In most sci-fi literature, the 'human bias' is very visible in every aspect of fictional universes.

Here are some examples.

Future technology is just a modified version of today's items. In 2001, a space odyssey, tablets are just minified televisions. In the eighties, smart watches were imagined as minified fully fledged computers, complete with tiny floppy disks and QWERTY keyboards!

Oh, and don't forget those posters from 1900s artists imagining life on the year 2000. They're absolutely amazing!

What about extraterrestrial civilisations?

Alien species are inspired, if not almost identical to, terrestrial humans, animals and plants. Intelligent species communicate mainly by talking and writing; they eat; and not only they have feelings, but they also experience the same set of feelings as humans. And they, too, invented computers! What a coincidence!

Even alien societies aren't that alien after all. Just like here, they have families and they need some sort of central leadership (or any leadership, for that matter).

Needless to say, some human languages, spoken by many peoples on Earth, are more alien (compared to English) than invented languages.

Maybe the most tricky part is the physics. Although occasionally ignored to make room for some impressive stunts, fictional universes rely, almost always, on the same laws that rule our own (I'd love to see what would a triple-charged world look like!).


Is this familiarity with our own world intentional to make the audience comfortable with the whole set and make sense of it, or it's just some sort of lack of imagination?


4 Answers 4


For most writers, SF is a tool to do two things:

a. Ask "what if" about existing trends or real or imagined technologies, or;

b. Look at their own society through a different lens.

Then there are the dreary hacks who write Westerns, detective stories, bodice rippers etc. with ray guns and spaceships thrown in to add local colour and make it seem "SF".

From those perspectives, it is difficult to write things which are truly original. Even the very best writers often are recycling or reimagining ideas which are already very old (speculative science fiction set far in the future involving human evolution and our ultimate destiny was pioneered in the 1930s by Olaf Stapledon).

Aliens as different sorts of humans is an established trope in SF for all three of the basic SF themes (What if, society through a different lens and hack SF) to provide usable and understandable foils for the characters to play off of. The comments mention Solaris and Roadside Picnik as examples of truly alien aliens, and some writers can pull this off (in which case the story revolves more around the interaction of the characters between each other as they confront the mystery). Once again Olaf Stapledon made the path, in "Last and First Men" he describes the Martians as a collective being, with individuals the size of a virus. Only when enough of them clump together does intelligence manifest itself, and Martians typically "live" as a coating on rocks and flat surfaces. When they migrate to Earth in order to take advantage of the more intense sunlight, they are surprised and pleased to discover the myriad of flat surfaces to coat, never stopping to wonder where all the flat surfaces came from....

So when writing SF, if you are conscious of what you are trying to achieve (what if, looking at society through different lens, etc.) then you can consciously tailor your efforts and, with enough skill and practice, write some truly alien and original works.

  • $\begingroup$ is that clearly or dearly my font has a horrible kern. <-look like kem. I was going to bring up the Martian invasion story as well as an example of Alien aliens, That is a great book hardly a single character in it. $\endgroup$
    – King-Ink
    Jan 30, 2016 at 2:10
  • $\begingroup$ This reminded of something I long forgotten: sci-fi stories are modern-day Fables, at least for the two first themes you mentioned. Second point, your answer made me realise that an excellent sci-fi story can be entirely set in today's Earth, just like A for Andromeda. $\endgroup$
    – ahmed
    Jan 30, 2016 at 5:57

This would probably be a Writers SE question, but anyway...

It is mostly intentional and it can be considered "best practice".

Being imaginative adds information load on both the author and the reader, as such unless it directly benefits the actual story the author is trying to tell it almost invariably makes the story weaker. The author has more problems keeping the story coherent and maintain proper flow. The reader has more issues understanding and following the story. And of course any effort the author spends on being imaginative in ways that do not directly contribute to the story is generally away from resources available to doing things that do directly contribute to the story.

More specifically while in some genres being imaginative or at least creative and original has innate value in SciFi it has traditionally been the case that only a limited number of new concepts or "changes" are developed and explored per story. This is because SciFi has traditionally valued the quality over quantity. A good SciFi story explores some interesting ideas in depth in a framework readers can understand and relate to rather than tries to overwhelm readers with creativity. This naturally leads everything other than those specific ideas the author wants to explore being as familiar to the readers as practical.


It would be a western science fiction tradition in Solaris and Fiasco by Lem and Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky the aliens are just that completely alien and impossible to even interact with. Some people myself included rank Solaris and Roadside Picnic among the best science fiction. (Fiasco is also good but the other two are tops.)

Like most things it boils down to what you want to write philosophical works about the limits of science and reason, cool space romps or a million things in between. They all have value and a place.

  • $\begingroup$ IIRC alien nature actually was highly story relevant in those, which justified the effort. Probably should reread... $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2016 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ In Solaris, the alien life form lacks the concept of the individual and in Roadside picnic we have the same relationship with the aliens as ants do to the eponymous Roadside Picnickers neither are human-centric. Alien nature as alien not just a different kind of people. $\endgroup$
    – King-Ink
    Jan 30, 2016 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ @King-Ink I didn't read Solaris but I watch the 2002 movie based on the book and I really loved it — I have no idea how much loyal to the original book it is, so my judgement might be irrelevant. While I agree that the concept of impersonal "species" baffled me, it makes the story, IMHO, a lot more human centric, not the other way around. But I guess that's not something we can discuss or argue on, it's purely subjective. Now I really want to read Roadside, thanks for the hint! $\endgroup$
    – ahmed
    Jan 30, 2016 at 6:17

The answer for movies is simple: budget. Different costs money.

For books, the answer is more complex.

If you're going to build a world, you have two choices: give people enough to get started, or have them wade through a lot of mystery before they get to the meat. Consider Greg Egan's latest bit of worldbuilding... Egan is a major sci-fi author (judging by sales) AND one of those authors who really pushes the bounds of imagination. This latest world that he's proposed? He's got three essays posted so far just so you can understand how the sun moves in his world and why physics requires that no one be able to turn left or right more than 45 degrees. It's rigorous physics, as much as he can do without an actual world to test his mathematics on. But the burden on readers is going to be very high compared to Star Trek, where everyone is humanoid and where the situations are recognizable.

It really depends upon what your goal as an author is -- are you trying to push the bounds of imagination for science or the bounds of imagination for social situations? If you want people to dream of the technological possibilities for humanity, you need to do more to make the physics exotic or to imagine capabilities that we do not have today. If you want to make people dream about different ways we could all live together, you don't need a world any more exotic than The Hunger Games or 1984.

Of course, the masters of the art are the ones who can create foreign realms and make us see ourselves living in them. If you're on of those, please, feel free to stretch our imaginations!


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .