Themes & Trends in Science Fiction

A Brief Overview of Common Subjects


  1. Machines
    Humankind and its relationship with machines (robots, computers, gadgets) is probably one of the most dominant themes in science fiction. From Don Quixote’s duel with a windmill to Sarah Connor’s flight from the Terminator, science fiction has often concerned itself with the gadgets we make and whether it was proper to do so or not.There have been stories of flying machines, time machines, computing machines and machines that look like their makers. Often these machines are “sinister,” and betray the humans who make or deal with them. Other stories sing the praises of technology.

    Examples: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert Heinlein, War Games directed by John Badham, and the TV show Robocop.

  2. Aliens
    It was in the 19th century that the concept of aliens came about. With the understanding of evolution, came the understanding that other sentient creatures might evolve on other worlds. According to Brian Stableford, it was in 1865 that “the idea of alien intelligence was first popularized by Camille Flammarion in ‘Real and Imaginary Worlds’ . . . — a speculative essay in which he imagined the dominant life-forms of other worlds adapted in their physical forms to environments very different from those of Earth” (p. 111).

    Stories of aliens usually cast these creatures as threats to humankind. However, there are stories of friendly aliens. In stories where both kinds were involved, the evil aliens are most often reptilian or have some other non-humanoid form, and the good aliens look quite a bit like us. This has been referred to as biological chauvanism. Sometimes aliens are used as a device to show how sadly lacking in morality and goodness the human race really is.

    Examples: Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward, “Transstar” by Raymond E. Banks, Enemy Mine directed by Wolfgang Peterson and the TV series Alien Nation.

  3. Societies
    “The most obvious, and perhaps the most remarkable, change which has overtaken speculative fiction about the future during the last hundred years has been the replacement of the Utopian image of the future by a pessimistic image which has been dubbed, inevitably, ‘dystopian'” (p. 121).

    Some science fiction stories deal with what it would be like if the underlying cultural assumptions were different than they are in the present place and time. These stories often take place in the far future and sometimes on other planets. They both explore better places to live and warn where our current assumptions may lead us.

    Examples: The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin, “Billenium” by J. G. Ballard, Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, and the TV series Logan’s Run.

  4. Superpeople
    Superpeople populate science fiction stories like fleas on a dog’s back. They can take the form of “normal” people somehow endowed with super powers, the next evolutionary step in humankind or, again, aliens. Often they are shown as passionless, with their superior intellect ruling all they do.

    Examples: Slan by A. E. Van Vogt, Scanners directed by David Cronenberg and the TV show The Phoenix.

  5. Science Gone Mad / Mad Scientists
    This probably the theme most people are familiar with. The Mad Scientist uses Science to the detriment of all. This was more common in pre-20th-century science fiction where scientists “often exhibited symptoms of social maladjustment, sometimes to the point of insanity; they were characteristically obsessive and antisocial.” (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1993).

    Examples: The White Plague by Frank Herbert, “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Jurassic Park directed by Steven Spielberg.

Obviously, this is not an end-all-be-all list of what science fiction is about, but it does touch the surface. Within each of these five topics, sub-topics could easily be found. I tried to give an example of a novel, a short story, a movie and a TV series for each of these topics.