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What is science fiction?

When you hear the words “science fiction,” you probably visualize certain concepts, including space ships, aliens, outer space, robots, etc. More specifically, you picture some aspects of the probable future, which is actually a good place to start for the definition of science fiction.

The probable future has two implications: one, it involves events, sciences, technologies, politics, religion, and other elements that do not currently exist, and two, the word “probable” implicates that there is some possibility of these events occurring. The second point is what draws a clear line between science fiction, and its sister genre which it often gets tagged with, fantasy.

Within this definition lies many popular examples of science fiction, including but certainly not limited to Star Wars, The Matrix, 1984 by George Orwell, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card,  etc.

The line between science fiction and fantasy does sometimes seem blurry, however. For example, take a look at Star Wars. There are definitely futuristic elements in its universe: space travel, alien species, artificial intelligence, etc. Yet one of the most central concepts of Star Wars is a fictional power called “the Force.”

Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi

Doesn’t sound like technology. And not quite scientific either, right? As it resides in a universe occupied by future technologies, the Force sticks out like a sore thumb. Ultimately, the Force is fantasy. And thus, Star Wars may be considered as science fantasy, which is any story set in a fantasy universe with futuristic technologies (that is, a blend of science fiction and fantasy).

In reality, however,  Star Wars is often considered a space opera. To get to the meaning of that term, let us consider another, more strict, definition of science fiction:

“We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!”Analog Science Fiction and Fact Writer’s Guidelines 

We trust Analog’s more strict definition, given they have been in the business of publishing short stories for over three-quarters of a century. More importantly though, this is a much more precise definition that draws a distinct line between science fiction and other similar genres.

Coming back to our example with Star Wars, we can now see how the story could no longer be considered science fiction. If we break it down to just a one sentence plot, Star Wars boils down to a farmer’s boy (Luke) destined to be trained by a famous master warrior (Obi-Wan) to defeat the ruler of an evil empire (Darth Vader). Notice that there is no mention or dependence on a future science. As a result, Star Wars is commonly categorized as a space opera, which is, as the name suggests, simply an opera in outer space. The setting can be interchangeable and the plot will hold.

In a sense, one could argue that fantasy is defined by just the first requirement softer definition of science fiction: a story that contains elements which do not exist (or have not existed). Much more straightforward, right? This is also the reason why fantasy tends to be more focused on characters and plot, as opposed to a single (or a few) complex concept(s).

For more information, check out Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction” book, in which Card describes the sci-fi scene in detail.

Also, here is a list of essays by Asimov in which he discusses writing.

Many quintessential scifi short stories are included in 1) Dangerous Visions by Harlan Ellison, and 2) Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol 1 by Robert Silverberg. Both of these anthologies have sequels, so they will provide a great introduction to scifi short stories.

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We encourage members to add their own recommendations. If you would like to add your recommendations, you may e-mail (if you are a PSU student, from your PSU e-mail address).

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