FW: I wouldn’t say my book is science fiction. Post-apocalyptic, yes. Dystopian, sure. Speculative fiction, Perhaps.
ME: How can your book be post-apocalyptic without being science fiction?
FW: Good question.
A good question indeed. And to answer it, we need to start with another good question. [BTW, we'll assume his book isn't fantasy--because it's not.] What is science fiction? This question is so good that science fiction writers, editors, and scholars have been debating it since Hugo Gernsbeck coined the term in the 1920’s. (He actually called it scientifiction when he created the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. When he started Science Wonder Stories in 1929, Gernsbeck changed the term to science fiction.)
If you look up science fiction in a dictionary, you might get something like this:
a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation in its plot, setting, theme, etc. [dictionary.com]
fiction in which advanced technology and/or science is a key element. [Wikitionary.com]
So, I can see where my fellow writer might think his book or a book like Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD is not science fiction. There’s no science or technology left in the world, and the story is character-driven.
To me, the dictionary definition is sort of the layman’s or outsider’s take on the genre. The insiders' take on the field isn't always clear, though. Most writers, scholars, and editors of science fiction seem to have their own definition of the genre. Some say it’s indefinable. Others say it’s nothing more than a marketing category. Some, like Damon Knight, basically said you know when you see it. (Kind of like pornography!) And, those who do try to define the genre don’t always agree. Here are a few opinions:
Science fiction is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together.- Ray Bradbury
A good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.-Theodore Sturgeon
Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions. That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.- Isaac Asimov
... science fiction is the myth-making principle of human nature today.- Lester Del Rey
You'll notice that none of these masters of the genre said it was all about the science or technology. It's about their impact on human beings.
Personally, though, I have to go with Orson Scott Card's eminently practical definition in his book, HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION:
Speculative fiction includes all stories that take place in a setting contrary to reality.
Card lumps fantasy and science fiction under the umbrella of speculative fiction, which I think is entirely reasonable. The difference between the two has to do with whether the world obeys the laws of the world as we know it (science fiction) or the world as the author has created it (fantasy).
This is how I think of science fiction and fantasy. Both are the literature of the what-if. What if a comet struck the Earth? What if you could erase bad memories with a pill (and earn frequent forgetting points while doing it)? What if the Victorians had invented computers? What if vampires were real—and sparkly?
In science fiction (as opposed to fantasy), the what-if scenario has to be based on the laws of our universe—which does mean science and technology have to be involved somewhere along the line. They do need to be integral to the plot, but that doesn’t mean the story has to be about ray guns or space ships or mutants. The science doesn't even have to be explained in the story at all. In THE ROAD, the setting is contrary to reality, the world operates according the laws of our universe, but it wouldn’t exist without the impact of science or technology. (The world went to hell for some fathomable reason--war, plague, etc.)
So, yes, my fellow writer(s), your post-apocalyptic, dystopian, perhaps speculative fiction story is science fiction. The fact that THE ROAD and a few other books (like Margaret Atwood's) are shelved in the mainstream fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble has much more to do with marketing and the ghettoization of genre fiction. But that's a whole 'nuther post.
OK, I'm easing off my soapbox--for now. How do you guys define science fiction? Is dystopian its own genre, or is it a sub-genre of science fiction? Do you think it’s even necessary to worry about the labels? Discuss.