To take some liberty with a quote by the great Philip K. Dick, fantasy is about things that are conceivably impossible, whereas science fictions is all about the conceivably possible. Both genres are about writing, discovering and experiencing new things, but science fiction takes on these three objectives with a different toolset; it is ideas that drive sci-fi.
Science Fiction originated as a didactic genre — meaning that many of the earlier SF books sought to instill certain moral standards in readers and to instruct them; indeed, one such example can be seen in the face of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which has been hailed as the single greatest work of literature to popularize the disastrous effects and fallout of climate change.
Where didacticism is one side of the coin of early SF works, the other is optimism. Take a look at Jules Verne – a true visionary and a champion of technological advancement, whose works have undoubtedly transcended dry page and ink and the world of imagination, and have become reality. Tales of wonders made flesh; such is the power of science fiction.
Sci-fi has come a long way since the publishing of Verne and Huxley, Orwell and even Bradburry… although, I admit, the point I’m about to make easily allows a place for both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.
What point, you ask? Science fiction has moved past it’s didactic origins, Filip answers gladly, and has become a far more reflective genre. A genre steeped in the issues our modern world faces or could face in the near-future. Not only that, but it is a genre that takes on these issues bravely and attempts to tackle them, to offer solutions,
If, at this point, you’re furrowing your brows and trying to figure out where your favorite sci-fi series fits in all of this, you may relax and read further!
While I believe that the explanation above can help towards defining where current SF stands, there are many subgenres that either don’t concern themselves with reflection, or do it in an off-hand, secondary way. Let’s take a cursory look at those, shall we?
- Space Opera: I view this particular subgenre as a bridge between science fiction and fantasy; like fantasy, it is the journey, the adventure that is most important. Science takes the back-seat and while it still plays part, it’s far from realistic.
Examples such as Star Wars, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, and the (fairly campy) Warhammer 40k universe well display the tendency of the subgenre to start off with science and introduce a variety of mystical elements later down the line.
- Hard SF is the antithesis of Space Opera. The science has to be correct, it has to be serious, and it is most often the genre in which actual scientists write. If you want to write in that one – know your science, people! Arthur C. Clarke is probably the most well-known of the Hard SF writers, and I do believe that Stephen Baxter is also in that particular clubhouse. It’s a restrictive subgenre because of the sheer amount of knowledge necessary, and the fact that people who read hard SF will call you out on your bullshit, if you try to write unprepared.
- Cyberpunk…is awesome. I’ll admit that I have barely read anything in that subgenre, for which I am very sorry; I have, however, played a number of different cyberpunk video games, and the themes are often very similar. Cyberpunk stories take place in the near-future, at a point in time when governments are no longer relevant and corporations hold the true power. The line between man and machine (or technology as a whole), is blurred and the genre has a lot in common with Dystopian Sci-fi.
This is where I’ll wrap up, but before I do…one last piece of advise.
There is greater continuity within sci-fi. To write in the genre, you need a better understanding of those authors that have come before you, than you’d need with fantasy or crime novels, for example. Whether that is owed to the fact that ideas in sci-fi are built and reiterated upon, I can only speculate but it is true, regardless. The message can be distilled to: “Read more Science Fiction!”
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this short look at the basics of science fiction, please click the Follow button and maybe leave a comment. I’d love to discuss this topic further — and indeed, plan on doing so next Tuesday!
The featured image is not mine, it was taken from the site ‘project-nerd.com’