Science fiction is a genre, unlike many others. It’s grounded in reality but also far-fetched in its technology and content matter. It’s also a young genre that has captured the hearts of millions of people worldwide.
Could it have something to do with our innate sense of curiosity?
I mean, who here hasn’t thought about flying cars or all the other cool things we’re going to invent. It’s why companies spend billions of dollars each year pumping research into creating robots and feeding artificial intelligence programs information.
We’re curious to see how technology will shape our lives – for better or for worse. And science fiction is here to help us imagine those futures. Sure, it may be in a world that doesn’t look like ours, but the technology and social issues are ours.
So let me show you how all of this works together to create such a beloved fiction genre.
What is Science Fiction?
Let’s start with our definition:
Science Fiction: fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and significant social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.
Science fiction focuses on science and technology, true, but it also focuses on how scientific advancements impacts our society and environment. In other words, it’s not just about science. It’s about how science affects our day-to-day lives.
The genre covers a broad range of subjects, but central to all of them is science, technology, and a what-if question that must be answered before the end of the book.
The Different Types of Science Fiction
We also have the wonderful conundrum of having different types of science fiction, and I’m not just talking about the subgenres. What I’m talking about is hard science versus soft science. Here are the definitions for each:
Hard science fiction is based on scientific principles such as physics, chemistry, and astronomy.
Soft science fiction is either not scientifically accurate or modeled after “soft sciences” such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology.
Both types set expectations for readers. It allows them to understand what type of world they’re in and what to expect from it. And from these two types of science fiction, we have many themes, tropes, and subgenres that emerge.
How Does Science Fiction Differ From Fantasy and Speculative Fiction?
If you plan on pitching your work to a literary agent or publisher, then you’ll need to know what genre your novel is in. They like to see this sort of information. Plus, it’ll help you market your book later on.
And let’s be honest, science fiction and fantasy are similar, and speculative fiction gets throw around as a stand-in term for science fiction. But is it really science fiction, and is science fiction another form of fantasy?
Let’s take a look:
The Prominent Themes
First, let’s look at some of the most common themes that you can find in science fiction. This by no means is an extensive list. If you want a better list, check out this article by Wikipedia.
Utopias and Dystopias
The idea of the utopia was posed to readers in the fifteenth century by Sir Thomas More. It’s an idea that society can become an ideal place if we do or achieve x, y, and z. It’s either a reality that we can never obtain but should strive for or an even worse reality than what we have now. Of course, it all depends on how you want to look at it.
And these types of utopias thrived for political thinkers in the nineteenth century. Why? Because it allowed them to vocalize their discontent with the systems in place and warn western civilization about the potential shortcomings of the Industrial Revolution.
On the other hand, dystopias are imperfect worlds where rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters rule the day. They strive for ideals but are locked in place by the forces that govern society and must be rebelled against before we can move to a new order.
These two opposing viewpoints are central themes to many science fiction and fantasy worlds. However, you can commonly find utopias and dystopias battling it out in the pages of a science fiction novel. If you don’t believe me, then you may want to check out the following titles:
- Island by Aldous Huxley.
- Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
- News From Nowhere by William Morris
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster
- 1984 by George Orwell
- The Shape of Things to Come by H. G. Wells
Science fiction novels don’t just stop at what we see in the here and now. They also like to throw human and alien races together to see what would happen, and it’s not just limited to humans and aliens. Here are some novels to check out to give you an idea of what an alternate society might look like:
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
- Neuromancer by William Gibson
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Sex and Gender
Contrary to popular belief, science fiction isn’t entirely written by men for men. The genre has a natural affinity for feminist theory because it allows (primarily female) authors to reimagine society. It provided them with a tool to isolate and highlight particular issues. (i.e., reproductive rights, equality for all, etc.)
The genre provides many feminist science fiction authors with the tools necessary to “[look] beyond their particular historical moment, analyzing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.”
And it’s this forward-thinking that has given us many great stories to work with, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Unfortunately, most of these feminist tales end in a dystopian state.
Most of the things proposed in these tales could theoretically true, have happened in history, or are already in existence in today’s societies. As such, they become thought-provoking pieces for not just women but men as well.
Here are some titles for you to draw inspiration from:
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ
- Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon
Humans consider themselves to be the smartest being within the galaxy because no other animal has shown the same level of intellect that we possess. Then Darwin came along and introduced his theory of evolution. It got writers thinking about how we humans have evolved and if there may be another species out there advanced enough to escape our notice.
And because humans thought we had conquered the planet and knew all that we needed to know about its inhabitants, we decided to turn our attention to the stars. If anything intelligent were hiding anywhere, it would be up there, and hence, aliens were created.
Or something like that. Writers took Darwinism and put it to the test in space because it was a new void that allowed them to explore the concept of evolution without too much humanness getting in the way.
