The difference between science fiction and scientific fiction is an interesting one and one worth exploring as it has an impact on our understanding of the present and of history.
There seems to me to be quite a bit of unconscious confusion between the two; most people don’t really seem to believe there is any real difference. As a consequence, some of the demands of scientific fiction are placed on science fiction.
Worse still, some of the demands of scientific fiction are placed on soft SF and fantasy SF, which is more than just a little unfair…
So what’s the difference?
One of the simplest entry points into the distinction is as follows:
- Scientific fiction uses science as the main focus in the narrative and the fiction is used to support the science; science is explained in detail and is essentially pedagogical in nature;
- In contrast, in science fiction, science is secondary to the fiction; it is used to support the fiction, to give it the ‘effect of reality.’
Scientific fiction goes back to Jules Verne (one of those illustrious few given the title the Father of science ficiton’) and it seems that deviations from his pedagogical style of telling science in fiction and a series of moves towards focusing more on the fiction resulted in what we more commonly call science fiction today.
In Science-Fiction Studies, XV:1 #44 (March 1988): 1-11, Arthur B. Evans describes all this a lot better than I can:
The difference between these two literary cousins can be most succinctly illustrated by analyzing the role played by science itself in the discursive structure of these texts: i.e., the manner in which a sustained scientific discourse is grafted onto a literary one. Scientific fiction, as in the case of Verne, presumes a predominantly pedagogical function for such scientific discourse. Its primary goal is the implantation of (what is considered to be at the time) factual scientific knowledge. On the other hand, science fiction, like that produced by the later French SF writers Paul d’Ivoi, Gustave Le Rouge, Albert Robida, and J.-H. Rosny Aîné, utilizes science—or, quite frequently, pseudo-science—for purely fictional purposes. Its primary goal is to act as a catalyst for plot progression and special effects, as a powerful verisimilitude-builder, and as a means for creating a kind of Brechtian “estrangement” in the reader. Read more here…
What’s interesting is that science fiction soon developed a wide variety of styles and orientations that focused more on the creativity of fiction and the possibilities of narrative form and the diversity of ideas than grafting fiction onto science or finding a voice for science through a kind of limited fictional orientation. Again, Evans describes the distinction further and elaborates on the nature of science fiction narratology better than I can:
The didactic discourse of scientific fiction rarely varies: it is linear, accumulative, reductive, “non-distancing,” highly mimetic, generally nominative, and deductively one-dimensional in its signifying structure. The fictional discourse of SF, by contrast, uses a wide variety of different hermeneutics, reflecting the very heterogeneous nature of this genre. For example, in its satiric mode (e.g., Robida), it is playfully non-mimetic, often purposely oxymoronic, and socially—as opposed to scientifically—proselytetic in nature. In its fantastic mode (e.g., Le Rouge), it is obscurantist, impressionistic, and sometimes even metaphysical in its referentiality. In its speculative mode (e.g., Rosny Aîné), it is most often non-mimetic, pluri-dimensional, and inductive in the way it functions. In all cases, SF does not seek to teach science through/with fiction, but rather to develop fiction through/with science. The raison d’être of science in the narrative process itself shifts from primary position to secondary, from subject to context. It seeks no longer to address the reasoning intellect but rather the creative imagination. Read more here…
Despite the abundance of SF styles that have emerged since Verne, including fantasy SF, or sci-tech-fantasy SF, which may involve fantasy science and a fantasy ontology, criticisms are still often fielded from not just a hard SF perspective but from the standards of an old-fashioned scientific fiction.
Science fiction criticism today
Even today, despite our understanding of narrative and its functions that’s generated from the bombardment of fiction that we experience throughout our lives, whenever and SF or scifi story doesn’t explain the scientific background and mechanisms involved in a particular phenomena described, and it is just used to serve the fiction (the user-oriented approach to everyday technology use, etc., which is something that literary fiction is able to do without criticism by the way), it can be targeted as lowbrow SF, and the sci-trope techno reality is considered to be magical in nature, which is evidently pejorative.
Such a critic may be annoyed to find that it is incompatible with science as we know it, or more strongly may be dismayed that there is no elaborate description to support it, despite the fact that elaborate descriptions get in the way of the fiction and may be inappropriate to the style and purpose of the story, and would essentially destroy the story, etc.
The first is a disappointment regarding the deviation from hard SF, while the second is a disappointment about a deviation from scientific fiction. Both are a misunderstanding of the history of science fiction, its diversity, and the narratological interpolations associated with science fiction storytelling since Verne.
The distinction is evidently significant, and we certainly have a lot to learn from Arthur B. Evans…!