What is “Science Fiction?”

I was touring blogs over my lunch hour here at the office, and came across this interesting selection on The Passive Voice, titled Rockets, Robots, and Reckless Imagination.  It’s an article about science fiction in Pakistan and how popularizing it as a genre might benefit the country down the road, and why the author believes this to be true.  I liked the article, but as is often the case, the comments to the article are very thought provoking.

So I started thinking about what Science Fiction was, to me.  Sometimes I think it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” types of things.  I read a novel or a short story and I know if its SF or something else.

I believe there are two different things in play.  First, there are the trappings of SF.  Think Star Wars.  Think Buck Rogers.  Think Star Trek, even.  Put futuristic weapons in a story, set it on a different planet, at some point in the future, and some people will box it up and call it “Science Fiction.”  Is it?  Hardly, in my view.

Star Wars has a lot of SF trappings in it.  There are space ships, robots, laser weapons, interplanetary travel, and aliens in that universe.  Another example is a Stephen King short story called “The Jaunt.”  Have you read it?  It deals with a way to travel between two distant points instantaneously.  It’s sort of like warp drive or teleporting in the Star Trek universe.  Is it science fiction?  I say it’s not.  The only point of the wormhole, or whatever it is that allows them to travel between the two points, is to create a real horror story.  It uses a science fiction device to tell a frightening tale.

Instead, I believe that it is the second thing that makes something a science fiction story, and that thing is “idea.”  Good science fiction explores ideas, extrapolates them into the future and tells a story within the framework of that idea.  Can dystopian fiction be science fiction?  I believe it can be.  Can post-apocalyptic fiction be SF?  Again, my answer would be “yes.”  But SF can be many things.  Sometimes it’s a mystery or a thriller, set in the future and using ideas about the future at its core.  (I’m thinking of some of Asimov’s robot stories, and also of the fiction of Steven M. Moore.)  Sometimes it is more straightforward, focusing on the effects, near-term or far-flung, of some important scientific discovery that is within the realm of possibility, however improbable.

You can’t just throw out a handful of SF trappings and make something “science fiction.”  Those trappings have to be integral to the story.  As has been said in many places and many times, Star Wars could have been set in the old West (and in fact, may have been set in imperial Japan?) and the story would be the same.  You could replace the lasers with revolvers or swords, you could replace the robots with people, and you could replace the spaceships with horses or trains or whatever, and you’d have essentially the same story.

Take a science fiction story and replace the “trappings” of SF in it, and you won’t have the same story.  You likely won’t even have a story.

To me, SF takes an idea, maybe from today, and extrapolates it in some way, shape or form.  It may or may not have robots, lasers, and space ships, but it will have an idea that has become integral to the story.


The comments at TPV talk about religion versus science, and one poster (Antares) points out that for most of us, science has an element of faith in it.  We put faith in a scientist or a teacher or a research paper and accept its pronouncements as truth, much the same way that we accept the pronouncements of a church or a religion as true.  He mentions that few of us have actually done the work to “see” that DNA is a double helix, but we accept that it is based on the assertions of scientists and observers.  I found this interesting.  Something about it seems short-sighted, but I can’t figure out exactly what it is.  Anyone have any thoughts?



3 thoughts on “What is “Science Fiction?”

  1. Steven M. Moore

    Hi Scott,
    I pretty much agree with most of what you said in the main spiel (thanks for the link, by the way). Star Wars is more fantasy than sci-fi (Jedi knights, princesses, light sabers for swords), but is Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars stories (where a lot of the Star Wars trappings came from) fantasy too–no, because at the time those stories were SF (I don’t know if the Wright brothers had even flown at Kittyhawk yet). There is a timeline issue. On the other hand, are Firefly (the Old West in space) and Cowboys and Aliens sci-fi or western? Genres tend to get mixed up nowadays. Remember Babylon Five? One alien race looked like Roman centurions. Time travel stories tend to really confuse things. I guess the classification doesn’t really matter if we enjoy the story.
    As an ex-scientist, I’m more interested in the second part of your post. First, current science uses peer group “quality control” and the scientific method. Nothing is written in stone, but if you observe something N times in an experiment, and N becomes large, scientists know something needs a theory. If another contradictory experiment comes along or that peer group questions the experimental methods (FTL neutrinos, for example), theory has to adapt. Religion is limited in that respect.
    On the other hand, the comment relates to the idea of a “technical savage.” People can be users of cell phones and HDTVs without knowing how to make one or even understand how they work. Technology moves so fast that even I’ve become a technical savage although I might understand the general physical principles better than most. I once read a short story where the Pentagon had this new secret weapon–they had a guy who could calculate a square root with pencil and paper! (Can anyone remind me of the title?) Same idea. Clarke’s adage about far-out futuristic science being indistinguishable from magic is already reality for many of us.
    Sorry for the verbosity.

  2. Scott Dyson Post author

    I’ve been thinking about Antares’ (who wrote a pretty good SF/thriller called HEART OF STONE, by the way – author name is H. Lynn Keith) assertion. He wrote a blog post titled Revelations about the idea also. I was thinking that it comes down to a working knowledge of the scientific method. It doesn’t matter if I do the experiment and repeat the results for me to understand that the scientific method was applied and the results say a certain thing. For some who don’t (or won’t) understand what the scientific method says about theories and facts and such, maybe their acceptance of those theories IS fact.

    Most religious “facts” would probably not be reproducible via the scientific method. Anecdotal evidence is not part of a theory. I think maybe that’s what I’m thinking is wrong with his assertions. Give his blog a read if you’d like.

  3. Steven M. Moore

    Hi Scott,
    Will do.
    Part of the problem is in the use of the word “theory.” Too many people equate it to “belief” or “conjecture.” “Theory” in the scientific context is NEVER used in that way. A scientific theory just offers an explanation for many related experimental facts (sometimes the theory even explains the relationship). Take X-rays, RF signals, and light. At first blush, they all seem to be different experimental phenomena, but they’re all explained by classic electromagnetic theory. Advances are made when theories (explanations) are combined or expanded to encompass even more phenomena: the electroweak theory “explains” both electromagnetic phenomena and the weak interactions (that famous Higgs boson is used to give mass to 75% of the exchange particles, the W and Z particles, while leaving the photon massless).
    But people often don’t understand or even resist scientific advances. I’m one who believes people shouldn’t be allowed to drive without an understanding of elementary mechanics, including Newton’s laws and the phenomenological aspects of friction (phenomenological only because the molecular forces involved in friction are too complex to be described more fundamentally than some simple rules). But that’s just me; I’m biased. 😉

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