What is Science Fiction? - Definition, Characteristics, Books & Authors

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  • 0:02 Defining Science Fiction
  • 0:36 The Beginnings of…
  • 1:32 Characteristics
  • 3:54 Authors and Books
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

'20,000 Leagues under the Sea,' 'Frankenstein,' 'Star Trek' -- it's all science fiction, but what does that mean? Find out in this lesson where you'll learn more about the genre and its characteristics, as well as encounter some authors and their works that have made science fiction what it is today.

A Nebulous Genre: Defining Science Fiction

What is love? You know what it is when you see or feel it, but have you ever tried to define it in words? It's trickier than it sounds.

The same is true for literature characterized as science fiction - we can think of a hundred examples, but we have trouble putting their shared qualities into words. Nevertheless, we can say that the term science fiction, or sci-fi, for short, describes a literary genre generally consisting of imaginative prose works that speculate on the nature and direction of human knowledge.

The Beginnings of Science Fiction

Jules Verne is often hailed as the 'father of science fiction,' because of works such as From the Earth to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Verne's work has had a tremendous impact on the genre, but as we'll see momentarily, Verne - writing in the last half of the 19th century - was not the first author to create work identifiable as science fiction. However, he made a great contribution to the genre by making real scientific principles and experimentation believable in a fictional context, often so much that his works of fiction have sometimes even inspired scientific reality, such as the submarine and lunar module.

Ever since Verne, the number of sci-fi works in circulation has skyrocketed and continues to grow! With so many examples not only in literature, but also in television and film, it's important we figure out how exactly to identify them. Let's look at some characteristics shared by stories in the genre.

Characteristics of Science Fiction

There are a number of characteristics a science fiction story can have, but for the sake of this lesson, we'll focus on these four characteristics of science fiction:

  • Romanticization
  • Anachronism
  • Alien societies
  • Social commentary


Since Verne, science fiction has been noted for basing itself in what humans can actually learn and do, as opposed to fantasy, which typically does not impose this limit. However, the things that we can learn and do; that is, science and inventions, are typically romanticized. Romanticization is making things appear more attractive or interesting than they would be otherwise. Let's face it, most of us wouldn't want to hear about gravitational lensing unless we were entertained in the process.


We often recognize science fiction for its anachronistic nature. Anachronism, in this sense, means using technology or ideas that do not belong to the time period in which they appear, such as having lunar modules in the 1860s. Anachronism is usually achieved in one of two ways: either an author speculates on future advances, or real or imagined scientific notions are inserted into timeframes where they did or do not exist.

Alien Societies

From E.T. to Vulcans, we're all familiar with sci-fi extraterrestrials, or beings from worlds or dimensions other than Earth. Whether it's with robot armies, monsters, or seemingly humanoid aliens, science fiction writers often challenge humanity by introducing a foreign influence. This lets them contrast the two groups in order to give us a better perspective on what makes us tick.

Social Commentary

Examining human nature by contrasting it with beings from other worlds brings up a lot of questions about how we run our societies. Science fiction is often then used to provide social commentary; that is to provide explanations and opinions on the workings of society: how we view one another, how we employ scientific knowledge, and a variety of other social issues. Take, for instance, all of the comments that could be made in a work that deals with cloning and its consequences, such as Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil or Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.

Now that we've seen how the genre works, let's meet some sci-fi authors and see how their books demonstrate these characteristics - but keep in mind, these are just a few out of thousands in the ever-expanding genre.

Science Fiction Authors and Books

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

Mary Shelley originally set out to write a horror story, but while her Frankenstein is quite chilling, it's also an early precursor to modern science fiction. Originally published in 1818, a decade before Jules Verne's birth, Shelley's tale chronicles the macabre experiments of Victor Frankenstein as he endeavors to create artificial life. Once successful, the doctor must then find a way to cope with the gruesome consequences of his actions. Shelley subtitled her work The Modern Prometheus, intentionally calling to mind the debatable boundaries of human knowledge and invention represented in the Greek myth.

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