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.

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An android is an artificial being with a human form having a flesh-like appearance. It looks, walks and talks like a human, but it's a fake. Whatever you do, do not ever confuse androids with robots or cyborgs—at least not in front a hardcore science fiction fan.

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RECOMMENDED READING: For firsthand exposure to androids, check out Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, which follows the exploits of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who hunts androids.


cities in flight ANTIGRAVITY

Antigravity (often confused with the nullification of gravity) refers to a hypothetical force that opposes, or is unaffected by, the force of gravity. Antigravity is often used as a means of propelling spaceships through space.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Cities in Flight series by James Blish features huge, space-traveling cities that are powered by antigravity engines known as "spindizzies.”



garden idean CYBORG 

Short for "cybernetic organism,” a cyborg is a mechanically augmented being, human or otherwise. Taking an example from film: in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker became a cyborg when his missing hand was replaced with a mechanical one. A more succinct example: Robocop.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Company series (beginning with In the Garden of Iden) by Kage Baker is about a team of time-traveling cyborgs from the future who raid the past for profit. Cyborgs and time travel! Win-win!




A Dyson sphere is a massive, hollow shell structure built around a star such that the energy of the star can be captured and used by inhabitants who populate the inside surface.

RECOMMENDED READING: Hex by Allen Steele prominently features a Dyson Sphere, a gift bestowed upon mankind by a mysterious alien race.




First Contact refers to the first meeting between human and alien. It's a common theme in science fiction, one usually leveraged to portray the human condition through another's eyes.

RECOMMENDED READING: Contact by Carl Sagan offers a realistic, plausible present-day look at first contact.




downbelow station FTL

FTL is an abbreviation for Faster Than Light, meaning something that (surprise!) travels faster than the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second). Science-fiction authors use FTL drives to power their spaceships because space is big and to get anywhere interesting requires more time than the average human lifespan.

RECOMMENDED READING: C.J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union Universe. Start with Downbelow Station.




When FTL isn't available, the only recourse to travel to distant stars is the generation ship, a spaceship specifically designed to function for multiple life spans. The people who finally arrive at the destination are the descendents of the ship's first crew and passengers.

RECOMMENDED READING: Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss is, in the foreground, the story of a young man who leaves his tribe to discover lands beyond—except that, unbeknownst to the protagonist, it takes place on a multigenerational starship.



consider phelbas HYPERSPACE

Hyperspace is a region of space different than our own, but co-existing alongside it. It's a plot device science fiction writers use to move characters from point A to point B very quickly.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Culture series (beginning with Consider Phlebas) is a sprawling space opera series by Iain M. Banks that utilizes hyperspace for space travel.



i robot3 ROBOT 

A robot is a complex machine that oftentimes resembles a human. It's not an android. Nor is it a cyborg. Seriously, don't confuse them in front of hardcore science fiction fans.

RECOMMENDED READING: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov is a wonderful collection of puzzle-like short stories that explore the rules governing robot behavior.

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