Science fiction (also, sf, SF, or sci-fi) is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology. Science fiction is found in media as diverse as, but not limited to, literature, art, comic books, radio, television, movies, video games, board games, roleplaying games, and theater.
Science fiction is part of, and in organizational or marketing contexts can be synonymous with, the broader definition of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is a category encompassing creative works incorporating imaginative elements not found in contemporary reality; this includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related genres.
Science fiction often involves one or more of the following elements:
Exploring the consequences of such differences is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas."
Science fiction is difficult to define as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes. Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty by stating that, "science fiction is what we point to when we say it." Vladimir Nabokov argued that were people rigorous with their definitions, Shakespeare's play The Tempest would have to be termed science fiction.
According to SF writer Robert A. Heinlein, "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method." Rod Serling's stated definition is "fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible."
Forrest J. Ackerman publicly used the term "sci-fi" at UCLA in 1954, though Robert A. Heinlein had used it in private correspondence six years earlier. As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech "B-movies" and with low-quality pulp fiction science fiction. By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using "sci-fi" to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction, and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation "skiffy." Peter Nicholls writes that "SF" (or "sf") is "the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers." David Langford's monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section "As Others See Us" which offers numerous examples of "sci-fi" being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.
Authors and filmmakers draw on a wide spectrum of ideas, but marketing departments and literary critics tend to separate such literary and cinematic works into different categories, or "genres," and sub-genres. These are not simple pigeonholes; works can overlap into two or more commonly-defined genres, while others are beyond the generic boundaries, either outside or between categories, and the categories and genres used by mass markets and literary criticism differ considerably.
The broader category of speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, alternate histories (which may have no particular scientific or futuristic component), and even literary stories that contain fantastic elements, such as the work of Jorge Luis Borges or John Barth. For some editors, magic realism is considered to be within the broad definition of speculative fiction.
Fantasy is closely associated with science fiction, and many writers, including Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, C. J. Cherryh, Jack Vance, and Lois McMaster Bujold have worked in both genres, while writers such as Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley have written works that appear to blur the boundary between the two related genres. The authors' professional organization SFWA is the "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America". SF conventions routinely have programming on fantasy topics, and fantasy authors such as J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien (in film adaptation) have won the highest honor within the science fiction field, the Hugo Award. Some works show how difficult it is to draw clear boundaries between sub-genres, for example Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away stories treat magic as just another force of nature and subject to natural laws which resemble and partially overlap those of physics.
However, most authors and readers make a distinction between fantasy and SF. In general, science fiction is the literature of things that might someday be possible, and fantasy is the literature of things that are inherently impossible. Magic and mythology are popular themes in fantasy.
It is common to see narratives described as essentially science fiction but "with fantasy elements." The term "science fantasy" is sometimes used to describe such material.
Horror fiction is the literature of the unnatural and supernatural, with the aim of unsettling or frightening the reader, sometimes with graphic violence. Historically it has also been known as "weird fiction." It commonly deals with the nature of evil, psychological, technological, and fantastic. Undead and supernatural creatures like vampires and zombies are popular horror motifs. Classic works like Frankenstein and Dracula and the works of Edgar Allan Poe helped define the genre, and today it is one of the most popular categories of movies. Horror interlaps with both fantasy ("Dark Fantasy") and science fiction, the latter notably seeing its genesis with the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.
Works in which science and technology are a dominant theme, but based on current reality, may be considered mainstream fiction. Much of the thriller genre would be included, such as the novels of Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, or the James Bond films.
Modernist works from writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Stanisław Lem have focused on speculative or existential perspectives on contemporary reality and are on the borderline between SF and the mainstream.
According to Robert J. Sawyer, "Science fiction and mystery have a great deal in common. Both prize the intellectual process of puzzle solving, and both require stories to be plausible and hinge on the way things really do work." Isaac Asimov, Anthony Boucher, Walter Mosely, and other writers incorporate mystery elements in their science fiction, and vice versa.
Hard science fiction, or "hard SF," is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in quantitative sciences, especially physics, astrophysics, and chemistry. Many accurate predictions of the future come from the Hard science fiction subgenre, but inaccurate predictions have also come from this category: Arthur C. Clarke accurately predicted geosynchronous communications satellites, but erred in his prediction of deep layers of moondust in lunar craters. Some hard SF authors have distinguished themselves as working scientists, including Robert Forward, Gregory Benford, Charles Sheffield, and Vernor Vinge. Noteworthy hard SF authors, in addition to those mentioned, include Hal Clement, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Stephen Baxter. In general, the distinction between "Hard" and "Soft" sci-fi is somewhat antiquated nowadays, with division by subgenre (for instance, cyberpunk or science fantasy) serving as a more common organization of science fiction.
