Science fiction is a genre of fiction. It differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation). Exploring the consequences of such differences is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas". Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possibilities. The settings for science fiction are often contrary to known reality.
These may include:
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", a definition echoed by author Mark C. Glassy, who argues that the definition of science fiction is like the definition of pornography: you don't know what it is, but you know it when you see it. Vladimir Nabokov argued that if we were rigorous with our definitions, Shakespeare's play The Tempest would have to be termed science fiction.
According to science fiction 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 definition is "fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible." Lester del Rey wrote, "Even the devoted aficionado– or fan- has a hard time trying to explain what science fiction is", and that the reason for there not being a "full satisfactory definition" is that "there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction."
Forrest J Ackerman used the term "sci-fi" at UCLA in 1954. 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 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.
As a means of understanding the world through speculation and storytelling, science fiction has antecedents back to mythology, though precursors to science fiction as literature can be seen in Lucian's True History in the 2nd century, some of the Arabian Nights tales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter in the 10th century, Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus in the 13th century, and Cyrano de Bergerac' Voyage de la Terre à la Lune and Des états de la Lune et du Soleil in the 17th century. Following the Age of Reason and the development of modern science itself, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was one of the first true science fiction works, together with Voltaire's Micromégas and Kepler's Somnium. This latter work is considered by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov to be the first science fiction story. It depicts a journey to the Moon and how the Earth's motion is seen from there.
Following the 18th century development of the novel as a literary form, in the early 19th 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 19th 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 Wells' The War of the Worlds describing an invasion of late Victorian England by Martians using tripod fighting machines, equipped with advanced weaponry. It is a seminal depiction of an alien invasion of Earth.
In the late 19th century, the term "scientific romance" was used in Britain to describe much of this fiction. This produced additional offshoots, such as the 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott. The term would continue to be used into the early 20th century for writers such as Olaf Stapledon.
In the early 20th 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 E.E. (Doc) Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, A. E. van Vogt and Stanisław Lem. 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 (1987) began a torrent of new SF shows, including three further Star Trek spin-off shows and Babylon 5. 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.
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 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 Arthur C. Clarke, new authors still find ways to make the currently impossible technologies seem so close to being realized.
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 subgenres. These are not simple pigeonholes; works can be overlapped 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.
Hard science fiction, or "hard SF", is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in quantitative sciences, especially physics, astrophysics, and chemistry, or on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible. Many accurate predictions of the future come from the hard science fiction subgenre, but numerous inaccurate predictions have emerged as well. Some hard SF authors have distinguished themselves as working scientists, including Gregory Benford and Geoffrey A. Landis, while mathematician authors include Rudy Rucker and Vernor Vinge. Other noteworthy hard SF authors include Hal Clement, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, Robert J. Sawyer, Stephen Baxter, and Greg Egan.
The description "soft" science fiction 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 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. The Soviet Union produced a quantity of social science fiction, including works by the Strugatsky brothers, Kir Bulychov and Ivan Yefremov. Some writers blur the boundary between hard and soft science fiction.
Related to Social SF and Soft SF are the speculative fiction branches of utopian or dystopian stories; The Handmaid's Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Brave New World are examples. Satirical novels with fantastic settings such as Gulliver's Travels may be considered speculative fiction.
The Cyberpunk genre emerged in the early 1980s; its the name combining "cybernetics" and "punk", and was first coined by author Bruce Bethke in his 1980 short story "Cyberpunk". The time frame is usually near-future and the settings are often dystopian (characterized by misery). Common themes in cyberpunk include advances in information technology and especially the Internet (visually abstracted as cyberspace), artificial intelligence and prosthetics 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, Neal Stephenson, and Pat Cadigan. James O'Ehley has called the 1982 film Blade Runner a definitive example of the cyberpunk visual style.
Time travel stories have antecedents in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first major time travel novel was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The most famous is H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, which uses a vehicle that allows an operator to travel purposefully and selectively, while Twain's time traveler is struck by lightening. The term "time machine", coined by Wells, is now universally used to refer to such a vehicle. Stories of this type are complicated by logical problems such as the grandfather paradox. Time travel is a popular subject modern science fiction, in print, movies, and television. The long-running British tv series Doctor Who features a time machine that resembles a police call box. One of the most famous examples of television time travel is Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever for the original Star Trek.
