Type "definition of science fiction" into an internet search engine, and you're likely to find more entries than you can swing a laser sword at. In quotes from Asimov to Heinlein to names less familiar, definitions of science fiction often include words like science fact, scientific method, technology, rational, plausible, extrapolation, speculation, future, impact on society, modern myth, metaphor, and literature of change.
If your plan is to make money writing science fiction, it's important to know the market and the types of works science fiction publishers are searching for before submitting your stories. The intent of this chapter is to introduce you to various interpretations of the term science fiction by many who work in the field. It also aims to help you decide where your own stories fit within the spectrum of these definitions so you can better decide where to submit your works.
ACCENT ON SCIENCE
To understand what science fiction is, we'll begin with a review of the term science.
Science is a body of knowledge, and it's the process for obtaining that knowledge through the use of the scientific method, which involves taking systematic steps in the search for new facts. The scientific method requires recognition of a problem by asking a testable question, hypothesizing the answer to the question, collecting data through observation and experimentation, and then drawing conclusions from the data, which may support or disprove the hypothesis.
If much experimentation and evidence lead to the same conclusion, a scientific theory or law may result. Anyone performing the same experiment will arrive at the same result, no matter what his or her individual beliefs are.
But scientific theories are not set in stone. They may change over time as new evidence presents itself. For instance, it was long thought the Earth was the center of the universe until Copernicus proposed a sun-centered planetary system. Atoms were once thought to resemble tiny billiard balls until the electron, proton, and neutron were discovered. We now have an understanding of DNA's central role in determining the traits of living things.
Technology is the practical application of scientific discoveries. For example, not long after the electron was discovered, television was invented. And we've discovered the means to manipulate DNA. A gene from a fluorescent jellyfish can be used to make a mouse's skin glow.
How does science relate to science fiction? In his book Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, David Gerrold writes: "Because science fiction is rooted in science ... the writer has a responsibility to stay consistent within that body of knowledge."1 Or, stated another way, those who write science fiction are not allowed to rewrite the laws of nature.
Ben Bova, in his book The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells, makes this statement: "Science fiction stories are those in which some aspect of future science or high technology is so integral to the story that, if you take away the science or technology, the story collapses."2
Could Jurassic Park be the science fiction thriller it is without the idea of dinosaur DNA being extracted from mosquitoes preserved in amber? Absolutely not.
There are stories some refer to as "Mars Westerns," meaning, if you take away the ray guns and rocket ships and replace them with pistols and stagecoaches, the story line wouldn't be much different. The piece wouldn't collapse if the science was removed.
Robert Heinlein expressed it this way: "...The result can be extremely fantastic in content, but it is not fantasy; it is legitimate--and often very tightly reasoned--speculation about the possibilities of the real world.... "3
Many consider science fiction a metaphor, its elements symbolic of the human condition. Futuristic societies are metaphors, as are alien life-forms and space travel. From this idea one could say, from a writer's imagination springs truth.
SCIENCE FICTION AS THE LITERATURE OF CHANGE
Science fiction is often called the "literature of change." In recent centuries, our world has gone through accelerating advancements in scientific discovery, in areas such as astronomy, evolution, relativity, computing, and how the body works. People have grown to believe the universe is knowable, and they hold the power to control their destinies, to accomplish virtually anything. We're able to send space probes beyond Pluto, develop smaller and faster computer chips, manipulate our genes, and aim warheads with surgical precision. We can change the world's ecology. Science fiction authors explore the consequences of such changes and make predictions based on what is happening now. Will new discoveries and technologies be used for good or bad? How will these changes continue to affect the individual and whole societies?
Frederik Pohl gives us this insightful passage about science fiction: "Does the story tell me something worth knowing, that I had not known before, about the relationship between man and technology? Does it enlighten me on some area of science where I had been in the dark? ... Does it illuminate events and trends of today, by showing me where they may lead tomorrow? Does it give me a fresh and objective point of view on my own world and culture, perhaps by letting me see it through the eyes of a different kind of creature entirely, from a planet light-years away?"4
H. Bruce Franklin composed this definition: "Science fiction is the major non-realistic mode of imaginative creation of our epoch. It is the principal cultural way we locate ourselves imaginatively in time and space."5 Continuing down this line of thought, the scope of science fiction is infinite. A science fiction story can project from our place in history to anywhere in the cosmos, during any time in the past, present, or future.