"Soft" science fiction is the antithesis of hard science fiction. It may describe works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. Noteworthy writers in this category include Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert A. Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick. The term can describe stories focused primarily on character and emotion; SFWA Grand Master Ray Bradbury is an acknowledged master of this art. Some writers blur the boundary between hard and soft science fiction; for example Mack Reynolds's work focuses on politics but anticipated many developments in computers, including cyber-terrorism.
Space Opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic adventure, and larger-than-life characters often set against vast exotic futuristic settings. "Space opera" was originally a derogatory term, a variant of "horse opera" and "soap opera," coined in 1941 by Wilson Tucker to describe what he called "the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn"–i.e., substandard science fiction. "Space opera" is still sometimes used with a pejorative sense. Space opera in its most familiar form was a product of the pulp magazines for the 1920s–1940s. Science fiction in general borrowed a great deal from the established adventure and pulp fiction genres, notably frontier stories of the American West and stories with exotic settings such as Africa or the orient, and space opera was no exception. There were often parallels between sailing ships and spaceships, between African explorers and space explorers, between oceanic pirates and space pirates. Related and similar is the 'Space Western', a genre playing with the conventions of the Western genre in a sci-fi setting, popularized lately by the Joss Whedon's television show Firefly.
Despite the antiquated and pejorative origins of the term, space opera is still what many people think of when they think of science fiction in pop culture, from Buck Rogers to "Star Trek" and Star Wars.
Another branch of speculative fiction is the utopian or dystopian story. Satirical novels with fantastic settings and political motives may be considered speculative fiction; Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Evgeny Zamyatin's We and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are examples.
The Cyberpunk genre emerged in the early 1980s; the name is a portmanteau of "cybernetics" and "punk," and was first coined by author Bruce Bethke in his 1980 short story "Cyberpunk".
The genre was really launched by William Gibson's book, Neuromancer which is credited for envisioning cyberspace, predicting the internet years before such a thing existed, and establishing cybyerpunk as one of the new facets of science fiction.
The time frame of cyberpunk literature is usually near-future and the settings are often dystopian. Common themes in cyberpunk include advances in information technology and especially the Internet (visually abstracted as cyberspace), (possibly malevolent) artificial intelligence, enhancements of mind and body using bionic prosthetics and direct brain-computer interfaces called cyberware, and post-democratic societal control where corporations have more influence than governments. Nihilism, post-modernism, and film noir techniques are common elements, and the protagonists may be disaffected or reluctant anti-heroes. Noteworthy authors in this genre are William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and Rudy Rucker. The 1982 film Blade Runner is commonly accepted as a definitive example of the cyberpunk visual style.
Interestingly enough, the name of the sub-genre of cyberpunk gave rise to several related sub-genres, each denoted by the addition of the 'punk' suffix to a technology or theme to form a portmanteau denoting the union of that genre with the dark, edgy, authority-defiant attitude of the punk movement. For instance, steampunk adds punk sensibilities to Victorian technologies in works like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel The Difference Engine, the animation of Hayao Miyazaki, and Alan Moore's comic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Other examples of these sub-sub-genres include biopunk including Frank Herbert's The Eyes of Heisenberg and the Deus Ex computer games, or spacepunk including the Systems Malfunction roleplaying game and the anime Cowboy Bebop, also in part a Space Western.
Time travel stories have antecedents in the 18th and 19th centuries, and this subgenre was popularized by H. G. Wells's novel The Time Machine. Time travel stories are complicated by logical problems such as the grandfather paradox. Time travel stories are popular in novels, television series (such as Dr. Who), and as individual episodes within more general science fiction series (for example, "The City on the Edge of Forever" in Star Trek, "Babylon Squared" in Babylon 5, and "The Banks of the Lethe" in Andromeda.
Alternate history stories are based on the premise that historical events might have turned out differently. These stories may use time travel to change the past, or may simply set a story in a universe with a different history from our own. Classics in the genre include Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, in which the South wins the American Civil War and The Man in a High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, in which Germany and Japan win World War II. The Sidewise Award acknowledges the best works in this subgenre; the name is taken from Murray Leinster's story "Sidewise in Time."
