What is Science Fiction?

I recently asked the question, “What is Art?” Answering that one is a real challenge, and the answer may be entirely subjective. This time I’m asking a question that is almost as difficult: “What is Science Fiction?” The answer may turn out to be just as subjective, and just as much of a challenge, but I’ve always thought the tough questions are the most interesting to explore.

I may, or may not, be an artist (but I know what I like!), and suffice to say I have only dabbled in art over the years. Science fiction, however, has filled my life as long as I’ve been picking my own reading material. I suspect that, overall, my fiction reading (and I read a lot of fiction) is at least 80% science fiction. It could be more. Most normal fiction leaves me disinterested, no matter how insightful it might be. I live in the real world; I want stories that take me far, far away, be it conceptually, spatially or temporally (if only temporarily).

Only authors that bring something newly invented to the table really hold my interest.

And science fiction is all about new ideas! At its best, science fiction allows one to imagine a new idea and then see what happens when that idea is applied.

An example might be Larry Niven‘s short stories that imagine a world where teleportation is trivial and cheap (like taking a bus). He explores what that implies for crime or flash crowds. What happens when crooks can be thousands of miles away in seconds? What happens when networked people can be anywhere in seconds?

Just imagine 500,000 Twitter followers who hear about a great concert happening right now. Or what if it’s a riot? How big can a crowd get before the police shut down the system? One of Niven’s stories explores that very thing (long, long before Twitter or even the interweb existed).

By the way, I don’t know about you, but I have never been successful in turning an adult on to science fiction. It appears to be a form of story telling that you glom onto early in life or not at all. I’m not sure if this says something about how science fiction grows your mind or something about minds being able to “get” science fiction. But it does seem the world breaks into those who like it and those who absolutely aren’t touched by it.

Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my take on,…

What is Science Fiction?

What defines a work of fiction as science fiction?

That question is almost as difficult to answer as is the one about art.

A meta-question in both cases is whether the answer is purely subjective or are there some objective criteria that apply. I believe that in both cases, there are some objective criteria, but also that some aspects are matters of individual taste and perception.

Science Fiction and Fiction

What makes science fiction hard to pin down is that, like art, it is very large in scope. Lots of things are art; lots of fiction is science fiction.

In fact, I think that it comes close to being a primary classification almost on par with the ‘fiction’ class itself. I tend to think of my library as composed of technical, non-fiction, reference, fiction and science fiction. I see each of those as  distinct.

The reason for this broad classification is that science fiction contains many of the same genres as does ordinary fiction. In my library I have detective SF, mystery SF, philosophical SF, romantic SF, sexy SF, historical SF, adventure SF, psychological SF, and more. Science fiction is a platform for fiction.

[One of the interesting differences between science fiction and ordinary fiction is how often science fiction keeps the reader in the dark! The classic science fiction short story keeps the reader unaware of some key element until, ideally, the very last line. You see this at play in many Twilight Zone episodes, for example.]

But what divides science fiction from fiction?

An obvious definition operates from the name itself: science fiction is fiction where science is a key element of the story. Both concepts are crucial, and since the science part can get a bit tricky, let’s quickly deal with the easy one: fiction. The movie Apollo 13, for example, was a great movie, but it wasn’t science fiction (unless you actually believe NASA faked the moon landings).

What is important here is that Apollo 13 took place in the real world and not only follows real world physics and science, but real world events. Apollo 13 is a dramatic documentary (making it fictionalized non-fiction). It is definitely not science fiction!


It’s the other word, science, that launches the fiction into space (or some other fantastic realm).

Some wish to include science fiction’s sister, fantasy, under the umbrella, so they often refer to it all as speculative fiction. Others see the siblings as clearly related, yet distinct, and refer to them as science fiction & fantasy.

The crux of the difference between the two is whether the story’s reality uses some form of magic. A fantasy, by definition, takes place in a world where magic is is part of that world.

In this case “magic” refers to anything that goes beyond the physics of reality (even a science fictional physics). Technology so advanced that, per Arthur Clarke‘s third law, it looks like magic does not make a story a fantasy.

The key question is whether the story is fully explained by the natural world or whether a supernatural element is required.

