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This is by now well-known:
Radio Times invited various alleged celebrities to comment on the BBC 'Big Read' list of the public's favourite books. Which clunkers should have been excluded? 'All Terry Pratchett's novels,' according to Jo Brand: 'It's a bit unfair of me because I've probably only read the first page of one of his books, but sci-fi is a genre that really makes me want to bang my head against a wall.' Her personal favourite novel on the list: Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Noted without comment on the letters page of the 1-7 November Radio Times:
When Jo Brand named her favourite and least favourite books (RT, 18 October), she seemed to be contradicting herself. On the one hand, her chosen book is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. On the other hand, she says that science fiction is a genre that exasperates her. So, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel about an imagined future where a higher level of technology is used to suppress the population, is her favourite book? Yes, it is a political novel, but it also fits pretty comfortably within most definitions of science fiction - a lot of people regard it as one of the seminal works in the genre.

[Name and address]

To be fair to Jo, RT did speak to three large bookstore chains, and they all shelve Nineteen Eighty-Four under fiction, not science fiction.

Hmm. >:-)
Is this the point where someone should point out that Pratchett isn't SciFi? Or at least not Discworld - which is what most people will know of.

As with 1984 - he doesn't sit comfortably in any genre. It started off as fantasy parody and quickly became a parody of the world at large. IMO he'd be better off sat next to Wodehouse or Swift than Eddings......
Is this the point where someone should point out that Pratchett isn't SciFi?

Frankly, I don't know what the hell definition Jo Brand was using. She said Sci-Fi, but her example was fantasy, and her favourite book was science fiction.

As with 1984 - he doesn't sit comfortably in any genre. It started off as fantasy parody and quickly became a parody of the world at large. IMO he'd be better off sat next to Wodehouse or Swift than Eddings...

Well, yes. But then, anyone would be better off next to Wodehouse and Swift than they would be next to Eddings. :)

(And 1984 would actually be best off next to someone like Ballard or Wyndham, I'd say.)
(Deleted comment)
Agreed. On the other hand, Gulliver's Travels should be moved to the Fantasy shelves.

Also, I agree with coalescent that anyone would be better off next to Wodehouse or Swift than Eddings...
Well, I really don't want to get into an argument about "what is SF" because I know you'll just beat me about the head with well reasoned and carefully considered analysis - but... I've never really thought of 1984 as Sci-Fi. It's *thinks hard* "future-fi" or somesuch; the level of technological advancement is not what drives the premise of the narrative. The cultural, political and social controls over the individual are aided by, but not driven by, the technology of the day. To me, the book has always had more in common with The Handmaid's Tale than with, say, Star Trek or The Matrix (sorry, don't read much sci-fi, so brain can't recall any useful literary examples).
I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that whilst I can understand how Jo Brand's comments may look strange on the surface, I can also understand how someone who dislikes the Sci-Fi genre (and thus has a limited exposure to it) can like 1984.
Noooo, don't bring Margaret Attwood into it as well!
I know - should've remembered the whole Oryx and Crake "speculative fiction" debacle.


Sorry :-(
Hi. I'm hear to remind you that science != technology. For instance sociology = science.
Well, yes, you're absolutely right. But would being surrounded by many copies of 1984 make you and Niall feel calm and unscared?

*hee* I think I just found the new definition for SF :-)
A bookshop of nothing BUT 1984 would be far scarier.
Nothing but books, crushing a human face, forever.
You are Margaret Attwood and I claim my five pounts!
Curses! I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for you pesky kids!!



*watches as everyone's brain begins to melt from trying to resolve the tautology that is "speculative fiction"*

Die puny humans!!!!!!!

sorry, but it is Monday morning - you expected coherence?
Is she the good twin of Margaret Atwood?

A Quick-Reference Guide to Genre
By Niall Harrison, aged 23 1/2

Disclaimer: The only really useful definition is "genre x is what we point at when we say 'that's genre x!'" However, for search engine purposes further definition is useful. These are my definitions and should not be confused with The Truth.

Speculative Fiction is any book that contains significant departures from reality. Spaceships count. So do dragons. So do futuristic totalitarian regimes. As a general rule, if I write 'SF', I mean speculative fiction, as in the whole kit and kaboodle. Any book that can be described as fantasy, science fiction, or some variation thereon is therefore speculative fiction by definition. Because it's so broad, it both is and isn't a useful qualifier, depending on context.

Science Fiction is very hard to define, because it includes so much. One strand (arguably the most important strand) is 'stories based on a rigorously thought through change to the world' - fiction written by the scientific method, if you like. So 1984 is science fiction because it is a rigorous examination of the society it creates. In these stories, character is often secondary to the worldbuilding and the themes being discussed.

Another strand is 'hard science fiction' - stories whose working-out is rooted in real, plausible science, or believable extrapolations thereof. There is almost no science fiction on film or TV that could be described as hard science fiction.

There's a lot of space opera on film and TV. This is the stuff with spaceships for the sake of spaceships. Star Wars is space opera. Some space opera can be hard science fiction, although if it is it's not going to be anything like Star Wars. Space opera and hard science fiction are the 'technolust' parts of the science fiction genre.

There's a large overlap between space opera and sci-fi. Sci-fi is the brainless, mind candy stuff that passes for the general public's perception of 'science fiction'. Aliens from the planet zog, square-jawed heroes with laser guns, you name it. A general feature of sci-fi is that any futuristic technology is window-dressing, and doesn't alter the story in any significant way. The principle difference between sci-fi and space opera is that sci-fi is, by definition, the crappy stuff; space opera is often crappy, but not always.