Military science fiction is set in the context of conflict between national, interplanetary, or interstellar armed forces; the primary viewpoint characters are usually soldiers. Stories include detail about military technology, procedure, ritual, and history; military stories may use parallels with historical conflicts. Heinlein's Starship Troopers is an early example, along with the Dorsai novels of Gordon Dickson. Prominent military SF authors include David Drake, David Weber, Jerry Pournelle, S. M. Stirling, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War is a critique of the genre, a Vietnam-era response to the World War II-style stories of earlier authors. Baen Books is known for cultivating military science fiction authors. Television series within this sub-genre include Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1 and Space: Above and Beyond.
As a means of understanding the world through speculation and storytelling, science fiction has antecedents as far back as ancient mythology, though precursors to science fiction as literature began to emerge during the Age of Reason with the development of science itself. Following the eighteenth century development of the novel as a literary form, in the early nineteenth century, Mary Shelley's books Frankenstein and The Last Man helped define the form of the science fiction novel; later Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about a flight to the moon. More examples appeared throughout the nineteenth century. Then with the dawn of new technologies such as electricity, the telegraph, and new forms of powered transportation, writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells created a body of work that became popular across broad cross-sections of society. In the late nineteenth century the term "scientific romance" was used in Britain to describe much of this fiction.
In the early twentieth century, pulp magazines helped develop a new generation of mainly American SF writers, influenced by Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories magazine. In the late 1930s, John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and a critical mass of new writers emerged in New York City in a group called the Futurians, including Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Judith Merril, and others. Other important writers during this period included Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and A. E. Van Vogt. Campbell's tenure at Astounding is considered to be the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction, characterized by hard SF stories celebrating scientific achievement and progress. This lasted until postwar technological advances, new magazines like Galaxy under Pohl as editor, and a new generation of writers began writing stories outside the Campbell mode.
In the 1950s, the Beat generation included speculative writers like William S. Burroughs. In the 1960s and early 1970s, writers like Frank Herbert, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison explored new trends, ideas, and writing styles, while a group of writers, mainly in Britain, became known as the New Wave. In the 1970s, writers like Larry Niven and Poul Anderson began to redefine hard SF. Ursula K. Le Guin and others pioneered soft science fiction.
In the 1980s, cyberpunk authors like William Gibson turned away from the traditional optimism and support for progress of traditional science fiction. Star Wars helped spark a new interest in space opera, focusing more on story and character than on scientific accuracy. C. J. Cherryh's detailed explorations of alien life and complex scientific challenges influenced a generation of writers.
Emerging themes in the 1990s included environmental issues, the implications of the global Internet and the expanding information universe, questions about biotechnology and nanotechnology, as well as a post-Cold War interest in post-scarcity societies; Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age comprehensively explores these themes. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels brought the character-driven story back into prominence. The television series Star Trek: The Next Generation began a torrent of new SF shows, of which Babylon 5 was among the most highly acclaimed in the decade. A general concern about the rapid pace of technological change crystallized around the concept of the technological singularity, popularized by Vernor Vinge's novel Marooned in Realtime and then taken up by other authors. Television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and movies like The Lord of the Rings created new interest in all the speculative genres in films, television, computer games, and books.
While SF has provided criticism of developing and future technologies, it also produces innovation and new technology. The discussion of this topic has occurred more in literary and sociological rather than in scientific forums.
Cinema and media theorist Vivian Sobchack examines the dialogue between science fiction film and the technological imagination. Technology does impact how artists portray their fictionalized subjects, but the fictional world gives back to science by broadening imagination. While more prevalent in the beginning years of science fiction with writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Frank Walker, new authors like Michael Crichton still find ways to make the currently impossible technologies seem so close to being realized.
This has also been notably documented in the field of nanotechnology with University of Ottawa Professor José Lopez's article "Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction in Nanotechnology." Lopez links both theoretical premises of science fiction worlds and the operation of nanotechnologies.
This is a short list of common themes in science fiction.
As special effects, visual effects, computer-generated imagery, and other technologies make it possible to visually realize the imaginary worlds of science fiction, SF dominates the audiovisual media, including films, television, and computer games.
