Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: science fiction from Philip's Encyclopedia

Literary genre in which reality is subject to certain transformations in order to explore man's potential and his relation to his environment; these transformations are usually technological and the stories set in the future or in imaginary worlds. The birth of the modern genre is generally dated to the US comic strip Amazing Stories (1926). Until the 1960s, most science fiction involved adventure stories set in space. Some writers, such as Isaac Asimov, explored the paradoxes contained in purely scientific ideas; others, including Ray Bradbury, stressed the moral implications of their stories.

Summary Article: Science Fiction
From Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication

For many earnest science professionals, interest in scientific fields was spawned by the fiction of Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, or other writers for whom science was central to engaging narratives. The speculative and intellectually accessible scientific achievements of individual characters and entire societies in science fiction novels, short stories, films, and radio dramas not only entertainingly continue to engross youngsters who dream of liberating technologies and unknown worlds, but also provide the literary impetus and societal context from which such technologies might emerge and where they might be useful. Technological innovations are said to have no moral standing, and fiction is one of the more effective and galvanizing methods for exploring humanity's ethical relationships with science and technology.

Science, Technology, and Speculation

Science fiction and fantasy, as genres, utilize the constraints and opportunities of setting and time in ways that spur readers' interest in a mythical past or the mythical future. Fantasy's near universal circumstancing in medieval European-type worlds is differentiated from other period literature by the existence of fantastical creatures whose properties defy what is scientifically viable in the present and in our historical expectations of the Middle and Dark Ages. On the other hand, science fiction's setting in the future has no historical expectations and is limited in its speculative technologies only by imagination and an author's preference (and perception of reader attitudes) as to whether such technologies can be explained or justified within known theoretical scientific frames. And it is that choice, by the author, that sets apart narrative fiction that can take place on a spaceship or in a castle from fiction that takes place on a spaceship but one whose movement and possibility are accounted for scientifically in the text.

An author's choice to explain the means whereby progressive science might create future technology likely plays a part in the generational interest in mathematics and science and provides a way to explore humanistic scientific consequences. Although adult reality and unforeseen controversy can be harsh obstacles to the youthful dreaming of hovering vehicles, miles of moving sidewalks, and robot-created meals, many of the fictional technologies depicted in classic science fiction, as well as in The Jetsons cartoons and Star Wars films, have close representations in modern society. Added to the similarity between cell phones and Star Trek's communicators, video games' resemblance to Aldous Huxley's “holidays,” or various fictional descriptions of cloning, past science fiction indelibly influences current technology in the form of ideas from past literary conjecture and in the form of technological labels, as Don and Alleen Nilsen identified in comparing 1990s computer terminology to terminology in science fiction texts. The importance of fiction in furthering scientific ideas, even if wildly speculative, is therefore immense. Without those writers who imagine the seemingly impossible (time travel, hyperspace) or frightening (alien invasion, robot takeover, Frankenstein's monster) or liberating (teleporting, climate-controlled clothing), the motivation to enter scientific fields and the modernist ethic to improve human existence might well subside.

Not all science in fiction is speculative, however, and although science fiction is sometimes dismissed as not being serious literature, highly considered fiction frequently, as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, notices technology. Much literature communicates science through a blend of technical and human skill in accomplishing daily tasks or life-long passions. Philip Roth describes the making of a pair of leather gloves as requiring a scientific understanding of leather properties as well as an artist's touch in American Pastoral. Victor Hugo addressed, with scant connection to the narrative, the science of warfare and sewer design in Les Misérables. Architecture, both its science and high art, plays a central role in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead. Herman Melville whaling descriptions in Moby Dick, images of beekeeping in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and Ernest Hemingway's sparse but pointed explanation of the calming of a bull by steers prior to bullfighting contests in Pamplona, Spain, in The Sun Also Rises all constitute scientific or technical knowledge put forward through fictional narrative.

