Locus Online
Features Indexes
Monday 21 November 2005

2928 Ways to Define Science Fiction

by Gary Westfahl

How does someone define science fiction? I submit that there are two basic approaches: a descriptive definition seeks to epitomize what the genre has been and is, while a prescriptive definition seeks to epitomize what the genre should be or should become. As for methods, the most common one is the verbal definition, an effort to put one's perception of science fiction into words, though I have elsewhere discussed the alternative of the visual definition, creating a symbol or image to convey the essence of science fiction.

A third method, I argue, is to assemble a definitive anthology of science fiction. That is, when asked to edit a book entitled The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories or The Norton Book of Science Fiction, one is implicitly assigned to collect stories that will descriptively represent the entire genre, a book that will provide a one-volume introduction to, or summary of, the field. Or an iconoclast like Harlan Ellison might edit a volume entitled Dangerous Visions to prescriptively convey his opinion as to what science fiction should be. To reduce the controversies aroused by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery's The Norton Book of Science Fiction to a single sentence, one might simply say that it was an excellent prescriptive anthology titularly masquerading as a descriptive anthology.

In December, 2000, Fred Shapiro, an editor working with Yale University Press to compile a definitive collection of quotations, asked me if I would be interested in editing a book of science fiction quotations, as a side project to his own book. After four years of labor, the completed book, Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits, has now been published. It represents, I believe, the first example of a fourth method of defining science fiction — not with a representative collection of complete works of science fiction, but with a representative collection of brief excerpts from various texts. To be specific, the volume offers 2928 passages of prose, and a little poetry, taken from 1208 works by 530 authors. These quotations, primarily intended to offer entertainment and insights, necessarily present as well a new sort of portrait of science fiction.

My original plan, though I would not have articulated it in these terms, was to define science fiction descriptively with a comprehensive collection representing the entirety of the genre — literature, film, and television; masterpieces and minor works; all texts ever considered to be science fiction, as well as some works of fantasy, nonfiction about science fiction, and other writings by science fiction authors. In part my reasons were practical, since casting a broad net seemed most likely to produce a book that would please scholarly peer reviewers, the science fiction community, and general readers. But it is also true that I have never been particularly interested in announcing what science fiction should be, preferring to address the more intriguing question of what science fiction has been and is, so my effort to be descriptive rather than prescriptive was only natural.

I spent many months gathering quotations — by examining published and online compilations of quotations and by reading through numerous novels, anthologies, and magazines — sometimes working systematically, sometimes serendipitously. Some authors, pleased to find that I happened to find and include their words, might opine that I did a pretty good job; other authors, highly displeased to find that I happened to miss them, may denounce my efforts as manifestly slipshod. (All of my projects, it seems, may become mechanisms for making enemies.) But my research had to end precipitously as my deadline approached and I found myself with over 200,000 words of quotations for a book contractually limited to 120,000 words (though finally published with about 130,000 words); so, I stopped searching for quotations and began editing my material down to size.

At this point, I made a key decision relevant to any effort to define science fiction. Shapiro planned to organize his book of quotations by authors, and I had agreed to follow his example, which would have made the task of editing relatively straightforward. Yet I now resolved to organize my quotations by topics, requiring me to create various topical headings and accordingly reorganize my thousands of quotations as part of the process of final editing. Admittedly, I was inclined to choose topical organization because I thought this would be more appealing to casual readers, who would more likely consult a book of quotations looking for quotations about "progress" instead of quotations by Ray Bradbury. However, I was also acknowledging the special nature of science fiction. If you group quotations by authors, you implicitly present your material as a collection of individual voices, each offering their own distinctive brand of wisdom. But science fiction writers are typically very much aware of their predecessors and colleagues, and their statements often are overt or subtle responses to statements by other authors. As I and others have said elsewhere, science fiction is best regarded as an ongoing conversation between authors and readers, so it seemed only fitting to gather in one section all quotations pertaining to, say, "love" or "space travel," to properly represent the spirit of dialogue that characterizes the genre.

