I’ve been asked that question a lot over the years and now that I’m an author, apparently, and I’ve started turning up on panels at conventions and stuff, it’s a question I’m hearing more and more.
The most obvious response is that it doesn’t really matter except to marketing people and the guys in Waterstones who have to decide which book goes on which shelf.
The important thing is internal consistency, and this applies whether you’re writing about made-up science or actual magic. You can invent a thing, which does a thing, but once you’ve established what thing it is at that the thing does, then THAT’S THE THING THAT THE THING DOES. Can’t have it suddenly do some other thing to get you out of a plot hole, whether it’s some bit of advanced gadgetry or a mystical amulet.
In the case of imaginary science there’s another obligation: one should try, wherever possible, not to contradict REAL science. Add to it, yeah, expand upon it in all manner of fanciful directions, but respect what’s already known, And YES, this sometimes means doing a bit of research (dum dum dummmm) but let’s be honest, in the age of Google and Wikipedia, “research” is not the chore it once was, so quit whingeing.
If I HAD to come up with a definition of science-fiction it’d be this: it’s a story which features some sort of fictitious technology, whether it’s supposed to be a product of an advanced alien society or a future human one. So The War Of The Worlds, for example, is STILL sci-fi even though it’s 117 years later and we know there are no Martians, because the Fighting Machines and the heat ray were imaginary bits of tech at the time (and still are).
It’s also entirely possible for SF to overlap with fantasy; a character in my new book Terra’s World (out now in hardback at all good etc.) dismisses Star Wars as “(not) really science fiction at all so much as heroic fantasy with spaceships and lasers”; I’d take issue with Billy Dolphin (for ’tis his name) there. I think the presence of the spaceships and lasers makes it sci-fi as WELL as heroic fantasy. After all, no-one obsesses about whether Alien is SF or horror (it’s both) or whether An American Werewolf In London is horror or comedy (ditto).
But here’s a puzzler; what about Gravity? Every review and listing I’ve seen for that film describes it as science-fiction. But it’s not, is it? It’s set in space, fair enough, but there’s no imaginary tech, is there? It’s all stuff that already exists in reality, even if Neil Tyson has pointed out a few scientific inaccuracies. Indeed, not only is it not set in the future, the fact that it concerns a disaster befalling a space shuttle mission means it’s actually set in the PAST (the shuttle program having been discontinued three years ago). Insisting a movie must by definition be sci-fi if it’s set in space is like reclassifying Titanic as a pirate movie because it happens on a boat…
Terra’s World is out in hardback 17 July. You can pre-order it for £12.20 at Amazon.co.uk.