Writers Write creates writing resources and shares writing tips. In this post, we share a complete glossary of terms for science fiction writers.
To write a good Science Fiction book, you need to know all the tropes in the genre and you need to come up with a great idea. But, you still need to include all the elements of a good book.
These elements include the following characters:
- Love Interest (if necessary)
As well as a plot, a setting, and story goals for your characters.
In particular, setting is even more important in the Science Fiction genre. It is what your core audience is really there for.
[Suggested reading: What J. K. Rowling & Other Bestselling Authors Know About Setting and What Fantasy (& Science Fiction) Writers Can Teach Us About Setting]
That being said, these are all the important words and phrases you need to know to write a science fiction book, short story, script, or game.
A Complete Glossary Of Terms For Science Fiction Writers
- Advanced Technology. Often, science fiction universes have technologies that are beyond what humans are capable of doing at the present, such as the iPad-like devices used in mid-nighties science fiction shows. And, most will have technologies that are actually impossible to create. This is how you introduce magic into your world without calling it magic.
- AI Artificial Intelligence. These are human-created intelligent beings that live in a virtual environment such as on a computer. Hal from 2001 is iconic in this regard.
- Alien. A creature not from Earth. Or at least not from where your protagonist is from. Writing TIP: Aliens that look and act human are easy to relate to. This is why the vast majority of aliens we see on the screen look like humans with minor facial prosthetics. Think pointy ears or blue skin.
- Android from the Greek meaning like a human. These are artificial life forms that are constructed to resemble a human and act like one. They can be made from any material even organic material like flesh. Not to be confused with a Golem, which is a magical equivalent.
- Beaming Technology. Beaming technology fires a high energy beam of light in a straight line from point A to point B. It can be used as a weapon like a phaser or it can be used to transport matter, like a teleporter.
- Black Hole. In reality this is a point in space where matter is so dense it sucks in even light particles, and eventually they evaporate. In Science Fiction black holes are magical places that your characters can travel through to another dimension or go back in time from. They are indeed a plot convenience that moves the story on. Writing TIP: Black holes let your reader know something dangerous is about to happen. Use them to build tension or to create a plot twist.
- Butlerian Jihad. Used by Frank Herbert in Dune, this Jihad is a revolution where humans take back their freedom from artificial intelligence. Writing TIP: Humans in this universe will have a distrust of technology. People will be good at remembering things and doing complex calculations in their heads as they will not trust a computer for anything.
- Clones. You can create a copy of any living being. Sometimes, they have all the memories of the original or they can be given the memories of the original. This is how you bring a character back from the dead without magic.
- Colony World. Science Fiction is obsessed with spreading human civilisation throughout the galaxy. Just as often these colony border planets are destroyed by a mysterious force that your hero needs to investigate.
- Credits. Your protagonist will need money. Why not use the most common science fiction term of all and have them spend credits at the local cantina.
- Cryo-Ship. A star ship where the majority or all of the human crew is frozen in suspended animation so that they do not age during the journey.
- Cybernetic Revolt. A revolution where robots take over the world from humans.
- Cyborg. These are part-organic, part-synthetic humanoid constructs. Famously, the Borg from Star Trek fall loosely into this category.
- Deep Space. This is the wild west of space. You might make friends with the aliens here or just as easily go to war with them.
- Federation of Planets. A loose coalition of star systems in an alliance similar to the NATO or the UN.
- Force Fields, Energy Shields. In case your societies advanced morality isn’t enough to protect them, they will need a force field. These will protect your ships and some people will even have personal ones. This makes melee combat possible when your fancy space gun can’t get through the evil aliens shield. Surprisingly, swords always go through shields. Shields on star ships are measured in percentages.
- FTL. Faster Than Light. Used to refer to fictional ships that can travel beyond the speed of light.
- Galactic. One galaxy.
- Generation Ship. A star ship where generations of humans live and die as they move between worlds. They are huge and have large populations and spacious living quarters.
- Gigantic Death Rays, Super Weapons. In the more fanciful science fiction (From Flash Gordon to Star Wars) where the fiction is in capital letters, there is always a super weapon. These are almost always red or green laser beams that destroy planets.
- Hyper Space. A way to travel quickly between two points in space by passing through another dimension – usually subspace.
- Intergalactic. Between galaxies.
- Inter-Planetary. Between planets.
- Interstellar. Between stars.
- Methuselah Ship. A star ship piloted by long-lived or immortal humans. They may only have a handful of occupants.
- Nova Bombs, Star Busters. These are nukes that can destroy a solar system.
- Null Space, Z-Space, Final Space, The Warp. A dimension between normal space and other dimensions where the rules of the universe don’t apply. This is where you can find, or avoid, mind-destroying horrors and other eldritch aberrations. It’s a foolish place to go, but you can be sure your protagonist will end up there.
- Parallel Worlds. This is when your character interacts with another dimension often like their own with perhaps a minor difference, for example, everyone is evil. For a really good lesson on parallel worlds read The Long Earth by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett.
- Planets. Your science fiction world will be filled with interesting planets to visit. A large number of them will have Earth-like atmospheres that your human protagonist will move around in without any protective clothing. Some planets will, of course, be toxic, or have too much gravity but these are treated more as an obstacle than the norm in science fiction universes.
