Most non-SF literature puts forward a concept about the future by describing it, while good Science Fiction illustrates it. For example, both Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and Neuromancer by William Gibson illustrate what the Internet and the world might be like in the future, in images that are easy to understand. They illustrate ideas about justice and ethics and the nature of intelligence without putting the reader to sleep. I believe that Science Fiction is the natural way to talk about the future.

An important thing to remember about science ficton is that the science involved is not always technology (though this is certainly the most common case).

The aforementioned Frankenstein, for example, could be considered to be an example where the science is medicine. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could be one with psychology as the science. Even the Tarzan series qualifies, with the science being anthropology. The list could go on and on.

Just a quick note for those new to the genre or not particularly well-versed in it yet. Star Trek, Star of the Guardians, and the like are great, but there's so much more out there to be experienced.

Science fiction is a term that lays claim to a huge expanse of territory, although some of it is quite thinly settled.

Several years ago Damon Knight, a very well known author and editor, was talking about definitions of science fiction on the now defunct GENIE SFRT. He had studied what was actually published in science fiction magazines and shelved on the Science Fiction book shelf in bookstores and libraries. The actual material was much broader than any hard and fast definition he had ever heard proposed.

Science fiction includes stories about the future, stories about parallel universes, stories about alternate history, stories about the distant (pre historic) past, stories about aliens, stories about other worlds, and too many other kinds of things to list conpletely, but see the soft links below.

Ar its best, I believe science fiction can be the most thought provoking literature available, forcing us and helping us to think about who and what we are, where we are going, and what we want to become. As with most of what is published today, I believe most of it will be forgotten in fifty years.

As futurehog points out, defining science fiction is difficult, and the results are usually unsatisfactory. I think this is best seen by comparing some examples, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and Baroque cycle, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and George Lucas's Star Wars.

Regardless of your opinions of the relative merits of these works, I believe most readers would say that Neal Stephenson's books have the spirit of science fiction in them despite being historical, while Star Wars seems more like fantasy. Foundation is clearly classically "science fiction".

The node Defining science fiction makes the statement that "SF is the literary genre of the possible". Science fiction must be "speculative", and it should "result in a setting that is noticeably different from the reality we all know". Frederick Pohl calls it "the literature of change", while Damon Knight says it's "what we point to when we say it". Other definitions abound. All of these seem to lack some essence of science fiction.

I say, science fiction is about ideas.

Example 1: Neal Stephenson. Neither Cryptonomicon nor the Baroque Cycle occur in a noticeably different world -- one is set during World War Two and in the present, while the other occurs around the beginning of the scientific revolution. In fact, Stephenson has taken great pains to blend fiction and reality. Neither is there anything terribly speculative about them, unless you consider an island data haven mind-blowing enough to qualify. However, it is quite obvious on reading these books that the focus of them, the central characters, are ideas -- for Cryptonomicon, information, for the Baroque Cycle, money. This is what gives them the feel of science fiction.

Example 2: Foundation is "speculative" and very much set in the future. Even the Good Doctor didn't consider it possible, though. Psychohistory and FTL travel are in no way a seriously proposed future reality. They do qualify as ideas though, ideas that make an interesting story when combined with the downfall of a galactic civilization and an Encyclopedia...

Example 3: Like Foundation, Star Wars is hardly a serious future possibility. Unlike Foundation, its story rests on characters, Luke, Darth Vader, Leia, Han Solo, etc. A science fiction reader will notice (and possibly complain) about the way George Lucas hardly considers the society and surroundings of our heros and antagonists. This would be a mistake though, because Star Wars is not science fiction, it's mythology....

nasreddin points out that lots of things are about ideas, not just science fiction. I think the difference here is that while The Old Man and the Sea may be about ideas of honor and dignity, the focus is on the old man, not on his philosophy. Science fiction prizes ideas above all, sometimes to the point where story and characterization suffer for it (as critics enjoy pointing out). Besides, science fiction has crazy ideas that Hemmingway wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole.

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