Language - The Final Frontier: A Guide To Science Fiction Terms

Once relegated to the pages of pulp novels and comics, science fiction and its terms have not only entered pop culture but have been shaping minds for over a century. As its influence and popularity grew, the genre's fantastical worlds and mind-blowing concepts have steadily entered the English lexicon. With the likes of 'Star Trek' being beamed into households over fifty years ago, TV and cinema have gone a long way into making certain ideas and visionaries household names. In fact, some of the everyday tools we use today were influenced by science fiction's ideas.

The concepts for tablets, Bluetooth, lab-grown meat, and even the internet itself all have their origins in the forward-thinking tales of humanity's future. Outside of its ability to entertain, science fiction has often held a mirror up to our society, forcing us to confront our limitations, our prejudices and to hopefully dream bigger. From your Neos to your Neuromancers, take a deep dive into some of the fantastical terms and their origins - take a ride into a galaxy far from our own…

Humble Beginnings

We begin our journey into the science fiction lexicon in 1837. That's right; sci-fi language has its roots in the 1800s, starting with 'android.' The word 'android' has ancient origins, with its etymology dating back to Ancient Greece, combining the root words of 'man' and 'like-a-man.' Chess players in the 1830s coined the full use of 'android' to describe styles of play, and the automation of particular moves. It wasn't long after that early science fiction writers took this 'manlike' concept and ran with it. Next to crop up in the 1800s is the word 'spaceship.' Published in 1894, famous sci-fi author John Jacob Astor's 'A Journey in Other Worlds' has the first reported use of the word 'spaceship.' Its meaning? Well, it's pretty self-explanatory; a ship that sails in space! Astor's story follows the exploits of a couple of explorers as they take the first interplanetary voyage to Jupiter and Saturn. 

As we enter the 1900s, we start to see a trend in science fiction writing, in an almost eerie way; predictions for the future start to arise, and ideas for modern technology form. 'Atomic bomb,' a phrase first recorded in H. G. Wells’ 1914 work 'The World Set Free,' was a concept imagined based on the available scientific knowledge at the time. Wells predicted that harnessing the power of the atom could result in its use for weaponry. The novel is said to have been partially responsible for inspiring Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd to finish his work on the first nuclear chain reaction. The next word to change science fiction forever was the popularisation of 'robot.' 'Robot' was a term, a lot like 'android' that had danced around history for years, dating back to Latin origins. However, Czechoslovakian author Josef Čapek was the first to coin it in sci-fi writing in 1921. A few years later, we got the word 'alien.' Author Jack Williamson's 'The Alien Intelligence' was the first science fiction writer to use 'alien' as a catch-all for extraterrestrial life in general. Its meaning before 1929 was used to describe outsiders, unwelcome visitors, and foreigners.

The Golden Age & New Wave

As we cross the threshold into the 1930s, we enter what is commonly known as the golden era of science fiction. From the 30s all the way through to the 70s, science fiction rose to fame and hit pinnacles it never had before. We kick off the golden era in 1934 with the phrase 'deep space.' This phrase most commonly refers to the sheer emptiness and vastness of the outer regions of space. Author E. E. “Doc” Smith is often credited with coining this phrase, and it has been used in science fiction ever since. Next, we have 'genetic engineering,' a concept that had existed before this era but excelled through the sci-fi lexicon in the 1950s. 'Genetic engineering' refers to the manipulation of genetic information in life forms, particularly humans. Jack Williamson wrote the science fiction classic 'Dragon's Island' in 1951, and although the term 'genetic engineering' had existed in science a few years prior, Williamson made the concept more entertaining and took it to a new imaginative height.

To end our brief exploration into the golden era of sci-fi, we have the phrase 'computer virus,' cementing itself in popular culture in 1972. The origins of a 'computer virus' are pretty all over the place, with its first use in science reported in 1949. However, this concept was only proposed as a 'Theory of self-reproducing automata' and not fully expanded within science. From the 1970s, the concept gained more traction amongst science fiction writers, with its true rise coming in 1972 with the stories 'When HARLIE Was One' by David Gerrold and 'The Terminal Man' by Michael Crichton.

