Brian Aldiss gives his definition of Science Fiction on page one of Chapter One of a five-hundred-page volume. This is admirably bold of him - more timorous scholars tuck their definitions away inconspicuously, or else develop complex excuses for not giving any - as well as being admirably genial. After all, says Aldiss, the definition may be wrong, but it doesn't matter: 'we can modify it as we go along.' The definition is as follows: 'Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.' There is no doubt that this is in the right area. Compare, for instance, Darko Suvin's now famous definition of Science Fiction as 'a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment', and note the buried parallels of 'science' and 'cognition', of 'imaginative framework' and 'Gothic mode'. Still, almost any definition of Science Fiction would be in the right area - unless written by a Martian. How precisely correct is Aldiss's? Specifically, does the genre not strain the notion of 'Gothic' too far? And as for the notion of a genre centred on 'a definition of mankind', does that not look - remembering Star Wars and Mr Spock - by some way too ambitious? Is Aldiss not, as he was in this book's 1973 precursor, Billion Year Spree, a trifle over-persuaded by Mary Shelley?
LRB 5 February 1987 | PDF Download