Modern Science Fiction: Definitions and Plot Types

The look at James Gunn’s master thesis Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.


Essay: Definitions of SF and Plot Types

So why does Gunn’s thesis classify the genre by plot type?


Science fiction, as we noted in the preceding section, is a medium of ideas, and the only way ideas can work themselves out dramatically is in terms of plot.

Gunn looks at seven different definitions of science fiction from the seven anthologists he mostly relied on in his sample.

The most striking are from Sam Merwin, Jr and Groff Conklin.

Merwin succinctly said, “Science fiction is fantasy wearing a tight girdle”.

Conklin was longer, but I think he hit on something important with needing at least the appearance of rationality:

It may be suggested that science fiction is composed of “supernatural” writing for materialists. You may read every science-fiction story that is true science fiction, and never once have to compromise with your id. The stories all have rational explanations, provided you are willing to grant the word “rational” a certain elasticity.

While Gunn says any literary form that can be confined to a rigid definition has already ceased to grow. (My question when I hear these evolutionary arguments about how the genre must evolve and change is change and evolve to what?  What is the defined standard? Is there no time in that evolution it is more fit for its purpose than other times? If so, what purpose? How will you know you’ve evolved enough?)

Still, Gunn says definitions can be useful for discussion, and he tends to side with Conklin because Conklin emphasizes rationality.

Gunn says J. O. Bailey’s classification system for sf is not very useful because it emphasizes invention and discovery not the more basic plot. Bailey had four original categories:

  • The wonderful machine
  • The wonderful journey
  • Utopias and satires
  • The Gothic romance

To those, Bailey later added:

  • The occult and supernatural
  • The historic romance
  • Crime and detection
  • The cosmic romance

Gunn says these are adequate to categorizing historical sf but not the modern, post-1930 version.

Conklin’s classification scheme, the one he used for section headings in his anthologies, was:

  • The Atom
  • The Wonders of Earth
  • The Superscience of Man
  • Dangerous Inventions
  • Adventures in Dimensions
  • From Outer Space
  • Far Traveling

Gunn’s plot schematic is an expansion of John W. Campbell, Jr’s three part classification: prophecy story, philosophical story, adventure story.

Curiously, Gunn says that all literature, including science fiction, has only two different types of plots: “plots in which the conflict is between man and his environment and those in which the conflict is initiated by a character’s activities.”

This does not match what we’ve long heard are the types of story conflicts: man vs nature, man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. himself.

Next I’ll start looking at what Gunn calls the plots of circumstance.

4 thoughts on “Modern Science Fiction: Definitions and Plot Types

  1. jameswharris November 8, 2019 / 11:09 am

    This Gunn book looked interesting when you first posted these reviews but I wasn’t ready to read it. I’m rereading The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin about SF in the early 1940s. I’m getting a whole new insight into Golden Age SF. So now I’m thinking harder about getting the Gunn book since it’s a 1951 perspective. I’m realizing SF writers in the 1940s had a whole different take on SF than what we do today.

    • marzaat November 8, 2019 / 12:06 pm

      I have a copy of the Panshin book and some other sf crit books (including John J. Pierce’s four volume series on sf themes and history). I’m hoping, once I get through my current reading projects and clear my reviewing commitments, to read them.

      The Gunn thesis, in light of your recent post about Spinrad’s “On Books” column, would seem to show what Gunn thought sf’s purpose was at the time of writing.

      Personally, I’m very much in favor of categorization in art and music and distinguishing between sf and fantasy. I think the cheering of genre boundaries being breached is not a good thing. Hybrids can be vigorous but they often weaken or eliminate useful traits of the parent species. (I’m talking art, not genes.) At its best, sf has the rigor of a structured poem. Fantasy is usually free verse — perhaps valuable but easier to construct, less artful.
      Sf and fantasy are aesthetic distinctions. If they weren’t why would there be readers like you and me who are less attracted to the aesthetic of fantasy than sf?

      To be sure, fantasy can have a variety of purposes applicable to the real world. But I’d argue that sf can usually meet those purposes and more.

      • jameswharris November 8, 2019 / 6:28 pm

        I believe fantasy has its own rich and diverse purposes unrelated to science fiction. I can’t see why it would want to be confused with science fiction either.

        I believe people who read just to enjoy stories don’t care about genre distinctions. But if you are an artist trying to work in a particular form it does matter. And if you want to admire or judge writers for their efforts I think it matters. It wouldn’t be fair to judge His Dark Materials or the Harry Potter books by the standards of we judge science fiction. Maybe it would be clearer to say we don’t judge a waltz in a limbo contest.

        But I think it gets even more complicated than that. I’m discovering what science fiction writers were aiming at in the 1940s is totally different than what science fiction writers target today. I’m going through some kind of epiphany about science fiction in my recent readings. We can’t judge past generations by modern morality, and we can’t judge 1940s science fiction by 2010s science fiction. Those writers were in a totally different headspace.

      • marzaat November 8, 2019 / 7:08 pm

        I’ll definitely be interested in your thoughts on this. Especially the influence of Campbell and Gernsback.

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