Robots and Rocketships: What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction.  The realm of geeks and and  light sabers and all things that go “beam me up”.  Well, sort of.  Science fiction (SF) is a genre that often gets lumped in and confused with fantasy.  Which is not so surprising.  Look at bookstore and library genre shelves and you’ll find that most won’t bother to separate out SF from Fantasy.  It’s convenient to shelve these branches of speculative fiction together, but it doesn’t help differentiate between the two.  For a long time fan, it can be a simple thing to identify what is and isn’t science fiction, but there are any number of unfamiliar readers who will ask things like: “do you have that science fiction series about the wizard Harry Potter?”

See, that Golden Snitch is really a spacecraft, Harry’s broom is powered by antigrav and his wand is a really futuristic piece of technology . . . . yeah riiiiggght.

These days science fiction tends to get lost in the shuffle and overlooked by potential new readers.   I confess, I don’t want it to be lost.  I want to see science fiction for children shine on its own and be recognized by readers who grow into fans.  I want this particular corner of fiction to be valued–and I want to see more good science fiction written.  Books like This Time of Darkness by H. M. HooverDevil on My Back by Monica Hughes,  and Norby the Mixed up Robot by Janet and Isaac Asimov.

Oh to be a kid in those days when Isaac Asimov’s books were plentiful on the shelves!

I grew up with my nose in science fiction books like these.  The early 80s were part of that golden age of children’s science fiction when there were plenty of titles to choose from.  In fact, the numbers of fantasy and SF in the children’s section were  much more balanced–unlike today’s shelves where children’s fantasy dominates the speculative fiction titles available.

So, back to my titular question, what, exactly, is science fiction? The genre  has been a part of literature since the days author s like Edgar Allan PoeH.G. Wells and Jules Verne put pen to paper and Mary Shelley imagined the kind of horrors that could be brought to life in the laboratory.  While it doesn’t have the long enduring track record of fantasy storytelling,  its roots go back well over a hundred years.

Science fiction really came into it’s own in the early part of the Twentieth Century,  as the  world entered a time of rapidly advancing technology and modernization. It pushed humankind into an age of wonders, of mechanical invention and industrial progress.  And it sparked the imagination of writers.  From massive starships,  aliens and laser guns, to near future stories of bioengineering, artificial intelligence and cloning, to far-flung dystopias set on the backdrops of ruined worlds, these stories can be breathtaking in scope and rich in imaginative detail.  This “genre of the intellect” can range from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, often with the only limitations being what the author can imagine possible for our future .

Well, okay, I tend to wax a bit romantically on the subject.  And it probably isn’t going to help define the genre for average reader.  So here’s a rather bare bones definition.  It’s not going to apply in every circumstance, but  it’s a good measuring stick when answering the question: ” Science Fiction or Fantasy?”

If the elements of the story contain characters, objects, events or settings that are impossible either now or in the future or in the past, then the story is fantasy.

Riding a unicorn through and enchanted forest?   Impossible.

Attending high school underneath an open portal to Hell?   Impossible.

Creating a computer program that sparks artificial intelligence?  Possible.

Rick Riordan‘s The Lightning Thief may be set in modern times, but it’s full of magic, monsters and Greek Gods–the stuff of fantasy.

The sword on the cover is a helpful clue, but the city scape  might mislead you.

If the elements of the story contain characters, objects, events or settings that could be possible–even if it’s set a long way in the future–then it’s science fiction.

Cloning dinosaurs?  Possible.

Interstellar travel?  Possible.

Meeting a sparkly vampire?  Impossible. (unless you can come up with a really, really good scientific theory for a race  of vampires).

Jeanne DuPrau‘s The City of Ember is set in a far flung future, deep in an underground city that hasn’t seen the sun in generations.  It’s a possible future even if it is a dark one.

No magic or magical things in this story.  Instead we have technology taking humankind into an extreme lifestyle.

Not every book will fit this definition, but it’s a good general rule of thumb.  When it comes to telepaths and time travel . . . well, that’ll be another post or two!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on March 6, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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