Deron Douglas, founder of Double Dragon Publishing, has this to say about how science fiction relates to change: "In most cases a good science fiction story will propose a situation that transcends and extends conventional insight much as old-time fables did in the past. While science fiction uses technology as its core device, it's about people and their reactions to their changing surroundings and each other."6
SCIENCE FICTION, HARD OR SOFT?
Science fiction can also be categorized as "hard" or "soft." At the core of hard science fiction is detail and accuracy in the "hard" sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and biology. The story's conclusion hinges on a scientific or technological development. Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, for example, is known for its scientific details regarding molecular biology and evolution.
Soft science fiction focuses on human feelings over scientific detail and may be based on the "softer" sciences such as psychology and sociology. Ursula LeGuin tends to write social science fiction. For instance, her novel, The Lathe of Heaven, is a futuristic story about how a man's dreams alter world affairs and the ramifications of playing God.
SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, SPECULATIVE FICTION?
The NCF Guide to Canadian Science Fiction and Fandom website, edited by Robert Runté, takes the position that defining science fiction isn't so straightforward: "No one has ever managed to come up with a truly satisfactory definition of science fiction. Either the definition is too broad, including works which are clearly fantasy or horror, or else so narrow that it excludes much of the recognized field."7
Consider the following list of words: dragon, magic crystal, faery ring, wizard. What type of story do they bring to mind? Elements of magic or the supernatural are the basis for fantasy literature. A magic ring can bring unimaginable power to the one who wears it. Science isn't required to explain how it works.
Now consider this list: time machine, faster-than-light travel, wormhole gate to a parallel world. Are these the makings for a science fiction story? Some would agree, though others would place them in the genre of science fantasy because they don't obey known laws of physics. Many, however, regard these impossible technologies as acceptable conventions of science fiction if they're used in a realistic way. We can believe they may be developed in the future.
Orson Scott Card writes about the difference between science fiction and fantasy in his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy: "...science fiction is about what could be but isn't; fantasy is about what couldn't be." He goes on to say: "If you have people do some magic, impossible thing by stroking a talisman or praying to a tree, it's fantasy; if they do the same thing by pressing a button or climbing inside a machine, it's science fiction."8
James Gunn in The Science of Writing Science Fiction offers this view: "The basis of fantasy is psychological truth; nothing else matters. The basis of science fiction is the real world. Does the story respond to hard questions? Nothing else matters."9
In this light, if a special agent is given the job of hunting down the culprit who kidnapped a character from a classic work of literature, as in The Eyre Affair, we can't ask hard, real-world questions in a story like this. In contrast, in the novel When Worlds Collide, astronomers discover a rogue planet from outer space hurtling straight for Earth. The authors strove to make this collision of worlds true-to-life so the reader would think realistically about how such an event might affect the citizens of Earth.
In differentiating between science fiction and fantasy, author Darrell Bain returns us to Runté's comment about the difficulty in finding one satisfactory definition of science fiction. In his article, "Fantasy vs. Science Fiction," Bain first defines both science fiction and fantasy traditionally, then speculates on the fantastic results that could stem from genetic engineering and reminds us of the counter intuitiveness of quantum mechanics. He concedes, "At best, the line between them blurs toward the middle, where the more fantastic the story, the more it resembles fantasy and the more realistic it is, the more it smacks of science fiction. A lot of it meets its other self in passing ... "10
In bookstores today, it's common to find novels in the Science Fiction section all grouped together based on the very broadest definition of the genre. There are many who read and write both science fiction and fantasy, and, as we've determined, boundaries between the genres often overlap, so perhaps it makes sense to group them all into one section. But not all authors of science fiction desire to see their books blended into a mix, which places serious science fiction alongside science fantasies and tales of sword and sorcery. For this reason, some who write stories based on real science and technology classify their works as speculative fiction. They speculate how advancements in science will affect individuals and whole cultures. It should be noted, however, that others use "speculative fiction" as an all-encompassing term that includes the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, and alternative history.
