Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Science Fiction

a.k.a. SF or sf or Sci Fi

SF or sf may also stand for "speculative fiction" and as such avoid negative connotations of "science fiction" / "sci-fi" as tight suits, tentacles, & showdowns with ray-guns, death-rays, etc. See Alien Contact)

A sub-genre of fiction, science fiction has many sub-genres or alternative terms: sci-fi, sf, speculative fiction, utopian / dystopian literature, classic sf, "hard" and "soft" science fiction, fantasy, plus various mixes and sub-sub-genres.


Oxford English Dictionary. Science Fiction: Imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes, freqently set in the future or on other planets and involving space or time travel.

TheFreeDictionary. A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background. (<American Heritage Dictionary)

Wikipedia. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a "Literature of Ideas."

Isaac Asimov: "Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions." (

James O. Bailey, Pilgrims through Space and Time (1947): "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 [i.e. story, action and resolution] is an attempt to anticipate this discovery and its impact upon society, and to foresee how mankind may adjust to the new condition. (

Darko Suvin, 1972: "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment".

Robert A. Heinlein, 1972: "Let's gather up the bits and pieces and define the Simon-pure science fiction story: 1. The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem itself—the "plot"—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts, i.e., if you are going to assume that the human race descended from Martians, then you've got to explain our apparent close relationship to terrestrial anthropoid apes as well."

Rod Serling, 1962: "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible."

Arthur C. Clarke, 2000: "Science fiction is something that could happen—but you usually wouldn't want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn't happen—though you often only wish that it could."

sf style incl. Science fiction as popular literature / Academic reputation in higher education (see Wells's Law)

Academic literary studies have a mostly negative attitude toward science fiction compared to literary fiction. Why?

Fiction typically represents reality as a human, social subject: people talking and acting together in recognizable symbolic environments.

At its best, science fiction, like utopian / dystopian literature, serves as a "literature of ideas," introducing non-scientists to terms, concepts, principles and possibilities involving nature, technology, the future, human nature, etc.

With many exceptions, most science fiction is not highly regarded as "literary fiction" or "classic literature" but rather as "popular literature"—mass-produced, rapidly consumed, and quickly forgotten. This ephemeral quality to science fiction is increased by its reliance on scientific or technological attractions, which are quickly replaced by newer discoveries or possibilities.

Further, while a few science-fiction "classics" like Wells's The Time Machine or Isaac Asimov's I, Robot remain well-known among science-fiction fans and the subject's scholarly community, anthologies or collections of classic science fiction rarely remain in print for long.

Among the reasons that literary critics dismiss science fiction is that its plots and characterizations tend to be simple, predictable, retro, typically restricted to the romance narrative, but these qualities can be rationalized: unknown technology, extraordinary events in nature, or new ideas about reality may be challenging enough for many writers and readers without also processing complex characters and plots. (Ursula K. Le Guin—see below—is probably the greatest exception.)

Characterization in science fiction generally follows the good guy-bad guy, hunks, babes, and helpers formulas of the romance narrative, though many variations or substituted identities are possible.

The "Competent Man" is a stock hero in science fiction. ("The Myth of the Competent Man")

Science fiction is often proclaimed as "prophetic," but its use as prophecy proves limited. The most cited instance of its failure as prophecy is how little science fiction of the mid-later 20th century foresaw personal computers, smart-phones, etc.

Science fiction often involves ambivalent attitudes toward science. Most sf narratives involve reassertion of human values over machine values. Such gestures may elevate or redeem humanity, but pop sf often indulges in obvious sentimentality, as in nostalgic tears over lost worlds, romantic valorization of childhood over adulthood, and unreflective prioritization of biological family over larger issues of social justice.

Traditional fiction imitates normal human-centered or social reality, to which science fiction adds non-human or extra-human elements of nature, e.g. unusual natural events, previously unknown technologies, or alien intelligence.

Subgenres or sub-categories of science fiction

"Hard science fiction" is denser with scientific or technological jargon, even to the point of including scientific-mathematical formulas.

Hard sf gains intellectual prestige through association with empirical, cutting-edge science but automatically limits its audience to trained scientists or extremely ambitious readers.

Average readers admire science and want to share its prestige, but most readers of any kind of fiction read stories for their representation of human connections, desires, losses, recovery.

Even in some so-called "hard sf," references to scientific terminology may be only brief and suggestive, so as to give an atmosphere of scientific learning and prestige without assuming too much from the reader.

"Soft science fiction" (a preferable term may be speculative fiction) blends references to science or technology with references to "social sciences" like psychology, sociology, history, religious studies.

Many other sub-genres:



fantasy? (may not be science fiction, but may be speculative fiction)




alien invasion

alien contact

SF uses metaphors and analogies / similes to make unfamiliar or abstract science feel familiar and immediate to a reader.

Science itself, like literature, uses metaphor, models (a.k.a. theories or systems of symbols and metaphors), narratives (models that incorporate time). (e.g. "arrow of time")

"Astrophysicists have described the distribution of mass in the universe as foamlike; chemists still ascribe orbitals to atoms as if electrons were planets spinning around a nuclear sun; biologists have their genetic code; environmentalists sometimes describe the Earth as if it were a living organism. Brown himself illustrates in detail the uses of metaphors to describe the classical atom, the quantum atom, molecular models, protein folding, concepts of cells and global warming. . . . 

