The Basics

I'm proud to say that "The Basics" has become something of an institution over at the Absolute Write forums, where I first posted it, and where it was polished and revised with the help of such AW regulars as Dawnstorm, MargueriteMing, and Mr. Flibble. As for the why, the what, and the who, read below...


Over at the Science Fiction Writers of America, they call it "re-inventing the wheel." Here's what they say:
Re-Inventing the Wheel: A novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a science-fictional situation already tiresomely familiar to the experienced reader. Reinventing the Wheel was traditionally typical of mainstream writers venturing into SF. It is now often seen in writers who lack experience in genre history because they were attracted to written SF via SF movies, SF television series, SF role-playing games, SF comics or SF computer gaming.
What does that mean? Well...

If you’re writing about colony ships, you should know about Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. If you’re writing about telepaths working with non-psychics, you should know about Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man.

Why? So you don't waste your time. So you don't make basic mistakes, or offer up a vision that is new to you, but old to everyone else. When you write speculative fiction, you explore the consequences of ideas. But if those consequences have already been mapped and developed by others, you are not an explorer; you are just a tourist.

This is a list of classic work in fantasy, science fiction and hard science that’s arranged by topic. If you're considering a dystopian novel, for instance, you can scroll down to that topic and find works like Stand on Zanzibar (or even Rollerball). Italics indicates a novel or film; quotation marks indicate a short story or novella.

This isn’t meant to be a list of all works on a subject, nor of the best works on a subject. (In fact, some of these works have not worn well.) It's only a list of seminal works on a subject: those works that laid the foundations; those works that, if ignored, will make you look like a fool when you try to shop your own unintentional retread of a story. If you haven’t read the work and don't want to, you can usually check it out on Wikipedia. Just remember, if you write a totalitarian dystopia without knowing about 1984, you have only yourself to blame.

Alien Invasion
One of the oldest tropes in science fiction.
  • War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
  • "Who Goes There?" John W. Campbell (This novella is the source material of no less than three movie adaptations, all called The Thing.)
  • The Puppet Masters, Robert Heinlein, 1951
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney 1956
  • “Come Into My Cellar,” Ray Bradbury, 1962

Alternate History
Also known these days as counterfactual history, an alternate history is a timeline in which events occurred...differently. Battles lost were won; fallen empires remained intact; great figures died before their time, or lived on past it; and we are given a tour of the consequences.
  • Paratime & Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, H. Beam Piper (Some Paratime stories are freely available on Project Gutenberg)
  • The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  • “A Sound of Thunder,” Ray Bradbury
  • “Mirror, Mirror,” Star Trek episode (AKA "Spock With a Beard")
  • It’s a Wonderful Life, film, 1946
  • "Roads of Destiny," O. Henry

See Artificial Intelligence/Robots

Angels and Devils
Once abstract concepts or even metaphors, angels and demons have since been mythologized as entities who could be commanded and feared and then turned into characters of fiction. Modern fantasy especially has treated these beings as individuals with great powers, following the lead of John Milton and taking it even farther.
  • Paradise Lost, John Milton
  • Hellblazer, comic, Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, John Ridgway
  • The Prophecy, film, Gregory Widen
  • Black Easter, James Blish

The Apocalypse/The Singularity/And After
"Apocalypse" is Greek for "revelation," but has come to mean the end of the world thanks to the Apocalypse of St. John, otherwise known asThe Book of Revelations. "The Singularity" is the idea that our technology (specifically, our information/intelligence/computer technology) will soon improve at such a rate that it will be incomprehensible to us, and ultimately lead to an unpredictable event that will so alter us or the world that we will be unrecognizable. Popularized by Ray Kurzweil, its roots were laid out in a 1993 paper by Vernor Vinge, who noted that the key element of the Singularity would be "technological runaway." Anticipation of the Singularity has since become the central tenet of Trans-Humanism.
  • "What Is the Singularity?" Vernor Vinge
  • Planet of the Apes, film, Rod Serling (NB The film varies significantly from the original novel by Pierre Boullé)
  • “By the Waters of Babylon,” Stephen Vincent Benét
  • Marooned in Realtime, Vernor Vinge
  • Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  • On the Beach, Nevil Shute
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • The Stand, Stephen King
  • The Apocalypse of St. John (aka The Book of Revelations), traditional

Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Robots/Androids
Mankind invents machines as smart, or smarter, than we are. Disaster ensues...or not.
(For SF purposes, "artificial intelligences" or "AIs" are artificially created beings, usually computers, that are self-aware; "robots" are AIs that can move themselves and other objects; and "androids" are robots built to look and sound like human beings.)
  • The Golem, traditional
  • Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley
  • R.U.R., Karl Capek (originated the term "robot" and the concept of the robot uprising)
  • With Folded Hands, Jack Williamson
  • I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  • Berserker, Fred Saberhagen
  • 2001, (film) Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick
  • Bladerunner, (film) Philip K. Dick, Hampton Francher, David Peoples, Ridley Scott (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
  • "Farewell to the Master," Harry Bates (adapted for the screen as The Day the Earth Stood Still)

Body Modification
We improve the breed by sticking ourselves full o’ junk – personality modifications, physical improvements, etc. etc. Or maybe we use drugs or genes instead. See also Human Evolution.
  • "Scanners Live in Vain," Cordwainer Smith
  • The Bionic Man (TV)
  • "Blood Music," Greg Bear
  • “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes
  • When Gravity Fails, George Alec Effinger

It should be noted that, despite its technological mystique, cloning is something that occurs regularly in nature - as identical twins.
  • The Boys From Brazil, Ira Levin
  • Bug Jack Barron, Norman Spinrad

  • The Hobbit & Farmer Giles of Ham, JRR Tolkien
  • The Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey
  • Beowulf, traditional
  • The Volsunga Saga, traditional
  • St. George and the Dragon, traditional

A dystopia is a future in which things are going very, very badly for humanity – generally through our own fault. Dystopian stories have been around forever, but they became especially prominent in the 1960s. They tend to function as satires of ideas or social trends occurring at the time they were written.
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932
  • 1984, George Orwell, 1949
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  • Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner, 1968
  • Soylent Green, film, 1973 (based on Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!)
  • "The Machine Stops," E.M. Forster

The Decadent Earth
A post-Imperial planet or civilization whose citizens live among the remnants of a glorious past. In some novels, it can be seen as a metaphor for European decline after WWII, but its roots can be traced at least as far back as Percy Shelley's Ozymandias. The characters are often exquisite aesthetes; occasionally they also have enormous personal power.
  • Nightwings, Robert Silverberg
  • The Dying Earth, Jack Vance
  • The Dancers at the End of Time, Michael Moorcock
  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells

Enigma Tales
We are confronted with artifacts we do not understand, from a race or culture that's not around to tell us what it all means. Sometimes it's a human culture; sometimes it's alien. Enigma tales often involve the promise of great wealth to lure the main characters into action, and the puzzles are often the author's way to illuminate the characters confronting them. Some have argued that, since SF is the literature of "What If?" Enigma Tales represent one of the purest expressions of the genre.
  • Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
  • Gateway, Fredrick Pohl
  • "Ticket to Anywhere," Damon Knight
  • "By The Waters of Babylon," Stephen Vincent Benét
  • “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett)
  • Forbidden Planet, film, Irving Block, Allen Adler, Cyril Hume, Fred M. Wilcox
  • Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Epistemology/Hallucination/Enlightenment/The Nature of Reality
  • Ubik & A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick
  • The Futurological Congress, Stanislaw Lem
  • "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Ambrose Bierce
  • "The Butterfly Dream," Zhuangzi (traditional)

Exoskeleton Suits
  • The Forever War, Robert Haldeman
  • Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein
  • Iron Man, comic, Stan Lee & Larry Leiber

Extreme Environmental Tales
Stories in which physical conditions are so difficult or bizarre that they become characters in and of themselves. Once a staple of hard science fiction, they have decreased as our knowledge of other planets has increased.
  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
  • Dragon's Egg, Robert Forward
  • "Surface Tension," James Blish
  • "A Pail of Air," Fritz Leiber

