The space shuttle Atlantis thunders off the launch pad during lift off Friday, May 14, 2010, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Science Fiction in quickly associated with space or time travel, aliens, mutants, robots, etc. As much as this is the most common image of this genre, Science fiction goes way beyond these stereotypes and cliches.
The best definition would be of a story where technology or a “what if scenario” is imagined and the author speculates on the effects of these events on our society. Such speculation is used to teach, show or make us aware of paradigms involving human existence or condition.
With this definition it is clear that space or time travel, aliens, robots, etc are just part of the background to tell a formidable and life enriching story. Like any literary genre, Science Fiction can be dissected into three major sub genres.
Hard Science Fiction:
The main focus is on science and accuracy on scientific principles. Jules Verne with his novels describing marvelous engineering achievements is probably the founder of this genre. His novel “20’000 leagues under the sea” describes with richness of detail the technology needed to construct and operate a viable submarine.
Stephen Baxter, in his novel Titan, explores the technical and psychological aspects of a manned trip to one of the Saturn’s moons (whose name is the title of the book). As the story unfolds the reader embarks in a journey to a distant place with all the drama, difficulties and, some times, terrifying situations that a crew of astronauts will be subjected to. The technical details are awesomely accurate since Baxter holds a degree in engineering and mathematics and speaks with knowledge of a professional of this field.
Other examples of great hard science fiction writers are Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, Ben Bova, etc.
Soft Science Fiction:
Science accuracy is not very relevant. Technology and future advancements of mankind are just the back drop in which the story develops.
Many believe that the genre started with Mary Shelley on her novel Frankenstein. We She is rightfully the mother of all Science Fiction.
Another great example of soft science fiction is the novel ‘‘Stranger in a Strange Land” by Heinlein. This is the tale of a man raised martians from the moment he was born. Upon his return to Earth, the cultural shock for both the man and our society are a marvelous way to explore our culture, believes and idiosyncrasies.
In his famous Foundation Trilogy Asimov creates a history of the future where the Mathematician Hari Seldom fights to save the galaxy from the decline of the Galactic Empire.
Jack Mcdevitt, Robert Sawyer, Dan Simons, Peter Hamilton, HG Wells, Frank Herbert, and many others are typical soft Science Fiction writers.
Social Science Fiction:
Science and accuracy with scientific principles is relegated to a secondary role. Authors typically develop an ‘’what if’‘ setting based on breakthrough technology or fantastic event and go on exploring the human nature and society based on aftermath of these occurrences. This type of science fiction can blend hard and soft styles together.
Even though “Stranger in a Strange Land” is a form of soft science fiction, it can also be described as Social Science Fiction because it deeply analyses our species while in a social environment.
It is quite common that soft science fiction writers tend also to write social science fiction. Frank Herbert is a great example of that. His award winning novels Dune are a reference in Science Fiction for any long time fan or a beginner.
Another way of looking into Science Fiction is by its themes. The most common are Time Travel, Space Colonization, Space Opera (like Star Trek), Military, Alien encounter, Alternate History (Like the World War novels by Harry Turtledove where the WWII is halted in order to resist an alien invasion), Technological Thriller (Like Michael Crichton novels where technology and its effects are deeply explored) and many more.
Regardless of the preference we can not deny that many, while inspired by Science Fiction, decided on career choices that would allow them to make reality some of the most wacky concepts ever written. Science fiction fuels our imagination and prompts us to push the envelope on what is possible. It turns us into dreamers of the future.