Writing my sci-fi story Fool’s Gambit got me wondering: what is science fiction? What is the definition? Where do the boundaries lie? What are the rules?
I’m sure there are a lot of well-researched and philosophical articles out there that Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein* their way towards a perfectly serviceable definition, but frankly I can’t be bothered to read them so I’m just going to boldly go where I’m guessing many men have gone before.
Something something something aliens
I wrote recently that writing science fiction was about writing any old story, replacing “car” with “spaceship” and then finishing with “an alien did it THE END”.
I was only half joking, because Fool’s Gambit started life as a story set on a trawler in the Atlantic. I couldn’t work out how to make the plot work, though, and changing the setting seemed to unlock new ways by which to complete the narrative that the initial setting somehow did not. So I made two of the three characters aliens, and changed the trawler to a Confederation starship.
It’s true, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Does the inclusion of spaceships and aliens therefore automatically make something science fiction? Can you have a piece of fiction that includes spaceships and aliens but which doesn’t qualify as sci-fi? I think the answer to the first question is “probably”, and the answer to the second question is “probably not”.
Plot and characters
I’d like to propose a fourth law to add to Arthur C. Clarke’s three:
“In science fiction there is no idea, however imaginative, plausible or persuasive, that can redeem a terrible plot or shallow, unsympathetic characters.”
The important thing in sci-fi – as with any piece of fiction – is that the reader has a reason to turn the page, and that he or she cares about and can engage with the characters. Ultimately, though, in the vast majority of cases it will be a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and it will have a protagonist to whom the reader can relate.
Science fiction can provide a interesting or useful setting, or to provide a character with abilities or traits beyond that of current humans, or to provide a solution to a challenge that would be insurmountable using today’s technology.
In science fiction the science is there to enable, project or magnify the fiction.
My definition of a boombastic jazz style science fiction
I would define science fiction as “Narrative fiction that includes at least one element that does not exist according to our current understanding of the universe but which could exist without breaking any known universal laws as they are currently understood”.
This allows for aliens, space travel, weird futuristic technologies and hypothetical scientific phenomena, but I think it also helps to set boundaries and define what is not science fiction; this definition precludes magic, the fantastical and the supernatural, which I suspect most sci-fi fans would accept do not work within “traditional” science fiction (although I have no problem with genre-mashing, and would quite happily read about magic being used to fight aliens or fairies piloting interstellar craft).
I think bending is allowed, and equally straying into laws that may exist in the future. But saying that gravity is the result of unicorn farts is going too far.
*I’d include Dick, but using that as a verb here seems inappropriate
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