What is “science fiction?”

What is science fiction, exactly? Is it an all-encompassing term for any form of entertainment featuring aliens, futuristic technology, space travel and the like, or is it a genre defined by much stricter parameters?

I’ve asked this question my entire life, and I’ve come to the conclusion that no one can offer a satisfactory answer. Dr. Beshero-Bondar, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg , comes pretty close, though:

“Science fiction is a time-sensitive subject in literature. Usually futuristic, science fiction speculates about alternative ways of life made possible by technological change, and hence has sometimes been called “speculative fiction.” Like fantasy, and often associated with it, science fiction envisions alternative worlds with believably consistent rules and structures, set apart somehow from the ordinary or familiar world of our time and place. Distinct from fantasy, however, science fiction reflects on technology to consider how it might transform the conditions of our existence and change what it means to be human.”

I’ve often heard it stated that the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction storytelling employs “real” science and “real” technology.

Bullshit, I say. As prophetic and insightful as the works of the genre’s most revered authors were, there’s no “real science” to be found. There might be plausible science, based on theory, but it’s all speculative.

If science fiction is defined by its scientific accuracy, then why is there a sub-genre of it called “hard” science fiction specifically for that? What is the need for such a distinction if “true” science fiction is already “hard?”

Consider Star Wars: Does it qualify as science fiction? I don’t see why not. Spaceships droids, aliens, laser guns, a functional, explainable universe… And yet not a day goes by that I don’t come across some comment on my Star Trek Facebook page asserting that Star Trek is sci-fi, and Star Wars is space fantasy.

However, just because cellphones briefly resembled the communicators for the original series, and there’s a few “real” scientific concepts tossed in here and there, it’s as much “fantasy” as Star Wars is. Both use similar settings to tell stories about people. Star Wars just has less technobabble.

I would argue that both can be called science fiction.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1986 novel Songs Of Distant Earth, there’s a spaceship with an “ice shield” that prevents bits of space debris from damaging the ship. That’s not a real thing that exists. It’s a brilliant and unique idea, but an idea is all it is. It’s no more scientifically accurate than the deflector shield from Return of the Jedi.

The difference is that Clarke, who was considered by many to be the hardest of the hard sci-fi writers, went into much greater detail about the nuts and bolts of his imaginary tech, and he approached it from a vantage point of significant real-world scientific knowledge that George Lucas probably doesn’t possess.

None of this really matters to me when the stories are good, and that’s why lately I’ve really taken a liking to the term “speculative fiction,” because it seems significantly more accurate and eliminates the opportunity for know-it-all gatekeepers to dispute the validity of certain properties.

It’s all speculative; it’s all imagination. When we limit or stifle creativity based on semantics, we miss the point. There are sci-fi books and movies for people who simply want a little escapism. There are also books and films for people who enjoy poring over the technological nuts and bolts. And in between those two extremes, there are many different shades of color on the sci-fi spectrum. I’ve seen Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Michael Bay’s Transformers movies called science fiction, though the two are light years apart.

One could write a story, containing zero science or technology, about a dystopian future in which mankind has reverted to a primitive state. One could also write a story about advanced humans traveling the stars using technological that’s entirely theoretical to anyone living in 2018. Both would be considered science fiction.

I’m currently working on a science fiction novel. I don’t consider myself a science fiction writer, I consider myself to be a writer who is currently working on a science fiction novel. My goal is broad appeal; to give science fiction fans something they can enjoy on one level, and to give casual or non-science fiction readers something they can enjoy on another.

I’m not a scientist. I may read up on current scientific studies and theories for inspiration and guidance when I’m making up technology for a sci-fi story, but I’m not a hard sci-fi writer. But I know how to create a plausible, believable world for my characters to inhabit.

I have a basic idea of how the tech in my stories works, but that information isn’t generally presented to the reader unless it’s incidental, or necessary to further the plot. I have no interest in killing momentum with gratuitous nuts and bolts. I certainly love nuts and bolts when presented by an author who handles that sort of thing well, but I’m much more about story, characters, dialogue and allegory. All I need is a plausible futuristic environment to stick them in. If I successfully make you, the reader, suspend your disbelief and accept that environment as real, I’ve successfully written a science fiction story.

So again, what is science fiction? It’s whatever your imagination wants it to be. The universe is the limit.

Follow my project-in-progress, Effugium, here.

15 thoughts on “What is “science fiction?”

  1. I usually tell people science fiction is all about fictional science. I feel pretty clever when I say that, but in truth I don’t find that answer fully satisfying. There’s a very long history of people arguing over what the term science fiction means, and I don’t think anyone’s ever going to settle the matter once and for all.

  2. Interesting thoughts. And I would put myself in the “Star Wars isn’t science fiction” camp. But I’m not dogmatic about it. I do like to fuck with Star Wars fans though. Personally, I consider science fiction as you described it and fantasy as more like magic and mystical stuff. I’m not a fan of fantasy. And I read almost exclusively hard science fiction. It’s just my thing. Still, great discussion. I certain wouldn’t throw the gauntlet down on any of my points. Just that that is where I am comfortable in my definitions because I am one who needs structure and quantifiable definitions. Keep writing Patrick. I enjoy all your posts!

