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Science fiction

Science fiction is a form of speculative fiction principally dealing with the impact of imagined science and technology upon society and persons as individuals. The borders of this genre are not well defined, and the dividing lines between its sub-genres are often fluid. (In Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov half-seriously argues that, if we were truly rigorous with our definitions, Shakespeare's play The Tempest would have to be termed science fiction.) Many people abbreviate "science fiction" as "sci-fi", although noted personalities within the field have often derided this usage, preferring instead "SF".



In defining the scope of the science fiction genre, we speak of the impact of science and technology, or both, upon society or persons; within the context of imaginative fiction there are a few variables.

It is possible to apply the creative imagination to different areas of this idea, for example:

  • the impact of imagined science
  • the imagined impact of actual science
  • imagined technology based upon actual science
  • imagined technology based upon imagined science
  • the impact of science and technology, or both, upon imagined societies
  • the impact of science and technology, or both, upon imagined individuals, etc., etc.

Therefore, a story could describe an extremely unusual society (i.e. an extraterrestrial civilization, or a parallel or alternate dimension of spacetime) and their unusual reactions to a scientific discovery, which (to the reader) is straightforward knowledge, e.g. the story "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov.

Alternatively, the society might be ordinary and human, but the individual man or woman might be an unusual person (e.g. a mutant or a telepath) who responds exceptionally to otherwise ordinary events. The "individual" might be an artificial intelligence, and the story may partly be concerned with the Turing test. The society and persons in the story may be ordinary, but faced with bizarre circumstances such as the invention of teleportation, or the discovery of a new chemical element with unusual properties (such as "Cavorite" in The First Men In The Moon).

If the society, the person, the technology, and the scientific knowledge base in the story are all standard and realistic (drawn from observed reality), without much extrapolation of any of these literary components, the story would be classed as mainstream, contemporary fiction rather than as science fiction, but if the characters' psychology (thoughts and feelings) about the laws of the universe, time, reality, and human invention are unusual and tend toward existential re-interpretation of life's meaning in relation to the technological world, then it would be classed a modernist work of literature which overlaps with the themes of science fiction.

Some fiction sits fairly and squarely on the borderline, between science fiction and other genres; some writing defies categorisation. In some cases, the term "science fiction" generally refers to any literary fantasy including a scientific factor as an essential, story-orienting component. It is sometimes applied, more generally, to any fantasy at all (generally so in US bookstores), but, in that case, the larger category of speculative fiction is more inclusive. Such literature may consist of a careful and informed extrapolation of scientific facts and principles, or it may range to far-fetched areas flatly contradicting such facts and principles. In the former case, scientifically-based plausibility is requisite, while in the latter, plausibility is the lesser requirement and love of scientific ideas the greater.

Precursors of the genre, such as Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) plainly are science fiction, whereas Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), based on the supernatural, is not. In fact, Mary Shelley's novel, and R. L. Stevenson's novella are early examples of a standard science fiction theme: The obsessed scientist whose discoveries worsen a bad circumstance. Science fiction always has been concerned with the great hopes people place in science, but also with their fears concerning the negative side of technological development.

One type of science fiction, which developed into a large subgenre, is the alternative history tale, wherein change is imagined at a crucial point in history, causing events to turn out differently, resulting in a different world. Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee has the Confederacy winning the American Civil War, and then extrapolates what kind of 20th century resulted. Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle posits the allies losing World War II. Kingsley Amis's The Alteration has the Roman Catholic Church retaining control of Europe (no Protestantism). The broader category of speculative fiction includes both science fiction and alternative histories (which often have no particular scientific or futuristic component). An example is Olaf Stapledon's Darkness and the Light which presents two possible futures for mankind defined by developments in ethics and philosophy. Sometimes, utopic and dystopic literature is regarded as science fiction (accurate insofar as sociology is science); however, dystopic literature sometimes falls under the cyber punk genre. In this sense, many satirical novels qualify when their speculation distinguishes the "scene" from the present or the past.

