Authors seem to agree that science and technology feature as necessary elements of the story in sci-fi. Beyond that agreement there are divergences.
“Hard” sci-fi involves stories written on the basis of consensus scientific principles and facts. However, often the science is new and the consensus is wobbly, so there’s wiggle room around the edges. You can have faster than light travel, for example, by using wormholes, which is a theoretical concept in quantum physics, completely not applicable to macro (Newtonian) physics. So to use a wormhole for space travel is a fudge. The science isn’t there. Does that break the boundary of “hard” sci-fi? It’s discussable.
“Mundane” sci-fi is a subtype of “hard,” with no fudges. All the science must be consensus-based, solid, and real. But that might not make such a good story. If you really had an interesting idea for applying current science and technology in a new and important way, you’d be starting a company, wouldn’t you? You’d not be sitting around writing stories about it. Good fiction turns on a lie. So “mundane” sci-fi is a guiding principle, not a straitjacket.
Science fantasy is the other pole from hard sci-fi. Here, a character discovers a magic potion or a secret manuscript or a philosopher’s stone that gives him or her special powers or knowledge. Then the story is about the character arc and the social context. The focus is on what a person is about. The science is incidental. The magic beans don’t have to be scientifically justified. They can be just magic beans.
After having binge-read some current popular sci-fi to get a sense of it, I note that most is in the category of “Mars Westerns,” or “Space Operas.” In this category, the stories are set in space but they might as well be set in Wyoming or in World War II Europe. Characters have exotic names, carry death rays, and travel in space ships, but the science and technology are incidental to the story.
In the books I read, the authors love to make up exotic-sounding names. They seem delighted to point out that names are arbitrary. It’s a cheap shot at defamiliarization. Too cheap for me.
There’s little scientific hardness – authors allude to scientific facts and theories and sometimes even pontificate on them, but they still invoke wormholes and warp drives, and indroduce magical-looking technology without justification when convenient.
Tribalism is deeply embedded in sci-fi stories. The bad guys (often aliens) are the other, they are bad, we are good. No matter what the time and space context, the story centers on us and them – species, tribes, nations, races – the usual stuff. Tribalism is totally pretheoretic and unexamined (as it is in much of ordinary life).
Dramatic tension in much sci-fi is transposed from current events. Xlyo beings are working on a super bomb and claim to have “every right” to do so even though The Empire has legal rights to inspection. A big disease is sweeping the galaxy. The Nonee people are stealing our mines. A nearby star is about to explode. The slaves are arising. My mother died. In these stories, the science and technology are incidental to a very mundane, traditional tale.
The current sci-fi that I read is very focused on corporeality – moving meat bodies around, with elaborately described vehicles to do so, and exotic weapons for killing those bodies. The meaning of embodiment itself is rarely questioned. Sometimes characters will be artificially embodied in a manufactured, replaceable, shell, or sometimes embodied by reconstitution of digital schemata, but always embodied, in remarkably humanoid form factors.
Despite the unexamined emphasis on embodiment, there is little or no consideration of intercorporeality, the phenomenon by which we (humans) understand each other via corporeal analogy and inference, and even (earthly) animals by homology.
Death is unquestioned, though never defined. Immortality features large in many stories but simply constitutes a denial of death, without explanation or serious consideration.
Government looms large in sci-fi stories but is rarely questioned. There are evil and benevolent governments, empires, colonies, armies, conquests and suppression of others. However, the very concept of government and why (if) it is needed is never questioned.
Capitalism is generally assumed by default, as is free-market economics. Everybody wants wealth (usually achieved through mining), although why this is so is never questioned, and in any event, actual economics are always vague in sci-fi stories.
Maybe my sample reads were not well-chosen. I went by recommendations from a knowledgeable friend and by online reviews, and by what was readily available in my local bookstore. It was a quasi-random sample.
Now I’m wondering why an author would bother to create another world if the dramatic story issues are the same as in this world today? What’s the point?
I think the sci-fi angle allows you to establish an alternative status quo without having to explain where it came from. Assume the future and assume the inexorable progress of technology and bingo, you can introduce your baseline status quo right at the beginning and get on with the story. Sci-fi used like that is a writer’s gimmick. Why do readers like it?
I think they enjoy imagining small variations on embodied, ordinary everydayness. They like to imagine instantaneous and effortless god-like (embodied) power and knowledge. They don’t want to understand the real world. Sci-fi provides a caricature that presents only certain elements of a world without all the messy complications of reality. It’s simplistic.
I can’t write that stuff. I am hopelessly realistic. Maybe I lack imagination.
What can I write? I can write about the unexplored worlds within the human being.
For me, the mysteries of life are not “out there,” but rather right here. That’s why I wrote my android story, to explore the nature of natural consciousness and to articulate what we know and don’t know about ourselves. It accidentally fell into a sci-fi category, but I never set out to writ sci-fi.
I’m at a crossroads. If I’ve had success producing sci-fi, shouldn’t I do more of that? I can’t. I stumbled into sci-fi by accident. I wouldn’t know how to do it on purpose.
Maybe what I can do is continue to explore the inner reaches of human nature, but feature science and technology a little more in my work.