Science Fiction and the Scientific Revolution

But the foregoing realist examples of science communication in fiction do not seem to arouse the innovative scientist as much as do technologically advanced, futuristic versions of society, whether bleak or utopian. Pure science as an intellectual activity is less apt to find a significant place in canonical literature, due in part to the continuous resistance of scientists to fully popularize science for fear of reducing the value of scientific thought and the perceived chasms between the study of nature and the study of the human character, as discussed by C. P. Snow, Thomas Huxley, Matthew Arnold, and Thomas Kuhn. By speculating on future scientific technologies, science fiction inspires young scientists while avoiding the ire of those engaged in disciplinary-specific scientific work viewed as presently viable and beneficial.

Furthermore, fiction that employs science is valuable because it allows readers to “see” humanity's interaction with science—to glimpse the aesthetics of science without the layperson's aversion to its perceived incomprehensibility. Historically, as the initial ecclesiastical bonds were severed from science (generally understood to begin in the 16th century with Copernicus), the beauty of reason needed to match the previously perceived beauty and authority of the divine, and under this guise, literature flourished alongside science during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Matthew Arnold, in 1882, noted that science can and does destroy the beliefs and culture of our ancestors; therefore, literature is essential because it helps us connect modern science to our sense of beauty and social conduct. In the mid-19th century, as intellectual disciplines drew sharper lines between fields of study, science gained credence through its empirical methods and began to be viewed independent from the humane, eventually eschewing beauty for or finding beauty in facts. The birth of science fiction, occurring in the same time period, is viewed by some as a reaction to the ushering in of the modernist, empirical era, for it became a means whereby science could be speculatively utilized to explore the depths of modern humanity or critiqued as cold, unfeeling, and dangerous to a healthy society (for example, George Orwell, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, and Douglas Adams).

Inspiring Scientific Technologies

As discussed by Paul Alkon, speculative technologies described by early science fiction authors influenced the scientific agenda of the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to influence present scientific analysis. While the most “exciting” of these innovations—time travel, intergalactic travel, humanlike robots, and ultraconvenient technologies— may (or may not) be light years away, the way these are portrayed in fiction is worth review because of their strong and continued influence.

Time Travel

Of the common science fiction themes, time travel is the most utilized to drive a narrative. Wells's The Time Machine and Mark Twain's A ConnecticutYankee in King Arthur's Court began the exploration of delivering us from time. The time travel theme proliferated in the last three decades, with films that depict time travel humorously (Back to the Future, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and seriously (Somewhere in Time—also a novel by Richard Matheson). Scores of novels and novellas revolve around time travel; one example envisions alternate versions of time (Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman), and another recent novel treats involuntary travel through time as a possible way to carry on a love affair (The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger). Traveling through time is generally described as physically arresting and fraught with difficulty; Niffenegger's time traveling character loses all of his clothes each time he is randomly pulled through time. Some of the most compelling features of time travel fiction are the conceptual loops one encounters because of the imagined implications and paradoxes—the grandfather paradox, for example, which would prevent a time traveler from killing his or her ancestry, is explained at some length in The Region of Unlikeness, a short story by Rivka Galchen.

Intergalactic Travel

The notion that humans might journey beyond the Moon, solar system, or galaxy is central to science fiction, for many of the narratives depend on contact and travel among worlds. The physical limitations for traveling within and without the galaxy are more accessible to the nonscientist than time travel, for students learn from an early age the speed of light, and a calculator can easily determine how many Earth years it would take to travel to parts of the universe measured as light years from Earth. Despite the ease of calculation, the light-year distance remains truly unfathomable. While not always explained in scientifically viable terms, science fiction authors have invented future technologies that overcome the universe's sheer distance, such as nuclear-fusion-powered ships being able to jump into “hyperspace,” the term used by most science fiction authors for a medium that enables “faster-than-light” travel. Explained by Asimov in the Foundation series, it became a familiar term through Star Wars films and other fictional intergalactic stories. Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series depicts the central characters traveling on a ship that uses “infinite improbability” to jump through space. As our society continues to view pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope or witness rovers traveling to Mars, the fictional inventions to accelerate space travel persist in their appeal.


