The Expanding Universe of Science Fiction vol.0 What do you mean by science fiction?

What does science fiction mean to our dystopian world? In this series of articles, we will take a close look at the genre of science fiction in the age of uncertainty, introducing everything from classic works to the latest trends.

Science Fiction is getting a lot of attention in Japan these days. When you hear “like Science Fiction,” what comes to your mind? Space travel, bizarre and complex machines, new technologies, a big city with glittering neon signs, or time travel? Well, the answers would vary for each person. One way to answer this question is by examining some of the recent and prominent publications and projects that are expanding the universe of science fiction (SF) — a vibrant, global literary genre of all futures.

The first Hugo-winning Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s  The Three-Body Problem trilogy has sold over 470,000 copies (according to its Japanese translation of the third volume). Increasingly, books on business are using sci-fi to predict and chart possible inventions and disruptions. And Fuji TV just broadcasted a series called World Sci-fi Writers Conference

The increasing influence of the genre and its impact on popular culture can be explained in multiple ways. One reason for the massive expansion of the genre could be explained by our expectation for these works of SF to be useful to understand, combat and survive daily life. During the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the world is turning to SF authors to provide insight or paint a picture of the futures, both good and bad. In April 2020, the French webmedia Bibliobs featured commentaries on the current pandemic by authors like Liu Cixin, Vladimir Sorokin, Christopher Priest and William Gibson.

False Prophets

The Akutagawa Prize-winning author Haneko Takayama, who debuted from Sogen SF Short Story contest, highlighted the trend during a recent interview: 
 “I feel recently there is a trend that people expect sci-fi writers to be prophets. Since society requires high efficiency, we are expected to select the right ones from among many choices. However, I think that sci-fi writers do just the opposite. Our work is about creating new choices and going beyond the existing frameworks.” (p.78, “Haneko Takayama + Satoshi Ogawa: Looking for New Branches of Fiction,” Shosetsu Tripper, Summer 2021. Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2021)

Although I am skeptical about the usefulness of science fiction to predict the future, it is understandable that people want some clues to understand the future. As social and environmental unrest grows, the need for understanding the future increases. ​Some of us might feel relieved when we get more information about the future while others may want to look away from reality and immerse themselves in fiction.

What is SF?

What are the salient characteristics of such fiction anyway? The Merriam-Webster English Dictionary defines Science Fiction as “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals.” The British author H. G. Wells, who is best known for The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1987), and The War of the Worlds (1897), wrote works that fit the definition of science fiction even before the term for the genre was coined.

Judith Merril, an American-born Canadian critic, editor and writer of science fiction, classified science fiction into three categories in her book What Do You Mean, Science? Fiction? (Its Japanese edition was translated by Hisashi Asakura, published by Shobunsha, 1972.):

Teaching stories: “the dramatized essay or disguised treatise, in which the fiction form is utilized to present a new scientific idea (…)”
Preaching stories: “primarily allegories and satires — morality pieces, prophecies, visions, and warnings, more concerned with the conduct of human society than with its techniques (…)”
Speculative fiction: “stories whose objective is to explore, to discover, to learn, by means of projection, extrapolation, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper-experimentation, something about the nature of the universe, of man, or ‘reality’.”

Of course, this classification is neither definitive nor all-encompassing. “For purposes of this discussion,” Merril writes, “I am not considering the space adventure story, the transplanted western or historical, as science fiction at all.” (p. 22) While Merril dismisses adventure stories, the branch of entertainment adventure story has continued as illustrated in the graphic chronology “The History of Science Fiction” by Ward Shelley. Also, Merril admitted that categories sometimes can be compounded or cross-bred. 

“Speculative Fiction” is not a singular invention by one person. Merril just added her own interpretation to the existing term, which was already used by Robert A. Heinlein in the late 1940s. At the time, it was used to ‘describe a subset of sf involving extrapolation from known science and technology “to produce a new situation, a new framework for human action”.’

