There are three genres in true science fiction. The first is epitomized by Jules Verne — that is the introduction of advanced or new science into the present world. All environments except the one are completely within the norm. Perhaps a writer would want to set the novel or story back in time to achieve this, but it would be the sign of a poor author, one who cannot see beyond the present technology, biology or geology. Verne was writing in the late nineteenth century, so his adventures into submarines, time machines and rockets to the moon were remarkable, as evidenced by the eventual emergence of many of his contraptions. In his ability to think through the ramifications and methods needed to achieve such things as travel under the sea, he could figure out what was lost and how to replace such things. The beauty of this format is not only the imagination of the creator, but as well the impact a new science would have on the current environment, whether the new science is secret or public.
The second genre, in my opinion, is the introduction of alien races. This might be done by humans travelling away from earth, as in the Star Trek television and movies series, or by the introduction of an alien race into the present circumstances. An excellent example of the latter would be Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. This allows the author to envision the adaptability of the human race to advances in human technology and alien sciences. Or, in the case of the stranger, an alien’s adaptation to human values. It gives us a fresh viewpoint for our present ethics and government. To this day, new discoverers of this particular book “grok” the world around them.
The third genre would be the complete shift into the future, as exemplified by most of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Frank Herbert’s Dune series. This perspective allows the author to predict the growth of human nature, biology and civilization, while allowing the writer to admit to the “unchanging” parts of human nature and how they will impact the growth of human beings. Such concepts as a countdown for a launch, and the term “robot” come from such authors, who are scientists as much as they are writers.
A possible fourth genre would be time travel, since this might slide the observer into any of the three given genres. But again one would need to recognize actual human nature and possible impacts of the time travel experience.
Please note that at no time do I refer to dwarves, pixies or gladiators. Fantasy is fine and has its place in entertainment, but it is not science fiction, rather pure fiction. Historical fiction and horror have no place in the arena of science fiction as well. With all due respect to J.R.R. Tolkein, these do not challenge the imagination of the scientist.
In as late as the 1930s, science fiction was the stuff of dime novels. By the 1960s, the genre started to gain respect among literature reviewers, and the introduction of televised science fiction widened the audience. Now we have The Matrix and 2010: A Space Odyssey. With popularity comes knock-offs and it is now more difficult than ever to find a medium for science fiction with integrity.
Such is the current challenge to the science fiction writer – to find new ideas among the old, and to use discipline to keep the “rules” of the genre chosen intact.
At times it may seem impossible to envision the future, but one must remember that the same challenge actually faced all the successful science fiction writers, no matter what their times of existence.