The mention of Adams's speculative technology for a spaceship is incomplete without also acknowledging the means by which that technology was controlled: an internal robot with a “genuine people personality”—with which every robot that possessed this feature consistently annoyed people in the story. In today's world, auto mated manufacturing processes utilize robotic properties, robotic machines vacuum household floors, small robots are built for family entertainment, and Bill Gates envisions robotic ubiquity in the near future. But rapidly advancing computers and computerized machines, which process information with speeds and precision that was only speculated with nonhuman machines, still raise fears of superior intelligence and eventual takeover, both in the real world (the chess-playing robot Deep Blue) and in numerous science fiction narratives. Those fears are the essence for Asimov's Robot trilogy, in which stories revolve around controversies arising from human-created, super-intelligent robots that must adhere to the Laws of Robotics, which prevent any harm to humans from robots. While Asimov's invented regulations assist in the progress of each of his novels, those laws remain influential for today's advancing robotic technology.

Ultraconvenient Technologies

Robots, of course, despite the fears that arise from their creation, are illustrated fictionally as an ultra-convenience. Robots, as depicted in fiction, could provide more leisure time for humans, performing tedious everyday tasks or demanding physical projects. For many science fiction readers or viewers, assistance in the drudgery of the everyday is one of the more attractive aspects of speculative technology. Housecleaning, meal preparing, commuting, grocery shopping, landscaping, and even getting dressed are, in much science fiction, ignored or taken care of by nonhuman means, effectively removing the influence of daily necessities from the story, while at the same time illustrating what life might be like if such tasks were completed by non-human means—or, in the case of bleak views of the future, show what life would be like without robotic or human attention to such tasks. Current technology provides communication and information anywhere via cell phones and handheld computers. Microwaves can prepare a full meal in minutes and numerous other “time-savers” or “productivity-enhancers” are common. Tracking a nation's growing population—sometimes convenient and appropriate, sometimes not—is a commonplace activity for several fictionalized technological innovations, though society has yet to reach the utopian controversies explored in the novel Minority Report (Philip K. Dick), where crime is prevented by supernatural beings who can foresee the intentions of humans.

Future Directions

Current technologies can usually be traced to fictional depictions of science, showing that innovation proliferates when science principles and imagination combine. Many scientists credit science fiction as inspiring them to enter mathematics or science fields, where they are able to labor in creating the imaginative science encountered when they were young. Like classic science fiction, much of late 20th- and 21st-century science fiction integrates the humane elements with the extrapolation of scientific problems or dreams of the present to future scenarios and stories. Time and intergalactic travel, robots, and convenience technologies will continue to grasp the attention of readers as they always have. Modern genetic mapping, nanotechnologies, “designer babies” and cloning, impending doom from global warming, or energy shortages, for example, are inspiring themes for science/human narratives, continuing the cycle by inspiring scientists to foster scientific and technological solutions.

See also

Asimov, Isaac, Clarke, Arthur C., Public Understanding of Science, Science in the Movies, Television Science

Further Readings
  • Alkon, P. K. (2002). Science fiction before 1900: Imagination discovers technology. New York: Routledge.
  • Disch, T. M. (2005). On SF. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Landon, B. (2002). Science fiction after 1900: From the steam man to the stars. New York: Routledge.
  • Pierce, J. J. (1987). Foundations of science fiction. New York: Greenwood.
  • Roberts, A. (2006). The history of science fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Walker, Paul
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Science Fiction
    Leadership in Science and Technology: A Reference Handbook

    Since the term was coined by Hugo Gernsback in 1929, science fiction (SF) has been a diverse genre of culture anchored in novels and magazines...

    Full text Article Science Fiction
    The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

    Science fiction is a genre of popular culture, commonly considered to have emerged as a literature in the West in the nineteenth century, which...

    Full text Article SCIENCE FICTION
    Routledge Companions: The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science

    Literary and cultural historians describe science fiction (SF) as the premiere narrative form of modernity because authors working in this genre...

    See more from Credo