Sometimes it amazes me how many online discussions I see, essentially debating what Science Fiction is and is not. These discussions are carried on by noted SF writers and producers, and by consumers of SF content from every background of life, and the discussions can last for days or weeks, easy. And at times, you have to wonder if these people are even talking about the same content at all.
As just a few examples, one person who runs a Facebook forum insists that Fantasy is a subset of Science Fiction (because some SF is so far-fetched—warp drives, transporters, etc—that it’s really fantasy). In another forum, an author insists that a story about cavemen is science fiction (because the story is speculation based on archeology, which is a science, and any story based on any science is SF).
And then there’s the whole of Star Wars, chock full of just about every non-science trope there is, making it an entire category of fantasy in itself… but the industry and its fans still consider it science fiction. I happen to disagree with these particular points of view, and there are many others out there that I could debate—and sometimes have.
The problem is that everyone has their own personal definition of science fiction, ignoring the established definitions. Britannica defines Science Fiction as “a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals.” A few other sources mirror this, some with the addition that its stories “frequently portray space or time travel and life on other planets.” (Oxford Dictionary) But that “actual or imagined” bit essentially allows the individual to drop almost literally anything into SF with the justification that “I can imagine anything, and it’s valid.” The definition is that loose, and so content is all over the place.
Britannica reports that the term science fiction was popularized, if not invented, in the 1920s by one of the genre’s principal advocates, the American publisher Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback was primarily looking for an easy label to use to promote the magazines he sold; and science fiction rolled off the tongue. But not all of the stories Gernsback, and other publishers of the quick-buck-inspired genre, sold were as tightly bound to the established laws of science as they usually suggested; and in no time, the public got used to the idea that SF could include all kinds of content, from the barely prescient to the outright fantastic. And today, science fiction still includes elements firmly grounded in widely accepted science and physics… alongside elements and characters of impossible physics and certain fantasy… and it’s all good. In today’s SF, almost literally anything goes, because that’s the way it started out in American publishing.
But all things grow up… and after almost 100 years since its coining, science fiction should be more than ready to graduate into adulthood. And to do that, first and foremost, it needs to be a genre that actually stands for something, not just anything. And one thing that would help it along would be a label that better describes what it is. And science fiction is clearly not that label.
Some in recent years have tried to swap out science fiction with speculative fiction, “a genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements.” (Oxford) The problem with this label is that it’s intentionally all-encompassing, clearly including fantasy elements alongside scientific elements… essentially providing a back door to any type of content desired. Again, if science fiction is supposed to be based on actual or even imagined science, that definition won’t do.
(And No: I don’t consider “imagined science” to be fantasy, as some others perhaps might. Imagined science is technically an extrapolation of known scientific concepts, supposed to be based on the established rules of physics and where those rules allow for future scientific development and potential new concepts that theoretically fit within that framework. That extrapolation may be loose or even far-fetched, but it’s still based in science and physics. Fantasy ignores science and physics altogether; it doesn’t extrapolate it or bend the rules, they’re just not even part of the equation. This, by the way, is the essential separator between science fiction and fantasy, the thing that makes them two completely inalienable genres in themselves.)
So… back to the subject at hand, a better name for science fiction, a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals. As some have pointed out, trying to single out the “technology” part of science does encompass the vast majority of science fiction; but it excludes some firmly established fantasy elements in SF, like humanoid aliens (a staple of SF TV and movies), mind-power characters like telepaths (based in anthropological extrapolation), etc. Do we just say, from now on, that all humanoid aliens, telepaths, etc, etc, are now no longer part of SF? That’s a hard call. But if SF is supposed to be taking itself seriously, maybe it’s time to put those fantasy elements away, once and for all, and let them exist only in fantasy fiction.
And maybe that type of SF needs its own name to delineate it from more serious SF; something like “early science fiction” or “juvenile science fiction,” to indicate its fun roots and loose interpretation of scientific principles. Mind you, I’m not trying to be dismissive or denigrating, just pointing out that early SF tends to be more inclined to adventures and allegorical tales than serious science.
Similarly, coining “future fiction” ignores the many stories that take place in the present, or in the past when set in its present day. So that doesn’t work, either. No, the new label should reflect the actual definition, dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals. Maybe the crucial word we should be looking at here is “impact.” Stories in which science extrapolation impacts characters or societies.
“Science extrapolation fiction” is a pretty accurate description of what SF is supposed to be; but as labels go, it’s not great. Maybe shortening it to “science extra fiction” might work… or something similar, like “science-hypothetical fiction,” “science-speculative fiction” or “science-abstract fiction.”
On the other hand, there’s no reason we need to keep “fiction” at the end of a new label. Romance, fantasy, adventure, those labels stand without the word “fiction.” So maybe something like “science extrapolation,” “science extra,” “science speculation,” “science abstract,” “science hypothetical,” “science prediction,” “science cast,” etc.
Anyway, there’s choices. I could chose any one of these… personally, I kind of like “science speculation”… but who am I kidding? I’m sure there will be a groundswell following this article (among the 4 or 5 people who read it, anyway), telling me that science fiction, its name and its content is already perfect, and how dare me suggest otherwise! But maybe others—producers, publishers, fans, marketers, what have you—will give some thought to a better, more modern, more accurate, more adult labels for what we very loosely call science fiction. Maybe a better label would better define what is considered appropriate for the genre and help push other elements into the right genres for them. And maybe removing those elements will help towards making science speculation a more serious, and seriously-taken, genre; one not defined by non-science elements like humans in alien makeups, mind-reading and force-choking.
Or, if you insist on keeping those things, just call it all “semi-believable fantasy” and be done with it.