Science Fiction Definition
Science fiction (SIGH-innss FICK-shun) is a type of literature that deals with inventive technologies, futurism, space travel and exploration, and other science-based components. Technically, science fiction is a subgenre of the larger genre of fiction, but because science fiction is such a vast and broad category on its own, most writers and readers consider it a standalone genre.
Science fiction blends authors’ imaginative creations with scientific ideas, theories, predictions, and conjectures. Authors often utilize science fiction to explore the complexities and limitations of human nature in extraordinary circumstances.
The term science fiction was first used in 1851, but it wasn’t until 1929, when it appeared in advertisements for an early sci-fi magazine Air Wonder Stories, that the term entered the public lexicon.
The History of Science Fiction
The wonders of the unknown have long sparked the imagination. Writers have broken down the barrier between mythology and known facts since ancient times. Assyrian satirist Lucian wrote one of the first science fiction works, A True Story, in the second century; it was about space travel, extraterrestrial life, and interplanetary battles.
The Scientific Revolution brought forth new ideas and discoveries that inspired writers to imagine what lay beyond the ever-increasing known world. The emphasis on knowledge during the Age of Enlightenment enhanced science fiction further, with writers crafting complex worlds and stories that drew from evolving understandings about science and human nature.
Once the novel became the preeminent literary form in the 19th century, detailed science fiction tales emerged. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea were among the most widely read science fiction novels.
As space exploration—first as a dream, then as a reality—took centerstage during the latter-19th and 20th centuries, science fiction continued to expand and imagine what was possible.
During the 1960s and 1970s, science fiction writers began to experiment with the form, infusing it with heavily literary sensibilities and more creative storytelling devices. Socially conscious sci-fi works also emerged during this period, touching upon issues such as feminism, civil rights, and class disparities. Social themes that reflect the times continue to interest sci-fi writers, with much attention paid to 21st-century issues like environmental destruction, the repercussions of the Internet and seemingly limitless information, and the ethics of human cloning.
Common Themes in Science Fiction
One of the hallmarks of science fiction is the considerable creative freedom it allows the author. However, there are certain themes that sci-fi authors tend to examine more than others:
- Alternative worlds: These settings are hypothetical planes of existence that subsist parallel with a known one. Also called parallel universes and/or alternate realities, these worlds can include alternative versions of actual historical events or different scientific laws.
- Extraterrestrials: An extraterrestrial is any life form that doesn’t come from Earth. Popular extraterrestrial themes in science fiction include aliens and Martians, alien invasions and abductions, and interplanetary warfare between humanoids and other life forms.
- Outer space: Space has fascinated science fiction authors since the genre’s earliest days, serving as the setting for countless novels. Space exploration, travel, and warfare are common science fiction subjects.
- Scientific possibilities: Obviously, science—whether real or speculative—plays a significant role. The science, in most cases, serves as a crucial lynchpin in the story, propelling the action and often creating challenges along the way. Teleportation, time travel, mind control, and warp drives are popular scientific possibilities incorporated in many sci-fi works.
- Technology: Technology in science fiction encompasses a wide range of equipment often designed with super-intelligent capabilities. This technology might currently exist, be a predicted invention with a basis in current technology, or be entirely speculative. Robots, supercomputers, holograms, and speed-of-light space travel are just a few types of technology seen in sci-fi novels.
Types of Science Fiction
Science fiction is a part of the larger umbrella of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction contains several subgenres that feature futuristic, fantastical, or supernatural plot elements; basically, any imagined components that don’t exist in the context of the everyday world. Other types of speculative fiction include fantasy, horror, paranormal, and apocalyptic literature.
Science fiction itself comes in two main types: hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. Hard science fiction is based on scientific accuracy and known facts and logic. Put another way, it tells stories rooted in the concepts of natural science. This approach can enhance the authenticity of the story and the idea that the plot’s event could, conceivably, happen. Examples of hard science fiction include The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, The Martian by Andy Weir, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.
Soft science fiction places greater emphasis on the human aspects of the story, integrating sciences of human behavior, like psychology, sociology, and politics. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness are all soft science fiction novels.
Some readers prefer another definition of soft science fiction, one that serves as a counterpoint to hard science fiction. This definition views soft sci-fi as any story not rooted in known scientific logic, accuracy, or plausibility.