The 60s and 70s also saw the rise of new wave staple franchises such as 'Dune' in 1965, 'Star Trek' in 1966, and 'Star Wars' in 1977. Along with some of the biggest selling movies, series, comics, and novels, in the world, these franchises birthed a tonne of new sci-fi terms and phrases that authors and content creators have been inspired by for years. 'Jedi,' 'Trekkie,' 'Truthsayer'; all words that have entered the standard lexicon of science fiction writing. George Lucas, the creator of 'Star Wars' even went as far as to trademark the word 'droid', a shortened version of the already established 'Android.' The golden era really was a time of true innovation and exploration in the science fiction world.

Cyberpunk & Modern Sci-Fi

With the previous two decades bringing many sci-fi terms into the home, the past forty years have seen fans grapple with increasingly existential themes. The idea of what it truly means to be human had never penetrated the zeitgeist in such an often thrilling and dark way. Adapted from Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, the 1982 film 'Blade Runner' popularised the titular term as well as ‘replicants,’ the life-like androids Harrison Ford's character hunts down for a living. James Cameron gave us the concept of 'Terminators' in 1984, near-indestructible cyborg nightmares sent to eliminate their targets. That same year author William Gibson helped cement the cyberpunk genre with his seminal novel 'Neuromancer.' Within its pages, he describes the 'cyberspace'  a '...consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... " Such grand ideas soon became the way into which we described the interconnected web, glued together by our digital age. 

As the world let computers become part of their day-to-day lives, 'the web,' 'hackers,' and 'virtual reality' all became buzzwords for this new age. Transhumanism, an idea that existed a few decades before, suddenly became far more possible. The marriage between mind and machine would be a theme which cropped up time and time again in SF works of the era. No piece of media made quite as much of an impact, nor summarized the period, more than The Matrix trilogy. Forging elements from cyberpunk, Japanese anime, and Lewis Carrol, The Wachowski’s blockbusters films (1999-) introduced the terms 'The Blue and Red Pill,' 'Wire Fu' and 'Bullet Time' to the everyday. 

The past 20 years have seen some of the ‘90s more fantastical predictions become flesh, but the evolution of the lexicon continues. 'Afrofuturism' has mirrored the increasingly diverse state of the world by exploring the intersection of African diaspora culture with technology.  Steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction that takes elements from the European Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, has become a fashion trend and influence on AAA video games. As we continue to merge our world with increasingly seamless and impressive technology, science fiction, both new and old, continues to push us, and our language, to new places.

Conclusion

From the fantastical inventions imagined by the likes of Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne to the blockbusting Marvel universe beloved today - science fiction has gone truly mainstream. Arguably more so than any other genre, SF encompasses humanity's ability to dream, hope, and overcome. For decades its detractors would label such tantalizing tales as pure escapism or, at worst, childish. Right from its origins, however, its creators have installed political parallels, warnings about humanity's hubris, and dazzling visions of various utopias. 

With technological advancements exploding in complexity this past century, what was once seen as science fiction now has become part of everyday life. We've sent people to the moon; we can communicate with one another from across oceans and can even see within bodies. Such incredible advancements have needed incredible language, words that can summarize what scientists and engineers are trying to achieve. Combine this with the pop culture explosion of SF and fantasy, the birth of video gaming, and the growing sophistication of A.I., and it's evident that the science fiction lexicon will only be ever-growing. May it live long and prosper...

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About the Author

Sam Walker-Smart

Sam Walker-Smart is a British culture journalist currently based in Bristol. His work has appeared in CLASH, The Huffington Post, Vinyl Me Please, Barcelona Metropolitan, Little White Lies, and other outlets. He enjoys writing about inclusivity in gaming, fun for seniors, educational apps, and entertainment for all. In his spare time, he enjoys weird folklore, sad songs, and good beer.