What is science fiction?
Science fiction (also called sci-fi or SF) is a form of speculative fiction. Stories within the genre are often concerned with science, time travel, space, cutting edge technology and aliens. It is a genre most concerned with how humanities’ technological advancement will affect its future.
The key characteristics of science fiction
Predicting the future
Futurism is commonly associated with sci-fi. Many novels, particularly the works of Azimov, revolve around predicting how future technology will affect society.
This often involves taking whatever area of science is developing at the fastest rate at that time and picturing how further advances would impact society. Which is part of the reason so many sci-fi works involving artificial intelligence have been released recently.
Science fiction as allegory
While science fiction is concerned with the future, that is only part of its appeal. Good sci-fi shows us what the world may be like in the future. Great science fiction uses the future as a way to reveal humanities soul as it is now. Often a novel’s hook will be its depiction of the future, but its message will be telling us something about the present.
Viewing humanity through alien eyes
One way humanity is often examined is by viewing it through alien eyes. Using aliens to describe humanity is a useful construct to allow the author try and be objective about the human condition and our social constructs.
It’s also a lot of fun to imagine what aliens would be like. How they would have evolved, how their physiology would have affected their society and outlook. Often this is used as a means of examining human societies through contrast. This is often an aspect of Larry Niven’s work, such as in the classic Ringworld.
What was the first science fiction novel?
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’s is often considered the first science fiction novel, although it is a hotly debated topic. Some say the genre goes as far back as Gilgamesh, with it’s apocalyptic elements and the hunt for humanity. However, we have to wait until Shelly’s Frankenstein before a true science fiction novel is written.
The plot of Frankenstein was one of the earliest novels to have it’s plot driven by cutting edge technology, contained a mad scientist and had an alien intelligence observing humanity from the outside.
What was the first science fiction film?
The Voyage dans la Lune, released in 1902, was the first science fiction movie. Created by Georges Méliès it was clearly inspired by the work of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Like many subsequent blockbusters, it was lauded for its special effects and was an instant crowd pleaser.
Science fiction sub-genres
A guide to the main science fiction genres.
Alien Invasion Science Fiction
Alien invasion quite simply involves aliens invading! Often it’s the Earth that’s been invaded, but it doesn’t have to be. This is a great genre to read if you want to see humanity up against impossible odds, as humanity is often outmatched by the alien invaders.
Alien invasion works tend to focus, in one way or another, on how humanity would react if we were suddenly confronted with the fact that we weren’t the strongest species in the universe. Often this is played for drama but sometimes it is put in a humorous context. Much of the tension comes from placing us humans in the position of underdog.
Cyberpunk mixes technological advancements with a breakdown of social order. Books in this genre often include cybernetics and cyberspace, as well as loners fighting against the establishment
You can find our favourite Cyberpunk books here. Or you can check out the below video for some cyberpunk movie tips.
Virtual Reality Science Fiction
Virtual reality science fiction is any story set or partially set in a computer generated or virtual environment. These environments can be purely visual or they can be sufficiently advanced to trick the other senses as well.
Works that include virtual reality in their plots often include themes such as the nature of reality and the comparisons between the mundane in the real world and the awesome in the virtual. There is also a strong connection between video games and virtual reality.
Space opera is a sub-genre of science fiction characterised by vast interstellar voyages, bizarre alien planets, and impossibly advanced technologies.
The seminal work Dune is a space opera. As are more recent classics Ancillary Justice and A Fire Upon the Deeps.
You can find a list of our favourite Space Opera books here.
Hard Science Fiction
This sub-genre can be distinguished by its emphasis on scientific accuracy. Plots will usually include certain technologies which are currently impossible to make, but otherwise, the novel will follow the laws of physics. For example, if the plot requires spaceships that travel at the speed of light then time dilation will still be a factor.
You can find our list of favourite hard science fiction novels here.
Soft Science Fiction
Some of the best sci-fi isn’t to do with technology, or aliens or even science. Sometimes science fiction is more interested in psychology and emotion.