I know this is a prevalent theme, but here are some notable tales featuring our extraterrestrial foes (or friends):
- The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
- A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- Alien (1979)
Space and Time Travel
If you’re going to have aliens in your world, it might be wise to go and find them in the vast emptiness of the universe. And many science fiction authors took this to heart as many tales contain the element of space travel.
Reasons for space travel vary and range from exploratory missions to Mars to finding a new home for the human race. Regardless, humanity has stepped away from the realm of normal and into one full of possibility.
After the first moon landing in 1969, living and being in outer space lost its charm due to the difficulties of getting and staying there. This lead many authors to deviate from the norm and change the rules – and technology – to suit their needs.
If space travel isn’t your thing, then you may want to take a trip through time instead. It gave us a mechanical way to control the events of the past and future. It provides the author a chance to rewrite and reimagine history. Or give us a glimpse of things to come. Just beware of the time-traveler’s paradox.
Here are some space and time travel classics to watch:
- The Time Machine (1960 and 2002),
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1972),
- Back to the Future (1985),
- Terminator (1984),
- Looper (2012).
- The Star Wars franchise
- The Star Trek franchise
Alternate Histories and Realities
Altering the course of history is a theme that goes hand-in-hand with time travel. But our fictional ability to change events came with some issues, like the grandfather paradox. Thankfully, there were some clever writers out there that solved these issues in ingenious ways.
The genre also picked up the idea of alternate realities in the 1930s. In part, the concept of parallel universes or multiverses comes from physics, grounding the notion in science regardless of its speculative nature. The creation of these other dimensions allowed writers to bring historical figures into fiction as characters without upsetting too many people. They could distort well-known settings and events at will.
Here are some examples:
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
- Ada by Vladimir Nabokov
- Sidewise in Time by Murray Leinster
High technologies are things that don’t come with everyday life. These are things like plumbing, birth control, immunization, etc.
Instead, science fiction idolizes technology that awakens the imagination. It features technology that we don’t have easy access to and can significantly impact the world, so think of things like atomic bombs, space travel, “the information superhighway,” virtual reality, etc.
You know, big, lofty ideas.
The genre doesn’t disregard things like plumbing or birth control because they are commonplace, though that is a factor. It also passes judgment on the technology in the story. It tells us whether space travel is good or bad or if we should utilize the power of the atomic bomb or not.
There are a lot of tropes that come up time and again in science fiction. They’re good loopholes to physics problems, like traveling quickly through space (i.e., light speed or warp speed), and others help filmmakers avoid spending loads of money on creating elaborate sets (i.e., “Beam me up, Scotty!”).
So here is a list of some common tropes you can find in science fiction movies and novels:
The History of the Science Fiction Genre
You’ve got two options here. You can watch this brief but dry video on the genre’s history, or you can read my extended, in-depth version below.
Before Science Fiction
As with most genres, its root can be found way before it ever became a genre, and science fiction is no different. The genre has its origins in the second century CE in the Mediterranean. The Syrian-born Greek satirist Lucien published Trip to the Moon to satirize government, society, and religion while evading libel suits, censorship, and persecution.
However, it isn’t until the seventeenth century that we see some of the hallmarks of the science fiction genre emerge. According to Britannica, Cyrano de Bergerac wrote of a utopian society on the Moon. This story had a significant impact on the satirists and social critics to come. Most notably, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) bear the marks of de Bergerac’s work in their depictions of weird monsters, gross inversions of normalcy, and satire.
Another precursor was Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante, a work of French political speculation set in a twenty-fifth-century utopian society that worships science. Mercier’s story was the first one to show the potential for a realized utopia on earth.
The 19th and early 20th centuries
In 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published Frankenstein, the first book of science fiction. There’s some controversy over whether she is the first or if Isaac Asimov or Jules Verne was the first. Both men published after Shelley, and her book contains all of the necessary attributes associated with the genre, making it science fiction. And for these reasons, I think it is prudent to disregard the claims that these men wrote the first science fiction novels.
Jules Verne was a contributor to the development of the genre. His story Paris in the Twentieth Century depicts a life filled with elevated trains, automobiles, facsimile machines, and computer-like banking machines in the 1960s, mimicking what we now take for granted as commonplace. Verne was known for his ability to describe balloons, submarines, trains, mechanical elephants, and many other engineering marvels, with unmatchable technical accuracy and humor.
Other writers who significantly impacted the genre include Isaac Asimov, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Dean Howells, William Morris, and H. G. Wells.
Mass Markets and Science Fiction for Children
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, changes in the publishing landscape ushered in a new way for writers to publish their stories. Gone were the hefty three-volume works of fiction from the Victorian era, causing an onslaught of magazines. This shift gave short story writers a way to get eyes on their work, and science fiction writers used this to their advantage.
