Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thriller subgenres: is it SciFi, or SciThri?


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, here are the general characteristics I believe define these two categories of stories.

Science thrillers:

  • 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.

Science fiction:

  • 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 and You can also follow Amy on twitter (@ScienceThriller) and on her Facebook fan page.

Related Thrill Begins Posts:

More about ITW Debut Author’s Program":am

The International Thriller Writers membership includes some of the world’s best-selling authors: David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, Lee Child, Sandra Brown, Clive Cussler, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, James Patterson and many, many more.

The ITW Debut Author Program, under the aegis of the International Thriller Writers main organization, seeks to support our first-book members through the publication process by providing a friendly, interactive community for the purposes of networking, mentoring, promotion, and camaraderie.

Membership in the Debut Authors program is for Active-status ITW members only. Before you can apply to the Debut Authors program, you must first apply for ITW membership. More information about ITW membership here

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Unknown said...

Great post, Amy.

I admit I hadn't paid attention to the distinction until you presented it today. Because I run a literary firm, I totally agree about the importance in knowing the distinction. We build marketing campaigns based on who our client's ideal reader is. If we confused scifi with science thriller readers, the campaign would be wrong.

What experiences have you had that affected your marketing, because your book was tagged incorrectly?

Tracy March said...

I enjoyed you post, Amy. I can totally see the distinction you are making between SciFi and SciThri. I agree that there are a lot of gray areas in the thriller/mystery/suspense genres, yet most readers would likely still get what they were expecting (or something very similar) if one of those got misshelved in B&N. Not necessarily the case for Science Fiction and Science Thrillers. There is quite a distinction there!

Good luck with Petroplague!

Kira Peikoff said...

Thanks for this post, Amy! This is an issue I have considered a lot as well, since my debut novel LIVING PROOF is SciThri, not SciFi, and I find myself explaining the difference often. Your points are helpful!

Amy Rogers said...

Although PETROPLAGUE is a science thriller and is being promoted as a thriller, I do find it useful--or necessary--to use internet tags including the phrase "Science Fiction" because there is no commonly-accepted name for the SciThri genre. Legal thriller, medical thriller--people know what those are and what to call them. But a Crichtonesque novel--a thriller with science elements--nobody knows what term to search for. I've used science thriller, scientific thriller, thriller about science, etc. in my tags but many people who are looking for SciThri actually type in science fiction.

Amy Rogers said...

Kira: when is your release day? will want to interview you.

jenny milchman said...

I love this post, Amy, and I love this type of book. Karen Dionne is a master. I will definitely be reading yours! And now a new good find from Kira!

Unknown said...

I loved this post also, Jenny. Many authors are writing subgenre and hybrid genre books now. I wonder how do publishers both indie and traditional use meta tags to help readers find these books.

Crazy Life of a Writing Mom said...

I'd never thought of the differences. This is so interesting! What a neat topic too--I can't wait to discuss this over dinner with my husband.

Amy Rogers said...

@Elisabeth: OOO, my post is fostering intelligent marital conversation! That's so cool!

Anonymous said...

I agree here with Miranda re: the sub-genre and hybrid genre books. My debut thriller LOST AND FOUND has a medical thriller vibe but includes "dog viewpoint" and so the tags we use mirror nonfiction pet book tags. *shrug*

Love this post, Amy. I have a WIP that will fall in the SciThri range, I think. This is an important discussion.