Science fiction is a form of literature that includes some form of speculation as to a possible scientific or technological discovery, invention, or project that has not yet come to pass at the time of writing. Such a project is usually, but not always, intended as a metaphor for an unsettling social change, or a vehicle to introduce a discussion of such change. A speculative project may, but does not necessarily, violate the laws of nature as most scientists understand them. A speculative discovery may be either a new scientific law, or a revision of an existing law, or of an object, substance, environment, or even an entire civilization previously unknown to man.
Alternatively, it may explore the implications of a kind of sentient being, society or civilization that is significantly different from any with which we are familiar at the time of writing. Such a kind would be a radical departure from anything that remotely resembles a human being, or the societies or civilizations that human beings have built.
It is notably difficult to define what is and isn't Sci-Fi as such stories can be set in the future, present or past, and on alien worlds, alternate forms of Earth or even Earth as it is or was historically. Even defining Sci-Fi as being a medium that contains at its core scientific or technological concepts that are used to either define, drive or resolve the story is inaccurate enough that, as a description, it would include such works as Bones, CSI, etc.; which are notably not Science Fiction works. An oft running joke amongst Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiasts is that while a fan struggles to provide an accurate description of what Science Fiction is and isn't, they still know Science Fiction when they see it.
History of Science Fiction
Science Fiction is a genre of art that deals with concepts of mankind set against the extra ordinary or the fantastic. Magic, space travel, time travel, aliens, teleportation, mind control, interdimensional travel, and other things that are all totally at odds with what mankind "knows" is scientifically possible, are used in many way to display ideas of the artist.
Modern science fiction as most people understand it today began in 1818 with the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. However, examples of writing that are arguably science fiction are found in the 17th century with writers such as Kepler, John Wilkins, Athanasius Kircher, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Bishop Francis Godwin, with their works dealing with a protagonist traveling to the moon and exploring that area, and each work containing and based on speculations of the development of science and technology going on what was known about those subjects in the authors' days. However, it is the 16th century that what is indisputably a work of science fiction in the modern sense can be found. The work is Sir Thomas More's "Utopia", first published in 1551, and is a work that even today is referenced in science fiction writings. It was the 19th century that saw the growth of science fiction writing with various works by Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe, and with the novel The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. These works mainly were warnings to a brash mankind that some avenues of scientific investigation would be better left unexplored. The projects resulting from them, however much good they might promise, inevitably bring harm upon the investigator, those closest to him, and any number of innocent bystanders. This applies even to Jules Verne and his works (such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon), because the heroes in them almost always come to sad ends. However, science fiction as a literary work was known even to the Ancient Greeks with the works of "Lucian's True History" and the story of Icarus.
Many of these works are also explorations of human psychology, or of philosophical questions regarding what man is. Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, for example, investigates the problem of good and evil, and of the conflict between these forces within an individual.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Herbert George Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs sounded similar dark themes in their work. But their warnings were less about someone investigating something he shouldn't and more about possible dire futures for human civilization and the planet itself. Wells' The Time Machine is the best illustration of this concept. Wells also was among the first to speculate on extraterrestrial attacks upon the earth, with his classic The War of the Worlds (1898).
Many early science fiction novels used the idea of time travel to promote "futiristic" socialist ideas. Examples include The Time Machine (which is a subliminal criticism of the class system) and Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy (which was written in 1887 but is primarily set in the year 2000 in a socialist utopia). However, this category has almost entirely disappeared in recent times. The general idea of using science fiction has continued to a lesser extent though, such as Robert Heinlein's 1960's libertarian-themed novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
The twentieth century saw science fiction become far less serious in its purpose. The works of Hugo Gernsback and others were intended merely to entertain and amuse—in other words, to help the reader escape an unpleasant reality. But reality would soon reimpose itself on the imaginations of science-fiction writers. The nuclear attack on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki inspired many writers to create monsters (Godzilla, Rodan, etc.) of tremendous size and destructive power comparable to the power of nuclear weapons. Other writers speculated anew on the harms that can result from playing fast and loose with dangerous new forces—in this case, atomic radiation. The deepening mutual scorn in which the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics held one another, originally inspired works featuring extraterrestrial expeditionary forces coming to the earth to make war upon humanity (or occasionally to catch humanity in the crossfire). Later writers, editors, and producers, like Gene Roddenberry (of Star Trek fame), would speculate that humanity would expand on new voyages of discovery, only to end up fighting with enemies that looked and behaved very similarly to whatever power was foreign to the writer's nation-state of origin. This era would also see the writing of the Dune series of novels by Frank Herbert, in which humanity would expand throughout a vast region of the universe, only to divide into interstellar and trans-galactic versions of the civilizations then extant in the 1960s, and even have conflicts over natural resources that closely mirror the struggle for control of such resources, chiefly petroleum, today.
Eventually, however, this theme would give way to hopeful tales of God-substitutes promising to solve all humanity's problems, if humanity's leaders were smart enough not to provoke such people to war. However, George Lucas, borrowing heavily from mythologycal archetypes, and somewhat from Frank Herbert's concepts for Dune, would create a story arc (Star Wars) set in a far-distant galaxy that, as he now reveals, is a metaphor for his perception of the War in Vietnam and the role (which in Lucas' view is not flattering) of the United States of America in the civilized world today. In the process, Lucas combined the technological prowess shown by producer Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey with the production values and sensibilities of the science-fiction B movies of the 1950s and 1960s to create the special-effects-laden "blockbuster" formula that dominates motion pictures today.
