I’ve been charged by my buddies at Flying Island Press to participate in defining sci-fi and fantasy. That’s a mighty big elephant to eat. My response on Twitter was “As far as what SF/F is or is not, in my case I sort of know it when I see it. Which is why I like the umbrella term speculative fiction.”
That was kind of a cop out, but defining things in 140 characters or less is a bit more than I’m up to before lunch. Now in a blog post I think I can take a stab.
Science fiction is incredibly broad as a genre. You’ve got everything from Jurassic Park to Ender’s Game. It can be gritty and “hard” where science is king and every jot and tittle needs to be explained and “realistic”. Or it can be soft and take place in such a far flung future that the science almost takes a back seat. Almost. I think that science needs to be an integral part though. There needs to be some aspect of technology or a rational explanation of the universe and its hard core mechanics that forms a significant part of the story.
For me character always comes first and the science might be a part of that character. A good example of that would be PC Haring’s Cybrosis. The main character is a cyborg and her tech is fully integrated into the plot of the novel as well. That’s not to say that the science necessarily needs to be completely accurate. When you’re supposing what the world might by like in a hundred or a thousand years the details are by necessity fuzzy. Most writers are no more scientists than they are wizards and research can only take you so far. Still it should be sound. Master that technobabble!
As big as science fiction is as a genre, I’d argue that fantasy is even larger. In SF, the distinctive element is, well, science. In Fantasy I’d say it’s the numinous. Most, if not all, fantasy has something of the spiritual about it. That’s not to say that it has to be religious (though I’d argue that most Christian fiction falls into the Fantasy realm), but it often speaks to things that can’t be observed or measured. The more important elements in the story, be they plot, mechanics, or character, should focus on the mystical or the transcendent.
A good example of that would be South Coast by Nathan Lowell. And that’s an interesting one too, since it takes place in a far flung future with space ships and the like. It has that in common with Star Wars. Both are Fantasy pieces since, imo, both have a stronger connection to the mystic than the motor.
The wonderful thing about these genres is that they lend themselves well to being crossed over/blended/mashed/folded/spindled. After all, the Dune series has elements of both. The Dragon Riders of Pern does as well. Science Fiction and Fantasy can easily be just like a Reese’s Cup, though that’s not everyone’s favorite candy bar.
So that’s my stab at a definition. Look for a post later today over at Flying Island Press to get more on the ins and outs of defining these genres.