What is Science Fiction?

A piece of drollery from a decade ago, recently updated with clearer cover pictures. Reposted for the benefit of any readers who overlooked it back then. Enjoy!

WHAT IS SCIENCE FICTION? The final, complete and exhaustive definition!

Now that I am a world-famous international science fiction author (my sister lives in Australia, and I forced her to buy one of my books, so that is two nations, at least, where my books have sold) a fan letter has come pouring in. Just the other day, I went to the mailbox and got it.

Like all fan letters, this one raises a fascinating question that reaches to the very heart of the science fiction genre, and asks the expert opinion of John C. Wright, world-famous international science fiction author, about the nature and meaning of Science Fiction.

Let us peruse the contents of this thoughtful, nay, this adoring letter. The hero-worship heaped on me, John C. Wright, world-famous international science fiction author, while deserved, may strike some as being overly fulsome, but it is only to be expected from you, the little people, since I bring a such joy into your meaningless and unimportant yet pathetic lives with my immense talents and towering genius.

I think the fan letter is this first letter here in my mail bag:

Dear Sir, having been in arrears for your offtrack betting debts to Harry’s Happy House of Horse Play, the Family has determined to bypass normal legal action and garnishments, and send a gentleman from our collection department, “Gonad-Crusher” Guido Ugnolini to pay a call on you. Mr. Ugnolini has experience in both American and Sicilian correction facilities, multiple murder raps, and a tattoo. We are confident that you will be forthcoming after receiving his attentions.

Well, let us move on to the second letter, this one with an official looking seal on it and everything. Maybe this was the fan letter that poured in.

Dear world-famous international science fiction author,

See? Is that not a nice opening to a letter?

You are in arrears of your dues to the Science Fiction Writers of America. It has come to our attention that the moneys loaned you out of the emergency medical fund did not go to medical expenses, but for offtrack gambling, and that you bet everything on a horse named CRAZY LEGS, who came in ninth. With administrative penalties and interest, the Secret Masters have determined to bypass normal legal action, and send a gentleman from our collection department, “Gonad-Crusher” Guido Ugnolini to pay a call on you. Mr. Ugnolini is the co-author of the scholarly monograph, 501 SOFT-TISSUE DAMAGE VARIATIONS USING ORDINARY KITCHEN IMPLEMENTS. He also has a tattoo. The intricate details of his research will be explained to you in an unambiguous way.

Frell! You’d think I’d pay my creditors on time. It’s not my fault I got a bad tip. It is all the fault of that lousy Sky Masterson! Well, how about this letter from my Mom:

Dear Beloved Son and world-famous international science fiction author,

I remember the day I brought you into this world…

Wow. Such a nice opening. Brings a tear to my eye.

… and I will long remember the day I took you out of it. Did you think you could hide from me? I really need to be paid back the money you borrowed to play the horses. You told me how your friends were so sure that CRAZY LEGS would pay off big time; but he didn’t, did he? You were so convinced that, since it was the ninth of September, and he was number nine, the money was a sure thing. Why are you betting on a mudder running a dry track? I know this man named Guido who has written a book about ordinary kitchen implements. You should see the chapter on fingers in the blender. He has a tattoo.


Okay. Let me get back to my Mom’s letter later. No need to discuss personal details on the internet.

Aha. Here it is. The real fan letter at last!

Dear obscure and struggling mid-list science fiction author,

Hmm. This is not quite as adoring as I thought it would be.

What it is like knowing that John Scalzi routinely writes more books, for bigger advances, covering much the same material, with the difference that his books sell better than yours? And he is funnier than you. You are just worm-eaten with jealousy, aren’t you? YOU SUX. Don’t quit your day job.

Signed, Your Sister, Nanny

You know, somehow I am not feeling the love.

