What does a work like Isaac Asimov’s, I, Robot have in common with Perelandra by C.S. Lewis? 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, a 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.
Both are considered science fiction. That is the general classification for dystopian and utopian novels, along with a variety of other seemingly disparate literature. So what defines science fiction and what separates it from its twin fantasy? It is a matter of time, travel, technology and transformation (or what causes the change that alters the world in writing from the one we know).
Time – If a story takes place in the future, it is almost always considered science fiction. Authors place settings beyond the present is so they can play with new technology (like cloning) or explore the possible outcomes of today’s issues (like global warming). The future society could be advancing, regressing, or one similar to ours with flying cars and hover boards.
Travel – many of the early sci-fi novels dealt with travel to places that could not be reached, such as the moon (which we finally got to), the center of the earth, Mars, Venus, and so on that we still cannot reach. Setting the novel on a distant planet is enough to make it science fiction, unless the planet is imaginary world, inhabited by imaginary creatures, and even humans that tend to use magic more than machines. Then you have fantasy, such as Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series.
Technology – the best way to create a science fiction novel set in the current day, or prior times is with an intriguing new invention, that doesn’t exist in reality. The technology is secret (or secret weapon) possessed by a small government research group, a ingenious inventor or a mad scientists. It doesn’t have to be confined to mechanical advancements – such as the play, The Water Engine by David Mamet – new biological and drug technology are becoming repeated themes.
Transformation – as mentioned earlier the reason for science fiction to show a change from the world as it is. The means could be technology… or visiting aliens, mutations caused by radiation, or the introduction of a new microbe. When I was younger radiation was a favorite cause for special powers, until it became obvious that it simply weakens and eventually kills organisms. The transformation in fantasy is caused by magic, not machines, radiation, aliens or microbes.
Fantasies also contain the alternate human-like fairies, elves, vampires or shape shifters that are suppose to have existed before mankind. So what occurs when you put these fantastic characters into the future? Well, let’s just make it easy on ourselves and call the whole genre science fiction/fantasy.