Most of the best-selling films of all time have been in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
Examples of early silent SF films include Georges Méliès's Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon in 1902 and Fritz Lang's Metropolis in 1927. Many of the movie serials of the 1940s and 1950s were science fiction, and led into early science-fiction television programming. Following the success of Star Wars in 1977, there was an explosion of new SF films. Science-fiction films also explore more serious topics and can aim for high artistic standards, especially following Stanley Kubrick's influential 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and A Clockwork Orange in 1971, as well as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in 1982, and Scott's other influential SF hit, Alien in 1979. Contemporary filmmakers have found science fiction to be a useful genre for exploring political, moral and philosophical issues, for example Gattaca on the question of genetic engineering, Starship Troopers as a satire of militarism and fascism and Minority Report on the questions of civil liberties and free will.
Science-fiction television dates from at least 1938, when the BBC staged a live performance of the science-fiction play R.U.R. The first regularly scheduled science-fiction series to achieve a degree of popularity was Captain Video] and his Video Rangers in 1949. The Twilight Zone, originally broadcast in the United States from 1959-1964, was the first successful speculative fiction series intended primarily for adults. The TV serial Doctor Who first aired on BBC in 1963 and continues through to the present (with a hiatus from 1989 to 2004). Star Trek aired from 1966 to 1969, creating a new explosion of fan interest. Popular shows including Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Stargate SG-1 have spun off related series, while Battlestar Galactica has inspired a "re-imagining". A number of shows have later become the basis for films, among them Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Firefly. Television science fiction has exploited a variety of SF and fantasy traditions; Quantum Leap and Doctor Who are examples of time travel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best-known horror or dark fantasy series, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of the few comedy SF series. With the growing popularity of SF on television, dedicated channels have emerged to meet audience demand, such as Sci-Fi in the United States and Space: The Imagination Station in Canada.
Science fiction is a particularly popular genre of anime. Astro Boy, one of the first works of anime, is science fiction, and Hayao Miyazaki's films are often either SF or alternate histories.
The Mecha subgenre is devoted specifically to stories involving giant robots and/or combat exoskeleton suits, like Macross. Classic science fiction anime works include Space Battleship Yamato, Akira, and the definitive cyberpunk anime Ghost in the Shell. Sentai refers to anime based on teams of superheroes. Other speculative genres, including fantasy and horror, are popular in anime. Emphasis on female characters and relationships, a common theme in anime generally, are found in SF anime like Bubblegum Crisis and Dirty Pair. Music is a very important component in anime such as Cowboy Bebop, a science fiction spacepunk/space western/film noir/crime drama with an emphasis on American music, especially jazz. (Cowboy Bebop refers to itself as "The work which has become a genre unto itself.")
Science fiction has a long history of visual art. Artwork depicting a particular scene, setting, or character is known as illustration, which is used on book and magazine covers, movie posters, web sites, and other media, as well as inside books, comics, and games. WSFS has recognized science fiction art since the 1940s.
A short list of the most prominent SF artists includes:
Beginning in the 1970s, the earliest role-playing games (or "RPGs"), such as Dungeons & Dragons and especially Traveler, had science fiction and fantasy settings, and speculative settings continue to form the basis for the majority of RPGs up to the present. There is significant crossover of interests between the fans of RPGs and science fiction. Popular science fiction role-playing games include the Star Wars RPG, several GURPS variants, Cyberpunk 2020, based on the works of William Gibson and the sci-fi/fantasy RPG Shadowrun.
In the 1980s, computer and video games adopted speculative settings and themes, either from original works or based on existing works. The virtual-reality nature of computer games, allowing game algorithms to simulate behavior impossible in reality lend themselves to science fiction characters and technological options within the game world. The list of science fiction video and computer games is far, far too long to list. A truly huge portion of games have science fiction elements.
SF motifs and story lines have long been prominent in comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels. Buck Rogers first appeared in 1929, followed by Flash Gordon in 1935 and Superman in 1938. Since then, the superhero genre, in which an individual or team of characters with enhanced or superhuman abilities deals with challenges beyond the capability of ordinary people, has played a large role in the comics field.
Early radio serials adapted Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers stories to radio, followed by other serials and radio magazine shows. Orson Welles's famous dramatization of The War of the Worlds in 1938 panicked American listeners who believed the story was real. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a famous BBC radio serial that was later adapted to television and film. There have been radio adaptations of the original Star Wars trilogy and The Lord of the Rings.
Science fiction and fantasy has been performed as live theater since the 1930s; a live musical version of The Lord of the Rings appeared in Toronto in 2006 and will soon be performed in London. Vinyl albums have recorded science fiction performances, and audiobooks on compact disc are growing in popularity, available now in most bookstores. There have been SF ViewMaster reels, notably Sam Sawyer's Trip to the Moon.
