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Science fiction is a genre of fiction in which at least part of the narrative depends on the impact of science, either real or imagined, to generate settings or events which have not yet occurred in reality (and may never do so).

Robert A. Heinlein, a leading writer of science fiction, wrote "A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method." <ref>Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues in The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism, Advent: Publishers, 1959. (This is a collection of lectures by Heinlein, Cyril Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and Robert Bloch given at the U of Chicago in 1957). He immediately adds that if you "strike out the word 'future' it can apply to all and not just almost all SF."

SF author Theodore Sturgeon wrote "A good science fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content." <ref>quoted in James Blish, More Issues at Hand: Critical Studies in Contemporary Science Fiction (Advent Publishers, 1970) ISBN 091168218X</ref>.

Of course, both of these authors are defining what they consider to be good science fiction. Not all writers or fans agree on how important realism and characterization are in science fiction. Any story, film, game, or toy that includes aliens, spaceships, time travel, or the future is called science fiction.

Definition and scope

Template:SF The borders of the genre are difficult to define, and the dividing lines between its subgenres are often fluid. In his book of essays, Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov half-seriously argues that if we were rigorous with our definitions, Shakespeare's play The Tempest would have to be termed science fiction.<ref>Vladmir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (McGraw Hill, 1973). Page 3 et seq. ISBN 0679726098</ref>

Broadly speaking, the science fiction genre is concerned with the effects of science or technology on society or individuals. These effects may be epic in scope or personal. The science-fictional elements may be imagined or rooted in reality, original or cliché. See science fiction genres for a list of some genres.

Science fiction and fantasy

A science fiction story may be firmly rooted in real scientific possibilities (see Hard science fiction) as they are understood at the time of writing, as in Arthur C. Clarke's novel A Fall of Moondust, or highly imaginative, set in an extraterrestrial civilization or a parallel universe, as in Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves.

Some science fiction portrays events that fall outside of science as currently understood, as in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. But one alternate viewpoint on such tales is to view them not from the current era's understanding of science, but to view the tale in the context of the known science during the time the tale was written. Another example of that would be Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, which postulated a private enterprise exploration of the earth's moon decades in advance of the real events in 1969— thus a contemporary reader might instead take the work as a member of the subgenre Alternate history, rather than the Hard science fiction work it was at the time of its publication.

Also, different readers have different ideas about what counts as scientifically "realistic"; an uneducated person will have different expectations about what science can do than a professional physicist. As Clarke himself stated, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (third in Clarke's three laws)<ref>Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future (Macmillan, 1973). In the essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination". ISBN 0330236199</ref>. Thus, even fiction that depicts innovations ruled out by current scientific theory, such as stories about faster-than-light travel, may still be classified as science fiction, as they are in the popular Honorverse novels and stories by David Weber.

Accordingly, the borderline between fantasy and science fiction is blurred, and many bookstores shelve science fiction and fantasy together. There is a substantial overlap between the audiences of science fiction and fantasy literature, and many science fiction authors have also written works of fantasy. Fans often nominate works of fantasy for SF awards such as the Hugo and Nebula, clearly indicating a substantial overlap among readers.

Indeed, it can be argued that science fiction is simply a modern form of fantasy. According to this view, the elements that would previously have been presented as fantasy (e.g., magic, shapeshifting, divination, mind-reading, fabulous beasts, and so on) are rationalized or supported through scientific or quasiscientific explanations such as marvelous devices, mutation, psychic abilities, aliens, etc.

This definition is resisted by some scholars and writers who attempt to define the genre's aspects more sharply, and advocate an aspiration to present a world without mystical or supernatural forces. For example, in such works as Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin emphasises a cognitive element in SF. According to Suvin, the purpose of science fiction is to introduce scientific or technological novelties in order to create narratives that enable us to perceive everyday reality at a reflective distance. He uses the term cognitive estrangement to label this effect.

Some SF clearly exhibits this aspiration, but not all. As a result, some theorists are able to emphasise the difference between SF and fantasy, while others emphasise continuity. It is also common to see narratives described as being essentially SF but "with fantasy elements." Template:Citation needed More recently, the term "science fantasy" has been increasingly used to describe such material.

Science fiction and mainstream literature

Science fiction can overlap with more mainstream fiction.

If the society, the person, the technology, and the scientific knowledge base in the story are all drawn from observed reality, without much detail about the scientific aspects, the story may be classed as mainstream, contemporary fiction rather than as science fiction, like Marooned by Martin Caidin, or virtually all the novels by Tom Clancy. If the characters' thoughts and feelings about the laws of the universe, time, reality, and human invention are unusual and tend toward existential re-interpretation of life's meaning in relation to the technological world, then it may be classed a modernist work of literature that overlaps with the themes of science fiction. Examples include Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, William Burroughs's Nova Express, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and much of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Stanisław Lem.

