A while ago, I was asked to define science-fiction. Now, I should have some experience with this topic, having grown up in a household that had the entirety of Star Trek: TOS on Betamax. I’ve been born and raised in a sci-fi family, and I’m proud to say it. However, when I was asked to define science fiction as a genre, I started struggling a bit. How, indeed, is sci-fi unique from the creature feature or horror or anything else? After a few minutes deliberation, I think I came up with a satisfactory answer.

Science fiction is defined by a focus on:

  1. scientific advancement and its effect on the individual or society;
  2. technological advancement and its effect on the individual or society;
  3. societal advancement and its effect on the individual or society;
  4. anything that will be discovered through scientific means and its effect on the individual or society; and
  5. the ethical and philosophical ramifications thereof.

However, it only started to hit me weeks later that science-fiction is less a genre than it is a setting, comparable to high-fantasy or urban drama. You can have horror movies that masquerade as science fiction, like The Thing or you can have legitimate science-fiction works that happen to be balls-tighteningly scary, such as Alien. Coming up with the initial definition should have been much harder. After all, science fiction seems like an ephemeral, mercurial thing–always shifting with whatever the scientific knowledge of the day is. Until it hit me that all of that is science-fiction. In fact, under these five criteria–only one of which has to be met for a work to be considered science-fiction–such varied works as The Social Network1984WALL-EPrimerThe Matrix or Ghost in the Shell can be considered science fiction.

The first criterion covers such biological horror works as Splice, where the monster is a creature created in a lab that has some possibility of being created in our reality. This doesn’t include Mewtwo, so Pokemon is out. It also covers any advances made in particle physics, quantum physics or any physics. If chemistry has a huge fictional breakthrough–new drugs and their effects on everyone involved that are discovered through science? That’s science fiction. Even alone, criterion #1 seems pretty catch-all. But what if you have rogue AI or bigass robots, but no real fundamental change in our understanding of the world?

That’s where the second criterion comes in. Criterion #2 covers things like The Matrix or, rather generously, any time-travel project. Time travel can already be said to fall under criterion #1, but it’s here where we have time machines, specifically. Back to the FuturePrimer–it doesn’t matter what attitude it takes toward time travel, it’s in. This is also, funnily enough, where The Social Network would fall. Leaving aside the constant debate as to its veracity, let’s run with it as “fiction”. It is the fictional story of a man who invents the first universal social networking platform, thus changing the way we, as a society, interact with technology and each other. The story focuses on his struggles dealing with the immense power of having made this thing and the fallout in his life immediately following. Replace Facebook with the Flux Capacitor and you have Primer to the Future. Facebook is a technological advancement. Who’s to say it doesn’t belong here? Criterion #2 also covers space travel stories from Star Trek to Apollo 13. Faster-than-light travel is indeed a big technological advancement.

Criterion #3 is where we get our 1984s, Wes and Brave New Worlds. It’s also where we get Atlas Shrugged and Anthem, but let’s pretend I never mentioned those. Societal advancement has been used as a backdrop, against which we tell the story of the individual’s experience in the new world. This should count as science fiction because sociology, while not a hard science, is still a science. Politics have their own brand of study. Criterion #3 could also be used as a backdrop to enable either #1 or #2 stories. For instance, the achievement of utopia is an important thing in the backstory of Star Trek. Without that, Captain Kirk wouldn’t be on his five-year mission. Without that, Captain Picard would have no moral basis for those lovely speeches of his.

Criterion #4 is the real catch-all. Anything discovered through science is different from scientific advancement because it includes alien life in the rest of the universe. That’s right, almost all “we find aliens” stories are caught in criterion #4’s web. District 9, Alien, Avatar–these all count because of criterion #4. This is also home to alien sociology and discovery stories.

The last criterion is what I use to distinguish hard science fiction from soft science fiction. Hard sci-fi takes time out to examine itself–should we have the power to x, will all of this reduce us to monsters, my god what have we done type stuff. Soft science fiction says “screw all that, I wanna go for a ride!” If the story tries to deliver a moral message at the end of it all, it likely meets criterion #5. See classic Star Trek episode “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” for example: the criterion it sneaks under (#2/#3 background, #4 foreground) are rather soft. However, its resounding and applicable moral message at the end of it all makes it more worthy than, say, Alien as a single dose sci-fi experience.

What kind of stuff doesn’t count? Star Wars. Indiana Jones (yes, including Crystal Skull). TRON. There’s a difference between lightsabers and how they apply to our daily lives and lightsabers as scenery dressing. TRON takes place “within a computer” but may as well be set in Narnia, even down to the Holocaust that inevitably happens in the alternate fantasy world. Star Wars could be retold as an Arthurian myth and the only thing that would sound out of place is the word “midichlorian”. Indiana Jones’ venture into aliens hits me not as “let’s ponder” but more as “this is what they did in the fifties and this is an homage to that”. A lot of stuff doesn’t count, but hey–I’m one guy. It’s not like my definition is going to change the world or anything.

Though it should.