Elements of Science Fiction EQ: What defines science fiction as a genre?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Science fiction generally appeals to shock, which is an unexpected surprise. Depending on its tone, this shock could be directed toward optimism, which is a mix of courage and joy, or cynicism, which is a mix of courage and disgust. Notice the common thread in both emotions is courage: most science fiction concerns itself with facing a surprising and unknown future dominated by strange technology. As courage is the antithesis of surprise, science fiction tries to get a courageous reaction out of its audience.

So why the split between optimism and cyncism? While the future can hold many different paths, they can be generally grouped into futures that an audience would enjoy (optimism) or one that would disgust them (cynicism). Why two paths? This come from the focus theme of all science fiction...

If this continues...

The future depends on what happens in the present. Look at the trending news items right now and you'll see a variety of stories. New cures for diseases. New types of cybercrime. New devices to make communicating easier. New battles over social injustice and censorship. New discoveries of how space and the universe works. New revelations of environmental threats. Stories that make one feel hopeful about the future. Stories that paint the future as a bleak place. Science fiction takes present advances in society and technology and extrapolates them to the extreme, creating a story of a wonderful future or a bleak, terrible future (utopias and dystopias, which we'll explore later). Unlike fantasy, which simply looks at a "what if," science fiction has to be grounded in a current emerging technology or social practice.

By saying "if this continues, X will happen," science fiction becomes an immediate social commentary. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 warned "if escapism through television continues, no one will find value in books (and intellectualism) anymore." Forbidden Planet warns "if man's pursuit of knowledge over everything else continues, it will only lead to man's downfall." There can be positive modes of this as well: Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time warns "if feminism and civil rights protests continue, the future will be free from racism, sexism, homophobia, and hate crimes."

alternate History

Yet not all science fiction occurs in the future. In fact, a better term than science fiction would be "chronal fiction," as science fiction is less about science and more about time. If a sci-fi story is not set in the future (this is called speculative fiction), it must be set in either a past or present that has been somehow changed (alternate history). Sometimes, the science fiction story centers on traveling through time (like The Time Machine or Kindred); other times, the story tells of a history that was the same as ours until a single change called a divergent event occurred: in Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory series, his divergent event is that Union soldiers in 1862 never found Lee's General Order 191 and thus were defeated in both the Battle of Antietam and the Civil War. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly creates a divergent event where his parents never meet, and he must work to get them together before he ceases to exist.

Occasionally, alternate timelines exist along with our own timelines in a parallel universe, which is a universe similar to our own except for one or two divergent characteristics, and the plot revolves around a characters moving between universes. In Stephen King's The Gunslinger, Roland must return Jake to his own universe via the Dark Tower, which acts as a hub for all reality. In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, protagonists Will and Lyra explore each other's universes and find science works differently in each universe. These don't have to be physical universes: in Satoshi Kon's Paprika, Dr. Chiba uses a brainwave technology called the DC-Mini to access a deeper dreamworld, leading for the dreamworld to start seeping into reality.

"What about Narnia? Isn't that a parallel world?" Well, yes, but there's a key difference between Narnia and the worlds of King, Pullman, and Kon.

Technology, NOT MAGIC

Science fiction is science first and fiction second--this means that all amazing aspects of a science fiction novel that are not part of our world are the result of an advanced yet explainable technology. Daemons in His Dark Materials are a manifestation of one's inner self made real through dark energy. Marty McFly and go back in time in the DeLorean thanks to Doc Brown's flux capacitor. Forbidden Planet's Monster of the Id is a result of Krell technology manifesting brainwaves into physical and invisible beings. These films don't necessarily have to get the facts right, but everything has some sort of scientific explanation.

Scientific explanation is the antithesis to magic. Magic is its own explanation and is not used in science fiction. Thus, if a story uses magic, it's fantasy and not sci-fi, no matter how much technology is in it. This is a useful but historically controversial definition through the history of science fiction, as science fiction writers tend to also write fantasy, and lots of texts blend these genres. One of the prime examples of this controversy is Star Wars. While the film includes spaceships, lightsabers, and androids, it also uses the magic "force" and is thus science fantasy, not science fiction. The film's exclusion from sci-fi on this merit alone eventually led to a scientific explanation of the force (microbial beings called midichlorians) in prequel The Phantom Menace, yet this angered more fans than it appeased.

