Study Guide

Science Fiction Characteristics

  • Setting in an Alternative World

    Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. Oh, wait. You're not Toto. You're a robot dog with five heads. What's going on here?!

    Science fiction, that's what. One thing we'll find over and over again in sci-fi is a setting that is strange, different, or faraway. Sci-fi writers are all about imagining an alternative world and bringing us readers to it.

    That world can be in the future. It can be on a different planet. It can be in the past. We can't talk about sci-fi without talking about the fantastic settings that sci-fi writers love conjuring up. This is one of the major characteristics that divide science fiction from plain ol' fiction.

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    How exotic are the settings of Sci-fi works? Very. The setting of Isaac Asimov's Foundation is so out there that, it's literally out there: in outer space. Delve into this analysis of the novel's setting here.

    This town in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles may seem like your typical American suburban town. But it isn't. That's because it's on Mars. Home is where the heart is?

  • Non-human Characters

    It's a cliché that sci-fi fiction and film are full of aliens. There's a reason that cliché exists—it's because it's true. Aliens are among the non-human characters that we'll find in sci-fi. But sci-fi isn't just about aliens. It's about robots, for example, or people who are just a little bit more (or less!) than human, like Frankenstein'smonster.

    Sci-fi, in other words, is very much about exploring the limits of being human. What exists beyond us regular folk living on earth? Suppose there are "extraterrestrial" creatures. Would they be like us or would they be different from us? And what about machines? Can't they have feelings, too? By focusing not only on human, but non-human characters, sci-fi writers force us to consider what we even mean by the "human."

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    The monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is not only one of the most famous characters in sci-fi: he's one of the most famous characters in all of literature. The thing is, we can't tell whether he is or isn't human.

    Who knew that Martians have romantic relationships just like we do? Well, Ray Bradbury's Martians in The Martian Chronicles do. Delve into the ins and outs of the relationship of a Martian couple here.

  • Allegory

    Sci-fi works may be set in fantastic locations far away from where we mere mortals live, but that doesn't mean that they have nothing to do with us. That's because even when sci-fi writers write about distant worlds, they're really often writing about our own world.

    Sci-fi tends to be allegorical: the best sci-fi works often have a hidden meaning, because they work as a commentary on our own world and our own social and political systems. These sci-fi writers are a pretty sneaky bunch. They transport us to distant worlds only to get us thinking about the way that we live in this world.

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    Isaac Asimov's Foundation may be set on a distant planet, but the world that it depicts is an allegory for the Roman Empire. Check out how Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, is modeled on ancient Rome here

    In George Orwell's 1984, Big Brother is always watching us. And though he may be just a fictional character in the novel, Orwell uses his image to allegorize the oppression of totalitarian regimes in our own time and place. Have a look at these quotations depicting Big Brother's creepy presence

  • Science and Technology

    Maybe it's a bit of a no-brainer to say that science is a big part of science fiction. We'll also add technology to the mix, because science and technology are big in this genre. Hey, just because it's obvious (we hear you saying "Technology in sci-fi?! Really, now?!") doesn't mean it's not true.

    What makes sci-fi works sci-fi is the fact that their settings, their plots, their characters, their conflicts, all center around science and technology in some sense.

    After all, we wouldn't have all of those great Sci-fi works set in outer space if it weren't for the fact that science and technology allows characters to travel to outer space in the first place. 

    There's no way to get to Mars without a spaceship, is there?

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    So how does science and technology figure in Sci-fi works? Check out Gulliver's description of how the Laputians move their flying island around with a giant magnet in these quotations from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

    Those Sci-fi characters love calculations. Here are Gaal Dornick and Hari Seldon, the protagonists of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, working out the probability that civilization will be destroyed within the next couple of centuries.

  • Time Travel

    Rev up the DeLorean: time travel is another big theme in sci-fi. We'll find characters in these works zipping into the future, or back in time. Often, the whole plot of a Sci-fi work is set in a distant time, usually in the future.

    Sci-fi writers are obsessed with exploring times that are very different from ours. This, again, is one of the defining characteristics of the genre. If we're reading a book where things are taking place in the distant future, odds and good that it's a sci-fi book. And, because it's a sci-fi book, the goods are also pretty odd.

