Genre Series

Speculative Fiction: Science Fiction

What is science fiction? What makes it different from other kinds of speculative fiction?

July 11, 2018

Heather Hayden, Rowanwood Publishing, Just-Us League Writer

Two weeks ago, we compared fantasy, science fiction, horror, and paranormal. Today, guest writer Heather Hayden will give us a deeper look at science fiction.

What is science fiction?

Imaginative concepts based around science (or a facsimile thereof) form the heart of this genre. Science fiction may delve into the consequences of advanced technology, space travel, extraterrestrial life, and even time travel (just to name a few), or it may celebrate the possibilities of such scientific endeavors, but science is what binds the story together.

Is science fiction all about the future of technology?

In many, many cases, yes. One of the wonderful things about science fiction is that it allows the reader to explore futures and other worlds where technology has advanced to a distant point—perhaps allowing the eradication of disease, or travel to other planets (or galaxies!), or even immortality.

That’s not to say science fiction always focuses on the distant future, however. Sometimes science fiction considers what might have been, such as how air travel might differ if the Hindenburg disaster hadn’t occurred. It also looks at the present and how our rapidly growing knowledge in computer science, biology, medicine, and other fields is changing life as we know it—or how it might change things if something went perfectly right (or, more often, disastrously wrong).

Does the science have to be based on real science?

All science fiction is in some way relatable to the scientific principles. Although the science of a particular story may not be completely true (for example: as far as we know today, teleportation isn’t viable), there must still be some elements that hold true to current scientific laws or theories. This connection is what makes a story science fiction, rather than another speculative fiction genre such as fantasy.

The human perspective

Beyond imagination, beyond scientific laws, there is one more element that truly makes science fiction what it is. That is the human perspective. Good science fiction not only explores amazing worlds and technologies, but also considers the human side: how scientific discoveries, events, and developments affects humanity either individually or as a whole. I use “human” in the broadest sense here; many wonderful stories have been written from the point-of-view of sentient beings who may be like or unlike us in many fundamental ways—that is, “aliens” (though they might come from or be created on Earth rather than another planet). However, even within those stories, the effects of science are shown, acknowledged, and acted upon.

Subgenres

Science fiction is a broad genre that ranges from “hard” to “soft” science fiction. Under those two labels lie many others, some of which can lean either way depending on the author’s bent.

What makes Science Fiction “Hard” or “Soft”?

Not all science in science fiction is the same. Hard science fiction strives for scientific accuracy, while soft science fiction does not. The latter also tends to involve the social sciences (such as anthropology and psychology), while the former often draws more on the natural sciences (engineering, chemistry, physics, etc.).

For example, if a story focuses on documenting a realistic space flight to Mars, then it is likely hard science fiction. If a story involves telepathic aliens that look like humans and are here to sign an intergalactic peace treaty, then it is likely soft science fiction.

Common Subgenres

Beneath the overarching subgenres of hard and soft science fiction lie many subgenres. Here are a few examples:

  • Artificial Intelligence: A personal favorite of mine, artificial intelligence is a common theme in science fiction and often involves the development of a sophisticated machine intelligence capable of reasoning and learning on its own. It can be helpful or hostile, and it may even be portrayed as sentient.
  • First Contact: When humanity (or any sentient species) meets an alien race for the first time, there will likely be some conflict involved, whether cultural or otherwise. First contact stories explore the possibilities and consequences of such encounters.
  • Galactic Empire: Often the setting for space operas (another science fiction subgenre), galactic empires stretch across vast distances and offer a massive tableau for stories to play out upon. Whether a novel follows a down-on-her-luck space merchant or a rebel spy, there’s always something new to discover at the next destination (be that another planet, an asteroid, or a space station.)
  • Steampunk: Always set in an era where steam is still the unifying power for machines, steampunk can involve everything from old-fashioned cars and dirigibles to giant robots and even ray guns.
  • Time Travel: A story based around time travel may travel forward, backward, or both, and often involves paradoxes or altered timelines.

Conclusion

Science fiction is an imaginative genre that is in some way based on or inspired by real science. What is your favorite subgenre of science fiction? Let us know on our Facebook page!

About the Author

Fueled by chocolate and moonlight, Heather Hayden seeks to bring magic into the world through her stories. A freelance editor by day, she pours heart and soul into her novels every night, spinning tales of science fiction and fantasy that sing of friendship and hope.

Heather’s publications include Augment, a YA science fiction novel, and several short stories in the JL Anthology series. She is currently working on Upgrade, the sequel to Augment, as well as a gaslamp fantasy series titled Rusted Magic.

You can follow Heather’s writing adventures on her blog, Facebook, or Twitter, or through her newsletter.