The term “science fiction” denotes a genre of imaginative literature distinguished from realism by its speculation about things that cannot happen in the world as we know it, and from fantasy by abjuring the use of magic or supernatural. In science fiction, all phenomena and events described are theoretically possible under the laws of physics, even though they may not at present be achievable. Stated in this way, it would appear that works belonging to the genre would be easily identifiable. However, critics of science fiction have struggled to find an adequate definition almost since the term was coined and applied to a certain kind of fiction, supplanting an earlier, even less satisfactory term, “scientific romance,” which had been applied to some nineteenth-century British works as well as to the novels of Jules Verne. As Paul Kincaid (2005) has said, “The critical test for any definition is that it includes everything we believe should be included within the term, and it excludes everything we believe should be omitted.” Identifying thirty-three earlier attempts to pin down the genre, he notes that, “[s]trictly applied, every single one of those definitions would admit to the genre works that we would prefer to exclude, or would omit works we feel belong.”
Although the Oxford English Dictionary cites one isolated reference to “Science-Fiction” from 1851, the coining of the term is generally credited to the American editor Hugo Gernsback, who first used “scientifiction” to refer to stories built on extrapolations from credible scientific thought when he established the first magazine dedicated to such writing, Amazing Stories, in 1926. The precise origin of the genre remains in dispute, with various scholars connecting works of fantastic literature such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) to the developing genre. However, most agree that the development of science fiction, both for adults and for children, is primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century, while acknowledging the significance of Jules Verne in France and H. G. Wells in England as proto–science fiction writers.
Although it has not usually been identified as such, early science fiction, at least in the United States, was significantly a juvenile genre. Stories of amazing developments in science and technology appeared in magazines that appealed to adolescent boys in particular. Fred Erisman (2000) notes that the first magazine given over entirely to science fiction was the August 1923 issue of Gernsback’s Science and Invention, a popular journal otherwise concerned with factual science. The Tom Swift adventure stories by “Victor Appleton,” one of many juvenile series published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, began in 1910 and are generally identified with science fiction, although Erisman and others have noted that the Tom Swift books initially did not extend their extrapolation very far, confining the inventions to such existing technology as motorcycles and motorboats; their focus was more on the adventure than on the scientific prophecy. A large portion of the audience for Amazing Stories and its successors was adolescents, and important science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury published their first stories while still in their teens.
Various definitions of science fiction have been advanced, ranging from extremely prescriptive arguments that many of the best-known pop-culture examples of the genre (e.g., Star Wars) are not, in fact, science fiction at all, to Damon Knight’s somewhat flippant and not very helpful, “Science fiction is whatever we point to when we say ‘this is science fiction’” (Malzberg 2005) or Brian Aldiss’s flat statement: “There is no such entity as science fiction. We have only the work of many men and women which, for convenience, we can group together under the label ‘science fiction’” (Aldiss and Hargrove 2005). A number of critics of the field have suggested that identification of a work as science fiction depends more on the reader than on any intrinsic quality of the writing. James Gunn (2005) claims, “The kinds of questions we ask determine how we read” an imaginative narrative; only if answering the question “How did we get there from here?” is a significant element of the work’s appeal can it be truly science fiction.
Many academic critics turn to Darko Suvin’s formulation “cognitive estrangement” to distinguish science fiction from other fictional genres. Suvin (1972) argues that science fiction takes a fictional hypothesis and develops it to its logical end; because such a fiction employs a different concept of “normal” than one finds in the everyday world, the story causes the reader to feel alienated or estranged. Some degree of estrangement is not unique to science fiction, however; both myth and fantasy also present their audiences with worlds that do not conform to ordinary normality. In science fiction, there is also an expectation that the alternative world will conform to the reader’s cognitive understanding of reality—things that are impossible in the real world, given our understanding of the universe (e.g., magical persons or objects) are just as impossible in the science-fictional world. Paul Kincaid (2005) recognizes that the concept of cognitive estrangement is central to most academic criticism, but observes that it “is a prescriptive definition that works fine as long as we are comfortable with what it prescribes, but can lead to extraordinary convolutions as we try to show that certain favored texts really do conform to the idea of cognitive estrangement, and even more extraordinary convolutions to reveal that familiar non-SF texts don’t.”