First Contact
Between humans and aliens.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • "A Martian Odyssey," Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • “First Contact,” Murray Leinster
  • "The Helping Hand," Poul Anderson
  • The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
  • 2001, A Space Odyssey, film, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind, film, Steven Spielberg
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still, film, 1951, Robert Wise, Harry Bates, Edmund North
  • ET, film, Steven Spielberg
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth, film, Walter Tevis, Nicolas Roeg
  • Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
  • Contact, Carl Sagan
  • A Signal From Space, Will Eisner (graphic novel)
  • His Master's Voice, Stanislaw Lem
  • The Hercules Text, Jack McDevitt

Franchise Government/Anarchy
A social system in which governmental functions like security, defense, and conflict resolution are maintained by private organizations, not public bodies; or a society in which the government no longer has a "monopoly of legitimate violence" - especially if some or all of those functions have been assumed by corporations. Derived from anarchist political theory, it is also a defining concept of cyberpunk.

Future Warfare
  • The Forever War, Robert Haldeman
  • Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein
  • Revolt in 2100, Robert Heinlein
  • Bolo, Keith Laumer

Genetic Engineering
  • The Seedling Stars, James Blish
  • Lilith's Brood, Octavia E. Butler

Heaven, Hell, Nirvana and New Jersey
The Afterlife probably has the oldest pedigree of any concept in literature. The first seven entries detail Classical notions of the Afterlife; the question then becomes how those concepts have been reworked by modern authors...
  • The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia), Dante Alighieri
  • Paradise Lost, John Milton
  • The Gospels, traditional (Christianity)
  • The Pali Canon, traditional (Buddhism)
  • The Bhagavad Gita, traditional (Hinduism)
  • The Odyssey, Homer (Greco-Roman)
  • The Aeneid, Virgil (Greco-Roman)
  • Extract From Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, Mark Twain
  • The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis
  • Lilith, George Macdonald
  • Ghost, film, Bruce Joel Rubin, Jerry Zucker
  • Made in Heaven/What Dreams May Come, films - Heaven as a non-geographical space shaped by the desires of the inhabitants

Human Evolution/Superhumans
Mankind takes the next step to...something else. (See also "Singularity.")
  • Star Maker & The Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon
  • Dorsai, Gordon R. Dickson
  • The Seedling Stars, James Blish
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • Protector, Larry Niven
  • Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham
  • Slan, A.E. Van Vogt
  • Darwin's Radio, Greg Bear
  • Lilith's Brood, Octavia E. Butler
  • “Gulf,” Robert Heinlein
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

Human Colonization/Invasion of Alien Worlds
  • The Seedling Stars, James Blish
  • The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
  • A Gift From Earth, Larry Niven

  • The Immortals, James Gunn
  • “The Martyr,” Alan E. Nourse
  • Methusaleh’s Children, Robert Heinlein
  • The Instrumentality of Mankind, Cordwainer Smith

  • A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin (Magic as laws that reflect the fundamental nature of reality.)
  • The Dying Earth, Jack Vance (One-shot spells that must be relearned; Vance's system of magic was later appropriated by the Dungeons & Dragons game system.)
  • The Lord Darcy series, Randall Garrett (Magic as a psionic ability constrained by precise scientific laws.)
  • The Magic Goes Away, Larry Niven (Magic as a non-renewable resource, like petroleum.)
  • Black Easter, James Blish (Magic in the traditional Goetic style)

Megascale Engineering
Building habitats that are larger than planets.
  • Ringworld, Larry Niven
  • “Bigger Than Worlds,” essay, Larry Niven
  • The works of Freeman Dyson

Mind Control/Brainwashing
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • "Country of the Kind," Damon Knight
  • A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge
  • Walden II, B.F. Skinner
  • The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon
  • The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin

Multigenerational Colony Ships
  • Orphans of the Sky, Robert Heinlein (aka "Universe" & "Common Sense")
  • Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke


  • Oisin in Tir na n'Og, traditional
  • The Magician’s Nephew & The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
  • "Ticket to Anywhere," Damon Knight
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
  • Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny
  • Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein
  • "The Word of Unbinding," Ursula K. LeGuin

