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Amazing Stories May 1930
This early SF magazine cover shows spacemen and another planet.

Science fiction (often shortened to sci-fi or SF) is a kind of writing. Science fiction stories can be novels, movies, TV shows, comic books and other literature.

SF is often about the future. It can be about imaginary new science and inventions such as spaceships, time machines, and robots. Science fiction stories are often in a world that is very different from the real world. They can have science and tools that do not exist in reality. Science fiction stories often take place on other worlds. There are often alien creatures.

Science fiction is different from fantasy. Fantasy stories often have magic and other things that do not exist and are not science. Isaac Asimov was a famous science fiction writer. He once said that science fiction is possible, but fantasy is not.

Writers often use SF to explain everyday questions or problems by putting them in the future. Usually they invent a very different world to help people notice important ideas.

Early examples of science fiction

Science fiction changes over time. Some authors wrote SF books before this type of writing had a name. These writers and books were not called science fiction when they were published. But, they are often called science fiction today.

20th century science fiction

Different types of science fiction

Two broad genres of science fiction are Hard SF and Soft SF. Although not everyone agrees on the exact definitions of these two types, the way they use science or the type of science used in the stories is different.

Hard SF

Hard science fiction, or "hard SF", is special because it uses true facts and theories from sciences. These sciences are very important in Hard SF: physics, astrophysics, and chemistry. Also, Hard SF can show worlds that more advanced technology may make possible. Many correct predictions of the future come from the hard science fiction subgenre. However, there have been many incorrect ideas about the future, too. Some hard SF writers have also worked as professional scientists. A few of these scientist/writers are Gregory Benford and Geoffrey A. Landis, while mathematician authors include Rudy Rucker and Vernor Vinge. Other noteworthy hard SF authors include Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear, Stanislav Lem, Larry Niven, Robert J. Sawyer, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Sheffield, and Greg Egan.

Soft SF

Soft science fiction stories take ideas from social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. Some important writers in this category include Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick. Soft SF can be mostly about character and emotion. Ray Bradbury won a prize called the SFWA Grand Master and writes in this style. The Soviet Union produced social science fiction too. Some examples are Strugatsky brothers, Kir Bulychov and Ivan Yefremov.

Some Social SF and Soft SF can be types of speculative fiction, for example utopian or dystopian stories. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, are examples. Some people think that satirical novels in fantastic settings (places) such as Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift are speculative fiction.

Different styles of science fiction

Within Hard or Soft SF, there are different types, or subgenres, of science fiction. Each subgenre is a group of stories that uses similar ideas or styles of writing. Publishing companies and critics put works of SF into different subgenres to help describe the work to help readers choose which books to read ro movies to watch. Assigning genres is not simple. Some stories can be in two or more genres at the same time. Other stories may not fit any genre.

Alternate history

In Alternate (or alternative) history stories, writers imagine how the past might have been different. These stories may use time travel to change the past. Some set a story in a universe with a different history from our own. These are some important alternate history books:

The Sidewise Award is for the best works in this subgenre. The name Sidewise is taken from Murray Leinster's 1934 story "Sidewise in Time." Harry Turtledove is one of the most famous writers in the subgenre. He is often called the "master of alternate history".

Apocalyptic

Castle Romeo
Nuclear war

Apocalyptic fiction is about the end of civilization. There are several types: through war (On The Beach), pandemic (The Last Man), astronomic impact (When Worlds Collide), ecological disaster (The Wind From Nowhere), or mankind's self-destruction (Oryx and Crake), or some other general disaster. Apocalyptic SF may also be about world or civilization after a disaster.

Cyberpunk

Nanotechnology book cover
Advanced technology under corporate control

Cyberpunk began in the early 1980s. Bruce Bethke used this word as the title for a short story in 1980 by putting together two words: "cybernetics" and "punk". Soon, people used this word to describe William Gibson's book, Neuromancer. Cyberpunk authors can put their stories in different settings. Stories usually take place in the near-future and the settings are often dystopian (characterized by misery). These are often societies with very advanced technology. A few huge corporations usually control the society. Another early cyberpunk novel that has become a classic is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

Military SF

Military science fiction stories happen during wars. These wars can be between different countries, different planets, or between different species. The stories are told by characters who are soldiers. They include detail about military technology, rules, and history. Some Military SF may be similar to real historical conflicts. Heinlein's Starship Troopers is an early example. Another is the Dorsai novels of Gordon Dickson. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War is a response to the World War II–style stories of earlier military SF authors. Haldeman was a soldier in the Vietnam War. Important military SF authors include John Ringo, David Drake, David Weber, and S. M. Stirling. Baen Books is known for cultivating military science fiction authors.

Superhuman

Superhuman stories are about humans who get special abilities that are not normal. Maybe the new powers come from nature. Two examples of this type are Olaf Stapledon's novel Odd John and Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human. Sometimes scientists give people special powers on purpose. one example is A.E. van Vogt's novel Slan. Frederik Pohl's novel Man Plus is another good example from this category. In that book, government scientists make a man into a powerful cyborg (part human, part machine).

These stories usually have two main points. One is the feeling of loneliness and separation that these superhuman people feel. The other is society's reaction to them.

Space opera

Rocket to the Moon 54893
Typical space opera magazine cover

Space opera is adventure science fiction in outer space or on distant planets. Action is more important than the science or characters. There is usually a strong hero and a very big conflict. The action often moves to many different places. Edward E. (Doc) Smith was an early Space opera writer. Flash Gordon and Star Wars are also popular examples.

