A beginner’s guide to sci-fi terminology #1

Newcomers to science fiction are occasionally confused and put-off by its jargon. Certain concepts have become so useful in science fiction and used so often that they tend to be referred to without explanation.

So we’ve put together a list of 15 commonly used sci-fi terminology, concepts and subgenres to help enlighten, as well as a few books for each.

  1. Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a futuristic setting that tends to focus on a “combination of lowlife and high tech” featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.

Great books that fall into this genre include Neuromancer and Altered Carbon.

  1. Utopia/dystopia

The utopia and its opposite, the dystopia, are genres of speculative fiction that explore social and political structures. Utopian fiction portrays a setting that agrees with the author’s ethos, having various attributes of another reality intended to appeal to readers.

Dystopian fiction (sometimes combined with, but distinct from apocalyptic literature) is the opposite: the portrayal of a setting that completely disagrees with the author’s ethos.

Many novels combine both, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take, depending on its choices, ending up with one of two possible futures.

Both utopias and dystopias are commonly found in science fiction and other speculative fiction genres, and arguably are by definition a type of speculative fiction. Great dystopian novels include 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. Standout books that parallel a divide of utopian/dystopian setting include The Time Machine and Logan’s Run.

  1. Terraform

Terraform is the process of altering the eco-system of a traditionally uninhabitable planet, moon or designated area to give it Earth-like qualities, such as a breathable atmosphere planet life and water, therefore making it habitable for human life and colonisation.

A standout book to read heavily featuring terraforming is the Red Mars trilogy, The Sands of Mars and The Martian.

  1. Hyperspace

Hyperspace is a faster-than-light (FTL) method of traveling used in science fiction. It is typically described as an alternative “sub-region” of space co-existing with our own universe which may be entered using an energy field or other device.

As seen in most fiction hyperspace is most succinctly described as a “somewhere else” within which the laws of general and special relativity decidedly do not apply – especially with respect to the speed of light being the cosmic speed limit.

Entering and exiting said “elsewhere” thus directly enables travel near or faster than the speed of light – almost universally with the aid of extremely advanced technology.

Books to consider that use this device are vast but include Dune, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Culture Series, The Foundation series and Revelation Space.

  1. Geosynchronous orbit

A geosynchronous orbit of a planet is when an object or spacecraft matches the rotational spin of the planet. The synchronization of rotation and orbital period means that, for an observer on Earth’s surface, an object in geosynchronous orbit returns to exactly the same position in the sky after a period of one sidereal day, a timekeeping system that astronomers use to locate celestial objects.

This is a common tool is science fiction. This so-called geostationary orbit has been officially designated the Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union, after the late great sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke produced a feasibility paper into the possibility of Earth using artificial satellites as relay stations for Earth-based communications.

  1. Cryostasis

A frozen state of a person or body induced in order to preserve it for long periods. Also known as cryo-suspension. Many sci-fi books use this tool as a method of allowing characters to survive long-distance space travel and to survive long-periods of time, waking up into unknown futures.

Books that use this tool well, include The First Immortal.

  1. Generation Ship

A Generation Ship is a type of manned spacecraft designed for long interstellar journeys of hundreds of years or longer that require occupants to reproduce to keep the ship manned. Such a ship is typically envisioned as being large enough to support a small society.

Usually, these types of ships would be used to traverse a race across the stars to a new world. Those who began the journey would never reach the new world, but their great grandchildren will. Books that use this concept well include Hull Zero Three, Orphans of the Sky and Aurora.

  1. Cyberspace

Cyberspace is an interconnected technology. The term entered pop culture from science fiction but is now used to describe the domain of the global technology environment.

The word became popular in the 1990s when the uses of the Internet, networking, and digital communication were all growing dramatically and the term “cyberspace” was able to represent the many new ideas and phenomena.

In science fiction, Cyberspace is often depicted as a digital sub-dimension. Books that use this tool include everything written by William Gibson, Snow Crash and (cough) Black Milk.


  1. Posthuman

Posthuman or post-human is a concept originating in the fields of science fiction, futurology, contemporary art, and philosophy that literally means a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human.

Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or a symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence, or uploaded consciousnesses, or the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound technological augmentations to a biological human, i.e. a cyborg.

Some examples of the latter are redesigning the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, life extension therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable or implanted computers, and cognitive techniques.

Books that deal with posthumanism include Illium and Olympus, Blood Music, The Culture series and (cough) Black Milk.

  1. Teleportation

Teleportation is the theoretical transfer of matter or energy from one point to another without traversing the physical space between them. Popular sci-fi shows like star trek make frequent use of this device. The notion of a teleporter is useful in literature as it avoids the necessity to depict lengthy transportation sequences by rocket or other means.

Usually, for story purposes, the transmission between source and destination is considered to be faster than the speed of light. The mechanics of teleportation vary depending on the scientific theories available to the author.

Popular books that use this device include Jumper, Hyperion, Harry Potter (aperating) and Stranger in a Strange Land.

  1. Dyson sphere

Invented by physicist Freeman Dyson, a Dyson sphere around a star, a macrostructure proposed as a possible habitat of very advanced civilizations who wish to capture the entire energy output of their sun.

Some astronomers have speculated that the reason we don’t see signs of advanced civilizations in the sky is that they’re living in Dyson spheres, which trap their radio noise and look like large stellar remnants radiating only in the hard-to-detect infrared.

Books set on a Dyson sphere include Orbitsville.

  1. Transhuman

Transhuman is the concept of an intermediary form between human and posthuman. In other words, a transhuman is a being that resembles a human in most respects but who has powers and abilities beyond those of standard humans. These abilities might include improved intelligence, awareness, strength, or durability.

Many sci-fi books use transhumanism, among which include Childhood’s End, Diaspora and Look To Windward.

  1. Space opera

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms “soap opera”.

Readers interested in space operas should look up The Expanse series, Old Man’s War and Pandora’s Star.

  1. Eugenics

Eugenics is an often controversial set of beliefs and practices that aim at improving the genetic quality of a human population, either by gene selection or “people selection”.

The exact definition of eugenics has been a matter of debate since the term was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. The concept of positive eugenics to produce better human beings have existed at least since Plato suggested selective mating to produce a guardian class.

In Sparta, every Spartan child was inspected by the council of elders, the Gerousia, which determined if the child was fit to live or not.

Sci-fi books that use this subject matter include Brave New World.

  1. Pocket Dimension

Pocket Dimensions are spaces that are too small or too easily accessible to be truly considered a separate dimension and are referred to as a small extra pocket of space that is attached to our own.

Much like an actual pocket, they are often used for some extra space where you can get things Bigger on the Inside.

Books that use this tool include Kangaroo Too and (cough) Black Milk.


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