This isn't to say that, however, that a single unexplained event recategorizes a work of art. Take the X-Men: every X-Man gets his or her powers from a genetic mutation, and this fact is stated over and over again across the comics. Even when a character like Dark Phoenix Jean Grey or Scarlet Witch appears to alter reality in a fantastic way, it is ultimately tied to their genetic mutation and is thus science fiction. Even if the exact nature of something is left unexplained, it can be assumed to be advanced science unless explicitly called magic. As Arthur C. Clarke has even said, "Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it."

beyond human characters

Another way science fiction compares to fantasy is that fantasy uses nonhuman characters and fantastic beasts, like talking wolves, griffins, dragons, elves, dwarves, fairies, etc. Science fiction also has its share of nonhuman characters: the mutants in X-Men, the T-800 in The Terminator, Robby in Forbidden Planet, the apes in The Planet of the Apes, the wives in The Stepford Wives, and ever kind of alien. In both science fiction and fantasy, these creatures are anthropomorphized--i.e., they have many human characteristics and sometimes even act exactly like humans.

So what's the difference? Fantasy creatures are all "what if?": what if people were half fish (mermaids), what if there were giant fire breathing lizards (dragons), what if the fields are full of tiny magic people with wings (fairies), etc. These creatures are not possible. Science fiction creatures, on the other hand, are not only possible but many are probable in the near future: if we keep making robots (T-800), if we keep searching for extraterrestrial life (aliens), if we keep experimenting with animals (race of apes), etc. Most of these creatures are a result of mankind looking to move beyond their own human limitations. Peter Weyland was looking for immortality and instead found Xenomorphs. Cyberdyne Systems wanted a better soldier, so the Terminators were created. Seth Brundle wanted to create instant matter transport and tragically devolved into the Brundlefly.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this difference more than the difference between Dracula and Adam, Frankenstein's monster. Dracula is a fantasy character: as part of an ancient race of vampires, he can magically transform and bend the laws of physics (no reflection in mirrors, can move shadow independently of self, etc). Adam is a science fiction character: he was brought to life through an experiment with chemicals and electricity restoring him to life. Though both are really horror characters based on their story plots, it's clear by a nonhuman character's origin if they are fantastic or scientific.

Beyond Worlds we know

Science fiction, like science itself, is about the act of discovery. This is why science fiction is commonly thought of in terms of outer space, which in the words of Star Trek is the final frontier. Classic science fiction all feature an explorer scientist: Captain Nemo explores the sea in a cutting-edge submarine, and The Traveler actually uses his time machine to explore the far future. This role was expanded on in the Atomic Age of the '50s and '60s with astronaut protagonists exploring space.

What about other types of science fiction? There are more than just physical worlds that can be explored. Paprika explore the world of dreams, which turns out to be an interconnected reality. The Dark Tower examines alternate earths. The Abyss explores the deep unexplored ocean. Even post-apocalyptic stories look at a future world moved beyond our own.

So why is world building and world exploration so important? Remember that the"if this continues" trope makes all science fiction a type of social critique--it sets up an alternate world with an alternate history to criticize problems occurring in our current world. These alternate worlds can show where, if unchecked, our problems can lead, or how wonderful life may be if they are solved. Discovery is often used in the plots in science fiction stories to emphasize this trope.

Search for immortality

Science fiction, in all its forms, is also about about the human quest for immortality. According to Freud, one of our primary drives as humans is the fear of death and being forgotten (thanatos). In older and ancient societies, religion and myth fulfilled this need, as the afterlife promises immortality and mythic legends promise that no great man or woman will ever be forgotten.

For most modern audiences, however, mythic literature no longer satisfies this role. Just as modern society has moved past animal sacrifices and inquisitions, most audiences are looking to science more than religion to live past death. In the past century, vaccines severely lowered infant mortality rates while artificial organs and medical machinery have allowed people to live twenty to twenty-five years longer. If science can help us live longer, it stands to reason science could help us live forever.