Well, instead of taking the trouble to find a real fan letter, I will just make one up:

Dear John C. Wright, world-famous international science fiction author,

As a completely imaginary fan, I would be interested, nay, awestruck, if you (John C. Wright, world-famous international science fiction author) would offer your well-considered opinion on the perennial question of what constitutes Science Fiction? What is SF, really? Where do we draw the boundary lines between science fiction and the related genres of fantasy, horror, and the mainstream speculative tale? Do you consider Michael Crichton or Kurt Vonnegut to be ‘science fiction’ authors, or does their work transcend genre labels? What is Science Fiction really all about?

If I were real, I would write a letter just like this, because you bring such joy into my meaningless and unimportant yet pathetic life with your immense talents and towering genius.

Signed, with ridiculously unrealistic idolatrous admiration,

An Imaginary Fan

P.S., I simply loved your book OLD MAN’S WAR. You deserve your really, really high Amazon.com ranking. You are the next Heinlein!

Thank you, Imaginary Fan. Well, what is Science Fiction really all about? What is the definition? Before diving into the question, let us look at what some other writers and men of letters have thought on the topic:

Brian W. Aldiss

Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.

Alvin Toffler

By challenging anthropocentricism and temporal provincialism, science fiction throws open the whole of civilization and its premises to constructive criticism.

Sam Moskowitz

Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.

Darko Suvin

It [science fiction] should be defined as a fictional tale determined by the hegemonic literary device of a locus and/or dramatis personae that (1) are radically or at least significantly different from empirical times, places, and characters of “mimetic” or “naturalist” fiction, but (2) are nonetheless–to the extent that SF differs from other “fantastic” genres, that is, ensembles of fictional tales without empirical validation–simultaneously perceived as not impossible within the cognitive (cosmological and anthropological) norms of the author’s epoch. SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

In constructing my own excruciatingly thorough and insightful definition of Science Fiction, I was forced to ponder these definitions and explore their ramifications at length. How, for example, does the ‘cognitive estrangement’ of Mr. Suvin fit in with Mr. Aldiss’ observation that the tales occur in a Gothic or Post-Gothic mode? How does the non-anthropocentric civilizational criticism of Mr. Toffler dialog with the suspension of disbelief of Mr. Moskowitz to form a resultant meta-narrative?

In order to answer these questions, we need to make an in-depth study of the origins of Science Fiction, starting with the seminal writers, such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Olaf Stapledon, who brought both immense literary skill, revolutionary thought and sound scientific speculation to bear on their auctorial inventions. With such a survey in mind, we can begin to construct a list of what elements are necessary to create the needed cognitive estrangement of post-Gothic mode in order to suspend disbelief, eschew temporal provincialism, and open civilization and its premises up to constructive criticism.

Of course, such a study would be time consuming, and this is the Internet. Instead, Let us take a shallow look at old pulp magazine covers, and from this deduce everything we really need to know about speculative fiction literary genre:

Aha! The first and most obvious of the elements of science fiction is evident from this cover of SPICY PLANET INCREDIBLE WEIRD WONDER ALL-STORY. Science Fiction is primarily about speculation! In this case, the reader is invited to speculate:

  • What if I were soaring along in space with a rocket belt and a space helmet?
  • What if I were blasting aliens with my space ray gun?
  • What if a really glamorous brunette Space-Babe with plenty of va-Voom were soaring along in space in my arms?

This last element is the most speculative, because we science fiction geeks do not know, and have rarely seen, any real-life glamorous brunettes.

To recap: Science Fiction is that genre of cognitive estrangement in a post-Gothic mode, utilizing a willing suspension of disbelief, transcending anthropocentricism and temporal provincialism, where a spaceman, raygun in fist, soars through outer space with a glamorous brunette Space-Babe in his brawny arms.

First and foremost we must ask, if this is to be a definitive definition of science fiction, which of these elements are essential to the definition?

Must there be a raygun involved? The answer is no. Here we can see another approach to science fiction:

The subgenre known as ‘Planetary Romance’ or ‘Space Opera’ allows for an important variation. Namely, soaring through space with a sword or knife in fist rather than a raygun!

