What is science fiction, really? It’s time to define the genre

This is a guest post by Pavarti K. Tyler

Gender assumptions are never as great as when discussing books. When I tell people I love vampires, they start talking about Twilight and Anne Rice instead of Guillermo Del Toro's The Strain. When I tell people I love Sci-Fi, they stare at me as blankly as a Scottish Cow.

A girl? Who likes Sci-Fi? Oh, I know… And then I am asked about Lord of the Rings.

*Pav slams head on table three or four times before looking up at oblivious offender*

No, Lord of the Rings is fantasy, I don't like that, I like Sci-Fi.

The face before me squinches up as it tries to understand, and then a light comes on behind their eyes. Like Neil Gaiman?

*Pav sheds a single tear before getting up from the table and joining the rest of the AV Team in the hall*

I see them, sitting in the corner, playing magik and wearing the velvet capes their mothers made them and realize that even here, there is no place for me.

The fundamental issue is so few people understand what Sci-Fi actually is. There have been thousands of books listed as Sci-Fi which under the true definition don't remotely resemble pure Science Fiction. Fantasy and Sci-Fi have become interchangeable for so many that the differences are blurry; however, there is a clear and solid line separating them. Sci-Fi is possible. Fantasy is not.

In the words of L. Ron Hubbard: “…science fiction, to be credible, has to be based on some degree of plausibility; fantasy gives you no limits at all.”

This is an incredibly important distinction. In Sci-Fi there are no wizards, no magic, no nymphs or elves or fairies. Fantasy is wonderful; this is not a rant against it. But let's let fantasy be fantasy, call a moose a moose, and give Sci-Fi its due.

The thing I find so thrilling about Science Fiction is exactly what Hubbard is referring to: it is possible. This doesn't mean that it's going to happen now or that it's going to happen at all, but the possibility of life on Mars or Alien Invasions or even the simplicity of Space Travel lifts my hope for the future. Sci-Fi, when done well, is at its core inspirational.

Even dystopian books within this genre possess that glimmer of hope. There is something about what human kind has or can create that propels a simple fiction tale into the ranks of pure Sci-Fi and gives the reader permission to dream; and dream big. “We created a kind of energy that is consuming the Earth and we all have to find a new planet.” WOW. My imagination is on fire with what that energy could be and where we could possibly go.

If done well a Science Fiction novel will include not only technology but psychology, anthropology and sociology: creating some of the most realistic and fleshed out cultures that have ever existed in fiction. The reason for this is the Science Fiction writer's commitment to writing about the real and the possible. Once you've researched how a nuclear reactor works and figured out a way to make it propel a space craft it's only natural to put the same effort and commitment into every aspect of the work.

The other door Science Fiction opens is for the author to explore issues of philosophy, religion and culture. Because technological advancement and cultural shifts are fundamentally tied – this is proven throughout history, but I think Melissa will kill me if I start waxing poetic about that too – it is logical to think through the effects that the imagined technology will have on the people who live with it.

One of the best quotes from one of the best written Sci-Fi books is not about technology but about philosophy:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone I will turn and face fear's path, and only I will remain. – Dune

To further my point I want to take a moment to discuss three of the classic Sci-Fi novels I think show how broad a genre it can be, without losing its purity: Battlefield Earth, Dune, and Lilith's Brood.

  1. Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard is by far one of the best books I've ever read. Go ahead, laugh, you know you want to. Yes he invented Scientology. No I'm not a Scientologist. But yes he did write one of the best pure Science Fiction novels ever written. Hubbard's look into the year 3000 includes science so detailed I almost believed I could build it from his descriptions. He showed us a culture so torn apart it had mutated into something recognizable as human, but fundamentally different. He also introduced aliens whose customs and language were so clearly depicted they rose out of the confines of fiction and into the realm of possible.
  1. Duneby Frank Herbert takes us out of our modern time but also out of the comforts of what we consider religiously/morally/biologically possible. His science does not stop and hover-copters or galactic space travel; by introducing the concept of “Spice,” sand worms and the culture of the “Fremen” Herbert is able to explore some of the fundamental questions of human existence. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?Further in the series he explores questions of authority, government, multi-cultural conflicts and even addiction. Few books span across history and culture as completely as Dune. The science in many ways takes a back seat to the other issues discussed, but in spite of that, and I would propose because of it, Dune is a model of pure Sci-Fi.
  1. Lilith's Broodby Octavia Butler is one of the very few Sci-Fi books of this caliber written by a woman. And not just a woman, a black woman in the 1970s. Lets all take a moment to recognize the immense achievement of that, she stood against Race, Gender and Genre and wrote what she loved. And what she wrote blew my mind.Lilith's Brood spans generations of humans from the first awoken from cryogenic sleep by Aliens who rescued them from World War III to her youngest child, a hybrid between the two races and the beginning of a whole new society. The science of the ship and biology of the alien race she introduces is unlike anything else I've read and written so thoroughly thought through and detailed it becomes real.

