One of the things you soon learn around science fiction is that there are so many different of them around. Also, you often see that people tend to be in two categories: The ones, who really like them. And those that dislike them or just find them weightless. (No pun intended 🙂 )
As an analytical type, who likes science fiction, I always tried to understand how this works and developed my personal view on it. I will try to shortly summarize it here.
First of all, I used the word styles in the title and not categories. Main reasons being that there are no strict boundaries and I don’t want to build comparisons and relationships. A second important fact before I begin is that we should analyse individual stories and not directly the author. An author may write in multiple styles. Even at the same time.
Without fanfares, here are my styles:
- “Hardcore” hard science fiction: In the hardcore version of this genre, the author does everything to stay within the limits of contemporary known science. These are stories that could happen technically. Technology may not be at practical use level yet, or the needed cooperation is missing to achieve something big, but these are realistic possibilities for our future. Many concepts may and probably will become a reality. One of the best known authors who wrote in the style, who is also among my favourites, is Arthur C. Clarke. He used satellite communication systems when technology was occupied with bringing objects up into space. It takes a lot of effort to write in the hardcode style as it has many constraints. Because of the technical details and often jargon, technically alligned people prefer these.
- Hard science fiction: Yes, I did divide these two and the reason is hidden in the strictness and goals. What I call hard science fiction, is a story that allows one or a few scientific or technical possibilities where it deviates from known science. It is needed to be able to set up the story, but the author will do whatever possible to take into consideration these added items and keep the story believable. So you added graviton-laser into your story to set up a special warfare. Fine, but don’t forget what other effects it may have! Hard science fiction stories are usually thought experiments. What would happen in various situations? What if we take certain situations to the extreme? They may include fictional science or technology, but in general, they have to be believable.
- Geeky science fiction: These are the stories that include a lot of tech talk, but only make moderate or no attempt to make it exact, or to look at all perspectives and consequences. The Star Trek franchise is probably the best known in this category. I guess about an average of 10% of dialogues are spent on scanning things and planning to do something. Everybody explains loud and clear what button they are just touching and why. You hear a lot about rerouting, synchronizing, aligning, deflecting etc. a myriad of fields, particles and beams. Is this bad? Of course not! These stories are about having fun in a sci-fi environment and let us feel that when there is a problem, we should start thinking out of the box. A lot of things are simplified and not explained, but this makes it more digestible for the non techies as well. With nearly all conscious beings looking like humans except for some makeup and hairdo, you can introduce a lot of different societies that can easily interact with us without the need to invent so many different species and bother with details like communication and biological needs.
- Human science fiction: Without a better word, I call human science fiction the stories that concentrate on human identity and behaviour. Psychology, sociology, history, ethics, religions, philosophy etc. These stories happen in a sci-fi world simply because the author wants to break away from our learned reactions and let us approach a situation with fewer preconceptions. It helps us see minutae that we usually leap over by habit. In these stories, the science fiction part is just a background, like the props on the theatre stage. Nobody expects real background on the stage. What matters, is the unfolding story and situation driven by the actors. My favourite author in the field is Frank Herbert. The six Dune books, the Destination:Void books or the ConSentiency books are all about human (or may just say sentient) behaviour. Herbert built complex sci-fi universes, but he never wanted to dwell on technical details.
- Story driven science fiction: A large portion of stories on the market fall into this category. They may or may not include tech talk, but in general, they are loose on science and are just stories happening in a futuristic world. Just as most historical fiction books won’t depict life as it really used to be at the time.
Of course, there are other well-defined styles as well, but the above will cover most of the books you will find. We have stories that mix science fiction with magic, science fiction with fantasy or paranormal, etc. As I mentioned above, one main reason I chose to use styles instead of categories, is that these are not strict. They can mix and some authors may write in multiple ones. Still, I think it helps to describe the goals and general style of each science fiction story in a few words.
Is any style better than the other? Of course not. As usual, all depend on what you expect from the story. You can explain whole philosophies and view on history without technical details, or you can have a story close to a scientific paper.
One final thought, as I don’t want to make this too long in a single post.
I often met demeaning remarks about science fiction. It being just nonsense mumbo jumbo of adolescent minds. I think this mostly stems from the above variety and expectations. Are you living in the word of classical dramas? Don’t get into geeky science fiction as it will give you the shivers. A human science fiction, on the other hand, may grab your attention. Are you a scientist spending most of your wake hours in equations and articles? Avoid geeky or story driven stories. Grab a hard science fiction or hardcore science fiction book and you may find your mind racing into new possibilities. It may even help in your work.
Whether you want a movie while you eat your bowl of popcorn, want to stretch your mind on technical or scientific problems and possibilities, or want to understand humans better, you can find the story that will satisfy you. As with every other one, science fiction is a genre and not quality.
Have something to add or see something differently? Please, share your thoughts here.