The movement towards magazine publication was also brought on by the development of a cheap process for converting wood pulp into paper and the increasing mechanization of the printing process. These two things allowed publishers to produce inexpensive “pulp” magazines to the masses.
In the US, dime novels (low-quality pamphlets worth a nickel) and boys’ adventure magazines were more popular than ever. The stories distributed in these books and magazines often contained science fiction elements that appealed to younger audiences.
Edgar Rice Burroughs took advantage of the popularity of science fiction novels with the younger generation and adapted the European-style “literary” science fiction into something more suited for a younger audience. And that is how the character, John Carter, was born.
The success of juvenile science fiction stories in the US moved the center of the genre into American hands and sparked the rise of adult-oriented science fiction pulp magazines in the 1920s.
The Golden Age
In 1926, Hugo Gernsback founded the magazine Amazing Stories, and its success paved the way for many imitators and successors. It was so successful that many Americans falsely believed that they had invented science fiction.
By 1934, the genre was so popular that the Science Fiction League was established to give the fans of the genre a place to “hang out,” and chapters of the organization could be found across the US, the UK, and Australia. This organization, like many others, provided young devotees to publish their first work and develop their skills to become the next generation of science fiction masters. There were conventions, feuds, and friendships, all nurtured by these organizations.
Another influential figure in the golden age was John W. Campbell Jr., who edited the magazine Astounding Science Fiction between 1937 and 1971. Campbell attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his B.S. in physics from Duke University, cementing his belief that science fiction should adhere to the hard and fast rules of the world.
His beliefs developed the hard science “type” within the genre, and its prevalence remained for years to come. He brought us stories from Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, and Theodore Sturgeon.
Soviet Science Fiction
The US wasn’t the only country experiencing a science fiction boom. The Soviets liked to use the allegorical nature of the genre allowed authors to freely express themselves in a totalitarian state. Soviet science fiction spawned several subgenres, such as the techno-thriller detective stories and Cosmonaut space operas.
Science Fiction After World War II
After World War II, pulp magazines fell out of favor, and new paperback digests replaced them. Two digests, in particular, prospered: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction.
These digest could be found in paperback form and became more sophisticated, urbane, and satiric. They moved away from the focus on technology and started speculating on society and culture, sparking the growth of soft science fiction.
The genre grew in popular esteem after the advent of the atomic bomb (1945) and the launch of Sputnik (1957). It was also filled with Cold War-induced paranoia and fear. The most fitting example of this would be Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke enjoyed worldwide fame and unmatched popularity during the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. And as tensions eased the Soviet Union along with the focus on the space race, there was a significant uptick in science fiction readership.
During this time, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) was established to support the writing community and continue growing the genre.
Science Fiction Cinema and TV
I haven’t touched much on the history of science fiction in film and television at this point. Much has happened in the development of the genre in the movie industry, and if you want a great synopsis, check out this article by Raindance. Of course, I’ll give you some broader strokes here too.
Everything started with silent films. Science fiction films were usually one to three minutes long and leaned toward the comical. The first official science fiction film was Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) by George Méliès. The special effects used in the movie paved the way for future movies and became very popular after its release. There were also numerous book adaptations, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1910) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913).
In the 1930s and 1940s, low-budget films led the way and continued to use elements like space travel, high-tech gadgets, and mad scientists. It isn’t until after World War II that things got interesting.
After World War II
Anxiety over the atomic bomb and the apocalyptic effects of nuclear war played heavily in the films of the 1950s. The Cold War sparked the Golden Age of science fiction in film in the US. We also see a rise in alien movies during this time.
But it isn’t until the 1960 and 1970s that the genre took off. The 1960s brought a continuation of the series started in the previous decade, and studios targeted young audiences, especially in the early half of the decade. In the latter half, many sci-fi films were produced and transformed the genre.
American science fiction television series, such as Star Trek, did very well and helped set the stage for more serious cinema adaptations of science fiction. Movies such as Fahrenheit 451 (1966), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Charly (1968), and Planet of the Apes (1968) earned critical praise and attracted a growing number of directors and actors to the genre. Blockbuster movies such as Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) proved that science fiction had finally moved beyond its B-film status.
After the 1970s, special effects became a significant focus for science fiction films in America. Movies such as The Terminator series, the Alien series, and the Jurassic Park series became major money earners worldwide. Additionally, the decade also saw a growth in animation, which acted as a medium for science fiction films. This was primarily successful in Japan, where anime started.
The Rise of the Internet
The 1990s and the internet sparked a new subgenre known as cyberpunk, which utilizes a futuristic setting with advanced technological and scientific achievement. The internet and the genre paved the way for many internet-themed films, including The Matrix (1999). Disaster films remained popular but included updated themes.