After the manuscript was blessed by my scholarly peer reviewers and dispatched through copyediting to page proofs, the delightful task of preparing its author and title indexes gave me the opportunity to compile some statistics, make some lists, and re-examine a project that I had been too busy compiling to really think about. Some statistics might arouse concerns. First, of the 530 included authors, only 102, or about 19%, were women. Noting that the figure is considerably less than 50%, feminists might complain that my book "excludes women." But recall that my intent was to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Based on various data, my colleague Joseph D. Miller has estimated that, since 1960, about 25% of science fiction writers have been women. Now, if one also includes the period from 1810 to 1960, when the percentage of women writers was surely smaller, one might reasonably guess that, during the past two centuries, about 19% or 20% of science fiction writers have been women, justifying their representation in my compilation. Another seemingly damning statistic is that only 16 of the writers, or about 3%, wrote in a language other than English; yet this again reflects the reality that science fiction has historically been a genre overwhelmingly dominated by Anglophone writers, so that any survey or research project involving science fiction will inevitably emphasize English-language works. Certainly, another scholar given this assignment might have aggressively sought to maximize the numbers of quotations from women and international writers in order to produce more politically correct percentages — but the result would have been a prescriptive definition, a portrait of what science fiction should be, not a portrait of what science fiction has been and is.

I also compiled lists of most frequently quoted works and most frequently quoted authors. The list of works is not necessarily meaningful since it privileges the books that I had the time to read or reread in their entirety. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Mars and Blue Mars are surely just as quotable as Red Mars, but I only had time to reread the first book in the trilogy. The list of the top fifteen works contains, I think, only two surprises. I make no apologies for the numerous quotations from George Turner's Drowning Towers — better known to many by its original title, The Sea and Summer — because it is a marvelous work that should be better known than it is. As for Terry Pratchett's Pyramids, the number of quotations from this book drew a mild rebuke from one peer reviewer, who archly noted that it is not considered

  Science Fiction Quotations:
Most Frequently Quoted Works

1. Red Mars (K. S. Robinson)37
2. The Dispossessed (Le Guin) 34
3. Drowning Towers (Turner) 34
4. Dune (Herbert) 30
5. We (Zamiatin) 28
6. Pyramids (Pratchett) 22
7. The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin) 21
8. The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood) 20
   Lost Horizon (Hilton) 20
   A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller) 20
11. Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell) 19
12. Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury) 18
   Galactic Pot-Healer (Dick) 18
   Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein) 18
   Time Enough for Love (Heinlein) 18
one of Pratchett's major works. Conceding the accuracy of that judgment, I would reply that the book just happens to include an unusually large number of funny lines. This brings up a point made in the book's introduction: a highly quotable book is not necessarily an excellent book. The fact that Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love tied for twelfth place on the list does not mean that it is a science fiction masterpiece — only that this massive, meandering text was filled with pithy observations from protagonist Lazarus Long ready-made for a book such as this one.

Considering the most frequently quoted authors, the collection is clearly dominated by the yin and yang of Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin; and despite their obvious dissimilarities, my research suggests that they (like Heinlein and Philip K. Dick) are also surprisingly similar in some respects: both writers are keenly interested in moral and ethical issues, and both are willing to tackle all the toughest questions — the difference being that Heinlein knows all the answers, while Le Guin finds all the answers. Of the other top authors, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams are no doubt over-represented, considering their literary stature, but books of quotations must be leavened with considerable doses of humor, which Pratchett and Adams have been prolific in providing.

