The Two Elements Common to All Science Fiction Stories

August 4th, 2006

Since my post on The Five Elements Common to All Stories, I’ve been thinking about the obvious follow-up: what are the common elements of science fiction stories?

We can argue all day about what constitutes a science fiction story and what doesn’t. (And, heck, if you’re reading this blog, chances are nothing would make you happier.) But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to include both the genres commonly known as science fiction and fantasy, as well as their numerous branches and offshoots. Alternate history, cyberpunk, steampunk, epic fantasy, doorstopper fantasy, et cetera ad nauseum. Basically, if you would find it in the Science Fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble, today I’m calling it science fiction.

So what principles encompass all of these varieties of the genre? Is there any blanket that could possible cover the whole kit-and-caboodle? These characteristics have to be out there, because, as with Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum about pornography, we generally know science fiction when we see it.

Obviously we can include the previous five principles outlined in my earlier post. (And I think we can also probably include Point, which Sherwood Smith brought up in the comments.)

But the baseline elements common to all science fiction stories? I could only think of two.

1. Dissociation. By dissociation, I mean that every science fiction story has some element that is profoundly alien to the reality of its intended audience. Sometimes it’s a technological element (spaceships, time travel, sentient cell phones), sometimes it’s a fantastical element (dragons, magic wands, cursed cell phones), sometimes it’s a metaphysical element (time running backwards, effects not following causes, cell phones that exist in an alternate dimension).

The point is: there’s something other in the story, something that is purposefully and fundamentally different from the audience’s accepted reality. Of course, few SF stories are limited to just one element of dissociation; they usually provide us with many. (In the case of China Mieville and Justina Robson, maybe thousands.)

(Note that there isn’t necessarily a dissociation with the characters in a science fiction story. The everyday citizens of Earthsea had no qualms whatsoever about accepting the reality of the magicians in their midst, and Bilbo Baggins was perfectly at home in a land of hairy midget chain smokers. But these worlds are profoundly different from what you and I, the readers, experience.)

Why “profoundly” alien? Because all fiction is, in a sense, alien to our experience. It’s made up, by definition, and almost always contains characters and scenarios that don’t exist. Where exactly this boundary between the simply strange and the “profoundly” strange rests is up to interpretation, of course, and changes with time.

For instance, you might be thinking: hey, Dave, running around with a powdered wig in eighteenth century Massachusetts is pretty alien to me, so by your definition Gore Vidal’s “Burr” is science fiction. Ah, but that experience is not alien to your reality, because it’s a recognized and well-documented part of history. It’s one piece of the puzzle that makes up your worldview, even though it might be separated from you by a sizable period of time. And so Burr falls under the category of historical fiction.

To twist this around another way, imagine if someone in Aaron Burr’s day wrote a novel about people walking around driving strange metallic horseless carriages and communicating via small metal boxes they carry in their pockets. (Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century predicted gas-powered automobiles, the Internet, fax machines, and calculators in 1863.) Even though this scenario is familiar to us, it certainly would have created a sense of alienation to the author’s eighteenth-century readers — and thus would be classified as science fiction. (Similarly, if a man from Mars arrives on Earth tomorrow and teaches us all how to grok, that doesn’t nullify Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land from the SF label.)

Note that just setting your story in the future doesn’t qualify your story as science fiction. However, keep in mind that the further into the future you set your story, the more alien the landscape becomes by necessity. One could very easily write a story set ten years in the future that’s not SFnal at all, but I challenge anyone to write a story set a hundred or a thousand years in the future that’s not science fiction.

2. Focus of Scientific Progress. There’s a reason for the “science” in science fiction. That’s because every science fiction story contains within it an understanding that there is such a thing as technological and scientific advancement, and that the human race is a part of it.

Why is this important? Doesn’t every story told after, say, 1700 have this built in? Yes, but unlike many other genres, science is always an implicit (if not explicit) topic of science fiction stories. By including profoundly alien elements to these stories, SF writers focus attention on the building blocks that comprise our world. (And yes, this includes fantasy as well, since the elements of a story that make it fantasy are precisely those that bend or break the laws of science.)

