Nov. 24, 2020
Sci-fi vs Sci-fi Thrillers
Differences between sci-fi genres
Science fiction and science-fiction thrillers are among the two most popular genres in the industry. But while the genres share science in their name, they each have distinct characteristics that create a unique reader experience.
Within sci-fi thrillers and the science-fiction genre are consistent, predictable, almost expected structures, plot types, character types, settings, and other common tropes which create a distinct reader experience. These unique tropes work together to reinforce the key difference between the genres, which is the emotional intensity stemming from a single word: plausibility.
Mapping the reader experience
The reader experience is the most important criteria for why anyone buys and loves a book or genre. The purpose of all fiction is to carry the reader into a story world to experience an emotional journey; to connect with the fictional characters who implore the reader to face the moment of crisis. Each genre facilitates these expectations through common tropes. Just as important, each reader brings preferences of the type of imaginary and emotional experience they crave and expect.
Science Fiction: A reader will expect a science fiction to include elements of space travel, time travel, alien cultures, and technologies, alternate history, radically advanced or impossible science such as shrinking, teleportation or inter-dimensional travel. While sci-fi extends beyond these constructs, the essence will be an alternative reality which empowers the reader to experience the emotions of drama or conflict without sensing any personalized threat. The reader comfortably rests on the sub-conscious knowledge that the galaxy is far, far away, in time long, long ago or within another dimension. This abstraction of reality creates an agile and safe place to explore sensitive issues of social injustice, religious dogma, war and peace, male and female, and more. Regardless of the danger, there is an emotional safety zone of non-plausibility, which means a sci-fi can explore a full spectrum of issues.
Sci-fi thriller or techno-thriller: These two genres will also draw from an accepted set of common tropes such as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, advanced weaponry, robotics, stolen nukes, surveillance, or biological technologies run amuck. Rather than placing these threats far away, a sci-fi thriller will occur during a contemporary or a near-future timeframe, and within existing locations, cultural, religious, social dynamics, and technologies.
A sci-fi thriller will want to pull you deeper into the conspiracy to follow the breadcrumbs of top-secret clues and unmask the unspoken dangers. A sci-fi thriller wants you to explore the moral dilemmas, human hubris, and hidden agendas that could change your real life—for real. A good techno-thriller will want you to believe it’s all plausible-if not already true. While a sci-fi thriller can include a spectrum of human emotions for the reader to experience, the essence will be an underlying tension of a plausible imminent threat.
The emotional impact to the reader experience pivots on the proximity to a plausible imminent threat for the simple reason that we fear truth over fiction. A good sci-fi thriller will blend fiction to a credible reality. A good sci-fi will bend unplausible reality to explore a fundamental human truth. Each genre builds either an emotional safety zone or the context of a plausible imminent threat in several ways.
Locations of Time and Space
On the surface, one the easiest ways to distinguish sci-fi from sci-fi thriller is in the story world. Science Fiction will present an alternate reality story world such as another planet, another dimension, a distant past or future. For those sci-fi stories set within a contemporary time, a technology far beyond our reach such as teleportation or time travel, or which twist the laws of physics will set the story apart.
In the novel The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez the principal character Nia, wanders the planets as a star ship captain adapting to the loneliness of leaving friends for the unknown. While the reader learns of imaginary worlds with futuristic technologies, the risks and dangers of Nia’s adventure are distant and conceptual. The fact that The Vanished Birds is not a thriller illustrates the flexibility for a sci-fi to blend with multiple genres such as literary, romance, action-adventure, psychological thriller or even a western–if your western includes aliens or time travel. The emotional journey is not tied to a flaw in the technology or science, but can embrace the full spectrum of human emotions, even if those emotions are experienced by a non-human character.
In comparison, a sci-fi thriller will take place in contemporary times, and within well-known locations and institutions such as the CIA, NSA, MI5, or the Kremlin. These places still hold a great deal of mystique because of the level of secrecy. Rather than futuristic science or tech, a sci-fi thriller will push the edges of existing science just far enough to create a risk scenario. Techno-thrillers expose the hidden flaw, or the consequences of human malice and then asks the reader “what if this really happens.” That proximity to a plausible imminent threat is key to the sci-fi thriller reader’s experience.
Rather than dealing with social issues from an alternate reality, a techno-thriller will exploit those issues, zero in on them, perhaps to an extreme. Dan Brown wrote Inferno which dealt with the possibility that a bio-engineered virus that could kill two-thirds of the current population in a misguided delusional effort to save humanity. Inferno explored the pros and cons of population control and the risks to humanity if the problems are not addressed in time. During 2020, as a global pandemic rages across the globe and a vaccine still lingers several months away, the reader of such a scenario will internalize the tension. Even when the reader knows the book is fiction, a sense of plausibility hangs on their shoulder- sometimes even long after the pages are closed.
Futuristic or Leading Edge
Both genres integrate technology and physics, but in unique ways which can be summarized by the difference between futuristic and leading edge.
Science fiction will typically display a highly futuristic level of science and technology into the physics and cultural norms of the imaginary world. Sometimes, the author will base these creative concepts on actual theories of physics, but projected far into the future. Light sabers, warp speed and teleportation are based on known theories in physics, but hundreds of years into the future. In other cases, science fiction will ignore the laws of physics altogether to present the reader with an imaginary alien reality which tests and stretches our perceptions of what it means to even exist.