  Science Fiction Quotations:
Most Frequently Quoted Authors

1. Robert A. Heinlein171
2. Ursula K. Le Guin164
3. Philip K. Dick126
4. Terry Pratchett88
5. William Gibson79
6. Douglas Adams78
7. Arthur C. Clarke52
8. H.G. Wells49
9. Kim Stanley Robinson40
10. Ray Bradbury39
11. Frank Herbert34
    George Turner34
    Yevgeny Zamiatin34
14. Stanislaw Lem32
    Walter M. Miller Jr.32

A list of quotations by decade provides, for the most part, a predictable picture — only scattered works before 1860; more works in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; modest increases in the first three decades of the magazine era, and an explosive increase in the 1950s with the appearance of more magazines, hardcover and paperback books, and films. The list indicates that the editors of The Norton Book of Science Fiction, in choosing 1960 as the date marking the birth of modern science fiction, were off by precisely one decade; 1950 is a more defensible choice, given that about 81% of the quotations that passed muster came from works published after that date.

The list of popular topics necessarily involves more subjectivity, since one might have categorized quotations in different ways and might have assembled equally valid categories with different headings, leading to different rankings. For example, if "Space Travel" and "Space" had been combined into one category, or if "Religion" and "God" had been combined, the resulting merger

  Science Fiction Quotations:
Quotations by Decade

would have ranked in third place. Still, certain conclusions can be drawn. I have elsewhere ridiculed Brian W. Aldiss's "definition of science fiction" as "the search for a definition of man" (or "mankind") as impossibly expansive and unrelated to the true distinguishing characteristics of science fiction; yet "Humanity" was by far the topic most frequently addressed in the quotations I compiled, suggesting that Aldiss indeed was accurately identifying one major preoccupation of the genre. As for the second most popular topic, "Death," it might serve to refute a point made by Thomas Pynchon in the introduction to his collection Slow Learner:

When we speak of "seriousness" in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death — how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate .... (I suspect one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction appeal so much to younger readers is that, when the space and time have been altered to allow characters to travel easily anywhere through the continuum and thus escape physical dangers and timepiece inevitabilities, mortality is so seldom an issue.)

However, 78 memorable quotations about death strongly indicate that mortality is quite frequently an issue in science fiction. True, many quotations are serious or humorous comments about employing advanced science or magic to overcome death, such as Joanna Russ's "You have no idea what an inconvenience it is, to be dead" (from "Poor Man, Beggar Man"). But regularly speculating about societies in which death has been conquered hardly means that writers are avoiding the topic of death; rather, they are squarely confronting the issue, reminding themselves and readers of their own mortality by envisioning alternative societies of immortality.

Looking at the list of popular topics, one finds evidence for two contrasting viewpoints about the priorities of science fiction. First, one might say that science fiction is merely one form of literature, and as such it is naturally focused on the timeless human issues that all literature confronts — hence, one finds numerous quotations about humanity, death, history, life, war and peace, truth, women and men, and God. Second, one can also say that science fiction is uniquely interested in the special topics of science and the future — hence, one naturally finds numerous quotations about the universe, space travel, science fiction, apocalypse, and progress. In other words, one might say, science fiction both is, and is not, focused on the human condition.

  Science Fiction Quotations:
Most Popular Topics

1. Humanity98
2. Death78
3. Knowledge/Information50
4. The Universe48
5. Science Fiction47
6. History45
7. Life45
8. Space Travel43
9. War/Peace42
10. Truth40
11. Women/Men38
12. Apocalypse36
15. God35

While statistics can be valuable, the book's most significant contribution to our understanding of science fiction may stem from detailed study of its individual quotations. Two types of quotations in the volume merit attention: accurate transcriptions of frequently misquoted statements, and quotations that have never been presented outside of their original contexts.

One frequently misquoted quotation is the famous statement by Charles Fort, usually misquoted (as in James Gunn's Alternate Worlds) as "When it's steam-engine time people invent steam engines." What he actually said, in Lo! (1931), is: "If human thought is a growth, like all other growths, its logic is without foundation of its own, and is only the adjusting constructiveness of all other growing things. A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time." The prose style is clumsy, but Fort's omitted botanical metaphor enriches his idea: he argues that human history is like a growing plant, followed a pre-determined path, with certain developments destined to occur at certain times.

