Science Fiction Today
Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”
— Isaac Asimov
From the early days of pulp science fiction, the 1920s and 1930s saw the popularity of science fiction begin in earnest with Philip Francis Nowlan’s first Buck Rogers story, Armageddon 2419 published in 1928. In 1937, John W. Campbell was named editor of Astounding Science Fiction and thus began what many consider the Golden Age of Science Fiction. There is a debate on how long that Golden Age lasted, some feel into the 1950s, but there is no debate that the novels from that era stand today as classics in the world of science fiction.
Among those classics, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series followed over the years by the dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, an exploration of the future evolution of humans, and Robert Heinlein’s military sci-fi novel Starship Troopers.
During this time the first attempt to separate science fiction from fantasy began when Hugo Gernsback, at the time editor of Amazing Stories used the name scientifiction to describe the genre. He defined the term as “…a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision…”
Notable authors such as John W. Campbell J, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and others added their own opinion to Gernsback’s definition over the years. One point all of these authors agreed on was that the basis of science fiction is scientific theory and technology. Robert Heinlein’s term ‘speculative fiction’ written in a 1947 essay has remained the term most used to this day. The attempt to redefine the genre never completely took hold although speculative fiction is still being used.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a new term arose. New Wave Science Fiction was used to describe a more literary and artistic feel to a sci-fi novel. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris dealt with human limitations. In 1965, Frank Herbert introduced an incredibly complex and intricate future society in the amazing novel, Dune. Phillip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? spawned the film, Blade Runner. These years also saw an explosion of social and feminist science fiction as exemplified by Ursula K. Le Guin.
The last forty years of science fiction has introduced us to a myriad of sub-genres such as steampunk and cyberpunk as seen in Neuromancer, William Gibson’s first novel published in 1984. Themes such as the environment, the Internet, biotechnology, nanotechnology, post-apocalyptic worlds, and the increasing list of sub-genres like steampunk, biopunk, and others have opened the genre to new horizons.
The most recent trends in science fiction discussed at Speculate, the Speculative Writers Festival in 2019 were as follows.
- Climate Fiction – Dealing with climate change
- New Space Opera – A grander, more technology-based and character-driven version of the old Space Opera.
- Generation Ship – Where original colonists and their descendants travel on slower spaceships. A recognition of the vastness of space and that faster-than-light speed is impossible.
- Gender-Focused – As we see in our society now, the question of gender fluidity is central to the story.
In reviewing the amazing and innovative stories that form the history of science fiction, it is evident that from the beginnings of Buck Rogers to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, science fiction continues to evolve with compelling stories to tell.
Common Characteristics of Science Fiction
While there are many aspects of science fiction that are shared with other genres, there are some characteristics that are unique to the genre. These identifiers should be present in the story.
1. Time Frame – This is the one area where there is some flexibility. While most science fiction is set in the future, a sci-fi story can be set in the present or in the past but other identifying characteristics must be present.
2. Advanced Technology – In the early days of science fiction, advanced technology while imaginative was not as difficult to create. In present day, technology advances at an exponential rate. It is considerably more difficult to imagine technology for advanced civilizations and stay ahead of current tech. Consider the tech, computers, communication, spaceships, ground transports, etc. that you want your characters and those they encounter will have, and be consistent.
3. Worlds and world-building – Probably the most formidable and most exciting aspect of writing sci-fi is alien world building. Some authors spend weeks building and creating their worlds. When you are presenting a futuristic Earth or an alien world and civilization, pay attention to detail. Think about how your characters will live, eat, breathe, and what kind of clothing and transport they will have. Every detail is important and will add depth and reality to your story.
4. Characters – Creating a cast of characters for your story can be as much fun as world building. As we know from some favorite movies, there is no limit to the imagination. Again, pay attention to detail. How they breathe, ambulate, dress, communicate, and appear.
5. Plausibility – This is possibly one of the most important characteristics of your writing. Remember that your reader has one frame of reference, the current world they live in. You need to keep your worlds, characters, and technology within a scope that most of your readers can understand. This does not preclude you from being innovative, but always remember to be plausible. Another thing to remember is to allow your characters to live in this world—nothing that you provide them with, from weapons to transport should surprise them. It should be normal. These guidelines apply to all genres except for fantasy where you can suspend belief. Which is a good thing if you are writing science-fiction fantasy.
Writing science fiction is challenging and exciting. Pay attention to these aspects of the genre and have fun!
We will be covering world building, character development, and plots in upcoming articles.
Asimov, “How Easy to See the Future!”, Natural History, 1975
Quoted in  in: Stableford, Brian; Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1993). “Definitions of SF”. In Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit/Little, Brown and Company. pp. 311–314. ISBN 978-1-85723-124-3.