Science Fiction: a Label and a Genre Category


Genre categories are really designed to help people find the books they want to buy in a bookshop, or borrow from a library. They help readers discover similar stories to the one they’ve read.

They’re also an easy way for writers and marketing departments to communicate what a potential audience should expect from a work of fiction. Genre categories are just ‘labels’ or ‘classifications’. Although they’re designed to guide readers, they can also box readers into having certain expectations.

So, without getting too academic, I want to explore (go on a wild goose chase) what the Science Fiction genre category means. Is it just a convenient ‘label’?

What is it?

The Science Fiction genre category encompasses an enormous range of published material, some of it created by authors who are keen use the term and others who aren’t.

One of the confusing things about Science Fiction is that it’s usually sold in bookshops, in a section called, Science Fiction and Fantasy, or even, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. ‘Fantasy’ is another broad genre that means different things to different people. Personally, I see it as being more about magic, but there’s a crossover between the two. Star Wars, for example is a work of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has space travel and characters with magical powers.

Another blurred relationship is the one between science fiction and speculative fiction (where science fiction is seen as a sub-category of speculative fiction).

The speculative fiction label is interesting, because it’s quite an accurate term in many ways, but you never see a Speculative Fiction section in a bookshop. It’s only something that ‘speculative fiction’ writers talk about, or people in the academic world.

Generally speaking, science fiction is based on rational principles, which is to say a logically constructed world with rules (although a Fantasy story can also have rational principals).

Science fiction stories can take place in alternative worlds, or future worlds. There’s often references to time travel, space travel, artificial lifeforms, genetic engineering, advanced technologies, and alien beings.

But this is missing the point of science fiction somewhat, because it’s really about the characters in these worlds, and how technology impacts on their lives.

Science fiction is often differentiated by the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction. If the fiction is based on hard science or not. For me, the most important thing is, do I believe this? Is it authentic?

I don’t believe in time travel, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying time travel films as a storytelling device. If there’s a modicum of explanation, I’m able to suspend my disbelief, because time travel brings entertaining possibilities and intriguing ideas to a story.

What happens when science and reality outpace science fiction?

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars, is a story about a civilisation living on Mars. It was published in 1912 when people didn’t know that much about Mars. Now that NASA has sent a spacecraft around Mars and onto its surface, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that humanoid people live there. A story about people living on the surface of Mars is hard to buy into, but in 200 years time it’s possible that people might colonise Mars.

As scientific knowledge progresses, our expectations of science fiction also evolve. In 2018, a viral pandemic seemed like an unlikely science fiction ‘B’ movie plot, a genre cliché even. In 2019 it became reality.

1920s and 1930s science fiction stories like Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon look silly to us now because both the science, and the social world they represent has changed. 1930s robots and spacecraft are quaint and naive, possessing a comic quality.

An inconclusive conclusion

What have I learned from this? The answer is, not much.

Science fiction is usually about the future or alternative worlds. It’s usually about technology, and people coping with the effects of technology, cultural and social change on their lives. That much makes it a relevant genre for today’s readers.

While the label ‘speculative fiction’ does make a lot of sense, there’s no Speculative Fiction section in a bookshop. And until there is one, and readers actually know what speculative fiction is, science fiction is a known quantity. It is a genre category that readers understand, and know where to find in bookshop, which probably means the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror section.