IN WHAT CATEGORY DOES YOUR STORY BELONG?
Many publishers are reluctant to define science fiction too narrowly for fear they might miss a worthwhile story among incoming submissions; others are more specific. On its website, Tor reports it publishes a very large and diverse line of science fiction and fantasy. For its science fiction series, Baen Books looks for story lines with "solid scientific and philosophical underpinnings." The independent press Double Dragon Publishing considers a broad range of science fiction stories, though preference is given to works with an "'after-the-holocaust milieu' with either environmental, extraterrestrial, or genocidal elements." Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine searches for strong, realistic stories where the plot centers on some facet of science or technology, while Asimov's Science Fiction magazine stresses "character oriented" stories.
This section provides you with a process I used for assessing two of my own stories and is intended for you to use as a model for determining where your own story fits within the scope of science fiction.
In my novel, Orphilion Dreams, the planets (and their moons) are being exploited for raw materials. An authoritarian government rules the Solar System. People live and work under strict control and surveillance. The hero and heroine discover literature about past democracies, and it isn't long before they're no longer willing to blindly accept their subordinate status. Following a string of events, they become leaders of a dangerous revolt.
Futuristic? Definitely. Science fiction? Citing Dr. Bova's definition, will the story fall apart if the science is removed? It's a high-tech society in which they live. But could cars have replaced the spaceships? Could countries have replaced the planets? Could a present-day dictatorship have replaced the future government? The technology is such an integral part of the world in which they live, it wouldn't be the same story without it, and there are particular technologies that are important to the story's resolution. It fits in with science fiction being literature of change in the sense that the protagonists undergo a major shift in their worldview and respond to it in a way which significantly impacts their society.
In my novella, Isadora, a young woman lives in a post-apocalyptic Earth. She begins to rediscover scientific truths but quickly finds this type of innovative thinking isn't tolerated in her society. A mysterious man encourages her in her pursuit of scientific knowledge, but it must be done in secret. She's overheard to predict a solar eclipse. After the eclipse occurs, she's accused by leaders of her community of possessing evil powers and is sentenced to death.
Could the same story have been written without the science? Is there a change that people must deal with? The woman could have been discovering spiritual or magical truths, but essential to the story is the fact that she uses her skill of observation to learn new things about nature. Leaders become threatened by the philosophical implications brought on by her discoveries. They react in a way to preserve their way of life and Isadora must react rationally if she's to save her own.
* In evaluating your own stories, ask yourself the following questions:
* Is the work centered on real science, or can you take away the science and still have a viable story? Does it respond to hard, real-world questions?
* If the story uses science that is currently impossible, is it used in a realistic way, or is it employed as an element of fantasy?
* Does the story involve a social change because of a new technology or scientific discovery? How are the characters affected by this change? In what way does the change affect the society as a whole?
* How does the story reflect on the human condition today?
These questions aren't meant to set rigid limits on your stories, for where would science fiction literature be today if such boundaries had been set? Rather, the above questions are meant to be used as a guideline as you reflect on the nature of your story.
Even though no one definition of science fiction apparently exists, it's safe to assume that science fiction has some common elements. A science fiction story centers around a scientific concept that is essential to the plot, and the story goes on to depict how characters are affected by the change the concept has produced. The concept can be extrapolated from science that is currently known, and it may become so advanced that it borders on the fantastical. At any rate, if the science is removed, the story falls apart, otherwise it's more than likely a "Mars Western," which is not to say it can't be entertaining, but it's not true science fiction by the above standards.
To save a lot of time and misdirection, it's highly recommended that you study the submission guidelines of publishers and read science fiction they've published to see if what you've written is the type of story they seek. Hopefully, the checklist above will help you examine your own work to see where it fits under the umbrella of science fiction.
May you enjoy many successes in your writing!