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Science Fiction

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English Literature

What do R2D2, Daleks, and Spock have in common? They all belong to texts in the genre of science fiction. But what qualifies a text as science fiction? Read on to find out!

Science Fiction Genre

As is true for all genres, scholars are divided on the absolute definition of science fiction. There are a myriad of texts set hundreds of years in the future, as well as hundreds of years in the past. Does science fiction always have to be futuristic? What about technology that features steampunk or cyberpunk aspects? Are they ‘science-y’ enough to count as science fiction?

As you can see, the genre poses questions that have no easy or absolute answers. However, there are some characteristics that science fiction texts share, which make for the following ‘loose’ definition of science fiction:

Science fiction narratives highlight an aspect of their world - including characters, events, and premises - that underlines science. Problems and obstacles are overcome by the use of scientifically designed equipment or machinery within the narrative. Even if the science may seem to verge on the ‘fantastic’ (time travel machines, talking computers), it is still based on a theory or evidence that such things might at some point be possible.

For example, an episode of Doctor Who might be set in the 15th century, but it highlights science through the spaceship TARDIS, or the presence of aliens, thus marking it as science fiction. H.G. Wells’ Time Machine (1895), as the title suggests, features a time machine - an invention explained by science, thereby also making it a text of science fiction.

Science Fiction: Characteristics

This section discusses the various features of the science fiction genre and provides examples for each.

Science

As the definition suggests, science fiction texts highlight the importance of science, or scientific progress, in a significant way. A science fiction text without science would be… only fiction. It is important to note that the presence of science, or scientific advancement, may be obvious or subtle. There could be a scientific experiment that accidentally grants superpowers, or it could simply be about a new mobile app that changes life in a crucial way. However, the aspect of science is important to the plot.

Let’s look at two examples here.

In Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), the motley crew of a tunnelling ship is punching (worm) holes in space to create a tunnel between two different quadrants. The crew features humans, but also aliens. Here, the science and scientific advancement are obvious - deep space exploration, worm holes, tunnels in space, aliens - all of these are markers of scientific progress. This is a science fiction text.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Dr. Jekyll, a scientist, invents a formula that splits his personality and enables him to undergo a dramatic change. While the main plot is governed by the terrible appearance and crimes of Mr. Hyde, science plays a major role in the very existence of Mr. Hyde, even if it is not so obviously perceived in the text. This, too, is a work of science fiction.

Sense of wonder

Science fiction sits between reality and imagination. It evokes a sense of wonder among readers and provokes them to ask, 'What if?'. For example, 'What if we could travel in time?' or 'what if we invented machines that made animals talk?'.

The reality of scientific fact is combined with creativity to create a new world, where the apparently impossible is made believable. Action in science fiction relies on science and technology, the latest advances, or possible future development, all of which stimulate the reader's imagination and create a sense of wonder.

For example, H.G. Wells, in The Argonauts of the Air (1895) wrote about air flight in 1895 before the Wright brothers lifted off in the 1900s, allowing the readers to wonder what it would be like to fly.

Another example that sets off the reader's sense of wonder is Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1953).

Caves of Steel is a detective story set in the future world where robots are a part of everyday life. This enables the reader to speculate about a world where robots are a common occurrence in one's day-to-day life. In this story, an apparently accidental shooting has to be investigated by both a human detective and his robot/android partner who is able to scan people’s emotions. The situation is complicated by the humans' mistrust of robots.

Critical commentary

Science fiction texts are not only about exercising one's imagination and speculating about the transformations that scientific progress might bring. Science fiction narratives often engage in critical commentary about the society we live in. The narrative may be set in an imaginative world, but it can reflect the social, economical, cultural, or political issues that we are faced with, and provide us with the author's perspective on the same.

H. G. Wells' Time Machine (1895), for example, is a critique of classification and the capitalist society. It uses the fictional races of the Elois and Morlocks, where the working classes are exploited by the privileged upper-classes who lead an empty existence.

Types of science fiction narratives

There are numerous sub-categories within the genre of science fiction. The most popular ones include:

  1. Hard science fiction - these narratives are based on thoroughly researched scientific technologies, and try to be accurate as far as the 'science' aspect in the plot is concerned. These novels often involve a lot of 'techno-babble,' which simply means characters engage in elaborate scientific discussions. A good example of a hard sci-fi novel is Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary (2021).
  2. Alien or alien invasion - as the name suggests, this sub-genre features alien creatures and/or alien invasions. H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds (1897) belongs to this category.
  3. Apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction - Not all scientific progress is good - some of it can bring about the end times. Apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction is centred on the aftermath of a globally catastrophic event. In Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), which is set in the 21st century, the world population is nearly wiped out by cholera. Three to four characters voyage the continents in search of a survivor community. After several disappointments, they are reduced to one survivor, the Last Man in the World.
  4. Cyberpunk - Cyberpunk texts are set in a dystopian society, combining elements of the underside of a city with cybernetic augments and technology. Characters in cyberpunk stories have cybernetic augments fitted that enhance abilities or senses. An example of a cyberpunk text is Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).
  5. Space westerns - As the name suggests, space westerns are westerns set in space. Martha Wells' The Murderbot Diaries series (2017 onwards) are a good example of this genre.