Speculative fiction

The broader category of speculative fiction (first suggested by Robert A. Heinlein) includes science fiction, fantasy, alternate histories (which often have no particular scientific or futuristic component), and even literary stories in which the only fantastic element is the strangeness of their style. Jorge Luis Borges's short stories are particularly known for their speculative style, and Olaf Stapledon's Darkness and the Light, which presents two possible futures for mankind defined by developments in ethics and philosophy, is a good example of speculative fiction. Another branch of speculative fiction is the utopian or dystopian story. These are sometimes claimed by science fiction on the grounds that sociology is a science. Many satirical novels with fantastic settings qualify as speculative fiction. Gulliver's Travels, The Handmaid's Tale, Nineteen Eighty-four, and Brave New World are examples. "Magic realism" could be regarded as a form of speculative fiction.

Slipstream fiction

Slipstream is a term coined for fiction that does not fit comfortably either inside or outside the science fiction genre. A good example is the Hugo-nominated novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

Precursors of science fiction

Precursors of the contemporary genre, such as Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), the same author's post-apocalyptic The Last Man (1826), and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) plainly are science fiction, whereas Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), based on the supernatural, is not. A borderline case is Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where the time travel is unexplained, but subsequent events make realistic use of science. Shelley's novel and Stevenson's novella are early examples of a standard science fiction theme: The obsessed scientist whose discoveries worsen a bad circumstance.

Purpose of science fiction

Science fiction has often been concerned with the great hopes people place in science but also with their fears concerning the negative side of technological development; the latter is expressed in the classic theme of the hubristic scientist who is destroyed by his own creation.

Much science fiction attempts to generate a sense of wonder, or awe, from the setting, circumstances, or ideas presented. Paradigm shifts may be used to induce a sense of shock, or a change in the frame of reference for the reader.

A popular misconception is that science fiction attempts to predict the future. Some commentators may even go so far as to judge the "success" of a work of science fiction on the accuracy of its predictions.Template:Citation needed However, while some science fiction is set in the future, most authors are not attempting literally to predict it; instead, they use the future as an open framework for their themes. As Ray Bradbury put it, "People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it."<ref>Ray Bradbury, Beyond 1984: A Remembrance of Things Future (Targ Editions, 1979). ISBN ?</ref> A science fiction writer is generally not trying to write a history of the future that they believe will happen, any more than a writer of westerns is trying to create a historically accurate depiction of the old West. Writers are as likely to write of a future that they hope will not happen as they are to write about a future they think will happen. Future societies and remarkable technological innovations are presented as enabling devices for cognitive exploration - or simply for entertainment - and the narratives are not meant to be predictive in any simple way. There are exceptions, however, especially in early science fiction.

According to Eric S. Rabkin:

"The touchstone for scientific fiction, then, is that it describes an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences. The most serious pieces of this fiction arise from speculation about what may happen if science makes an extraordinary discovery. The romance is an attempt to anticipate this discovery and its impact upon society, and to foresee how mankind may adjust to the new condition." (Pilgrims Through Space and Time [New York, 1947])

Subject matter

Science fiction covers numerous distinct subjects. Many of these were originally treated by early pioneers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.

The following subjects from works by Verne are found in much later science fiction:

H.G. Wells pioneered the following subjects:


Early science fiction was published in books and in general circulation magazines.


The cover of issue one of Amazing Stories, the first science fiction magazine. The artwork is by Frank R. Paul.

The science fiction magazine began in 1926 with the publication of Amazing Stories edited by Hugo Gernsback. Most science fiction written between 1926 and the early 1950s appeared in science fiction magazines.Template:Citation needed Since then, there has been a huge increase in the amount of written science fiction published.Template:Citation needed Today most written science fiction appears in books although there is still a significant amount published in magazines and now online.Template:Citation needed


Beginning early in the history of silent film, the science fiction film established a genre of its own, generally more sensational and less scientific than written science fiction. Some examples of early silent science fiction films include Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). Many of the movie serials of the 1940s and 1950s were science fiction, and led into early science fiction television programming (see below).

It has often been said that science fiction film lags about fifty years behind written science fiction. For example, George Lucas' landmark 1977 film Star Wars has been compared to the pulp science fiction in Planet Stories, first published in 1939. Following the success of Star Wars, there has been an explosion of science fiction films. Films in the genre now regularly achieve blockbuster status, such as Alien, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Matrix, and many others.

