[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Defining Science Fiction

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

In the never-ending argument about trying to define the term "science fiction," I've heard a number of people put forth what they think is a simultaneously useful and witty answer: "SF is what science-fiction editors buy."

But that's just as bad as most other attempts at defining SF. Lots of the best SF written in recent years has sold to people who are not SF editors. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale springs to mind — it sold to a mainstream editor, but nonetheless ended up being a Nebula finalist. Other books that I'd certainly call SF that were bought by non-SF editors include The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton; The Children of Men by P.D. James; 1984 by George Orwell; Mockingbird by Walter Tevis; and Children of the Rainbow by Terence M. Green. But in all these cases, the editors involved would certainly deny being "science-fiction editors."

Likewise, SF editors buy a lot of stuff that no one would call SF on the basis of the text. It just happened to be written by individuals we think of as SF authors.

Two examples off the top of my head, both from Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighth Annual Collection: Connie Willis's "Cibola" has no speculative element at all — it's a mainstream story about remembering to notice the beauty around us. Charles Sheffield's "A Braver Thing" from the same collection likewise is a contemporary tale, unencumbered by SF elements, about a Nobel Prize winner's guilt.

So the syllogism doesn't work at all: some of what SF editors buy is SF, some is not. Some SF is bought by SF editors, some is not.

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