I define Science Fiction as Fiction with Science (where both Fiction and Science are freely defined). The Fiction part means basic storytelling rules should apply. The Science part means some sort of ‘science’ rules should apply. This article is about how I view those two aspects of Science Fiction.
And fantasy lovers take heart; In this case, my definition of ‘science’ includes magic.1
Two Things I think matter in Science Fiction
- The Fiction part has to not make me mad.
- The Science part has to not make me mad.
In the end, it's that simple; just don't make me mad. Just don't force me to recognize that what I am seeing is completely preposterous. My suspension of disbelief is mighty, but not invincible. I'll do all I can to be a good audience; just don't make me mad.
By definition, Fiction is a lie. Where it lies; how it lies; why it lies; these are all part of the Fiction. The lies are necessary to tell the Story. We accept the outer lies to appreciate the inner truths. We agree to Suspend our Disbelief in order to Get the Message.
Fiction is highly varied in its creation and in its perception. This makes it difficult to judge except by general principles and your own tastes. Because there's no accounting for taste, what remains is to discuss general principles. The principle, ‘don't make me mad’, translates here as, ‘don't push my disbelief too far’. Much of what follows traces back to this principle.
Rule #0—Breaking a rule creatively is Good.
This should go without saying.2
Rule #1—Use the right Yardstick.
Stories can be entertaining or educational or both.3
A cardinal Rule of Fiction is: Judge a story by its own yardstick. If a story sets out to be a ‘ripping good yarn’ then judge on those merits. If a story sets out to send a message or prove a point, there's a different yardstick to use.
Rule #2—Follows its own Rules.
A story can make up any kind of reality it wants. But once the rules of reality are established, the story is bound by its own rules. Very simply, it must play fair with the audience.
Rules can appear to be broken, but the story needs to account for it somehow.4
Rule #3—Breaks New Ground.
I give extra points if a story takes me some place I've never been. The new ground can be an idea or a visual technique or a totally unexpected plot twist.
Simply put, points for originality.5
I want the science to NOT be so preposterous it ruins the moment. It's really just Rule #2 again: ‘follow your own rules,’ whatever they are.
As with most (but not all) Fiction, most (but not all) Science Fiction takes place in ‘the real world’. By which I mean, this world, this universe, this physics. Stories taking place in this reality must obey–or account for disobeying–the physics of this universe.
What puts the Fiction in the Science is the creative extension of the science.6
For example, Science Fiction stories may require the ability to travel or communicate faster than light. Our physics considers these impossible, but for some Science Fiction stories, it's a given. Star Trek has warp speed and transporters; Star Wars has hyper-drive and blasters.
Science Fiction stories sometimes have a form of science, called magic.7
There's a pretty hard line between ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ stories. Either the story exists in the strictly natural universe or it exists in a supernatural one. It seems to me there are three approaches:
- The supernatural exists. Ghosts; vampires; magic powers; all real.
- Something that seems ‘supernatural’ turns out to be natural.
- The story remains agnostic and never declares itself.
The first two choices (certainly the first) declare an author's point of view. The final choice leaves it open to the viewer.
Science Fiction abounds with supernatural stories. Vampires are very in vogue now, but SF covers a huge fantasy territory. Wizards and sword-bearing heroes were once very popular.
Don't make me mad!
Stories that extend today's science in bizarre ways are okay. Stories about magic are okay. All I ask is that they follow their own internal logic.
What is SF?
What makes a given story Science Fiction (or Speculative Fiction)? Ask 20 people; you'll get 20 different answers.
Aliens or spaceships are a pretty good indicator, but Apollo 13 has a spaceship and isn't SF. The movie James Bond's tricks and toys defy reality; is that Science Fiction? How about Batman and his tricks and toys? Surely Superman is Science Fiction? (And Superman and Batman live in the same universe!)
I look for some aspect of the story that isn't possible in the world we know. So, James Bond is borderline Science Fiction, but Superman and Batman are well within bounds. Apollo 13 actually happened, so it's clearly not SF.
-  ‘Science’ in this case means a physics (or meta-physics) framework for a story.
-  “Thinking Outside The Box”™ is a highly sought, frequently punished, example of breaking Rule #0.
-  Or neither! Some stories the best you can say about them is that they exist.
-  For example, most stories assume people can't fly, so obviously you can't have people flying. At least, not without a good reason! (Such as ‘they are from another planet’. And then the story's reality is that no one can fly,... except this one guy because he's an alien!)
-  This rule is the ‘inside the box’ perspective of Rule #0. It implies using traditional elements to explore new territory.
-  Frankenstein, The Time Machine and Brave New World are classic examples of imagining new technology and exploring its consequences.
-  Sometimes called Speculative Fantasy or Speculative Fiction because they lack ‘science as we know it’. The labels allow a new category, while keeping the potent letters: ‘S’ and ‘F’!
© 2008 Chris from MN