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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
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