What Is Science Fiction?

Defining the genre and its development over time.

Ursula Le Guin
New Atlantis
A Trip to the Moon

Defining science fiction


Fifty years ago, Isaac Asimov said that science fiction was the branch of literature which “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”

This definition was useful at the time, but it fails to describe the genre as a whole. As well as science and technology, science fiction also deals with alien contact, dystopian societies, and hundreds of subjects besides.

A better definition is this one: science fiction is the genre of ‘what if?’ It wonders what would happen if we invented robots, or discovered an alien species. It wonders what would happen if all the books in the world were collected and burned, or the moon fell down from the sky.

Another name for the genre is speculative fiction. ‘Science fiction’ is the more popular term, but ‘speculative fiction’ is more accurate.

Literary merit

In literary circles, science fiction is often frowned upon. The American critic, Sven Birkerts, said the genre can never be proper literature, because it focuses too much on aliens and robots, as opposed to deep philosophical themes.


He is right that some of the ‘what if?’ stories in science fiction are shallow and pulpy – an easy escape to fun, alien worlds. A franchise like *Star Wars* is a good example, but this does not reflect science fiction as a whole.

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the genre’s most respected writers, said the questions of ‘what if?’ in science fiction are metaphors for deeper themes. Meeting an alien is not really about aliens. Inventing a robot is not really about robots.

Reading a work of science fiction is like holding a mirror to the world. Through the power of metaphor, these stories help us understand what it means to be human.

Ancient science fiction

It is hard to pinpoint the first ever work of science fiction, but a popular candidate is *A True Story*. It was written by Lucian of Samotosa, a Syrian satirist, in the 2nd century.

This tale describes an incredible journey to the moon, where the narrator encounters bizarre extraterrestrial beings. The people of the moon are at war with another group of people on the sun, because both sides want to colonize Venus.


Just like many modern stories, this ‘what if?’ scenario is a metaphor for deeper themes. Lucian wanted to parody historians who presented falsehoods as facts. The message of the book is clear: we cannot believe everything we read.

Early modern science fiction

More than a thousand years after *A True Story*, a flurry of science fiction books were written in the 17th century. This coincided with the Scientific Revolution – a period of major scientific discovery.


Francis Bacon’s *New Atlantis* was published in 1626. It describes a utopian society – Bensalem – which exists on an uncharted island. This society is run by scientists, who only share their inventions with wider society if they think the inventions will have a positive impact.

The story is a lesson in scientific responsibility. Bacon was trying to warn his contemporaries that some discoveries are more dangerous than others. The message of the book is clear: not every piece of new technology is safe to release into the world.

Modern science fiction

Books like *A True Story* and *New Atlantis* had little in the way of plot and characterization. They were more like thought experiments than novels. But this changed in the 19th century, when Mary Shelley wrote *Frankenstein*.

The story revolves around Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who creates a body out of corpses, then imbues that body with life. The creation becomes known as Frankenstein’s monster, and seems tortured by his own existence.


This iconic work is rich with themes, and one of the only works of science fiction that literary critics take seriously. Some of these critics have compared the monster to modern artificial intelligence. The message of the book clear: manufacturing intelligent life should not be taken lightly.

Science fiction films


Towards the end of the 19th century, motion cameras were invented, and it did not take long for the first science fiction movie to emerge.

*A Trip to the Moon* was directed by Georges Méliès in 1902. This silent film features a group of astronomers who embark on a lunar expedition. When they arrive on the moon, they find a culture of insectoid aliens, kill the king, then return to Earth.

Some critics believe the film was made as a metaphor for European imperialism – something Méliès disapproved of. The astonomers encounter a foreign culture, murder its leader, then go home as celebrated heroes. It is a striking example of this genre being used as a metaphor for real-world themes.

Science fiction games

In the 1960s, science fiction exploded, with the release of dozens of books and films including *Dune* and *2001: A Space Odyssey*. This decade also saw the release of the world’s first science fiction video game.


*Spacewar!* was developed by MIT in 1962. It features two spaceships, each controlled by a player, which engage in a dogfight around a high-gravity star.

Thematically speaking, this game did not have a lot to say, but it set a precedent for modern science fiction video games. In 2020, *Cyberpunk 2077* was released. This game confronts players with ethical dilemmas against the backdrop of a future, technologically advanced society.



From books and films, to video games, science fiction has come a long way since Lucian of Samotosa’s *A True Story*. The modern genre is so rich and varied that it can be divided into several subgenres.

Space opera, for example, focuses on grand adventures through space, with interstellar empires and faster-than-light travel. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s *Foundation* series and the iconic *Star Wars* franchise.

Cyberpunk looks at near-future societies dominated by advanced technology and corporate control. Afrofuturism combines African culture with futuristic settings, often exploring themes like identity and racism.

There are plenty of other examples, but one thing unites them all. These stories use their questions of ‘what if?’ to hold a mirror to the world.

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