What Is Science Fiction Poetry? Part 1: Definition

It’s poetry that’s also science fiction. What more is there to say?

Quite a lot, actually. I’m not even going to attempt to define poetry, but science fiction itself is a notoriously slippery beast. To make it into Voyagers, the anthology of New Zealand science fiction poetry that Mark Pirie and myself are co-editing, poems had to pass the twin filters of being good poetry, and of having a science-fictional element: of either or both using science fiction imagery, or science fiction ideas.

Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to Voyagers that discusses out the definition we used as we considered poems for the anthology:

Selecting poems for this anthology would have been much easier if there was a universally-agreed definition of science fiction. But there isn’t. A conservative definition might be that science fiction is that genre of literature which speculates about the effects of changes to the universe we know, where those changes follow or are extrapolated from known scientific principles.

This definition is inadequate – it would exclude a number of poems in this anthology – but it makes some key points:

  • Science fiction is a literature of change.
  • It is often set in the future.
  • Science fiction is counter-factual: the universe is changed in at least one respect from the universe as it was known to the writer.
  • The changes in science fiction are extrapolations based on accepted or speculative scientific principles.

This is why some types of universe are excluded, such as those of fantasy, where the changes are supernatural rather than natural, or of magic realism and fabulation, where the changes are not rationalised. In addition, we reluctantly had to exclude many excellent poems which dealt with astronomy, or with the history of space exploration, but which lacked the crucial element of speculation.

But what riches remain! You’ll find the ‘traditional’ concerns of science fiction here: aliens, space travel, time travel, the end of the world – and also concepts you may not previously have thought of as science fiction. Whether questioning, apocalyptic or playful, these are poems which shine the flashlight of science fiction on our universe, and relish the strange images which result.

Now, what’s above is just our definition of science fiction poetry. Yours may vary; indeed, it probably will. But science fiction poetry isn’t just a matter of definition – it’s an amalgam of science fiction and poetry with a surprisingly long history, and even its own set of awards. I’ll blog about that history next time.

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