Several of the common tropes seen in both juvenile and adult science fiction would seem to violate one or the other halves of the “cognitive estrangement” definition. Faster-than-light (FTL) travel is generally understood to violate the physical laws governing mass and energy, and Albert Einstein showed that velocities approaching light speed would cause time dilation—yet FTL travel between stars with no time dilation has been a mainstay of science fiction almost from the beginning, especially in the genre of “space opera,” into which adventure stories like Star Wars fall. Many science fiction purists would argue that space opera is in fact not science fiction at all, but a variation on traditional adventure story tropes. But even works that are unequivocally recognized as science fiction, such as Robert A. Heinlein’s juvenile novel Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), employ FTL space travel without explanation. More recently, science fiction writers have often presented interstellar travel in ways that conform to known physical laws, as in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), where the fleet of starships seeking out the enemy planet takes many years to span the distance between stars, or have employed unproven hypothetical formulations such as “wormholes” that take advantage of the Einsteinian curvature of space-time to create shortcuts between solar systems. Such methods of space travel were exploited in juvenile science fiction as early as 1955 in Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky.
On the other hand, some science fiction presents a world so close to our own as to cause little estrangement. William Sleator’s young adult (YA) novel Test (2008) presents a society in which the emphasis on testing in schools has become more rigid than is currently the case in the United States, though not unlike that of some other countries, and in which overpopulation and a reliance on the automobile has resulted in perpetual traffic jams—again, not terribly unlike the case at rush hour in many cities.
In an important and provocatively titled essay, Farah Mendlesohn (2004) uses the concept of cognitive estrangement to ask, “Is There Any Such Thing as Children’s Science Fiction?” Although her answer is a heavily qualified “yes,” she concludes that few works of juvenile science fiction meet the rigorous academic standard she is applying, primarily because the circularity of much children’s fiction is fundamentally incompatible with the narrative arc required of science fiction. As she argues, children’s fiction focuses on the individual child, who moves out from home (or a position of stability) only to return at the end of the novel. Calling science fiction a fiction of ideological rules, she says that it cannot be circular; it “does not accept that change can be undone, or the universe returned to its starting place,” although human beings do have the capacity to influence the nature of that change (291). If it is true that children’s fiction requires a return to the status quo, while science fiction requires a permanent change in the world as presented in the novel, it does indeed appear that the two are incompatible. Science fiction is mainly concerned with “the political, scientific, or social” ramifications of the work’s events (292–93), with individual characters existing to demonstrate those ramifications, not to achieve some kind of personal growth or understanding, as is typical in fiction for young people.
Mendlesohn acknowledges within her essay the objection of an early reader (Michael Levy) that she was imposing a definition that a priori excluded coming-of-age stories from “full science fiction,” but says that this is exactly her point: the two genres have mutually exclusive agendas. However, it might be argued that the path of children’s fiction is a spiral rather than a true circle; the child returns to a stable situation, but one that has been altered (either in external reality or in the child’s understanding), so that a permanent change has occurred. If this is the case, there is no necessary barrier between juvenile fiction and “true” science fiction. The internal dialogue in her essay echoes the conflict between Suvin’s strict concept of cognitive estrangement and Kincaid’s argument that such a prescriptive definition requires “extraordinary convolutions” to fit accepted science fiction texts within it. Levy suggests that the use of YA or children’s literature conventions is a reasonable expectation in juvenile science fiction, and asks for a clearer acknowledgment that the juvenile SF writer is not trying to write the same kind of book as Mendlesohn wants him to. One might go further and suggest that science fiction, like other genres, must undergo a necessary transformation in its manifestation as children’s literature, such that “children’s science fiction” and “adult science fiction’ may, in fact, constitute two related but distinct genres of equal validity.
Ellen Ostry (2004), exploring specific YA science fiction texts that extrapolate developments in biotechnology and computer science, approaches the issue of estrangement in a different way from Mendlesohn, integrating the concept into the norms of YA fiction generally:
The young adults in these books feel estranged not just from their parents and from the society that would likely shun them, but from themselves. The question all adolescents ask—“Who am I?”—becomes quite complicated when one finds out that one is a clone, or otherwise genetically engineered.
