Science Fiction Lexicon

SF Lexicon
alternative history. A SF work which may well seem on the surface to be
quite "realistic" but which deals with a "what if" in which historical
events have turned out differently. Examples include Dick's The Man in
the High Castle (Germany and Japan win WW II) and Gibson and
Sterling's The Difference Engine (in which computers become prominent
in the Victorian era).
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Allegory. An all-encompassing symbolic tale in which virtually all
elements of the tale, and the tale as a whole, can be understood to have
another symbolic meaning.
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Allusion. A reference in a work of literature to something outside the work. To
get the full the meaning of the text, the reader will need to get the reference.
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android. An automaton made to resemble a human being.
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archetypes. Jung's term for the ever-recurrent road markers of human
experience; images, forms, patterns, symbols, rites of passage that transcend
particular cultures.
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canon, the. The body of works deemed acceptible (usually by high culture
elites like academics and critics) for study and serious consideration. Once
outside the canon, SF (or some of it at least) has now become "canonical"—
follwing a path similar to literature by women, minorities, etc.
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Clarion, the Workshop. Six week intensive summer workshop for aspiring SF
writers (sometimes called a "SF boot camp"), originally held at Clarion State
College (now Clarion University) in Pennsylvania, founded by Robin Scott
Wilson (a Clarion English Professor), Damon Knight, and Kate WIlhelm in 1968.
Considered a seminal factor in the development of modern SF.
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convention. A pre-ordained way of doing something. Each and every art,
including literature, has its own conventions. In opera, for example, people
sing. A particular genre/or sub-genre is identifable, in part, by its particular
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cult SF. A work, either book or film, that develops a fanatic following, a group
whose members identify with the work, usually knowing it by heart, able to
quote it and discuss it (at conventions, on the internet) exhaustively, even
patterning their lives after its characters. Works as dfiferent as Star Trek and
Star Wars, Liquid Sky and Repo Man have attained cult status.
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cyberpunk. Prominent late 20th Century SF postmodern subgenre, tracing its
origins back to the early work of William Gibson (some make J. G. Ballard and
William Burroughs the originators). Characterized by 1) noirish depiction of
urban landscapes (often in decay), 2) ambivalent take on technology, 3)
hardboiled characters, 4) emphasis on international crime, 5) preoccupation
with cyberspace, into which its characters, anxious to escape the "meat,"
becoming pure consciousness, can enter and travel about. Several of the
stories in the NASF are by Cyberpunkers (the stories by Gibson, Dorsey,
Sterling, Cadigan, for example). The current film The Matrix is a cyberpunk
movie. Academic interest in cyberpunk has helped to unmarginalize the genre.
alt.culture entry
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cyberspace. William Gibson's term for the virtual reality created by
computers and the internet.
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cyborg. A human being modified for life in a hostile or alien environment by
the substitution of artificial organs and other body parts, or a part
human/part robot hybrid.
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See estrangement.
estrangement. A Russian formalist term, coined early in the century: The
power—central to all art—to make things strange/unfamiliar and thus open to
new understandings. Translation of the Russian word "ostranenie.“
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disaster stories. A SF subgenre—most prominent 9n SF film—which focuses
on natural or human disasters and their aftermaths.
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dystopia. The opposite of a utopia. Any tale, usually set in the future, in
which scciety has become, in its denial of human freedom, nightmarish and
oppressive, and a denial of human freedom. Classic examples include Le
Guin's "The New Atlantis" (in NBSF), Orwell's1984, Huxley's Brave New
World, Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
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epiphany. A moment of awareness, of revelation. Joyce believed that short
stories, by their very nature, tend to be about epiphanal moments.
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extrapolation. To arrive at (conclusions or results) by hypothesizing from
known facts or observations. According to LeGuin, extrapolation gives rise to
much of SF.
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fan fiction. Supplementary unofficial stories written by fans of a book, a
series, a movie, making use of already existing characters in news plots. A
postmodern phenomenon.
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fantastic, the.
Todorov's term for that art (especially literature) which deals with
supernatural or quasi-supernatural, "fantastic" things. According to Todorov,
the fantastic exist only until science comes up with explanations that will
suffice. The biggest conference annually (held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida) that
brings together both fantasy and SF scholars and writers is called the
International Conference on the Fantastic.
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fantasy. In LeGuin's terms, literature that is grounded in a supernatural, nonscientific, magical worldview. For LeGuin, fantasy is the "grandmother"; SF is
one of the "kids.“
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first-person narrator. A narrator who speaks in his own voice; when "I" tells a
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foreshadowing. When later developments in a narrative are hinted at early
on. The famous Pushkin law—"Never plant a gun in the first act unless you
intend to use it in the last"—is really about foreshadowing.
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formula. Customary, prefabricated, conventional styles of
plot/imagery/setting, etc. routinely/conventionally followed by an
author/artist. Probably every narrative form—from literature to opera—
develops formulae.
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genre fiction. Largely formulaic fiction with pre-ordained character types,
conventions, motifs, iconography. In traditional assessments of the canon,
genre fiction—including SF—ranks low and is often not considered art.
According to Thomas Schatz (Hollywood Film Genres) Platonic models for a
given genre might be thought to exist.
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Golden Age (of SF). SF from (roughly) 1930-1960, usually hard.
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Grandmother and the Kids. LeGuin's special desgination for fantasy (the
Grandmother) and all the literary forms it has spun-off over the centuries.
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hard SF. SF from the Golden Age, characterized by the overwhelming
predominance of male writers and its almost scientistic faith in science,
technology, and the future. See also soft SF.
