I was asked this question by a reader of mine the other day, and I thought it deserved some dissection. On the surface, the simple answer is (per the purist definition of SciFi) when your story does not contain the criteria within the definition of SciFi. For example, technology that is not only possible, but is also already in common use; or that the story itself does not take place in the future or a futuristic setting.
But, does such a story that uses common technology or doesn’t take place in such a setting automatically get classified outside of the SciFi realm? That’s one for debate, and if going by the SciFi purist, that answer would be a pretty solid ‘yes’. While I would agree that going by the base definition of SciFi those types of stories would fall outside of the general term itself; however, there is room for sub-classification to some extent.
Some could take the argument one step farther and say that if the technology portrayed in the work is on the ‘glidepath’ from the current state, then that also would not technically be SciFi. Or that if the setting were in the past, it should be considered more of a Historical Fiction piece. A counterpoint to that argument, and one that shoots this argument down in my opinion, would be that if we used that rationalization, then only the most fantastical stories would ever be true SciFi. After all, palm-held tablet technology was SciFi less than 40 years ago – yet here we are on that glidepath, holding iPads and Android tablets on a daily basis like it’s nothing new.
The fragmentation of the SciFi genre into multiple (growing every day seemingly) subgenres has muddled this question even further. Now, if I create a work that takes place in the future with even the slightest of modifications to the ‘norm’, I’ve created a work of SciFi. Regardless if the technology that I choose to portray in my work is current or not, it can be classified into that genre.
To some extent I think that is okay. There’s a bunch of room under the SciFi umbrella for different interpretations of the classification. However, what I would propose is a subset of genres within SciFi that borrow from non-SciFi classifications – such as Drama, Historical, Suspense, et al. You get the picture. Anyone that has ready my novel, Clarity, knows that while I classified it as Scifi, I also commonly refer to it as a Drama. It has some SciFi elements in it, but for the most part (as are most of my works) it’s a drama about the human condition, or the interactions between several humans. Science plays a part, but more of a supporting role. I felt the need to classify it as SciFi because Epsilon Book 2 leans heavily toward SciFi – so rather than mislead potential readers or, worse, alienate them when they read past Book 1, SciFi was a general classification for Clarity.
So back to the question at hand. When does SciFi become SciFact? (new term, copyright me – now) What we’ve discussed here brings up a lot of gray areas, and makes the answer not as simple as the one with which we started. But I think it can be boiled down pretty handily to the author’s discretion. See where the story fits within the criteria of the genre, and then make your determination.
Perhaps if we all band together and begin using some of the non-SciFi genre tags, we’ll convince everyone that they are needed to further define our wonderful genre of Science Fiction.