Science fiction often gets a bad rap for using hard-to-understand scientific terms. Well...OK, guilty as charged.

But just because science fiction has an occasional tendency to use complex language doesn't mean that it's impossible to understand—especially when you have the following glossary at the ready the next time you pick up a science-fiction book from the shelf.

Read the first part of SF Signal's guide to demystifying sci-fi terms.


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Artificial Intelligence is a computer of robot whose computational power is powerful, fast and complex enough to mimic the intelligence of humans. Many science-fiction stories posit AI beings who not only simulate human intelligence, but exceed it, often making it a threat to human existence.

RECOMMENDED READING: Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey famously features HAL-9000, an artificial intelligence that guides the exploration of a mysterious object near one of the moons of the planet Saturn. Ian McDonald's suburb novel River of Gods features a government agency that exterminates rogue AIs.


first born ANTIMATTER

Antimatter is matter that is composed of oppositely charged particles. Think of them as matter's evil twin. When even a small amount of matter comes into contact with antimatter, huge destructive amounts of energy are released. It's this destructive force that is often highlighted in science-fiction stories.

RECOMMENDED READING: Firstborn by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter features the mining of antimatter particles around Jupiter. Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks leverages the high energy output of matter/antimatter collisions to make super-powerful weapons.


captain future LASERS / RAY GUNS / PHASERS

A laser (an acronym short for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) is a focused beam of light energy. Very intense beams requiring huge amounts of power can be destructive. One of the most common technologies associated with science fiction, the ray gun, is essentially a handheld laser. In the Star Trek universe, ray guns are called phasers.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Collected Captain Future, Volume One by Edmond Hamilton, in which one of space opera's earliest heroes, Captain Future, wields a ray gun as he triumphs over evil with the help of a robot, and android, an a superintelligent disembodied brain. In Arthur C. Clarke lunar spy adventure Earthlight, he introduces the idea of a light bema weapon.



Nanotech refers to technology that's implemented on an atomic scale. The manipulation of matter at that scale would lead to the production of new materials with properties tailor-made to whatever specifications scientists can dream up.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Nanotech Succession novels by Linda Nagata (beginning with The Bohr Maker) explore the rise of nanotechnology. The Nanotech Cycle by Kathleen Ann Goonan (beginning with Queen City Jazz) in which the human population has all but been destroyed by a nanotech plague.



Posthuman refers to the next state of human existence by technological (as opposed to evolutionary) means. The most common portrayal sees humans uploading their consciousness into large computers, where they exist as digital entities that are sometimes downloaded back into human forms. The technological Singularity is the theoretical point at which human technology advances beyond the point of our understanding (see AI).

RECOMMENDED READING: Accelerando by Charles Stross tracks the emergence of posthumanism across three generations of one family. The technological singularity is featured in Stross' Singularity Sky and in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.



Teleportation is the instantaneous movement of things from one point to another, without ever actually occupying the space in between. Star Trek's transporters ("Beam me up, Scotty.") are the probably the most well-known portrayal of the transporters.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Resurrected Man by Sean Williams is a near-future murder mystery in which a psychopath uses teleportation technology to make copies of people just so he can kill them. In The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, a science-fictional retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, and in Jumper by Steven Gould, the protagonist  could self-teleport just by thinking about it.



Terraforming is the process of making uninhabitable worlds capable of sustaining life by modifying the environment.

RECOMMENDED READING: Kim Stanley Robinson's epic Mars Trilogy (beginning with Red Mars) shows humans using terraforming to colonize the planet Mars. Pamela Sargent's similarly epic Venus trilogy (beginning with Venus of Dreams) depicts the terraforming of Venus.

John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.