Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #28:

Exploring Genres: Science Fiction

by Travis S. Casey
March 4, 2002

Science fiction fans love to argue. More than anything else, it seems, they love to argue about what the definition of "science fiction" is. Bring up the topic among a group of fans, and they'll argue about it for hours... and the argument won't ever actually end, it'll just trail off. Arguments over the definition of science fiction in fan magazines are legendary. They'll go on for months in the letters column — sometimes even for years.

Science fiction fans also love to finely distinguish shades. They'll argue about "science fiction" versus "sci-fi", saying that they're two different things. Not to mention such terms as "speculative fiction", "science fantasy", "hard science fiction", and so on.

Trying to define science fiction is a foolhardy thing to do. I'm that kind of fool, though, so I'm going to try. First, though, here's a few definitions or thoughts on definitions borrowed from other places:

John W. Campbell Jr. wrote an essay, "Concerning Science Fiction", in which he divides the field into three broad categories:

1. Prophecy stories
Stories where the author tries to predict the effects of a new invention.

2. Philosophical stories
Those where the author uses science fiction as a medium in which to explore some philosophical question.

3. Adventure science fiction
Stories in which action and the plot are the major point — the science is secondary.

Campbell, then, requires some sort of science in the story, but doesn't require it to be the focus of the story. Others, however, are more stringent in their requirements. For example, John M. Ford offered this bit, in his "Eventful History: Version 1.x":

"Science Fiction ought to be a superior mode for dealing with the impact of technological change on society — and so it tends to be, when science fiction is what we are seeing. But mostly we see "sci-fi" — pulp storytelling with skin grafts of technology. Put a pulp hero on a horse and give him a six-gun, and you've got a Western. Same hero in a '48 Buick with a .38 Colt is a detective story. Spaceship and raygun (or, to preserve the millieu, VR headset and cracking software), and it's sci-fi."

Comparing this to Campbell's three categories, the relation to the first category is obvious. The second category is more nebulous — this quote might apply to some stories in the second category, but not to others. The third category is obviously excluded here, and seems to be what Ford is classifying as "sci-fi".

While researching for this column, I came across a wonderful description of the difference between fantasy and science fiction, written by Justin B. Rye: "where fantasy writers invoke mystic archetypal imagery, science fiction writers map novel conceptual territory." The way I understand that, Justin's saying that science fiction is about new things — exploring the possible impact of new inventions, exploring new ways of looking at things, and so on.

This definition can also be held up and compared to Campbell's three categories. Categories one and two would seem to fall under it. Stories in the third category might, but most such stories don't.

To me, science fiction and fantasy are both "what if?" genres. They deal with worlds that are different from our own in some way — in technology, in the presence of magic, in social structure. What distinguishes science fiction is the scientific method and the related subject of logic. In science fiction, one comes up with a "what if" and then tries to extrapolate what really might or could happen as a result. Fantasy doesn't pay much attention to logic, usually. When it does, we start moving into the borderline between science fiction and fantasy. Dean Koontz says this in his book Writing Popular Fiction: "The moment you begin to explain how a werewolf could exist, how a disease can cause lycanthropy [... ], how a man might become mentally disturbed enough to actually live as a vampire [... ], you are writing science fiction, or possibly, psychological suspense."

The first subgenre of science fiction, then, is the "logical extrapolation story". This is by far the biggest subgenre of science fiction — indeed, you could argue that only stories that are in it as "real" science fiction — and is therefore usually further subdivided. Some subdivisions are:

