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Who Governs Science Fiction?
(Note: this essay originally appeared in Extrapolation, 41 (Spring 2000), 63–72.)

In 1974, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, frustrated by continuing labor unrest, suddenly called a general election. As his campaign slogan, he employed a question: "Who governs Britain—the government or the unions?" Clearly, Heath hoped the question would be answered by a decisive victory for his Conservative Party; however, when an indecisive election instead brought Harold Wilson and the Labour Party to power, Heath received exactly the answer he did not wish to hear.

Heath's defeat can be largely attributed, I believe, to that disastrously ineffectual slogan. For, when you ask a question like "Who governs Britain?" you make two implicit statements: 1) I do not govern Britain; and 2) I wish someone would let me govern Britain. Coming from the man who was supposed to be governing Britain, the slogan was an extraordinary confession of political weakness; and regardless of the other merits of his case, it is not surprising that voters were reluctant to return him to office.

The 1994 Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature essentially brought together a group of literary critics to ponder this question: "Who governs science fiction?" By raising that question, we also made two implicit statements: 1) we do not govern science fiction; and 2) we wish someone would let us govern science fiction. Like poor Heath, however, we must expect to receive an answer we do not wish to hear.

Despite ongoing disinterest in many academic circles, scholars are not failing to govern science fiction through lack of trying. Today, there are growing numbers of critics willing to discuss science fiction; there are scholarly journals and conferences, university press publications, and college textbooks devoted to science fiction; and one might reasonably expect all this activity to have some influence on science fiction. But there is, I submit, little evidence of any strong influence.

To explain this, I wish to examine the issue of governing literature from a broader perspective, to maintain that science fiction is a genre uniquely controlled by five different and competing authorities, so that the effects of scholarship are tangible but necessarily limited. These authorities are: Hugo Gernsback—the man who originated and popularized the term for modern audiences and strongly influenced all uses of the term for many years; the science fiction community—those writers, editors, fans, and readers who have used the term as their rallying point and method of self-identification; members of the general public—who have adopted "science fiction" as an everyday word now found in all dictionaries; the corporate executives and other employees of large publishing companies—who usually offer a line of science fiction books; and finally, of course, the eccentric academic critics who choose to specialize in science fiction.

Each authority has its own mechanisms to influence the meaning of the term and the literature described by that term. Gernsback's continuing power stems from the nature of etymological development. Dictionaries do not explain word origins to satisfy idle curiosity; rather, lexicographers realize the original sense of a word, no matter how much its meaning changes over time, may always inform a word's denotation and connotation. Consider two adjectives that evolved into general compliments: "nice" and "thrilling." Since "nice" first meant "ignorant" or "foolish" and once meant "small" or "precise," it retains an aura of insignificance, even a slightly pejorative tone; if your friend says your poem was "nice," you know she didn't really like it. Since "thrilling" first meant "piercing with a sharp object," it retains the power in that image; if your friend says your poem was "thrilling," you know she really liked it. Regarding science fiction, though the ideas of Gernsback have been oversimplified or misunderstood, everyone knows he insisted on scientific accuracy in science fiction; and that remains an issue in science fiction commentaries, despite continuing efforts by some commentators to dismiss this concern as insignificant.

Members of the science fiction community have several mechanisms for promoting their own ideas about the nature of science fiction. They can identify certain writers as exemplary by making them honored convention guests, reviewing their books in science fiction magazines, and praising their work in science fiction fanzines. As compilers of the encyclopedic references that distinguish this field, the community's amateur scholars play a role in establishing the boundaries of science fiction. Other instruments of authority include the annual awards—like the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards—which announce every year that a few select works represent the best of the genre.

The unwashed masses exercise authority over science fiction because they establish its meaning in the ultimate arbiter of the meanings of words—the dictionary. Lexicographers diligently search through all published materials looking for uses of the term in question; by noting how the term is used, they determine its current meaning and place that in their dictionaries. Thus, purists may contend that Star Wars is really fantasy, and not science fiction, but no matter how meritorious their arguments may be, they are unlikely to ever persuade the public that a story with spaceships and aliens is not "science fiction."

Publishers have one blunt instrument of authority: they decide whether to place the label "science fiction" or "SF" on the spine of any given book. That decision determines where that book will be placed in bookstores, whether or not it will reach an audience of science fiction readers, and whether it will be reviewed as science fiction or as some other type of book. And, because they are the ones who pay the science fiction writers, they can, if they choose, exercise some direct control over the contents of the books they choose to present as science fiction.

