According to Merriam Webster, science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society…” Wikipedia defines it as “genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, spaceflight, time travel, and extraterrestrial life.“
In “Conceiving the Heavens,” Melissa Scott wrote that “science fiction is the only genre that is predicated on the assumption of inevitable change.”
A hallmark of good science fiction is that it examines the ways that changes in technology or social mores impact the characters. Like mysteries, speculative fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, and alternative history, is logical fiction.
However, speculative fiction is the opposite of mystery. Mysteries use inductive reasoning. The detective collects specific cues and reasons backwards to the general cause of the clues – the criminal who committed the crime. Science fiction uses deductive reasoning. It starts with an overarching idea, such as, What if we could travel to other planets in a reasonable period of time? What would it be like to encounter intelligent alien life forms? What would it be like if robots did all the manual labor? The author then shows how those changes impact the characters in the story.
Fantasy is the twin sister of science fiction. In both, the author shows how changing the everyday rules of society impacts the characters. In science fiction, these changes are somewhat plausible, such as travel to other planets. Even if faster than light travel is impossible, we have not yet given up hope that a way will be found to reach other star systems in a reasonable length of time.
In fantasy, the changes are based on the author’s ideas of traditional themes, such as dragons, fairies, or zombies. Fantasy stories are often set in a romanticized medieval past. Not the real medieval past, where men hacked each other to death in gory battles that made the Texas chainsaw massacre look like a Sunday School picnic. Or the “code of chivalry” consisted of not raping women of your own class, and not stabbing your rivals in the back. But an idealized past, where heroes did great deeds to rescue beautiful women and save the people – and possibly even to win a crown.
Science fiction differs from other genres of speculative fiction in that science fiction stories are stories about a future that is visibly different from the present. Fantasy is generally set in a universe outside our reality, without any fixed relation to history. Alternative history is usually set in a alternative past, since the pleasure of alternative history is comparing it to the actual past or present. Some science fiction universes, such as Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, are set in the past, but this is merely framing for a world that depends entirely on technology that has yet to be developed in our future.
A story set a few years in the future in a world not visibly different from the present is not science fiction, since there is no speculation involved. It is merely an extension of the present. But if society has changed in those few years because of a nuclear war, a zombie plague, or supervolcano – that would be science fiction.
Science fiction was born in the 1800’s, at a time with technological advances were changing every day life at a rapid rate. Railroads, electricity, the telegraph and radio collapsed the amount of time to communicate with others and to travel from one place to another. Fossil fuels and the factory system amplified productivity. In the 20th century, the automobile, powered flight, the atomic bomb, television, and the Internet have continued to transform our lives. Each advance has changed our individual lives and how we relate to each other. Science fiction projects continued change into the future and asks, “What if?”
Science fiction can be combined with other genres. There can be sci fi mysteries, sci fi horror, sci fi military adventure, sci fi romance, and so one
Good science fiction has to follow the same rules as other fiction – strong characters, a plausible plot, and a vivid setting. In “realistic fiction”, the characters are affected by the world they live in. However, the author does not have to be explicit about it, since the reader shares in that society and is knowledgeable about that world.
Reading a science fiction story is like traveling. The reader gets to “visit” another “place”, where the inhabitants have different circumstances, ideas, attitudes and beliefs. Hopefully, at the end of the story we return to every day life with an expanded view of the world.