Science Fiction is space, aliens, robots, time travel, and tight plastic white jumpsuits with broad shoulders and no pockets (post-scarcity means post-functionality) – right? Most of the time science fiction is labeled by what it has in it. This is important, but it is not the only thing that makes it Science Fiction (SF).
On the surface, science fiction seems self-descriptive. It is a story utilizing a fictional science. But even this definition asks the question of the degree to which the science is fictional. Is it a few years away, or, at least, a theoretically possible science? This is the problem cited by many critics when it comes to differentiating Star Wars as space opera instead of science fiction – that the light sabers are not possible and it is essentially a world of magic in space. What counts as “theoretically possible,” however, does change from time to time, and so I hesitate to use this as the sticking point for defining SF. Limiting SF to technology also blocks aliens from SF so we have to look instead at how the science is being utilized, often that will manifest as technology.
Instead, I think the question with the technology or idea being used is the role that it plays in the story. The differentiating factor is not what is being used but how it is being used. SF analyzes and questions what it is to be human through manipulating the current technological and ideological landscape (like warp drive or genetic engineering) and scientific unknowns (like aliens or black holes – when they were unknowns) of our world.
First let us break down “technology.” One could invoke Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quotation: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So – why can’t magic be considered SF? Aren’t they just a sufficiently advanced technology? I think a useful example could be looking at the wizards from the Lord of the Rings (Fantasy) versus the Q Continuum in Star Trek (SF). The Q are still based in a universe that utilizes the physical laws and wave off any questioning about their abilities with a wave of the hand and some spacey-timey-wimey explanation that is far too above the heads of these mere mortals. In short, the Q abilities are steeped in the possibilities of the science as we know it today – they reference space-time, not an ability that is born into a select race of beings in Middle Earth.
I included ideological landscape in an attempt to create a space for Godzilla and The Dispossessed and the space to discuss novels like Man in the High Castle. The Dispossessed is not a future history or attempt at predicting the future for humans. It is a way of taking the alien view, something that SF can do uniquely. It can cast our point of view into a mind and thought process decoupled from our preconceptions about certain cultures and histories. Godzilla does the same kind of thing by invoking indeed a fictional science with a not possible dinosaur lizard – but neither of those are the point of the story. These fictions exist to create physical manifestations of our objects under discussion and cast our POV into one decoupled from the War. Man in the High Castle is a counter history but allows us to cast our minds in a different world – maybe this is speculative fiction?
The manipulation can create the universe in which these actors make their decisions (think travelling on a starship in Star Trek where it is not the technology that is always the object under analysis but it creates the world in which the questions of humanity are explored) or it can play the role of a protagonist or antagonist creating a conversation of how humans use the product of their unique (on this world) mental and physical abilities (think Terminator or Godzilla or Frankenstein where the technological creation questions human nature in contrast to artificial creation or what our responsibility is to our created knowledge).
SF does not need to take place in the future, it does not need to take place in space. It is not a setting so much as an idea. Why is the definition important? Why do I, personally, correct the difference between Science Fiction and fantasy and or between Science Fiction and Space Opera? Science fiction does more than just deal with a science or technology that we as a society to not yet have – it critically analyzes that item and asks us what it means to be human. That is my definition of science fiction: a story that puts the human in a place that makes them reevaluate their place in the universe and their own definitional boundaries. It is a story that puts our existing definitions of what it means to be human in the highest cost-benefit scenario. You can choose to stick to your principles but you will risk a higher chance of annihilating the entire human species – or you stick to your guns in the face of it all. It is under these events that we truly define what it means to be human, or deconstruct it entirely.