Panology – an A to Z Science Fiction Study Guide [Part 1] No ratings yet.

With Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series inching closer to television screens, a question resurfaces, a question I’ve been asking ever since first reading these two works of classic science fiction, both of whom have been fighting an eternal battle for the number one spot on my favourites list.


What makes these stories so great?

For me, it’s the scope of these novels. It’s how the authors infuse a multitude of scientific disciplines and morph them into the plot. This little project is intended as a study guide for me to use and others if they choose, and aims to list as many topics and fields of study as possible. It’ll be an ongoing process as I probably will miss a few academic disciplines along the way.


Science fiction is an art form, and visual art and science fiction have complimented and inspired each other from the beginning. From cover art of Jules Verne’s novels and Amazing Stories to the mind-bending number of sci-fi influenced artworks in existence today, to the contemporary music inspired by this muse called sci-fi, it is a shame art doesn’t feature as much inside sci-fi stories as science does. Film and television do combine the two formats (art and literature), a synergy that creates its own standalone art, but there are few stories that explore art as a theme or as a science. How many authors pose the question, what is art?  


Science fiction, to me anyhow, is about exploring new concepts, and neglecting to explore such a vast aspect of human behaviour is always going to be a missed opportunity. As humans, we possess a range of sensors that can be aroused by art or information. Our eyes have pictures to lust over. Our ears have music to listen to. Our tongues have gourmet food to explore. Our skin has fashion; our noses, perfume and smell. Our inner ears give us balance, so is not defying gravity an appreciation of its beauty?

How else can humans make art? How would aliens make art? How else can an author explore the endless possibilities of art?

Time-tourism, Up the Line by Robert Silverberg

Mask-making art,  The Moon Moth by Jack Vance’s

Holographic sculpture, The Martian Inca by Ian Watson 

Music-and-light linkages, The Whole Man by John Brunner

Sartorial art‘s The Garments of Caean by Barrington J Bayley

Psycho-sculpture,  The Second Trip by Robert Silverberg

Laser-based artform, The Rainbow Cadenza by J Neil Schulman’s

Dream recording, Dreaming is a Private Thing by Isaac Asimov

Cloud-sculpting, Vermillion Sands by DJ G Ballard

Archeology (xenoarcheology)

Apart from the SETI researchers who search for signals that are millions of years old, not one person today is a practising xenoarchaeologist. How can they be when there are no artefacts for them to study. This should not stop an author from giving it a go. The discipline can be monumental or incidental to the story, whether it’s uncovering an unknown civilisation, humanity’s alien origins or finding relics predating the cosmos, what better way to give a story some background than to have xenoarcheologists research the history of a place or people, here on a future Earth looking back at its past, on some exoplanet, or in deep space somewhere.   


Elder Things,  At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

Multiple cyclical collapses of civilization, Nightfall, Isaac Asimov

Cylindrical alien starship, Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

High Ones, Across A Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg

Heechee, Gateway by Fredrik Pohl

The Klikiss, Saga of Seven Suns (Book 1: Hidden Empire) by Kevin J. Anderson

Puppeteer homeworld, Ringworld by Larry Niven

See also 10 Space Archaeology Novels You Must Read


Is it the architects leading the writers, or the other way around. Either way, whether you’re a human, transhuman or alien, you have to live somewhere.

Total  Recall © Columbia-Pictures.jpg

From bionic architecture to autonomous buildings nothing sets the scene better than creating unique habitats for your characters to live in. Functional spaces can add synergy to any plot whether they are based inside subterranean slums or in space palaces.

Hyperstructures,  Isaac Asimov’s Robot series

Ecumenopolis, Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation series

Urban Monads, The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

Citadels,  Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center Saga

Projects, William Gibson‘s Sprawl trilogy & Bridge Trilogy.