This sense of historical change was largely absent in the world prior to the Scientific Revolution. If you had asked an ancient Roman to write a story set two thousand years in the future, they would have likely envisioned a story set in the same reality that they lived in; different cities, different people, but the same ground rules. Similarly, a scholar of the Middle Ages would have seen the future as simply another span of years waiting for the return of Christ. The concept that scientific progress might profoundly change the human experience simply didn’t exist.

(Note that I’m not claiming that scientific progress is the only topic of all SF stories, or even the major one. It just has to be there to qualify for the definition.)

Let the discussion commence!

21 Responses to “The Two Elements Common to All Science Fiction Stories”

  1. Farahon 04 Aug 2006 at 1:47 pm

    The first is usually known as cognitive estrangement, a term appropriated from the Russian formalists by Darko Suvin in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction in 1979.
    There is an interview with him here:

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 04 Aug 2006 at 3:46 pm

    Okay, with the first one: I challenge anyone to write a story set a hundred or a thousand years in the future that’s not science fiction.

    Easy. I write a version of “Island of the Blue Lagoon.” I challenge anyone to tell me whether the outside world is a hundred years in the future, a thousand years in the past, or ten million light years away in another galaxy as the unintended (or intended) result of a terraforming mission. Or simply set in the present.

    Same with any sufficiently small story where the interaction is characters with the natural world and each other, as opposed to human society.

    Likewise, where is the “Focus on Scientific Progress” in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”? It’s got two sisters in an idyllic pastoral landscape dealing with crack-dealing goblins, but scientific progress? An argument can be made that pastorals are all an escape from scientific progress, but I challenge anyone to place a date on that, and would argue that they’re an escape from civilization, which is not the same thing.

    I’m all for a unified field theory of science fiction/fantasy/horror, but this one is being written from a science fiction writer’s perspective with focus on things that may make good SF, but are hardly intrinsic to fantasy or horror, and I’d argue that they aren’t that necessary to science fiction either. Dick Tracy had wrist-watch mounted video phones, which are pretty much here, and flying garbage cans, which aren’t here yet, but might be, and moon people, who severed diplomatic ties when they got too silly. But at it’s heart, it’s a detective story set in an alternate universe of cine noire cops and mobsters. Scientific progress is completely peripheral, if decorative, and is about as relevant as Jigg’s and Maggie’s taste in furniture.

  3. David Louis Edelmanon 04 Aug 2006 at 5:17 pm

    The first is usually known as cognitive estrangement.

    Thanks for that, Farah. I think I may have heard that term before somewhere, and I think it definitely applies. Everyone seems to know more about narratology than me around here. :-)

    Easy. I write a version of “Island of the Blue Lagoon.”

    Okay, you got me there, Kevin. I stand corrected.

    Likewise, where is the “Focus on Scientific Progress” in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”?

    Easy. It’s with the goblins. Why use goblins? Why not set the story in, say, Brooklyn in 1984? I can’t answer specifically for Ms. Rossetti’s story, since I haven’t read it. But I would argue that anytime you set a story in a world that conspicuously disobeys the rules of science (in this case, zoology) there has to be a reason for it, whether conscious or unconscious.

    Maybe “scientific progress” is the wrong term. Rationality? Accepted scientific worldview? I get the feeling that I’m reaching for a word that’s out there, but just can’t quite get my fingers around it.

    I’m all for a unified field theory of science fiction/fantasy/horror, but this one is being written from a science fiction writer’s perspective with focus on things that may make good SF, but are hardly intrinsic to fantasy or horror, and I’d argue that they aren’t that necessary to science fiction either.

