I, Robot is a collection of short stories that trace the development of robots until they take over running the world while humans remain blissfully ignorant of this fact. In Perelandra, an earth man is sent to Venus on a mission from God to counsel to the ‘Eve’ of that planet so she does not fall prey to the wiles of Satan’s agent. What does a work like Isaac Asimov’s, I, Robot have in common with Perelandra by C.S. Lewis? Both are considered science fiction. That is the general classification for variety of seemingly disparate literature. What defines science fiction? Also what separates sci-fi from its twin, fantasy? It is a matter of time, travel, technology and transformation. These are the aspects that change the world in the book from the one we know.
Time: If a story takes place in the future, it is almost always considered science fiction in a broad sense. This allows authors to play with new technology (like cloning) or explore the possible outcomes of today’s issues (like global warming) when constructing their story. If the future society is regressing, that typically weighs heavily in the plot. However, if it appears to be advancing new technology is likely to contribute to the action. Our course, there is a third option. It could be a society just like ours, only with driverless cars and hover boards in widespread use. Novels in which the action is driven by magic (the basis for fantasy) can also occur in the future, but rarely do.
Travel: Many of the early sci-fi novels dealt with travel to unimaginable places, such as the moon (which we finally reached). However there is still a wealth of settings not visited by humans except in fiction, such as the center of the earth, the deep ocean trenches, or other planets. Jules Verne’s goal in his work was to describe the world through a series of Extraordinary Voyages. Of course, journeys that occur through time are a hall mark of science fiction. Also, works in this genre maybe be set on an imaginary planet, not only in the future but in the distant past. However, if the imaginary inhabitants of that place use magic more than machines, you have fantasy, such as Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series.
Technology: The best way to flaunt convention and write a science fiction novel set in the past, is create your own technology. Base the story on an intriguing invention that doesn’t exist in reality and is secretly possessed by a small research group, an ingenious inventor or even a mad scientist. It doesn’t have to be confined to mechanical advancements–such as in the play, The Water Engine by David Mamet. Bizarre biological and drug experiments are repeated themes and found in works like Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G Wells.
Transformation: As mentioned earlier science fiction changes the world as we know it. When I was younger radiation was a favorite cause for special powers, until it became obvious that radiation simply weakens and eventually kills organisms. However, this idea stills shows up among rehashed super heroes. In Sci-fi works, transformation is not caused by magic (as in fantasies) but the results could be the same. Advanced technology, visiting aliens, or a new microbe could result in humans becoming fairies, elves, vampires or shape-shifters. But, then you lose part of the fun of sci-fi in which you decide how humanity is changed, unrestricted by a cannon of fantasy creatures.
These four characteristics may define science fiction, but that is not all that is required. An imaginative, altered environment without a plot will not go far. There must be a hero with a problem to overcome, a problem that cannot be easily wiped away by the advances of science. In fact, the problem may even be caused by these advances.