Subgenres of Science Fiction
There are multiple subgenres in the world of science fiction, such as the following:
- Dystopias and utopias: Dystopias takes place in future or near-future societies where life and social structures are in catastrophic decline, and humans fight for survival in often violent and oppressive conditions. Utopias are the opposite: idealized worlds in which life and social structures are idyllic, and any conflict stems from human fallibilities.
- Fantasy: Science fantasies occur in settings that defy known, natural scientific laws; they draw inspiration from myths and folktales and usually utilize magic to some extent.
- Space operas: These are epic adventures and/or romances set in outer space.
- Supernatural: Science fiction in this vein incorporates mystical phenomena like psychic abilities, occultism, witchcraft, or wizardry
Functions of Science Fiction
The purpose of this genre is to explore the possible and speculate about the unknown. It gives readers an idea of what might happen in the future if certain events—such as scientific breakthroughs or technological advances—come to pass and how humans might respond accordingly. Given its imaginative nature, science fiction inspires readers to envision a more advanced, innovative, and adventurous future.
The opposite can also be true. An author might use science fiction to delve into the unsavory consequences of scientific advancement. They might look at how this progress endangers humans and the environment; upsets the natural balance of the universe; or triggers discord between communities, leaders, or planets. This perspective would make a work of science fiction a cautionary tale.
Some works of science fiction are allegories for current or past events. The genre allows the author to examine and reinterpret these events in an imaginative way that resonates with readers and compels them to consider larger issues.
Science Fiction in Popular Culture
Science fiction is fertile creative ground for filmmakers. It’s hard to imagine the current popular cultural landscape without Star Wars, which set the standard for all sci-fi movies to come. Those movies include juggernauts like Alien, Blade Runner, Ex-Machina, Interstellar, and The Matrix.
On television, science fiction has an equally prominent role. Star Trek is an undisputed classic of the genre. Doctor Who, Firefly, Lost in Space, Stargate, and The Twilight Zone are just a sampling of popular small-screen science fiction programs.
Science fiction themes are customary in graphic novels and comic books. Everything from Superman to the X-Men fall under the category of sci-fi. Many serve as the source material for popular film franchises.
Notable Science Fiction Writers
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
- Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
- Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
- Octavia E. Butler, Kindred
- Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
- Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
- G. Wells, The Time Machine
Examples of Science Fiction Literature
1. H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds
Wells’s 1898 classic, narrated by an unnamed man, follows the Martian takeover of Earth, from the first flashes in the night sky to their complete destruction of human social structures and norms. It begins as follows:
The Eve of the War No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
Though a deadly pathogen eventually destroys the Martians, their visit leaves the narrator—and the planet as a whole—in tatters.
2. Doris Lessing, Shikasta
Lessing’s 1979 novel is a history of the planet Shikasta—a symbolic Earth—told through the reports of explorers from the nearby planet of Canopus. The following opens the novel:
I have been sent on errands to our Colonies on many planets. Crises of all kinds are familiar to me. I have been involved in emergencies that threaten species, or carefully planned local programmes. I have known more than once what it is to accept failure, final and irreversible, of an effort or experiment to do with creatures who have within themselves the potential of development dreamed of, planned for…and then—Finis! The end! The drum pattering out into silence…
The first portion of the book details the prehistory of Shikasta; the second part the destruction of the planet in the 20th century; and the third the apocalyptic war that ultimately decimates it.
3. Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life”
Chiang’s short story about the arrival of extraterrestrials—which was adapted into the 2016 film Arrival—beings with linguist Dr. Louise Banks reflecting on the events of the story:
I know how this story ends; I think about it a lot. I also think a lot about how it began, just a few years ago, when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows. The government said next to nothing about them, while the tabloids said every possible thing.
And then I got a phone call, a request for a meeting.
As Banks works with the aliens and learns their language, she begins to understand and process time as they do—and their idea of time is much different than that of humans. She soon sees her future and the daughter who hasn’t yet been born but will, at a young age, die of a terminal disease. Knowing her future, Dr. Banks risks heartbreak to have a family and the chance to love.
Further Resources on Science Fiction
The Atlantic looks at how science fiction inspired scientific progress.
NPR has a list of the 100 science fiction and fantasy books, as chosen by readers.
Looking to write science fiction? Check out these six tips from Writer’s Digest.
Project Gutenberg has many classic sci-fi works available online.
The Conversation explores how science fiction builds mental resiliency in young readers.