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.