What is Science Fiction?

Most people prone to literary analysis will tell you that a genre is more useful for marketers and bookstore book-shelvers than it is to an author or a reader.  I find that definitions of the various genres and subgenres are confusing and clunky, but then I use these same terms to describe my own work.

I really quite like the Writers Digest Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card as a starting place for these discussions.  By all means, read his first chapter on “the Infinite Boundary” and how this impacts genre definitions.

So, without further ado, let’s get into what I mean when I use the genre and sub-genre terminology.  I’m going to attempt to do this in an outline format so you can see where subgenres roll up and are included in the genres above them.

  • Speculative Fiction(or Spec Fic) – Any story that asks “what if”. I believe this term is the overarching classification that encompasses every kind of fiction that deals with other worlds, possible futures, alternate histories, magic, or even horror.  Card defines the realms of sci fi and fantasy as stories “…that take place in worlds that have never existed or are not yet known.”
    • Science Fiction (Sci fi) vs Fantasy–  Often, in order to define Science Fiction, one has to do it in comparison to Fantasy. One is what the other is not.   I really liked the differentiation between Science Fiction and Fantasy that appears in the editors note of the very first edition of Fantasy magazine. The note was simply that science fiction uses science (or pseudo science) to explain the fantastic, while fantasy uses magic.   Card’s summary is similar: “If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction. If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our rules, it’s fantasy.”  There are dozens of sub genres of these two categories. For now, I’m only going to cover the 6 that I prefer to read and write:
      • Hard science fiction – Hard sci fi is the kind with a lot of data and a lot of research to prove that it really could happen. It’s usually a speculative future.  This is the kind with actual physics worked into the space travel rules, and I usually see the plots to be sort of “Action movie”-esque. I think of the Alien movies and Starship Troopers (The book! Not the film!)
      • Soft science fiction – Soft sci-fi is most often a political commentary. Much of the classic dystopian science fiction is soft. This focuses less on technology and more on culture and how people will change if we keep going in this current direction.  Tone can be dark or light. Often, these are dystopias, but it can be any of the above.  The Hunger Games falls here, as does Brave New World, 1984 and the Clockwork Orange.  My “Salvaged” world falls under this category.
        • Dystopia / Utopia – These words define whether the future you’ve envisioned in your science fiction is a world that is far worse off than our present day is, or whether it’s far better off. Utopias are hard to write without sounding namby-pamby. They offer no conflict unless the Utopic society simply overlays the unseemly underbelly, so they are relatively rare unless as a contrast.  Dystopias are far more common, because they are warnings. They are the bad outcome if mankind continues down its current paths.
      • Science fantasy – These pretend to use “science” to follow sort of the rules of the universe, but really it’s just magic in a lab coat. The best example of these is the DragonRiders of Pern series by McCaffery. Her genetics stuff is not hard science, it’s just enough of a test tube environment to explain the fantastic.  “Maaneshin”, the graphic novel I’m writing would fall under this category.
      • High fantasy / Epic fantasy – Think Tolkien. Think The Hero’s Journey.  High fantasy includes elves, dwarves, swords, and usually a quest.  This is what people often think of when they hear the term “Fantasy”. I have a start on a high fantasy work, “Small Gods,” that will fall in this category.
      • Urban fantasy – This is a relatively new genre. This is where the magical / fantastical overlaps with present day and the real world. Buffy the Vampire Slayermight have kicked off the popularity of this genre.  Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs write some kick-ass Urban Fantasy.  I also like Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series (after slogging through book 3).  I feel like there’s a pretty huge glut in the market for this stuff, and I can’t seem to write anything that isn’t frankly derivative.  I do not have a WIP in this genre.  This genre is not to be confused with:
        • Paranormal romance – Generally, these are urban fantasies crossed with romance novels. Still set in present-day, still overlapping the fantastical with the mundane present day, and add in a healthy dollop of steaming sex scenes – often between members of differing species.  I read a good bit of werewolf porn. I do prefer were-animals over vamps, personally.  But yes, to answer your question,  Twilight fits here. If you want to read something better,  Eileen Wilks is one of my favorite authors in this genre, as is Yasmine Galenorn.  For the same reasons that I’m not writing Urban Fantasy, I’m not writing Paranormal romance, either.
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13 thoughts on “What is Science Fiction?

  1. This is absolutely great! I love the way you break the genre down. I know Card says that the genres are only truly important for unpublished/new writers as success gives you freedom to define yourself and some genres.

    • I agree, genre can be both limiting and freeing, and shouldn’t be worried about too much. But I am a linguist at heart, and I don’t like using potentially unclear words without clarifying what I mean. 😉

      • I think having clear definitions can be nice in the idea of feeling included… Like, I feel like a part of the Steampunk world because that’s my genre! It’s like knowing you fit in somewhere.

  2. Excellent descriptions! I always wondered how to put into sub-genres the various books and movies I know fall under “Sci-fi/fantasy.” Would Harry Potter fall under Urban Fantasy? Also, do you know many that only like Fantasy or Sci-Fi but not both? My brother does not like Fantasy, and I was curious because it doesn’t seem to be a big leap to me from one to the other.

    • I’d actually call HP good-old fashioned Fantasy. In some cases, you could argue that it’s a “portal fantasy” (like Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, etc) where Harry passes into “another world” in the wizarding world that is overlapped and underneath our own world. But that would be a bit of a stretch.

      I know others who make the same argument as your brother – pro Sci fi but con fantasy. I agree with you that it’s not *that* much of a leap. I think it comes down to the essential difference. Fantasy is explained only by “magic” the rules of our universe don’t apply. If someone is uncomfortable with that leap, with not knowing how things work, with a little bit of wonder and unknown, then that person is probably going to prefer Sci fi over fantasy.

      Let me give you a goofy example: my “real world” job is essentially trying things against a big unknown and seeing what happens. We think we understand how some of that unknown works, and they tell us sometimes how it works, but generally, we have to guess, and fiddle and see what happens. Sometimes, I go by hunch. I get a hunch that something is going to work. I test it. It works. The big unknown has given us no additional information. I just know that my hunch paid out. My boss’s boss’s boss will ask me why it worked, or how I knew what to do. Sometimes, I just have to smile enigmatically and say, “Magic.”

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