Finally, academic critics do enjoy some of their own mechanisms of authority. They may participate in the publishing process, like James Gunn, who worked as a consultant to Easton Press's line of high-priced science fiction classics, and they may speak directly to the public in introductions or afterwords to noteworthy books. They also control the teaching of science fiction, both in their classes and by compiling anthologies for those classes, one controversial example being Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery's The Norton Book of Science Fiction.

Having sketched the mechanisms by which these five groups exercise some authority over science fiction, I now consider the effects of these disparate influences. To develop an explanatory model, I propose a description of the genre based on Gernsback's first definition of "scientifiction"—"a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision."1  He thus identifies three basic elements in science fiction: "romance"—a narrative form; "scientific fact"—statements of scientific facts and principles; and "prophetic vision"—descriptions of inventions or developments that do not exist and may never exist. Dressed up for an audience of academics, one could say that science fiction is a narrative with a characteristic discours or language—that of scientific explanation—and a characteristic histoire or subject matter—an object or environment that does not exist in present-day reality. Temporarily, one could call these elements narrative, science, and fantasy. Interestingly, the first three authorities I identified each tends to de-emphasize one of these features.

First, while Gernsback is best known for the extravagant predictions in his novel Ralph 124C 41+, his imagination generally focused more on the present and the immediate future. Most of his own stories, like "The Magnetic Storm" and "The Killing Flash," featured only very modest advances in technology; and in Amazing Stories and in his later magazine Scientific Detective Monthly, he regularly published "Scientific Detective Stories" that typically involved nothing more than a present-day detective employing present-day science to solve a crime. Surprisingly, then, Gernsback was willing to accept as science fiction narratives with scientific explanations but few if any fantastic elements.

Second, many members of the science fiction community disliked Gernsback's focus on science, being more interested in imaginative stories derived from myths and legends or stories involving magic. While some fan organizations embraced the term "fantasy" to describe narratives that involved some object and environment not accepted as real, they implicitly, by staying linked to the science fiction community, sought to treat such stories as science fiction. So these fans were willing to accept as science fiction narratives with non-mimetic content but without any scientific explanations.

Third, when everyday people use the word "science fiction," the term, surprisingly, often does not apply to a narrative. In newspapers, the word may appear in passages like this: "A household robot that vacuums your house, cooks dinner, and balances your checkbook? Sounds like science fiction. But researchers at Bell Laboratories ...." One commercial about the coming "information superhighway" included the comment, "And it's not science fiction either." In such cases the word does not refer to fictional stories about robots or information superhighways; rather, it refers to the idea of such robots or systems. And while the defunct magazine Omni emphasized articles about current and predicted science, with only one or two stories per issue, it was still described as a science fiction magazine. Thus, one popular meaning of "science fiction" is a combination of scientific fact and imagination that need not take narrative form.

Examining the effects of the other two authorities, we detect no particular emphasis or de-emphasis of the three elements Gernsback identified in science fiction; instead, their impact is more on the quality of science fiction than on its nature.

For better or worse, modern mass-market publishers tend to encourage low-quality science fiction. They wish to earn a steady income from publishing science fiction, and that end is best served by series of nearly-identical novels with nearly-identical covers to be regularly purchased by properly indoctrinated readers. Of course, publishers prefer the anonymous drone of the hack to the distinctive voice of the gifted writer; hacks are also cheaper to hire, further increasing profits. So modern bookstores are filled with repetitive, often terrible science fiction, while prominent and admired writers may have difficulty getting published.

Academic critics, in contrast, tend to encourage high-quality science fiction. Trained to regard literature as the "canonical" output of a handful of writers, they seek out idiosyncratic, polished talents, promote interest in them through critical essays and books, and inspire others to follow their lead. Thus, academic critics inspired a boom in Stanislaw Lem books in the 1970s, just as they later inspired a boom in Philip K. Dick books.