Self-definition, the quintessential task of adolescence, often becomes in YA science fiction the problem of defining what it is to be human in an alienating world. Thus, in Peter Dickinson’s Eva (1988), the title character finds her brain transplanted into the body of a chimpanzee and must decide whether to align herself with humans or apes; in Mary Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox (2008), Jenna’s mind is first stored in a computer and subsequently implanted into a largely bionic body; in Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion (2002), Matt is cloned from the DNA of a drug lord; and in Monica Hughes’s The Keeper of the Isis Light (1980), Olwen’s body has been medically transformed to fit her to life in a hostile environment. In all of these novels, the “if… then” extrapolation that Mendlesohn argues should follow the initial “What if?” question of the science fiction novel has been melded with the “Who am I?” question of YA fiction.
This melding results from the differentiation of adult and juvenile science fiction during the post–World War II era. There was little need for such differentiation in the genre’s early days—indeed, as Mendlesohn comments, many early “invention stories” are not unlike the less satisfactory juvenile science fiction of today. Other than the Tom Swift books, little or no science fiction was being written specifically for younger readers. By the late 1940s, however, as adult science fiction began to take on its modern shape under the influence of the editor John W. Campbell and his stable of writers at Astounding Stories, a separation based on reader age began to appear necessary. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), about three teenage boys who travel to the moon, was the first in a series of highly successful juvenile books, published in hardcover, that provided an alternative to the pulp magazines as an entry point for young science fiction readers. Other writers, including Isaac Asimov and Andre Norton, joined Heinlein in writing for the youth market through the 1950s.
Today, the science fiction world of children and teens has separated significantly from that of adults, with few writers crossing between audiences as Heinlein and Asimov did fifty years ago. One author who does write for both audiences, Orson Scott Card, arrived at the position almost by accident, when Ender’s Game (1985), originally published as an adult book, found a wide audience among adolescent readers. Ender’s Game recounts the story of a boy taken from his family at an early age and trained to lead a human space fleet against an alien civilization. Despite the novel’s success with teenagers, its sequels did not fare as well with that audience, most likely because they dealt with the adult lives of Ender and other characters. The fate of Ender’s Game, however, suggests a basic pattern for young adult science fiction not unlike that seen in Heinlein’s earlier juvenile novels: a young person, generally with above-average intelligence, is placed into a situation in which he or she must adapt to an alien environment and solve scientific or technological problems in order to survive.
While Heinlein and Card seem to confirm the possibility that Mendlesohn’s question can be answered affirmatively, the fact remains that young adult science fiction—whether defined as rigorously as Mendlesohn would have it or more liberally—is comparatively rare in the early twenty-first century. Susan Fichtelberg (2007) observes that only about 12 percent of all YA speculative fiction (a term she uses to include true fantasy, horror, and science fantasy as well as science fiction) currently being published falls under the rubric of science fiction, and she includes a relatively large proportion of adult titles in her YA bibliography. She speculates that most avid readers of the genre discover it around the age of twelve and quickly begin reading science fiction intended for adults.
Whether one follows the strict definition of cognitive estrangement that Suvin outlines, or adopts a more fluid conception, “science fiction” for even younger readers continues to be problematic. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954), by the children’s author Eleanor Cameron, was an early example of the difficulty. The boys create a spaceship from scrap materials and use a mysterious fuel given them by the enigmatic Mr. Bass to fly to a hitherto unknown planet orbiting the earth just one-fifth of the distance to the moon; they complete the entire round trip within a few hours. There is little attempt to provide scientific explanations for details that are implausible at face value; instead, the trappings of the science fiction novel are used to frame a rather conventional story of adventure and active imagination. Similarly, there is nothing intrinsically speculative in the robot of Dav Pilkey’s Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot (2000); it is simply a large, avenging friend who helps the eponymous mouse deal with bullies (along with a stereotypical mad scientist), filling a role that could as easily be given to the golem of Jewish folklore, a djinn, or a benign giant. Likewise, the alien of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Baloney (Henry P.) (2001) goes to school in a spaceship, but is otherwise indistinguishable from any human child creating an excuse for being late to school. The difficulty in creating believable science fiction for the very young lies in the readers’ inadequate knowledge of the world, which arguably does not permit them to distinguish adequately between fantasy and more plausible scientifically informed extrapolations. For the youngest readers, then, “science fiction” appears to be used primarily as a trope to give a veneer of the unusual to everyday activities. As Mendlesohn suggests, we might label such works “analogic books” (295). But are they science fiction?