Science fiction films also explore more serious topics and some aim for high artistic standards, especially following Stanley Kubrick's influential 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Contemporary filmmakers have found science fiction to be a useful genre for exploring political and moral issues, such as 1997's Gattaca (genetic engineering), 2002's Minority Report (civil liberties and free will), and 2005's Serenity (government secrecy).


Science fiction television dates from at least as early as 1938, when the BBC staged a live performance of the science fiction play R.U.R.. The first regularly scheduled SF series to achieve a degree of popularity was Captain Video and his Video Rangers, which ran from 1949 to 1955 on the American DuMont Network. The Twilight Zone, originally broadcast in the United States from 1959-1964, was the first successful SF series intended primarily for adults, although it often blurred the distinctions between science fiction, science fantasy and fantasy. The TV serial Doctor Who first aired on BBC in 1963 and continued through 1989, introducing generations of U.K. viewers to the science fiction genre. Star Trek aired on NBC from 1966 to 1969, introducing a wider U.S. audience to the tropes of real science fiction.

File:Enterprise orig.jpg
The USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) from Star Trek is an iconic image from television science-fiction.

Several once-popular SF shows have recently experienced a resurgence as the genre's popularity has increased. The Twilight Zone, for example, has seen two major revivals, from 1985-1989 and from 2002-2003. The most successful of the revivals in the late 20th century was undoubtedly the Star Trek franchise, which generated four spin off series between 1987 and 2005. Doctor Who has also been remade recently by BBC Wales, and is now one of the most highly rated shows on British television.<ref>Ratings Update for Doctor Who(BBC) (Retrieved 5 May 2006)</ref> The recent re-make of Battlestar Galactica has won both critical praise and increased viewership on the Sci Fi Channel.


Science fiction entered the comic strip medium in 1929 with Buck Rogers, followed in 1934 by Flash Gordon. The majority of Americans before the 1950s never encountered any science fiction other than in the "funny papers," and assumed all SF was like this comic strip material; the phrase "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff"Template:Citeneeded was often used to describe it, originally as an insult but later fondly by some fans.

The comic book began by reprinting comic strips, and Buck and Flash both had their own comic book reprints. As soon as original comic books began to appear, science fiction was a major genre. Planet Stories had a comic book companion. Hugo Gernsback published Wonderworld with art by pulp artist Frank R. Paul. Later EC Comics published the much beloved Weird Science and Weird Fantasy which first stole and later actually paid to adapt stories by Ray Bradbury. DC Comics published Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space, edited by Julius Schwartz.

Whether superheroes themselves are science fiction or fantasy is a matter of opinion -- they routinely break the laws of physics -- but superhero comic books often use science fiction tropes such as alien invasion, time travel, space travel, and giant robots. Many writers have worked in both prose science fiction and comic books. Examples include Alfred Bester, Gardner Fox, Edmond Hamilton, and J. Michael Straczynski.


File:H2G2 Phase3 front cover.jpg
An audio release of the radio program The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Early radio science fiction began by adapting Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon stories for radio, but later brought some of the best magazine science fiction to a larger audience with Dimension X and X Minus One, which adapted stories by Asimov, Heinlein, Leiber, and other major writers for radio.

The most famous example of radio science fiction was Orson Welles' 1938 adaptation of The War of the Worlds on CBS Radio. Structured as a series of "news" bulletins, the program caused people across the U.S. to panic when some listeners believed it was real Template:Citeneeded .

Contemporary SF radio continues the tradition of adapting sources originally produced for other media. For example, the BBC has broadcast a number of audio plays based on the Doctor Who television series. Less frequently in the modern era, science fiction programs initially developed for radio have spread outwards to other formats. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is perhaps the best known property of this type, beginning on BBC radio in 1978 and subsequently spawning a series of best-selling novels, a computer game, comic books, audio recordings of the radio program and other products.

Other media

There have been a few science fiction stage plays, notably Los Angeles theater adaptations of Bradbury stories. There have been science fiction View-Master reels, notably "Sam Sawyer's Trip to the Moon." There have been original science fiction albums, such as Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds and The Firesign Theatre's "Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers." There is also a small but growing number of science-fiction operas.


The term "science fiction" first came into popular usage in the 1930s with the publication of Science Wonder Stories magazine by Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback had previously coined the portmanteau word "scientifiction" for the genre, but the term did not gain acceptance.Template:Citation needed Before then, stories in this genre were often referred to as "scientific romances."Template:Citation needed

Two competing abbreviations for "science fiction" are in common usage. "SF" (or "S.F.") is the term most commonly used by science fiction writers and serious fans. This is also the preferred usage in the U.K..