Science Fiction: Examples

Jules Verne

The Gothic and Sensation novels grew in popularity over the 18th and 19th centuries. A craze for science-fiction kicked off with the novels of Jules Verne, who combined tales of adventure with the latest technology and scientific discovery.

Some of his most famous novels include:

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869)

From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

Journey to the Centre of the Earth introduces Jules Verne’s use of the cryptic code puzzle, a favourite device of his. A geologist and his nephew decipher writings by an ancient Icelandic alchemist explaining how to reach the centre of the earth. The book narrates the journey and adventures of the geologist and his household to and from the centre of the Earth. They encounter oceans, dinosaurs, and giant mushrooms before being ejected back to the earth’s surface through a volcano.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is another journey adventure, this time underwater in an electrically powered submarine. The adventurers are in search of a sea monster and end up at the bottom of the ocean. They walk in deep-sea suits, hunt sharks, and are attacked by a giant squid.

From the Earth to the Moon centres on travelling into space for a wager. The plot revolves around raising enough money to build a cannon big enough to shoot its heroes to the moon. A sequel (Round the Moon, 1869) describes how the space travellers, instead of landing on the moon, circle around it and fire rockets to propel their space capsule back to Earth.

H.G.Wells - The Invisible Man (1897)

In The Invisible Man, a scientist named Griffin discovers how to become invisible by combining a mixture of chemicals. However, he cannot turn back again, and gradually becomes increasingly unhinged in his desperate search for an antidote.

While the science behind The Invisible Man is imperfect, modern science has discovered a way of creating a textile that acts as an invisibility cloak (further developed in the film adaptation The Invisible Man, 2020, dir. Leigh Whannell).

William Morris - News from Nowhere (1890)

The narrator of News from Nowhere falls into a type of dream world that acts as a portal to the future world where money is replaced by barter, and work is undertaken for pleasure, not out of economic necessity. The Houses of Parliament are used for storing manure, and people are freed of industrialisation to pursue what suits them best.

John Wyndham The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)

In Wyndham's novel, the inhabitants of a village are invaded by an alien object overnight. Weeks later the women of the village discover they are pregnant. The children born seem normal, except they have golden eyes and silvery skin. As they grow, it is noticeable that they have telepathic ability and can use mind control. They grow increasingly dangerous in their instinct for survival and self-defence. The children explain that they can only be killed if the whole village is destroyed. A local school teacher with only months to live takes a drastic decision that may be able to save the village.

Science Fiction: influence today

Science fiction has had a massive impact on society and education. By expanding the imaginative possibilities of life and technology, people have been spurred on to study science and thereby advance it further.

Many ideas first developed by writers have since become reality, including space travel, travelling to the moon, androids, and cybernetic augments.

Science fiction offers a practical expansion of the mind and technology, more than most other genres of speculative fiction.

Science Fiction - Key takeaways

  • The science fiction genre features fictional narratives that revolve around science or scientific progress.
  • Science fiction narratives feature science in a significant way, evoke a sense of wonder, and offer critical commentary on the current state of mankind.
  • Influential writers of science fiction include:
    • Jules Verne
    • H.G. Wells
    • Isaac Asimov.
  • Types of science fiction narratives include hard science fiction, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction, cyberpunk, aliens or alien invasions, and space westerns.
  • Science fiction relies on science and technology, the latest advances, or possible future development .

Science Fiction

Science fiction is a genre of fictional narratives that feature aspects of science or scientific advancements.

The 3 characteristics of science fiction are:

  • They feature science and scientific progress in a significant way
  • They evoke a sense of wonder
  • They engage in critical and social commentary

Examples of science fiction include:

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818)
H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897)

Science-fiction encourages many people to study science and thereby advance science further.

Science fiction narratives include:

1. Hard sci-fi

2. Apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction

3. Aliens or alien invasion

4. Cyberpunk

5. Space-westerns

Final Science Fiction Quiz

Question

Which of the following feature significantly in works of science fiction?

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Answer

scientific progress

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Question

Which of the following is a sub-genre in science fiction?

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Answer

space-western

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Question

Which of the following authors is an important contributor to science fiction in the English literary canon?

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Answer

Jules Verne

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a feature of science fiction narratives?

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Answer

posing a mystery to be solved

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Question

Which of the following novels is a work of science fiction?

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Answer

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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Question

Which of the following is a well known Space-Western series?

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Answer

The Murderbot Diaries

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Question

Who wrote The Invisible Man?

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Answer

H. G. Wells

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Question

Who is the author of Frankenstein?

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Answer

Mary Shelley

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Question

Science Fiction includes which of the following sub-genres?

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Answer

Cyberpunk

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Question

Which of the following is a prolific figure in the canon of science fiction literature?

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Isaac Asimov

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True or False: All science fiction is cyberpunk literature

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False

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True or False: Cyberpunk literature is influenced by punk culture

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True

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Which of the following is a work of cyberpunk literature?

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Answer

Snow Crash

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Cyberpunk literature usually features a _____ setting

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urban

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Characters in cyberpunk texts typically belong to ________ class

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lower

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Which of the following is a popular cyberpunk author?

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Pat Cadigan

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Which of the following is a common trope in cyberpunk literature?

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Artificial Intelligence

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True or False: Cyberpunk as a genre is delivered through multiple media formats

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True

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Question

What is the name of the film that is adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Answer

Blade Runner

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Question

Cyberpunk literature often features characters with _________

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Answer

cybernetic augments

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