Defining "Science Fiction"
Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change, whether it arrives via scientific discoveries, technological innovations, natural events, or societal shifts.
Science fiction is the literature of ideas and philosophy, answering such questions as, "What if?" or "If this goes on...," and is thus sometimes more interested with exploring ideas than developing plot or character, if the memes and ideas under examination are powerful enough to sustain the work. It sometimes seeks to subvert the dominant paradigm, when the author sees the status quo as harmful, and is therefore sometimes considered subversive or transgressive. It explores possibilities and pushes boundaries. It asks the next question, and then the one after that. It is often epistemological - seeking to understand how we know things - ontological, metaphysical, or cosmological. It is concerned with all of us rather than individuals, and with how we got to be what we are, and what we might become.
Science fiction is multi- and interdisciplinary, concerned not only with literary qualities but also exploring core values of diverse fields. To deeply grasp a work, those creating SF and scholars examining it must also possess a strong grasp of the relevant scientific or technological background, as well as the societal, historic, economic, and other implications. It embraces and serves every field of study, and provides a method for creative speculation in non-literary fields.
Like the scientific method, science fiction provides an approach to understanding the universe we live in. It provides the tools, tropes, and cognitive framework within which we can explore ideas and safely run thought-experiments where we cannot or ought not in real-world experiments. By dramatizing such scenarios, populating them with believable characters, and providing the background necessary for the audience to willingly suspend disbelief, SF brings ideas to life. In Episode 5 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "Science needs the light of free expression to flourish. It depends on the fearless questioning of authority, and the open exchange of ideas... The nature of scientific genius is to question what the rest of us take for granted, then do the experiment." Replace "science" or "scientific" with "science fiction" in these statements, and you concisely define what SF does - and the value of its study becomes apparent.
Science fiction is also the literature of the Other, providing alternate points of view on familiar topics in order to give us a clearer perspective. (On a related note, click here to see my statement on diversity.)
Science fiction is a community of thinkers and creatives. It is a collaborative effort by people from creative fields; as well as experts in technical, scientific, and humanities fields; professionals in publishing and multimedia forms; plus scholars, critics, and fans - all coming together to better understand and share our individual visions of what it means to be human impacted by ever-accelerating change. At its noblest, SF actively welcomes people from all backgrounds regardless of age, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, and marital, parental, and veteran status, encouraging its members to feel welcome, free, and safe to express themselves in the truest ways possible in our exploration of the human condition encountering change.
In "How America's Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future" (May 2014 Smithsonian Magazine), Eileen Gunn writes, "Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions. Samuel R. Delaney, one of the most wide-ranging and masterful writers in the field, sees it as a countermeasure to the future shock that will become more intense with the passing years. 'The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes - sometimes catastrophic, often confusing - that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.'" She quotes MIT professor and engineer Sophia Brueckner, who "laments that researchers whose work deals with emerging technologies are often unfamiliar with science fiction: 'With the development of new biotech and genetic engineering, you see authors like Margaret Atwood writing about dystopian worlds centered on those technologies. Authors have explored these exact topics in incredible depth for decades, and I feel reading their writing can be just as important as reading research papers.'"
In her speech at the National Book Awards, when she was awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Ursula K. Le Guin said, "Hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality."
This is science fiction.
A Collection of SF Definitions
Here's the introduction from the special International Science Fiction issue of World Literature Today:
And a longer variant of this article from Libraries Unlimited.
More about science fiction:
As the world's #1 crowd-sourced encyclopedia, Wikipedia may not be the foremost scholarly authority, but it's a fantastic place to see definitions for something inherently difficult to define. Check out the definitions for science fiction on Wikipedia to get a good idea of how others define SF.
James Gunn was perhaps SF's foremost scholar and historian. If you haven't read his books on SF, you owe it to yourself to check out some of his essays.
I hope that helps in your pursuit of understanding the field of SF Studies! Check back for updates and additions, and drop me a note if you have suggestions.