What Makes Something Sci-Fi?

This is something I’ve been debating with myself over the last few days. I’ve been re-reading The Host, and I have been asked what it’s about by various people who’ve seen the cover. Or who caught me reading outside the mens’ dressing room at Nordstrom Rack. Whatever.

As soon as I say the word “alien” to them, they all have the same reaction. They ask, “so it’s science fiction?” And I say, “…yes, kind of.” And they say, “I hate science fiction.” And that’s that. They’ve missed out on a great book simply because there are aliens in it.

And so I began to think it over…what makes something sci-fi? I mean, this book has aliens in it, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s also a psychological thriller, a debate of ethics versus survival, a story about family and loyalties. I feel like the story itself is great, and it’s about so much more than aliens. My first thought isn’t sci-fi when I read it.

Should something be categorized as Sci-Fi just because aliens are involved? Why? We have no scientific proof of aliens. Why are they part of  “science” fiction? I decided to look up some definitions of sci-fi, and this definition (from Wikipedia) caught my attention.

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).


I stopped to think about that. I mean…aliens are definitely in the realm of “pure imaginative speculation” in my opinion. I mean, I’m not saying they couldn’t exist, but I don’t think crop circles are great evidence. (Now if I could just see someone use The Force, on the other hand…) So why are they  included in sci-fi? Shouldn’t it be just “some” things and not “the whole premise of the story” that is imaginative speculation? I kept reading…

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, but the majority of science fiction relies on a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief provided by potential scientific explanations to various fictional elements.

These may include:

  • A setting in the future, in alternative timelines, or in an historical past that contradicts known facts of history or the archaeological record
  • A setting in outer space, on other worlds, or involving aliens
  • Stories that involve technology or scientific principles that contradict known laws of nature
  • Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots, or of new and different political or social systems (e.g., a dystopia, or a situation where organized society has collapsed)

So then it seems like…it’s all “imaginative speculation” with just a little bit of widely accepted scientific theory thrown in with it. I mean, alternative timelines, scientific principles that contradict known laws of nature, and time travel are no more proven than aliens. I do agree with the next part:

Science fiction is difficult to define, as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes.

I just don’t understand why it’s called science fiction, then. I mean…historical fiction takes place in the past, usually in a well-known, or at least recorded, time in history. Christian fiction has a Christian theme and/or a Christian main character. Horror fiction has horror in it. Romance fiction covers romance. Shouldn’t science fiction cover…science? I know some science fiction DOES…but it seems that some things falling under that category would be better suited to fantasy.

Fantasy covers all things fanciful. In this genre you’ll find things like talking animals, elves, magic, etc. It seems like aliens who come to earth and take over our bodies are just as fanciful and unlikely a story as  hobbits, vampires, and schools with young witches and wizards. So why do all alien stories get grouped into sci-fi?

Of course, other sources claim that fantasy is an umbrella under which science fiction rests or the other way around. But I usually think of and hear of them being their own, self-sufficient categories.

So, what do you think? What makes something science fiction? Is there something that falls under the sci-fi category that you think shouldn’t? Am I the weirdest girl in the state (or country) for even caring about this?

No need to answer that last question. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that, at least.

~Meghan

13 thoughts on “What Makes Something Sci-Fi?”

  1. I think science fiction is primarily concerned with ideas. The author creates a world that does not currently exist to play through with whatever philosophical idea is their main point. Not all science fiction does this, but the science fiction that is the best, in my opinion does.

    There is an old maxim (in science fiction) that any science, when far enough from the experience of the observer is no different than magic. Think of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. That is essentially science fiction in my mind. But the basic scientific activities that he was doing were seen as magic by the people in King Arthur’s Court.

    So I think the suspension of belief, is a cop out line. Yes some science fiction authors really could care less about how “real” their science is. But most science fiction authors really do spend some time trying to make their science work. Try reading some of the online essays about the “science behind….”. Many, many authors has almost full length books that they wrote about why their world does whatever.

    For me though, I read science fiction for the ideas. Very rarely do other genre’s really deal with the big ideas quite like science fiction.

    1. That’s really neat. I never had thought of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that way before.

      I agree that most sci-fi writers try to base their fiction on some real science and even will write books to take you through the “science” in their books. But what about the books that don’t have any science to it really but do have aliens. Like…if there are aliens in the story but they don’t talk about “scientific” stuff like going at light speed or whatever. Is it still considered “sci-fi” just because it’s aliens? Or because there’s a spacecraft in it?