Some contemporary music explores science fiction themes and tell science fiction stories via concept albums, including the bands Muse and Coheed & Cambria.
Science fiction fandom is the "community of the literature of ideas… the culture in which new ideas emerge and grow before being released into society at large." Members of this community, fans, are in contact with each other at conventions or clubs, through print or online fanzines, or on the Internet using web sites, mailing lists, and other resources. Science fiction fandom is one of the oldest fandoms, and its antiquated terms and culture closely predicted the trends of later, more internet-based fandoms, and made up an interesting chapter in "geek" history.
SF fandom emerged from the letters column in Amazing Stories magazine. Soon fans began writing letters to each other, and then grouping their comments together in informal publications that became known as fanzines. Once they were in regular contact, fans wanted to meet each other, and they organized local clubs. In the 1930s, the first science fiction conventions gathered fans from a wider area. Conventions, clubs, and fanzines were the dominant form of fan activity, or "fanac," for decades, until the Internet facilitated communication among a much larger population of interested people.
Among the most respected awards for science fiction are the Hugo Award, presented by the World Science Fiction Society at Worldcon, and the Nebula Award, presented by SFWA and voted on by the community of authors.
There are national awards, like Canada's Aurora Award, regional awards, like the Endeavour Award presented at Orycon for works from the Pacific Northwest, special interest or subgenre awards like the Chesley Award for art or the World Fantasy Award for fantasy. Magazines may organize reader polls, notably the Locus Award.
Conventions (in fandom, shortened as "cons"), are held in cities around the world, catering to a local, regional, national, or international membership. General-interest conventions cover all aspects of science fiction, while others focus on a particular interest. Most are organized by volunteers in non-profit groups, though most media-oriented events are organized by commercial promoters. The convention's activities are called the "program," which may include panel discussions, readings, autograph sessions, costume masquerades, and other events. Activities that occur throughout the convention are not part of the program; these commonly include a dealer's room, art show, and hospitality lounge (or "con suites"). Conventions may host award ceremonies; Worldcons present the Hugo Awards each year. SF societies, referred to as "clubs" except in formal contexts, form a year-round base of activities for science fiction fans. They may be associated with an ongoing science fiction convention, or have regular club meetings, or both. Most groups meet in libraries, schools and universities, community centers, pubs or restaurants, or the homes of individual members. Long-established groups like the New England Science Fiction Association and the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society have clubhouses for meetings and storage of convention supplies and research materials.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) was founded by Damon Knight in 1965 as a non-profit organization to serve the community of professional science fiction authors.
The first science fiction fanzine, "The Comet," was published in 1930. Fanzine printing methods have changed over the decades, from the hectograph, the mimeograph, and the ditto machine, to modern photocopying. Subscription volumes rarely justify the cost of commercial printing. Modern fanzines are printed on computer printers or at local copy shops, or they may only be sent as email.
The best known fanzine (or "'zine") today is Ansible, edited by David Langford, winner of numerous Hugo awards. Other fanzines to win awards in recent years include File 770, Mimosa, and Plotka.
Artists working for fanzines have risen to prominence in the field, including Brad W. Foster, Teddy Harvia, and the late Joe Mayhew; the Hugos include a category for Best Fan Artists.
The earliest organized fandom online was the SF Lovers community, originally a mailing list in the late 1970s with a text archive file that was updated regularly. In the 1980s, Usenet groups greatly expanded the circle of fans online. In the 1990s, the development of the World-Wide Web exploded the community of online fandom by orders of magnitude, with thousands and then literally millions of web sites devoted to science fiction and related genres for all media. Most such sites are small, ephemeral, and/or very narrowly focused, though sites like SF Site offer a broad range of references and reviews about science fiction.
Fan fiction, known to aficionados as "fanfic," is non-commercial fiction created by fans in the setting of an established book, movie, or television series.
Such work may be in violation of copyright laws, but some authors and media producers, if they are aware of it at all, choose to ignore its existence, provided that the fan authors derive no income from the work and that publication volumes are minimal.
Fan fiction is written in a range of lengths and formats, from the 100-word "drabble" to multi-chapter epics where chapters may be released serially to readers before the next chapter is completed. Fan videos appear on YouTube and other places; George Lucas even offers awards for best Star Wars fan videos.
The plot, setting, and character content of the commercial works is known as "canon." Much fan fiction creates small or large deviations from canon for various stories. The antonym of "canon" is "fanon".
All links retrieved August 24, 2015.
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