Science Fiction: A Genre Study

Greetings! Today I’ll be discussing the great genre of science fiction, providing examples of the genre at work, and examining its various applications. The goal here is to give you a better understanding of the genre, and perhaps some inspiration for your own stories set within it. 

Primary subgenres

A difference should be mentioned here: that between what we tend to associate with science fiction—a genre in which spaceships, robots, and near-mystic technology are musts—and the more reality-grounded subgenre. This first assumption stems from well-known science fiction representatives, such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation as well as on-screen franchises of the style: Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like. (I do believe Star Wars leans more into fantasy, but that is a debate for another time.) The second is the more realistic kind, often in the form of dystopian fiction, in which we see tales (often in the form of series) such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, as well as more mature examples such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’ve spoken about Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which falls into this category, in a previous blog post

While there is a whole range of additional subgenres—I don’t mean to confine the genre of sci-fi to this set—these are the two we’ll be focusing on today. They are the ones with which I have the most experience, and the ones into which we most commonly categorize our sci-fi stories. I feel that a better understanding of the genre, and what its main subgenres have to offer, will provide us with a wider range of tools to utilize in our own writing. 

This pair—that looser variety that explores space, alien technology, and unknown organisms and the more grounded kind we use to represent potential futures for our world—can be otherwise spoken of as soft science fiction and hard science fiction, respectively. Let’s take a look at each of them in depth. 

Soft science fiction

Soft science fiction can be characterized by its wild technology and focus on large-scale conflicts. A prime example of this subgenre at work is in Dune by Frank Herbert; it strays from what we know, presenting other worlds and near-fantastical elements, fictional species not found on earth and complex technology powered by unusual means. Other prime examples of soft sci-fi at play, if not so literary, are the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. While admittedly leaning into “magic” just as much as “technology,” Star Wars is marketed as soft science fiction, so I will grudgingly speak about it as such. 

At its core, soft sci-fi deals with the “soft” sciences—social science, politics, and psychology. Foundation is another great example of this, drawing from realistic political and social interactions, while still maintaining the genre’s focus on grand technological innovation. It can be argued that dystopias fit into this kind, though I usually like to classify them more as hard sci-fi as a result of their representing futuristic, and thus obtainable, settings. 

Hard science fiction

Hard science fiction is known for its concrete, down-to-earth technology and attention to rules set forth by our own world. Often, this subgenre will deal in possible futures for our world: futures not so far away as to seem impossible. This provides a range of worldbuilding archetypes, such as the ever looming dystopia and the flourishing but flawed utopia.  

At its core, this subgenre deals with technology, presenting worlds we can at the very least comprehend. The hard sci-fi setting strives to provide some level of technological explanation and scientific realism. The “hard sciences”—mainly math, physics, engineering, computer science, and chemistry—are explored in depth here, with special effort devoted to making such studies appear realistic. 

Of course, these definitions are fluid, and vary by author. There is no universal comparison, and so how I defined them will not be how everyone does. I wouldn’t get too caught up in the differences; this is merely meant as a lens through which to explore the possibilities of the genre. It’s a genre that’s been drawing me in more and more as of late, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you. 

Clarke’s three laws of science fiction

Writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke set about to create three laws which help to govern the genre of science fiction and the usage of technology within it. These so called laws are as follows: 

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, they are almost certainly right. When they state that something is impossible, they are very probably wrong. 
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I thought they would be worth mentioning in a proper analysis of the science fiction genre. Clarke, a science fiction writer himself, had many interesting things to say about the genre. Take these laws with as little or as much salt as you will, but never leave behind reading as a writer. You’ll suffer from it in the long run

How can I write science fiction?

Well, I can’t answer that for you. But I can provide you with a series of prompts related to the genre to perhaps generate some inspiration. Try writing about one of these: 

  • An alien coming to earth and becoming quickly invested in our culture, so much so that it is determined to join it, no matter the cost. (soft sci-fi)
  • A dystopia in which mental “energy” is used to power advanced technology, eventually resulting in the death of the subject or victim. (soft sci-fi)
  • A futuristic version of earth in which a deadly plague has wiped out the majority of human civilization, forcing people to live apart, and in which people must now rebuild and grapple for political control in their new world. (hard sci-fi)
  • A monarch, president, or other leader struggling to keep their dystopia (alternatively utopia) in tact. (hard or soft sci-fi)
  • An artificially intelligent being who is slowly coming to realize that it can feel emotions. (you wouldn’t be the first to do this, but I still find it a fascinating idea and one not explored enough)

And that’s it. This has been an enjoyable exploration—I look forward to attempting more genre studies in the future. If there’s anything in particular you would like to see, please don’t hesitate to tell me! 

Further reading: Ten Authors on the ‘Hard’ vs. ‘Soft’ Science Fiction Debate 

Quote of the week

“In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate.”

Isaac Asimov

(Note: Asimov was not speaking of the afterlife here.) 

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