I am moving, then, towards a simplified model of science fiction governed by five conflicting but balancing authorities. Imagine a horizontal plane with an object at the center representing "science fiction," ready to be influenced. Surrounding it on the plane are three equidistant areas representing its qualities of narrative, fiction, and science; between each area is a point that exerts an attractive force. Between science and narrative, the point of Gernsback pulls science fiction away from fantasy, toward science and narrative; between narrative and fantasy, the point of the science fiction community pulls science fiction away from science, toward narrative and fantasy; and between fantasy and science, the point of the public pulls science fiction away from narrative, towards fantasy and science. Then, above and below the central object in the third dimension are two additional points exerting an attractive force: from below, the point of the publishing industry pulls science fiction down towards mediocrity, and from above, the point of academic criticism pulls science fiction up towards excellence. A genre that from the start combined disparate influences and goals remains intact today, despite inherently disruptive forces within it, because these forces unknowingly work together to maintain the volatile mixture.

With this model, I can analyze differently a phenomenon discussed by George Slusser in "The Homeostatic Culture Machine."2 Slusser reasons that if some individual or group is exercising authority over science fiction, then somebody at least should be happy about the current state of science fiction. But nobody is happy about it. Even in the 1960s, Gernsback was disgusted with the evolution of science fiction, and if he could see what was being produced today, he would surely turn over in his grave. As their repeated complaints demonstrate, members of the science fiction community are distressed by most modern science fiction. Readers from the general public must be unhappy as well, for they often decline to buy the products that marketing experts were sure they would buy. This means the publishers are unhappy, as science fiction oddly resists transformation into a completely assembly-line product. And I need not point out that academic critics are less than pleased by what is now available in bookstores.

To explain this strange universal dissatisfaction, Slusser proposes that science fiction has become a "homeostatic culture machine," a literature generated by previous literature that, like a living organism, is changing and evolving beyond any outside control. The idea is provocative and definitely merits exploration; but I can now offer another possible explanation.

Consider a physics experiment that would replicate the dynamics of the model sketched above. First, surround a steel ball with three equidistant electromagnets, 120 degrees apart in a plane. Place two more equidistant electromagnets directly above and below the ball at the same distance. If all magnets have the same power, the ball will remain suspended motionless in the middle, as the attractive forces exactly balance each other. But suppose we introduce random fluctuations in the power of the magnets. Now the ball will dart left and right, up and down, in an apparently unpredictable manner as one magnet suddenly weakens or as another magnet suddenly gets stronger. To someone who does not understand the situation, it would look like the ball was moving of its own accord, like a living organism.

This is my model for modern science fiction: as events make one or more of its five governing authorities briefly weaker or briefly stronger, the genre lurches in one direction or another, in direct response not to one authority, but to the varying strength of the combined forces acting upon it. By this theory, science fiction only appears to be self-governing. In the 1950s and early 1960s, a public greatly interested in America's space program pulled the genre away from polished narratives and toward clunky, documentary-style depictions of orbital space flights, space stations, and lunar landings. In the 1960s, declining attention to space and the new popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien inspired the science fiction community to pull the genre away from science and toward fantasy narratives. In the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps, academic critics exercised more control over science fiction, inspiring some improvements in quality. Today, mass-market publishers have more power, so the quality of science fiction appears to be declining.

If my model of unknowingly shared authority is accepted, there clearly is no easy way to change science fiction, since it is hard to imagine how one or more of the forces I have described might be removed from the scene or elevated to a position of sole authority. Science fiction seems forever doomed to be what it is, an unruly mixture of narrative, science, and fantasy, an incongruous blend of the extremely wretched and the extremely good.

So, how might academic critics—or any other groups with an interest in changing the genre—develop greater authority over science fiction? There is one possible strategy: to create a new word for the literature—a term that is free from the dead hand of Gernsback, that is not associated with any established community, that is not already defined by the public, that is not familiar to publishers and academic critics. With that new word as a weapon, concerned writers and commentators might succeed in forging a new type of imaginative literature more to their liking.

As it happens, efforts to rename science fiction—in exactly this way and for exactly this reason—have been common in the last fifty years. Some were ephemeral: in the late 1960s, editor Ted White of Amazing Stories briefly attempted to revive Gernsback's original word "scientifiction" for the stories he was publishing, as opposed to the awful New Wave stories others were publishing. Of course, no such revival occurred. "Science fantasy" has been suggested, at least to describe a privileged subgenre of science fiction, in works like L. David Allen's Cliff's Notes: Science Fiction and Carl D. Malmgren's Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Robert Scholes once offered "structural fabulation," and some others, like "science fable," have cropped up now and then.

