Science fiction

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A collection of well-known science-fiction novels and magazines

Science fiction is a genre of fiction in which advances in science, or contact with more scientifically advanced civilizations, create situations different from those of the both the present day and the known past. In common with most fiction, science fiction is written mainly to entertain. The borders of this genre are not well defined, and the dividing lines between its sub-genres are often fluid. (In Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov half-seriously argues that, if we were truly rigorous with our definitions, Shakespeare's play The Tempest would have to be termed science fiction.)

Two competing abbreviations for "science fiction" are in common usage: "SF" (or "S.F.") is the term most commonly used by science fiction writers and serious fans. This is also the preferred usage in the U.K.. The euphonic "sci-fi", coined by Forrest J Ackerman in 1954, has grown tremendously in popularity and is today, by far, the more common term used in the popular press, although many hardcore fans and authors continue to wince at its usage. (See sci-fi).


A great deal of science fiction expands on themes treated by the writer H. G. Wells.

  • Biological changes in humans or animals (The Island of Dr. Moreau).
  • Time travel (The Time Machine).
  • Humans with extraordinarly powers (The Invisible Man)
  • Contact with aliens from other worlds (War of the Worlds)
  • Space travel (The First Men in the Moon)
  • The future (When the Sleeper Wakes)
  • The evolution of the human race (Men Like Gods)

In defining the scope of the science fiction genre, we speak of the effect of science or technology on society or individuals. This may be epic in scope, or personal. The purpose may be to produce a sense of wonder, or to examine the effect of extraordinary circumstances on human character.

The possibilities are infinite, which is why science fiction is a notoriously difficult genre to define. We may have

  • the effect of imagined science
  • the imagined effect of actual science
  • imagined technology based upon actual science
  • imagined technology based upon imagined science
  • the effect of science and technology on the present day society
  • the effect of science and technology on an imagined society.

A science fiction story may be very realistic, as in Arthur C. Clarke's novel A Fall of Moondust, or highly imaginative, set in an extraterrestrial civilization or a Parallel universe such as Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves.

Some fiction sits on the borderline between science fiction and other genres; some writing defies categorisation. The term "science fiction" generally refers to any fiction that the average reader would consider theoretically possible, but which is not set in the past or present as we generally conceive it to be. Even clearly impossible fiction set in the future or in outer space is usually considered science fiction, if it has the trappings of science rather than magic. Thus stories of faster-than-light travel are generally counted as science fiction. The phrase "science fiction" is sometimes applied even more broadly, to include fantasy. Many bookstores shelve science fiction and fantasy together. Finally, there are slipstream stories, that are only science fiction because their readers will have it so. A good example is the Hugo nominated novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The phrase speculative fiction has been suggested as more inclusive than "science fiction".

If the society, the person, the technology, and the scientific knowledge base in the story are all standard and realistic (drawn from observed reality), without much extrapolation of any of these literary components, the story would be classed as mainstream, contemporary fiction rather than as science fiction, but if the characters' psychology (thoughts and feelings) about the laws of the universe, time, reality, and human invention are unusual and tend toward existential re-interpretation of life's meaning in relation to the technological world, then it would be classed a modernist work of literature which overlaps with the themes of science fiction.

It can also be argued that science fiction is simply a modern form of fantasy, which developed alongside of the rise of science and technology as driving factors in modern society. In this view, the elements that would previously have been presented as fantasy: magic, transformations, divination, mind-reading, fabulous beasts, new civilizations, and higher beings, are rationalized or supported through scientific or quasiscientific rationales: marvelous devices, mutation, psychic abilities, aliens and their civilizations. This definition also has the benefit of avoiding semantic traps over science fiction stories that are overtaken by events. There are many classic science fiction stories which include science since disproven or predictions that did not happen. There is a substantial overlap between the audiences of science fiction and fantasy literature, and many, if not most, science fiction authors have also written works of fantasy. Many fantasy novels have won Hugo awards and Nebula awards.

Precursors of the genre, such as Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) plainly are science fiction, whereas Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), based on the supernatural, is not. A borderline case is Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where the time travel is unexplained, but subsequent events make realistic use of science. Shelley's novel and Stevenson's novella are early examples of a standard science fiction theme: The obsessed scientist whose discoveries worsen a bad circumstance. Science fiction has often been concerned with the great hopes people place in science and also with their fears concerning the negative side of technological development.

The broader category of speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, alternative histories (which often have no particular scientific or futuristic component), and even literary stories where the only fantastic element is the strangeness of their style. Olaf Stapledon's Darkness and the Light, which presents two possible futures for mankind defined by developments in ethics and philosophy, is a good example of speculative fiction. Another branch of speculative fiction is the utopian or dystopian story. These are sometimes claimed by science fiction on the grounds that sociology is a science. Many satirical novels with fantastic settings qualify as speculative fiction. Gulliver's Travels is one example.

