I. What is Science Fiction?
Science fiction, often called “sci-fi,” is a genre of fiction literature whose content is imaginative, but based in science. It relies heavily on scientific facts, theories, and principles as support for its settings, characters, themes, and plot-lines, which is what makes it different from fantasy.
So, while the storylines and elements of science fiction stories are imaginary, they are usually possible according to science—or at least plausible.
Although examples of science fiction can be found as far back as the Middle Ages, its presence in literature was not particularly significant until the late 1800s. Its true popularity for both writers and audiences came with the rise of technology over the past 150 years, with developments such as electricity, space exploration, medical advances, industrial growth, and so on. As science and technology progress, so does the genre of science fiction.
II. Example of Science Fiction
Read the following short passage:
As the young girl opened her window, she could see the moons Europa and Callipso rising in the distance. A comet flashed by, followed by a trail of stardust, illuminating the dark, endless space that surrounded the spacecraft; the only place she had ever known as home. As she gazed at Jupiter, she dreamed of a life where she wasn’t stuck orbiting a planet, but living on one. She envisioned stepping onto land, real land, like in the stories of Earth her father had told her about. She tried to imagine the taste of fresh air, the feel of a cool, salty ocean, and the sound of wind rustling through a tree’s green leaves. But these were only fantasies, not memories. She had been born on the ship, and if they didn’t find a new inhabitable planet soon, she would surely die there too.
The example above has several prime characteristics that are common in science fiction. First, it is set in the future, when humans no longer live on Earth. Second, it takes place on a spacecraft that is orbiting Jupiter. Third, it features real scientific information—Europa and Callipso are two of Jupiter’s moons, and as Jupiter is a planet made of gas, it would not be possible for humans to live there, explaining why the ship is currently orbiting the planet rather than landing on it.
III. Types of Science Fiction
Science fiction is usually distinguished as either “hard” or “soft.”
Hard science fiction
Hard science fiction strictly follows scientific facts and principles. It is strongly focused on natural sciences like physics, astronomy, chemistry, astrophysics, etc. Interestingly, hard science fiction is often written by real scientists, and has been known for making both accurate and inaccurate predictions of future events. For example, the recent film Gravity, the story of an astronaut whose spacecraft is damaged while she repairs a satellite, was renowned for its scientific accuracy in terms of what would actually happen in space.
Soft science fiction
Soft science fiction is characterized by a focus on social sciences, like anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics—in other words, sciences involving human behavior. So, soft sci-fi stories mainly address the possible scientific consequences of human behavior. For example, the Disney animated film Wall-E is an apocalyptic science fiction story about the end of life on Earth as a result of man’s disregard for nature.
In truth, most works use a combination of both hard and soft science fiction. Soft sci-fi allows audiences to connect on an emotional level, and hard sci-fi adds real scientific evidence so that they can imagine the action actually happening. So, combining the two is a better storytelling technique, because it lets audiences connect with the story on two levels. Science fiction also has a seemingly endless number of subgenres, including but not limited to time travel, apocalyptic, utopian/dystopian, alternate history, space opera, and military science fiction.
IV. Importance of Science Fiction
Many times, science fiction turns real scientific theories into full stories about what is possible and/or imaginable. Many stories use hard facts and truths of sciences to:
- suggest what could really happen in the future
- to explore what could happen if certain events or circumstances came to be or
- suggest consequences of technological and scientific advancements and innovation.
Historically it has been a popular form for not only authors, but scientists as well. In the past 150 years, science fiction has become a huge genre, with a particularly large presence in film and television—in fact, the TV network “SciFi” is completely devoted to science fiction media. It is a particularly fascinating and mind-bending genre for audiences because of its connection to reality.
V. Examples of Science Fiction in Literature
A genre-defining piece of science fiction literature is H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, which tells the story of an alien invasion in the United Kingdom that threatens to destroy mankind. The following is a selection from the novel’s introduction:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter…No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger.
Here, the narrator describes a time when mankind was naive. He is setting up for the story of when Earth was unexpectedly attacked by an alien race, and how they were completely unprepared and too proud to believe that any other force in the universe could threaten them. Though only a story, War of the Worlds addressed a scientific concern and possibility that is a mystery for mankind.
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 shows the future of mankind in a dystopian state. It is set in what is now the United Kingdom, and shows society under tyrannical rule of a government that has their population under constant surveillance and threat of imprisonment for having wrong thoughts. Throughout the novel is the constant theme that “Big Brother” is watching.
Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in
the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into
spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there
seemed to be no color in anything, except the posters that were plastered
everywhere. The black-moustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding
corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER
IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into
This passage describes the story’s setting—dull, colorless, and monitored—and hints at society’s status. At the beginning, Winston is a citizen who wants to fight the system, but by the end, he falls victim to the government’s control tactics.
VI. Examples of Science Fiction in Pop Culture
Perhaps the most popular and well-known examples of science fiction in popular culture—specifically “space opera” science fiction—are George Lucas’s legendary Star Wars films. Star Wars has perhaps one of the largest (if not the largest) fan-followings of all time; and its status in the science fiction world is absolutely epic. This renowned science fiction series is particularly unique because it actually starts in the middle of the story, with “Episode IV.” In fact, Episodes I, II, and III weren’t produced until almost 40 years after the first film’s debut. The following clip captures the well-known opening of the first film, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which is now referred to as the “Star Wars Opening Crawl.” It also features the iconic “Star Wars Theme Song,” which is instantly recognizable by fans and non-fans alike.
Since, the first film is actually “Episode IV,” this opening “crawl” lays out the precluding storyline and provides (fictional) historical context for the audience. The later films (Episodes I-III) actually bring this back-story to life.
The Matrix is a sci-fi action film that thrilled audiences upon its release. It tells the story of a world where human existence is completely controlled, and life on Earth is actually only a simulation occurring in our minds. This simulation is called “the Matrix.” In the following clip, the audience and the main character learn exactly what Earth is actually like behind the simulation:
Here, the protagonist, Neo, is presented with the information that his life is all an illusion, and it is almost more than his mind can handle. Eventually, he is given the choice of whether to continue to live in the Matrix, or to live in reality and try to save mankind—a task that is almost impossible, and at times terrifying.
VII. Related Terms
Fantasy a genre of fiction that concentrates on imaginary elements (the fantastic). This can mean magic, the supernatural, alternate worlds, superheroes, monsters, aliens, and so on. Many science fiction works involve elements of fantasy, like imagined worlds, made-up beings from other galaxies, paranormal powers etc; so the two genres tend to overlap. However, the primary distinction is that that elements of fantasy in science fiction always have a basis in science, whereas fantasy is strictly imaginative.
A space opera is one of the most popular forms of science fiction where the whole story or majority of the story takes place in outer space. Its name comes from the idea of a television “soap opera”; but it has nothing to do with a musical opera. Space operas usually feature conflicts in space with beings or societies who have advanced technology or supernatural powers. Usually, space operas are action and adventure themed, featuring space travel, interstellar wars or heroes trying to save the universe (i.e. Star Wars).
In conclusion, science fiction is a genre of possibility, imagination, and innovation whose popularity rises in relation to advances in science and technology. Its authors use real science to create fictional stories that explore the possible future of mankind and the universe in a way that is both imaginative and realistic.