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How Does Science Fiction Work?

“Science fiction” is a genre of fiction that draws on scientific and technological developments, either fictional or speculative, to shape its narratives. Science fiction can sometimes feel like a difficult genre to pin down. There are so many different sub-genres and authors that it can be hard to know where to begin. This blog post will explore the basics of how science fiction works, and where to begin if you’re looking to get started reading, writing or watching science fiction.


While the roots of modern science fiction can be found in early Gothic and Romantic literature, the genre really took off in the early 20th century as new technologies made it possible to tell fantastic stories in this way. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the genre would see another big surge in interest, with the invention of the TV helping to spread the popularity of science fiction across the world. Since then, the genre has seen a number of different waves of interest, from the post-apocalyptic thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s, right through to the current trend of predicting the future through narratives set in the present day. Science fiction has never been a static genre, and as new technologies emerge and new problems are created, so too does the genre evolve to keep up. 

Modernism Vs Post-Modernism

The most basic distinction to make between science fiction and other kinds of fiction is that science fiction draws on scientific and technological developments to shape its narratives. This can mean that elements of scientific and technological speculation find their way into the narrative, but it also can mean that the forms that the story takes are inspired by real-life developments. Modernism and post-modernism are often used to describe the period of literary history that began in the early 20th century and saw a huge rise in terms of the amount of science that was incorporated into fiction. Modernism is defined by its focus on the present, and its eschewal of historical references. This emphasis on the now, and the desire to see the world as it is now rather than as it was in the past, helped to create a new form of fantastic literature. Writers such as James Joyce and William Faulkner are typically credited with putting the genre on the map, and a number of literary prizes were established in the name of these authors and their works. While modernism focused on the here and now, post-modernism is defined by its focus on the past, as well as the present.

Speculative Vs Fictional

Another important distinction to make between science fiction and other kinds of fiction is whether or not the story is set in the future, or in an alternative history. A “speculative fiction” is one that draws on scientific and technological developments, but is set in a fictitious, or otherwise unrealized future. Generally, speculative fiction can be a little harder to find, but it can also be a lot of fun to read if you’re looking for something different. Fictional stories, on the other hand, are usually set in the recent past, and can incorporate elements of scientific and technological speculation into their narratives. A good example of this would be a sci-fi version of historical fiction. Some fiction writers, such as Anne Rice and Michael Crichton, focus on the impact that scientific and technological developments will have in the future. Other writers, such as Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke, put this effect into practice, and describe what life was like at the time when the story is set. This focus on the immediate past and the impact that future events will have on it is what gives rise to the alternative title of the genre – “science fantasy”, which can be found in early 20th century texts.


One of the major issues that people have with science fiction is that it often incorporates stereotypes into its storytelling. This can range from jokes at the expense of scientists and technologists, to inaccurate characterizations of particular groups. While this might seem like a negative quality, it can also be used to good effect. The best example of this would be the 1940s anime series Gantz. In this series, the main characters are all scientists and engineers who fight giant bugs, giant robots, and even giant humans – as a result, the show is often (and wrongly) classified as science fantasy. Even then, Gantz was a groundbreaking series for its time, and proved that science fiction could be used for social commentary as well as entertainment.


Last but not least, we have the various sub-genres that science fiction can be categorized into. While there is no universally agreed-upon list of definitions for any genre, one of the most common is perhaps the one presented by the Modern Library:

  • science fiction: Works with narrative fiction methods that create an imaginary or futuristic world, often set in a contemporary context. The emphasis is on the “science” as much as the “fiction” part.
  • hard science fiction: The use of scientific realism, or what is known in popular culture, “sci-fi”. It generally presents credible scientific theories about life in outer space, often incorporating real-world physics rather than pure fantasy. In some cases, hard science fiction can also incorporate what is known about the workings of the human body or the Earth itself. This can result in the subject matter being reminiscent of scientific lectures rather than exciting adventures.
  • space science fiction: Stories about life in outer space that often incorporate some scientific theories about how planets and solar systems operate.
  • new science fiction: A term used to describe a sub-genre of science fiction that emerged in the 21st century. New science fiction draws on real-world scientific developments, but often uses them in imaginative ways to create stories that can appeal to a large audience.

The above is just a brief run-down of how science fiction works. Keep in mind that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are entire books that could be written about the topic. If you’re interested in getting more in-depth, there are numerous blog posts and articles that you can read online to gain a better understanding of the topic. 

Where To Start

So, where do you begin if you’re looking to get started reading, writing, or watching science fiction? The first thing to do is to figure out what kind of science fiction you like – whether that’s old-school space opera, post-apocalyptic thrillers, or an anthology series exploring various sub-genres. If you haven’t found a story you like yet, it might be time to try a different genre – after all, there’s more than one kind of story that could be labelled as science fiction.