A lot goes into writing a science fiction novel, and for most of us science noobs, things can get confusing fast, especially when words like technocracy and quantum slip steam get thrown around. So I thought I’d introduce you to some of the science fiction terms and concepts you’ll come across in the genre.
I want to warn you that this is not a complete list of science fiction terms and is a starting point for your research or to help clarify things. With that said, let’s get to it!
49 Science Fiction Terms to Familiarize Yourself With
I don’t want to tease this out for too long, so let’s dive into some science fiction terms you should know:
Science fiction is full of technology that is currently beyond our capabilities to produce now or ever. It’s basically “magic” without calling it such.
An alien is a creature not from Earth or your character’s home planet.
An artificial life form that acts like or resembles a human. They can be made from any material, including organic materials like flesh.
Artificial Intelligence (AI).
These are human-created intelligent beings that live in a virtual environment such as a computer.
Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics
Isaac Asimov created three programmed safeguards robots will follow in the absence of human control:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Beaming technology fires a high-energy beam of light in a straight line from point A to point B. It can be used as a weapon or transport matter.
In physics, a black hole is a point in space where gravity is so strong that nothing—no particles or even electromagnetic radiation such as light—can escape it. In science fiction, black holes are used as a way for characters to travel to other dimensions and through time.
The three maxims formulated by Arthur C. Clarke:
- Clarke’s First Law. “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
- Clarke’s Second Law. “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
- Clarke’s Third Law. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Clones are copies of living beings. The clones sometimes have the original’s memories or are given memories. They can bring characters back from the dead without the use of magic.
Humans are obsessed with spreading human civilization across the galaxy. However, most of the colony border planets are destroyed by some mysterious malignant force.
Credits are the currency of space.
These are part-organic, part-synthetic humanoid constructs.
Deep space is the wild west of space. It’s far away from planets or stars and can contain some unlawful characters.
Energy Shields/Force Fields.
Energy shields and force fields protect individuals and starships from attacks. They make it easy for your characters to enter combat even if their weapons can’t get through the enemy’s shield. Shields on starships are measured in percentages.
Federation of Planets.
Federations are essentially the UN of space. They are alliances between the different star systems.
Faster Than Light (FTL).
FTL refers to fictional ships that can travel beyond the speed of light.
Gigantic Death Rays, Super Weapons.
In fanciful science fiction, the bad guys use superweapons that shoot red or green laser beams and destroy planets. Think the Death Star in Star Wars.
A humanoid is a non-human being that has a human-like bodily form.
A way to travel quickly between two points in space by passing through another dimension – usually subspace.
Nova Bombs/Star Busters.
These are nukes that can destroy a solar system.
Null Space, Z-Space, Final Space, The Warp.
These terms refer to a dimension between normal space and other dimensions where the universe’s rules don’t apply. You can find, or avoid, mind-destroying horrors and other eldritch aberrations in this area.
Parallel worlds allow your characters to interact with another dimension, often like their own, but with minor differences. One of my favorite Community episodes explored the idea of parallel universes:
Our solar systems are vast areas of space filled with planets your character can visit with and without protective coverings. You’ll need to focus on world-building elements for each place.
This is a class of humans that have become so different from us that they are no longer truly human. The Morlocks and Eloi from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine are an example.
Amount of energy dependent upon the frequency of the radiation associated with electromagnetic waves.
Quantum Slip Steam.
It is a narrowly focused, directed field initiated by manipulating the fabric of the space-time continuum at the quantum level. In plain speak, it means a starship can move FTL through time and space by altering things on a quantum level.
Ray Gun, Blaster, Phaser, Heat-Ray, etc.
These are handheld weapons that show you are “in the future.” In practice, they function exactly like a gun, except they can start a campfire or disintegrate an enemy.
An inorganic humanoid programmed to carry out a set of constructions.
Robotic Exoskeleton, Mech (Sometimes Mecha メカ), Powered Armor.
These are mechanical suits used as protective armor in futuristic battles to allow medieval-style combat in a futuristic setting.
These are any beings, organic or otherwise, including AIs that can feel.
This is the lifeless void between stars and planets. However, it is populated with interesting people and species that your characters can interact with.
These are the forward borders of your space-bound civilization. They are often too far away from the core to send for help, and some suffer lawlessness.
This is a group of people who have control over a vast area of space. (Think of the Roman Empire.)
A space vessel crewed by a large group of humanoid beings. The starship travels through space and time and is home to the humanoids that live in it. Starships have many different purposes and functions.
Here are some types of starships you may come across:
- Cryoships contain human crews that are “put to sleep” for long journies through space, so they don’t age.
- Generation ships transport generations of humans who live and die aboard. They are huge and have large populations and spacious living quarters.
You can find more spaceship types here.
Subspace is a dimension that is next to or under normal space. It is used to send messages or objects at FTL speeds.
Technobabble is nonsense words that explain improbable technological events, such as “re-route power to the forward flux capacitor.”
A civilization based around the worship of technology.
There are two forms of teleportation in the literature. The first comes from Star Trek and the second from Stargate.
In Star Trek, teleportation involves de-materializing an object or person in one place and re-materializing them in another. You end up with a new person reassembled from possibly different materials in this case.
In Stargate, teleportation involves ripping an object apart at the atomic level and then reassembling it on the other end with the same atoms to get the same person.
This is the process of turning a planet into an environment that is suitable for life.
There are several time paradoxes that potential time travelers need to be aware of before making any travel plans. These articles by Astronomy Trek and Quirk Books highlight the different problems, why they’re problematic, and how to get around them.
Time machines and natural objects (like black holes) are convenient modes of time travel. However, they tend to accidentally transport your characters into another dimension or timeline by mistake.
Tractor beams help your starship move objects out of the way or trap enemy ships.
Transhuman is a term used to describe the in-between stage of a person transitioning from humanity to post-humanity. For example, a person becoming a cyborg is transhuman.
Warp Drive/HyperDrive/Quantum Drive/ FTL Drive.
These refer to the engines that move starships through space at FTL speeds.
Warp speed is a form of FTL that creates energy fields around a spaceship that allow it to warp the fabric of reality and propel it through space.
The study of aliens.
Electromagnetic waves are produced when cathode rays bombard matter.
Extra Science Fiction Terms Resources
As I previously mentioned, those are not all of the science fiction terms you need to know. Just some of the more common ones that you could come across.
So I’ve compiled some resources for you to help you fill in any knowledge gaps you may have:
- The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. It is a “quotation-based dictionary of the language of science fiction.”
- Jot 101 has compiled a slightly outdated list of science fiction terms from 1954. There’s a lot of science terms and definitions. It’s a good starting point for science research.
- Bowdoin College has a list of terms, definitions, and sources for you to check out that all relate to science fiction.
These may not be all of the terms you need to know to write a science fiction novel, but they give you a good start. Some of them are simple and have evolved as the genre grew and diversified. Others are science-based.
Regardless of their origins, these science fiction terms form a basis of knowledge that you can use and expand upon over time. I wish you luck with your travels through time and space!
Are there any science fiction terms that I need to add?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.