Psychohistory/Mathematical Psychology/Mathematical Sociology
The idea that at some point in the future, psychology and sociology may become as scientifically rigorous as engineering and chemistry. In science fiction, the trope seems to have gained popularity with John W. Campbell’s interest in Alfred Korzybski's (now debunked) philosophy of General Semantics. It has since been the source of claims made for Scientology and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
  • The World of Null-A, A.E. Van Vogt
  • The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
  • Revolt in 2100, "Coventry," & "Gulf," Robert Heinlein
  • Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner

See Artificial Intelligence

Secret History
Not to be confused with alternate history (see above) a secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or known history which is claimed to be unknown, suppressed, or forgotten. When combined with the occult, it becomes a subject of fantasy; when combined with high technology, a subject of science fiction.
  • The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers
  • Tarzan Alive/The Wold Newton Family, Philip José Farmer

Slower-Than-Light (STL) Interstellar Travel
See also the special case of Multigenerational Colony Ships.
  • Protector, Larry Niven
  • A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge
  • Tau Zero, Poul Anderson

Steampunk: also Gaslight Romance/Clockpunk/Westpunk/Neo-Victorian/etc.
Steam power, clockwork, and occasionally magic are what make the world go 'round - and usually it's a 19th Century, Victorian kind of world, too.
  • The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
  • Metropolitan, Walter Jon Williams
  • The Wild, Wild West (TV series)
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (Not technically steampunk, but Verne and Wells are surely the godfathers of the genre.)

Suspended Animation/Time Dilation
The protagonist (often an astronaut or a criminal) is placed in a state that slows the aging process while the years race past. When he comes out of that state, things are very, very different. Sometimes the state is the result of a chemical freezing or hibernation, and the protagonist is unaware of the years passing; sometimes the slowing is the result of time dilation. It is paralleled in fairy tales by stories of mortals taken into the ageless fairy realm, who then return home hundreds of years later.
  • "Rip Van Winkle," Washington Irving
  • The Sleeper Awakes, H.G. Wells
  • "Far Centaurus," A.E. Van Vogt
  • "Armageddon 2419 A.D."/"Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," Philip Francis Nowlan
  • Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, traditional

  • The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
  • The X-Men, comic book series, various

  • The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  • “All the Bridges Rusting,” "Flash Crowd," “The Theory and Practice of Teleportation,” Larry Niven
  • "Ticket to Anywhere," Damon Knight (Compare with Stargate)

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

Sometimes authors use F/SF to speculate on theological questions or to expound their own religious beliefs, whether as allegory, polemic, satire, or thought experiment.
  • Perelandra, C.S. Lewis
  • The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis
  • A Case of Conscience, James Blish
  • The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin
  • "The Quest for St. Aquin," Anthony Boucher
  • "The Last Question," Isaac Asimov
  • "Flies," Isaac Asimov
  • "Microcosmic God," Theodore Sturgeon
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

Time Travel
A staple of the genre, because it appeals to humanity's two most deep-seated drives: tourism and revisionism.
  • “A Sound of Thunder,” Ray Bradbury
  • "All You Zombies," Robert Heinlein
  • Changewar, The Big Time, and "Try and Change the Past," Fritz Leiber
  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain
  • “Vintage Season,” Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett)
  • The Terminator (film)

Uplifted Animals
Animals who are granted the intelligence – but not necessarily the rights – of human beings.

Urban Fantasy/Contemporary Fantasy/Paranormal Romance
The definition of "Urban Fantasy" has changed over the last two decades. It once referred to those stories in which magic and/or magical beings persist into the modern world. However, publishers have redefined the category. Old-style UF is now frequently referred to as "Contemporary Fantasy," and UF is a CF subgenre in which the tone is cynical, the tropes are Chandleresque, and the protagonist is frequently a "kickass heroine." Current UF is more rooted in the horror than the fantasy genre. "Paranormal Romance" is a sub-sub-genre of UF, in which the heroine sleeps with (or is) the monster, instead of killing it.
  • The War for the Oaks, Emma Bull (CF)
  • Magic, Inc. Robert Heinlein (CF)
  • Mage, v.1 (graphic novel) Matt Wagner (CF)
  • The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher (UF)
  • Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Laurell K. Hamilton (UF)
  • Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, (TV series) Joss Whedon (UF/PR)

