What is a science thriller?

In the past year I’ve posted over 50 reviews of books I deem to be “science thrillers.” I have declined to review some because I felt they were “science fiction.”

So what’s the difference?

To paraphrase a worn-out but still-apt quote from a Supreme Court Justice, the difference between science thrillers and science fiction/SF/SciFi is like pornography: hard to define, but (usually) I know it when I see it.

Here are my not-so-hard-and-fast rules describing the difference between a science thriller and a science fiction book.  Tell me if you agree or disagree by posting a comment!

Science thrillers:

  • Usually fiction (novels or short stories) but can also be nonfiction (e.g. The Hot Zone)
  • Are set in the real world (or something recognizably similar to it)
  • Plot occurs in the present, though historical fiction science thrillers do exist (e.g. Deadly).  Historical books are usually set in “the present,” just from the perspective of an earlier time, with no significant rewriting of history.
  • Science or medicine is important–nay, crucial–to the plot
  • Technology alone does not make a science thriller (e.g. military technothrillers such as Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October don’t qualify)
  • Story must be plot-driven, page-turning, with some (or a lot of) action
  • The science should be largely grounded in scientific reality. If a scientific plot element is technically impossible, it must be plausible to an average reader.

Science fiction:

  • Always fiction
  • May be set in any world, real or imagined, earth-bound or outer-space
  • Plot events may occur at any time (past, present, or future); the future and indeterminate times (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) are popular in this genre.  History can be rewritten at will.
  • Science or technology may be important to the plot
  • May be plot-driven and action-packed, or can be quite literary
  • Scientific plot elements don’t have to be realistic. Time travel, warp speed, and mind-reading are all okay.

I think the final point of each list is the main distinction.  Any novel must be believable; readers will suspend their disbelief only so far before they close the book and put it down.  But what passes for “believable” depends on the reader’s expectation.  In SF stories, the author is allowed to create entire worlds from their imagination.  Those worlds have their own rules and the author is merely obliged to follow them, no matter how outrageous they are.  (Note that in SF the rules don’t have to be “realistic”, but they must be internally consistent.  If character X teleports out of a sticky situation in chapter 5, he shouldn’t be trapped by a similar sticky situation in chapter 7.)

Science thrillers, on the other hand, are constrained by reality.  The rules of the world in the story are generally the same as the rules in the real world.  Trouble is, reality is boring.  The challenge for the science thriller writer, then, is to tweak reality–make it exciting–without straining the credulity of the reader too far.

Because of this, I think writers with a strong technical background are uniquely qualified to write good science thrillers.  We know enough to lead the reader into scientific territory that is cutting-edge, but true.  The reader, ever suspicious, learns to accept our authority when we introduce him to some technical wonder he hasn’t heard of before.  Then, once we have earned his trust, we can start making things up.

In the best science thrillers, the parts that are made-up are discernible only to specialists in the field.  (Michael Crichton was a master at this; see my mythbusting posts.)  Everybody else buys it hook, line, and sinker.  When you’re reading a book for fun, that’s precisely what you want.  It’s a terrible feeling when some glaring absurdity or inconsistency in a story yanks you out of the pages and makes you realize it’s only a book after all.

What do you think?

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15 Responses to What is a science thriller?

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  4. Tome Keeper says:

    Hi Amy,

    I am so glad that I found this blog. I’ve been a fan of science-thrillers since I was a teen, but have always found it a rather under-appreciated genre.

    Your definition is spot on, and I’ll point people in this direction when they ask me to explain what Sci-Thrill is, as it is something I have always struggled to define.

    Will be looking forward to more posts in the future.

    • Amy Rogers says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Tome Keeper. Be sure to watch for and enter my frequent book giveaways, since you’re a fan of the genre.

  5. Joshua Dyer says:

    That’s a preety good description of our sub-genre. I think this one fits the mold also: http://www.huntercell.wordpress.com

  6. SciThri–that’s the word I’m looking for to describe my first novel The Girlfriend Experience. I’ll be a regular visitor!
    Do you take submittals?

    • Amy Rogers says:

      Authors are welcome to contact me using the “Contact” email link in the sidebar. Convince me your book has significant science or medicine content and I may include it in my monthly roundup of new (or new to me) science thrillers. Once in a while I also accept an indie novel for review.

      • Amy, thanks for the reply. I’ll go ahead and send you a short description of The Girlfriend Experience. I hope you’ll consider it.

        Best regards

      • Clyde says:

        Hi Amy.
        I’m happy you posted the point list on Science Triller v/s Science Fiction. Agree with it on all counts. Especially the last point in the SF section. It scores heavily in favor of defining what SF is *not* when it comes to a hard-science / Science Thriller novel.

        I was wondering if you would at some point be interested in “Memories with Maya”. The story is grounded in hard science and explores an alternative path towards transhumanism. More importantly, it looks at the effects of current and on-the-horizon tech such as AR visors, Augmented intelligence and how these will affect personal relationships between people (even after death.)

        That’s enough of a plug for the book, but hopefully it gets your interest!

        Best Regards.
        (On a side note: has anyone else noticed how the font style in the comments section here is so conducive to typing… I couldn’t stop! It reminds me of the old ‘Selectric’ typewriters.)

  7. Ian Miller says:

    I wish you could persuade Amazon to make “Science Thriller” a separable genre because as an indie without a huge following, discoverability is a large list is difficult. My latest ebook, Red Gold, would, I believe, qualify. The thriller aspect: during the colonization of Mars (Yes, is the future a problem?) one man finds his business partner is floating a fraudulent stock bubble on Earth, his partner has led to his marriage disintegrating, followed by the murder of his wife, and he has the only guns on Mars. The science: the main protagonist has discovered where the martian atmosphere went (assuming it was chemically reduced) and the underlying theory eventually led me to publish this as a complete scientific theory relating to the origin of life. This is part of the plot because it leads to the exposure of the fraud, and shows how fertilizer on mars could be made. So far, nobody has faulted the theory, and I run a blog at the Royal Society of Chemistry showing new papers that either cause trouble to the theory (none so far) and those that support it. Red Gold has a very simple outline as an appendix for those interested.

  8. I’ve loved science thrillers ever since I read The Andromeda Strain by Michael Chrichton. I think he began this genre.

    • Amy says:

      Indeed he did, and that was the book that began it all. (Read my review here.) Earlier examples of thrillers with scientific elements exist but they tend to be more classic SF.

      If you’re a fan of this genre, please sign up for the ScienceThrillers quarterly newsletter (here) and consider getting a copy of Petroplague.

  9. Joanne Elder says:

    Hi Amy. As an author and fan of science fiction thrillers, I was particularly interested in reading this post. I’m curious how you’d differentiate between hard science fiction thrillers and science thrillers. I love that this site is dedicated to science and medical thrillers. Sub-genres of science fiction often go unnoticed. The ultimate goad for my website, http://www.sciencefictionthrillers.com, is to showcase reviews and trailers of this specific genre (in addition to publicizing my own books of this genre). I shall add myself to your mailing list.
    Joanne Elder, BESc, MESc, PEng
    Author of Spectra

  10. OC Heaton says:

    Hi Amy. I would agree entirely with you and love your definition of Science Thriller. In fact I am going to use it to describe The Human Race from now on! I have always struggled with the Sci Fi tag to describe it since it is set in on earth in the recent past, 2003, is constrained by reality and involves science that I worked really really hard at making it believable even though it is currently not feasible. I think it’s worked. In fact my own yard stick was the great man himself, Michael Crichton who, I agree, was one of the best.

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