  2. Well, I believe I am qualified to answer this question since I am a certified nerd AND took an entire Sci-Fi class at Tech. From what I learned in that class your first definition seems to be the correct one. To speak to aliens specifically there’s some scientific evidence to hint at the existence of aliens, such as Area 51, UFOs, crop circles, etc. Now, we don’t really know what those truly are but there’s at least something there to hint at something. We have nothing to hint at unicorns, elves, or the Uruk-Hai (had to show my true nerdom). So, that’s why aliens are included in sci-fi but something like LOTR is typically considered fantasy. One thing I think people don’t realize is that a lot of superhero stories can fit into sci-fi. Superman is an alien. The Ninja Turtles super rapidly evolved from a mutation. The X-Men have mutated genes that give them powers. So, I think just about everyone likes sci-fi to some level even if they don’t go to the Star Wars and Neuromancer levels.

    While I don’t believe sci-fi is a category within fantasy, I do think there’s definitely some overlap between the two genres. Fantasy usually just exists in an different world. Sci-Fi typically exists in a different version of our world or universe. As Adam mentioned, the best sci-fi seems to at least attempt an explanation for its science. Just throwing some crazy stuff out there without any plausibility is lazy sci-fi writing in my opinion. Often, authors will use some existing science to try and explain their time travel and such. It’s definitely a stretch and maybe impossible, but it’s grounded in science.

    I’m a big sci-fi fan. There’s a lot of it I don’t like, but some of my favorite books, movies, and stories are science fiction. The Sci-Fi Museum here in Seattle was neat to see. It was a little disappointing in terms of how much they had, but it was cool to see a lot of things from my childhood and teenage years.

    1. Whoa, I didn’t know you took a class in it! I wonder if they offer that at UGA? I’m not surprised about it being at Tech though. haha

      Have you seen District 9? Tom and I thought it was great. I consider it Sci-Fi.

  3. “…scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature.” I think that this is a good definition accepting that the term “postulated” is used liberally.

    Case in point, Back To The Future is considered Sci-Fi movie because of time travel. But that particular assumption is based on the “A Theory of Time” (versus B Theory). I think some would argue that it’s postulated given a subset of ideas about the laws of nature.

    That definition would also categorize the story of Superman in the realm of science fiction because it supposes that (a) aliens exist and (b) that their abilities can be derived from their proximity to the sun; however, I’m curious as to if “science fiction” is the first thing that would come to their mind when they think of Superman…?

    I dunno. Long, random answer, I know. To answer the initial question, nothing comes to mind of stories that are considered Sci-Fi but aren’t, but I’m sure there are stories that could be classified as Sci-Fi (based the definition given here) that I wouldn’t immediately apply.

  4. I can’t remember who said it…it may have been Isaac Asimov who said ‘Star Wars’ is actually not science fiction, but rather a ‘western’ that happens to take place in outer space. Lucas also borrowed heavily from Akira Kurosawa and his samurai films.

    I enjoy science fiction stories that wrap itself around a central idea (alluding to what Adam said). One of my favorite recent (well, 8 years old actually) sci-fi films is ‘Minority Report.’ Yes, there is the real geek stuff like the futuristic cars, the touch screen computers and the little spiders that are released to examine peoples eyes, etc. But the central idea was, ‘Is it moral to arrest, charge and convict people for crimes they haven’t yet committed?’ In addition there is the question of whether or not free will really exists.

    1. I liked Minority Report. I still think about it sometimes when I see people do retina scans on shows like NCIS or when I go in the mall and think of how annoying it would be to have the advertisements calling my name. haha

  5. Looks like the boys covered most of what I was thinking. I think the term Science Fiction is vague enough to encompass any literature that deals with or contains technology that has yet to exist present day yet still holds some similarities to the human world we know. That said I don’t think things like LOTR qualify as science fiction. Star Wars is a tough one, though. It’s like a little bit of every genre except non-fiction. To avoid being repetitive I’ll just mention the one movie that I think totally embodies the idea of science fiction and is my favorite movie of all time: The Fifth Element.

  6. Hi,
    I was curious on this subject as well, because I am slowly working on a writing concept.
    I was wondering if it is possible to make a science fiction fantasy novel that seems futuristic yet primitive at the same time.

    Is this even possible or is my idea just full of too many contradictions?

    Any answer would be appreciated.

    1. I think so! My husband suggested you check out Planet of the Apes. I think that is a great idea because it is futuristic, sci-fi, fantasy yet primitive. Good luck!

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