What’s your favorite science fiction book or movie? Ever wonder how the worlds in these stories are created? How are imagined worlds used by scientists and engineers?

This month, we'll explore these questions, take you through the steps of how science fiction and fantasy writers use their imagination to create, and help you create your own fictional world!

Live Events Flights of Fancy Story Time Register Now Creating Imaginary Worlds Family Workshop Register Now Air and Space Adventures Virtual Game Learn More Why is the National Air and Space Museum interested in science fiction and fantasy?

Listen to space history museum curator, Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, explain why.

Our museum collects, preserves and studies all things related to the history, culture and science of aviation, space and the study of the universe - and science fiction and fantasy play a part in this! Before someone can create new and better technologies in aviation and space, they have to imagine it. The imaginary worlds in science fiction and fantasy help us think about what technology could look like in the future, how spaceships can travel through space, or how we can live on different planets. Often, scientists, engineers and designers are inspired by imaginary worlds to test ideas and think about how to design for the future.

Ready to exercise your imagination? Check out the activities below.


Jump to a Section: Science Fiction vs. Fantasy      Looking Closely at Imaginary Worlds       What Would You Imagine?      Science Fiction to Real Life


Science Fiction vs. Fantasy - What's the difference?

Both science fiction and fantasy combine parts of the world that we know with ideas that are imaginary.

Courtesy of Seahorse Vector/Shutterstock

Science fiction contains parts that are scientifically possible but are stretched by the imagination towards something that doesn't exist yet but might in the future, like flying cars, household robots and space travel.

Fantasy is much more imaginary than science fiction and often set in a place like Earth, but contain things that make it different from Earth, like magic, made-up creatures, environments and people with special powers and abilities.

 

Check out the examples below that show these differences. We've broken down what to look for when figuring out whether something is science fiction or fantasy, and then give you the big reveal at the end of each example!

Book: Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood

  • Environment: This book is set in a planetoid in another galaxy, with people who look like humans, but also with robots, fairies, and princesses.
  • Rules: This world looks like Earth, but has futuristic buildings, furniture and technology. But there are also familiar things like books and pet dogs!
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy? Fantasy! A whole different world on a planet was created as a setting for a retelling of familiar fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty.
  • Talk about it: If you were to retell a fairy tale in a futuristic space setting, which one would you choose?

Book: Akiko and the Planet Smoo by Mark Crilley

  • Environment: This story starts on Earth, but the lead character, fourth grader Akiko, travels to planets in other galaxies with a group of aliens who all come from different planets.
  • Rules: Akiko is a human who can travel through space and to faraway planets, thanks to the technology of her alien friends. Her mom doesn't even notice she's gone, thanks for an Akiko robot clone.
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy? Science fiction with a little bit of fantasy when imagining the aliens from outer space. Akiko's feelings and worries feel very real but they're being related to a science fiction storyline.
  • Talk about it: If you were to travel to another galaxy far from home, what tools or technology would you want to have with you?

TV series: Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts

  • Environment: This story starts on Earth, but the lead character, fourth grader Akiko, travels to planets in other galaxies with a group of aliens who all come from different planets.
  • Rules: Akiko is a human who can travel through space and to faraway planets, thanks to the technology of her alien friends. Her mom doesn't even notice she's gone, thanks for an Akiko robot clone.
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy? Science fiction with a little bit of fantasy when imagining the aliens from outer space. Akiko's feelings and worries feel very real but they're being related to a science fiction storyline.
  • Talk about it: If you were to travel to another galaxy far from home, what tools or technology would you want to have with you?

Talk About It!

  • What other worlds have you experienced in books, movies, games, or TV shows that combine the real and the imaginary?
  • Which ones are your favorites? Why?
  • Do you like science fiction stories or fantasy stories better?

Activity: Looking Closely at Imaginary Worlds

People make imaginary worlds in movies, books, tv, comics, and other forms of art all the time. All of these worlds are different, and we can look at them closely to guess why they were designed that way.

Steps

1. Pick a world to look closely at. It could be your favorite movie, TV show, or book! Below, we use Star Wars as an example.

2. Think about:

  • Are there people in this world?
    • In Star Wars, there are people that are like humans, people from other planets and galaxies, and even robots that can talk and act like humans.
  • What is the environment like?
    • In Star Wars, characters travel between different space ships and planets. They are able to travel through space easily, and the planets are mostly places where the characters can survive.
  • What are the rules of this world?
    • In Star Wars, one of the big rules is that spaceships can travel faster than the speed of light! They do this using an imaginary technology called "hyperdrives."
  • How does it compare to our own world?
    • In Star Wars, the characters exist "a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," instead of in our Milky Way Galaxy right now.

3. Did your family members look closely at a world different from the one you chose?

Share with each other what you discovered about your favorite imaginary world!

A set of Star Wars toys manufactured for the release of The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. This set was donated to the Museum in 1997 from a private donor, Michael O’Harro. Credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum. 


What world will you imagine?

Now that you have the tools to build your own imaginary world, and recognize the parts of other imaginary worlds - what worlds will you imagine?

  • Will your world have more fantasy elements like magic or people flying; or would your world be based on real world elements like in science fiction?
  • What is the environment like?
  • Who are the characters?
  • What challenges will your characters face?

Science Fiction to Real Life

Click through this slideshow of one example of how a science fiction movie and novel have become reality.

If you like this topic, come back in February 2023 for a Soar Together @ Air and Space family program about how science fiction has influenced modern technology.

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Author Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick co-wrote the story for the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in 1968.

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In this film, they imagined a space station orbiting Earth, which was futuristic for the 1960s.

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Skylab was the first space station sent into space by the United States on May 14, 1973. Three crews lived and worked on Skylab in 1973 -1974, staying 28, 59, and 84 days.

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Now, we have the International Space Station which has orbited Earth for the past 23 years, with astronauts representing different countries on Earth.


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