Repeatedly, fiction dealing with science has been diluted, dumbed down, for the mass audience of radio and television. Ironically, the dumbing-down has been so effective that the television version of science fiction has become the format for dumbing-down scripts which would have been rejected for production as "too cerebral". One example is Sinclair Lewis's satirical, dystopian novel about American Fascism, It Can't Happen Here, which became the television science fiction series "V"—over-simplified to the level a commercial television network considered appropriate for its television-viewing audience.

A popular idea of science fiction is that it is, in general, attempting to predict the future. Some commentators go so far as to attempt to judge the "success" of a work of science fiction on its accuracy as a prediction. While most science fiction is set in the future, most authors are not attempting to predict; instead, they use the future as an open framework for their themes. A science fiction writer is generally not trying to write a history of the future that they believe will happen, any more than a writer of westerns is trying to create a historically accurate depiction of the old West. There are exceptions, especially in early science fiction. Writers are actually as likely to write of a future that they hope will not happen (e.g., in dystopias).


The earliest known usage of the term "science fiction" is in Chapter 10 of William Wilson's A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject (1851) in which he writes: "Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true." This, however, appears to be an isolated usage, and the term then appears to have been re-coined in the 1920s where it appeared in Amazing Stories magazine.

The term "science fiction" is often abbreviated as "SF" or "sci-fi" (often pronounced "skiffy" in derogation of the term); however, SF is ambigous (c.f. Other types, below), and sci-fi is seen as derogatory.

The term "sci-fi" is attributed to Forrest J. Ackerman, who coined the term in 1954 when he heard the word "hi-fi" (high fidelity) spoken on radio. In a magazine editorial, Isaac Asimov mocked this abbreviation, calling it a "Hollywood neologism." Although he disparaged the term, he noted that it has its uses: "sci-fi" can be defined as "trashy material" which the illiterates confuse with true SF. The success of the Sci-Fi Channel may have reduced the potency of these arguments, particularly since it has aired material which meets even Asimov's criteria for solid SF (say, the original Star Trek, which Asimov used as his "canonical" example).

Another synonym is scientifiction, attributed to Hugo Gernsback, creator of Amazing Stories magazine, but it has since fallen into disuse.

Types of science fiction

Hard science fiction

Main article: Hard science fiction

"Hard" SF is concerned with the "hard sciences" and speculation on future technological developments; it tends to remain strictly within the bounds of the theoretically possible at the time of writing. Technologies assumed to exist in other SF, but as yet without a theoretical basis in real science—anti-gravity, faster-than-light travel, and the like—are often not used.

Character development is almost always secondary to explorations of astronomical or physical phenomena. Authors sometimes place the "human condition" as a whole at the forefront of the story, but hard SF plots tend to be resolved by technological points. Overreliance on technological developments—particularly when authors use them as deus ex machinas—has led to the phenomenon of treknobabble, in which scientific-sounding words are tossed about to fill any irritating plot holes. Real hard SF, says the genre patriot, has no need for treknobabble: problems are resolved using coherently developed and rationally presented (fictional) science. For example, inventing a new "particle of the week" to defeat the Romulan cloaking device is treknobabble; the improved "Ghost Rider" missiles introduced into the Royal Manticoran Navy are not.

Hard SF writers usually attempt to make their stories consistent with known science at the time of publication. This means that their stories can become inconsistent with known science. On the other hand, if the fictional science developed in the story is well-founded according to science at publication time, and if it is well-integrated with plot and character development, the story can retain considerable interest long after science has passed it by. For example, Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves revolves around the strong nuclear force but does not include descriptions of gluons or quarks, essential components of the modern understanding of nuclear physics. However, reader interest continues, even though Asimov's fictional scientists use a "Pionizer" machine instead of a "Gluonizer". Another similar case is the Starchild Trilogy series, which has as a major plot point the steady state model of cosmology. The series's primary background deals with the developments which would arise from this theory; however, by the late 1960s new evidence led the Big Bang theory to supercede the steady-state model. During the period in which the series was written, steady-state cosmology was a widely accepted model, and a legitimate starting point for science-fictional extrapolation. Therefore, we cannot on these grounds eliminate the Starchild works from the Hard SF category.