Cyberpunk and alternate history are also types of science fiction. AH is self-explanatory; cyberpunk is like The Matrix, only better. Science fiction, since the late '60s, at least, is frequently postmodern, but obviously not all postmodern fiction is science fiction.

Fantasy is like science fiction, but without the science. Sort of. Stereotypically, fantasy is usually about characters in fantastic worlds, whereas science fiction is usually about fantastic worlds that happen to have characters in them. Fantasy is not just elves and dwarves and dragons and quests.

But these are just my definitions. The basic point is that you're right - when most people think of 'science fiction', they don't think of 1984, they think of the technolust stuff, and usually the crappy technolust stuff, at that. They think of Star Trek and Star Wars, or occasionally The Matrix and Bladerunner.

Why is my definition - which I've just admitted is a minority definition - better than the one used by the majority? Because the one used by the majority isn't useful. It's inherently pejorative. It defines science fiction as inherently crappy, geeky, clunky and childish. Which means there isn't a useful way of describing the good stuff - you had to search for a label for 1984, for instance.

(The (very perceptive) point made in The Third Alternative's editorial this month is that arguing definitions is fun, but actually doesn't get us anywhere. What we need is, somehow, for some science fiction writers to break through and be thought of in the same bracket, as equally good as, the traditional 'mainstream'. What we need is to get books like Light onto the Booker or Whitbread shortlists.)

(Ask me to write this again in a week, and you'll get a slightly different answer...)
Since we're talking definitions, I'd go with something similar to yours for science fiction. The definition I've come across in certain areas of critical literature is that science fiction is a rigorously thought through extrapolation from our present reality, making use of the notions we use to describe that present reality (be those notions scientific, sociological, psychological, economic, political, even historical, etc.).

1984 was an extrapolation from contemporary reality using the sociological and political notions that were/are current, so that makes it science fiction.

Science fiction doesn't have to make use of science, but it does have to make use of the systems by which we think we truthfully describe our world.
This makes me want to dig out the very fine Science Fiction by Adam Roberts.

Putting 'Speculative Fiction Tautology' into Google led me to an article by Samuel R. Delany. It doesn't really relate directly to a definition of the genre, but looks interesting nonetheless.

Robert Silverberg's (amusing) definition of science fiction:
1. An underlying speculative concept, systematically developed in a way that amounts to an
exploration of the consequences of allowing such a
departure from known reality to impinge on the
universe as we know it.

2. An awareness by the writer of the structural
underpinnings (the "body of scientific knowledge") of
our known reality, as it is currently understood, so
that the speculative aspects of the story are founded
on conscious and thoughtful departures from those
underpinnings rather than on blithe ignorance.

3. Imposition by the writer of a sense of
limitations somewhere in the assumptions of the story...

4. A subliminal knowledge of the feel and
texture of true science fiction, as defined in a
circular and subjective way from long acquaintance
with it.
All this talk about SF (I'm intrigued that SF, as an acronym, defaults to 'Speculative Fiction' for you, not 'Science Fiction' - I'm very fond of 'spec-fic', but usually associate SF with 'Science Fiction' out of habit) might actually get me to go and read some. :o)
I'm intrigued that SF, as an acronym, defaults to 'Speculative Fiction' for you, not 'Science Fiction'

Four years in the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group will do that to a guy. ;-)

Adam Roberts' book is indeed very interesting. He was meant to be working on a more in-depth version, but I haven't seen anything about that for a while.
What did the OUSFG do, other than drop off old books in the St. Giles branch of Oxfam ;o) (My copy of Blaylock's Land of Dreams has, I seem to remember, an OUSFG stamp).

I never joined, but I don't think I came across it at Freshers' Fair, otherwise I probably would have. I also kept meaning to go to the OU Doctor Who group, but never did...

A more in-depth version of Science Fiction would be fascinating - the New Critical Idioms version, as it stands, is quite substantial. If you ever come across anything about it, do let me know :o)
See here. Basically, watch videos, have discussion meetings, invite authors to come and talk, and occasionally do silly things. Like, um, stamp two-thirds of Oxford's college with the OUSFG stamp.

The 'speculative', it is said, originates because the proctors didn't think 'science fiction' was a worthy enough subject for an Oxford University society. But basically it's useful, because it means the group can cover whatever it wants. :)
So when I wrote:
Well, I really don't want to get into an argument about "what is SF" because I know you'll just beat me about the head with well reasoned and carefully considered analysis
I was absolutely right :-) However, we appear to be agreeing, at least partially, which is nice - especially considering my own incoherent ramblings were barely comprehensible compared to what you posted.
Ahhh! He's still talking about it!

(You were on about this on the train to London Bridge last weekend!)
Was not!

(Andrew was. The bit about 1984 not being shelved in science fiction sections was just a coda that amused me.)
In relation to bookshops, the main reason (IMO) it is put in fiction is that lots of people who don't read science fiction do read 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four - I'd be interested to see how many editions use each form of the title); and because very few people who don't read science fiction browse in the 'Science Fiction & Fantasy' section of bookshops. So, to ensure that the maximum number of people buy the book, they put it there, where people will find it. ;o)

But people often look for Edgar Allen Poe in 'Horror', even though it is shelved (often) in 'Classics', so go figure.