Science fiction and evolutionism influencing one another
H. G. Wells' work is the best example of prevailing paradigms of scientific consensus influencing science fiction. The meme of evolution was quite strong in Wells' day, and this surely must have informed his projection of the evolution of man and of civilization into the dire picture he painted in The Time Machine.
The 1950s saw several films that borrowed plot-themes from evolution. Many of them used atavism (the retrogression of a species, or even an individual, to a stage of macro-evolution several epochs in the past) as a plot-theme. Although many of these projects more properly belong to the genre called horror (from the Latin horreo I shudder), they all had a strong science-fiction element, using as they did a form of speculation on the progress (or alleged possible regress) of evolution.
In that same era, the author Larry Niven created a story arc that began millions of years before the present with an apocalyptic war that destroyed every thinking being of the period. Life, presumably, had to re-evolve after that, but artifacts of that war—some of them very dangerous—remained.
More recently, science fiction appears to have influenced "real-life" speculation. The Crick and Orgel theory of directed panspermia involves an obvious science-fiction device, namely a brace of interstellar or even intergalactic missiles and an extraterrestrial civilization to build and launch them. Crick and Orgel, in turn, influenced the successors of Gene Roddenberry to tell a story of the contact, on the part of humanity and its allied civilizations, with the very civilization that fired such a brace of missiles at earth and other worlds.
Even more recently than this, Carl Sagan wrote a novel (Contact) in which he openly speculated on how the first "contact" with extraterrestrial explorers or "ambassadors" might unfold. This novel was subsequently adapted into a film.
Faith-based science fiction
At first glance, such a concept might seem oxymoronic. However, a writer of science fiction might choose to limit his speculations strictly to those for which a Scriptural warrant exists, and to create a character or characters whose abiding faith informs their decisions and actions. A writer might also project his characters into a world that the Bible or creation science might predict, and evolutionary science might declare impossible.
Plot-themes of recent faith-based science-fiction works have involved time travel, either real or virtual, to past human environments, for example to Jerusalem before its destruction by a Roman general or even to the civilization that might have existed shortly before the Great Flood. Eschatology is possibly the most frequent theme in Christian science fiction today. Television producer Glen A. Larson, in 1978, developed a short-lived series suggested by key tenets of his own Mormon faith.
Beyond these examples, a science-fiction writer might create an entirely artificial religious system and set stories in it. This raises the question of where science fiction ends and the larger category of speculative fiction, that might or might not include the treatment of a scientific invention or development, begins.
Cyberpunk stories, as pioneered by William Gibson, often take place in a dystopian near-future setting, usually populated mostly by criminals of one sort or another. These stories usually revolve around a hacker or similar anti-hero, often working for only their own good.
Hard science fiction stories usually place a lot of emphasis on possible technology, and scientific accuracy.
Soft science fiction stories, on the other hand, focus more on the human side of things.
Notable Science Fiction Series
- Future History - Robert Heinlein
- The Foundation series - Isaac Asimov
- The Star Wars Films - George Lucas
- The Star Wars novels (currently numbering in excess of 130) - Various Authors
- The Ringworld series - Larry Niven
- The Gap series - Stephen Donaldson
- The Lensman series - E.E. "Doc" Smith
- The Skylark series - E.E. "Doc" Smith
- 2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
- Doctor Who - Various Authors, Writers, etc.
- Star Trek (original and all spin-offs) - Gene Roddenberry and Various
- Hoka - Poul Anderson
- The Psychotechnic League - Poul Anderson
- Tomorrow's Children - Poul Anderson
- Technic History - Poul Anderson
- Time Patrol - Poul Anderson
- History of Rustum - Poul Anderson
- Maurai - Poul Anderson
- Kith - Poul Anderson
- Harvest of Stars - Poul Anderson
- The Forge of God series - Greg Bear
- Battlestar Galactica - Glen Larson and Ronald D. Moore
- Blake's 7 - Terry Nation
- Farscape - Rockne S. O'Bannon
- Babylon 5 - J. Michael Straczynski
- Burns, Chris. "Lucas on Iraq war, 'Star Wars'." CNN, May 16, 2005. Accessed March 12, 2008.
- Lucas, furthermore, stated that his "Galactic Empire" could be a metaphor for the United States in its current war in Iraq.
- Ingermanson, Randall Scott. The City of God Series, including Transgression, Premonition, and Retribution. Published by Bethany House Publishers in 2000, 2003, and 2004.
- Johnson, Shane. Ice: The Greatest Truths Lie in the Darkest Shadows. Waterbrook Press, 2002.
- See, for example, LaHaye, Timothy, and Jenkins, Jerry B. Left Behind: a Series of the Earth's Last Days. Published by Tyndale House Publishers from 1995 to the present.
- Lorenzen, Michael. "Battlestar Galactica and Mormonism. Publised on-line 2002. Accessed January 7, 2008.
- Leventry, Ellen. "Born again 'Battlestar': The Theology of 'Battlestar Galactica'." <http://www.beliefnet.com>. Accessed January 7, 2008.
- Editor unknown. "James McGrath on Religion and Science Fiction: An Interview." TheoFantastique. Accessed January 7, 2008.