B. F. Skinner's novel Walden Two falls somewhere in this camp. Skinner's description of a science of behavior was rather speculative at the time of publication, somewhat akin to John B. Watson's extravagent claims to being able to shape any baby into any kind of adult. However, Skinner had laid the basis for his field in his 1938 work The Behavior of Organisms, thus founding the way for the hard-science subset of psychology known as behavior analysis. In this way, Walden Two was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which allowed a scientist-novelist to predict and then fill his forecast with a very real, non-treknobabble device. This sort of relationship is rare; see, however, the discussion of Donald Knuth's novella Surreal Numbers below.

Soft science fiction

Main article: Soft science fiction

Soft SF, in contrast to hard, concerns itself with the "soft sciences" often classed with the "humanities": psychology, politics, sociology, anthropology, and the like. Emphasis on "technological realism" is far less pronounced than in Hard SF. Soft SF is also used as a synonym for the "New Wave", a movement which emerged in the 1970s.

Soft SF is much less a defined subgenre than its counterpart, Hard science fiction. The term is sometimes used in a pejorative fashion when it is implied a given science fiction story is not rigorous enough in its application of science or is not "proper" science fiction. Contrariwise, patrons of Soft SF may claim that their preferred works have stronger portrayals of societies, more deft characterization and better-developed plots.

One could make an argument, for example, classifying Isaac Asimov's Foundation series as part of the "soft" subgenre, since the series focuses on the vast sociological movements of the dying Galactic Empire. Asimov, so this argument goes, places little emphasis on the specifics of his fictional technologies. It is enough that the Foundation is technologically superior to the "barbarian" planets around it: the details of nuclear power plants don't matter, as long as the Foundation is the only one to possess them. On the other hand, one of the most frequent comments made about Asimov's work is that his stories lack description, and that there are few sharply memorable characters scattered throughout the whole Foundation epic; this would seem to go against the grain of the argument that Soft SF necessarily has deeper characterization. Furthermore, Asimov treats his "soft sciences" in a remarkably "hard" way: his fictional science of psychohistory is a mathematical way of encapsulating the "human texture" of his sociological story.

One classic example of a Soft SF writer is Ray Bradbury. (Asimov himself used Bradbury to typify the "emotional" style of writing he seldom employed; for examples of this usage, see the correspondence collection Yours, Isaac Asimov.) In Bradbury's short stories, such as those collected in R is for Rocket and The Martian Chronicles he takes common themes in Hard SF, like rocket travel or Mars colonies, but focuses on the feelings and human responses those themes evoke. In 1955, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges pinpointed this function of Bradbury's Chronicles, observing that

In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude, as Sinclair Lewis did in Main Street.
Perhaps "The Third Expedition" is the most alarming story in this volume. Its horror (I suspect) is metaphysical; the uncertain identity of Captain John Black's guests disturbingly insinuates that we too do not know who we are, nor what we look like in the eyes of God. I would also like to note the episode entitled "The Martian," which includes a moving variation on the myth of Proteus.

Frank Herbert's Dune arguably falls into this category, though of course its fans are quick to deny any pejorative implications of the usage.

Other types of science fiction

There are, additionally, numerous works falling into neither of the above categories, but instead telling more conventional stories in a futuristic or technologically advanced setting; this category, space opera, which includes Star Wars, arguably Star Trek, and most other works that come to mind when one refers to "science fiction," is considered to be a variety of fantasy by some science-fiction diehards. The general public, of course, doesn't make such a distinction, and places Star Wars and the like in the category of SF; "fantasy" implies something similar to Lord of the Rings, although visually Star Wars is futuristic. In fact, both storys are similar in underlying themes. Star Wars is a blend of scientific space and futuristic imagry and classic mythological hero cycle and was based (in underlying plot structure) on Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Some of those annoyed by this have suggested adopting the solution often used by bookstores, and revising "SF" to stand for speculative fiction and thus encompass fantasy and horror fiction as well as science fiction proper.