Today, Science Fiction has become a broad umbrella term that can be used for science fiction which does not only center on science and technology, but also horror and fantasy, and literature that depicts alternate history or the future. For example, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 are regarded as science fiction novels even though these were not published or marketed as science fiction originally.

SF has been growing

When Ward Shelley’s illustrated map The History of Science Fiction went viral in 2011, infographs were a new trend on the Internet. Shelley’s infograph presents the literary genre like a tree with many branches that sometimes merge together and sometimes grow separately. And it becomes obvious that science fiction did not grow from a single seed, but the interlocked roots. Myths, folklore, scientific romance, adventure stories in exotic land… — these roots have existed in every culture around the world long before the genre gained the prominence or following that it has today. There is no single common understanding of science fiction after all.

Pulp magazines fostered and nurtured America’s thriving sci-fi culture in the 1920s and 1930s — playing a role similar to that of Marvel comics and films today. Also, the public hunger for entertainment and their interest in science and technology around World War II were critical in pushing SF from the margins to the mainstream. Similarly, expectation and fear of science, the future, and the unknown continue to be among the chief reasons why science fiction is getting so much attention since the Golden Age today.

After World War II, SF exploded with the growth of the economy and the global market for entertainment, especially with movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972), Star Wars series (1977-), Bladerunner (1982), Matrix (1999) and lots more. At the same time in Japan, science fiction has flourished in written form as well as movies, mangas, anime and games. Japanese SF is so rich in culture and tradition, I can’t cite them all. Here are a few noteworthy examples — Shinichi Hoshi’s flash fictions, movies and anime especially about Kaiju monsters and robots, and manga masters like Osamu Tezuka and Moto Hagio.

SF in Japan

So what did Japanese SF writers think of science fiction?

The March 1977 issue of Kiso-Tengai (Fantastic) features a conversation between writer Taku Mayumura and Izumi Suzuki, whose first English collection Terminal Boredom: Stories was published in April 2021. (Kiso-Tengai is a Japanese science fiction magazine that had been run intermittently from 1974 to 1990. It was aiming to be a rival magazine to Hayakawa’s monthly SF Magazine.)  

Like most kids in Japan, Suzuki grew up reading science fiction and mystery published in educational magazines for children and literary magazines like Bungakukai subscribed by her parents. 

In the Kiso-Tengai interview, Suzuki talks about the vastness of science fiction:
“I guess that science fiction draws all (fiction) towards it. For example, it is sometimes said that Kafka’s works are science fiction. (…) All strange fiction becomes science fiction, possibly? I begin wondering if science fiction would be the mainstream of literature. [“SF, Otoko to Onna (An SF talk between a man and a woman),” p.207,『オレがSFなのだ 奇想天外放談集2』(“I am Science Fiction; Kiso-Tengai’s random talk collection volume 2”), Kiso Tengai Sha, 1978]

Furthermore, I discovered that genre discussions had almost faded in another interview collection of Japanese SF writers published a few years later. The newer writers seemed more interested in each other’s writing habits in『愛してるかいSF (‘Don’t you love SF?’)』 (Miki Shobo, 1985). Four female writers and three male writers (Mariko Ōhara, Motoko Arai, Maya Yamato, Hiroe Suga, Hideyuki Kikuchi, Eiichirō Saitō and Ryo Mizumi), all young, participated in a discussion titled “We, Boys & Girl’s Science Fiction.” Their topics were writing know-how and how to succeed both in writing and other activities like music or a day job. 

The 1980s were the golden age of Japanese science fiction; teenagers and university students were really into it. In the first issue of SF Houseki magazine, 501 readers voted in a poll for the Best All-time SF works. The average age was 24.5 years old. New paperback imprints for young readers like Asahi Sonorama Bunko and Shueisha Cobalt Bunko were already in circulation around 1975, which meant that SF writers had more places to submit their works.