    I thought long and hard about whether this second rule applies just to SF or to fantasy and horror as well. I’ll still stand by my essay and say that it does, but I’ll admit it’s a more tenuous connection. It’s a connection defined by absence, not presence. If you write a story set on a world with no women, you’re shining a spotlight on gender roles, even if you never mention women in the story. If you write a story set on a world that bends or ignores the rules of science, you’re shining a spotlight on the rules of science. So says me, at least.

    Dick Tracy had wrist-watch mounted video phones… But at it’s heart, it’s a detective story set in an alternate universe of cine noire cops and mobsters. Scientific progress is completely peripheral, if decorative.

    Ah, I’m going to fault you on a technicality here, but it’s a technicality that’s my fault because I wasn’t clear in my article. I didn’t say that only SFnal stories contain these two elements… I said that all SFnal stories do contain these elements. I can easily imagine other types of stories that might contain one of these elements.

    (Besides which… in the case of Dick Tracy, wouldn’t one classify it as a detective story “with SFnal elements”? Elements that, in fact, estrange the reader from their accepted reality and focus the reader on scientific progress?)

  4. Carol Bergon 04 Aug 2006 at 8:57 pm

    I’ll certainly buy your first premise. But I’m having a hard time with the second.

    I’ll buy that all hard science fiction (standalone term, not including fantasy, horror, etc.) deals with scientific progress in some fashion. But twisting this to say that fantasy is somehow focused on science by including unscientific demons or magic doesn’t work for me. I could as easily say that one element of (the conglomerated definition of) science fiction is a focus on the supernatural.

    Fantasy commonly deals with the supernatural, ie. forces, occurrences, or beings “not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws, but rather in magic, religion, or otherwise mysterious explanation”. One of the fundamentals of fantasy worldbuilding is deciding the boundaries of gods, myth, magic, and, yes, science. But of course, even if a futuristic space-faring sf saga contains no references to the supernatural, by the above logic, that in itself would mean it is focused on the supernatural because it denies the supernatural by explaining everything with science. That boundary just got shifted way to one side or the other. (And if anyone can follow that, then we have no problem with Lois’s lazy minded readers!)

    It just seems like we’re working too hard to make a premise fit to everything we dub sf or fantasy.

    Ducking flying rubber chickens and rotten tomatoes…


  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 04 Aug 2006 at 9:05 pm


    Well, if Christina Rossetti had set “Goblin Market” in Brooklyn, 1984, it would have been science fiction, since she wrote it in England, 1862. And when I said “crack-dealing,” I was referring to the goblin selling ridiculously addictive goblin fruits that act like crack does in the anti-drug PSA alternate universe depicted in Reefer Madness–you really do die jonesing for them if you don’t get another fix.

    But anyway, I think your question is “Why not set something in the everyday world instead of in a fantastic landscape with imaginary creatures?” My answer: metaphor and tradition. Rossetti’s use of the goblins and their fruits lets her explore sexuality, addiction, sisterhood and a host of other topics in a way that a reality-based afterschool special titled “Your Sister, the Crack-Whore” simply cannot.

    Plus, the business with fairy fruits goes all the way back to Persephone and the damned pomegranate and Eve and the equally accursed apple. A bag of crack has considerably less mythic resonance than goblin fruit.

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  7. b. sharpon 04 Aug 2006 at 10:40 pm

    Focus of Scientific Progress.

    I have to disagree with you there. There have been a number of sci-fi stories set on made-up alien worlds with no contact with the human race, regardless of tech status, that could be placed in the future or past or present, along with some post-apocalyptic fiction where tech progress is halted, if not all right prohibited.

  8. David Louis Edelmanon 04 Aug 2006 at 10:59 pm

    Well, if Christina Rossetti had set “Goblin Market” in Brooklyn, 1984, it would have been science fiction, since she wrote it in England, 1862.

    Alas, Dave Edelman admits his woeful ignorance once again. :-) Thanks for the link, Kevin.

    I’m willing to back down on point #2. I didn’t feel so steady about that point as soon as I hit the Publish button and wondered if I might have just qualified the whole article as just applying to so-called “hard” SF and not amalgamated SF/fantasy/horror/whatnot.

