Aliens in Your Science Fiction, Messing With Your Definitions

So there’s a new Galactic Suburbia podcast due to be recorded this week, and I have some homework left over from last time! That is:

Dear Tansy,

Howdy! Long time listener, first time emailer!

I just wanted to clarify the question from last night’s show. You said that if science fiction was to be innovative and inclusive (was that the second word you used?), it should be broad in its definition. I wanted to know if you thought that “science fiction” as defined not by the genre (ie fiction based on science etc) but rather those who have power to define the genre (eg reviewers, critics, editors, publishers and those who might see themselves as working to maintain the core) actually want and actively encourage innovation and inclusiveness? I guess I wondered if you thought science fiction, as it is currently published, really was innovative and inventive and inclusive?

Looking forward to your answer!



Dear Alisa.

Thanks for getting in touch! Your question is just as overwhelming as it was when you first started trying to present it to me on the podcast last fortnight. I’ll try and work my way through it.

Here are some things I believe:

1. Science fiction should absolutely be innovative and inventive and inclusive.

2. Imposing rigid definitions on science fiction is a really good way to lose some of the most innovative and inventive work in or connected to the genre.

3. Most of my favourite works of science fiction are in some way fringe-dwellers of the genre, so if you reduce science fiction to too narrow a definition, then not only do some fantastic stories and novels drop off the edge and out of the science fiction sphere, then so do I.

4. One of the things I think it is important for science fiction to include is fiction which “speaks to” science fiction or its readers, even if it may not technically count in the genre. William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, which frames then-current technology as if it is the building blocks of a science fictional world, is a great example of this. Another is Karen Joy Fowler’s story “What I Didn’t See” which forms a dialogue with James Tiptree Jr’s fiction and life history, and thus means more when read by a science fiction reader than a general reader.

5. I like books by women. An awful lot of books by women get argued or critiqued out of holding an identity as science fiction or as a particular type of science fiction, for being “about soft sciences instead of hard,” for mixing in unfamiliar ingredients such as sex or zombies, or generally not “feeling” enough like science fiction to count. I say that if science fiction readers do not welcome alien perspectives or alternative cultures, then who will?

6. I love awards shortlists, because even though I rail against reductionism and I am very aware that a lot of the stuff I consider most important or interesting is not going to make it on to shortlists, I also appreciate filters, and I think that awards shortlists present a useful if not always diverse statement about the field, and the people in the field.

7. I am always more interested in the shortlist than the winner. Once you reduce the fiction or science fiction or fantasy or books about mushroom darning down to a single title for a whole year, I feel the dialogue runs out of juice. Sometimes, what didn’t make the shortlist is even more interesting than the shortlist. Though I hate it when people say a work was “overlooked”. That’s insulting to those who made the choice. You don’t know that they overlooked it. Maybe they just didn’t like it.

8. I do believe that “the science fiction scene” (itself a mine of problems as far as definitions are concerned) genuinely believe that they are interested in innovation and invention, and even inclusiveness.

9. I also think that many people’s default definition of inclusiveness often boils down to “people whose work I know and like” and sometimes even “people I like” (and sometimes worst of all “people I was impressed by in previous years”) and that sometimes it’s hard to see past that, to acknowledge there are other corners of the world in your blind spot. Because when you like something, you really genuinely like it, and you shouldn’t have to apologise for that. (doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check your blind spot)

10. Yes, I do believe that science fiction publishing today is genuinely innovative, inventive and a hell of a lot more inclusive than it ever used to be. But then again, my definition of what is “science fiction” may be more inclusive than most.

I hope this answers your question.

Lots of love,
Galactic Suburbia

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joyce Chng (JDamask), Trent Jamieson and Bartholomew Heaven, Tansy Rayner Roberts. Tansy Rayner Roberts said: so @Krasnostein asked me a tricky question about how innovative & inclusive SF is – behold my answer […]

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