All science fiction plots reflect the search for immortality in some way. Space exploration stories look for immortality among alien races and the stars. Time travel stories look for immortality by being able to escape the march of time. Stories featuring cybernetics and robots look for immortality in replacing failing flesh with machinery and even downloading consciousness into an never-dying AI. Post-apocalyptic stories look at the struggle for basic survival. Discovery and invention stories like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days even use this trope, as one can find immortality in the legacy of being the first to do something or invent something.

Search for Utopia

Science fiction is often about looking into an uncertain future. Ideally, we will win our quest for immortality and live in a utopia, or a society free from unnecessary problems. Few people need to work, as machines do most of the labor. There are no social classes and resources are abundant for all. In some utopias, even the weather and natural disasters are controlled. A great example of a future utopia is the Federation of Planets in Star Trek: the Federation provides for all their member planets, and the conflict in the series comes from Federation ships encountering non-utopic societies that still suffer from war, disease, and social stratification.

If utopias sound too good to be true, they usually are. A common plot in science fiction is to introduce what seems to be a utopia only to expose the lies and problems under the surface that make the utopia less than ideal. Often, these problems revolve around robbing people of a freedom. In Logan's Run, society is perfect, but all people are executed on their 21st birthday. In Fahrenheit 451, everyone is constantly entertained through music and television, yet people cannot and typically do not want to read anything more than a magazine. In WALL-E, the humans aboard the Axiom do no work and have no worries, but every aspect of their lives is controlled by the Autopilot. In "Harrison Bergeron," everyone wears handicaps so that no one is physically or mentally superior, but this equality also robs the world of joy and beauty. These stories always feature a person who believes strongly in the utopia (Logan 3, Guy Montag, Captain McCrea, George), is shown the truth by another character (Jessica 6, Clarisse McClellan, WALL-E and EVE, Harrison), and then rebels against society .

Another common way of using utopias in science fiction is the "utopia for some" model. This utopia does not reject social stratification and instead creates rigid status systems that essentially enslave one group to suffer and toil so the elite group can have utopia. In Snowpiercer, the workers at the back of the train and child slaves in the engine allow all the other parts of the train to live comfortably. In The Hunger Games, each district endures poverty and oppression so the Capitol can have utopia. In the far future of The Time Machine, the Eloi can have their utopia at the expense of the servitude of the underground Morlocks. Often, the plot involves the protagonist (Curtis Everett, Katniss Everdeen) leading a class revolution against the elites, as this provides a social critique on the exploitation of the working class. Note that The Time Machine and other Victorian texts are different, as their society believed strongly in eugenics and strong class structures; Wells's Traveler actually supports the oppression of the Morlocks, as this would be the Victorian ideal. A similar message can be seen in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as Captain Nemo creates a utopia aboard the Nautilus after watching his family suffer under British Imperialism; however, Nemo's utopia is disrupted by protagonist Pierre Arronax and Ned Land coming aboard, and the reader is encouraged to see them overtake Nemo and return him to the land.

Like Nemo's Nautilus, another common utopia in science fiction is the "edenic utopia." This utopia is akin to the Biblical Garden of Eden in that it is occupied by very few people (often two) who enjoy the bounty of an entire world without interference from others. Often, these people are like Nemo and have left society and ills to enjoy solitude, which is then interrupted by interlopers. This utopia is Altair IV in Forbidden Planet, where Morbius, Altaira, and Robby live in harmony until Adams and his crew discovers them. This is the world of Henry Beemis after a nuclear attack kills all the people who belittled him and gives him time to read.

Rise of Dystopia

Utopias are one way the future can turn out, even if they aren't perfect utopias. The other end of the spectrum is a dystopia, or a broken society where people suffer regularly. In the view of the dystopia, our present becomes "the good halcyon days," as a future disaster cause our current social structures to crumble. This disaster could be a political revolution, a war, a natural disaster, or an invasion by a superior intellect (typically robotic or alien). In the ashes of the old world, a new dystopia rise. There are three types of dystopias: big brother dytopias, freefall dystopias, and wasteland dystopias.