Two other concepts often associated with science fiction are it's 'sense of wonder' and the common use of 'paradigm shifts'. Sense of wonder here refers to the feeling of awe that is often expressed in science fiction stories, whether this is in reference to the setting, circumstances, or ideas presented. Paradigm shifts are often used to produce a sense of shock, or a change in the frame of reference for the reader. In these instances, the character often learns that the world as he conceived it is not at all as it seems.

A popular idea of science fiction is that it is, in general, attempting to predict the future. Some commentators go so far as to attempt to judge the "success" of a work of science fiction on the accuracy of its predictions. While most science fiction is set in the future, most authors are not attempting to predict; instead, they use the future as an open framework for their themes. A science fiction writer is generally not trying to write a history of the future that they believe will happen, any more than a writer of westerns is trying to create a historically accurate depiction of the old West. There are exceptions, especially in early science fiction. Writers are as likely to write of a future that they hope will not happen as they are to write about a future they think will happen.


Early science fiction was published in books and in general circulation magazines. The science fiction magazine began in 1926 with the publication of Amazing Stories edited by Hugo Gernsback. Most science fiction written between 1926 and the early 1950s appeared in science fiction magazines. Since then, there has been a huge increase in the amount of written science fiction published, and now most written science fiction appears in either hardback or paperback books, though there is still significant science fiction published in magazines and now on-line.

Beginning early in the history of silent film, the science fiction film established a genre of its own, generally more sensational and less scientific than written science fiction. It has often been said that film SF lags about fifty years behind written SF, with a film such as Star Wars resembling the pulp science fiction in Planet Stories. Many of the movie serials of the 1940s and 1950s were science fiction, and they led into early science fiction television which produced such programs as Tom Corbett -- Space Cadet and Captain Video.

Science fiction entered the comic strip medium in 1929 with Buck Rogers, followed in 1934 by Flash Gordon. The majority of Americans, before the 1950s, never encountered any science fiction other than in the "funny papers", and assumed all SF was just like comic strip science fiction, thus the phrase, used as an insult but later fondly adopted by some fans, "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff". Radio science fiction began by adapting Buck and Flash stories for radio, but later brought some of the best magazine science fiction to a larger audience with Dimension X and X Minus One, which adapted stories by Heinlein, Asimov, Leiber, and other major writers for radio. The comic book began by reprinting comic strips, and Buck and Flash both had their own comic book reprints. As soon as original comic books began to appear, science fiction was there. Planet Stories had a comic book companion. Hugo Gernsback published Wonderworld with art by pulp artist Frank R. Paul. Later EC Comics published the much beloved Weird Science and Weird Fantasy which first stole and later actually paid to adapt stories by Ray Bradbury. D.C. comics published Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space, edited by Julius Schwartz.

There have been a few science fiction stage plays, notably some Los Angeles theater adaptations of some of Bradbury's stories. There have been science fiction View-Master reels, notably "Sam Sawyer's Trip to the Moon". There have been original science fiction CD's, such as Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds and The Firesign Theatre's "Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers". There is also a small but growing number of science-fiction operas. In fact, science fiction has appeared in just about every medium conceived by the mind of man.


A unique feature of the science fiction genre is its strong fan community of readers and viewers, of which many authors are a firm part. Many people interested in science fiction wish to interact with like others who share the same interests; in time an entire culture of science fiction fandom evolved. Local fan groups exist in most of the English-speaking world, as well as in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere; often, these groups publish their own works. Also, fans (or 'fen', in the argot of the topic) originated science fiction conventions, a way of meeting to discuss their mutual interest; the original and largest convention is the Worldcon.

Many fanzines ("fan magazines") and a few professional ones exist, dedicated solely to informing the science fiction fan on all aspects of the genre. The premiere literary awards of science fiction, the Hugo Awards, are awarded by members of the annual Worldcon, which is almost entirely run by fan volunteers; the other major science fiction literary award is the Nebula. Science fiction fandom often overlaps with other, similar interests, such as fantasy, role-playing games, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. The largest, annual, multi-genre science fiction convention is Dragon Con, held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Of course, the fans of science fiction have whole-heartedly embraced the Internet. There are fan fiction sites which include additional, fan-created stories featuring characters from the genre's books, movies, and television programs. Although these may be technically illegal under copyright law, they often are permitted when no profit is made from them, and there is clear understanding that the copyright remains property of the characters' original creators. There are fan sites devoted to Frank Herbert's Dune, Michael Moorcock's Multiverse, etc. and to television shows such as Star Trek and its derivatives.

See also


SF Portals

Bibliographies of SF in various languages

External links

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