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First off, what is Science Fiction?

In this post I do not pretend to go into the academical discussion of what science fiction is, for this has been a point of contention among many scholars, authors and critics of the field, but in order to proceed with this sojourn into the sociopolitical issues dealt with in many SF stories, whether in the form of a novel or that of a short story, we must have a working definition of which works to include as our working base.

The definitions which have been proposed over the years range from the one given by Damon Knight, founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which is the simplest, most tautological of the bunch:
"...[Science Fiction] means what we point to when we say it"

To others so elaborate and complex that they take up complete academic essays to fully explain it. However in recent years the term speculative fiction has gained a widespread acceptance, as an umbrella to cover what we laymen call science fiction, as well as some other genres dealing with issues and settings not normally found in mainstream, or realist, fiction.

But since the goal of this post is to give us a working definition of SF, I will try to compose a list of the tropes usually encountered in stories commonly accepted as SF. This will provide us with some tools to decide whether a given book can be considered SF or not.

Main Tropes:
- The story takes place in the future (from the authors time).
- The story revolves around a given "scientific" discovery or theory.
- It involves technologies not found in our world.
- Extraterrestrial beings are involved.
- The story takes place on other planets (one or more).
- Technological innovation plays a central role in the story.
- Society changes up to a point where we can no longer recognize it as our own.
- The setting for the story (backdrop)is not something found in our everyday life.

Aside from these main tropes, there are some rules which must be met in the telling of the story for it to be considered SF and not Fantasy, or any other genre.

Main Rules:
- The setting must be coherent within itself.
- There must be a clear set of rules within the setting. (I.e, if pigs fly there has to be a rational explanation)
- Technological or social changes must be plausible (credible within the rules of the setting)

Now one thing that needs to be clarified here is that this list is by no means exhaustive, nut just the most prominent tropes and rules are contained in it; also for a given work (book, movie, TV show, comic) to be considered SF it must contain more than one of these tropes (and the more the better) and abide by all three of these rules, otherwise it would be possible to include non SF books into the genre.

Later on I will try to tackle the problem of defining Science Fiction from a more academic standpoint, for those who want to go deeper into the subject, but for now let it suffice with this brief summary of tropes and rules.

If you have any more tropes and rules that you feel should be included on the list be sure to let me know and I'll look into the matter.


  1. You've shown the most important parameters that make up a science fiction novel. I guess, what I'm curious to see is if you'll be working under these tropes and rules, or will you be flexible in your study and include other rules and tropes? I only mention this because you did mention looking into Speculative Fiction, and that's a very, very broad genre with no clear definitions.

  2. Kate, as you have said it is a very broad genre. For now I am limiting myself to Science Fiction, for it is the one that deals more clearly with political issues, however I'm willing to look into other works, as long as I can clearly establish a link between them and a political issue or concern. If you know of any speculative fiction books, outside SF which have that element I'd love to read them.

  3. This is very interesting. I am presently writing a YA novel that I classify as SF and your definitions bring it under that category. However, the term SciFi bring up conotations that i don't think fit with my book. I would like to come up with some sub categories.

  4. Phyllis, Right now I'm working on a new post on a more specific categorization of SF. This one will have more reference material, and might help you with your dilemma. However, one sneak peak to point you along, Farah Mendelsohn has stated that "SF is quite happy to extract its plot structures from any available genre", thus you can pretty much attach any sub category to your book.

  5. Hi, I am interested in your definition of science fiction because I have always enjoyed reading it -especially science fiction that takes place on far-a-way planets with fully realized non-human, sentient creatures. Found you on Book Blogs and am a new follower. Would love for you to follow-back.

  6. Actually, I never really considered how broad the definition of science fiction can be. I will say though, from my own viewpoint, that sci fi and fantasy genres are often mixed together. What do you think is the cutting point between fantasy and sci-fi literature? I think it's the extraterrestial component, although in fantasy books this is a major part.

    1. The main difference I have found between Fantasy and Science Fiction lies in the way the stories are constructed, mostly in terms of the explanations behind the "amazing" phenomena found throughout it; in Science Fiction there is a rational explanations to all occurrences, while in Fantasy magic and supernatural events are accepted as a matter of fact and there is no attempt at explaining them, and in fact none are needed for the story to work.


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