Science fiction can be defined as literature involving elements of science and technology as a basis for conflict, or as the setting for a story. The science and technology are generally extrapolations of existing scientific fact, and most (though not all) science fiction stories take place in the future. There are other definitions of science fiction, and much disagreement in academic circles as to just what constitutes science fiction and what constitutes fantasy. This is because in some cases the line between science fiction and fantasy is virtually nonexistent.
Despite the controversy, it is generally accepted that, to be science fiction, a story must have elements of science. Fantasy, on the other hand, rarely utilizes science, relying instead on magic, mythological and neo-mythological beings and devices, and outright invention for conflict and setting.
Some of the basic elements of science fiction have been in existence for thousands of years. There have always been fortune-tellers, prophets, clairvoyants and other extraordinary people who sought to foretell the future. The grand adventure in an exotic setting—a recurring story structure in science fiction—has been a literary theme almost as long as the desire to know the future. Tales of mythological gods and their involvement with humans are echoed by modern-day science fiction stories of encounters with alien beings. The heroic quest, occurring so often in all mythologies, is paralleled by stories of pioneering space explorers.
There is some disagreement about when the first true science fiction story was written, but most scholars feel that True History, written by a Greek, Lucian of Somosata, about 175 A.D., was the first real science fiction story. This tale dealt with a trip to the moon in a ship borne aloft by a great whirlwind.
The direct ancestor of modern science fiction is generally considered to be Mary Shelley''s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Over the next few decades, authors such as Poe, Stevenson and Verne expanded the field, developing what was known as the "scientific romance." H.G. Wells capped the development of the scientific romance and, in 1926, science fiction emerged as a distinct genre (under the name "scientifiction") with the publication of the first all-science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories.
The pulp magazine era was just beginning, and the explosion of markets for short stories in magazines helped science fiction gain a firm foothold in the American literary scene. The market for original paperback novels opened up in the 1950s. Major talents such as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke emerged during this period and brought the field to maturity. Under the influence of scores of writers and editors—as well as of films—science fiction has reached its current state of development.
Contemporary science fiction, while maintaining its focus on science and technology, is more concerned with the effects of science and technology on people. Since science is such an important factor in writing science fiction, accuracy with reference to scientific fact is important. Most of the science in science fiction is hypothesized from known facts, so, in addition to being firmly based in fact, the extrapolations must be consistent.
Science fiction writers make their own rules for future settings, but the field requires consistency. For example, if a future is established in which mass transit is the only form of personal transportation, a character cannot be shown driving a personal vehicle just because it is convenient to the plot. In the same manner, in a setting derived from our own world, it would be inconsistent to introduce a human being who has reached the stage of evolution in which it reproduces asexually.
Whatever the background, science fiction, as other forms of fiction, is dependent upon the "standard" elements of storytelling—plot, characterization, theme, motivation, etc.—for success. Many would-be science fiction writers miss this fact, and attempt to dazzle readers with gimmicks and gadgets, to no effect.
Beyond inconsistency and an overabundance of gadgetry in place of a good story, there are few taboos in science fiction. Anyone wishing to write science fiction should spend time reading both current and past work to gain insight into its distinct characteristics.
There are several subcategories of science fiction, including dark fantasy, sociological SF, humorous SF, space opera, military SF, alternate history and cyberpunk, each having its own peculiarities. Extensive reading in the field can aid the neophyte in identifying these subcategories, and is recommended for anyone wishing to write science fiction. Locus Magazine is considered the genre''s bible. (Beginners should also note that editors and writers prefer the abbreviation SF to SciFi for their specialty genre.)