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Reading Science Fiction and Fantasy

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 17 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Reading Science Fiction Reading Fantasy

There are many fans within the science fiction and fantasy genre and your book club may be dedicated to reading books within this category – or you may find that members are keen to try a book in a genre they haven’t read before. Despite their “nerd” stigma science fiction and fantasy books actually present a lot of thought-provoking points to ponder and can provide great fodder for discussions.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is usually defined as fiction that is based on speculations about current or future science and technology. However, despite the imagined storylines and settings, the elements within the story must remain possible within the established or postulated laws of nature, as we know them. In other words, science fiction is about things which might one day be possible. This makes it distinctly different from fantasy, which tends to be about things that are inherently impossible.

Stories in the science fiction genre usually contain the following elements:

  • Settings in the future or along alternative time lines
  • Settings in another world or universe, in outer space
  • Setting with political or social systems different from any known on earth, both in the past and present
  • Plots involving aliens or beings from unknown civilisations
  • Plots involving the discovery and/ or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel, or new technologies, such as robots.
  • Themes which explore the consequences of the above differences – science fiction has been called “the literature of ideas”.
Science Fiction itself can be spit into several sub-genres. For example, “hard science fiction” involves rigorous attention to detail with regards to the quantitative sciences, such as chemistry and physics. Ironically, many accurate predictions of future technologies have come from hard science fiction – for example, Arthur C Clarke and his accurate predication of communications satellites – and many hard science fiction authors are distinguished working scientists. Another subgenre is the “utopian” or “dystopian” stories which are satirical novels with a fantastic setting. Famous examples include “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Brave New World” and even George Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four”. Time travel features strongly in many science fiction stories and is considered a sub-genre, originally popularised by H. G. Wells's novel “The Time Machine”.

Fantasy

Fantasy literature is characterised by the use of magic and other supernatural forms as the main elements of plot, theme and setting. However, there is an internal consistency within fantasy, i.e. the characters, settings, events, do follow a set of laws and cannot operate outside their self-coherent logic, even if these laws do not resemble the ones we know in the real world. In a sense, fantasy has been with us since the dawn of time – the earliest stories told by man of monsters, magic and heroes are the beginnings of fantasy. In fact, Homer’s famous Odyssey, which is the second written work of European literature, can be classified as fantasy as it involved gods and heroes, magic, monsters and adventures. However, fantasy as a distinct type of fiction evolved during Victorian times and many believe that it was the work of J.R. Tolken and his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as well as his other writings that helped the genre achieve mass popularity. Tolkein’s friend, C.S. Lewis is also credited with raising the commercial success of the fantasy genre with his books, “The Chronicles of Narnia”. Today, authors such as J.K. Rowling with the “Harry Potter” continue to help maintain fantasy’s popularity with audiences worldwide.

While there are distinct differences, there is a great deal of overlap between the genres of science fiction, fantasy and even horror – collectively called “speculative fiction” – and in fact, many authors write across the genres.

Discussing Science Fiction and Fantasy

Both these genres have the potential to spark off stimulating discussions, even if members are not originally fans of the genre. These stories invite readers to extrapolate from their own knowledge of scientific principles and to explore alternate realities. For example, if holding a meeting following a science fiction title, discussion questions used could include: talking about whether members believe the vision of the future is realistic and likely to come true, whether they would like to live in such a world, how much the characters resemble or differ from the humans which inhabit our world now, what themes the author is trying to convey and how the events in the story could be compared to any that are occurring in contemporary times.

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