The euphonic "sci-fi," popularized by Forrest J Ackerman in 1954, but coined earlier by Robert A. HeinleinTemplate:Citation needed, has grown in popularity and is today by far the commonest term used in the popular press, although many hardcore fans and authors continue to wince at its usage or even consider it offensive. Brian Aldiss, defending the abbreviation "SF," notes that it is flexible enough to stand for science fantasy or speculative fiction, as well as science fiction.Template:Citation needed Some detractors of the term "sci-fi" have corrupted its pronunciation to "skiffy," which itself has become a sub-genre term for poorly made science fiction. Harlan Ellison has derided the term "sci-fi" as a "hideous neologism" that "sounds like crickets fucking,"

  • last = Harlan Ellison
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  • authorlink = Harlan Ellison
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  • year = 1998
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  • title = "Harlan Ellison responses to online fan questions at ParCon"
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a comment to which Ackerman responded by producing buttons bearing the slogan, "I love the sound of crickets making love."Template:Citation needed

One ongoing line of thought (as reflected in editorials in various genre magazines)Template:Citation needed is that SF is fiction where science genuinely plays a role in the story, while sci-fi is an entertainment genre featuring space ships, futuristic technology, bug-eyed monsters (BEMs) as exciting props and frightening images. In other words, in sci-fi the science elements are fantastical and intended to amaze and attract the reader or viewer, while in SF the science elements enable an original story that otherwise would not present the same conflicts and opportunities to the characters.

Another source of dislike for the term sci-fi term is the tendency for the mainstream to use it as a collective term that lumps together not only true science fiction but fantasy, horror, comic books, cult films, special effects action films, only marginally related genres such as anime and gaming, and completely unrelated fields such as UFOlogy. (The term "science fiction" itself has also been used at various times as a collective marketing term for these genres.)

Despite this controversy, two high-profile science fiction-based cable networks in the United States and the United Kingdom take their name from this term, although both networks air programming which may not fit into everyone's definition of "science fiction." The channel name may be particularly suitable for those who dislike the term sci-fi since, according to Dave Langford:

SF people [pronounce sci-fi] in tones of heavy irony to describe bad TV or movie sf.
Fandom As She Is Spoke, September 1995

A variation of the term is "sci-fantasy."


The science fiction genre has a strong fan community of readers and viewers, of which many authors are a part. Many people interested in science fiction wish to interact with like others who share the same interests; in time, an entire culture of science fiction fandom evolved. Local fan groups exist in most of the English-speaking world, as well as in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere; often, these groups publish their own works. Also, fans, in the common argot have created science fiction conventions as a way of meeting to discuss their mutual interests. Although some fan conventions are larger, the longest-running convention is the Worldcon.

Many amateur and professional fanzines ("fan magazines") exist, dedicated solely to keeping the science fiction fan informed on all aspects of the genre. The premiere literary awards of science fiction, the Hugo Awards, are awarded by members of the annual Worldcon, which is almost entirely run by fan volunteers; the other major science fiction literary award is the Nebula. Science fiction fandom often overlaps with other, similar interests, such as fantasy, role-playing games, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. The largest, annual, multi-genre science fiction convention is Dragon Con, held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Of course, the fans of science fiction have whole-heartedly embraced the Internet. There are fan fiction sites which include additional, fan-created stories featuring characters from the genre's books, movies, and television programs. Although these may be technically illegal under copyright law, they often are permitted when no profit is made from them, and there is clear understanding that the copyright remains property of the characters' original creators. There are fan sites devoted to Frank Herbert's Dune, Michael Moorcock's Multiverse, Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity, etc. and to television shows such as Doctor Who, and Star Trek and its derivatives.

SF fandom has frequently served as an incubator for special-interest groups which originally coalesced within it and then hived off to form organizations or entire subcultures of their own. Examples include the Society for Creative Anachronism, the L-5 Society, LARP gaming, Furry fandom, and anime. SF fandom also has close historical links and a large population overlap with the hacker culture, and has been a significant vector in the spread of both neopaganism and libertarianism.

See also


<references />

  • Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (Atheneum, 1986) ISBN 0-689-11839-2
  • Neil Barron, ed., Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 5th ed. (Libraries Unlimited, 2004) ISBN 1-59158-171-0
  • John Clute, Peter Nicholls, eds., The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin's Press, 1995) ISBN 0-312-13486-X
  • Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (Touchstone, 1998) ISBN 0-864-82405-1
  • Jutta Weldes, ed., To Seek Out New Worlds: Science Fiction and Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) ISBN 0-312-29557-X
  • Gary Westfahl, ed., The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders (three volumes) (Greenwood Press, 2005).
  • Gary K. Wolfe, Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship (Greenwood Press, 1986) ISBN 0-313-22981-3

SF portals


Bibliographies of SF in various languages