A seemingly simple question that fandom wars can and have been fought over, “What is science fiction?” has a complicated answer. After checking a few dictionaries, the consensus seems to be: Stories that rely on scientific or technological advances, often set in the future or on alien worlds.
A hotly debated point regarding the characteristics of science fiction is what constitutes an appropriate “scientific or technological advance”. Does it have to be something actually doable? Because let me tell you, with our current understanding of physics, neither faster-than-light travel nor anything involving time travel is suitable. The warp engine that runs on special crystals is no less magical than the elves that throw fireballs; the main difference is aesthetics. This is often presented as either soft or hard science fiction.
(And while we mention the strange line between magic and science in fiction, you should read NK Jemisin’s great essay, But, but, but – WHY does magic have to have meaning?)
Which brings us to…
Science fiction is often lumped together with fantasy under the umbrella of “speculative fiction”. This categorization indicates the “what if?” is the important part, and recognizes that there is a continuum. You might as well put all the speculative fiction aside, because no matter where you draw the line between science and magic, you’re going to find a weird case that’s arguably both. I think the famous painting “The History of Science Fiction” by Ward Shelley is a good way to visualize Why defining this genre can be so difficult. And, it should be noted, what science fiction contains has evolved parcel even in the last decade.
Unlike many other genres, this East science fiction relies on setting elements rather than a sequence of plot points. We all know what constitutes a story in the mystery genre, for example. Or a book can’t be a romance if it’s not about at least two people coming together in a relationship and ending in happily ever after (or may be happy so far).
I would say that the “scientific and technological progress” part of this first definition is not necessarily the parcel in science fiction – although it is possible and it often is. But just as often, it’s part of the setting that defines and influences how the plot unfolds. Consider Dunes, for example. It’s definitely science fiction. It takes place in a world with massive technological advances that influence plot development, and Dunes would certainly be a different book without it. But the plot is not on technology.
Because the sci-fi genre is defined entirely by its setting, it can be combined with almost any other genre that has a plot plan. So you can have sci-fi romance, sci-fi mysteries, sci-fi horror, etc. (See also: space westerns.) As Ursula K. Le Guin said Smithsonian, “The future is a safe and sterile laboratory for testing ideas, a way of thinking about reality, a method.” A writer can have almost any plot in this lab and play with it, on terms that he has set himself.
That’s why, if you ask me, “What is science fiction?” my conclusion becomes: Fiction that contains a speculative element built into its setting, affecting its plot, and aesthetically leaning into technology and science. (And here I may or may not be using “aesthetic” in the same sense as the inimitable Joanna Russ.) That’s admittedly a very broad definition of science fiction with which I have no doubt some people might disagree – and that’s fine! I’ve just always preferred the big tent, the omnivorous approach… and I’ve had too many bad experiences where I’ve seen a definition used as a way to favor some stories over others.
Ultimately, the definition is there to help you find books you’ll enjoy…and if anyone wants to discuss it, you always have the option of shutting down Twitter and reading one of those books.
A little extra reading
While more of a particular recent kerfuffle in sci-fi fandom, Cora Buhlert’s Science Fiction Is Never Evenly Distributed is a great read that addresses many issues about how science fiction is sometimes defined. (She’s also generally a great writer to follow.)
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