Science fiction has been telling us tales of the fantastic and the phenomenal since Mary Shelley created “Frankenstein” — and thus the genre — in 1818. What does it take for a story, a book or a movie to belong to this mind-bending genre? Let’s take a look at science-fiction characteristics and explore the purpose of these stories that promise to take us into infinity and beyond.
What Will Scientists Discover Next?
Science news delivered weekly!
What Is Science Fiction?
If you ask 100 different people what science fiction is, you’ll get 100 different answers. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the genre as “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals, or having a scientific factor as an essential orientating component.”
In 1926, Hugo Gernsback called it “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” while in 1962, Rod Sterling called it “the improbable made possible.” Ray Bradbury has spoken at length about it, calling it “the one field that reached out and embraced every sector of the human imagination, every endeavor, every idea, every technological development and every dream.” Arthur C. Clarke defined it as “something that could happen — but you usually wouldn’t want it to.”
Nearly every science fiction writer since the birth of the genre has their own definition for it. Nonetheless, all their stories have several things in common. These are the characteristics — the skeleton that makes up this genre — that help to define the stories that they tell.
What Are the Characteristics of Science Fiction?
In a genre with so many different definitions, it might seem like an impossible feat to define the characteristics. However, all these authors have one or more things in common.
First, science fiction stories are almost always based on scientific principles and technology. This doesn’t necessarily have to be true or proven science. Things like warp speed or faster-than-light travel have been staples in the genre for decades and are currently beyond our scientific expertise. They might have some basis in fact, but they’re things we haven’t yet figured out how to make.
These stories often have similar settings, and usually take place in the future. They may even reference current events — as of the time of their writing — as a foundation the author can build a world upon. They might take place in space, on a ship traversing the cosmos, in a different dimension, or on the surface of an alien world. The possibilities are endless.
Predicting the Future
Science fiction almost always makes predictions about what life in the future might be like. These predictions vary depending on when the piece is created. “The Jetsons,” for example, came out in 1962 and predicted that by 2062 — 100 years from its release — we would have flying cars and robots to cook our meals and do our laundry. “Blade Runner,” which was released in 1982 and was based on the book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick, had a different outlook. It predicted that by 2019, robots would be so human-like, we’d need a special type of investigator to determine who was human and who was a Replicant.
Yes, as of November 2019, some events of the first “Blade Runner” movie officially happened.
Is there Life Out There?
Finally, this genre often deals with the possibility of life on other worlds and comments on cultural issues. Ray Bradbury’s science fiction short story “There Will Come Soft Rains,” for example, was written and published in 1950, one year after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. Until then, the U.S. had been the world’s only nuclear superpower, and it sparked fear in hearts and minds around the world. In this short, Bradbury asks a powerful question: What will happen to our technology if we’re no longer around? It’s also set in 2026, a mere six years from now.
No matter what science fiction story you enjoy, it will always include one or more of these science-fiction characteristics. Why do writers and filmmakers spend time telling these stories of the fantastic and the macabre set in galaxies far, far away?
What Is the Purpose of Science Fiction?
Why have we spent the last 200 years dreaming of the future and creating fabulous stories about space flight, time travel and distant worlds?
First, it makes us think. Science fiction doesn’t just tell us what happens in the story — it makes us dream of what might be possible. Have you ever walked out of a sci-fi movie and wished you could spend more time in that world? That’s the power of science fiction — the ability to make us dream of what might happen and what could be.
It’s different than fantasy in that it is built on a skeleton of possibility. We would love to live in a fantasy world of magic and dragons, but it’s not something that is likely to happen. The things we see in sci-fi stories, like space flight and even time travel, are within the realm of possibility, once technology catches up with our imagination.
Science fiction also inspires us to create the things we’ve dreamed of in these stories. Many of the technologies we have today are only around because they first appeared in a science-fiction book or show. Do you like that cellphone in your pocket or the tablet in your bag? Thank Gene Roddenberry and “Star Trek.” Martin Cooper, an inventor who helped create the first mobile phone, directly credits “Star Trek” as his inspiration.
Submarines were inspired by Jules Verne and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” H.G. Wells inspired scientists to create nuclear reactions and later the atom bomb with a story that he wrote in 1913, decades before physicists ever split the atom.
Finally, science fiction can serve as a warning. Not every futuristic society is a utopian one. There are plenty of stories that warn of the consequences of human hubris and could be considered cautionary tales. If we don’t want to end up here, this is what we should avoid.
Bong Joon-ho’s movie “Snowpiercer” is a phenomenal example of this kind of dystopian science-fiction cautionary tale. We tampered with the weather and threw the Earth into a new ice age. The surviving members of the human race circle the planet on a train that can never stop moving. It’s a brilliantly written story that touches on current hot-button topics like class, wealth disparity and human desperation in a way that no other genre could hope to approach.
Looking Toward the Future
Science-fiction stories have helped inspire us, caution us and make us dream for the better part of the last two centuries. If you’re ever not sure of the kind of story you’re reading — or writing — look for these science-fiction characteristics and always look toward the future. Above everything, that is what these stories are telling us to do — look up and look forward, toward something greater.