There are countless variations and sub-themes within the flexible definition of the speculative genre. As an example, our definition need not necessarily be limited to soaring through space with a glamorous brunette. It is still legitimately defined as the SF genre if it includes soaring through space with a glamorous blonde.

As another example, it is still considered Science Fiction if the glamorous brunette is soaring all by herself, provided, of course, that she is showing off her showgirl legs.

Or, provided she has a revealing décolletage, and her head is thrown back, lips parted, as if she is lost in some passionate space-ecstasy. Fanboys love them that space-ecstasy.

The soaring is the important part. It does not matter how. The dame can either be soaring herself or being carried. Soaring through the atmo—rather than through space itself—also counts as part of the cognitive anthropocentric suspension of Science Fiction.

But the soaring is what makes the story Science Fiction, when it all comes down to it. And that the cosmonaut high-altitude pressure suits for women are skimpy. Outer Space is filled with bathing beauties. Mostly brunettes.

They need space-helmets, but the space-skirts of the space-beauties have to be short enough to show off her legs, which can, of course, be exposed to hard vacuum without harm, uh, provided of course, that we suspend enough disbelief in a cognitively strange enough way.

Space also has a large number of glamorous bathing beauties who soar through space in a jeweled head-dress, so you cannot tell her hair color.

The dame in the jeweled head-dress (for the purposes of this essay, to be referred to as “a Space Princess”) is also a central element of the speculative fiction genre. I mean, as long as sciffy fanboys who cannot get a date are speculating about va-Voom girlies, we might as well daydream, I mean speculate, about attractive members of the royal family of Mars or whatever.

This raises two questions. First, how important is the jeweled head-dress to the definition of Science Fiction? The answer: must be pretty important, because while most space-babes cannot afford enough material to cover their midriff, a lot of them have enough space-jewels to be able to afford a shiny hat.

Note bare midriff:

Note shiny hat:

Usually, the hat carries space-jewels with some funky name like faidon or silmaril.

The second question is, how important is the actual soaring to the definition of Science Fiction? For example, in a tale of cognitive estrangement told in the post-Gothic mode that is critical of the premises of civilization, if the spaceman is standing rather than soaring, let us say with a wrecked spaceship in the ground, with a raygun in one hand and a really, really good looking blonde space-babe in the other, is it still legitimately Science Fiction? Let us look:

That sure looks like Science Fiction to me, especially since the Space-Babe in this case is yowsa mega-Hawt. In technical terminology of higher literary criticism, we call such literary figures “Da Bomb.”

It is also considered science fiction if the blonde is dressed like a shapely nurse or something. While shapely nurses are entirely mundane, some other cognitively strange element must emerge in the tale. It helps the suspension of disbelief if a blue-faced alien is trying to grab her with a tentacle:

Now, concerned readers at this point are probably wondering about three more trenchant and penetrating questions.

Trenchant Question One: what if the really hawt blonde with plenty of va-Voom is not soaring through space, but is just blowing a horn or whatever? Is this still considered Speculative Fiction? The answer is twofold: (1) it is indeed considered science fiction if she is really va-Voom; and (2) if she is standing on an alien planet or dressed like a space-princess or something.

You might be asking, as a follow-up to Trenchant Question One, what if a hawt blonde is just standing there, not blowing a horn, and she is not on Mars on anything? Is this still Science Fiction?

The answer is, I dunno. Maybe this is from the genre of Magical Realism, or one of those stories too embarrassed to admit it is Science Fiction, like ANDROMEDA STRAIN. I guess if the menacing-looking figure stalking her is a time-traveling reincarnated Aztec with a spear, it counts. But the dame is a looker, so maybe I’d buy the magazine anyway, especially if I needed something to read on the train.

Gee. This doesn’t look much like SF at all. Maybe that glowy-eye freak behind her is an esper or a time-traveler or a Man from Mars or something. But the brunette is still curvy and glamorous in a va-Voom sort of young-Liz-Tailor kinda way, so I guess that counts.