In particular fantasy stories involve the idea of being able to invoke magic or do spells. Wizards and witches are clearly fantasy along with flying carpets, unicorns and vampires. The same is true of Santa Claus (sorry Virginia!), the Easter Bunny, Paul Bunyon, Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, zombies and ghosts.

Actually, most zombie stories do have natural explanations (chemicals, meteor dust, biological agents, etc.). In fact, like Frankenstein, many zombie stories are really parables about science gone horrible wrong. The fantasy part comes from the impossibility of animating dead flesh.

This just illustrates how murky classifying science fiction (& fantasy) can be. Ghosts, vampires, and some monsters, can be argued to be part of the natural world, which makes them just scary fiction, not science fiction!

There are other very inventive stories that take fantasy elements out of the fantasy world by providing natural explanations for them. Anne McCaffrey‘s Dragonriders of Pern series is an almost canonical example.

Dragons as real beings specially bred to solve the problem of ‘Thread.’ Other examples include stories that, as mentioned above, provide biological explanations for vampires or zombies, or stories that explain magic as a special form of mathematics or quantum physics.

Speculative Fiction

The science/fantasy line is so tricky that, as mentioned above, some resort to calling all speculative fiction. This simplifies the definition: speculative fiction is fiction where speculation is a key element of the story. The nice thing is that the term covers historical fiction, future fiction and fantasy fiction under one umbrella.

Historical fiction, by the way, is an interesting category. On the one hand there are works that as fictionalized accounts of real events or pure fiction that takes place at some point in history. An excellent example of the latter is Ken Follett‘s outstanding novel, Pillars of the Earth. Such works are not science fiction.

On the other hand, there is historical fiction that imagines history turning out differently. For example, that the Roman Empire didn’t collapse but survived to become the foundation of the modern world (we all speak Latin). Such works, because they involve an alternate reality, are considered science fiction.

With regard to speculative fiction, the immediate objection is that speculation is part of all fiction pretty much by definition.

This means that either the label is redundant and useless, or it refers to an extra degree of speculation compared to other fiction. And the term, speculation, is a vague enough to cover rocket ships and dragons. So the question is, “What constitutes speculation?”

A good answer is that speculation involves events that could not happen right now (or did not happen).

If the story depends on magic or advanced technology to work, then it could not happen right now, and it is speculation. If the story depends on a different physics (warp drive, for example) or other science elements unknown to us now, that is also speculation.

And at long last we come to…

My Definition of Science Fiction

For me, the simple, but vital, characteristic of science fiction is that it contains aspects not possible in the world we know. I do distinguish between science fiction and fantasy (I consider them separate genres), and I do not use the term speculative fiction (no big reason, really; I just don’t).

A simple form of my definition is, “Science Fiction is fiction with science + imagination.”

In this definition, both science and fiction are freely defined, but adhere to the natural world principle. That is, any fantastic element, no matter how fantastic it is, must be grounded in some form of (fictional) physics.

To be science fiction, a story must be (more or less) explained by the physics of that reality. The physics is allowed to be wildly improbable or even impossible.

Various forms of warp drive are a good example. If Einstein got it right, it is not possible — even in principle — to go faster than light, because this would break causality. But many stories require moving about the galaxy at high speeds, so warp drive is a “gimme” we allow for the sake of the story.

The transporters of Star Trek (and Larry Niven) are extremely fantastic, but they have the advantage that physics doesn’t insist on their impossibility. The work of authors such as Allen Steele and Greg Egan is highly grounded in real physics. In fact, such works are usually categorized as hard science fiction. (The more SF is about the nuts and bolts, the harder it is.)

So there it is: science fiction is fiction + science + imagination.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

18 responses to “What is Science Fiction?

  • Nicole

    Great post! I’ve actually never questioned what makes something science fiction – I just knew what it was. When I think science fiction, things like oversized spiders, aliens, Godzilla, and wars going on in space come to mind.
    After reading through a few paragraphs of your post, I tried to answer the question. My answer was very similar to yours: “it contains aspects not possible in the world we know.”

