The Science of Science Fiction–J. Grace Pennington

KATIE WRITES: Last year during SpecFicThing I had a few people complain because their beloved Star Wars was picked on in a discussion regarding the definition of SciFi. Everyone knows that controversy sells, so guess what? We’re doing it again! “Science Fiction or Science Fantasy” is a debate almost as heated as “Star Wars or Star Trek” and Miss Pennington is very strongly in the “Science Fantasy” camp. However, in this post she’s not as much picking on the much-picked-upon trilogy as much as using it as an example in a much more important (and equally unending) discussion–what is science fiction? Whatever your stance on the issue I hope you enjoy this analysis of what science fiction should be (and what it isn’t) and walk away with new thoughts!


Star-Wars-Poster“Science fiction is that prose narrative treating of a situation which could not arise in the world we know but which is theorized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology.” ~ Kingsley Amis

“Fantasy is the impossible made probable, science-fiction is the improbable made possible.” ~ Rod Serling

Pop quiz! Which of these things is not like the others?

1. Star Trek
2. I, Robot
3. Wall-E
4. Stargate
5. Doctor Who
6. Star Wars

Baffled? No, it’s not the animated Wall-E, nor the adaptation I, Robot, nor the British Doctor Who–it is the famous and popular Star Wars. Why? Because unlike the other five classics, Star Wars is not science fiction.

Whatever your chosen definition for sci-fi, most would agree that it is best when the speculative elements of the story are at least somewhat scientific. While some fans defend lightsabers, very few would label the Force as a possible, or even probable, story element (though I heard that in Scotland the Jedi are legally allowed to perform weddings, but I digress…).

In Star Wars, the entire story revolves around the Force. Using the Force, being chosen by the Force, the will of the Force. But the Force itself, despite gobbledygook about midichlorians, is pure fantasy. Starships, robots, and even stargates and time travel are grounded at least somewhat in science. Maybe flimsy science, but science nonetheless. I love Star Wars as much as the next nerd (as evidenced by the huge, full-color, glossy live Star Wars soundtrack orchestra program hidden amongst my chocolate stash) but it isn’t science-fiction. Call it space opera, space fantasy, or just plain fantasy — but it’s too far from any true scientific speculation to fit the time-honored genre of making improbable things possible.

The best science fiction has always taken its scientific premise and built the story premise out of that. Is your story world about starships and boldly going where no man has gone before? Each episode should work outwards from that idea. Is it about robots with three laws that create a perfect circle of protection? The stories had better explore the three laws and the intricacies of robots in human society. If you have a trash-compacting robot, a stargate that connects you to other parts of the galaxy, or a blue box that takes you through time and space, then your stories need to not just include those aspects but be built around them.

As an example, I’ll use my unpublished novel Implant. (I haven’t talked about this in public before, so y’all get the first sneak peek! ) Implant is about… you got it, implants! Medical implants that can cure cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and any number of other diseases that currently baffle mankind. That’s the scientific premise. So as I build my story, should it be about a guy who falls in love with this girl but can’t date her because his dad and her dad are rival CEOs for different furniture companies? Or should it be about how the power of the implants is being used to control world politics until things become so bad that the controls for the implants must be destroyed?

Personally, I’ll go with the second option. Not because the first wouldn’t be an interesting story, but in that case the scientific speculation lacks purpose — it hangs useless or at best weak in a story that really ought to be labeled a romantic comedy or a drama. In the second, the science is woven through the plot like a web, pulling it together into a coherent whole that can shape the reader’s thought and imagination as few other genres can.

By making your scientific otherness peripheral to your story, you are diminishing its power, relegating it to the position of a subplot, even stripping your story of true science-fiction status. Whereas by bringing it to center stage, you have a powerful platform from which to build a story that will span time from long ago in a galaxy far, far away, to the final frontier.

 photoAbout the Author: I’ve been telling stories as long as I can remember, and writing them down since about age five. I love science fiction because of the opportunities it affords to explore so many different themes and ideas, plus the fact that it’s just plain cool. I currently live in the beautiful Texas Hill Country with my parents, my eight younger siblings, and my horse Pioneer, and when I’m not writing I enjoy reading good books, playing soundtracks on the piano, and looking up at the stars.

Visit her blog at, like her Facebook page at, or follow her on twitter @jgracetheauthor.

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