    I still think I’ve got a coherent point to make there vis-a-vis fantasy and science, somehow, but it’s still gestating in my head. I’m sure at some point next week, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, point my finger in the air, exclaim “that’s what I meant to say, and it makes total and complete sense!” — and then fall back to sleep and forget the whole thing. Story o’ my life.

  9. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 05 Aug 2006 at 2:21 am


    No trouble. Rossetti’s a favorite of mine, and “Goblin Market” is what I (and many others) consider a masterpiece of both literature and the genre.

    Anyway, I think you can line out point #2, except perhaps as regards a certain school of hard science fiction, but in place, I think Lois’s point to the “supernatural” is the key, except as with Farah, I’m going to point to the older terminology.

    If you check E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, there’s a whole chapter titled “Fantasy.” Except he’s not talking specifically about the literature of elves and dragons, he’s talking about the greater field of “fantastic literature” and how the element of “fantasy” pervades any number of stories, and even specifically about the difference between the mainstream reader and the fantasy reader.

    Paraphrasing Forster’s lovely prose horribly here, but by “fantasy,” he’s meaning the weird shit, weird here in the old sense of the world: odd, touched, otherworldly, fated, fey. Any character, object or place that behaves oddly and somewhat inexplicably has the element of fantasy. The difference between the fantasy reader and the mundane reader, however, is that if you have a story like Lady into Fox where a woman turns into an actual fox, the fantasy reader reads it and goes “Kewl! A chick’s turning into a fox!” whereas the mundane reader may happily read such a story but will be upset if the ending is not something on the order of “and the little boy woke up and it was all a dream” or “and then they put down their hash pipes” or “and the nice young men in the clean white coats came and took them away, hee-hee, because they were all fucking nuts.”

    Spinning off of Forster here, the subtypes of “fantastic literature” readers break down into fantasy fans, who want a magical explanation; science fiction fans, who want a scientific explanation with cutting-edge or woo-woo science; mystery fans, who want a scientific explanation using prosaic known science in devious applications; thriller fans, who are like mystery fans except that the prosaic known science must not only be devious, but also kewl and shiny and preferably look like something from the Sharper Image catalog (unless it’s a character like Hannibal Lecter, who’s not just fucking nuts, but brilliant); and horror fans, who will take any of the above explanations so long as they’re appropriately horrifying. Finally, there are the literary fans of fantastic fiction, who don’t want to be given any explanation at all and prefer “Lady or the Tiger” situations where anyone can argue about whether a particular weird character, object or place has a mundane or supernatural explanation and if so, what in the hell it is.

    Anyway, that’s my definition for “literature of the fantastic” and I think it’s the piece you need for your second item.

  10. Jellyn Andrewson 05 Aug 2006 at 6:59 am

    With your first point, does whether it’s sf or not depend entirely upon the reader? Take a story written by someone in Japan and set in present-day Japan, maybe in the wonderful world of Tokyo. The average Japanese person would see this as ‘mainstream’. Give this book to, say, an Amish person in the US. You can even helpfully translate it into English for them. Does this book then become SF?

    Take the story of Jesus walking on water. To most Christians, this is historical. To some it may be allegorical. But to other people, it’s fantasy. Say Jesus was an alien or a being from the future with hover-sandals and suddenly it’s science fiction.

    In the latter case, readers will even differ as to whether the story is fact or fiction.

    You did reference this with your discussion of audience, and intended audience. So if that Japanese story was written for the Amish, then it would be sf. And if it was entirely accurate and realistic and Japanese people also read it and didn’t consider it sf, it doesn’t matter? To the intended audience it was ‘profoundly alien’, so that’s all that counts?

    Perhaps the dissociation has to be a story set outside of the writer’s worldview.

