Terminology & Concepts

brambilla, songs of the dying earth

© Franco Brambilla, “Songs of the Dying Earth” for Urania 1590 (2013)

replicant, transhuman, FTL, psi, precog, xenoforming, elsewhen, afrofuturism,
counterfactual, novum, New Wave, uchronia, ansible, singularity,
cognitive estrangement, determinism, eugenics, babel fish,
terraforming, biopunk, slipstream, Area 51,
comet of doom, hive mind,
raygun gothic, BEM,

The Essentials sites for SF terminology and concepts
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction
TV Tropes: SF

A few other sites for SF terminology and concepts
101 SF Tropes Writers Should (??) Use
75 Words Every SF Fan Should Know
Glossary of SF Ideas, Technology, and Inventions
**by device name, by author, by category, or novel/story title
Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (ebook in Bowdoin’s library)
SF subgenres
SF author pen names
SF Glossary
SF literature and film vocab list
List of fictional computers

Film Criticism Terminology
Brief list of basic film criticism terminology here
a bit more in depth here
and even more in-depth here

The 113 Terms & Concepts to Know For Quiz 

Quizlet Link here

Alien Species/Worlds
SF “Laws”
Some Subgenres
Some Themes and Concepts

Alien Species/Worlds

  1. Alien Invasion: Beings from space come to Earth to conquer. See also: TV Tropes.
  2. Arelogy: the study of Mars, esp. the geology
  3. BEM: Abbreviation for bug-eyed monster, or an extra-terrestrial monster with bulging eyes. See also: SFE.
  4. First Contact: The first meeting between two different intelligent species. See also: TV TropesSFE.
  5. Humanoid: A non-human being that has a human-like bodily form. See also: TV Tropes.
  6. Pocket Universe: a universe or reality completely separate from ours which is much smaller, may have different natural laws, and may be artificially created. See also: TV TropesSFE.
  7. Replicant: An artificial alien or genetically engineered replica of a human being.
  8. Sapient: An intelligent alien, having intelligence of human level. TV Tropes.
  9. SETI: The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence organization (1984)– that promotes the search by novices and scientists alike of Alien transmissions or Communications.
  10. Terraforming: The process of transforming an alien planet into one sufficiently similar to the earth to support terrestrial life. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  11. Xenoforming: The transformation of a world to suit Alien rather than Earth-human biology and ecology.
  12. Xenology: The scientific study of extraterrestrial phenomena, esp. xenobiology.


  1. Cyborg: “cybernetic organism”: a living organism with biological and machine components. The biological part is not necessarily of human origin.
  2. Eugenics: The modification and concentration of supposedly desirable human traits (and eliminations of supposedly undesirable ones) by selective breeding programs and/or the sterilization of the “unfit” has frequently been considered in sf since the earliest times. See also:  SFE.
  3. First Man / Last Man: Narratives in which we see the beginning of a new human race, or the end of the human race. TV Tropes.
  4. Grok: To perceive or understand fully; to feel empathy with; to enjoy, appreciate in Heinlein’s Martian language of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
  5. Meatspace: the “real” world of flesh and blood, as distinct from virtual/cyberspace.
  6. Mutant: a human imagined as having arisen by genetic mutation, esp. one with freakish or grossly abnormal anatomy, abilities, etc. See also: TV Tropes.
  7. Posthuman: A descendant of humans who is sufficiently different from present-day humans in form or capabilities to be regarded as a new species or otherwise fundamentally different from present-day humans. See also: SFE.
  8.  Precog: A person with precognitive abilities.
  9. Singularity: The transition to posthumanity. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  10. Transhuman/ Transhumanism: A human who has through evolution or augmentation acquired capabilities beyond the normal human range sufficient to be regarded as no longer merely human. See also: TV Tropes. H+ movement. Wikipedia.
  11. Wetware: A biological system and typically refers to the human brain and nervous system. It can also come to mean bacterial computers and organic based processing agents. See also:  TV Tropes.