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Thank you for dropping by; I’m glad you enjoyed the read! Long-time fan of SF or just browsing? I started early; never looked back. That element of, as you say, “aspects not possible in the world” is addictive and electric; it’s hard to get a real buzz off ordinary fiction now. d;-\

    I dropped by your site for a bit; you’re a writer! (Good stuff; I’ll be back.) Looks like you took your first skydive recently? Was it Amazing? Life changing? Excellent video production!! Nice use of music and editing. Way better than mine… if you go back to last week’s posts, you’ll find a few about my first time(s), lo these many years ago.

  • d.c.b.

    What about Steam Punk? Guess the pyhsics are off because you couldn’t carry the heat or amout of water to create such fantasies.

  • It's only P!

    Although I’m not into SciFi I still like the article because of the hours invested in it alone! Call me magnanimous. 😉 Anyway, it touched on fantasy and magic too.

    Once in my life have I been lured into reading Fantasy because I had no idea that it was getting to that. Christopher Moore had reeled me in with his exquisitely delicious and wicked writing and by the time I was into The Stupidest Angel I was so sold that I had to read on. It made me want to read more by him and I became very fond of Fluke.

    Perhaps if I did not know that SciFi was to follow and I was already grabbed by a story, I might be able to finish and even like it.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, I appreciate your magnanimity! 😉

      I’m not familiar with Moore, so I looked him up. (From what you wrote, it sounds like you read at least two?) If you enjoyed Fluke and Stupidest Angel, I’m pretty sure there are similar authors you might enjoy. (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels might interest you, for instance.)

      The best science fiction is always about a great story; it just happens to be a story that couldn’t actually happen (at least right now). Do you mind if I ask, what is it about SciFi that acts as a “Don’t Read Me” sign? I have a theory that one comes to like it while young or not at all. I’ve never been able to get an adult to become a fan, despite trying several times. I’ve always wondered what it is about SF that’s like that.

      • It's only P!

        Fluke and Stupidest Angel are my favourites. I read four or five others. I did not know of Pratchett and read about him on Dutch wikipedia. I think why I was able to read Moore was because the weirdness takes place on this world, and not an imaginary one, and also with real people mixed with whales and such. And he’s very funny. 🙂

        Well you could be right that one either is or isn’t (and never will be) interested in SF. My son wasn’t even ten when he read the LOTR and this interest did not come from me! He had also read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (his dad’s book) and so that led me to think now that the interest in SF could also be an inherited one! My son liked Christopher Moore a lot too – I’d actually bought the Stupidest Angel for him – and he read all his books but he’s more into SF. I almost did not give the book to my son, who was 15 at the time, after I discovered (once home) the author’s warning:
        “If you’re buying this book as a gift for your grandma or a kid, you should be aware that it contains cusswords as well as tasteful depictions of cannibalism and people in their forties having sex. Don’t blame me. I told you.”

        I gave him the book anyway, but told my son not to tell his dad about it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If you don’t care for stories that take place in unreal places, Discworld may not be your cup of tea. The writing and characters can be very silly, but Pratchett is a keen reporter of the human condition. He masks considerable comment on the foibles of humans through his silliness. (The Discworld books are easily in my all-time favorites in the SF and Fantasy genre.)

        The Hitchhiker books are even a bit sillier, but usually also on SF fans’ favorites lists. There is that whole thing with the number 42 that has practically entered mainstream consciousness. I re-read them all every few years or so!

        I’ll have to see if I can think of some SF you might like based on your liking of Moore. Once you leave the mainstream, there are some excellent, very human, stories there. (But as you say, maybe it’s just not in the genes for some.)

      • It's only P!

        I can probably rent a Pratchett in Dutch from the library! Just to see if I can read his type of story – I read on wikipedia that the translation was quite a challenge. Who knows, I might make history, ha ha! BTW, the pseudonym of the translator is Venugopalan Ittekot. Believe me, that’s not a Dutch name.

        Aren’t there also more men than women who like SF?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not sure if that’s true (about men/women SF fans) anymore. It did used to be the case. The Twilight series (and Buffy and others before that) has brought a lot of female fans into the fold. It wouldn’t surprise me if that didn’t start as far back as Star Trek. My cousin is just as big a Star Trek fan (if not more so) than I am. She’s the one who wanted to go to the Trek convention where we saw Shatner and Nimoy appear.