"The most disappointing aspect of Brown's book, regardless of one's take on his philosophy, is his apparent ignorance of the vast literature on metaphorical thinking by historians of science and scientists themselves—for example, Agnes Arber's The Mind and the Eye (1954); Jacob Bronowski's Science and Human Values (1956); Rom Harré's The Principles of Scientific Thinking (1970); Donna Haraway's Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields (1976); Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay's Opening Pandora's Box (1984); Mae-Wan Ho and Sidney Fox's Evolutionary Processes and Metaphors (1988); Emily Martin's Flexible Bodies [a look at metaphorical thinking in immunology and AIDS] (1994); Evelyn Fox Keller's Refiguring Life (1995); and my own Sparks of Genius (1999). Brown cites none of these, nor does he refer to the many relevant articles that can be found in publications such as the Journal of Chemical Education or HYLE, the international journal for philosophy of chemistry.

"Metaphors in Science"

Science fiction as popular literature / Academic reputation in higher education

Academic literary studies have a mixed but mostly negative attitude toward science fiction compared to literary fiction. Why?

Science fiction epitomizes popular literature, rapidly produced, rapidly consumed, rapidly forgotten.

Science fiction relies on predictable plots and formulaic characters: rescues and escapes featuring space-cowboys and confused maidens. Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games may appear fresh and unique because she's a woman sf hero, but her virtues are basically the same as those of kick-ass warriors from the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the early 20th century.

Science fiction appeals to the adolescent mind hungry for ego trips of resisting authority and conquering the universe.

Romance narratives prevail: quest, escape, revenge, redemption, salvation, self-realization

These are broad but familiar characterizations. Exceptions are available; obviously some writers are bertter than others. But overall most science fiction is poorly edited, rushed into print, and soon recycled. (So is a lot of literary fiction, but it gets credit for trying for a more accurate mimesis of real life and less escapism.)

A rationale or justification for science fiction's general lack of literary or stylistic sophistication is its status as a Literature of Ideas:

The interest in science fiction is in ideas it introduces and brings to life.

With so much attention by the writer and reader on technological or evolutionary novelty, little attention is left (or desirable) for complexities of plot or character.

A big plus: Science fiction introduces a wide range of readers to scientific ideas or possibilities, making them receptive to new information and change.

science + fiction: science is integrated into the speech and action of a representation of human life with which readers identify.

College curricula and science fiction: Some specialized electives in science fiction appear here and there in college curricula, but most literary scholars are trained in literary history, so that scholarly specialization in science fiction is rare.

Teaching science fiction as literary history faces several problems.

Science fiction anthologies are uneven and fall out of print rapidly.

Classic science fiction rapidly becomes outdated, so that even sf fans often don't want to read it.

Despite its appeal as a "literature of ideas," overall most science fiction remains in the realm of popular literature instead of classic or serious literature. As popular literature, sf is unevenly written and minimally edited, and it comes and goes quickly, often losing its interest or appeal as soon as the next installment appears. Thus science fiction mostly appeals to a fan base rather than an audience of serious critical readers.

Science fiction often appears in series, which can discourage assignment in schools, where discussion must often center on a single text. Also, formal literary scholarship has often elevated the single, autonomous text that operates by its own rules and sets its own standards for excellence.

Literary scholarship values formal innovations of style that correspond to emerging historical, social, or intellectual realities. Science fiction may be appreciated for anticipating history, but it can't be judged entirely by the same standard.

Science fiction's  fascination with an idea or gizmo can detract from development of more traditional formal features of literature. Plots are often formulaic revenge, conquest, or quest-to-find-parent.  Characterization is often limited to "the competent man"—-the hero who knows science, can fly anything, and defend himself with a sword. Recent science fiction has introduced more women protagonists, but such a figure is often just a kick-ass girl hero taking the place of a kick-ass boy hero.

Science fiction for guys, love-romances for girls?

Since the 1970s, however, increasing numbers of women sf readers and writers have expanded the genre.

How do women writers / readers change sf?

*Less focus on showdown battles, outer space as frontier for encounters with alien others

*More focus on daily life of changed future, how inter-human and inter-species relations develop.


Cyberpunk literature in the late 20th century received serious scholarly criticism for its exploration of digital thinking, its streetwise attitude, and its openness to alt.genders. (Most students in Literature of the Future despise Cyperpunk literature for these same reasons.)

Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929) writes mostly fantasy and science fiction but is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

Speculative fiction may represent an ongoing effort by women writers to write fiction that shares some of science fiction's interests while avoiding its gender restrictions and pigeon-holing by genre.

Science fiction / speculative fiction authors sometimes taught in college courses:

H.G. Wells

Ursula K. Le Guin

Philip K. Dick

Margaret Atwood

Octavia Butler

William Gibson

Science fiction and school curricula in Secondary School English and Literature

Traditional college classrooms often ignore science fiction, but secondary school curricula may feature forms of science fiction, especially dystopian literature.

Science fiction / dystopian literature taught in secondary schools: Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1727); Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932); Ayn Rand, Anthem (1937, 1946); George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945) & Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949); Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953); William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954); Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1984); Harlan Ellison, "Repent, Harlequin, said the Ticktockman"