Sci-Fi Circuit: What Makes It Sci-Fi?

Ender's Game

© 2012 – Summit Entertainment

I was indoctrinated into the world of sci-fi by my father at the tender age of nine, when he handed me my first sci-fi book, The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Right around the same time, I saw Star Wars.

I was hooked. Together, they changed my life.

No longer was my world limited to the known and the knowable.

It expanded into the realm of possibility, discovery, and exploration. The idea that there might be so much more than I could see and know was endlessly exciting.

Star Trek reruns, the original Battlestar Galactica series, and a steady stream of sci-fi novels were my salvation — the barest of bare minimums to tide me over until The Empire Strikes Back was released. George Lucas became like a god to me, delivering tales to satisfy this unending thirst for more.

I gobbled up sci-fi as fast as I could get my hands on it.

I lived inside Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books, read and re-read thrice over Marion Zimmer Bradley’s hybrid world of Darkover where magic and technology were interwoven, and fell in love again and again with the works of Orson Scott Card (his outstanding book Ender’s Game will be released as a motion picture in December 2013 – pictured above).

At some point, my hunger became a desire to create my own sci-fi. I got my hands on a copy of How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, and I still consider it to be a seminal work on the subject. (Since then Writer’s Digest released an updated hardback version here and an ebook version here.)

His comment about sci-fi and fantasy precisely encapsulates my abiding love for both genres: “… science fiction and fantasy are the genres in which stories can hew closest to the archetypes and myths that readers in all time and places have hungered for.”


Sci-fi and fantasy: both are “speculative fiction”

What’s always stayed present in my mind (even years later) is Card’s distinction between sci-fi and fantasy.

Because let’s face it, they are often lumped together — even in the title of his book!

And yet to me — to most of us paying attention, to be sure — they are quite different.

Card does a useful job of explaining WHY they’re often put together. Despite the fact that apparently in the publishing world, sci-fi and fantasy often function as separate animals, with different trade magazines, publishing departments, and labels, in the bookstore realms, they’re put together, because, as Card says, sci-fi and fantasy “have a largely author-driven market.” A reader wants to find all the books by a certain author together, not scattered pell-mell throughout the store.

Card explains this author-driven aspect behind this adroitly, saying, “Most of us who write speculative fiction turn with equal ease from fantasy to science fiction and back again.”

Of course we do.

On the other hand, on the movie shelves we see both sci-fi and fantasy put together, sometimes with weird results. The other day I was on and noticed they’d categorized “Once Upon a Time” as science fiction, something I’d never consider to be the case.

But I still like Card’s definition of them together as “speculative fiction.” He describes them this way because they both tend to be stories “that take place in worlds that never existed or are not yet known.”

He also says, “The intrinsic difference between speculative and real-world fiction is that speculative fiction must take place in an unknowable world. At some point, every science fiction and fantasy story must challenge the reader’s experience and learning.”

But what’s the difference between sci-fi and fantasy?
Does it matter?

It matters when it comes to audience. In both genres, our audience has be educated about the world we’ve created and the rules the world operates within. We have to tell them which one we’re in. And fast.

Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes less so.

Time travel machines?

Flying cars?



Magic spells?

Flying carpets?

Enchanted princesses?


Magic spells that cause time travel? Fantasy.

Dragons that are the result of careful genetic manipulation and crossbreeding? Sci-fi.

Dragons who speak and foretell the future? Fantasy.

Or as Carson Reeves, author of ScriptShadow Secrets (whom I hope to interview in a future column) says, “I define science fiction as any fictional story with space, futuristic, or time-traveling elements. I like to keep it simple! Fantasy on its own is definitely not sci-fi. You wouldn’t categorize Lord Of The Rings as sci-fi. However, there are science fiction movies that incorporate both elements, like Star Wars.”

Yes, so true.

