point of view. Yes, you should be aware of the common marketing categories and that knowledge can be referred to when deciding whether it’s important to you that your book be more or less easily marketable, but… beyond that, what use is it? Why does it matter?

    So, I was prepared to give your theory short shrift, but actually…I rather like it. In a general sense it provides a decent model for general categorisation. I guess, I’d quibble a little that magic realism and mimetic fiction are “low” on the wonder scale, because I think both of them are perfectly capable of dealing great wonder. I guess it really depends on what provides that sense of awe for you personally – is it, for example, the unimaginable scale and grandeur of the cosmos, or is it the incredible depths of human love. Both, if described with skill, can invoke genuine awe. On the other hand, dragonzzzzzzzz…snore…

    But I do like eliminating tropes from the discussion all together. If you wanted to you could write a story about a robot and a (komodo) dragon in space, and it would be mimetic. (It might also be very strange).

    • For me, wonder comes from manipulation of scale, which is why I don’t see it really applying to “the incredible depths of human love”.

      I also think you need to know how something works if you intend to do interesting things with it. So, as a writer, understanding how a novel works allows you defeat reader expectations by doing something that novels don’t do. And I think the same holds true in terms of genre. Admittedly, both apply to only a small subset of fiction, genre or otherwise – literary, rather than commercial – and may be too subtle to be especially noticeable… But I do think that “breaking” genre can produce interesting effects.

      • >For me, wonder comes from manipulation of scale, which is why I don’t see it really applying to “the incredible depths of human love”.

        Then I think that’s a really narrow definition of wonder.

        >But I do think that “breaking” genre can produce interesting effects.

        For my money, similar results can be produced organically by writing what comes to you without working out the effect you want to produce in the first place.

  3. Taxonomy of genre is not always useful but can be. I tend to find more interest in aspects of genre rather than whole genre.
    So, for example, I’m less concerned with what makes Urban Fantasy specifically ‘Urban’ than in what makes it ‘Fantasy’. How does the urban environment impact on the fantasy? If a story is just an action adventure directly transplanted to space does that make it SF?
    So whether something is SF or Fantasy matters far less than how the SF/F elements impact on the story.

  4. Reblogged this on reidminnich and commented:
    Your chart was intriguing to me which leads me to guess most people stopped reading right there. I am amazed at how many people liked my first book until they hit a part that talked about science. The wonder of science is what draws me into a story. I left a brief mention of the quantum entanglement in my book and replaced that section with a space battle.

  5. As is well known in systems engineering, any such diagram means more to the drawer than to anyone else. But in this case, it is also so clear and to the point that people will get the idea fairly quickly. I certainly like it as one view of what is a very complex matter.

    But if you want people to experiment with it, ask them what colours they would shade the individual boxes in. [You might find some interesting results, me thinks.]

    Of course you could try to add horror along a third axis… um… time to tiptoe away…

  6. Pingback: An epistemological model of (speculative) fiction (via @iansales) | Literarium – The Blog

  7. Pingback: The Limits of Wonder and Defining Speculative Fiction | The King of Elfland's Second Cousin

  8. I suppose my addendum to your theory is that I divide science fiction and science fantasy. This is a sort of wobbly line, I admit, but it has something to do with the use of the ‘science’ elements. Just because a story has robots or set in 2534 doesn’t make it science fiction–unless it engages in a meaningful way with those futuristic elements to make some relevant statement about reality.
    Blah blah, you can tell I got an English degree. What I mean is, by my definition, Pacific Rim or the Jetsons is NOT science fiction as I define it. It has robots and computers and such, but the science is just window dressing, there to be looked at, ogled, objectified, whereas a movie like Blade Runner, Gattaca, or Elysium, with less ‘sciency’ trappings, are a different breed, because they use those science elements in ways that are not just plot, but also leading to theme and meaning.

    • But that misses the point of my model. There is no distinction between “science fiction” and “science fantasy” because the latter is science fiction. The “window dressing” uses sf tropes, which means the agency of those objects is provided by laws which govern our reality. Science fiction doesn’t have to have science in it – real or otherwise. It doesn’t have to be about science. Disregarding tropes which you believe to be unscientific relies on your knowledge of science, which is something external to the test. And, how can you be sure that every trope you dismiss as “science fantasy” is not actually based on some cutting-edge science of which you’re not aware?

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