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Science Fiction Definition Essay
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by KJC

12.01.02

 

            In the world of science fiction there is always the big question: What exactly is science fiction?  When do you know when you’re writing it, when you’re reading it, when you’re watching it?  This question still pops up among the celebrated science fiction authors of today.  Most cannot agree on a solid definition of science fiction.  Even a dictionary cannot completely define science fiction and only gives a vague analysis of it.

            “Science fiction,” as my sister claims, “is a little bit of science, and a lot of fiction.”  That is mostly true.  Science fiction does deal with science, but normally it leans more to the fiction side.  A soft science fiction writer is classified by writing his story more as a fiction novel with very little science.  Soft science fiction is far more popular than hard science fiction, for it is easier to write and read.  A hard science fiction writer will fill his story with scientific facts and logical explanations, even providing you with a planet’s gravitational structure and its proximity to the sun.

            To define science fiction, you must ask yourself, “Is this story following the rules or is it making up its own?”  When something happens that could not be possible in our world, but a believable scientific explanation is given, then you may consider it to be science fiction.

            Many people commonly confuse science fiction with fantasy.  At the library and at bookstores the two book categories are placed together in the same shelf.  In fantasy, rules may be made up as the story progresses.  In scenes from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the people magically run across rooftops and up walls as if they have wings in their feet.  They can fly and defy gravity, but no explanation is given as to why.  We assume that it has always been that way in the story.  “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a classic example of fantasy, but it is also easily defined as fantasy, for there are no science elements in it that are noticeable.

            A harder example of science fiction being confused with fantasy is George Lucas’ “Star Wars” trilogy.  Most think that these classic movies are science fiction, but in reality, they are not.  Sure, the characters fly through space in space ships, tractor beams are used, and futuristic devices are seen throughout the movie—but nothing is explained scientifically.  How do their ships work?  How are the tractor beams used?  Where are the futuristic devices from and how do they work?  Where are all the humans and aliens from and how did they get there?  Everything is assumed, everything has always been as it is, and so “Star Wars” must be classified as fantasy, a sci-fi wanna be.

            The book “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeline L’Engle, is also commonly confused as science fiction.  With a story line that revolves around dimension warping and strange alien-like creatures, it is easy to see why some would think it to be science fiction, but it is not.  No logical explanation is given for how they warp dimensions and the exact source of the creatures is unknown and unexplained.  There are no scientific rules defined anywhere throughout the story.

            “But wait,” you may be saying.  “I know we can’t travel through time.  What about the time travel stories?  Are they fantasy or science fiction?”  Time traveling in science fiction is regarded as a future possibility and is sometimes called the fourth dimension.  Science fiction authors wrote of man landing on the moon far before it was possible, and look at what we have accomplished today!  They also wrote of powerful bombs that could take out entire cities before the atom bomb was invented.

            Consider why and how the people in the story are time traveling.  In the TV series “Sliders,” a team of people use a “slide” or wormhole to slide to other times and dimensions.  This story would have immediately been classified as fantasy if they had not explained how the “slide” was made or given a vague description of how it worked.  In this case, a young physics student was trying to create an anti-gravity device that actually turned into a quantum dimensional tunnel.  The student used the Einstein-Rosen Bridge theory to support his discovery’s elements.  If a character traveled through time in a fantasy story, his or her method of traveling would not be described in any sort of scientific detail and most likely would involve magic.

            An easy way to tell if your story is not science fiction is if there is magic in it.  Magic, something that is a mystery, unknown and unexplained, is not to be dealt with in science fiction.  Science fiction deals only with what is possible or could possibly come to be.  There are no unknowns; there is nothing that is not explained.

            Another way of making sure that your story is science fiction is to look at space travel.  If there is any travel in space and if the story revolves around space travel, it is most likely science fiction.  You must be careful though, for if their method of travel is not explained scientifically, then it is most likely not science fiction.

            Science fiction mainly deals with the far future.  Pierre Boulle’s “Planet of the Apes” takes place hundreds of years into our future, and then thousands of years beyond that.  Science fiction also deals with a future not far from our own, but only very rarely.  In Gene Roddenberry’s “Earth: Final Conflict,” aliens visit Earth in the year 2000 (the series began in 1997).  After they make their presence known, the year is changed from 2000 A.D. to 1 A.C., being the first year After Companions, Companions being the name of the aliens who visit Earth.  The future depicted is very much like our own present, with a few futuristic devices borrowed from the mysterious aliens to add more science into the series, and many flat screen computers and sleek futuristic cars reminding one of the Honda Hybrid.

            If a science fiction story is set in the future, it should most likely be written at least one hundred years into the future, for the author is predicting something that he or she believes could happen.  In the case of “Earth: Final Conflict,” this problem was solved by having our first contact with aliens happening in another dimension.

            The mistake of not writing far enough into the future is realized when one watches “2001: A Space Odyssey,” by Arthur C. Clarke.  Clarke wrote his story in the late 1960’s and conceived that humans would have space flight mastered and we would be traveling to other planets in the year 2001 A.D.  Sadly, that has not come to pass, and when the year 2001 did come, there were some that mocked his otherwise excellent book’s prediction.

            Another item that distinguishes science fiction from other areas is aliens.  Slimy or dry, smooth or rough skinned, one eye or ten, aliens are definitely what makes science fiction unique to its own category.  Aliens are always from another planet, hence the term “alien,” and they usually never look like humans.  They are never mystical; their origins and physiology are often logically explained.  Aliens lend science fiction the air of possibility, but only in its own world.  A good example of the diversity of aliens is realized when one watches the science fiction TV series “Babylon 5,” which revolves around a space station populated by humans and aliens alike.

            When most people think of science fiction, they think of a futuristic space ship traveling through the stars to explore unknown planets and meet aliens.  In this they are correct.  If a story deals with space travel, if other planets are visited, if there are aliens present, and usually if it is set in the future, then it is indeed science fiction, but you must look for any fantasy elements as well.  If no scientific explanations are given or if magic is involved in a futuristic space story, then this cancels out the science fiction element and turns the story into a fantasy.       When applying examples to science fiction, the common person will think of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” a story that follows courageous captains into unknown space.  Some will think of Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” said to be the first science fiction stories ever told.  Others will think of the great science fiction writers of our time and of times past: H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson, Jules Verne, and Arthur C. Clarke.  Whatever people think of science fiction, I only hope that this essay will provide a clear and positive view of this fascinating subject.  If you have never observed a good science fiction classic, I encourage you to do so, but please, make sure that it is science fiction, and not a sci-fi wanna be.