Science fiction will usually present the fantasy tech without explanation or justification of how it works because it doesn’t matter to the reader experience. Everyone knows the Millennium Falcon can jump to hyper-space, so we need not know how.
In the sci-fi novel Goldilocks by Laura Lam, five female astronauts must find a new planet home for humanity. The longer they stay on the ship together, the darker the personal secrets that emerge which threaten the mission. Science and technology are inherent in the ship and the alternative worlds, but the story revolves on a psychological thriller of intimate secrets. In sci-fi, technology may not be the villain, but merely the backdrop or setting. Goldilocks again highlights the flexibility of the sci-fi genre to deal with a broad range of human issues and emotions.
Most sci-fi thrillers, on the other hand, will focus on an existing science or innovation, and then magnify the flaw, the defect, the unknown risk, or moral dilemma. Technology run-amuck, or misused by human malice becomes a key theme (trope) to the genre—a consistent source of a plausible imminent threat. A techno-thriller about a hacker who exploits a phone flaw to blackmail or stalk women is a terrifying story because it is a plausible scenario. Plausibility translates into a more intense reader experience because the threat may exist not just within the pages, but outside the front door, or worse, already in the house. A sci-fi thriller will go to great lengths to set up the credibility of the world, the characters and the technology or science premise to increase the emotional jolt of plausibility.
Common technology tropes will include artificial intelligence, Nano-bytes, DNA manipulation, government surveillance, robotics, cryptology (keeping secrets), advanced weapons, bio-weapons and other technologies that already exist in the actual world today. While each of these technologies hold incredible commercial promise for solving real-life problems, they also represent extreme, and largely unknown risks. The reader expects to discover these fallacies and wants them to be real or realistic.
In the tech-thriller classic Jurassic Park, the author Michael Crichton pushes the edge of existing DNA and cloning technologies just enough to ask the question, what if we could bring back dinosaurs? That question not only creates the premise for a great thriller, but it raised ethical and moral issues of DNA technology that scientists are still grappling with today.
No one questions or debates the morality of teleportation because it does not exist—and holds no imminent threat. No one fears the planetary death ray of a galactic war lord more than they fear a chemical weapon of mass destruction by a deranged terrorist. The proximity to plausible will turn a good techno-thriller into a white-knuckle reader experience.
Ideologies and Belief Systems
Mythology, social norms, and religious belief systems form a foundation for any culture, real or imaginary. The Star Wars series popularized the story-based belief in the “Force.” While Lucas borrowed his concepts from Buddhist and Taoist teachings, he adapted them to fit a galaxy far, far away. In so doing, he touched into the need of people to believe by re-packaging ideas that we already accept. The reader experience avoids a threat to their faith by filtering those beliefs though the abstraction of an imaginary belief system.
Because a sci-fi thriller will want to root readers in reality, the reader will expect to encounter actual conflicts of politics and religion, between science and industry, or secret government and citizen. The parallel to real issues will create a personalized reader experience because each reader will bring their own bias (tension), whereas within sci-fi the reader brings no inherent bias to an imaginary system (safety).
The impact of plausibility also effects the reader experience with regard to a villain. While neither sci-fi or sci-fi thriller requires a villain, since the technology can represent the danger, imagine the reader experience of facing Tyrant Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in the sci-fi classic, DUNE as compared to a sci-fi thriller about Vladimir Putin and hyper-sonic missiles. Once again, the proximity to plausible creates a subconscious imminent threat. Sure, Tyrant Baron was ruthless, but Vladimir Putin is real.
Crossing the Fourth Wall
In theater, the fourth wall refers to the separation between the play and the audience. Where science fiction will take the reader on a fantastic journey with a clear separation between the story reality and the reader reality. A sci-fi thriller will want to blend the story and reader reality to increase the plausibility of an imminent threat. While the emotional response is subconscious, the sense of safety or tension is real.
Do you love futuristic technology, fantastic new creatures and alien worlds which bend the laws of physics while safely experiencing dramas of love, betrayal, war and faith? Then a good science fiction novel will keep you up at night, and allow you to escape into wild imaginations.
Or do you love exploring the dangers of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, unbreakable codes, Nano-tech, bio-tech, and government surveillance? Then a good sci-fi thriller will also keep you up at night. But I suggest that you lock the door, remove the batteries from your phone and unplug the Alexa—it’s going to get real in here.
In summary, both science fiction and sci-fi thrillers are incredible reader experiences for very different reasons that have little to do with actual science. The difference is the emotional tension of plausibility.
About the Author
Guy Morris is a successful businessman, thought leader, adventurer, inventor, and published composer. During college, Guy was influenced by men of the Renaissance who were fluent in business, science, politics and the arts. After growing up on the streets, he earned graduate scholarships for his macroeconomic models, and awarded as an early webisode pioneer.
With three degrees and thirty-six years of executive-level experience in high tech firms, Guy Morris thrillers bend the fine line between truth and fiction with a sardonic wit.
Guy just released his 5-Star techno-thriller entitled SWARM – When Artificial Intelligence Decodes End-Time Prophecies.