Thriller subgenres: is it SciFi, or SciThri?
By Amy Rogers
When authors pitch a novel to agents or editors, they’re expected to cite which category or genre applies to their work. “Where would this book be shelved at Barnes & Noble?” is the question.
Some thriller writers struggle to neatly package their novel in a single category. Mystery versus thriller is a distinction blurred in some books. Thrillers may have strong horror elements, or plenty of romance, begging to be shelved with those genres.
For me, the problematic genre distinction is science thriller (SciThri) versus science fiction (SciFi). I write thrillers. My books meet the expected conventions of the genre in terms of page-turning tension, action, high stakes, and a ticking-clock climax. Yet some reviewers have referred to my debut novel Petroplague as “science fiction.”
Why? Well, I wrote a work of fiction that has a lot of science in it.
Unlike legal thrillers, medical thrillers, espionage thrillers, historical thrillers, and so on, science-themed thrillers are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of mislabeling. There is no shelf at B&N marked “Legal Fiction” or “Spy Fiction,” but there is that big section of “Science Fiction”. How tempting it is to take a novel with a science-driven plot and just toss it in the fiction category that has “science” in the title.
Does it matter if a science-themed thriller gets shelved as SciFi? I think it does. A reader picking up a SciFi novel will have different expectations than a reader picking up a thriller with a scientist as protagonist. SciThri may appeal to SciFi fans, but the science thriller audience is different and potentially bigger—consider all the Michael Crichton fans in the world!
So what’s the difference between SciFi and SciThri? I’ll admit it’s not always clear-cut. But based on the scores of reviews I’ve done for ScienceThrillers.com, here are the general characteristics I believe define these two categories of stories.
- Usually fiction but can also be nonfiction (e.g. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston)
- Set in the real world or something recognizably similar to it
- Plot occurs in the present time
- Science is crucial to the plot and typically a scientist is a main character
- 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.
- 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, future, or an indeterminate “long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). History can be rewritten at will.
- Science or technology may be important to the plot, or it may be little more than mood-setting wallpaper in the background of the story
- SciFi can be plot-driven and action-packed, or it can be quite literary
- Scientific plot elements don’t have to be realistic. Time travel, warp speed, and mind-reading are all okay.
Many ITW members (Paul McEuen, James Rollins, and Karen Dionne, to name a few) write books that qualify as science thrillers. I wonder if they have seen their books categorized as SciFi? Granted, some of them—such as Rollins—stretch the science in their stories beyond plausibility into the SciFi realm. Others, such as Paul McEuen in his brilliantly technical debut Spiral, keep their stories largely rooted in scientific reality or near-possibility.
Ultimately, I think the distinction between SciThri and SciFi is believability. In science fiction, the reader allows the author to manufacture entire universes and civilizations from scratch; as long as the author keeps internally-consistent rules, anything goes. By contrast, in a science thriller the reader should be plagued by the feeling that this could really happen. This feeling lurks in the heart of the tension of most great thrillers, science or otherwise.
Do you know a thriller that in your opinion has been wrongly categorized by some readers or industry professionals?
More questions: How do you categorize your novels? Have you experienced mislabeling because you write hybrid thrillers?
Dr. Amy Rogers writes thrilling science-themed novels that pose frightening “what if?” questions. Compelling characters and fictionalized science—not science fiction—make her books page-turners that seamlessly blend reality with imagination. She is a member of International Thriller Writers Debut Class (2011-2012). In her novel Petroplague, oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city. Learn more at AmyRogers.com and ScienceThrillers.com. You can also follow Amy on twitter (@ScienceThriller) and on her Facebook fan page.
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