Science Fiction’s Sub-Genres in a Nutshell (Part 1)

To the uninitiated, science fiction is about space battles and exploring planets full of strange and wonderful creatures. Yet science fiction has never “just” been about spaceships and alien planets. That is just one subgenre of our weird and wonderful genre. There are many more and you might be surprised at some books and films that are classed as scifi.

I think a lot of people tend to think of Star Trek or Star Wars when they hear the term “science fiction”. But the fact is, anything speculative or futuristic is science fiction including the following…

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Space Opera

This is the genre that covers space exploration, New worlds, frontiers, alien contact in space, crews of spaceships. Basically a voyage of discovery. It is generally not very heavy on the science with more of a focus on the wonders within the universe – alien life and cultures. Space Opera underwent a little bit of a rebirth around a decade ago. New Space Opera as it is called, was a movement that sought to inject some modern thinking, realism, theoretical science and realistic alien culture into the Space Opera genre.

Examples of Space Opera: Star Trek, Babylon 5, Iain M. Banks “Culture” books

Hard Science Fiction

Hard science fiction has been around roughly since the 1960s and began when qualified scientists such as Isaac Asimov began to turn their hand to writing fiction. With a strong emphasis on real, emerging or theoretic science, this is the thinking man and woman’s science fiction. It focuses on the detail of technology and presents an air of realism as much as is possible. There are some mainstream books and films in this genre that have wowed audiences who might never have otherwise engaged with science fiction.

Examples of Hard Science Fiction: The Three Colours Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martian by Andy Weir (book and film), Interstellar (trailer below)

Soft Science Fiction

The contrast to hard sci-fi is soft sci-fi. This is about the social issues of the day and largely concerned with technology and society, politics, religion and social justice. Although technology may feature, little detail is spent on what it does and how it works than how it will disrupt society. Creating a life, creating a technology and new technologies can and do disrupt the world.

Examples of Soft Science Fiction: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, the Dune series, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Dystopia

Dystopia is one of the most popular and familiar science fiction sub-genres. Set in a near of far future, they sometimes look through our own culture through the lens of a future society. What happens when it all goes wrong? What comes next? It may or may not feature technology. Where it does, it is almost irrelevant compared to had bad things will be in the future.

Examples of Dystopia: The Hunger Games, 1984, Brave New World, The Running Man

Military Science Fiction

This is war fiction or military fiction with a strong emphasis on combat and fighting, but set in space, on alien worlds or in the future. There is not much more to say about that other than you’ll feel just at home reading this type of fiction set in the past (Sharpe or anything WWII) as you would for books set in the future. Usually a coming of age story and featuring big space battles, this is the action side of sci-fi.

Examples of Military Science Fiction: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Starship Troopers (films and book)

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Apocalyptic Fiction

Anything where technology creates a massive problem or causes the end of the world, or technology is otherwise involved in its downfall. I would class alien invasion within this subsection alongside monster attacks city, nuclear war scenarios. This covers such a wide base and we can’t always class it as science fiction. For example, I am not sure I would class natural disaster books and films here.

Examples of Apocalyptic Fiction: The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg, War of the Worlds by HG Wells, The Tripods by John Christopher, Threads (film), 28 Days Later

Alternative History

Simply, this is what might have happened if a certain event in the past went the other way. The most popular is what if the Nazis won WWII? There are at least three books on this period alone that comes to mind with one TV series airing on the BBC at present. But this is not the entirety of the genre. It can be a complex genre to write for authors that do not have the in-depth knowledge of the period, but it is always fun for the reader.

Examples of Alternate History: Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick, What If… by Isaac Asimov, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, Command & Conquer: Red Alert (video game)

Steampunk

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Steampunk is partly alternative history, but it’s also a throwback to a much earlier time – the “science romance” of Verne and Wells. Featuring anachronistic technology (such as steam-powered space ships and clockwork laser guns), it has an entire art, fashion and architecture movement built around it. It celebrates the very best of Victorian Britain and America and what we all love about it. A sub-sub-genre is dieselpunk, a distinctly American version set in the early 20th century.

Examples of Steampunk: The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling, anything by Jeff Vandermeer, anything by Cherie Priest.

Cyberpunk

Very popular during the 1980s but not so much now that VR and AR are actual technologies, it still remains popular in some places. Arguably, Star Trek’s Borg were a nod to cyberpunk, but what is it? Humans and technology interacting as if one – that means uploading one’s soul into a computer, enhanced humans who can connect microchips into their heads etc.

Examples of Cyberpunk: William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Robocop, Bladerunner

Superheroes

This needs no introduction and though some might challenge it’s science fiction credentials, think about the ways our famous superheroes became super. Superman was born on an alien planet (definitely science fiction), Spiderman was bitten by a GM spider (also definitely science fiction), Captain America was genetically enhanced (certainly science fiction) and The Hulk suffered radiation exposure.

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2 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s Sub-Genres in a Nutshell (Part 1)

  1. Great post.
    I appreciate the difficulty in trying to distinguish between sub-genres (and trim that list), but you missed out Science-Fantasy (Star Wars, John Carter), Weird-fiction/Cosmic-Horror (Lovecraft, China Mieville, et al) and comedic sci-fi (Bill the Galactic Hero, Hitchhiker’s Guide) sub-genres, unless you count them as Fantasy, Horror and Comedy sub-genres…
    One thing though, Cyberpunk has much more to do with the characters being outcasts and criminals and corporations replacing governments as a social issue than the technology, in my opinion. That makes it more soft-science-fiction-noire than anything else. The techno-human integration/singularity side is now more of a Transhumanist (Hard Science Fiction) sub-genre thing these days (and is still ticking along).
    A good argument could be made for the Techno-Thriller being a science-fiction/thriller cross over genre as well, as they rarely have a true representation of the technology involved (Dan Brown’s books particulary are guilty of this – Antimatter bombs indeed).

    1. I think there are a few more to add too (precursor Earth civilisations/archaeology is probably now a separate viable subgenre too thanks to Von Daniken, Tomb Raider and latterly Assassin’s Creed). This will probably now be a part 1 with part 2 to follow 🙂

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