  1. Ansible: An instantaneous communication device, not limited by the speed of light. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  2. Automaton (pl. automata): A self-operating machine.
  3. Babel Fish: A living fish which, when placed in your ear, will live there and translate any form of language for you. See also: TV Tropes.
  4. Cryogenics: The science of low temperatures (originally the science of creating low temperatures). See also: TV Tropes.  SFE.
  5. Cyborg: “cybernetic organism”: a living organism with biological and machine components. The biological part is not necessarily of human origin. See also:  TV Tropes. SFE.
  6. FTL: Abbreviation for “faster than light.” See also:  TV Tropes.
  7. Generation Ship: an interstella spacecraft in which multiple generations of a species are born, live, and die, usually before arrival at destination.
  8. Hyperspace: a kind of specialized space through which Spaceships can take a short cut in order to get rapidly from one point in “normal” space to another far distant. In math known, as Minkowski space, a dimension of n>3 (i.e. 4th dimension).  See also:  TV Tropes. SFE (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/hyperspace).
  9. Kipple: Useless or unwanted household junk and ephemera which seems to reproduce itself at the expense of non-kipple possessions. See also:  SFE.
  10. Metaverse: a computer-generated environment within which users can interact with one another and their surroundings, a virtual world = cyberspace. See also: TV Tropes.
  11. Multiverse: A hypothetical space or realm of being consisting of a number of universes, of which our own universe is only one. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  12. Nanite: a nanomachine designed to build other nanomachines; self-reproducing
  13. Nanotech/nanotechnology: The branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of 0.1 to 100 nanometres, or, generally, with the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules.
  14. Novum: as defined by critic Darko Suvin, an intrusive novelty so strange, and at first inexplicable, that it deserves a category of its own.  See also: SFE.
  15. Psi: Paranormal phenomena or faculties collectively; the psychic force supposed to be manifested by these.
  16. Quantum computing: A still largely theoretical but eagerly researched breed of Computers which use quantum superposition to deal simultaneously with all possible values which can be represented as “qubits” (quantum bits, as opposed to conventional computer bits representing 0 or 1) in a quantum register. See also: SFE.
  17. Space ark: a large spaceship used to move or rescue large number of a species or multiple species.
  18. Superluminal: Having or being a speed greater than that of light.
  19. Teleport: to apparently instantaneous transport persons, etc., across space by advanced technological means. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  20. Waldo: A device for handling or manipulating objects by remote control. See also:  SFE.
  21. Unobtanium: The exotic metal or other material that is needed to make the nifty machines and plot enabling gadgets to work. See also:  TV Tropes.

SF “Laws”

  1. Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics: Programmed safeguards robots follow in the absence of human control. 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. See also: TV Tropes.
  2. Arthur C. Clarke’s Laws: 1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. 3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. See also: TV Tropes.
  3. Theodore Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crud. See also:  TV Tropes.
  4. H. G. Wells’s Law: A sf or fantasy story should contain only a single extraordinary assumption.

