Science Fiction Themes That’ll Hit Like an Asteroid

Abi Wurdeman
March 1, 2024

The science fiction genre is ripe for profound themes. Pick up just about any sci-fi book, and you’re bound to encounter deep philosophical questions about anything from the price of progress to what it means to be human.

There’s a reason this genre has been used time and again to confront political structures, examine prejudice, and challenge our assumptions about free will. By its very nature, speculative fiction invites writers to explore grand “what if?” questions that take our current reality and push it to an unexpected brink.

That said, working a theme into your novel is a sizable challenge for many authors, no matter how many big questions their genre inspires. If you’re struggling to find the deeper message behind your science fiction story, don’t worry. You’re about to learn:

  • Why certain themes are so popular in science fiction
  • Examples of popular sci-fi themes at work
  • How to weave a deeper message into your story
  • Ideas for potential themes depending on the type of science fiction tale you plan to tell

Whether you’re writing about space travel, time travel, or an eerily familiar world destroyed by maliciously applied technology, you’re in the right place.

Overview of Science Fiction Themes

A swirl of bright stars form the galaxy.

Let’s start by clarifying what makes a theme a theme.

A theme is your story’s underlying message. While you might hear people say things like, “This novel explores themes of family, isolation, and progress,” you’ll want to be more specific. State your theme as a full sentence. What are you saying about progress? 

“Progress is always worth the sacrifice.” “Technological progress separates us from our humanity.” “We have a responsibility to consider the wellbeing of future generations.”

Those are thematic statements.

What’s beautiful about the speculative nature of science fiction is that it allows you to start from a theme and fabricate a truly extraordinary situation that puts your philosophy to the test.

Let’s say you want to communicate that advanced technology is a threat to our humanity. You might dream up a story in which artificial intelligence—unburdened by personal needs—picks up the responsibilities humans have allowed to fall through the cracks. Robots run charities, mentor children, and read books to lonely grandmas. 

Now you get to show even this empathetic application of AI technology actually distances us from our humanity.

Fun, right?

Popular Sci-Fi Themes

A hilly landscape at sunrise with circular streaks in the sky showing the path of stars.

There are certain themes you’ll see time and again in science fiction. They often relate to the big philosophical questions every generation is driven to ask. They also reflect deeper ideas that rise naturally from their corresponding sci-fi topics.

For example, stories about space travel and first contact with alien civilizations inspire themes related to the risks and responsibilities of exploration, our insignificance in the universe, and who we are in the face of the unknown.

Stories that involve alternate realities challenge our definition of truth and identity. Dystopian science fiction tends to question a premise embraced in our current society by following it to the extreme and laying out the worst possible outcome.

We’ll explore more topic-specific themes in detail later. For now, let’s put this into context by seeing how common science fiction themes play out in popular film and literature. 

Examples of Theme in Famous Science Fiction Stories

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - This classic science fiction novel challenges readers with the idea that we are responsible for our own creations. It raises big questions about where that responsibility ends and begins, and whether we should be forced to answer for a worst-case scenario we failed to predict.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton - This is a classic character vs. nature story that—like many of its kind—emphasizes humanity’s helplessness against the will of the wild. No scientific advancement will ever make us more powerful than a T-Rex at dinner time.

Contact by Carl Sagan - By creating a storyline where science and religion are at cross-purposes, Sagan illuminates the sentiment that underlies these seemingly opposing systems of thought—the belief that a universe so vast must contain something larger than ourselves.

The Resisters by Gish Jen - By tapping into eerily familiar attitudes about AI and technology, this novel explores how much freedom human beings will sacrifice for convenience. It also challenges the notion of technology as an equalizing force, instead demonstrating how humanity innovates advanced tactics for discrimination.

Weaving Theme Into the Elements of Your Science Fiction Story

A writer in a red hoodie types on a laptop in a dark room.

The tricky thing about theme is that you want your readers to see it, but you don’t want to hit them over the head with it. So how do you weave theme into the other elements of your science fiction novel?

One great move is to create characters that offer differing points of view on your theme. In science fiction, this often manifests as one character passionately pursuing the high of innovation while another character keeps trying to point out the consequences or ethical considerations.

Your protagonist’s goal should also touch on the theme. What are they fighting for or against and why? Are they wrong or right? What do they learn over the course of their character arc and how does that lesson illuminate the theme?

There are also specific character archetypes that are great for driving home themes related to power (Magician), obsessive innovation (Creator), and the impact of those forces on average folks (Common Person).

You can tie your themes into your science fiction worldbuilding, too. How does your physical setting blur the lines between reality and simulation, truth and fantasy? Do the societal structures of an alien civilization make a silent statement about our own society simply by providing a stark contrast?

And don’t forget about the central conflict! Let the conflict driving your sci-fi story reflect both your theme and the ideas that oppose it. For example, if your theme is that free will is a human fantasy, write a protagonist who fights desperately to control their own fate even as they discover that they’re a character in a video game or whatever.

