My friend Suetekh once told me that she collects definitions of science fiction. Ones where Star Wars isn’t allowed, or that start with Frankestein, Poe or the Iliad. Ones that try to draw a line between sf and fantasy or sf and magic realism. Ones that try to impose some moral purpose on stories, underlining science, speculation or gedankenexperiment. Ones that even have the balls to argue sf is everything, and all other writing merely its sub-genres.
We laughed. We had more cake. We went on to talk about the mad-looking things that live at the bottom of oceans.
I must admit, I was never very bothered by any of that definitions stuff. Sure, it helps to be able to ring-fence an area that you’re writing or talking about, but there’s a fundamental difference between something being about rockets and it being any good or interesting. Too often definitions are merely a territorial marker, the definer staking a claim to the kind of stuff he likes, as a tiger might mark a tree.
In my own recent researches, I’ve noticed all kinds of effort to define the sub-genres of sf, or even to explain – as if to a sick relative – that they’re not sub-genres at all.
The main one is what we call the “what if” sorts of story, set in worlds where Hitler wins the Second World War or where Martin Luther ended up Pope. Just as with sci-fi, there’s those who argue that this isn’t just about coming up with wheezes for good and strange stories. Oh no, they say, if Winston Churchill was writing this kind of thing, it’s got to be serious, academic history.
But what are these kinds of stories called?
Those who call it “alternate history” need to look in a dictionary. Alternate means “every other”. “Alternative history” is better, but still carries a sense that there’s only one possible other option.
“Counterfactual” makes me think “lie”. “Parallel universe” misses the point that most of these kinds of stories include a revelation about where their history diverged from our own. In geometry, parallels don’t ever meet. (Hence the title of “Parallel Lives”; people who are not as close as they seem, so that [Spoiler] falls through the cracks.)
I quite like “allohistory” – meaning “other” in the same way as “allegory”. But people don’t use this very often, and can look puzzled if you do. Ho hum.
Another common term is “utopia”, which literally means “no place” and tends to describe any fictional ideal – do you see what Doctor Who did there? The saint who coined the term in 1516 meant an island of sunshine and sheep, and generally people know what you mean. But what about something like Nineteen Eighty-Four which is evidently the opposite? Or that staple of science fiction, where what seems to be an island of sunshine and sheep turns out to be all monstrous?
These are surely two different things; the state that’s in no way a utopia, and the state that says it is and yet is not. I’ve seen critics carefully define these two terms from each other, labelling them “dystopia” as opposed to “anti-utopia”. The trouble is, different critics apply the labels different ways round.
There are also different kinds of utopia: heterotopia, extropia, techno-utopia. It all gets rather fiddly.
Tom Moylan’s “Demand the Impossible” also argues that utopias can’t be fixed points; that in fact they breakdown if they ever stop striving to be better. What he calls a “critical utopia” is continually self-assessing, asking difficult questions. I argued in Foundation a long time ago that that’s exactly what happens in Iain M Banks’s Culture stories, since we usually see the utopian Culture through the eyes of someone off-message.
Utopia is, then, the journey not the destination. It is the aspiration to make better worlds, the methodology, processess, questions. Literally, it is the state of being, not the place.