Three completely different books, with completely different approaches to Science and Culture–but all three are examples of old school, pure Sci-Fi. The thread that connects them isn't only the science but the realism of the possibilities entailed. So when looking for a quality book, full of thought provoking issues and deeply affective stories, check out the Sci-Fi section.

What's your favorite Sci-Fi book? Do you believe there is a difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction? Does realism of possibility appeal to you and does it add to the story?

To Infinity and Beyond!


About this post’s author:

Pavarti K Tyler, Marketing Department DirectorPavarti is a member of the Novel Publicity Team as a PR Campaign Manager. She also provides content editing as a consultant or for her Novel Pub clients. Her unique experience as a dramaturge, both on and off Broadway, has provided her the opportunity to work closely with many playwrights and directors, allowing Pavarti to consider both the literary and audience perspective. Pavarti K Tyler’s novel Two Moons of Sera is a Fantasy/Romance and is being released in a serial format. Her next novel Shadow on the Wall is scheduled for release in early 2012. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.


Jerald Blackstock

I grew up with Heinlein and Asimov, who to me, seem to discuss future social change based on technology and science, as they were engineers and scientists. I like the space travel adventure stories that are escape and romance but they are mostly cowboy on the frontier with a different landscape, and the rest seem to be Frankenstein redone with space suits….. The Firefly and Star Trek series are good examples…basically America finds a new frontier and shoots the natives again……The absolute best tho is William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, which anticipated a culture based on something called ‘cyberspace’ and Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and his Dog. Dune just ripped off Hinduism and put it on a space ship, as did Star Wars….*shrug* nothing new there….

    Pavarti K Tyler

    Gibson is fantastic, I really enjoy his take on sci-fi. I’d say DUNE had more Islamic underpinnings than Hindu, but yes a lot of it is a pull from existing cultures.

Eliza Green

Sci fi is embedded in reality using science and technology and the possibilities of live beyond the stars to provide an alternative future. Science fantasy encorporates elements that are unexplainable, such as magic.

A girl that likes Sci Fi? Yes, but I’ve loved it since I was old enough to appreciate it. V the mini series (1983), Firefly and Dollhouse were great science fiction adventures. Moon was a great film. Book wise, I really enjoyed Suzanne Collins’s vision of a dystopia Earth in ‘The Hunger Games.’

    Pavarti K Tyler

    I am a big Joss Whedon fan. I’m not sure Firefly counts as Sci-Fi but Dollhouse definitely does. That was such a cool show, really different and had such interesting potential. It’s too bad the most interesting episodes were the last 3 of the series.

Marjorie F. Baldwin

Pavarti, great article!! I have two things to say:

1) you exactly defined The Phoenician Series here:

If done well a Science Fiction novel will include not only technology but psychology, anthropology and sociology: creating some of the most realistic and fleshed out cultures that have ever existed in fiction.

2) I never knew Octavia Butler wrote SF. I knew she was a phenomenal Fantasy genre writer (never read her stuff cause I LOATHE fantasy but I know she’s a good writer; I’d have to have been dead not to have noticed one of the few women–and a black woman at that!–writing in the SF/F genre during my formative teenaged years. Now I’ll have to check out “Lilith’s Brood” (besides, I named a hybrid human/Phoenician character in a later book of The Phoenician Series “Lilleth” so now I HAVE to see what Butler’s “Lilleth” is like! That coincidence is just too amazing. Thank you so much for turning me onto this book!


p.s. did you see the awesome cover Sessha Batto made for me yesterday? It’s on the Facebook Page. I love it!

    Pavarti K Tyler

    Thanks! I’ll have to check out Phoenician! I didn’t see the new cover, I’ll go look now.


      Interested to know why Firefly does not count as Sci-Fi. As it has all elements you have outlined in your article.

      Sounds a bit of Hogwash to me.


        This was for comment above but caused by browser time travel.

Allan Douglas

I totally agree. Sci-Fi is supposed to be SCIENCE fiction, fantasy, paranormal, and horror all have their place, but for me to be good Sci-Fi the science has to be plausible and central. I grew up on AC Clarke, Asimov, Ben Bova, Heinlein, Pohl, and I thought the Dune series was an amazing read. Too bad the movie stunk so badly!!

    Pavarti K Tyler

    The movie was terrible, but did you see the MiniSeries BBC did? They got all the way through Children of Dune and it was amazingly well done. Definitely check it out if you get a chance. It’s long but worth it and their treatment of Leto II is fantastic.