  11. Mark Tiedemannon 05 Aug 2006 at 11:34 am

    I would contend that what lies behind your second dictum is not so much the idea of scientific “progress” but an innate recognition of scientific Process, and that most science fiction is built aesthetically on this element born out of the scientific revolution–that really almost everything can be defined as a process, one that makes some kind of concrete sense and can be taken apart, analyzed, reassembled, and used. It is, as I say, an aesthetic element more than something to be defined by plot or even, often, theme. It’s the underlying conviction that the universe–whichever universe one is writing about–can be understood–understood the way science allows us to understand the world.

    This has occasionally led to some really bombastic depictions of human interaction which are patently absurd–people ultimately aren’t that definable–and to a hubristic element most clearly evident in a lot of early space opera (no matter what, we can fix that!).

    To my mind, this is the thing that actually separates science fiction from fantasy, because fantasy–not that it couldn’t do that so much as it doesn’t care. Fantasy is not concerned with process as a description of the workings of the universe, but with revelation as to the nature of the universe. A fine line, true, but I think vital. It’s the line that separated alchemy from modern science.

  12. David Louis Edelmanon 05 Aug 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Kevin: I did read a couple of Forster’s fiction works, but never got around to his nonfiction. I’ll have to check that one out.

    Jellyn sez:

    With your first point, does whether it’s sf or not depend entirely upon the reader?

    That’s a good point, especially when you start thinking about Latin American magical realism. To some of these people, the magic, ghosts, curses, etc. in, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude doesn’t seem outlandish to some of its audience. So is that why we typically don’t call Marquez a fantasy writer? Or is it all a cynical ploy to get a better class of readers, as Lois might say?

    Mark: Very, very interesting stuff. I think you’re right, fantasy and SF in general have different views towards the idea of Process. You say that “fantasy doesn’t care” about this idea of process… but I’m still stubbornly clinging to the notion that fantasy does care somehow. I respect fantasy literature far too much to jump in with the crowd that calls fantasy just an escape or a regression back to a simpler time — but at the same time, why did we get an explosion of the fantastic in the twentieth century, and why have most readers taken it for granted that this literature should be shelved in with the science fiction?

  13. Mark Tiedemannon 05 Aug 2006 at 4:31 pm


    As a suggestion, look at the history of 20th Century science and philosophy. Up till Einstein (roughly) philosophy’s “job” was to explain the world to people. Modern physics took that away. Philosophy has floundered since in linguistics and social ethics and somewhat in aesthetics and the history of language and culture, while science has chugged along “explaining” everything.

    People turned to religion by the 70s in a big way. Oddly, just about the time physics and neurobiology handed a job back to philosophy.

    I in no way intend a “demotion” of fantasy. Rather, I think fantasy–a lot of it–misses its own point– just as a lot of SF does— by playing games with nontechnological culture as substitute for the quest for meaning and self worth. SF gets excessively caught up in the cool of the tech while forgetting to deal with the real effects of a changing paradigm on people.

    Subsequently, I tend to think of fantasy in general as–broadly speaking–religious fiction, while I consider SF process fiction.

    I have, and probably will continue to be, taken to task for both definitions.

  14. Constance Ashon 05 Aug 2006 at 8:06 pm

    Um, guys, Gabriel Garcia Lorce didn’t make up those things. Every detail was something he encountered in life. He runs them down in his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale.

    Additionally, ‘magical realism’ is a term borrowed from a Cuban writer, who meant something quite different than what the U.S. publishing industry means by it. It isn’t a term that Latin America uses.

    Love, C.

  15. Sherwood Smithon 05 Aug 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Two quotes to throw in:

    This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy
    tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough.


    Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the unutterable
    things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life; the soils for the seeds of
    doctrine. These in some dark way I thought before I could write, and felt before
    I could think: that we may proceed more easily afterwards, I will roughly
    recapitulate them now. I felt in my bones; first, that world does not explain
    itself. It may be miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.

    These are from “The Ethics of Elfland” by G.K. Chesterton. (It’s a thought provoking essay, even if you don’t always agree with him.)