The best-known alternative term is "speculative fiction," first proposed by Robert A. Heinlein in 1947, and later adopted enthusiastically by advocates of the New Wave of the 1960s, like Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Despite ongoing support, the term has never been popular. Perhaps it is just too long to enter everyday discourse; even when Ellison was doctrinally committed to using "speculative fiction" every time, he sometimes slipped and wrote "science fiction," perhaps tired of typing all those letters on his manual typewriter. Etymological history might be a factor as well. Like it or not, the word "science" has a certain solidity that transfers respect to the genre; "speculative" derives from "speculate," a fancy word for "guess," and can have a pejorative sense, as shown by one definition in The American College Dictionary: "theoretical, rather than practical."3

If one cannot replace the term science fiction with something else, perhaps one could abbreviate science fiction and escape from some of its associations. Two abbreviations have emerged: "sci-fi," created by Forrest J Ackerman in the 1950s, and "sf," which to my knowledge first appeared in a letter by Helen M. Reid in the first issue of Science Wonder Stories, where she suggests several names, including "The S. F. Magazine," as possible titles for Gernsback's new publication.4 To many, the first is offensive; writer Damien Broderick says, "you'd never guess what prickly annoyance it evokes in its target audience ["science fiction devotees"], akin to the joy with which Afro-Americans welcome the term 'nigger.'"5  Personally, however, I don't feel that way at all. From the start, science fiction has combined a weighty belief in its own importance and a self-deprecating humor about its occasional silliness, so I cannot object to an abbreviation that illuminates its less distinguished features and texts. To describe a television network devoted to the inglorious history of science fiction on film and television, "The Sci-Fi Channel" is the perfect name. (What name would critics prefer—"The Speculative Fiction Channel"?) Further, to remove the aura of cuteness caused by the rhyme with "hi-fi," Susan Wood suggested pronouncing the abbreviation "skiffy" as a neutral descriptive term for unambitious but entertaining works.

I actually object more to the other abbreviation, "sf," even though it is a logical abbreviation that first appeared in the same issue where "science fiction" made its modern debut and has often been used by many commentators. Most writers alternate "science fiction" and "sf" in no particular pattern. However, in the 1960s, Judith Merril adopted "sf" as a term in its own right, and others have essentially sought to replace the term "science fiction" with "sf." One example was the journal Science Fiction Studies. Despite the word in its title, editors for many years rigorously tried to remove it from all articles and reviews, the house style at the time being that every single use of "science fiction" must be replaced by "sf." One editor preparing an essay of mine even replaced "science fiction" with "sf" in a quotation from John W. Campbell, Jr., before realizing his error, signaling an obsessive desire to avoid the term at all costs.6

Why this strong preference for "sf"? Saving space cannot be the entire answer; when I edited one of my longer manuscripts for Science Fiction Studies, replacing "science fiction" with "sf" saved less than half a page. Rather, I suspect the motives are the ones Merril announced when she explained her own use of "SF":

Science fiction as a descriptive label has long since lost whatever validity it might once have had .... I prefer not to use it at all, when I am talking about stories. SF (or generically, s-f) allows you to think science fiction if you like, while I think science fable or scientific fantasy or speculative fiction, or (once in a rare while ... ) science fiction.7

Merril's motive for employing "SF" is clear: obfuscation. "SF" may refer to science fiction and it may not; it becomes a way to escape the legacy of Gernsback, the science fiction community, the public, the publishers, and the academics, to forge a new term untainted by the past. This may be why critic Darko Suvin has called "SF" an "indispensable acronym."8 (Note that he calls "SF" an "acronym"—"a word formed from the initial letters of other words" [The American College Dictionary]—demonstrating that he views "SF" not as a mere abbreviation but as a new word.9)

Still, the terms and abbreviations mentioned so far have failed to escape the influence of science fiction for one simple reason: all employ the letters "S" and "F," so they all evoke science fiction. Even Merril admits she cannot forget the connection: "So I say SF—but I still think science fiction: like it or not, the label sticks."10 Those using such expressions somehow want to draw upon and benefit from the heritage of science fiction while also enjoying the freedom to move in their own preferred directions—but that is clearly impossible.

