A science fiction book explores the what is possible or could be possible by the use of scientific extrapolation. Four story elements define the genre.
A science fiction book is defined by its setting.
A science fiction book is heavily weighted by a trope(s) or sci-fi element(s) in the book.
All setting and story elements in a science fiction book are relayed through a character.
Unlike many other genres, a science fiction book may or may not have a happy ending.
The Multiverse and Unexplored Planets
When you think of a science fiction book, what setting does the story take place in?
You may think of a rocket ship landing on a volcanic planet swirling in ash and hot gasses. Or a futuristic Earth civilization brought to its knees by an artificial technology that has decided that humans are inefficient. Or an orbiting space station where humans and aliens trade Xeno credits for Doskorian wine.
In other words, each setting exists due to a technology. So it’s a matter of extrapolating something in the here-and-now into the future to create that setting. Or time travel into the past for a comparison.
Not that this technology necessarily exists now. Or if it does exist, the real-world technology is not used in a fictional way. Maybe the technology could never exist. That’s not really the point.
In other words, the technology provides an illusion of what could be possible to create a new world. Its wish fulfillment (or a warning) grounded in scientific extrapolation.
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow satisfies readers of dystopian science fiction books. It’s a near-future setting that exists creepily too close to our own reality.
What makes this police state possible is surveillance technology. Every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. Certainly a warning. However, it’s a science fiction book that also scratches the itch to take down an overbearing system.
Dark Matter and Time Travel
Near Earth. Star spanning. Galaxy spanning. Faster than light. Aliens. Alien planets. Time travel. What do they all have in common?
They are tropes, literary devices that reappear again and again.
Tropes are powerful. Any time one of the listed ones (above) appears, that book is almost always labeled as science fiction. It’s difficult for us to disconnect the story from the genre. The reader automatically applies the science fiction label to the book.
However, this isn’t always the case. Tropes don’t always turn the book into sci-fi. For instance, say that you are reading a time travel romance. What genre would you label this book?
If you said romance, you’d be right.
Despite the time travel element, the book would contain such a strong romantic plot that science fiction readers may search out other bookshelves for different story. But falling in love with an eighteenth century duke or duchess sure makes for a fun read.
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates classical tropes used in a science fiction book. A journey to Mars, aliens and interplanetary wars. Without a doubt, this story oozes sci-fi genre.
Fact: Kurt Vonnegut used his prisoner of war experience to write a bestselling book.
Arthur Dent Hitches a Ride
Aliens act in ridiculous ways. And Arthur Dent sees every flaw.
Paper-pushing Vogons won’t act on emergencies without a signature. A two-headed Galactic President’s steals a prototype ship because he might be bored. Or something. And hyper-intelligent beings try to dissect Arthur’s brain.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams serves as a great example of setting through character.
Through Arthur, we see everything with his fresh eyes. This allows him to relay information to the reader with his selected details. Details that interest Arthur. And he will be sure to give you an opinion.
Why even write an electronic guide titled, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Better ask Ford Prefect. The answers seems silly to one of the last surviving humans. And geez, Ford. Did you really think that Earth’s dominant life form was an automobile?
What if the story was told from the viewpoint of the paper-pushing Vogons? Chapter One would have us sitting in their spaceship waiting on Earth’s final countdown. Jeltz remains unsympathetic to humans, disorganized creatures who were notified about an intergalactic bypass years ago. Didn’t they read the paperwork?
The altered version of the book would conclude at chapter one. A higher level Vogon didn’t authorize a second chapter.
New Wave Science Fiction Paves a Way
The hero always wins in the end. Or does he? Does she always win?
By the 1960s, writers began to change that. Harlan Ellison comes to mind. Have you read, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream?” It’s a classic example of New Wave sci-fi. The main character remains alive at the end, but…
Fact: Harlan Ellison voice acted animated characters in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
In other words, New Wave science fiction writers moved away from a prescribed happily-ever-after. And for a while, it resonated with readers. But eventually science fiction book sales declined. And readers moved away from the fad.
The horror genre offers great examples of twists on happily-ever-after. Good conquers evil…for now. The lesser evil remains. A shred of hope for the future. This is kinda, sorta where darker New Wave sci-fi goes. The movie series with Warrant Officer Ripley plays into this.
Odd John by Olaf Stapledon is an older example of pre-New Wave science fiction.
John is a superhuman. He’s also not exactly likable. But he’s interesting for sure. He recognizes his superior abilities and sets himself apart from other humans.
The book works up to a somewhat unhappy ending for the observed character. I won’t give it away. But a reader might expect that this is the type of concluding dilemma from New Wave.