This science is a given. Even if the story doesn’t involve alien ecosystems, a near or far future world is an undiscovered country of new manifestations of living things, human or otherwise. What have we so far found living on this planet?  Plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, slime moulds, archaea. From synthetic to quantum biology the list of organisms that can be conjured up is endless.Image result for xenobiology

Udods, The Dark Light Years by Brian W. Aldiss

Brian W. Aldiss’s Hothouse and Helliconia Series

Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Cycle

Geblings, Dwelfs & Gaunts, Wyrms by Orson Scott Card

Tendu, The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson.

Biopunk, Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo

Cliodynamics (psychohistory)

We are already living in Isaac’s world. Big data already allows governments and corporations to make educated guesses at what’s coming around the corner. As this information age deepens, how will it change the way we live? Does big data ever get too big to predict anything?


This discipline is also available to writers. This blend of trends, mathematical modelling, history and sociology and can open up a window into the future, turning anyone dedicated enough into a Nostradamus. Big History, Microhistory, Macrohistory; used as a major or minor plot device, how could any writer get it wrong.

The Prime Radiant, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series

The Technocore, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos

Universal Actuary, House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

see also Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History

Cybernetics (cyborgology)

Cyborg by Martin Caidin.jpgLet’s face it, we now have the technology. We can rebuild you. It’s rudimentary at the moment but scientists have proved it can be done. As more applications become possible it is hard to imagine any work of sci-fi without featuring some kind of cybernetics, cyborgs or bionics, especially if it’s already the norm in reality.

Cyberbrains, The Cybernetic Brains by Raymond F Jones’s 

Brainships, Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Series

Bionic limbs  Cyborg by Martin Caidin 

Rat Things,   Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Wetware, Arthur C. Clarke and Paul Preuss, Venus Prime series

Cyborg, Man Plus by Frederick Pohl  

Lobster, Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling

Cryonics (suspended animation)

This is a contentious field. There is an existing industry around this type of thing. Has been for years. Now, no one has ever revived anyone, because… there is no actual technology that has been proven to work. But people a paying big bucks for a two-way ticket without the means for the return trip. And of course, business is catering for these people with technology based on assumptions, which are based on ideas developed by science fiction writers.


A rule I use in science fiction writing is, everything is possible in this cosmos, there is always a way. Maybe freezing body tissue isn’t the right path, maybe it’s something else. It’s a challenge, and that’s why this field makes the list.

Buck Rogers by radioactive gas, Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan

Frank Poole by deep space freeze, 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Benjamin Smith by cryonics, The First Immortal by James L. Halperin


Whether its curing existing diseases or encountering new ones, a bit or a lot of pathology doesn’t hurt a story or make for a bad plot device. Injecting fear and dread into any scenario can be as easy as prescribing an epidemiologist or two.The Green Line of Death, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton.jpg

The scope in speculating future disease can again be endless, e.g microbial, fungal, genetic, psychiatric, crystalline extraterrestrial agents, or cyber infections

Space-whirly, Plague Ship by Andre Norton

Denver Madness, The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

The Green Line of Death, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Helico virus & Silent Untreated Disease Syndrome, Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Trilogy

Vampiris pandemic, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Zombie plague, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.

Snow Crash, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

See also Plagues in Science Fiction and Fantasy


The field of economics probably bores the average lit reader, and probably most sci-fi readers as well. I find that the best sci-fi reads are the ones that construct plausible alternative economic systems. Our lives are immersed and enslaved to whatever the current economic paradigm is in place, so much so that most people don’t even know that alternatives exist, that the economic system that they are bound to be only an invention, and that other (maybe better) systems exist.atlas shrugged.jpg

The whole point of sci-fi is to get readers to consider new ideas, and the subject of economics is by far the most important in terms of changing things for the better. It can be the root of all evil, and the driver of all that can be good.

Objectivism,  Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Anti-property anarcho-syndicalism, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ration stamps, enforced consumption, Midas World, Frederik Pohl

Wooden coins, The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey

Sentient High-Frequency Trading algorithms, Accelerando by Charles Stross

Criminal economyWhen Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

OverpopulationStand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Psychohistory, Asimov’s Foundation series.

…. to be continued

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