Type Book
Date 2006
Pages 159
Series The New Critical Idiom
Tags science fiction, nonfiction

Science Fiction, Second Edition

Chapter 1: Defining Science Fiction

SF is difficult to define. Roberts offers a few perspectives.

SF is a genre that rationalizes its differences in a physical (or, one might say, scientific) way:

But it is part of the logic of SF, and not of other forms of fiction, that these changes be made plausible within the structure of the text. This means that the premise of an SF novel requires material, physical rationalisation, rather than a supernatural or arbitrary one.

Roberts introduces Darko Suvin's idea of the novum:

This is precisely what Suvin asserts: ‘SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ ... validated by cognitive logic’ (Suvin 1979: 63). By this he means that the implications of the ‘novum’ dominate, or create a ‘hegemony’ (a term from Marxist theory to describe the maintenance of power by indirect and pervasive means rather than by direct force) throughout the text. ‘Cognitive Logic’ becomes for Suvin a crucial formal convention of SF.

Roberts also describes Robert Scholes's definition of SF from his book Structural Fabulation, though his description doesn't do much service to it.

Finally, Roberts offers a definition from Damien Broderick, summarizing:

Broderick’s insight that we recognise SF in part because it deploys certain ‘icons’ that are consensually taken as ‘SF’. Many of these devices, as Broderick mentions, derive from a corpus of accepted ‘nova’: starships, time-machines, robots and the like. Each of these connects with a particular ‘estranged’ version of our reality.

There is a common theme:

What these various definitions of SF have in common, then, is a sense of SF as in some central way about the encounter with difference. This encounter is articulated through a ‘novum’, a conceptual, or more usually material, embodiment of alterity, the point at which the SF text distils the difference between its imagined world and the world which we all inhabit. For Scott McCracken, ‘at the root of all science fiction lies the fantasy of alien encounter’. He adds that ‘the meeting of self with other is perhaps the most fearful, most exciting and most erotic encounter of all’ (McCracken 1998: 102). This serves as the basis of many critics’ affection for the genre, the fact that SF provides a means, in a popular and accessible fictional form, for exploring alterity. Specific SF nova are more than just gimmicks, and much more than clichés; they provide a symbolic grammar for articulating the perspectives of normally marginalised discourses of race, of gender, of non-conformism and alternative ideologies. We might think of this as the progressive or radical potential of science fiction.

Roberts concluces with a case study of Dune.

Chapter 2: The History of SF

A familiar history, touching on proto-sf from the classical period and a few scattered thoughout history, before settling on the usual starting point of Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, and proceeding through Verne and Wells.

Once into the modern period, Roberts discusses SF as embodied in the pulps, the Golden Age of SF, and the New Wave.

Roberts concludes with a case study of Star Wars with a focus on intertextuality.

Chapter 3: SF and Gender

Discusses the Alien films as associating the alien with women.

Mentioned works

  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Star of Danger
  • Stormqueen!
  • The Female Man
  • When It Changed
  • Maul
  • Banner of Souls
  • Xenogenesis series
  • Woman on the Edge of Time
  • The Women Men Don't See
  • The Girl Who Was Plugged In
  • I'll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool Is Empty
  • The Girl Who Was Plugged In
  • …lots of Tiptree
  • The Image of Women in Science Fiction
  • Grass
  • Neveryon / Delany
  • Titan; Wizard; Demon / Varley
  • The Ship Who Sang
  • Is Gender Necessary? (see also Is Gender Necessary? Redux)

Chapter 4: SF and Race

This chapter has some interesting things to say, but in short SF does address issues of race, and insofar as race is a fundamental kind of difference with which society is concerned, it is implicit in SF narratives in general, in much the same way as the issue of gender.

Case study: Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy


Roberts writes that the Klingons in TOS "connote 'orientalism', particularly a caricature of the Japanese" (Roberts, 2006, p. 103), but according to John Colicos, who played Kor in "Errand of Mercy", the makeup was intended to remind the viewer of Genghis Khan (Gross & Altman, 1995, p. 40).

Mentioned works

  • Kindred / Butler
  • Starship Troopers / Heinlein
  • A Cure for Cancer / Moorcock
  • The Land Leviathan / Moorcock
  • Farnham's Freehold / Heinlein
  • The Einstein Intersection / Delany

Chapter 5: SF and Technology

Roberts asserts: "The spaceship is almost always humanised; it may be sentient itself […] or, at the very least, imbued with a certain character and individuality, like Millennium Falcon in Star Wars." Isn't that going quite too far? I don't think there's anyone who would agree that the MF is in any way humanised, and 'it has a certain character' is too weak an argument for that proposition.

Roberts makes the point, not very well, that spaceships can be characters or otherwise fill roles beyond mere props.

Roberts discusses robots, which may function as a metaphor for race, or for sex or some other division of people, or may act as a commentary of something more basic: what it means to be alive, to have purpose, etc.

Roberts then enters into an extended discussion of Star Trek's Borg, which I think is not entirely well-advised at this point. He argues that the Borg represent a truly alien culture, with values really incompatible with human ones, not in the sense of being opposed to ours, but rather existing separate from ours. Sure, but this has little to do with robots, cyborgs, or even technology, so it's not well-placed at this point in the book.

Case study: Neuromancer.

Mentioned works

  • Port Eternity / Cherryh
  • Culture series / Banks
  • The Ship Who Sang / McCaffrey
  • 2001 / Clarke
  • Merchanters series / Cherryh
  • NonStop / Aldiss
  • Confluence series / McAuley
  • R.U.R. / Capek
  • Westworld (film) / Crichton

Chapter 6: Conclusion

More about what sf is, how it works, etc., primarily concerned with metaphor.


Gross, E., & Altman, M. A. (1995). Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages. Little, Brown and Company.
Roberts, A. (2006). Science Fiction (Second Edition). Routledge.
Name Role
Adam Roberts Author
Routledge Publisher


1: Defining science fiction 1
    Some formalist definitions of SF 3
    Three definitions 7
    Difference 16
    Stucturalist approaches 20
    Prediction and nostalgia 24
    Case study: Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) 28
2: The history of SF 37
    The long history of science fiction 38
    The gothic history of SF 42
    The Gernsbackian history of SF 50
    The golden age: Asimov 56
    SF in the 1960s and 1970s 60
    New wave 61
    Case study: Star Wars (1977) and intertextuality 66
3: SF and gender 71
    Feminist science fiction 71
    Women and aliens 78
    Case study: Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) 84
4: SF and race 94
    Representing race 96
    Race and Star Trek 102
    Alien abduction 105
    Case study: Butler's xenogenesis 106
5: SF and technology 110
    Spaceships 112
    Robots 116
    Cyberspace 123
    Case study: William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984) 125
6: Conclusion 134
    Metaphor 135
    Metaphor and the literal 139
    Ricoeur 143
    Religion 146
Bibliography 149
Index 156


Relation Sources
  • Dune (1965-12-01)
  • Star Wars (1977-05-25)