You see, Science Fiction estranged temporal cognition, or whatsits, emphasizes how imaginative we sci-fi guys are. We Slans read stuff you mundane muggles could never, ever imagine! It is new and strange and out-of-this-world! You might be wondering, if SF is so different from the ordinary, why do all our Space-Babes look just like glamour models from 1959?

If they are from the future, or from Mars, why are their hairstyles the exact same 1959 styles as appear on Earth babes appearing on the covers of SPECIAL DETECTIVE TALES magazine or COMPLETE LOVE?


That question is too hard to answer, so I will change the subject.

Trenchant Question Two: what about redheads? Our entire survey of the Science Fiction genre has not mentioned redheads!

Rest easy, loyals fans! The most famous science fictional Dames of all time, including Red Sonja, Jirel of Jorey, and Clarrissa McDougal the Red Lensmen have been carrot tops. But, in order to be real Science Fiction, the gals have to have flashing eyes, stunning figures, heaving bosoms and have fiery tempers. For some reason, unlike real readheads, they never have freckles. They have names like the Warrior Maid of Mars or the Black Amazon of Mars.

It helps if they are carrying an ax: that makes the suspension of post-Gothic disbelief more cognitive or whatever.

A difficult sub-question as this point is whether the ‘Ax’ as a cognitive post-speculative Goth whatchamachallit is essential to our definition of Science Fiction, or only tangential? The answer is not open to an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’, so I will say ‘maybe’. If it is not an ax, it has to possess the same gothic cognitive qualities as an ax, by which I mean, it has got to be a sword.

Or, for that slightly more kinky ‘Catwoman’ look, it can be a whip.

Or even a stick. If the Space-Babe is fighting with an ordinary stick, however, you better she sure she is beating off giant insects or something weird, or else it is not Science Fiction.

And, of course, the curvy blonde can be holding the raygun. That counts as Science Fiction. It counts double if there are grotesque frog-creatures from the Moon-Pool in the background, and it counts triple if she is decked out in space-jewelry, and is the reincarnation or immortal version of some high priestess from primordial Atlantis. It counts quadruple if she stars in a story by A. Merritt.

It also counts if the brawny guy rather than the glamour babe is holding the sword, but then only if the space-dame is riding, or is falling off, some funky-looking lizardy space-beast.

If she herself is riding the space-beast, and the brawny doofus with the space-sword is standing nearby, it still counts as Science Fiction.

If the space-beast looks like a bird rather than a lizard, it still counts.

But if she is riding a horse, that means the genre is a Western, and not Science Fiction. Horses are right out.

Even if she is shooting and riding, if it is a horse, it is not SF! You can also tell the genre of the story by the huge word WESTERN written on the top of the magazine.

By Klono’s brazen claws, learn to look at the magazines! It would not be so hard for me to define science fiction if readers just looked at what was written on the covers!

Not to lose the thread of the argument, let us consider Trenchant Question Three: if these girls are so glamorous and so good looking, and have perfect complexions, perfect hourglass figures, shapely legs, sultry red lips and not much by way of clothing, why in the world would they even look at an overweight basement-dwelling troglodyte with mushroom-colored skin like me, the fan-dude reader?

The answer, of course, is the core speculation of Science Fiction! We can speculate that those half-clad heavily-bejeweled Space Princesses would look favorably upon us, and we could date with them, if we RESCUED THEM FROM THOSE ROTTEN BUG-EYED SPACE ALIENS!

Heck, she’d go out on a date with Steve Urkel or Al Gore if she just had her life and oh-so-sweet maidenhood saved from the menacing Bird-Man Monstrosity from the Star of Dread, right?

Or even saving her from a space-bat! It could be radioactive or something.

You can save her from a mad scientist!

It has to be a mad scientist, not a Nazi scientist. This is a significant point. He cannot be planning to perform an old-fashioned ordinary evil experiment on her; it has to be a futuristic evil Science Fiction experiment, like replacing her brain into the body of a space-ape or something cool like that.

Or you could save her from a thug with a gun. If it is a space-thug with a space-gun, and she is wearing a shiny hat, it still counts as Science Fiction, by the way.