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icon/iconography. A recurring image/imagery or motif(s) of a particular
genre. Leguin argues that SF is in some part identifiable by its iconography.
Bear in mind that the term "icon" originally referred to religious relics (a
statue of the Virgin Mary, for example); hence "icon" as a metaphor carries
religious overtones.
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in medias res. Literally "in the midle of things." Describes a narrative in which
the story begins after some of the key events have already taken place.
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intertextual. When a work of art requires other "texts," to which it refers—by
allusion and or quotation— in order to establish its own meaning and
significance. Commonplace in postmodernism.
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irony. A perceived discrepancy between appearance and reality or between
expectation and reality. If Jeff Gordan is killed on the way to buy a loaf of
bread, his death would be ironic. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony.
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magical realism.
Literary style emanating from Latin America which mixes without explanation
the supernatural and the mundane. Not SF, though it is one of the "kids."
Probably best understood as a form of the fantastic.
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marginalization. The tendency to put aside (and not allow in the canon) the
literature/culture.artistic forms of minority (women, African Americans,
Native American) voices and genres. SF has traditionally been marginalized.
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meat, the. Cyberpunk slang for the body.
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megatext. The overarching (bigger than the story itself) "mother" tale (LeGuin
would say grandmother): the source on which literature perpetually draws.
For LeGuin, the megatext that governs SF may well be the story of science
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Metaphor. An expressed "poetic" comparison between two things, one
known and understood, the other known/not yet understood, which seeks to
illuminate the latter by drawing on the characteristics of the former. From a
Greek word for "bridge." According to LeGuin, literalized metaphors are the
seed crystal for many SF story.
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Narratee. The specified or unspecified person to whom a narrator is
supposedly speaking.
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Narrative. The fancy, more scientifc word for storytelling. The critical study of
narrative is called narratology.
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Narrator. The teller of a tale. In fiction, the perspective from which a narrator
speaks is known as point-of-view.
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novum. A "new thing" introduced into a story, with resulting estrangement.
According to Darko Suvin, the presence of a novum(s) identifies a work as SF.
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omniscient narrator. A narrator (usually in third person) who has god-like
knowledge of characters and their motives.
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ostranenie. See estragnement.
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parody. A form of satire that sets out to spoof another work of literature (or
other art).
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pastiche. Combining/hybridizing styles, icons, formula. Distinctive signature
of postmodernism (according to Jameson). Similarly, media critic Todd Gitlin
has noted postmodernism's tendency toward the recombinant.
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persona. The voice in which a writer speaks in a work. From the Greek word
for mask.
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point of view. The perspective from which a story is told. Common povs
include first person: in which an "I" tells a tale, usually from a limited,
subjective vantage point, usually about events in which the "I" is involved
third person; in which the story is told by an outsider, either omniscient or a
central intelligence (who knows about the events of the narrative as an
observer of them but lacks comniscient knowledge).
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postmodernism. End of the Twentieth Century artistic sensibility/cultural
mindset, characterized by self-referentially, intertextuality, derivitiveness,
excessive quotation—by an overpowering awareness of what Eco has called
"the already said." The advent of Postmodernism has lead to an increased
interest in—and decreased marginalization of—SF.
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reader-response criticism. A school of literary criticism which argues that the
reader is as responsible for the construction of a text as the author.
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reading protocol. A particular logic that governs the way we read. We read
poetry by a different protocol than we read fiction. We read SF by a different
protocol than we read realistic fiction. According to Samuel Delany, in fact,
the RP with which we must approach SF is in large part what defines it. Such
an approach to literature is generally called reader-response criticism.
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resisting reader. Judith Fetterley's designation for a reader/viewer who reads
a text against the grain, finding in it uncommon, often counter-cultural
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science fiction. See "Toward a Definition of Science Fiction" on this site.
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scientistic. The tendency to turn science into a belief in science as a be-all
and end-all. Science as a quasi-religion. LeGuin accuses much hard SF of
being scientistic.
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self-referential. When a work of art knows that it is a work of art, referring,
like a snake biting its own tail, to itself in its presentation. Characteristic of
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slash fan fiction. Often pornographic, always edgy fan fiction which
transplants the characters of an existing work into radically different kinds of
stories, changing, for example, their sexual orientations, making, for example,
Spock and Kirk lovers. A postmodern phenomenon.
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soft SF. The opposite, obviously, of hard SF; since the 1960s SF had tended to
be "soft," that is non-scientistic, concerned with themes like gender, selfidentity, ecology, reality/illusion, etc. Soft SF has arisen simultaneously with
the greater prominence of minority and women writers and audiences.
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space opera. An old-fashioned SF tale (or an imitation of it) involving all of
the givens of the classic Golden Age tale: spaceships, ray guns, brave men, evil
aliens, robots.
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steampunk. Alternative history cyberpunk in which modern technology is
transplanted back into earlier periods of history. Gibson and Sterling's The
Difference Engine (in which computers become prominent in the Victorian
era), or the film Wild, Wild West are good examples.
alt.culture entry
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subtext. An underlying, emergent theme in a work or works.
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unreliable narrator. A narrator (usually first person) who is not to be trusted.
As readers, we are invited to doubt his/her presentation of facts and
intepretation of them.
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Utopia. A tale depicting a perfect human society. The name derives from Sir
Thomas More's 16th century book, though the Latin word "utopia" actually
means "nowhere." Prime examples include Butler's Erewhon ["nowhere"
spelled backwards] Bellamy's Looking Backward, and Russ' "A Few Things I
Know About Whileaway" (in NBSF). A dystopia is an inverted utopia.