One other alternative exists—to create a new term that has no obvious relationship to science fiction, does not use the letters "S" and "F," and would not remind anyone of science fiction; and this strategy has also been employed. Some critics wish to subsume discussions of science fiction into general considerations of all non-mimetic fiction; and, since the term "fantasy" has established connotations that preclude its use as such an umbrella term, they have developed substitutes like "the fantastic," promoted by the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, or "literary fantasy" ("LF"), promoted by writer Dan Pearlman's Council for the Literature of the Fantastic. Another term for one particular type of science fiction, "cyberpunk," was adopted by a few writers in the 1980s, then was enthusiastically embraced by some critics, who found those writers' works to be additional examples of an intriguing new form, "postmodern" literature. Along similar lines, many have embraced Bruce Sterling's term "slipstream" to describe works that seem to straddle the boundary line between science fiction and mainstream fiction. And in realms where scholars rarely venture, works that blend science fiction and the spy thriller are now being marketed as "military novels" or "techno-thrillers."

It is safest to put these latter terms in quotation marks because they have not yet entered general discourse;11 and therein lies the paradox of this strategy. When a group of people invent their own term for a category of literature, or when they adopt a term that others are not using, they do enjoy complete authority over that term; however, if people outside that group do not recognize or use the term, it is destined to be ephemeral. Consider the fate of the descriptive term that preceded the "postmodern": "modern" or "modernist." At one time, critics were excited about the new writers who seemed to be part of this movement and were anxious to analyze and celebrate its characteristics; yet the term never became popular outside of the academic community. Today, the term survives only as a historical description of early twentieth-century writers, or, if applied to a contemporary writer, as an insult.12 If terms like "slipstream" or "postmodern" similarly fail to become popular or widely recognized, they will eventually suffer the same fate, as young writers will craft new terms to distinguish themselves from the old fuddy-duddy "slipstream" writers, and young critics will create new buzz-words to distinguish themselves from the old fuddy-duddy critics of "postmodernism."

In contrast, the term "science fiction" has remained viable for seventy years and shows no signs of fading—precisely because so many different groups of people accept and employ it. Academic critics may not appreciate the ways those other groups regard science fiction, or all the effects they have on the genre, but such wide participation in the ongoing shaping of the term helps to ensure its survival. So I can write about "science fiction" today with some assurance that future readers will also be interested in science fiction and, perhaps, will be interested in what I said; but critics of "postmodernism" may find that future readers will look at their work the same way that we would regard—or rather disregard—a "Manifesto for Modernism" from the 1930s.

I finally arrive at an old lesson: if you wish to exercise authority, you must be willing to share authority. If Edward Heath had been willing to compromise with the unions, he could have stayed in office; instead, he sought to gain complete authority and, as a result, lost all the power he had. If academics are willing to continue talking about science fiction, accepting the input of the other forces influencing the term and its literature, they can retain a limited amount of authority over the field; if they instead attempt to exercise complete authority over the genres that they invent, they will ultimately have no power at all.

So—who governs science fiction? Everybody, and nobody. And what's wrong with that?


1. Hugo Gernsback, "A New Sort of Magazine," Amazing Stories, 1 (April 1926), 3. His theories are discussed more extensively in my The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998).

2. George Slusser, "The Homeostatic Culture Machine," in Science Fiction and Market Realities, edited by Gary Westfahl, George Slusser, and Eric S. Rabkin (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 78-97.

3. The American College Dictionary, C. L. Barnhart, editor in chief (New York: Random House, 1962).

4. Helen M. Reid, letter, "The Reader Speaks," Science Wonder Stories, 1 (June, 1929), 92.

5. Damien Broderick, "The Profession of Science Fiction, 44: The Semi-Detached Sci-Fi Life of an Almost Famous Writer," Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, no. 59 (Autumn 1993), 5.

6. Their current policy, however, allows stubborn contributors like myself to keep the abbreviation "sf" out of their articles.

7. Judith Merril, "Introduction," SF: The Best of the Best, edited by Merril (1967; New York: Dell Books, 1968), 2.

8. Darko Suvin, Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1988), xv.

9. The American College Dictionary.

10. Merril, 2.

11. Though "cyberpunk" seems to be entering the language to describe not a type of literature, but a type of person—the computer "hacker."

12. For example, Carl Freedman's "Science Fiction and the Question of the Canon" refers to "such dull epigones of literary modernism as Saul Bellow and the Eliotic poets of the 1950s" (in Science Fiction and Market Realities, 120).

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