These are just a few of the many, many ways to lay out your theme without smacking your reader over the skull with it. You can find even more ideas here.

Exploring Potential Themes for Your Science Fiction Story

A telescope points up toward the Milky Way in the night sky.

Now it gets really fun. We’re about to brainstorm science fiction themes as they relate to common topics in the genre. 

The main goal here is to get that computer in your head whirring. Maybe you’ll find something here you can use. If not, these ideas might at least spark new ones or get you warmed up for a good brainstorming session.

Just a heads-up: the lists that follow do not contain actual themes. Remember, a statement of theme is, well, a statement. It’s a definitive declaration about what the story is trying to say. What you’re going to see in this list are questions. A lot of them.

That’s because my goal is to help you discover the science fiction themes that resonate most with you by inviting you to consider what you really think. The most compelling themes are the ones that stem from the writers’ deepest convictions.

So get ready for some serious thinkin’.

Advanced Technologies

White computer code on a black screen blurs at the edges, creating streaks of blue and purple.

Ethics - Is innovation an inherently good thing? Who is responsible for the consequences of technology? What celebrated technology is bound to get out of hand or be used for evil? What threats might scientific advancement pose to our humanity, world peace, the environment, or the very balance of nature? 

Power and control - Who determines how tech is used in a society? Does technology have the potential to put us all on equal footing, upset our current power structures, or illuminate injustice? Who should fear scientific progress? Who should be salivating for it?

Discovery - How does innovation open up a wider world for us? What are we likely to do with new access to information or experiences? Is it ever better to live with limited knowledge or access?

Space Travel and Alien Encounters

An astronaut works outside the shuttle with the earth in the background.e

Exploration - What do we gain by exploring the wider universe? What do we risk? What drives human beings to explore the unknown? Why do some seek to conquer while others seek to learn?

Connection - How do we define home? What does it take to feel connected to another being? In what ways do we misunderstand each other? Why do we fear strangers? Why do we long to connect with strangers? What does it mean to be isolated?

Identity and purpose - How would we see ourselves if we knew what else was out there? Why would aliens be curious about us? What does humanity have to offer the universe? What about an individual human? What does it mean to be important in a vast universe? 

Dystopian Future

An eclipse.

Society’s mistakes - In what ways do we support systems that are destined to harm us? How does our society uplift evil? How does it suppress good? Who holds the power? Do we give it to them or do they take it from us?

Survival - Is it true that we’re better together, or is it every person for themselves? Will good really overcome evil, or does it have to dabble in the dark side a bit? What makes someone a hero? 

Hope - What does it mean to hope? Is it an act of ignorance or wisdom? Does hope help us or hurt us? 

Artificial Intelligence and Clones

Two identical looking people stare at each other in the dark.

Human nature - What makes us human? Can humanity be learned or earned? Why is the human experience so incredible and unique? Why is being human a curse? Would other beings envy or pity us? Would we care that an AI didn’t actually feel feelings for us if they could actively love us better than a human would?

Identity and purpose - Are we as special as we think we are? Do we need to be unique to matter? How would we measure our individual worth if there was more than one of us?

Limitations - How do our scientific advancements reflect our dreams for human capability? How do they reflect the limitations of our abilities or tolerance for discomfort? Is it better to fight our limitations or accept them? Is our emotional nature a superpower or an obstacle? Is there strength in human vulnerability? 

Time Travel and Alternate Realities

Dozens of hanging antique pocketwatches.

Free will - To what extent do we control our destinies? Who’s really pulling the strings? How do you define truth? How do you define reality? Do our choices still matter even if we’re predestined to make them? How would our choices change if we knew we could make them over again in different dimensions?

Cause and effect - Do we underestimate or overestimate the impact of our individual actions? Is it better or worse to know what lies in the future? What does it mean to take responsibility for our role in history? Are we responsible to the strangers we unknowingly affect with our actions?

Context - How does the past look through modern eyes? How would the future look through the perspective of the past? What influences our sense of reality? Of right and wrong? 

Ready to Go Deeper?

Believe it or not, we’ve only scratched the surface of the profound themes you can explore through the lens of science fiction. The genre is exciting, thought-provoking, and sometimes a little messy to brainstorm, plan, and plot.

Not only do you have to organize all those characters, plot lines, and world details, you also have to keep track of how your central theme plays out within those elements.

If you’re feeling a bit scrambled, Dabble can help. This all-in-one writing program has amazing tools for planning, plotting, drafting, and revising your novel, including customizable character profiles and a clever Plot Grid for tracking every element of your story, scene by scene.

There’s even a handy science fiction template you can use to start crafting your next sci-fi story today! 

So go ahead: try everything this tool has to offer for free for 14 days. Follow this link to start your free trial and keep your credit card in your wallet—you won’t need it to sign up.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.