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SciFi vs SciThri: What’s the difference?

I'm delighted to host Dr. Amy Rogers, author, scientist and all-around-amazing human being! Read on for the skinny on the SciFi/SciThri genres and why you should check out her books, including The Han Agent, which releases September 5th (

Back when I was teaching microbiology, the science inspired me with so many ideas for plots. When I started writing my microbe-based novels, a student said to me, “Oh, I love science fiction.”

Too bad I didn’t think I was writing sci-fi. To me, sci-fi was speculative, based in its own made-up reality, not the reality of the world I live in. So if not science fiction, what was I writing with my science-themed fiction?

Not SciFi, but SciThri. As in, science thrillers. Why not? People generally recognize medical thrillers, legal thrillers, technothrillers, espionage thrillers, international thrillers. Let’s call thriller novels with a scientist protagonist, and science in the plot, science thrillers.

There’s definitely overlap between SciFi and SciThri. Michael Crichton’s 1969 blockbuster The Andromeda Strain could be either hard SciFi or a science thriller with its laboratory setting and outer-space germs. But I’d say his Jurassic Park is SciThri all the way. Here are my not-so-hard-and-fast rules describing the difference between a science thriller and a science fiction book.

Science thrillers:

  • Usually fiction (novels or short stories) but can also be nonfiction (e.g. The Hot Zone)

  • Are set in the real world (or something recognizably similar to it)

  • Plot occurs in the present, though historical fiction science thrillers do exist (e.g. Deadly). Historical books are usually set in “the present,” just from the perspective of an earlier time, with no significant rewriting of history.

  • Science or medicine is important–nay, crucial–to the plot

  • 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, or future); the future and indeterminate times (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) are popular in this genre. History can be rewritten at will.

  • Science or technology may be important to the plot

  • May be plot-driven and action-packed, or can be quite literary

  • Scientific plot elements don’t have to be realistic. Time travel, warp speed, and mind-reading are all okay.

The distinction between these is important to me as a writer because if a reader picks up my book expecting one thing but finds another, that reader will be disappointed with the book, no matter how good it is. My three books are all SciThri. If you like the sound of that, check them out!

Amy Rogers' SciThri books:

The Han Agent: Virus expert finds herself entangled in Japan-China conflict

Reversion: Gene therapy experiment in Mexican hospital disrupted by drug cartel

Petroplague: Gasoline-eating bacteria paralyze Los Angeles

About the author:

Amy Rogers, MD, PhD, is a Harvard-educated scientist, novelist, journalist, educator, critic, and publisher who specializes in all things science-y. Her novels Petroplague, Reversion, and The Han Agent use real science and medicine to create plausible, frightening scenarios in the style of Michael Crichton. Learn more at

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