Note bare midriff. Bare midriffery is an important element of the suspension of disbelief. When I am thinking about space girls, I always want to suspend my disbelief by contemplating a well-shaped bare midriff.

But the central idea of the genre of Science Fiction is not saving the Space Princess from space-gun-toting space-thugs or radioactive space-bats, but getting her out of the clutches of Space Aliens!

Darn those Space Aliens! How I hate them! They are always after our women!


Our women always have to run from them!

Can’t those uppity Space Aliens behave?


Must they force us to rayblast them into atoms?

I hate those Space Aliens!

What the heck is going on in this picture??!! HEY! Those godless Space Aliens are trying to capture a glamorous va-Voom-ish brunette in a net like a wild yet sexy animal!

Slap that space-masher in his green, gilled face, lovely space brunette!

They are always kidnapping our women! They are clearly the hated “Other” which our brawny whitebread Teutonic Protestant brawny-boys must laser out of existence in order to preserve our Way of Life! It is mankind against all the vermin of the galaxy!

At this point, you might be thinking, “Now hold your horses, John C. Wright, world-famous science fiction author of immense talent! Don’t you owe me money for betting on CRAZY LEGS in the ninth?” In which case, yikes.

Or you might be thinking, “Now hold your weird bird-headed space beast! Not EVERY science fiction author has a gorgeous half-clad glamour babe being menaced by godless space aliens! What about real science fiction authors, men of letters, men of stature? What about the famous H.G. Wells? What about his seminal WAR OF THE WORLDS? Did he ever put a luscious half-naked blonde glamour babe in his stories?”


I rest my case.

Are there any questions from the audience?

QUESTION ONE: Dear John Wright, you chauvinist pig. How come you only talk about stories where brawny spacemen are rescuing Space Princesses from space aliens? Don’t girls read Science Fiction?

ANSWER: What girls read is only tangentially related to science fiction, because it has mushy emotions and junk, like some sort of story about a spaceship-cyborg with a girl’s brain who falls in love with her pilot. Or horses telepathically linked to their Amazon riders. SF for girls has girly stuff in it, like feelings. Except for Goth girls, who write about vampires. But if you know any girls who read science fiction, cool! Find out if they play D&D.

QUESTION TWO: Aren’t there plenty of female authors, well respected in the field, who write science fiction way better than anything you’ll ever hope to write, like Connie Willis?

ANSWER: Sorry. I didn’t hear the question. I was distracted by the space-babe on the cover of January 1959 issue of THRILLING SPACE WONDER STORIES. She is being menaced by a tentacled monster. How I wish I had a raygun! I’d blast that creep to atoms! Anyway, I only read stuff written by guys, like C.L. Moore, Andre Norton, and Leigh Brackett, Tanith Lee, and James Tiptree, Jr. I wish I had met C.L. Moore! I love his Northwest Smith stories. He really captures the brooding manliness of the real brawny spaceman hero! None of that girly stuff for an author like him!

QUESTION THREE: You are a moron. James Tiptree is Alice Sheldon. Tanith Lee is woman. Those are all women authors!

ANSWER: Duh on you! Andre is a boy’s name. It just sounds girly because it is French. I am pretty sure Tanith is a boy’s name, too. Wasn’t the planet of those big-head mind-readers that Captain Pike visited called Tanith Four? It is the only planet forbidden by the death penalty for anyone to visit, according to Star Fleet regulations. How cool is that? The veins in their big heads pulse when they cast their Phantasmal Force spell, but they don’t understand primitive emotions, like hate.

QUESTION FOUR: You don’t actually know any women, do you?

ANSWER: That’s not fair! There was this girl at the last sci-fi Con I was at, who was selling swords in the Dealers room. She was wearing a tight corset. I think it was black leathery sort of, you know, shiny stuff. Her hair was kind of reddish-blonde. I think she plays D&D. I bet she would play a paladin or a cleric.

QUESTION FIVE: But you didn’t actually talk to her, did you?

