science fiction n. 2

a genre (of fiction, film, etc.) in which the plot or setting features speculative scientific or technological advances or differences

‘Definitions of science fiction are not so much a series of logical approximations to an elusive ideal, as a small, parasitic subgenre in themselves.’ (Patrick Parrinder, Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching (1980))

For a large number of definitions of science fiction, see the Wikipedia entry; for a brief but thorough discussion of the history and difficulties of defining the term, see the entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (linked below). This dictionary uses a broad view of the term for this entry and in its inclusion policy.

The early bracketed quotes represent different senses, and are presented here for completeness. The 1851 quotes from William Wilson mean ‘fiction or poetry depicting scientific knowledge’; the 1881 quote from the (London) Daily News means ‘an untrue or implausible scientific theory’.

In the 1898 quot., the item before the one quoted here is signed ‘H. B. M.’, which may refer to Harry B. Mason, the author of the 1897 quot. at science fiction n. 1, from a different pharmaceutical trade journal. If ‘H. B. M.’ wrote the quoted item as well, Mason may thus be the author of both quots.

SF Encyclopedia

SF Criticism


  • [1851 W. Wilson A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject x. 137 page image

    Fiction has lately been chosen as a means of familiarizing science in one single case only, but with great success…. We hope it will not be long before we may have other works of Science-Fiction, as we believe such books likely to fulfil [sic] a good purpose, and create an interest, where, unhappily, science alone might fail. [Ibid. 139] Campbell says that ‘Fiction in Poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanting resemblance.’ Now this applies especially to Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true—thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life.]

  • [1881 Daily News 16 Apr. 7/1

    I wonder who really believes that science-fiction about the earth being so much more powerfully attracted that it really leaves the waters behind, and so produces the rise of water on the opposite side of the earth.]

  • 1898 Bulletin of Pharmacy (vol. 12, no. 10) Oct. 466/1 page image

    Mr. H. G. Wells, the imaginative writer of science-fiction, has recently brought out a thrilling romance whose basis is the intended conquest of the earth by the inhabitants of Mars.

  • 1906 Boston Evening Transcript 24 Apr. 10/5

    The author [sc. H. G. Wells], as in his odd Science fiction, bounds daringly from peak to peak of high thinking….alighting, however, as securely and blithely as a bird, on his feet, every time.

  • 1911 Inter Ocean (Chicago) 11 Nov. 5/5

    A COLUMBUS OF SPACE (by Garrett P. Serviss. D. Appleton & Co., New York. Illustrated, $1.50) — This is a science-fiction tale for boys, written in Jules Verne’s fashion. He who is the hero of the story, by the power of ‘inter-atomic energy,’ sails into space in a queer airship he’s constructed, and with his companion lands on Venus. Then there is enough of lively action. Fierce giants with white saucer eyes and most beautiful Amazons, and monsters of the prehistoric sort, and dangers of several varieties, provide it. Boys will enjoy the story, which has four full page pictures in colors.

  • 1927 Amazing Stories Jan. 974/2 page image

    Remember that Jules Verne was a sort of Shakespeare in science fiction.

  • 1929 H. Gernsback in Science Wonder Stories June 5/1 page image Hugo Gernsback

    I started the movement of science fiction in America in 1908…. At that time it was an experiment. Science fiction authors were scarce. Ibid. 5/2 Science fiction, as published in Science Wonder Stories, is a tremendous new force in America. They are the stories that are discussed by inventors, by scientists, and in the classroom.

  • 1952 D. Knight Dissecting Table in Science Fiction Adventures Nov. 122 page image Damon Knight

    That the term ‘science fiction’ is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein’s suggestion, ‘speculative fiction’, is the best, I think), but that we're stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like ‘The Saturday Evening Post’, it means what we point to when we say it.

  • 1960 K. Amis New Maps of Hell i. 18 page image Kingsley Amis bibliography

    Science fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin.

  • 1974 N. Spinrad Modern Science Fiction Introd. Norman Spinrad

    Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.

  • 1976 A. Panshin & C. Panshin SF in Dimension 307 Alexei Panshin Cory Panshin

    Crude, vigorous and imaginative magazine stories from one of the star writers of Thirties pulp science fiction.

  • 1978 G. S. Elrick Science Fiction Handbook 6

    Soft science fiction is basically based on sociology, anthropology, political science, theology, or mythology. Example: Brian Aldiss’s Galaxies Like Grains of Sand.

  • 1986 G. K. Wolfe Critical Terms for Science Fiction & Fantasy 120 Gary K. Wolfe bibliography

    Soft science fiction, probably a back-formation from Hard Science Fiction, and used sometimes to refer to science fiction based in the so-called soft sciences (anthropology, sociology, etc.), and sometimes to refer to science fiction in which there is little science or little awareness of science at all.

  • 1986 J. Gunn Readers of Hard Science Fiction in G. E. Slusser & E. S. Rabkin Hard Science Fiction 74 James E. Gunn

    By hard science fiction we mean that science fiction in which the story turns around a change in the environment that can be understood only scientifically and generally through what are known as the hard sciences, usually the laboratory sciences such as chemistry, physics, and biology, and the observational sciences such as astronomy, geology, and geography. Mathematics and computers are two of the tools used by all the hard sciences. These sciences are considered hard because they deal with objective data, and predictions can be made from these data that are verifiable.

  • 1994 B. Bova Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells ii. 6 Ben Bova bibliography

    Science fiction stories are those in which some aspect of future science or high technology is so integral to the story that, if you take away the science or technology, the story collapses.

  • 2007 J. Prucher Brave New Words 171/1 Jeff Prucher bibliography

    science fiction…a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms.

Research requirements

antedating 1898

Research History
Andy Sawyer submitted a 1927 cite from an Amazing Stories letter column editorial response -- probably T. O'Conor Sloane, or possibly Hugo Gernsback.
Fred Shapiro submitted a 1911 cite from the Chicago "Inter Ocean", which seems to be the modern sense.
Stephen Goranson submitted an 1898 cite from the Bulletin of Pharmacy, in reference to H. G. Wells.
Fred Shapiro submitted a 1906 cite from the Boston Evening Transcript, in reference to H. G. Wells.

Last modified 2023-05-12 19:16:09
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.