I would describe science fiction as stories that extend the boundaries of the possible. While fantasy requires us to suspend our disbelief entirely, science fiction asks only that we consider what could happen within a tenable, even if potentially different, reality.

From this broad description of what science fiction does, the distinction between it and fantasy would seem to hinge on what we are willing to accept as “possible.” If the general public came to believe in the possibility of vampires, would we relabel Buffy the Vampire Slayer as science fiction rather than fantasy? My answer would be no. The existence of vampires aside, the story’s narrative form is not consistent with science fiction. It is not only what science fiction does that defines it, but also how it does it. Buffy does not ask us to consider plausible ways in which blood-drinking humanoids might come to exist, but rather requires that we simply suspend our disbelief in their impossibility.

The “science” of science fiction is crucial not only to its content, which must be rationally based, but also to its form. Even if the genre’s protagonists don’t always conduct a methodical exploration of the unfamiliar scientific phenomena at work in their stories (although many of them do) the audience can expect to gain a basic understanding of the science behind the plot- enough for them to be able to accept it as possible, at least.The form that this explanation takes naturally varies from story to story, but it seems to me to often have many similarities to the basic form and structure of a mystery.

While a mystery asks what did happen whereas a science fiction story wonders what could happen, the ways in which the investigation of that question are carried out can have many overlaps. In both cases possible scenarios are put forth, they are often tested and questioned- potentially using elements of the scientific method- and the answer to the question under investigation is unraveled throughout the course of the story. In mystery stories this investigation is carried out directly by the protagonist, and this is often the case in science fiction as well. There are also, of course, those science fiction stories which immerse their audiences completely in the could-happen by taking place entirely in an alternate reality or different time. In these cases the structural elements of the mystery can still often be seen at the story level, as the plot itself tests and investigates the results of the possibility at play.

The X-Files, for example, to me exemplifies the overlap between mystery and science fiction as well as the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Its storylines included everything from vampires to werewolves to ghosts, but in every case those phenomena were approached and investigated from a rational, scientific point of view. The show never asked us to simply suspend our disbelief in its paranormal occurrences, but rather questioned mankind’s ability to decide what is and isn’t possible, and challenged what we may have dismissed just because it didn’t fit it into our limited understanding of reality. Perhaps The X-Files toes the line between the three genres I have mentioned, but I find it to be a masterful example of science fiction at its best for just that reason. It pushes the could-happen into the happening-now through scientific mysteries that stretch the limits of our acceptance to the utmost, while still offering us that bedrock of scientific reasoning.