To quote the web master of lablit.com:
“…‘lab lit’ is not ‘science fiction’; briefly, lab lit fiction depicts realistic scientists as central characters and portrays fairly realistic scientific practice or concepts, typically taking place in a realistic – as opposed to speculative or future – world. The action does not have to take place in a laboratory per se, just anywhere where scientists are doing what they do, such as a field station. [Lab lit depicts] …real scientists in the real world.” –Dr. Jennifer Rohn, Editor, LabLit.com
Examples of lab lit:
The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers. A cognitive neurologist helps a victim of a head injury.
Bellwether, by Connie Willis. A sociologist and a chaos theorist meet.
Dis/inhibition, by Nancy Shaffer. A neurophysiology graduate student is locked in a battle of wills with her advisor.
Urban Science Fiction
A few preliminary definitions:
Science fiction in general is speculative fiction that treats its speculative elements as natural phenomena–that is, phenomena consistent with the fundamental laws of nature, regardless of whether those laws are the laws as humanity presently understands them.
Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, is speculative fiction that treats its speculative elements as “supernatural”–phenomena that at their very core, break the fundamental laws of nature.
Notice that by these definitions, any phenomenon–e.g., faster-than-light space travel, ESP, vampires–can be either science fiction or fantasy fiction, depending on how the text of the story regards them vis-a-vis the laws of nature.
Urban fantasy stories are fantasy stories that take place in real locations (for example, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere takes place in London, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series in Chicago). These locations don’t necessarily need to be cities. One can make the argument that the Harry Potter books, which take place primarily in a school located in the rural Scottish Highlands, falls into the “urban fantasy” genre, because Scotland and England are real locations, and the series follows many of the same “tropes” as more recognizably urban fantasy stories:
- setting the story in a real location,
- featuring one or more species of creatures we do not encounter in the ordinary world (e.g., dragons),
- featuring a system of “magic”, that is, a way to break the laws of nature that nevertheless follows its own internal set of rules.
- showing fantastical, fascinating, and perhaps frightening events we don’t normally encounter in the ordinary world.
An urban science fiction story, therefore, for lack of a better term, follows the tropes of urban fantasy in most regards–the real-world setting, strange species of creatures, fantastical events–but treats these elements as natural phenomena that scientists at present most likely don’t have the theoretical concepts or observational techniques to deal with yet.