  16. Gary Dentonon 05 Aug 2006 at 11:33 pm

    You are really stretching to include fantasy in this.

    How do you deal with the science fiction and fantasy genre still further breaking apart – alternate history is now a separate category and I think the last Stross I read while labeled fantasy was a Slider novel – no fantastic or science elements but parallel worlds.

    Is there a common characteristic of slipstream?

  17. David Louis Edelmanon 06 Aug 2006 at 12:32 am

    Mark says:

    I have, and probably will continue to be, taken to task for both definitions.

    Well, as long as it’s a professional debate and not a personal one, you’re welcome to continue stubbornly putting forward your opinions here. :-)

    Constance says:

    Um, guys, Gabriel Garcia Lorce didn’t make up those things. Every detail was something he encountered in life.

    Well, that was kind of my point. To Marquez (and to his readers), this stuff was real, not fanciful. I’m kind of wondering if that’s why nobody thinks to call it “fantasy.”

    Gary says:

    You are really stretching to include fantasy in this.

    Yeah, so everybody tells me in the comments above. :-) I’ve since backed down from including fantasy in point #2.

  18. Kit Rettersonon 07 Aug 2006 at 10:25 pm

    I think it’s all quite simple — it’s a matter of “what if” — that’s what science fiction, fantasy, horror and alternative history all have in common.

    Each poses a “what if” and uses that as a central element of the story — sometimes the “what if” is the tale itself and sometimes it’s merely the backdrop.

    The beauty of the genre(s) is that by inducing an imaginary “what if” we can explore things differently than we could if we were dealing with so-called reality. For example, we can change one element of our reality and postulate what might happen. What if you fell unconscious and thought you were dreaming — would you behave with the same moral strictures as you would if you thought the world you dreamt were real (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant)? What if you were imbued with telekinetic powers and faced a technologically advanced enemy in a quintessential struggle of good and evil (Star Wars)? And so on.

    I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

  19. Kathrynon 25 Aug 2006 at 10:45 am

    Isn’t the ‘what if’ a part of a lot of fiction though? Maybe they aren’t such seemingly odd things but more mundane like: What if an upper class land owner falls in love with and marries a scullery maid? What would the people of both social classes think? Could it actually work in a reality where it is far from the norm? What if an emotionally repressed, single man gets bundled with a baby for a year? How does that change him?

    There are times when this isn’t the case; say where the story expresses something observed or a revelation of the author’s through fictional characters and places for example but if we were dividing fiction using the ‘What if’ principle centrally it would lump together many works that don’t traditionally come under the heading Sci fi or Fantasy.

    I would say that not all of those two genres (I’ve always distinguished them but my local bookstores did too) rest on the ‘What if’ approach. I’m sure there are examples of expression rather than exploration. Maybe Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty is one of them? Although I’m sure there are a few what ifs in there too (it being a fairly regular use of the imagination) it seemed to me that there was no central ‘what if’ as such. But then the use of fairy tales grounded it in the known reality… My own argument leaves me feeling pretty unsure so I’m certain I’ve got a lot of things wrong in there.

  20. Kathrynon 25 Aug 2006 at 10:46 am

    I would side with the umbrella element lying in the presentation of and readerships response to things widely outside of the accepted realms of possible human experience (this varies depending on the social context). The readers are comfortable with the suspension of their disbelief and do not need the author to bring them back to our reality in anyway for there to be a point to the story. Maybe they are more confortable with relating seemingly impossible events and concepts with their own reality and need the reality of consensus less?

    Maybe the problem is that not all fantastic events in literature end up in the fantasy section in the first place… Maybe it is more like a web of connecting elements that make them end up together, enough of those things and you have a recognisable fantasy/sci fi book not enough and it is just weird fiction. That way even two fantasy books can be very different parts of the web but still be part of the imagined whole.

    I feel like I may have just posted lots of gibberish… Friday afternoon is not the time to try thinking so hard.

  21. mooon 09 Jan 2014 at 9:41 pm

    this is rediculus

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