Alternative (or 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 the 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 early story Sidewise in Time. Harry Turtledove is one of the most prominent authors in the subgenre and is often called the "master of alternate history".
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. 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. Prominent military SF authors include David Drake, David Weber, and S. M. Stirling. Baen Books is known for cultivating military science fiction authors.
Superhuman stories deal with the emergence of humans who have abilities beyond the norm. This can stem either from natural causes such as in Olaf Stapledon's novel Odd John, and Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, or be the result of intentional augmentation such as in A.E. Van Vogt's novel Slan. These stories usually focus on the alienation that these beings feel as well as society's reaction to them. These stories have played a role in the real life discussion of human enhancement.
Apocalyptic fiction is concerned with the end of civilization through war (On The Beach), pandemic (The Last Man), astronomic impact (When Worlds Collide), ecological disaster (The Wind From Nowhere), or mankind's self-destruction (Oryx and Crake), or some other general disaster or with a world or civilization after such a disaster. Typical of the genre are George R. Stewart's novel Earth Abides and Pat Frank's novel Alas, Babylon. Apocalyptic fiction generally concerns the disaster itself and the direct aftermath, while post-apocalyptic can deal with anything from the near aftermath (as in Cormac McCarthy's The Road) to 375 years in the future (as in By The Waters of Babylon) to hundreds or thousands of years in the future, as in Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker.
Space opera is adventure science fiction set in outer space or on distant planets, where the emphasis is on action rather than either science or characterization. The conflict is heroic, and typically on a large scale. Space opera is sometimes used pejoratively, to describe improbable plots, absurd science, and cardboard characters. But it is also used nostalgically, and modern space opera may be an attempt to recapture the sense of wonder of the golden age of science fiction. The pioneer of this subgenre is generally recognized to be Edward E. (Doc) Smith, with his Skylark and Lensman series. Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series and the immensely popular Star Wars trilogies are newer examples of this genre.
Space Western could be considered a sub-genre of Space Opera that transposes themes of the American Western books and film to a backdrop of futuristic space frontiers. These stories typically involve "frontier" colony worlds (colonies that have only recently been terraformed and/or settled) serving as stand-ins for the backdrop of lawlessness and economic expansion that were predominant in the American west. Examples include Firefly and the accompanying movie Serenity by Joss Whedon, as well as the animes Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star.
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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 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 is called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). SF conventions routinely have programming on fantasy topics, and fantasy authors such as J. K. Rowling 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 subgenres; however authors and readers often 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. Some narratives are described as being 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. Although horror is not per se a branch of science fiction, many works of horror literature incorporates science fictional elements. One of the defining classical works of horror, Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, is the first fully-realized work of science fiction, where the manufacture of the monster is given a rigorous science-fictional grounding. The works of Edgar Allan Poe also helped define both the science fiction and the horror genres. Today horror is one of the most popular categories of films. Horror is often mistakenly categorized as science fiction at the point of distribution by libraries, video rental outlets, etc. For example, the Sci fi Channel (distributed via cable and satellite television in the United States) currently devotes a majority of its air time to horror films with very few science fiction titles.
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, Walter Mosley, and other writers incorporate mystery elements in their science fiction, and vice versa.
Superhero fiction is a genre characterized by beings with much higher than usual capability and prowess, generally with a desire or need to help the citizens of their chosen country or world by using his or her powers to defeat natural or superpowered threats. Many superhero fiction characters involve themselves (either intentionally or accidentally) with science fiction and fact, including advanced technologies, alien worlds, time travel, and interdimensional travel; but the standards of scientific plausibility are lower than with actual science fiction. Authors of this genre include Stan Lee (co-creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk); Marv Wolfman, the creator of Blade for Marvel Comics, and The New Teen Titans for DC Comics; Dean Wesley Smith (Star Trek, Smallville, Spider-Man, and X-Men novels) and Superman writers Roger Stern and Elliot S! Maggin.