        On the Fantasy side, it’s possible the fan base actually tilts female, and there is some excellent feminine SF from decades ago (Chelsea Yarbro, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Bradley, et alii). [And I don’t mean “feminine” in the frilly sense, but in the “appealing to female values and sensibilities” sense.]

        In fact, I have an article planned about Yarbro’s Count Saint-Germain books. The first one came out in 1978, so they way pre-date the Twilight books. Anne Rice’s vampire books began in 1973, so she was first, but Yarbro’s Saint-Germain books are really, really steamy! (Definitely adult reading.)

        But “hard” SF tends to have an engineering or technical sensibility, and I suspect that’s more generally a male domain than not. (Which is a pity, really. I wish more women would get into the technical areas.)

      • It's only P!

        I hear ya, it’s not as much of a male terrain as I thought.

        What I got out of this is ‘et alli’ because I didn’t know that one and wondered if I had used the right abbreviation for Harry et al., thinking that this could be Wyrd’s way to slip me a better way of putting it. Always welcome by the way, even overtly. But no, it’s the same thing, actually, I found this:

        et al. – and others (‘et al.’ is used as an abbreviation of `et alii’ (masculine plural) or `et aliae’ (feminine plural) or `et alia’ (neuter plural) when referring to a number of people);

        You are truly a logophile’s delight!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep. There was no hint, I just like the longer form. And you’ve taught me back! I see I should have used et aliae!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I had to go back and check an old post to remember the other Latin expression that et al. can be short for. It’s et alibi (and elsewhere), which you don’t see very often. Poking around I also discovered et alios, which is for mixed gender people (not things).

        I guess the nice thing about et al. is that you don’t have to remember the other cases!

        Ah, words and language… so much fun! Thank you so much for opening the topic! I love learning new things!!

      • It's only P!

        The only et a* I ever came across until yesterday was et al. They usually have it in legal and medical references; well, that’s where I’ve often seen it.

        So when I saw your alli, I thought, huh? And naturally, looked it up. That’s when we learn, right? By looking things up. I am a compulsive ‘looker-upper’ because English is not my mother tongue so from that point of view I can be unsure. It’s a great excuse!

        I was always keen to use words correctly but was forced to become pedantic when I proofread for people who considered a . in the wrong place a sin. They were intellectuals, my clients, and I had to converse with them in a way that did not make me look stupid. My vocabulary grew by the minute. 🙂

        I’m aware that it’s often not called for to use five-dollar words, but I sure do love them. And love to read them. And love to read well written text, and I don’t mean so much grammatically or the punctuation in the right place, but when it shows that people have vetted what they put in, and of course, there must hardly be any spelling errors, ha ha! Some websites are full of them. I’d never do business with a company that doesn’t know how to spell.

        Anyway, there’s a lot of vetting going on in your blog and it’s a great place to learn and occasionally reciprocate. I really like et alios. That’s you and me. P. Wyrd et alios. A story title?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! I’m the same way; when I see something I don’t understand, off to Google or Wikipedia I go. And if they don’t help me, there’s always Wiktionary or TV Tropes or YouTube or….. 😉

        I both totally love and really hate the interweb!!

        Nos et alii sunt idem genere ipso!

        ((Hint: translate.google.com if you don’t know about that one already.))

  • Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Speculative Fiction? | Amusing Nonsense

    […] Smythe wrote this post defining science fiction, but for me it still kind of incorporates too much fantasy into the […]

  • reocochran

    Your examples of the variety in science fiction really are impressive with plenty of details why they belong there. You are great at defining, explaining how and why each fit into a large cache of science fiction materials. Smiles, Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks. You’ve jumped into the Logos Con Carne past here! This is the 63rd post I ever wrote, and it was only the second month of blogging.

      Looking back, it’s funny: I wrote 87 posts in the first two months! 41 in July and 46 in August. Never done nearly that many in a month since (except one month, August 2012, when I wrote 48!) Usually if I get anywhere close to 30 in a month, that’s a really big month. Just five this past December, and I constantly wonder how much longer I’ll bother with blogging. (But every time I step away “for good” I end up coming back, so I’m not sayin’ nothin’ about quitin’ any more. Until I actually do.)

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