Brian Kirk

One of the questions that I’ve always had when writing/editing sci-fi is just how much science needs to be presented within the text. I’ve never been a fan of huge blocks of science-infused narration, and when done clumsily really sounds bad. How much do we really need to know about the hyperdrive component of a ship’s engine? Do I as a reader need to understand the cultural complexities of the dylithium trade that enabled the manufacture of the plug that allows the engine to work in zero gravity? Or is it more important to understand what that technology has done to the characters in the story? That hyperdrive tech allows the captain to only be away from his wife for weeks at a time instead of months, negating the need to visit the alien whore houses on Titan… That seems to be the more poignant use of words…
Just a thought. Great post!

    Brian Kirk

    Insert “, it” after clumsily… I forgot to read before publishing the comment…

    Marjorie "Friday" Baldwin


    Infusing science into a Science Fiction Novel is the same as doing any kind of “infodump” into any kind or genre of fiction. It really shouldn’t be done in a way that tells the reader “I’m lecturing to you.” Neither should it be in a “Say, Bob….” (where one character says “Say, did you know that…” and proceeds to explain to another character the same infodump style boring expositive crap)

    Robert J. Sawyer is one of the best since Robert A. Heinlein to infuse good, solid science into stories without your even knowing he’s making it up. I mean, he blurs the lines between reality, possibility and his personal speculations in such a phenomenal way you really cannot tell where the lines are. FACTORING HUMANITY is one where he gets down to the discussion of amino acids in a DNA chain (the characters happen to be genetic researchers) and HE MADE IT ALL UP!!! It blew my mind. Genetic engineering happens to be one of my favorite areas of science to infuse into my books.

    I wrote an article as a guest blog for Ben Wallace back in August of last year:


    That actually has the kind of conversational tone illustrating how one might simply “talk” about science without doing a “Say, Bob…” or boring infodump. I discuss in that guest blog a form of modeling thought after the mechanical neural networks that were being developed in the 1970s and 1980s (which is when I was writing these books originally). Then I actually describe an “Adjustment” and the “going into someone’s mind” and how it “looks” to the person doing the Adjustment in the end of Chapter 2 I think it is. The chapters are on my blog for the series. Check them out. You’ll see a bit of science, justified and fully-explained to the point of being possible to explain theoretical science, and it will (I hope and I am thus far being told) be totally seamless in its integration with the plot and character development.

    That’s the key. In my books anyway, the science is part of WHO these people are, not WHAT they do or say. Check it out on the Phoenician Series Blog


    Pavarti K Tyler

    That’s exactly the trick to good sci-fi! The info dump is bad and to be avoided here as much as in any other genre, but the intricacies of the science inform and direct the actions of characters. It’s so very easy to get wrong, but when it’s done right it will shine.

Dianna L. Gunn

I’m a girl who loves science fiction but isn’t well enough grounded in science to write the genre. Instead I write fantasy for exactly the reason it’s different from science fiction: my imagination is the only limit.

That said, someday I hope to write science fiction, and I do in fact have an idea swirling around inside my head.

My favourite science fiction book? As a kid I loved the copy of I, Robot by Asimov that my uncle gave me, and I’ve loved many other science fiction books over the years, but I don’t think I can claim one favourite.

Crystal Lee

I agree with your definitions completely. I’m picky about the science fiction stories I read. I’m even pickier about the stories I choose to write.

Now, to answer your question–I have two favorites to mention. As a kid my favorite science fiction story was The Girl Who Owned the City by O. T. Nelson. Absolutely loved it. I enjoyed it so much I read it to my own kids. They liked it as well.

As a teenager my favorite science fiction book was A Brave New World by Alduous Huxley. It’s still probably my favorite to this day. And for the reasons you stated: it explore issues of philosophy, religion and culture.

Yes! Is there anything more thought provoking than that? That’s when science fiction is at its best and it’s what I look for in a book. It’s what I aspire to write in my science fiction stories as well.

I have Octavia Butler’s books on my ‘To Read List’ but didn’t have Dune or Battlefield Earth. I’ll definitely have to get those as well. Thanks for the suggestions. I’m very intrigued by your short descriptions. Thank you so much for a wonderful article. Loved it!

Crystal Lee


    Crystal, yes, BNW is one of the absolute classics! I love it! One of my personal favs is also Stranger in a Strange Land, although one could make the argument that it’s Speculative Fiction not Sci-Fi. Let me know what you think when you read the ones I recommended! I’d love to hear your thoughts, esp on Battlefield Earth. Everyone laughs at me but it really is great.

      Crystal Lee

      You know, when I talk to people who’ve read a Brave New World I get a look. Not a ‘Oooh! I love that book!’ look, but the variety of ‘That book is perverse and controversial. You liked it?’ It annoys me because it says right in the title the word Brave. The story is bold and beautiful in the tragedy of it all. It is such a great story its plot and themes have stuck with me for years. That’s really saying something.

