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 Emlyn 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.


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