We have all studied literature in school. Defined by me as that portion of writing in prose in which a point/commentary is delivered through the expression of the story.
Fiction on the other hand, is all about the story.
The difference is the writer’s intent. Not what professors of language, literature or social analysis decide later, but what the author intended in the first place.
For example, it is fairly clear that Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain were using the medium of storytelling to provide commentary on their societies. Both have even commented so in non-fiction essays.
Similarly, in genre fiction there is little question in most people’s minds that mystery stories are all about solving the puzzle and romance is about relationships.
That leaves Science Fiction – which is about some kind of future – based on technology rather than magic. The wisdom about 30-40 years ago was that authors wrote their vision of the future. Meaning that science was going to lead to outbound travel while really not fixing much of anything with the people involved. Postulations of doom and gloom abounded.
What was also noticeable were the characters – present day attitudes superimposed on future science. Makes as much sense as an enlighted man of the 13th century expressing 21st century US views about the roles of men and women in society.
And then along comes Ursula Le Guin with The Left Hand of Darkness portraying a society different in concept from the known and accepted in her time. If you need a summary, perhaps you want to detour to Wikipedia or an excellent discussion of gender roles in science fiction and society by Rebecca Rass.
I originally read Left Hand of Darkness in 1969 when it was first published and was stunned by the book, the thought and the society portrayed. It is not an action adventure which was what I had quietly assumed was most science fiction (see Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, James Blish……..) but a thoughtful portrayal of what was certainly alien to someone fighting basic gender discrimination in school.
Since this is the first one on my Classics of SciFi List, I am still decided how to approach the commentary. Assume that you will hear once to several times about each book since I am as interested in how they strike me now as when I first read them.
Perhaps that is my definition of classic – a book that keeps appearing fresh with each re-reading.