ANSWER: Did so!


ANSWER: Did so!

QUESTION SIX: What did you say?

ANSWER: I asked her how late the Dealer’s Room was open. That counts as talking. And she smiled at me. If I had had a raygun, I could have saved her. If she had been menaced by an alien, of course. But that did not happen.

QUESTION SEVEN: Or you could have picked up one of the swords she was selling, and hewed your way to safety through the ranks of villainous Klingons!

ANSWER: Sweet! That would have been cool. Do you know a Klingon sword is called a Bat’less? The sword of Kahless was one. But I think the battle-stave of the Ranger from Bab five is a cooler weapon. Not so clumsy or random as a blaster.

QUESTION EIGHT: You are so pathetic.

ANSWER: Can we get a real question from someone else?

QUESTION NINE: Dear John Scalzi, I loved your book OLD MAN’S WAR. Keep up the good work. My question is, in your expert opinion, did the ‘New Wave’ spearheaded by Michael Moorcock, expand the definition of the genre?

ANSWER: It did indeed! After Moorcock, Science Fiction found itself able to address, without flinching, more socially relevant, and even revolutionary, speculative questions.

One relevant, revolutionary speculative question posed by New Age fiction, of course, is Can Captain Future save the luscious Space Babe from being shot into space by the Evil Magician of Mars, Ull Quorn?!

Shoot your raygun, Kurt Newton, shoot! Quick, loyal robot Grag! Use your cutting-torch finger-rockets to cut free the beautiful Space Babe with the 1959 hairdo!

To be science fiction, the girl can be bound to the rocket or trapped in the rocket. But she still has to be cute. For some reason, no ugly girls live in outer space.

Another speculative question is: what are those funky rays shooting out of the fingers of Ull Quorn, the Magician of Mars and zapping that robot-thingie?

If it is real magic, then the story is fantasy, but if the sinister Ull Quorn is merely using a cunning electrical current generator hidden in his sleeve, and preying on the superstitions of the honest but barbaric native Martian tribesman, then it is Science Fiction. Genres like Westerns or Whodunnits do not have funky rays shooting out of Martian fingertips.

Westerns only have robot-thingies if we are talking about PHANTOM EMPIRE starring Gene Autry, where our singing cowboy and the gang of Radio Ranch run into all sorts of freaky things, like an underground kingdom, a disintegrator ray, a machine that resurrects the dead, and a robot in a shiny hat.

I’d still call that a Western, though. Gene Autry rides a horse. Horse = Western.

A final speculative question is, what is going on with this toothsome blonde and that big dumb dome-thing over her head? It must be alien science.

Well, she is being menaced by aliens. That makes it SF for sure. If I saved her from those aliens, and whatever that dome-thing is doing, would she go out on a date with me, dressed like that, so my friends would see? I can only speculate. That is why we call it speculative fiction.


There you have it! These are the core literary elements of Science Fiction! If the shapely brunette is tied to a rocket, or if a shapely red-head is trapped in the rocket, or a shapely blonde being menaced by green space dudes with big alien science dome-thing over her head, it is science fiction for sure! (Unless it is horror, fantasy, techno-thriller, superspy story, men’s adventure, lost race tale, weird menace, magical realism, or a yet some other related genre, in which case, it is hard to say. Just stick to the section of the bookstore labeled “Science Fiction” and your chances are better than even you’ll find the SF. Also, check out the juvenile section. The good stuff, like WRINKLE IN TIME, is stowed there. Avoid the offtrack betting section, though.)

I am happy to report, however, that all these exploitive, girl-oogling silly element are a thing of the past. After all, serious science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein never threw girl-oogling scenes into his famous and serious literary works! Instead he wrote about serious speculative fictional concepts, like nipples.

These days, a modern Science Fiction book would never, I say again, never ever have some glamorous blonde soaring in space, her head thrown back, lips parted, as if lost in some passionate space-ecstasy. That would be ridiculous. We are so far beyond that now!

Oh… Wait…