Lately there were a number of questions asking for the earliest works containing examples of some specific tropes, or having certain characteristics. As we go back in time, the concept of sci-fi becomes ever blurrier.

The term "science fiction" originates from the middle of the 20th century, but there are works from the late 19th century that most people would consider as a sci-fi: for example, most works from H.G.Wells, and some works from Verne.

However, the further back in time we go, the closer do these stories start to belong to folk tales, legends, and ultimately mythology. Can we find reasonable threshold which separates fables from sci-fi?

  1. Does a story which is older than the term "sci-fi", but does contain features commonly associated to the genre, count as sci-fi for the sake of this site?

  2. The second part of this question deals specifically with Gulliver's Travels, as this is what motivated me to post this question.

Arguments against:

  • it's more of a travellers' tale with satirical fables
  • it is not in public consciousness as a sci-fi, but as a tale.

Arguments for:

  • The third book (Laputa) features futuristic technology, like flying islands, and has deep discussions about the scientific method. Even in the other books, the protagonist visits non-mythical, non-supernatural locations which do differ greatly from our known world.
  • Wikipedia classifies it as proto science-fiction
  • the protagonist is a scientist of sort (he is a medic) and often makes observations about the technology and society of the places he visits.
  • the points in the "arguments against" are mostly due to the simplified versions of the book, like children's cartoons; the original book has a much more serious tone.
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    A coined-term will typically follow, not precede, the article it describes. It's not like the genre was created as an empty vessel to be filled. Aug 9, 2012 at 16:33

4 Answers 4


1) I'd say older works definitely count. Sci-fi (~1950) is merely one in a chain of terms: science fiction (1930), scientifiction (1916), scientific fiction, and scientific romance (1845). The terms are closer than siblings -- they are more like clones. It would be impossible to define one of these expressions in a way that excludes the others. Naming and defining the genre is a game of long standing within the SF community. One of the few things most definers agree on -- beyond "it's fiction with science in it (science in a very broad sense, perhaps)" -- is that whatever you call it, SF is a very fuzzy set.

2) Swift's Houyhnhnms are an interesting edge case. There's no SF explanation for how they work. On the other hand, they fit John W. Campbell's demand for "an alien that thinks as well as a man, but not like a man" well enough that they work for both the voters and the original poster. I think that any answer that both the community and the OP agree on is right (at least until they disagree with me).


The site title is "Science Fiction and Fantasy" - most that don't fit Sci-Fi will fit fantasy.

One can make a compelling case that Shakespeare was a Fantasy author - by modern standards he'd certainly fit - for A Midsummer Night's Dream, and even for Hamlet.

By the same token, Wells, Verne, and other Edwardian and Victorian period writers wrote that which is now considered Sci-Fi, some of which now reads more as Fantasy... they got the physics way wrong in their ignorance... But the site title and purpose doesn't have the exclusion of Fantasy from the subject, so it matters little that "From Earth to the Moon" is now Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi - it's within scope.

  • Recent science-fiction action movies often get the physics even more wrong than Verne!
    – Stef
    Dec 6, 2023 at 9:24

Going by our guideline for technothrillers and other works that are borderline SF, I would say that if the question is about some SF-nal aspect of the work, then it's on-topic. So asking about the depiction of non-human intelligent races is on-topic, even if a work would not be normally considered SF. But discussing the depiction of shipwrecks is off-topic.

However, philosophical tales where the SF-ness is besides the point are another matter. Talking animals have existed in fables as far back as we can trace them. This is a gray area; we generally tend to be inclusive, but classical mythology is probably off-topic (and anything that's recognized as religion is right out).

On a personal note, I would say that Gulliver's Travels is not science fiction, because there is no implication that what it depicts may become true. It's more debatable whether it's fantasy: fantasy is something that runs contradictory to some well-known fact about the universe, and it isn't clear whether the impossibility of the existence of sentient horses counted as a well-known fact back in the day.

  • 4
    I completely agree with the first 2 paragraphs. However, is it a necessary condition for sci-fi that it is implied that what it depicts may become true? Because if yes, then Star Wars would not be a sci-fi.
    – vsz
    Aug 10, 2012 at 6:13
  • @vsz By this definition, it's fantasy. It's SF (speculative fiction) either way.
    – user56
    Aug 10, 2012 at 7:21
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    @Gilles - is "what it depicts may become true" a generally/widely accepted boundary for classifying SciFi vs other Speculative fiction? or just your personal guideline? If the former, I'd be curious where it comes from (specific publishers? critics? author's definition?). I can post as a separate meta question if you think the answer merits wider exposure. Aug 10, 2012 at 20:14
  • @DVK We've already had many discussions on the boundray between science fiction and fantasy. They were all sterile: everyone has their own definition, and there's no good objective argument. We had a few questions on this topic on the main site early on, and since every single one of these ended up as purely subjective debate — and, if I may add, pretty uninterestng ones — we ended up banning this type of question in the FAQ. So this is my completely subjective definition, and you're entitled to your own, and there's absolutely no use discussing them.
    – user56
    Aug 10, 2012 at 20:24
  • @Gilles - Yeah, that's why I asked in a comment instead of a separate Q right away. it just sounded like you were citing some more "official" definition - obviously there can't be one "canonical" one, as it's subjective-eye-of-beerholder; but perhaps something uttered by a major publisher of SciFi or a quote from Hugo/Nebula rules would be an interesting cite. Aug 10, 2012 at 20:38

I'd say the distinction in works of fiction (namely Science Fiction and Fantasy) with physical impossibilities (or improbabilities) is their explanation of those phenomena. If they claim that advances in science allowed them to do those impossible or improbable things, then it's Science Fiction, regardless of whether it predates the naming of the concept.

I wouldn't, however, describe anything as Science Fiction if it appeared before the modern concepts of Science and the Scientific Method themselves came about, because calling almost anything before them a "scientific explanation" is misleading. It might involve an explanation based on how people thought things worked, and perhaps even as good a scientific education as many writers now have (zing!) but it seems hard to work just outside the limits of Science before the limits of Science were even defined.

  • Can you define 'modern concept of science'?
    – user1027
    Aug 9, 2012 at 18:14
  • I'd break it down into two parts: methods and knowledge. Of the two, I'd say that the methods are more important, but the knowledge more relevant. The methods include experiments, and other evidence-based methods. These aren't often relevant to SF, since SF usually assumes the 'facts' for the sake of the story. However, they do mark a distinction between science and "this would work if only X". The knowledgebase changes over time. Radiation was the go-to when it wasn't understood well. Now, nanobots and genetics are often used. A lot of SF exists just beyond where science could explain then.
    – rsegal
    Aug 9, 2012 at 18:39
  • In short, I'd say the modern concept of Science is that evidence comes before conclusions, marking a difference between Alchemy and Chemistry, between Astrology and Astronomy. Reality exists, usually independently of our study. It's our job to connect the dots, not to draw a picture and fit the dots to the picture. You can extrapolate where to look for a dot, but not make one up just to fit the picture. That's how I understand the modern concept of science. Anything written before that became doctrine, I'd be very careful before labeling it Science Fiction.
    – rsegal
    Aug 9, 2012 at 18:42
  • @rsegal - while Scientific Method became codified and widely used more recently, it was not introduced as late as you believe. IIRC, Ibn al-Haytham used it ~1000 years ago. I'm sure we can find even earlier examples among Classical Greeks. Aug 10, 2012 at 20:19

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