How realistic does a story need to be? How grounded? As usual, the answer is that it depends on what the writer and readers are looking for. I enjoy various sub-genres of science fiction with all different levels of realism. I’ll separate sci-fi from fantasy in this blog post, since most fantasy includes explicitly supernatural elements, which are not necessarily present in science fiction. I’ll note that I enjoy all these subgenres, depending on my mood, and none of this is meant as a criticism in any way of any type of fiction.
Superhero stories are often separated from science-fiction, but I’d include them in the broad sense of the genre. Superhero stories tend to be among the least realistic subgenres of sci-fi. Not only are explanations for the superhuman powers of heroes often unscientific, poorly explained, or inconsistent, but the laws of physics seem to work differently for superheroes. For example – one of my favorite TV shows is Jessica Jones on Netflix (and I do absolutely adore the show!). Jessica frequently uses her super-strength to break padlocks on doors, usually by grasping them and pulling them down until they break off. But Jessica is a slender woman who appears to weigh about 120 lbs… a 120 lb person could easily hang by one hand from a padlock on a chain without coming close to breaking it. With real-world physics, a hero would have to brace firmly against something above them to keep from propelling their bodies upwards when pulling down with super strength! As a viewer I have no problem with little “errors” like this – superhero fiction demands extensive suspension of disbelief, and I’ll gladly excuse this kind of thing to see the entertaining visual of a slightly built woman tearing locks off chains with her bare hands.
The next subgenre I’ll mention is space opera. Star Wars is perhaps the most well-known space opera franchise in the world. Star Wars obviously has fantastical/supernatural elements such as “the Force” – this element has much in common with fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings, and many other space opera novels and movies have similar elements. But space opera generally tries to be consistent with their technology-based sci-fi elements, such as faster-than-light travel and energy based weaponry. As a rule, technology in space opera purports to be based on futuristic engineering and science, and authors usually make some effort to align it with real-world physics. For example: real world physics disallows faster-than-light travel. In the Star Wars universe, this is also true – but (according to background source material, at least) the Hyperdrive technology allows vessels to temporary shift into some sort of alternate but parallel (and otherwise identical) universe in which faster-than-light travel is allowed, and then shift back at the end of the journey. It makes little sense in real-world physics, but space opera usually tries to be self-consistent within the world the story inhabits.
There are many other subgenres that fall in between superhero fiction, space opera, and “hard” science fiction (which I’ll discuss in this paragraph), but I’ll stay out of the weeds for now. Hard science fiction makes serious effort to be as scientifically accurate and detailed as possible. Supernatural or fantastical elements are almost never present, and advanced technology is usually well explained. A good and well-known example of hard science fiction is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park isn’t perfectly scientifically accurate, but the author made serious effort in grounding the dinosaur behavior and genetic science in real-world research, only filling in gaps when absolutely essential for the story. Another great example is the recent movie The Martian (another one of my favorites). Hard science fiction at its best inspires people to pursue careers in science and engineering.
Of course, many stories and franchises combine various elements of science fiction subgenres. Star Trek, for example, combines things from space opera and hard science fiction, along with others. Star Trek stories and technology usually make an effort to be consistent and at least somewhat grounded in real-world science, somewhat like hard science fiction, but Star Trek stories sometimes include godlike beings or other elements more common in space opera.
I have no overall preference between all these various subgenres, and I can enjoy them all. I love good superhero stories on the page and the screen, as well as good space opera, hard science fiction, and anything in between. I always aim for consistency, but even consistency can be optional – one of my favorite sci-fi (and comedic) novels is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and inconsistency is perhaps the most prominent aspect of the main technological feature of that novel! When written well, any level of realism can work for a story. When poorly written, even the most scientifically accurate science fiction will fail to tell a good story.
Andy Crawford is the writer of two novels: the fantasy adventure Sailor of the Skysea, and the satirical fantasy The Pen is Mightier, which is perfect for fans of Game of Thrones. You can find his books in paperback or ebook on Amazon below.