Another sub-genre of SF is cyberpunk, first written by William Gibson in the 1980s; its classic example is his novel Neuromancer. The recent Matrix movies fall, mostly, into this genre.

Exceptions and unique examples

One of the smallest SF sub-genres began with Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), by A. Square (Edwin Abbott Abbott). Flatland is the tale of a two-dimensional being, literally "A. Square", who one day meets a sphere and begins a journey into realms of higher and lower dimensionality. Abbott uses the story of the square and the sphere to illustrate counterintuitive concepts of mathematics—and to make oblique attacks upon the social mores of his day. While such "mathematical fiction" is rare, the following years have delivered other examples. One of the most remarkable is Donald Knuth's novella Surreal Numbers, the story of two college dropouts who "turned on to pure mathematics and found total happiness". Knuth's protagonists, Alice and Bill, have run away from their old lives to "find themselves" whilst living on an exotic Far Eastern beach. One day, trying to find something to relieve their ennui, they stumble across the "Conway Stone", an ancient tablet carved with Hebrew letters describing an ancient system of mathematics.

Then there's Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino, a series of short stories, each taking a scientific fact and spinning a fantastic tale around it.

Another unique style is in We Can Build You (1972), by Philip K. Dick, wherein imitation human beings, called simulacra, are supposedly almost indistinguishable from genuine people, however, when a character looks inside one of them he sees crude cogwheels and mechanical parts. Given the ease with which the character unquestioningly accepts that reality, the reader can tell that We Can Build You is not the usual naturalistic story, but must have a foot in Magic realism.

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake is Fantasy for the first two of its three volumes, suddenly changing, in the third volume, when the readers see the wider world outside the Gormenghast environment. That wider world is more technologically advanced than our (the readers') own world was at the time of the book's writing. The BBC produced two adaptations of the Gormenghast books, the first as a radio play, and the second as television drama. Significantly, in both adaptations, the BBC spurned the third volume, and, in dramatising only the first and second volumes, thus disguised the trilogy's true direction and meaning.

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco plays mind games upon the reader, suggesting a conspiracy theory and an unusual technology, but then raises doubts allowing the reader to figure out what is reality and what is madness. This story type is unusual, but not unique, having been preceded by Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist.


A unique feature of the science fiction genre is its strong fan community of readers and viewers, of which many authors are a firm part. Many people interested in science fiction wish to interact with like others who share the same interests; in time an entire culture of science fiction fandom evolved. Local fan groups exist in most of the English-speaking world, as well as in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere; often, these groups publish their own works. Also, fans (or 'fen', in the argot of the topic) originated science fiction conventions, a way of meeting to discuss their mutual interest; the original and largest convention is the Worldcon.

Many fanzines ("fan magazines") and a few professional ones exist, dedicated solely to informing the science fiction fan on all aspects of the genre. The premiere literary awards of science fiction, the Hugo Awards, are awarded by members of the annual Worldcon, which is almost entirely run by fan volunteers; the other major science fiction literary award is the Nebula. Science fiction fandom often overlaps with other, similar interests, such as fantasy, role-playing games, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. The largest, annual, multi-genre science fiction convention is Dragon Con, held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Of course, the fans of science fiction have whole-heartedly embraced the Internet. There are fan fiction sites which include additional, fan-created stories featuring characters from the genre's books, movies, and television programs. Although these may be technically illegal under copyright law, they often are permitted when no profit is made from them, and there is clear understanding that the copyright remains property of the characters' original creators. There are fan sites devoted to Frank Herbert's Dune, Michael Moorcock's Multiverse, etc. and to television shows such as Star Trek and its derivatives.

See also


External links

Last updated: 08-07-2005 21:41:24
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