Escapism, Entertainment or Hope

How or why did SF become such a modern literary form in Japan? What did SF mean to the youth of the previous generation, and what does it mean to today’s generation? Here the words of Japanese science fiction critics and editors, who pioneered science fiction, can help us understand why they loved science fiction so much.

Tetsu Yano (1923 – 2004) discovered pulp science fiction from books thrown away by the US occupying forces. These discarded books fueled his interest and he became one of the earliest American science fiction fans in Japan. Soon he opened a correspondence with Forrest J Ackerman, went to the US in 1953 and stayed there for six months to develop a friendship with American fans and writers. After his return to Japan, he became an active writer and translator and promoted Japanese sci-fi industry. He wrote:
 “Once I learnt the word ‘effective value.’ The effective value of science fiction is, you might say, escapism or entertainment. But for me, science fiction is effective to make me hopeful. Both in the past and now, it gives me hope. I can declare that science fiction is my symbol of hope.

There are some background factors relating to my past, or broadly speaking, the history of Japan. My awakening to science fiction began with the defeat in World War II.” ([First published in 1969, p.45, “Possessed by Science Fiction,” 『日本SF・幼年期の終り』(‘The Childhood End of Japanese SF – Monthly newsletter of the World Science Fiction Collection’), Hayakawa Shobo, 2007]

In the first issue of Kiso-Tengai (Fantastic) magazine,  the editor-in-chief Tadaho Sone wrote: 
“Currently the public is noisy: Japan sinks? (*It’s the title of Sakyo Komatsu’s bestseller sci-fi novel.) Is environmental disaster serious? Is the earth going to die soon? Is the end of humanity coming? But are we really facing a crisis? Human beings have experienced such crises and have overcome them many times. The keys were our wonderful wisdom and imagination. Human beings have saved the earth and enriched human life with imagination and creativity, which can be described as ‘Fantastic’.”

Sone’s article concluded with the sentence: “We would like to put an end to our severe apocalyptic mood and make this year the year of fantastic.” And I would like to firmly believe that we in the current apocalyptic mood can sympathize with Yano and Sone’s words written almost half a century ago.

Science Fiction in this era of chaos

While some of these old writings have aged well, some science fiction works have turn outdated, according to translator Norio Itoh.
“In my experience, works that are passing through the borderline of a changing paradigm are the most vulnerable. I am not sure of it because I haven’t verified it yet, but science fiction works are most susceptible to decay when a paradigm is changing, and when the paradigm is completely over, you can read it with a sense of nostalgia. (…) The setting of science fiction can be changed in quality by when the reader reads it.” (p.16, “Introduction”, SF Best 201, Shinshokan, 2005)

Science fiction is basically a fiction about the future, science and technology. But it is sometimes a mirror of reality and at other times it is a good medicine to forget the reality; and it is so in all periods. However, some works may undergo a change with the times. Looking around the world for science fiction, we can see how it has changed in the past decade. New writers have become much more diverse. Some writers write old-school science-focused science fiction. Some other writers write something that does not look science fiction at all. Some other writers try to update classic favorite works by themselves.

When you try to read more science fiction books, best-selling titles and classics are easier to get. That said, even masterpieces can’t remain immortal. So it is entirely possible that your ideal science fiction may be the latest title by a newbie writer! 

In this SF series, I plan to get you up-to-date with the current crops of science fiction, and also try to unearth some long-buried classics. I will take you on a wild and exciting journey through the diverse themes and works of SF from all over the world, both old and new. If this SF series helps you speculate about the nature of time, space and humankind, or simply uplift your daily mood, by suggesting your next favorite book, film or show, there’s nothing that can make me happier than it.

Edit Salik Shah and Sogo Hiraiwa
Translation Teruyuki Hashimoto and Salik Shah


Teruyuki Hashimoto

Teruyuki “Terrie” Hashimoto is a Japanese SFF book reviewer, critic and anthologist. Twitter:@biotit