What I personally find most enjoyable in this book, however, are the unfamiliar quotations I discovered through reading, which will now receive some public attention for the first time. While I could rhapsodize about the raw sense of wonder conveyed in Edmond Hamilton's The Star of Life, or Marta Randall's resonant "Conjugate the tenses of time travel" from "Secret Rider," I will discuss only one favorite in detail. One day, while in the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of the University of California, Riverside where I did most of my research, I requested a 1958 issue of the British magazine New Worlds. The student worker, unable to find any 1958 issues of that magazine, decided to bring me the one issue he could find, from 1950. Before asking him to return it, I glanced through it and hit upon A. Bertram Chandler's "Coefficient X," which I believe has never been republished, and I stumbled upon this quotation, perhaps my favorite in the entire book: "I know what you're thinking, but here, on Venus, the bathroom is as much a place for social gatherings as any other room in the house." Why do I find this statement so delightful? First, the statement epitomizes, in a manner even superior to overt parody, a characteristic device of science fiction: the absurd, expository conversation in which characters tell each other what they should already know. Yet the statement also qualifies as a dangerous vision, a defamiliarizing glimpse at an unusual aspect of our lives that no one regards as unusual — namely, that we live in houses with numerous rooms where people socialize and perform many activities, while one room is reserved for one activity performed only by solitary individuals. Why? Why should only one of our many human activities be isolated in this manner? It is even possible that reading this statement later inspired Aldiss to write The Dark Light Years, which similarly interrogates this peculiarity by positing an alien species that reverses human attitudes toward eating and excretion. Chandler's statement, therefore, is both completely ridiculous and unexpectedly profound, encapsulating the entire spectrum of reasons why so many people love science fiction.

Overall, I find that my new definition of science fiction very much resembles what I have said before — that science fiction is a vast and variegated genre, filled with texts that can serve both to support and to refute any and all generalizations about science fiction, and a literature that still remains largely unexplored. I began this project worrying that I might never find 120,000 words of memorable science fiction quotations; I concluded with over 200,000 words and the knowledge that, if I had spent four more years working on it, I could have produced a book that would have been twice as long and just as consistently rewarding. In the end, all I can say about my experiences in assembling Science Fiction Quotations is that I have enjoyed learning a little bit more about science fiction, and I hope that its readers will feel the same way.

(Note: An early version of this essay was presented as a paper at the 2005 Science Fiction Research Association Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.)


Science Fiction Quotations: Some Favorite Discoveries

(quotations not found to my knowledge in other collections of quotations)

Even if one has been to the moon, one has still to earn a living.

- H. G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon (1901)

Hammond's head spun with their tales of spaceman's life, tales of the vast glooms of cosmic clouds that ships rarely dared enter, of wrecks and castaways in the unexplored fringes of the galaxy, of strange races like the thinking rocks of Rigel and the fish-cities of Arcturus' watery worlds and the unearthly tree-wizards of dark Algol.

- Edmond Hamilton, The Star of Life (1947)

I know what you're thinking, but here, on Venus, the bathroom is as much a place for social gatherings as any other room in the house.

- A. Bertram Chandler, "Coefficient X" (1950)

Plainly it was one thing to read a mind and another to understand it.

- Philip K. Dick and Ray Nelson, The Ganymede Takeover (1967)

John Albion was/is/will be living/dying/dead; sucked into the dead/dying void. John Albion had been/is/will be sitting in the warmth of her home and talking of something very small, something very alien, something very much in his bones which has/is/will be killed/killing him. Conjugate the tenses of time travel.

- Marta Randall, "Secret Rider" (1976)

The trouble with men is that they have limited minds. That's the trouble with women, too.

- Joanna Russ, "Existence" (1975)

"Two thousand light years to Sol," the cleaning hose remarked, unsolicited, as it crawled past Janaki down the corridor.

- Ted Reynolds, "Millennial" (1980)

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.

- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1986)

Historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can't grasp the current situation.

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1992)

Science fiction is an argument with the universe.

- Farah Mendlesohn, "Editorial," Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, No. 88 (2003)

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.