Computers also played a part in the making of a movie. They made it easier to add special effects and produce films, making it easier to add more complicated effects. These improvements allowed many sequels to include features with many enhancements.
The internet has played a significant role in the film industry since its emergence in the previous decade. However, science fiction has decreased in popularity slightly at the box office due to the popularity of fantasy and superhero movies.
Tips for Writing Science Fiction
I know you’re not just here for definitions, tropes, themes, or the genre’s history. You’re here because you want to write science fiction. So here are my tips for writing a reality-based but mind-boggling tale:
Reading is an essential tool for any writer regardless of the genre you write in, and science fiction is no different. Read widely throughout the genre to familiarize yourself with the various tropes and themes used in the genre. That way, you can turn those familiar elements on their head.
You should be reading nonfiction publications in both the hard and soft sciences so that you can keep abreast of the latest scientific breakthroughs. It also gives you the bonus option of getting in on “new” trends in the genre before they get big.
Do your research.
Yes, you are making a lot of stuff up when you’re developing an alien race or a dystopian world unlike ours. However, there’s a reason why this is called science fiction, not fantasy. And you need to do your research.
It doesn’t mean you need to learn molecular physics or quantum mechanics. But it would be best if you had a rudimentary understanding of what they entail.
For example, you have flying cars in your world. Look into the established feats in this area in science and what they’re doing to fix particular issues. Combing your vision of a flying car with today’s science will make it more realistic to your readers.
Go back to high school and create a hypothesis.
Science is based on hypotheses. It’s about taking what you think will happen and then putting it through various trials to see if it could happen. And you need to do this with science fiction.
I’d start with a question and then try to answer that question. Look at its benefits and drawbacks. Is there anything wrong with your methodology, etc.? Explore your topic from various angles.
There’s a simple formula you can follow when determining your plot: reality + what if = your answer.
For example, Margaret Atwood explores misogyny, slavery, and war in The Handmaid’s Tale in many ways. The movie Passengers also explored loneliness when surrounded by others and what happens when technology fails us.
Don’t let science get in the way of a good story.
Science puts “the science” in science fiction. (I dare you to say that five times fast.)
It grounds your story in a reality readers understand, but it can also get in your way. Most of the science you may be dealing with will go over the heads of your readers.
So make sure you’re balancing those scientific intricacies with the needs of your story. You don’t have to show off all of that research you did. You need to use enough of it to get your tale across.
Remember, science should be a tool to help you write the story, not the story itself.
Make it real.
You are inviting readers into a world that could vary very differently from the ones we currently inhabit. So make sure you put in those sensory details like taste, touch, smell to bring your world alive.
Don’t be afraid to try something new.
Mary Shelley created a new genre when she penned Frankenstein. It was a new and novel idea at the time, just like the development of space and time travel and the internet. So don’t be afraid to branch out of the norms, to explore the effects a new technology can have upon our world.
With fantasy and science fiction, in particular, you need to keep the rules and details of your world consistent. Readers will pick up on these small changes, and if you don’t give them a good reason for why things aren’t staying consistent, you’re going to get some cranky emails.
Build your world.
Like fantasy, science fiction is about made-up worlds, and you will need to build them from the ground up. So don’t forget to think about the small and big details. You can find out more about world-building and creating alternate realities by clicking the links.
Don’t forget the human connection.
This goes back to my previous point about not letting the science get in the way. You still need to consider the human connection, regardless of whether your characters are robots, aliens, or something else.
It means that you need to focus on character development and think of how “humans” react to everything around them. The best way to ground your story in reality, aside from the rules that come with science, is to let your audience identify with a character like us.
Consider what’s going on around you.
Science fiction provides an excellent medium for you to explore current social movements and trends because it gets us out of the everyday and into a different world.
Why should you do this? Well, the characters in your novel or short story don’t just interact with the technology of the day but with each other as well, allowing us to explore complex issues in a safe space.
And if you need an example of this, then look no further than the sex and gender section of this post. Science fiction has been a vehicle of communication for feminism for years, and that doesn’t mean we need to limit it to those types of topics.
Science fiction is a beast to cover. In its relatively short history as a genre, it has tickled the fancy of men, women, and children, tempting them to dream big and of a future that is so unlike ours.
Yes, there are some darker notes in the dystopias, but there have also been innovations and triumphs.
But this one genre will keep on producing new material no matter what happens to society because it reflects the human race’s ability to adapt and look into the future. To reinvent itself time and time again as we strive to better.
And at the core, I think that’s what science fiction is about – getting better as a species and progressing towards a (hopefully) brighter future.
Are there any science fiction tips that you’d like to share? Anything I missed? Is there anything you want me to go into more detail about? What’s your favorite science fiction book or movie? Please let me know in the comments below!
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.