Soft science fiction is examines the ‘soft sciences’, makes no attempt to be scientifically accurate or science fiction that fulfils both of these criteria.
If you’ve come across any Philip K Dick or Ursula Le Guin, chances are you’ve read some soft sci-fi.
Military Science Fiction
Military science fiction is characterised by the use of science fiction technology for militaristic purposes. The protagonists are normally part of a military organization that will undertake actions in space and on alien planets. Forever War is perhaps the best known work of this genre, and is on our best of military sci-fi list.
Near-Future Science Fiction
Near-future science fiction takes place in a time not too far from our own. The plots often take place in settings the modern reader will find familiar, but with a significant science fiction twist.
First science fiction books to read
Forget the awful of Will Smith adaptation, I,Robot is a book central to science fiction. The novel itself is actually a collection of short stories that share themes of robotics and morality. The novel’s main gift to science fiction is it’s three laws of Robotics, which have been reused ever since:
First Law – A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The novel that inspired Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a seminal Philip K Dick work. Like many of PK Dick’s works, it’s a little strange, but it is still a fairly accessible work. The novel intertwines themes of humanity and reality with a story of Deckard hunting down replicants. It’s a mournful tale that will echo in your mind long after you have read it.
The Lathe of Heaven
A soft science fiction classic. The Lathe of Heaven, written by Ursula Le Guin, follows the sad tale of George Orr. George is cursed by his dreams, which become reality when he wakes up. While this may sound like a fantastic talent, George lives in constant fear. Throughout the novel he is used for his talents by a predatory scientist, who uses George to change the world in the scientists favour. This plot is used be Le Guin to examine the relative benefits of Western and Eastern philosophies.
Rendezvous with Rama
Perhaps the book most associated with hard science fiction. The novels describes, with scientific detail, an expedition to a mysterious spaceship that enters our solar system. The spaceship, dubbed Rama, is vast and mysterious. The scientists do their best to uncover the secrets this ship holds, but struggle to decipher its alien design.
First science fiction movies to watch
2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick’s masterpiece has become a byword for grand, thought provoking science fiction. Few, if any, movies have captured the scope of science fiction as 2001:A Space Odyssey. With a story-line that spans the dawn of humanity to there reaching the stars, this movies has astounded and puzzled viewers since its release in 1968.
Blade Runner created a world, and aesthetic, that has since become synonymous with cyber punk. A vast cityscape made ugly by rampant commercialism. A world where people are downtrodden by forces beyond their understanding or control.
Blade Runner’s dark tale offers a lot of mystery and little hope, but is still one of the best science fiction movies of all time. It’s sequal is also worth checking out.
Forget the bloated sequels, the original Matrix was a film of beauty. Taut storytelling and groundbreaking cinematic techniques combined to make a brilliant movie.
First Science Fiction TV shows to watch
The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone was became a touchstone for a generation and has influenced countless science fiction shows that came afterwards. Each episode of the series, produced by Rod Serling, was a self contained story. The Twilight Zone featured fantasy and horror stories as well as science fiction.
The longest running sci-fi show in history. The first iteration of the show ran from 1963 until 1989. The series was revived for its current run in 2005. On one level Doctor Who is a kids science fiction show with cheap special effects. But, it’s become central to British TV because it both reflects British society and tries to push it gently into a more caring better place.
Each iteration of the show is marked by a different actor playing the Doctor, and each actor brings a different tone and style to the role.
Like Doctor Who, Star Trek has touched generations. Also like Doctor Who, parts of it’s remit has been to educate its audience. Each version of Star Trek has been distinct, but each one has had that distinct Treky ethos. People will argue endlessly over who is the best captain in the Trek universe (it’s Sisko), but what binds fans of the show together is a love gentle sci-fi that often hides a serious point.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to science fiction, if you’ve got any questions about the genre, please let us know.
You may also be interested in our best list of the best science fiction TV shows ever.