Some Subgenres

  1. Afrofuturism: A form of science fiction that uses Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Magic Realism to examine black culture. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  2. African futurism: Nnedi Okorafor’s term for a subgenre of SF that features elements of African history of culture.
  3. Alternate History/Alt-History: A subgenre of science fiction wherein at least one aspect of history is different from that of our own world; the setting of such stories. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  4. Anime: a Japanese animated film or television program, drawn in a meticulously detailed style, usually featuring characters with distinctive large, staring eyes, and typically having a science-fiction or fantasy theme, sometimes including violent or sexually explicit material. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  5. ARG/Alternate Reality Game: A genre of online game where a fictional storyline is written and presented as if it were a legitimate construct within our own world, as opposed to existing only in reality of the story. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  6. Biopunk: A subgenre of science fiction which focuses on the societal effects of biotechnology and genetic engineering. See also: TV Tropes.
  7. Cli-fi: A subgenre of SF focused on the effects of climate change
  8. Cyberpunk: A subgenre of science fiction typified by a bleak, high-tech setting in which a lawless subculture exists within an oppressive society dominated by computer technology. See also:  TV Tropes. SFE.
  9. Dying Earth: A not uncommon category of sf story, which has now developed its own melancholy mythology. Since the Sun is invariably moribund if not extinguished, this could also be called the dying-sun theme. See also: SFE.
  10. Dystopian sf: a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in a future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. See also: TV Tropes.
  11. Edisonade: A story featuring a young male inventor who uses his inventions and ingenuity to defeat his foes or to explore new territory. See also: SFE.
  12. Environmental Disaster Narrative: Related to the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic subgenre, but the crisis is natural or environmental in nature.
  13. Hard SF: Hard science fiction relies on using already established science or justifying it’s fictionalized science using carefully calculated predictions. Hard SF tries to use the advanced technology as something that is important in itself, with its consequences, limitations and new uses being the main plot points. See also:TV Tropes. SFE.
  14. Lost Worlds SF: SF featuring lost worlds, which are usually found in remote locations, such as the center of large and barely explored places. They are often home to lost civilizations with amazing Lost Technology, or to prehistoric animals that have managed to survive unchanged. Unpopular with the invention of GPS. Most modern fictions that use this trope are set in the pre-satellite past. The Lost World has now been adapted to serve in even more mysterious places, such as outer space or deep underground. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  15. Manga: Japanese term for comic strip or comic book. Its now common use in the English-speaking world dates back to the 1990s. In English it is used to denote Japanese Comics specifically. There tends to be a connotation of the fantastic when English-speaking readers use the term. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  16. Mecha: mainly anime or manga with robots, often controlled by humans
  17. Military SF: Military Science Fiction is a subgenre of both Science Fiction and Military Fiction, commonly sliding into the Space Opera territory. At its most basic, Military Science Fiction is Science Fiction that focuses on the military. See also:  TV Tropes. SFE.
  18. New Wave: A loose movement in science fiction writing from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, characterized by an experimental approach to narrative structures and language and an emphasis on nuanced social, moral, or psychological conflict rather than on technological concerns. See also:  TV Tropes. SFE.
  19. New Weird: The New Weird movement is a post-modernist take on certain kinds of literary genre fiction. In a nutshell, it’s a specific genre of Scifi/Fantasy/Horror literature that does not follow the conventions of derivative Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Horror, without being an outright parody or deconstruction. Similar to the New Wave Science Fiction movement of The Sixties, but it took off in the mid-nineties, and was at its peak in the early-to-mid Turn of the Millennium. See also:  TV Tropes. SFE.
  20. Post-apocalyptic sf: Fiction set in a world or civilization after such a disaster that ruins the world. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in a non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain.
  21. Post-Peak Oil Narrative: Story set in the world after fossil fuels have or will soon run out. See also: TV Tropes.
  22. Proto-sf: Early works that contain elements and themes of modern science fiction. The origins of SF. Usually considered anything before 1926.
  23. Pulp SF: SF published in “pulp” magazines, starting as early as the 1880s. Today the term “pulp sf” is associated primarily with stories written, usually rapidly, for the least intellectual segment of the sf market – packed with adventure but with little emphasis on character, which is usually stereotyped, or on ideas, which are frugally and constantly recycled. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  24. Raygun gothic:  A ubiquitous aesthetic of early- and mid-20th century Science Fiction, modeled after Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and/or Populuxe (aka Googie). Everything is slick and streamlined, with geometric shapes and clean parallel lines constructed of shiny metal and glass, lit prominently by neon. Sweeping curves, parabolas, and acute angles are used to suggest movement — movement into The Future. See also: TV Tropes.com
  25. Shaggy God story: a story in which a myth is explained as having a SF origin.
  26. Slipstream: Fiction which, while not classified as science fiction, engages to some extent with scientific or futuristic subject matter, esp. such fiction regarded as constituting an identifiable genre; this genre of fiction. See also:   TV Tropes. SFE.
  27. Soft SF/Social SF: SF that deals with the Soft Sciences or to SF that does not deal with recognizable science at all, but emphasizes human feelings. See also:  SFE.
  28. Space Opera SF: a genre of science fiction which uses stock characters and settings, especially those of Westerns translated into outer space; a genre of science fiction in which the action spans across a galaxy or galaxies; a work of these genres. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  29. Space Western: Westerns set in space. The idea is that the vast distances of space have formed barriers and difficulties similar to those faced by American settlers as they crossed and developed the continent, forcing the people to become independent or even insular, with help from whatever central authority (if any) that laid claim to the land long in coming, and immediate protection once again becoming a personal matter. See also: TV Tropes.
  30. Steampunk: A subgenre of science fiction that has an historical setting (esp. based on industrialized, nineteenth-century society) and characteristically features steam-powered, mechanized machinery rather than electronic technology. See also:  TV Tropes. SFE.
  31. Uchronia: Alternate history. See also:  TV Tropes. SFE.  See also Counterfactual: A work of alternate history. SFE.
  32. Utopian sf: The utopia and its offshoot, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. Utopian fiction is the creation of an ideal society, or utopia, as the setting for a novel. See also:  TV Tropes.