  3. I love the original trilogy, but I used to point out all the time that it was “space fantasy” and not science fiction. Until I decided that the term science fiction had become so bastardized that if you told people you liked it they’d be like “Oh, like sharknado?” I definitely think hard sci-fi is a necessary distinction, helps when you’re trying to find something in that vein

  4. Hear hear! What a bracing call to arms.

    I get really annoyed when people tut tut over what’s “real” sci-fi, or anything. As though enjoyment of a story depends on whether it checks the right boxes on some Master Genre List!

    Genre is a good starting point, not a prison.

    I’m looking forward to your sci-fi story! Keep us updated!

  5. Haha, “tut tut.” Yeah, I am certainly anti- tut tut. These people WANT you to stick to what’s considered status quo and stay in your lane. Imagine Ray Bradbury emerging in this ultra-niche, on demand climate of audience entitlement we’ve created for ourselves. People wouldn’t know what to make of him and their ears would smoke with frustration as they tried to pin him down to some oddly specific niche. Writers cater to these whims all too often, I think, and allow them to compromise or reshape their visions. Go to any writers’ group on social media and you’ll see people asking questions like “Is it ok to write in present tense?” I saw this question yesterday and I responded “If present tense is your strong suit and you feel more confident writing in it, go with your gut, I’d say.” Many of the other replies were negative, telling this person that no, she should NOT do this. And that’s all opinion based on their own perceptions and abilities and what works for them. I’d never ask such a question because no one who seeks validation from finicky nitpickers has ever stood out. “DEPENDS ON WHO YOU’RE TRYING TO TARGET.” Uh, I’m targeting everybody. Do you think Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park to cater to people who like dinosaurs? People are so niche in their thinking now that they can’t even comprehend tapping into the common traits that bind us together as humans and writing a story that people can relate to on multiple levels. They have been conditioned to accept and expect uniformity and neat categorization. I reject this mentality. People complain so much about over-saturation in literature and music, but they aren’t doing anything unique that might make them stand out.
    As far as my sci-fi book goes, what I’m doing is putting an anthology of sorts together, and posting the early drafts of “chapters” as I write them here: https://timeremaining.wordpress.com

    Difficult to explain, but There’ll be a cohesive plot running through all of the stories, with the beginning and ending satisfyingly bookending each other. The stories can mostly be read as standalones, but when compiled together will form a complete novel that spans millennia with entries from the “Time Remaining” blogger between each chapter, providing insight, keeping things grounded and cementing them together. Imagine a concept album full of songs that can be enjoyed independently of the others, but when put together they form a story. That’s the closest parallel I can think of. At its core it’s a positive, anti-dystopian story about mankind overcoming its own self-destructive behavior to bring itself back from the brink of annihilation. There’s far too much hopelessness in sci-fi these days, for my tastes, and instead of bitching about it I’m going to do my part to buck that trend. In chapter one we are shit on the bottom of some advanced alien race’s shoe, and by the end we are the dominant species in the universe, because of our resolve and resilience.

  6. And another thing(I’m in full rant mode today), I’ve noticed something about past beloved authors of any genre, but particularly ones known for science fiction: they didn’t take any of that shit, and they were very forceful and outspoken about what they wanted to do. Imagine someone telling Harlan Ellison he couldn’t write about something. We’d have heard about it for thirty years, every time the man got in front of a camera or wrote an editorial or spoke at a convention. Imagine telling Isaac Asimov his to write. He’d say something that’d just shut your brain down and make you feel like an idiot. People back down to de-constructive criticism too much nowadays. They don’t know how to differentiate it from its constructive counterpart, so they take all of it to heart.
    There are a whole lot of people living very comfortable lives as professional authors who knew when to heed advice and when to give it the finger. Like the James Patterson thing, again. He may not be my cup of tea but the more I think about it, I totally respect his COMPLETELY ignoring the criticisms leveled at him and forging ahead with confidence. I mean, I’ve never read anything by him but his books are IN MY HOUSE, lol. I didn’t put them there, but they’re there.
    But I can’t think of a single famous author, past or present, who wasn’t or isn’t kind of a dick. I think you have to be if you want it to go anywhere.

  7. Writing for a niche seems to be the trend, that’s true. I have mixed feelings about that, because while we all want to sell and make money, we also want to write something authentic TO US. It’s a fine balance.

  8. I think looking for niches that have yet to be filled is a smart idea, too. Writing for people who may not necessarily have a voice in or relate to a certain genre. You, for instance, are a conservative guy. No one on earth is writing sci-fi geared towards that audience. Or if they are, it’s rare. That is an untapped audience. They do like sci-fi, or did at one point, but they feel excluded from it at this point in time. There’s PLENTY of defeatist, nihilistic, dystopian sci-fi out there. No one will notice yet another person releasing something like that. But if you imbued your work with values underrepresented in any given genre, and built a buzz around it, you’d get a lot of hate and criticism and don’t-DO-thats, but perhaps a lot of accolades from people hungry for something like that. Just to give one example. Someone could make serious money off that idea because other people aren’t doing it and there’s a consumer desire.

  9. Great post! I don’t think we should limit sci-fi to one definition, because there are a lot of different stories that work in different ways. Star Wars is sci-fi as much as Foundation is. As you said, sci-fi is whatever our imagination want it to be!

  10. I’m all for sub-genre distinctions and all that, but I see all these writer support groups online with people asking questions like “if I do THIS will it still be sci-fi?” Questioning whether they should write something because they can’t figure out what to call it. To me, that’s weird.

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