On the definition of SF
A letter by Philip K. Dick
Letter of 3 September 1975
(appears in French in Igor & Grichka Bogdanoff L’Effet science–fiction, a la recharche d’une definition, Editions
Robert Laffont, Paris, 1979, pp. 293–296). This letter does not appear in the Selected Letters volume for 1975.
"Working translation” by Jeremy W. Crampton.
"Working translation” by Jeremy W. Crampton.
In all the forms of the novel, the author creates a certain number of characters, but restricts himself to using universes which exist around him, or at least which existed in the past. However, science fiction extends its creative capacity beyond characterization to the universe itself: it conceives it as one of its characters, it creates it, even if it sometimes introduces certain elements from the real world. Thus, science fiction represents an absolute surpassing of the usual techniques used in novels: it’s a matter, in a certain sense, of the highest form of the novel, of its ultimate expression, in essence it is a pure construction of ideas born in the lonely mind of its author.
However, what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy are the worlds or diverse forms of societies imagined by the author which have the ability to exist, whereas in fantasy literature on the other hand it is clear that the themes approached are contrary to all scientific truth, since the author has to deliberately infringe laws of reality. In science fiction these laws are subtly extrapolated to give rise to speculation which usually concerns [touche] the future in the same way, as the future is by definition the lesser known of the three faces of time. Similarly if the story is set in the present––as could be the case in parallel universes––or again in the past––such as in histories of time travel––the universes of science fiction stay obedient to a set number of rational regulations and not out of some caprice of magical thinking, as is the case in fantasy. One can thus say that science fiction always stays “sane of mind” [saine d’esprit].
In writing a realist novel, the author is always obedient to the image of a certain social order which he can reproduce, but science fiction, surely, is in a position of imposing a social order which never existed, and of treating the multiple implications and consequences which appear at the same time; in particular, the singular reactions of individuals obedient to this imaginary order. In fact, the author creates a sort of labyrinth which one can call the “guinea–pigs” of his imagination, that is to say the characters which he creates have to disentangle themselves as best as possible. They undergo a series of tests in order to see how they handle themselves under certain imaginary conditions: through this experience first the author and then the reader discover all sorts of things about mankind, about their proper personality, and finally, about the way they react themselves if they were subject to these circumstances. It’s a matter then of a stretching around the real of a hyperreality [hyperréalité] which, nevertheless, always guards its major “heart” [âme] of reality: even if in science fiction mankind is confronted by exceptional situations, even if it presents us with a superman, this extreme picture is always built, finally, on a bottom–line of humanity.
Thus, science fiction is a meta–world closed about a meta–humanity, a new dimension of ourselves, and an extension of our sphere of reality altogether, it doesn’t know, from this point of view, any limit. It is unique in that it does not treat that which mankind has achieved or is undertaking, but that which he could do or which he could be; at its heart science fiction and the writer who brings to life these forces, become a builder of worlds, a creator of universes. In this it accurately imitates on its own scale the footprints of God who himself was a maker of unverses, an artisan, an artist, whose worlds were materialised. As for science fiction, it stays in a universe of ideas born in the depths of the writer which are then shared with the reader to become “idea–worlds.” Science fiction is thus due primarily to this, not an idea which would remain pure and insubstantial, but an idea which becomes a world in which the dream, the philosophy, are perceived as sensitive and concrete. Since the ideas come to life there, the science fiction novel is nothing other than the place of their birth, their country, a country which ceases to belong exclusively to the writer and which the reader may enter. The latter can also live in this universe, a life even as an expression of a certain form of reality, a universe in which it is possible to exist and walk around, as if it were well and solidly built.
Science fiction concepts attain three and sometimes four true dimensions, through which they start an existance of an astonishing life, a full life which is of concern to us all.