Some Themes and Concepts

  1. Arcology: visionary architect Paolo Soleri’s theory for an architecture that fuses archeology+ecology and thinks in terms of creature structures and cities that have as little impact on the environment as possible.
  2. Area 51: A United States Air Force base in Nevada, the existence of which was not formally acknowledged by the US Government until 1995. See also: TV TropesSFE.
  3. Ballardian: relating to or characteristic of J.G. Ballard’s writing, esp. desolate, dystopian settings and a pessimistic view of modern techonology
  4. Cognitive Estrangement: A sf device defined by critic Darko Suvin as one for creating and understanding an imagined world as different from our own, by means of scientific observation, theorizing and empirical experiment. See also: SFE.
  5. Comet of doom: An omen of good or ill. In Western civilizations, usually a harbinger of evil. See also:  TV Tropes.
  6. Cozy catastrophe: “Cosy Catastrophe” is a term coined by Brian Aldiss. The End of the World as We Know It has arrived and … our heroes feel fine.
  7. Counterfactual: A work of alternate history. See also: SFE.
  8. Determinism: Assuming that because something happened it was inevitable. See also: TV TropesSFE.
  9. Drake Equation: an equation that attempt to calculate the number of possible alien species who can communicate in the galaxy.  (See Graphics page)
  10. Dyson sphere: a thought experiment by physicist Freeman Dyson in which the energy of a star of a solar system is captured in such a way as to fuel all needed power-sources of a mega-biosphere.
  11. Fermi Paradox: the “where are all the other species” question; not really a paradox, but a question as to why we haven’t had contact with alien species (or so we think), and the seeming probability given the size of the universe that we should have had contact by now (see Drake Equation). See also: SFE.  (See Graphics page)
  12. Gaia: The Gaia hypothesis, proposed by UK scientist James Lovelock in the 1960s and now usually termed Earth System Science, suggests that Earth’s Biosphere forms a self-regulating Homeostatic System analogous to a living organism; the name is taken from the Greek earth-goddess, also spelt Gaea or Ge. See also:  SFE.
  13. Empathy: ESP or extra-sensory perception; sixth sense. See also: SFE.
  14. Epidemic: Plagues, pandemics, contagious diseases, viruses.
  15. Eschatology: Eschatology is the class of theological doctrine pertaining to death and the subsequent fate of the soul, and to the ultimate fate of the world. Stories of the Far Future, the End of the World and the End of Time can be categorized as eschatological, but are considered separately; this section deals mainly with the idea of personal survival after death. See also: SFE.
  16. Extrapolation: Predicting beyond the original range of observation. See also: SFE.
  17. Forty-two (42): The answer to “The Question” in Douglas Adam’s radio show and novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978-1980). See also: TV Tropes.
  18. Hive mind: Group mind; minds working together. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  19. Hugo award: a set of awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year. The awards are named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the pioneering science fiction magazine Amazing Stories.
  20. Infodump: a large (often unwieldy or indigestible) amount of information supplied all at once; spec. as background or descriptive information in a narrative. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  21. Kardashev Scale: a method for measuring how advanced a civilization is based on their technological sophistication.  Type I: planetary; Type II: stellar (see Dyson sphere); Type II: galactic.
  22. Media Landscape: The degree to which Communications technology (and foreseeable future extensions of it) was replacing the natural world with a “media landscape” was scarcely noticed until the 1950s.
  23. Newspeak: term coined by George Orwell in the novel 1984 to describe a governmental propaganda language intended to manipulate, control, and often deceive its constituents.
  24. Noosphere: Pierre Teillhard de Chardin and Vladimir Verndasky’s notion of a highly evolved biosphere in which reason rules; it follows the geosphere and biosphere in order of evolution.
  25. O’Neill cylinder/colony: a massive structure envisioned by physicist Gerard O’Neill that consists of two, counter-rotating cylinders in which humans can live in space. Often associated with “generation ships.”  See also here.
  26. Orwellian: characteristic or suggestive of the writings of George Orwell (author of 1984), esp. of dystopian and totalitarian visions of the future.
  27. Pantropy: This term was coined by James Blish in the stories later melded together as The Seedling Stars. Blish’s view was that in humanity’s Colonization of Other Worlds, we must either change the planet to make it habitable (Terraforming) or change humanity itself to fit it for survival in an alien environment. See also: SFE.
  28. Parallel Worlds: A parallel world is another universe situated “alongside” our own, displaced from it along a spatial fourth Dimension (parallel worlds are often referred to in sf as “other dimensions”). Although whole universes may lie parallel in this sense, most stories focus on parallel Earths. The parallel-world idea forms a useful framework for the notion of Alternate History, and is often used in this way. Most of the “secondary worlds” of modern Fantasy are explicit or implicit parallel worlds. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  29. Prime directive: the main objective or requirement that overrides other rules or laws (e.g. Star Trek‘s directive not to interfere in the affairs of “less developed” planetary cultures.
  30. The Red Pill: from the film series The Matrix, something that reveals the real world to you. (the other option is the Blue Pill)
  31. Redshirt: An expendable character who does not survive for long. Term comes from Star Trek and the observation that officers wearing red shirt were killed quickly. See also: TV Tropes. SFE.
  32. Sentience: An alien or A.I. that shows qualities such as awareness and empathy,
  33. Social Darwinism: Social Darwinism is the thesis that social evolution and social history are governed by the same principles that govern the Evolution of species in Nature, so that conflict between and within cultures constitutes a struggle for existence which is the motor of progress. See also:  TV Tropes.
  34. TEOTWAWKI: The End of the World As We Know It
  35. Theodicy: the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.
  36. Thought Experiment: In Physics, a thought experiment is a common means of exploring the implications of scientific assumptions without resorting to actual apparatus. See also: SFE.
  37. World-building: The creation of fictional planets and their geology, geography, biology, etc., often including the history and culture of their inhabitants. See also: TV Tropes.

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The images are © Franco Brambilla.