      I will definitely tell you what I think when I read the other books you sugested. Thanks. I actually already have Stranger in a Strange Land on my iPod so it’s also on my ‘To Read List.’ As for Battlefield Earth, I probably won’t laugh since as I said, I get crazy looks already when I tell people the scifi books I enjoy. If a story is unique enough I can get past what other people might find ridiculous.

        Marjorie F. Baldwin

        You know, it’s funny, but I’ve loved Science Fiction all my life and it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that my mother admitted (yes, Crystal, “admitted”) she had read and loved BNW, as though it was something to be ashamed of. Now, understand that I’m “old” so my mother was born in 1923 and when Huxley wrote / released BNW it was her “era” => she read the book because it was assigned reading for her English class!!! If ONLY people still assigned SF books to high schoolers in 2012 (sigh)

        Here’s another funny side note, Stranger in a Strange Land is my least favorite Heinlein and it was HIS least favorite book–it’s also the least representative of his work, his style, his voice, his philosophies or his interests. He argued with his publisher over Stranger for six (count ’em 6!!) years hanranguing them to release Starship Troopers, which was a true labor of love for him (being a Navy man) but it was the 60s and they figured “free love” was a better message to send out into the commercial world than “anti war” which is why it hung up for 6 years. Heinlein didn’t write Troopers to be “anti war” but to make people understand war.

        Anyway, all of that discussion about 2 books I’ve “lived with” all my life (and read both a half dozen times, though I’ve lost count) made me think of my #1 all-time favorite Heinlein: The Door Into Summer. It was one of his very early works and is still today (I think) one of the best gadgetry stories and time-travel stories ever written. Part of that is because the main character is an engineer but it was in DiS that Heinlein created so many of his later “standard” facets to his “future history.” The batteries that never ran out of power, the houses that designed themselves, the robots that Asimov went off and redesigned (LOL – I kid you not, the two men were at Los Alamos together working on the Manhattan Project and they shared story ideas and both wrote some of their later published works while there–DiS and Asimov’s robots were conceived at Los Alamos)

        I think I also fell a little in love with Pete, the Cat 🙂 or maybe it was Dan the Engineer. Or the fact that a man would live in a house with 11 doors and patiently open every last one for his cat to prove that none of them leads to summer when it’s dead of winter out 🙂 DiS definitely set the standard for Heinlein’s really rich characterizations. Highly recommend adding it to your TBR list though I don’t know if it’s in e-form anywhere 🙁


Marjorie F. Baldwin

Just wanted to come back and follow up. I did actually read Octavia Butler’s trilogy, Lilith’s Brood. It was eerie how she and I wrote our books at the same time (in the 1980s) and we seemed to have sooooo many of the same elements–executed differently, of course, as we’re different writers, with different voices, and different styles (and I’ve edited mine in 2011/2012 so I must be influenced by my present mind and world) but I was floored by how much she and I both were influenced by similar “signs of the times.” I’m guessing we were both influenced by similar things anyway, because I never read her before, never met her or spoke to anyone about her (she being a fantasy author in my mind and me, not being a fantasy reader)

I wrote little mini-reviews into my statuses on Goodreads as I read the book and dropped the rating down from 5 to 4 and would make it a 3.5 if I could but I don’t want to drop it to 3 so I left it at 4 stars. It’s not quite that high. There are a lot of things I don’t like about the story, several AuthorConvenient things I wouldn’t have expected from a writer of Butler’s calibre–and I saw her quality of skill at work in this trilogy. She’s as phenomenal a writer as Orson Scott Card (who’s totally enthralled by Butler’s fantasy storytelling skills) ever said she was; all the more reason she of all people should not have copped out and gone with the easy fixes, easy caricatures instead of fully-developing the characters. Some of them. It was also way to “in your face” that all of the most-significant events occurring to humans and humanity happened to involve “Lilith” and her “brood.” I guess I’m more of a mind to creating a world that is more believeable. I didn’t even really envision her world, let alone believe it.

All those gripes aside, I really enjoyed reading that trilogy, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who’s never read Butler before. It’s a pretty good intro to her work. Oh, it is NOT science fiction, though. There’s no SCIENCE in it. She never once gets even remotely close to discussing the science (genetic engineering) or how exactly she thinks it would work. There has to be science for it to be science fiction. It’s a very nice piece of speculative fantasy though.

(check out #ThrillerThursday today for #novelines from some of the more “killer” scenes of the forthcoming Conditioned Response – I set up auto-tweets every 2 hrs for 18 hrs, from 5am to midnight – yay, Hootsuite!)

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