Pete's Point of View
An aging ex-wildlife ranger's views on science fiction
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Aside from getting the statistics and rankings right, one of the biggest challenges faced in putting Sci-Fi Lists together was deciding what is and isn't science fiction.

Defining the genre
Coming up with an all-encompassing definition of science fiction is nigh on impossible. There will always be debate and disagreement. Here are a few of the better ones.

Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of 'almost all') it is necessary only to strike out the word 'future'.

Rod Serling (1962)
Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.

Norman Spinrad (1974)
Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.

Isaac Asimov (1975)
Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.

Heinlein's definition emphasises the 'scientific method', but does not limit itself to the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, geology), instead leaving the door open to social sciences such as history, sociology, and anthropology. Serling, famous for his Twilight Zone television series, simply makes the distinction between two of the major branches of 'speculative fiction', the other being horror. The line between them often becomes significantly blurred.

The definition Spinrad offers is probably as good as any. Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series is a good example. Although many sci-fi critics cite the books as classic works of science fiction, they were and still are marketed as fantasy. George Lucas' Star Wars films on the other hand are pure fantasy, but marketed to appeal to a science fiction audience and widely accepted as such. The films look like science fiction... with spaceships, advanced technologies, other planets, and aliens all being standard tropes of the genre.

The last definition above comes from the Grand Master of the genre. Asimov's original Foundation trilogy is a classic example of the humanities underpinning a ripping good yarn where the protagonist is a 'psychohistorian'. The character combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to try and figure out what is likely to happen in the future. When sci-fi finally started to get serious, it was the human element that made it so.

Whilst all these definitions have their merits, only Spinrad's comes close to including science fiction humour as an important part of the genre. For example, some of Kurt Vonnegut's early novels that weren't initially marketed as science fiction (Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhous-Five) were quickly claimed by the wider sci-fi community. Subsequently, publishers moved to take advantage of Vonnegut's counter-culture status and the sci-fi tag was adopted for paperback mass marketing. Conversely, Douglas Adams' hilarious novel 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' was always marketed as science fiction and it is easy to see why. If it looks like science fiction and genre readers love it, it probably is.

Dubious subgenres
Vonnegut's first novel 'Player Piano' (1952) is also a good example of when a dystopia can be regarded as science fiction. Following World War III mechanisation replaces the need for human labour and society divides into the haves and have nots. As a prisoner of war during the devastating firebombing of Dresden by the Allies in World War II, Vonnegut survived by taking refuge in a meat locker in the slaughterhouse he was incarcerated in, giving him a pretty good handle on the nature of war. He then worked as a publicist for a General Electric research laboraty and saw first-hand the impact of mechanisation on the work force. In other words, his dystopian novel was very much rooted in the scientific method.

'Player Piano' contrasts with Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy due to an almost complete absence of any scientific method. They are good books, but are simply adventure stories based on Collins' imagination and writing experience, set in a largely unexplained future and virtually devoid of any meaningful social commentary. Very entertaining, but simply not science fiction, as is the case with the majority of dystopias currently being published.

There are, however, a small number of books published in the 19th and early-20th centuries that made huge contributions to the development of the genre, even though many are not strictly science fiction. A selection of these can be found on the Yesterday's Tomorrows page.

Like most dystopias, alternative histories can rarely be classified science fiction, or even a subgenre of the genre. Even the ones that do contain science fictional elements generally only use those devices as a setting to a completely imagined story. The earliest example often touted as sci-fi is 'Lest Darkness Fall' (1939) by L. Sprague de Camp about an American archaeologist who is transported to ancient Rome of the 6th century. Ward Moore's 1953 novel 'Bring the Jubilee' where the South wins the American Civil War also has some historical significance to the genre. Realistically speaking, however, both are primarily aimed at feeding the fantasies of readers interested in how history might have turned out, if...

The one alt-history novel that simply can't be left out due to its historical significance to the genre is Philip K. Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle' from 1962. The plot has the Axis Powers - Germany and Japan - winning World War II and takes place in a carved up America. In winning the prestigious 1963 Hugo award, it was generally accepted as a sci-fi novel. In reality, PKD was a drug-induced psychological mess who could write a fabulous story. The main body of his work was definitely sci-fi, and the advanced technologies and parallel dimensions depicted in High Castle gives it enough genre creds to stand with them.

Steampunk is often considered as a sci-fi subgenre, but on close inspection most of its literature is far closer to being almost pure fantasy. Its works usually find their way to 19th century Victorian society or the American Wild West, where technology far in advance of historical reality is steam powered and elaborately designed. The successful TV series 'The Wild Wild West' (1965-1969) is usually classified as steampunk, however the show often incorporated advanced science as a plot device, making it a favourite with sci-fi fans.

Beginning in 1998, superhero films proliferated and soon became a powerful drawcard in cinemas worldwide. Ongoing advances in computer generated imagery eventually made it feasible to bring superheroes to the small screen in a big-time way. Superhero media became a genre unto itself and, in the process grew increasingly distant from science fiction, although the trimmings were still there. The site only includes superhero media that has considerable sci-fi content, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy films, 'Thor: Raganrok' (2017), and the TV series 'Krypton' (2018-2019), set on Superman's home world.

And then there is time travel... Most physicists will tell you that it is simply not possible, not now, not ever. But it persists as a sci-fi staple, simply because it is usually marketed that way and is so darn much fun. That said, whilst physical time travel will probably never be possible, looking back at the past may be. Someone on a technologically advanced planet 300 light years away may be looking at our 18th century right now. The rules here on Earth may not apply everywhere. Quite a lot of time travel stories lean heavily towards other genres like fantasy and romance, but sci-fi can rightfully claim most of them for its own.

Splitting the book lists
At the beginning of 2021 the book lists were split into Pre-2000 and Post-2000 categories in order to reflect the changing state of how sci-fi is published and consumed. The differences are significant. Obviously, the rise of e-books has had a huge impact on the genre. However, the real difference lies mainly with the authors themselves. Up to roughly 2000 there were still quite a few qualified scientists writing sci-fi, often in a stand-alone format when they had a particular point to make. Increasingly, sci-fi is being written by storytellers looking to write a successful series that generates income for a period of time. Many of these are starting to look more like fantasy than sci-fi, trimmed with a few genre tropes for classification purposes.

The rapid development of new technologies has also had a significant impact on the genre. Reality, in a sense, has become sci-fi. For example, our scientific understanding of the universe has made leaps and bounds in the last 30 years. Anyone intrigued by science documentaries can gain a basic understanding of how life, the universe and everything works. The 'Cosmos' (2014) and 'How the Universe Works' (2010) series are excellent examples of how real science can blow your mind as effectively as any works of fiction.

Guilty of subjectivity
If put on trial, Sci-Fi Lists would have to plead guilty to the charge of subjectivity in deciding what to include as genuine science fiction on the site. At the end of the day editorial decisions on where to draw the line had to be made. Judging from site visitor feedback and support, it looks like most decisions made were the right ones.
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