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    What is it like to travel forward in time? H.G. Wells' Time Traveller tells his audience that it's pretty hard to describe what the future is like (he's been there. He knows). Check out these quotations from Wells' novel The Time Machine.

    Let's not get too excited about the future—it may not be all it's cracked up to be. In Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World, everything feels dead and sterilized in the future tense. Even the light.

  • Journey

    We'll find lots and lots of journeys in sci-fi. People are traveling all over the place. They might zip from galaxy to galaxy, or from time to time. If the whole universe were your oyster, wouldn't you be jumping from one place to the next too?

    So journeys are another recurring theme in sci-fi. If we pay close attention, we'll find that there's hardly a sci-fi text that doesn't include some kind of voyage. This is often one of the structuring devices in works of sci-fi.

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    How central are journeys to the Sci-fi genre? Super central. They're certainly important in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

    Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles is full of journeys between Earth and Mars. And it is rockets, of course, that get people to Mars. Check out this description of a rocket from the book.

  • Dystopia

    Sci-fi writers like talking about our world by pretending to talk about another world. They're sneaky and nuanced like that.

    And one of sci-fi writers favorite ways to do this is to depict dystopia. Some of us may have heard the word before, but for those of us who haven't, dystopia is the opposite of utopia. A utopian society is wonderful: people are free and happy and the sun's shining and everything's just dandy. In a dystopia people are oppressed, they're miserable, and everything they do is controlled by some authority.

    Some of the most famous sci-fi works—like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984—are futuristic depictions of dystopia. Sci-fi writers love warning us: "If we continue down this road our society will look like this in a hundred, or a thousand years. And it ain't pretty."

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    Mildred, a character in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, is supposed to be happy. But she isn't. Hmm. Maybe because she lives in a dang dystopia?

    How can we be happy if we're conditioned from the time we're embryos not to have any free will? The dystopian society of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World leaves people very little room to escape their destiny.

  • Age of Reason

    The roots of sci-fi really go back—way back—to the Age of Reason. That's the 18th century we're talking about, when the Enlightenment changed the world as we know it.

    During this time, philosophers and scientists emphasized the use of reason over superstition. More and more of the world was being explored and mapped, and it was around this time that authors began writing texts speculating about the future, and focusing their stories on scientific endeavor.

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    The Age of Reason involved the exploration of new lands and regions that had never been mapped before. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is set on fictional islands, but its obsession with exploration reflects the Age of Reason's obsession with exploration.

    Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, reflects the Age of Reason's appetite for knowledge. Here he is talking up the virtues of scientific knowledge in these quotations from the novel.

  • Advances in Science and Technology

    The Scientific Revolution, which got going in the 16th century in Europe, had a huge (like, phenomenally large) impact on our understanding of the world. Scientists and mathematicians like Galileo and Isaac Newton made discoveries that continue to impact us to this day (heard of calculus? Yeah, we have Newton to thank for that).

    Advances in science and technology really revved up in the late 18th/early 19th century, and these advances made sci-fi possible as a genre. During this time we learned a lot—and we mean a lot—about nature. And thanks to the industrial revolution, beginning at the end of the 18th century, technology also developed at a very speedy pace.

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    Around the time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, people were learning more and more about nature. The protagonist of Shelley's novel, the scientist Victor Frankenstein, is a product of his times.

    Submarines were a new invention when Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But the Nautilus, the submarine in the novel, isn't just any old submarine. It's powered with electricity—a pretty radical idea for the time.

  • Sci-Fi Magazines

    The golden age of sci-fi coincided with an explosion of magazines that published science fiction. In fact, some of the most popular sci-fi works were first published in magazines that released work in serial format.

    Among the most important of these was Astounding Science Fiction (which has also gone under other names including Astounding Stories and Analog Science Fiction and Fact). This magazine—and others—played a big part in popularizing the genre. Not only that, but many important sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury read them as young boys, and these magazines helped shape their own writing careers.

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    Isaac Asimov wrote one of the greatest sci-fi works of all time: the Foundation series, parts of which were first published in Astounding Science Fiction. Here's an analysis of how Foundation, the first novel in the series, fits into the sci-fi genre.

    As a teenager, Ray Bradbury read stories in Astounding Science Fiction. These stories influenced his development as a sci-fi author. Check out this analysis of The Martian Chronicles here, as well as Bradbury's contribution to the genre.