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.