Science Fiction Sub-Genres

SciFi subgenresYesterday we started our foray into sub-genres by looking at some of the major categories of fantasy. Before we get to science fiction sub-genres today, I think we should answer one question.

Why do we fight so hard against genres and sub-genres?

I’m sure many of you will think I’m wrong, but here’s my theory. We don’t fight so hard against classifying our books into a genre or sub-genre because we truly believe it’s the one book ever written that defies genre classification. We do it because we’re confused by how many different options are out there and we’re either too lazy (sorry, I know it’s true because I was) or too overwhelmed to try to sort them out. Hopefully this series of posts will help erase both those excuses for you.

Now, on to science fiction sub-genres . . .

Cyberpunk – Cyberpunk plots (if you couldn’t guess from the name) revolve around computers, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, virtual reality, hackers, mega-corporations, or some combination of those elements. Rather than being set far in the future, they’re usually set in the near future. These books are often dark and focus on the dangers of technology.

Steampunk -Steampunk plots take place in Victorian England or another real-world setting where steam-power still rules. They combine the technology of the time with future technology as the people of that era imagined it would be (rather than how it really turned out). Not surprisingly H. G. Wells and Jules Verne are the grandfathers of this genre. Steampunk can be a lot of fun if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

Dystopian/Utopian – These novels look at the extremes that our world might one day come to, either good or bad. The Road by Cormac McCarthy and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson typify the dystopian sub-genre. Dystopian also goes by the name Apocalyptic.

Time Travel – As the name implies, time travel novels take you either forward or backward in time. Before you object that this should be fantasy rather than science fiction because time travel isn’t possible, keep in mind what sets science fiction and fantasy apart. This is science fiction because the writers are working on the assumption that at some point in the future scientists might invent technology that would allow us to travel through time. If they can make the technology sound believable, then it falls firmly into the science fiction realm. (If you’re sent back in time because of magic, you’re back in the fantasy genre.)

Military Science Fiction – Nations, planets, or races are at war in military SF and the focus is often on the technology and military protocol and procedures of the combatants. Consequently, these stories end up being told through the POV of one (or more) of the soldiers involved. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein is one of the early landmark works of military SF. Shard of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi are other examples.

Space Opera – Although this term can have a derogatory tone to it, this is another SF genre that’s a lot of fun if you let yourself just sit back and enjoy. These novels are set on distant planets and focus more on the adventure than on the science.

The fraternal twin sister of space operaย  is Space Westerns like the television series Firefly. They take the fist-fighting, gun-fighting, and themes of westerns and set them in outer space.

Hard Science Fiction – So named because it takes current knowledge of the “hard” sciences of mathematics, chemistry, physics, or biology and speculates on where they might lead in the future, this is the sub-genre of science fiction where accuracy and attention to detail make or break your story. Not surprisingly, most of the successful hard SF writers work (or have worked) in one of the hard science fields.

Soft Science Fiction – Soft SF takes its what if from the “soft” sciences like psychology, sociology, or anthropology. The lines between hard SF, soft SF, and dystopian SF can blur at times, but a good rule of thumb is that dystopian often deals with an end of the world type scenario where a catastrophe has happened, while soft SF looks at what would happen if certain soft science theories were taken to their extremes or logical conclusions.

People often have strong opinions either pro or con science fiction? Do you love it? Hate it? Which sub-genre best fits your book?


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11 comments on “Science Fiction Sub-Genres

    • I’m right there with you Liv — this was what my comment was about yesterday, that I hate to even say I’m writing Steampunk, because I won’t please the culture. And I know I don’t take myself too seriously! You probably don’t either.

  1. There’s a wonderful movie coming out next year called Iron Sky, very much a steam punk sci-fi story about the Nazis fleeing in 1942 to the dark side of the moon, only to emerge in modern day and attack the world. It looks awesome. I’m a big fan of sci-fi fiction, especially when there’s a good cross over with another genre.

    I read Terry Brooks fantasy Shannara epics when I was young, and most in the last few years he’s done a very good job of mixing the fantasy genre with science fiction, or science fact to a degree, with the end of our world and the birth of a new one, the world of magic. It was refreshing to see his world of elves and dwarves mix with that of our own world of science and machines.

  2. Really important post! I have a love/hate relationship with genres. Growing up I read and loved everything “science fiction” from Herbert’s Dune & Jules Verne to Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood and they are all soooo different. I think a lot of writers buck the “sci fi” label because it is associated with space opera. Fine, if that’s what you enjoy reading. But, I had a personal experience as a writer with the science fiction label that made me shy away from even writing this genre. (And I am a huge science geek!) Basically agents saying they didn’t know where to put my near-future science books on the shelf. I think the e-book revolution will cure some of this bias against books that don’t fit the expected sci fi bill. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. The best Space Opera has got that sensawunda to it, is fun. Think Star Wars /and/ Star Trek (which was originally pitched as ‘Wagon Train to the stars!’). It is why I loved Firefly but could never get into BSG. It helps if there’s a little firey romance, clever wit, cool gizmos, larger-than-life characters, and lively dialogue. Does it fall under the sub-genre label? Sure. But who cares? Space Opera has some of the best (and cheesiest) of the SF movies. I’ll take Galaxy Quest over 2001: A Space Odyssey any day, and the rebooted Star Trek over Solaris in a heart-beat. And, hey! Dark City! Blade Runner! Space Opera with a healthy dose of Noir! (If you haven’t read The Automatic Detective from A. Lee Martinez, you’re missing out on one of the more fun one-off novels of this or any century, another Space Opera / Noir mashup.)

    Kind regards,

    Johne Cook
    Overlord, Ray Gun Revival magazine
    Your home for the best free space opera online. Also, pew-pew ray guns.

  4. Nice break down but I have a few nits (read: opinions):

    Space Opera and Space Westerns at one points (way back in the 30s & 40s) were pretty synonymous, and grew apart in the 50s. Until Space Opera started mining material other than the American frontier for material they were pretty much the same. Military SF grew out of Space Opera about this time (about the time that Space Opera grew out of using Space Rangers as an analog for the Texas Rangers). No one really argued the difference between Space Opera and Space Westerns until Firefly came out. Avatar, Star Trek, Star Wars, all the way back to Buck Rogers were pretty much just cowboys in space. Read “The Emancipation of Bat Durston” on Strange Horizons for more info.

    Dystopian and Post-apocalyptic fiction are not necessarily synonymous or even linked. 1984 by George Orwell was dystopian, but not post-apocalyptic.

    Good job of trying to sort it all out.

    N.E. Lilly
    Editor, Space Westerns Magazine

  5. Pingback: Inspirational Fiction Genre | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

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