A big brother dystopia occurs when an all-powerful government controls every aspect of a citizen's life. This dystopia gets its name from George Orwell's 1984, which imagined a future Britain as part of a large nation named Oceania that edits historical fact for political gain, monitors all interactions by citizens, and will capture, torture, and even kill anyone who voices dissent. The too-good-to-be-true utopias of Logan's Run, Fahrenheit 451, and The Hunger Games also fall under the category of big brother dystopias. The key to these dystopias is the all-powerful government and monitoring. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Gilead is both all powerful and monitors Offred's every move. In "Harrison Bergeron," the Handicapper General make sure all citizens wear their handicaps at all times. In Brave New World...

Actually, Brave New World is radically different than these other stories. Characters have the same freedoms as in the present, but choose to fall in line with the party not because of absolute control but from social pressure to conform. This is a freefall dystopia, where society is actively descending into one of the other two dystopias. In 1984, the government forbids sex outside sanctioned marriage and reading, and the government punishes Winston for these infractions. In Brave New World, there are no fornication or reading laws, but John is socially ostracized and mocked for being a love child and knowing Shakespeare. Another freefall dystopia is the world of Jennifer Government, where the government has been weakened and privatized. In this dystopia, big businesses rule society and define social morals, and the only way a government agent like Jennifer can investigate a murder is if a victim's family pays for the investigation upfront. Y: The Last Man offers a freefall dystopia where society crumbles when, in a single moment, all male mammals on earth die except for a New Yorker named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. Children of Men looks at the inverse: a disaster has made all women infertile for almost two decades, causing social upheaval, weakened governments warring over blame for the disaster, and a bleak outlook for the future.

If not for the hope of the first child born after the disaster, the world of Children of Men would continue to devolve into a wasteland dystopia, where there are few resources and every day is a struggle for the humans who are left to survive. At least big brother dystopias and freefall dystopias have some food and water available--wasteland dystopias set characters in literal wastelands where everything is scarce. Max Rockatansky lives in an Australian wasteland full of mutated warlords and cults that worship cars. Though blind, Eli must protect the last surviving copy of the Bible until he reaches a printer at Alcatraz. The Stitchpunks, led by 9, must survive the ruins of Paris and defeat B.R.A.I.N. in order to bring life back to the irradiated ruins. John Conner must devise a way for the few humans left to defeat the Terminator armies that have scorched the earth and are planning to kill all humanity.

Sci-Fi Subgenres
  • STEAMPUNK: Steampunk depicts an alternate world stuck in the Victorian Era of Britain and United States but with advanced technology powered by steam. This genre is more about adhering to style than plot, and features lots of blimps, googles, gears, top hats, and Victorian slang. The popularity of steampunk as led to other subgenres like dieselpunk (based on 1950s American greaser culture), atomicpunk (based on '50s and '60s science fiction aesthetic), and cyberpunk (based on the internet age and biological enhancements).
  • SCIENCE FANTASY: As discussed in the main article, science fantasy is a fantasy story that uses gods and magic as well as science and technology. Science fiction also often crosses with western; popular science westerns include Westworld and The Dark Tower series.
  • MUNDANE SCI FI: These stories are set in the near future where things aren't much different. The trope of "if this continues" still works, just on a smaller scale. Good examples of this subgenre are Bicentennial Man, which follows the life of a android servant slowly becoming a legal human, and Robot and Frank, where a former bank robber uses his personal assistant bot to help him pull one last heist.
  • POST-APOCALYPTIC: Arguably the most popular subgenre of science fiction is the post-apocalyptic genre. While this is not the Biblical apocalypse (angels and demons are fantasy), this is a dystopian subgenre where a disaster or war has destroyed our current society and the story looks at survivors struggling in a world of anarchy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Road, Fallout) or a world of a new oppressive society (The Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes, The Time Machine).


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Created By
Brandon Coon


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