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November 8, 2013

I’ll Know It When I See It: A Road Map to Science Fiction


The release of Ender’s Game (based on Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel of the same name) on November 1st brought another big-budget sci-fi flick to the big screen. As excited as I am about this movie (and I am very excited about this movie), it’s still only one facet of the reactor core lithium-ion crystal that is the genre of science fiction. There is a huge amount of variety within the genre, and this can be confusing for people who wonder what a brick of a novel from the ‘50s has in common with NBC’s “Revolution.” So to make it easy on you and get more people reading, watching and listening to this excellent genre, I present Austin Dallas’ Intro to Science Fiction 101.

So what exactly is science fiction? It falls under the larger category of speculative fiction, which means it has things that don’t exist in the real world (fantasy is also a subcategory of speculative fiction). How do you know if something is science fiction? Like most genres, you’ll know it when you see it. Spaceships, robots and aliens (both the murderous acid-blood-dripping kind and the well-endowed green-skinned space babe kind) are pretty good signs. In general, science fiction is fiction that involves possible futures that remain based on the world of today. While fantasy takes place in worlds completely separate from our own, sci-fi takes our world and says “what if...”

Hard Sci-Fi vs. Soft Sci-Fi:
One of the biggest distinctions in science fiction is between “hard” and “soft.” Hard sci-fi takes the “science” part up to eleven. It focuses on the technology that makes genre staples like space travel and artificial intelligence possible and goes into detail about how these things work. It draws heavily from real science in doing so and tries to make things as “realistic” as possible. If the author spends ten pages explaining how their laser guns work and all the characters have to go into suspended animation for the five-year flight between planets, you’re reading hard sci-fi. Isaac Asimov is the king of this subgenre, (his Foundation series is excellent) along with Arthur C. Clarke.

On the other hand, soft sci-fi focuses more on the “fiction” side of the equation. It draws more of its inspiration from the social sciences and tends to focus more on characters and emotions. Things don’t have to make perfect sense or be scientifically accurate as long as you wind up with a good story. Many works of soft sci-fi take present-day issues and accelerate them into the future to explore them in different ways. Because of this, the genre is sometimes called “social” sci-fi. If things seem uncomfortably similar to the real world, you’re probably reading soft sci-fi. Ursula K. Le Guin, Phillip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury are some of the biggest names in this category (along with many, many more), as well as films like District 9 and TV shows such as “Star Trek” and “Heroes.”

Space Opera
Space Opera loses the social aspect of soft sci-fi altogether and keeps the futuristic setting along with a healthy dose of romance and melodrama. Stories are usually epic in scope, with simple good versus evil conflicts in a large and highly detailed universe. If there’s a massive space battle to determine the fate of the galaxy, it’s definitely space opera. Star Wars brought this genre to prominence, and the Mass Effect series of video games provides a more recent example.

Everything has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Post-Apocalyptic sci-fi deals with the end of the world and what happens after. Some awful disaster (nuclear war, plague or human-caused natural disaster are common ones) has wiped out most of the Earth’s population and the survivors are fighting over the scraps. The heroes are loners, the setting is harsh and resources are scarce. Sometimes there are monsters to fight (mutants, zombies, cannibals, etc.), or maybe finding food and water is a big enough challenge on its own. If people are fighting over water with makeshift knives in the wreckage of the Empire State Building, you’ve got yourself some post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Fiction in this genre includes THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy, the films Mad Max and The Book of Eli and the TV show “The Walking Dead.”

Dystopias are stories about a society that’s gone bad. It’s the opposite of a utopia, or perfect society. Back in the day, a lot of philosophers spent a lot of time thinking about how a perfect society would work, until a bunch of authors looked at the amount of lying, cheating and generally horrible things we humans do to one another and figured the philosophers had things a bit wrong. Dystopias often feature totalitarian governments, environmental disasters and staggering amounts of poverty, starvation and abuse of political power. Sometimes there are rebellions and uprisings and things get better, but usually they don’t. Notable works include 1984 by George Orwell, BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley, the Hunger Games series and the graphic novel and movie V For Vendetta. Often overlaps with soft sci-fi and cyberpunk.

Hackers and implants and body horror, oh my! The cyberpunk subgenre revolves around computers and the idea of a virtual world (the term “cyberspace” became widely used after it appeared in a couple of cyberpunk novels in the ‘80s). Heroes, typically, are hackers or criminals who fight huge corporations in a virtual worlds or sprawling urban mega-cities. Body modifications, cyborgs and a high level of technology are common, but without the focus on realism found in hard sci-fi. Books usually read like film noir or hard-boiled detective fiction. If your hero is a washed-up drunk with bionic eyes who jacks into cyberspace to fight faceless corporate goons that seem vaguely Japanese, you’ve got yourself some cyberpunk. Novels include William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER and Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH (both of which had a huge influence on the rest of the genre), as well as the films Blade Runner and The Matrix, the video games Bioshock and Deus Ex and the anime Akira. Often overlaps with dystopia.

Hybrid Genres
Aside from the main genres above, the combination of sci-fi and other existing genres has made many new niches for fiction to explore. They include:

•  Military Sci-Fi:Wars in space! Read STARSHIP TROOPERS or THE FOREVER WAR.

•  Sci-Fi Western:Space is another frontier, after all. Watch “Firefly”and “Cowboy Bebop.

•  Sci-Fi Horror:In space, no one can hear you scream. Read everything by Richard Matheson, watch ALIEN and THE THING and play Dead Space.

•  Steampunk:Sci-Fi in the Victorian era, where the clothes are always fancy and everything runs on steam.

•  Paranormal Sci-Fi:Maybe magic, maybe science, who knows? Watch “The X-Files”and “Twin Peaks.”

•  Spy-Fi:I don’t think real secret agents have this many gadgets. Watch James Bond and Mission Impossible and play Splinter Cell.