Regardless of the genre, we have to 1) establish the facts early on with our world-building, and 2) clue the audience into whether it’s driven by science or magic. Luckily — and perhaps in a slightly clichéd manner — we can often do this quickly with the landscape. If we’re seeing metal and spaceships, chances are it’s sci-fi. If we’re in the natural landscape or riding horses into courtyards, it’s most likely fantasy.

Bottom line:

Are we switching a lever or waving a wand?

Perhaps the most important distinction here is that sci-fi should theoretically require less explanation than sci-fi, because as Card says, “If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction. If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our rules, it’s fantasy.”

More rules?

More explanation.

Is there a cross-over point?

What about the pseudo-science that masquerades as fact in so many of the sci-fi features we see today?

I’ve seen more than few complaints about the careless science of sci-fi films disrupting the reality, including a discussion on the science of Prometheus that pointed out several logic flaws (e.g. the star formation that pointed out the location of the alien planet would have shifted significantly over the many thousands of years since the maps were left in the caves on Earth).

Here’s my take:

  • Yes, geek cred is important. We need to make sense, and if we’re truly following the known laws of the universe, then we need to stick to them.
  • It’s our job as sci-fi writers, just like in any story, to make sure that we do the research and weave the threads together to make sure the internal logic holds. We need to ensure that our audience — including the science geeks who love this work — can reasonably suspend their disbelief.
  • And, if we’re stepping outside the parameters of what’s known so far (because let’s face it, even scientists are still sorting out whether or not things like time travel are truly impossible), we have a responsibility just like we would in any story, to carefully and credibly establish the rules of our world.

Where do we go from here?

As a sci-fi screenwriter, I’m interested in a number of questions, particularly about the marketability of spec sci-fi projects from unknown screenwriters and writing issues inherent to the genre. Stay tuned for more about genre, sub-genre, breaking in, adaptation, novelization, interviews of sci-fi screenwriters and industry experts, and more.

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5 thoughts on “Sci-Fi Circuit: What Makes It Sci-Fi?

  1. Rachel

    Reading this article again as a refresher. One thing that’s helping me distinguish between sci fi and fantasy is this:

    Do I spot some scientifically technical flaws, but I’m willing to suspend my belief because I really like the story premise and I’m emotionally connected to and/or invested in the characters?
    Sci fi.

    Do I spot some scientifically technical flaws, but I’m willing to suspend my belief because I understand and accept that the story does not live in the world as we know it right now?

    Do I spot some scientifically technical flaw, and I’m not willing to suspend my belief for any reason?
    Piece of crap.


  2. Jenna AveryJennaAvery Post author

    Brian, LOVE the final exam question. Thanks for sharing it! One of my favorite college classes was a “Nexus” class, co-taught by an English teacher and a biology teacher. We read sci fi for our homework. It was fantastic.

    Rachel, I love what I’m hearing about your project. I think if you set the ground rules up front for your sci fi aspect, you’ll be good to go.

  3. Rachel

    So glad you wrote this article – thanks for the insights. I’m writing what I’m loosely referring to as a character-driven drama with a sci-fi flavor. The sci-fi aspect provides the premise of the story, but the time is today, and the setting is Charleston. No shiny metal spaceships or quarks or black holes. Because the sci-fi aspect is (to me) a side dish and not the main course, I’m really struggling with the suspension of belief factor. Will an audience buy this weird sci-fi premise to my otherwise “normal” character-driven, relationship-based drama? I realize I may have a genre problem, but I’m not willing to give up the idea yet. I’ve done some research into the scientific aspects and am hoping to fill the gaps that those in the know would spot in a heartbeat. I look forward to your future articles.

  4. Brian Shell

    In high school, I took two classes on the subject:
    1) Science Fiction
    2) Seminar in Science Fiction

    The latter was a college-prep class… and our final exam consisted of one question our over-exuberant sci-fi teacher told us the first day of class… that by the end of the term, every one of us sweated bullets on.

    The single final exam question was:

    “What is Science Fiction?”

    None of us had enough time to finish our answer(s)…

    Yet that sci-fi teacher is one main reason I’m a writer today.