Saturday, May 23, 2009

What IS science fiction anyway?

Search on Google for science fiction and you'll get 81,000,000 hits.

The top 10 listings are the Wikipedia definition, the SF site best in science fiction and fantasy, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's of America, Asimov's Science Fiction, Science Fiction Weekly, the Ultimate Science Fiction web guide, science fiction films, science fiction blog posts, and even a site called The Webiste at the end of the universe with a post entitled "Rehabilitating obscure science fiction writers".

Lots of information floating around on the web, but just what IS science fiction? says that Science Fiction is "a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology". After discussing places where science fiction can be found, such as books, games, and films, it also says "Science fiction is difficult to define, as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes."

Indeed, science fiction can be very hard to define and people have gotten into shouting matches, online flame wars, and furious debates over whether some book or move is (or is not) classifiable as sci-fi.

It's not the "fiction" part of science fiction that's hard to define. Fiction is the opposite of fact. Fiction is something that is made up at least partly. When your child tells you they only took 1 cookie out of the package, but they actually took two cookies, your child is telling you fiction. Fiction is easy to spot and define. It's the science part that causes people fits.

Is it necessary to go into all the nuts and bolts of why the technology in a story works for it to be science fiction? Some people say yes, some no. Is it necessary to have technology in a story at all for it to be science fiction? Again, some will say yes and some no.

Perhaps the easiest way to define what science fiction is, is to define what it is not.

It is not wizards and witches casting spells. it is not knights in shining armor battling dragons for the hand of a fair princess. It is not...

But wait, maybe it IS those things after all. Take Star Wars for example. What was Obi Wan Kenobi? A Jedi Knight with heavy psionic powers who traveled from place to place via mechanical transportation (at least until he died). But he wore a robe. He cast illusions (these are not the droid's you're looking for) and he spoke about mystical energies (the forces). The evil Jedi Emperor even cast a lighting bolt spell when trying to kill Luke in one of the later movies.

Star Wars had an evil wizard (Darth Vader) a beautiful princess, a dashing rogue, a handsome knight in shining ... well in robes (luke) and even a dragon to slay (so what if it was round, named the Death Star, and breathed fire at an entire plane?). All the elements of a traditional fantasy story, but because the trappings are technology based (blasters instead of wands, land speeders instead of flying carpets) it earns the Science Fiction tag. Though to be fair to the hard core sci-fi enthusiasts who insist that science fiction must be about the technology itself, Star Wars can also be classified as Space Opera or Science Fantasy.

So what is Science Fiction? There seems no way to come up with a definitive explanation that will satisfy everyone, and perhaps that's not a bad thing after all.

Some recommended reading material for those of you wanting to delve deeper into the realms of Science Fiction:
The Revolving Boy by Gertrude Friedberg
The Alien Way by Gordon R. Dickenson
The X Factor by Andre Norton
R Is for Rocket by Ray Bradbury

And remember, there's a nice selection of short science fiction stories on Abandoned Towers magazine at

Until next time, happy landings!


Dave Tackett said...

I think much of the difficulty in defining science fiction is caused by authors/editors attempting to create a prescriptive, rather than a descriptive, definition.

Anyone can describe the type of stories that have traditionally been called science fiction. It's only when the discussion turns to what should be published under the label science fiction that the confusion begins.

graywave said...

I think the difference between science fiction and other 'speculative' genres is that sci-fi is reality-based. That is, it takes what we know now about the real world, or what we can reasonably extrapolate from it, and bases stories in circumstances that are conceivably possible.

Other speculative genres can invent whatever strange universes they like, irrespective of plausibility - magic, psychic powers, gods, you name it.

And that's why I like sci-fi so much. It doesn't matter what might happen in a world of wizards and angels, because it doesn't and never will exist. But it matters very much what a world of space colonies and brain implants would be like and how the human story might unfold in such a place.

Beam Me Up said...

GREAT post CW! That will be a program opener for sure! Thanks!

David Scholes said...

I was recently published in the US with a collection of short science fiction stories. Included among them were three alternate history stories and two (what I would describe) alternate reality stories.

Almost as an afterthought I wondered if those extra stories were truly science fiction?

Conventional thinking seems to be that alternate history at least is a sub-genre.

Anyway, why don't you be the judge. The link to my author page is:


Beam Me Up said...

cheeky way of adverting the book Dave... ;) However the points are valid.

Anonymous said...

But the creators of Star Wars admitted that it was not sci-fi in 1977. The trouble is what people regard has SF has changed since then. Star Wars has helped change what people think.

{{{ Time magazine, May 30, 1977 issue:

"But as Lucas and Producer Kurtz quickly point out, Star Wars is not science fiction but space fantasy. 'Space fantasy allows you more rein to say what you want to say,' explains Kurtz. 'So that's what we call it.'" }}}