If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then how in the world can we readers distinguish between science fiction and fantasy?
Everyone has their own definition of science fiction. For some, classification as science fiction depends on the prominence of science or technology in the story (over, say character or plot). Other folks focus on the need to “keep it real”–if events are not consistent with current understanding of science, then it’s a no-no (goodbye FTL and time travel). Of course a favorite definition is that science fiction begins with a “what if” question. What if we discovered a black hole in the center of the sun that was growing faster than seemed scientifically possible and that will destroy the sun in a mere 100 years? What would we do? How would we react?
I’ve always disliked the reference to “hard” science fiction (ouch, I think I just stepped on a nail). It makes science sound so, well, hard. Science doesn’t need to be hard. What’s more, when I read many hard science fiction stories I often find that they’re not about science at all, but rather technology. Technological “what if” questions are easier to come by it seems.
For me, science fiction is not technology fiction. Nor is it drama with lots of technobabble (even if the technobabble is real jargon used in science). To the scientist (and at least this science professor), science is not about things that we know, or technologies we develop. Science is the process, and the set of logical tools, we use to figure out how the world around us works. Facts are like the rule book in a game of basketball, good to know, but good play requires practice, not just knowing the rulebook. Scientists are the ball players, and science is the art of the play. So, to be science fiction, a story must be about doing science, not knowing facts or using technology.
This bring us to my definition for science fiction and where it parts ways with fantasy. The characters in a science fiction story will ask questions about how things work and why they are as they are. They will seek to answer those questions, find explanations and reasons. If there are no explanations, or if the explanations are simply not of significance or interest in the story, then that is magic, not science.
So says Dr. C. Feel free to post your own definitions! How many can we accumulate in the next three or four months?—Dr. C.