  • "If this goes on" stories. This sort of story takes a current social trend and tries to extrapolate what the future might look like if it continues. The classic example is Heinlein's story "If This Goes On... ", which deals with a future ruled by a religious dictatorship.
  • Utopian and Dystopian stories. Utopia stories are about "perfect worlds", and the classic, of course, is Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia, after which the genre is named. Dystopias are the opposite of utopias — hellish worlds. Since "everybody's happy" doesn't tend to make much of a basis for a story, utopia stories aren't too common. Dystopias turn up more often — the typical cyberpunk future is a dystopia, for example. A classic dystopian story is Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, which was the basis for the movie "Soylent Green". Other examples include The Handmaid's Tale, 1984, and Brave New World — though these are usually shelved under "Fiction" instead of "Science Fiction".
  • New invention stories. Campbell's class one is supposed to cover this, but I think it overlaps too much into his class two for me to feel comfortable about the separation — new inventions are often a launching point for a philosophical point. For example, David Gerrold's book When HARLIE was One uses the invention of a fully intelligent computer to talk about the questions of "What does it mean to be human? Can a computer be human?" Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park uses the invention of a means of re-creating dinosaurs to talk about scientific responsibility, and, more broadly, the responsibility of power. One of the best such stories is Heinlein's "Solution Unsatisfactory", which predicted the post-WW2 nuclear stalemate.
  • Sociological speculation. These are stories about how people handle certain changes or certain events. It's not usually considered "science fiction", but personally, I consider William Golding's Lord of the Flies to be an example of the genre. Other examples include Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Sheckley's The 10th Victim, and even large parts of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
  • Alternate history stories. These take a historical point, and speculate about what might have developed afterwards if something different had happened. This subgenre has become more popular in recent years. Steven Barnes' Lion's Blood is a recent entry in the field, and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is perhaps the classic of this subgenre.
  • Alternate universe stories. These are related to alternate history stories, but usually deal not only with a change in history, but with more fundamental changes as well. The "Wild Cards" series of books edited by George R. R. Martin are an example, as is Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" books.

To me, those are the important ways of dividing up science fiction — but there are, of course, other subgenres you'll hear about, so here's a few of them:

  • Space Opera. This is the subgenre of ray guns and rocketships. Star Wars is firmly in this subgenre. The classic example is E.E. "Doc" Smith's "Lensman" series.
  • Cyberpunk. Usually near-future, often with lots of people augmenting themselves through implants or body-part replacements. Computers are a major part of the cyberpunk genre, and it's generally also somewhat dystopian, often with a "corporations rule the world" slant. William Gibson is the canonical cyberpunk author, with Neuromancer being considered by many to be the first cyberpunk work. For somewhat different takes, both of which predate Neuromancer, try Vernor Vinge's "True Names" and Robert Asprin's The Cold Cash War. And for a truly mind-bending experience, try Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers. Don't miss Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, which is a wonderful simultaneous homage to and parody of cyberpunk.
  • "Hard" Science Fiction. This subgenre is distinguished by the care that its authors take to make sure that everything "works". That is, nothing in the book should contradict known science in any way; all new technology presented should be something that, as far as we know, really is possible. The old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" applies here, though, as these are often some of the strangest and most imaginative stories around. Greg Egan and Robert L. Forward are two recent practitioners in the field — Egan's Permutation City and Forward's Dragon's Egg show just how strange the field can get.
  • Superhumans. SF about people who are more than human in some way. There's the traditional superheroes, of course, but there's a lot more ways to go. The movie "Unbreakable" falls into this subgenre. Daniel Keys Moran's "Tales of the Continuing Time" series (The Armageddon Blues, Emerald Eyes, The Long Run, The Last Dancer) overlaps this subgenre with cyberpunk in a wonderful mix, and throws in some alternate history (universe?) as well.
  • Time Travel. Stories about, well, travelling through time. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine is the big classic, of course. A couple of my own favorites are Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach and Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. Time travel can get very strange and philosophical — read Heinlein's "All You Zombies" and David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself to see just how.

Some may note that "Military Science Fiction" seems to be strangely absent from this list. That's intentional, and I'll get to it later in a column on "metagenres". And, as usual, this isn't intended to be complete, just to cover some of the more common genres.

Next time, I'll talk a bit about science fantasy (coming from the science fiction end of it, this time) and, if there's time left, ideas for SF in online games. Catch it in... well, eleven or so, since this one's been a bit late.

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