Utopian Satire
Not to be confused with dystopian literature – utopian satire questions the notion that humanity can ever achieve an ideal life.
  • "Riders of the Purple Wage," Philip José Farmer
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer
  • Wyst: Alastor 1716, Jack Vance (to this day, one of the most trenchant literary critiques of classical Communism)
  • The Instrumentality of Mankind/Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, Cordwainer Smith
  • The Dancers at the End of Time, Michael Moorcock

  • Dracula, Bram Stoker
  • Interview With a Vampire, Anne Rice
  • I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  • The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers
  • Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, (TV series) Joss Whedon

Virtual Reality/Cyberspace/Cyberpunk
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson
  • “True Names,” Vernor Vinge

Good Examples
Stories that might not have been first, but are nevertheless good examples - because they're good fiction, or because they typify a notion, or both.
  • "The Keys to December," Roger Zelazny (Terraforming, Suspended Animation, Genetic Engineering)
  • The Door Into Summer, Robert Heinlein (Suspended Animation, Time Travel)
  • The Sandman, graphic novel, Neil Gaiman (The Afterlife, Angels & Demons)
  • "Futurama," (cartoon) Matt Groening (Suspended Animation)
  • Time for the Stars, Robert Heinlein (Time Dilation, Telepathy)
  • Hyperion, Dan Simmons (Enigma Tales, Future Warfare, Cyberpunk)
  • "Parasite Planet," Stanley G. Weinbaum (Extreme Environmental Tales)
  • "The Long Rain," Ray Bradbury (Extreme Environmental Tales)
  • Planetary, graphic novel, Warren Ellis & John Cassaday (Secret History)
  • The Integral Trees, Larry Niven (Extreme Environmental Tales)
  • The Legacy of Heorot, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes (Colonization)
  • Eon, Greg Bear (Colony Ships, Enigma Tales)
  • The Brother From Another Planet, film, John Sayles
  • Newton's Cannon, John Gregory Keyes (Alternate History, Magic)
  • Destiny's Road, Larry Niven (Colonization)
  • Farmer in the Sky, Robert Heinlein (Colonization, Terraforming)
  • The Left Behind series, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Apocalypse)
  • “The Misfit,” Roger Zelazny (Epistemology/Hallucination/Nature of Reality) (anticipates The Matrix by 40 years)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea & "The Rule of Names," Ursula K. LeGuin (Dragons)
  • SS-GB, Len Deighton (Alternate History)
  • Mirrorshades, anthology (Cyberpunk)
  • Rollerball, film, William Harrison, 1975 (Dystopia)
  • The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner, 1972 (Dystopia)
  • Girl Genius, webcomic, Kaja & Phil Foglio (Steampunk)
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Ian Fleming (Steampunk)
  • This Perfect Day, Ira Levin (Dystopia, Mind Control)
  • The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin (Utopian Satire, Mind Control)
  • Lucifer's Hammer, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
  • The Arrival, film, David Twohy (Alien Invasion, Terraforming)
  • The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne-Jones (Magic, Dragons)
  • Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper (First Contact, Colonization)
  • The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher, (Urban Fantasy)
  • The Sparrow, Maria Doria Russell (Theology)
  • The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (Secret History)
  • "The Sixth Palace," Robert Silverberg (Enigma Tales)
  • Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett) (Human Evolution)
  • "Star, Bright," Mark Clifton (Human Evolution)
  • Jumper, Steven Gould (Teleportation)
  • Titan, John Varley (Colony Ships)

Classic Anthologies
Sometimes it's a collection that has influence.
  • Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison (ed.) (New Wave, Dystopia, Others)
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame
  • Mirrorshades, anthology (Cyberpunk)

Meta-Stuff: Cliff Notes and Trope Collections
Handcrafted and lovingly assembled by true fans.

© 2009 Ted Rabinowitz

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