Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Seriously, what is it? I don't know.
In my defense, it seems there is not a definite answer. Wikipedia says, "'Science fiction' is difficult to define precisely, as it includes a wide range of concepts and themes."
To come up with a definition may be challenging, but this will not stop us from trying, amirite?
The Encyclopaedia Britannica says, "Science fiction, abbreviation SF or sci-fi, [is] a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals." Goodreads agrees with this definition. "Science fiction (...) is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology."
With these, we have some clues to answer the question in the title now. The first clue is it has something to do with science. I know. I'm a brilliant detective.
The problem with the definitions given above is they do not define the genre properly. They say what it is about, its common themes... but is every story with those elements science fiction?
I think not. And to make my case, I will try to come up with a definition of my own. Read through the post and tell me in the comments if it makes sense or not.
A story is sci-fi if it has science/technology at its core. That is, if you remove the scientific part, the plot will lose essential information for you to understand. That does not mean a sci-fi story cannot be character-driven. Still, the science in the background should play an essential role in the character's development.
Let's explore the implications of this definition.
It has to do with science, right?
Well, yeah. Kinda.
What is science? According to the Oxford Dictionary, science is "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."
In other words, science is the production of knowledge through the study of nature.
In sci-fi, this is no different. This definition still holds. The science is there, so the trick is to understand where is the fiction part. I say it is in the laws of nature. The fictitious universe may have a distinct physics. One that allows strange things to happen.
For example, in Mary Shelley's 1823 story, Victor Frankenstein (spoiler?) uses galvanism to give life to a monster. In the real world, it is not possible to animate a being with this technique. Shocking, I know. Is Frankenstein about science? Yes, but not our science. In this story's reality—nature—works in a way that allows animation through galvanism.
This reasoning is particularly useful to distinguish sci-fi from fantasy. Let's examine the BEST TROPE EVER through this lens: time travel.
We are all time-travelers in our inescapable journey to the future. Poetic. Sadly, it is impossible to go against the flow; our physics forbid travels to the past (I blame you, Einstein!) However, in the world of HG Well's 1895 classic novel The Time Machine, it is possible to move freely to the future or past with the right technology in hand. (Come on, this is not a spoiler! It's literally in the title.) This is science fiction.
Are all time-travel stories sci-fi?
No. Let's put it this way: if it involves a spell, a magic portal, a curse, or a gift passed through generations, then it is not the reality that is different, and anyone can do it given proper training or the right tool. It is magic. Those cases require an extraordinary, supernatural element to explain them. It does not configure science.
Another example: Alchemy.
This discipline is the precursor of chemistry, which makes it a perfect fit for retro-futuristic stories. However, it can only be considered scientific if anyone within the story can learn it. Not that everyone will. People are diverse and have unique interests that may not involve science. But if only a class of characters have the ability to do it, while others can never learn it no matter how much they study it, then it is magic.
Soft sci-fi vs. hard sci-fi.
One advantage of this definition is that it gives us the means to better identify the "firmness" of the science-fiction stories. First, let's agree that the categories of soft and hard sci-fi are not discrete. It is more of a spectrum. Considering what I said earlier, there is a pretty straightforward way to think about soft and hard terms.
The closer nature is to the real world, the harder the sci-fi is. The further nature deviates from our physics, the softer the sci-fi is.
Easy, right? If the laws of the universe are the same as ours, then the science is the same. And a different reality requires a particular science, which differs from ours. Looking at it this way, I would pair Alchemy with the softest of the sci-fi's, while something like The Martian is as hard as it can get.
What about dystopia?
The cases of dystopia and stories with an alternate reality are intriguing. They are labeled as sci-fi even when there is no science involved. Why? What makes 1984 or The Man in High Castle science fiction?
To sort this out, we have to stop being analytical and start being practical. What is the purpose of defining a genre? The answer is simple: marketing.
Stories with an alien civilization, first contact, space operas, time machines share a fan base with dystopian and alternate-reality novels. Let's look at the genre from its practicality as a marketing strategy to identify a book's audience. It makes sense to pile all of those in the same label. And, even though I made this noble effort to explain what science fiction means to me, the market gives the final answer.
One good example of how this works is the rise of a new genre in the cinema business: superhero movies. Films like Batman or Iron Man technically qualify as sci-fi, but their audience is distinct from the general fans of movies like Arrival or Interstellar (although they may overlap in a subgroup). Thus, if you sell them as science fiction, you will miss the target and attract the wrong crowd to watch them—a terrible idea.
Is sci-fi a sub-genre of fantasy?
Analyze these beautiful Venn diagrams below and tell me which one seems more accurate.
If people cannot agree to one definition of science fiction, imagine trying to define sci-fi/fantasy or SFF. I leave this task to you as homework. Put your answers in the comments. (Yep, that's right. I've gone full-blown Math teacher here.)
If you chose option A, you are wrong. Not even from a marketing point-of-view, it makes sense.
Fantasy deals with magic and the supernatural, and science fiction deals with science, which is based on reality. Sure, this reality may be fictitious, but that means it is fiction, not fantasy. SFF is, therefore, a combination of both. The perfect example of SFF (or the most famous) is Star Wars. It has space travel and laser sabers, and thus it is sci-fi. It also has Jedi, Sith, and the force, and thus it is fantasy.
That's it for today, folks. What's your take on the subject? Do you agree with me? Let me know.
See you next post.
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.