Space western

Some people may think that Space Western is a kind of Space opera. It takes ideas from books and movies about exploring the American Old West and moves them to space in the future. These stories are often on "frontier" colony worlds (colonies that have only recently been terraformed and/or settled) serving as stand-ins for the backdrop of lawlessness and economic expansion that were predominant in the American west. Some examples are Firefly and the movie Serenity by Joss Whedon. Anime programs like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star are also Space Westerns. Han Solo from "Star Wars" is an important Space Western character.

Time travel

The first important time travel novel was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The most famous is H. G. Wells's 1895 novel The Time Machine. Well's book uses a machine that allows an operator to travel to an exact time. Twain's time traveler is struck in the head. The term "time machine", was invented by Wells. Now it is the name for any vehicle that can take a rider to a one date. Ray Bradbury's 1952 short story called A Sound of Thunder is a more recent and very famous example of this genre. Time travel stories can be complicated. They have logical problems such as the grandfather paradox. Time travel is a popular subject in modern science fiction, in print, movies, and television.

Other sub-genres

  • Comic science fiction is a sub-genre that exploits the genre's conventions for comic effect.
  • Feminist science fiction asks questions about society. How does society make gender roles? How does having children define gender? Does having children change the political and personal power of men and women? Some well-known feminist science fiction stories use utopias to answer those questions. The stories explore a society in which gender differences or gender power imbalances do not exist. Also dystopias can explore worlds in which gender inequalities are stronger. Those dystopias explain that feminist work should continue. See Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood
  • Libertarian science fiction is written from a political point of view. This subgenre uses fiction to explore ideas from libertarian political philosophy about government and social organization. A classic example of libertarian science fiction is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.
  • New Wave is science fiction writing with a lot of experimentation. Writers try new ways of writing and new story ideas. It may feel more intellectual. New Wave seems more like important "literature" or art.
  • Steampunk is the idea of future technology in the past. These stories are usually in the 19th century and often in Victorian era England. Steampunk stories have strong images from either science fiction or fantasy. Steampunk can have imaginary inventions like those found in books by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Imagining a world where computers were invented a long time ago is also popular. Examples include The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and the Girl Genius series by Phil and Kaja Foglio. The start of this style may be seen in some writing by Michael Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer and Steve Stiles. Games like Space 1889 and Marcus Rowland's Forgotten Futures can also be Steampunk. The name comes from the fact that machines are most often powered by steam in this genre.

Fandom and community

Science fiction fandom is the "community of the literature of ideas... the culture in which new ideas emerge and grow before being released into society at large". Members of this community, "fans", are in contact with each other at conventions or clubs, through print or online fanzines, or on the Internet using web sites, mailing lists, and other resources.

SF fandom emerged from the letters column in Amazing Stories magazine. Soon fans began writing letters to each other, and then grouping their comments together in informal publications that became known as fanzines. Once they were in regular contact, fans wanted to meet each other, and they organized local clubs. In the 1930s, the first science fiction conventions gathered fans from a wider area. Conventions, clubs, and fanzines were the main fan activities, or "fanac", for decades, until the Internet improved communication among a much larger population of interested people.

Awards

There are two very important science fiction awards: the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. The Hugo is presented by the World Science Fiction Society at Worldcon each year. The Nebula is presented by SFWA and voted on by the community of authors. One important award for science fiction movies is the Saturn Award. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror movies gives this award each year..

There are national awards, like Canada's Aurora Award and the UK Arthur C. Clarke Award, regional awards, like the Endeavour Award presented at Orycon for works from the Pacific Northwest, special interest or subgenre awards like the Chesley Award for art or the World Fantasy Award for fantasy. Magazines may organize reader polls, notably the Locus Award.

Conventions, clubs, and organizations

Sfcon-reading-ddb
Pamela Dean reading at Minicon

Conventions (in fandom, shortened as "cons"), are held in cities around the world, catering to a local, regional, national, or international membership. General-interest conventions cover all aspects of science fiction, while others focus on a particular interest like media fandom, filking, etc. Most are organized by volunteers in non-profit groups, though most media-oriented events are organized by commercial promoters. The convention's activities are called the "program", which may include panel discussions, readings, autograph sessions, costume masquerades, and other events. Activities that occur throughout the convention are not part of the program; these commonly include a dealer's room, art show, and hospitality lounge (or "con suites").

Conventions may host award ceremonies. Worldcons present the Hugo Awards each year. SF societies are a year-round base of activities for science fiction fans. They may be associated with an ongoing science fiction convention, or have regular club meetings, or both. Most groups meet in libraries, schools and universities, community centers, pubs or restaurants, or the homes of individual members. Long-established groups like the New England Science Fiction Association and the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society have clubhouses for meetings and storage of convention supplies and research materials.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) was founded by Damon Knight in 1965 as a non-profit organization to serve the community of professional science fiction authors, 24 years after his essay "Unite or Fie!" had led to the organization of the National Fantasy Fan Federation. Fandom has helped support related groups as they started to form, including media fandom, the Society for Creative Anachronism, gaming, filking, and furry fandom.

Fan fiction

Fan fiction is non-commercial fiction created by people who love an SF story or world. Fans write stories that take place in the setting of an established book, movie, or television series. Some people call it "fanfic". In some cases, the copyright owners of the books, movies, or television series have instructed their lawyers to issue "cease and desist" letters to fans.

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