- Post-Human. This does not describe a civilisation after the death of the human race. It is a class of humans who have in some way become so different from what we are today as to no longer be truly human. Perhaps, they have become machines or have become monsters. The Morlocks and Eloi from H G Wells, The Time Machine, are an example. Of late there has been a lot of conceptual fan interest in this. Writing TIP: It is hard to write a story about immortal robots with no emotions. If you want to write in this genre, your post-humans should basically act like humans or at least be in conflict with human characters.
- Quantum Slip Steam. Like Hyper Space, but the manipulation of time is involved.
- Ray Gun, Blaster, Phaser, Heat Ray… These are all examples of handheld side-arms used in science fiction to show that you are “in the future”. In practice they function exactly like a gun except that they can be used to start a campfire or disintegrate a Klingon.
- Robot from the Czech word robota meaning serf or slave. An inorganic humanoid, although not always, programmed to carry out a set of constructions.
- Robotic Exoskeleton, Mech (Sometimes Mecha メカ), Powered Armour. These are mechanical suits that can be as small as normal protective armour or as large as a 20-story building. They are used in futuristic battles to allow mediaeval style combat in a futuristic setting. Robert A. Heinlein‘s book, Starship Troopers, does this well. Japanese Science Fiction is obsessed with Mech combat. However, it uses the mech suit as a Samurai substitute instead of a European Knight comparison. It is also just fun to have an excuse to use a three story laser sword.
- Sci-Fi. A common shortening of Science Fiction
- Sentient Beings. These are any beings, organic or otherwise, including artificial intelligences that can feel.
- SF. A pretentious shortening of Science Fiction. This form is only used by unbearable snobs to try to see if you are one of them.
- Space. This is the lifeless void between stars and planets. However, it will always be populated with interesting people and species with whom your characters can interact. This is where science fiction feels comfortable.
- Star Base, Space Station. These are the forward borders of your space bound civilisation. They should be used in the same way as you would a Wild West town, that is as interesting meeting places for a variety of characters. They are often too far away from the core to send for help and some suffer lawlessness. Have fun with them.
- Star Empire. Like Rome, but in space. The Romulan Star Empire gets its name from Romulus the founder or Rome. Gene Roddenberry was not subtle in his early work.
- Star Ship. A space vessel almost always crewed by a large compliment of humanoid beings that travels between stars.
- Sub-Space. A dimension just next to or under normal space. It is used to send messages or objects at faster than light speeds.
- SyFy. An abbreviation of the Sci-Fi Channel caused by a brain disease an executive contracted during the 1994 channel merger with Viacom.
- Techno-Babble. Nonsense words used to explain improbable technological events. Such as “re-route power to the forward flux capacitor” or “Literarally anything said in Star Trek: Discovery”
- Technocracy. A civilisation based around the worship of technology. This can be religious in a traditional sense or simply a strong reliance in technology such as is seen in the Star Trek franchise.
- Teleportation, Star Trek. The act of de-materialising an object or person in one place and re-materialising them in another. You end up with a new person re-assembled from possibly different materials in this case. Although, sources are unclear on the subject.
- Teleportation, Stargate. Ripping an object apart at an atomic level then moving these parts through a device such as a Stargate or Beaming device, then using those exact atoms to re-assemble it on the other end. You end up with the same person in this instance.
- Terraforming. This is the process of turning a planet into an environment that is suitable for life. Writing TIP: A good source of conflict is an alien ship that is terraforming Earth into the alien’s environment.
- Time Paradox. This is a situation where a character has gone back in time to change the past in a way that would prevent them from being able to go back in time to change the past. For example, they go back in time to stop their younger self from making a mistake. But, if they do this then the new version of them has no reason to go back in time to prevent the mistake and so they will make the mistake because they didn’t go back in time to prevent themselves making the mistake. Writing TIP: Never think too hard about the logic of time travel. If you want a character to go on a trip through time just do it and damn the rules.
- Time Travel. This is an event caused by a machine or natural object such as a black hole. This will transport your protagonist to the past or future. Alternatively, it will move them to another time-line.
- Tractor Beam. Your star ship will need a way to move objects out of the way or trap enemy ships. The Tractor Beam merely exists as a plot convenience. Without it, Han Solo would have flown away from the Death Star.
- Trans-Human. Used in much the same way as Post-Human but is technically the in-between stage of humanity and post-humanity. For example a person becoming a cyborg is Trans-Human.
- Utopian Societies. Some science fiction civilisations have moved past the need for money. They live in a society that values art and ethics above material wealth. Writing TIP: I find it is cathartic when these civilisations are confronted with an external power that doesn’t care about their philosophical enlightenment, but is willing to trade for cold hard credits. This is why the Ferengi are so much fun in Star Trek.
- Warp Drive, Hyper Drive, Quantum Drive and FTL Drive. These refer to the engines used to move star ships through or under space at FTL speeds.
- Warp Speed. A form of FTL. Warp capable ships create fields of energy around them to travel through space by warping the fabric of reality.
- Wild Space. This is the bad neighbourhood of space. Pirates are certain here.
These are all the terms I think you need to know to write good science fiction. Let me know what I have missed.
TOP TIP: If you want to learn how to write a book, sign up for our online course or join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.
by Christopher Luke Dean (Caught in a time loop writing a different list every week.)
Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter.
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