What do you think of when you hear the words “science fiction?” I imagine the usual answers might be things like aliens, spaceships, time-travel, robots, colonies on other planets/moons, laser guns, teleportation, etc. But is that all it is? How does it differ from other genres?
The most important aspect of science fiction is that the story itself should revolve around extrapolations of science and technology. We should see how ordinary people react to extraordinary situations brought about by future developments. That is how we plumb the depths of the human heart. The scifi elements should not be a mere backdrop, they should be the beating heart of the story. A quick rule of thumb to use to know if you are really writing science fiction: if you remove the sciencey elements, is there still a valid story? If there is, then you might be better off writing literary fiction.
In “Outland,” Sean Connery plays the police marshal of a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon, Io. He uncovers a drug-related conspiracy and as he gets closer to the source of the problem, his finds himself in more danger and with less support. It’s a good movie, but it is famously just a retelling of High Noon, but with an ostensibly science fiction setting.
The 2010 movie, “Monsters,” depicts the burgeoning relationship between two young people as they make their way over an alien-infested Mexico. Again, the setting has nothing to do with the plot of the movie. It could have been set in war-torn Bosnia and the plot (and most of the dialogue) would have been the same. Only at the end is there a short scene where they have to hide from the aliens, but it would not be different were it any other random threat, such as tigers, pirates or mobsters. It’s a standard human drama, not a science fiction movie, despite the tentacled aliens that make a brief appearance.
The second aspect of good science fiction is a philosophical question arising from the science. The story should raise such a question and then explore it. It doesn’t matter if there is a final answer, it’s the discussion of the ideas and the search for an answer that we are interested in. Should we give advanced robots legal rights? If we could go back in time to assassinate Hitler before he rose to power, should we? Will we ever truly be able to communicate effectively with alien creatures? Should dinosaurs remain extinct even if we have the technology to revive them? These are big questions, and science fiction is the medium through which they can be explored and debated.
And finally, good science fiction needs what all fiction needs: A coherent plot, consistent rules, and sympathetic characters with plausible motivations and compelling arcs. All the standard elements of storytelling. A lot of people seem to forget that, especially recently, and put all their effort into showing off their pew-pew laser beams, interstellar drives, and timey-wimey paradoxes, while letting the human and storytelling elements fall by the wayside.
In short, science fiction should give us realistic, sympathetic characters struggling with a deep philosophical question brought about by relatively plausible extrapolations of science and technology.