While science fiction was once primarily about science, it has since evolved into a far-reaching field that encompasses a variety of subgenres. When pitching your novel or sending your short story to a specific market, it’s helpful to know which field is it is best suited for; this guide should help with a few of the better known Science Fiction subgenres.
Publishing companies and critics put works of Science Fiction into different subgenres to help describe the work. This helps readers choose which books to read or movies to watch. Assigning these genres is not simple. Some stories can be in two or more genres at the same time, while some stories may not fit any genre.
Science Fiction Subgenres
Hard Science Fiction
Hard Sci-Fi is driven more by ideas than characterization. Plausible science and technology are central to the plot. If your story is set on a lunar colony, for example, issues of technology may be of greater concern than a character’s personal life. To write effectively in this subgenre, an author must generally have a good grasp of the scientific principles involved. Much classic science fiction, including the earlier works of Asimov and Heinlein, fall into this category.
Soft or Sociological Science Fiction
This is character-driven, with emphasis on social change, personal psychology and interactions, etc. While technology sometimes plays a role, the emphasis is not on how that technology works, but how it affects individuals or social groups. Robert Silverberg’s short story “To See the Invisible Man,” for example, focuses on how a futuristic form of punishment affects the individual and the surrounding society. Ursula K. LeGuin is a noted author of sociological science fiction.
Near-future science Fiction
Near-future science fiction takes place in the present day or in the next few decades. Elements of the setting are familiar to the reader, and the technology may be current or in development. Stories about nanotechnology or genetics, such as Greg Bear’s Blood Music, often fall into this category.
Science Fantasy or Future Fantasy
Rare now but popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s, science fantasy/future fantasy alters, breaks, or ignores known laws or scientific theories for the sake of the story. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series are a good example.
Slipstream Science Fiction
This subgenre deals with “mainstream” themes but contains a speculative element. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a speculative future, for example, but is marketed as a mainstream novel.
In Alternate (or alternative) history stories, writers imagine how the past might have been different. These stories may use time travel to change the past. Some set a story in a universe with a different history from our own. Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore – the South won the American Civil War and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – Germany and Japan won World War II, are two of the most widely known.
The Sidewise Award is for the best works in this subgenre. The name Sidewise is taken from Murray Leinster’s 1934 story “Sidewise in Time.” Harry Turtledove is one of the most famous writers in the subgenre. He is often called the “master of alternate history”.
Apocalyptic, Holocaust, and Post-Apocalyptic
Apocalyptic fiction is about the end of civilization. There are several types: through war (On The Beach), pandemic (The Last Man), astronomic impact (When Worlds Collide), ecological disaster (The Wind From Nowhere), or mankind’s self-destruction (Oryx and Crake), or some other general disaster. Apocalyptic SF may also be about world or civilization after a disaster.
Cyberpunk began in the early 1980s. Bruce Bethke used this word as the title for a short story in 1980 by putting together two words: “cybernetics” and “punk”. Soon, people used this word to describe William Gibson’s book, Neuromancer. Cyberpunk authors can put their stories in different settings. Stories usually take place in the near-future and the settings are often dystopian (characterized by misery). Another early cyberpunk novel that has become a classic is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
Military Science Fiction
Military science fiction stories happen during wars. These wars can be between different countries, different planets, or between different species. The stories are from the point of view of characters who are soldiers. They include detail about military technology, rules, and history. Some Military SF may be similar to real historical conflicts. Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is an early example. Another is the Dorsai novels of Gordon Dickson. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a response to the World War II–style stories of earlier military SF authors. Important military SF authors include John Ringo, David Drake, David Weber, and S. M. Stirling. Baen Books is known for cultivating military science fiction authors.
Superhuman stories are about humans who get special abilities that are not normal. Maybe the new powers come from nature. Two examples of this type are Olaf Stapledon’s novel Odd John and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human. Sometimes scientists give people special powers on purpose. One example is A.E. van Vogt’s novel Slan. Frederik Pohl’s novel Man Plus is another good example from this category.
Space opera is adventure science fiction in outer space or on distant planets. Action is more important than the science or characters. There is usually a strong hero and a very big conflict. The action often moves to many different places. Edward E. (Doc) Smith was an early Space opera writer. Flash Gordon and Star Wars are also popular examples.
Some people may think that Space Western is a kind of Space opera. It takes ideas from books and movies about exploring the American Old West and moves them to space in the future. These stories are often on “frontier” colony worlds (colonies that have only recently been terraformed and/or settled) serving as stand-ins for the backdrop of lawlessness and economic expansion that were predominant in the American west. Some examples are Firefly and the movie Serenity by Joss Whedon. Anime programs like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star are also Space Westerns. Han Solo from “Star Wars” is an important Space Western character.
One of the first time travel novels was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The most famous is H. G. Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine. Well’s book uses a machine that allows an operator to travel to an exact time. Twain’s time traveler is struck in the head. The term “time machine”, was invented by Wells. Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story called A Sound of Thunder is a more recent and very famous example of this genre.
First Contact explores the initial meeting between humans and aliens, ranging from horrific tales of invasions to stories of benign visitors bearing the secrets of advanced technologies and world peace (or irony, as in The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” — the one that ended, “It’s a cookbook!”). The meeting may occur on Earth, in space, or on another planet. H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds helped define the “alien invasion” variant of this subgenre.
These stories defy easy distinctions between science fiction and other genres, such as fantasy (“if it’s psychic power, then it’s science fiction; if it’s magic, then it’s fantasy”). Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock in Spite of Himself series, for example, places a space-traveling agent on a planet apparently populated by witches, werewolves, and other fantasy beings. Such novels may also blend science fiction and romance, mystery, suspense, and even Westerns (as in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. television series).
Comic science Fiction
This sub-genre exploits the genre’s conventions for comic effect.
Feminist science fiction
This subgenre of science fiction focuses on theories that include gender inequality, sexuality, race, economics, and reproduction. Feminist SF is political because of its tendency to critique the dominant culture. Some of the most notable feminist science fiction works have illustrated these themes using utopias to explore a society in which gender differences or gender power imbalances do not exist, or dystopias to explore worlds in which gender inequalities are intensified, thus asserting a need for feminist work to continue. Some of the influential pioneers were Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hugo Gernsback, Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Stanisław Lem, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Libertarian science fiction is written from a political point of view.
This subgenre uses fiction to explore ideas from libertarian political philosophy about government and social organization. A classic example of libertarian science fiction is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.
New Wave is science fiction writing with a lot of experimentation.
Writers try new ways of writing and new story ideas. It can feel more intellectual and seems more like important “literature” or art.
Steampunk is the idea of future technology in the past.
The name comes from the fact that machines run on steam power in this genre. These stories are usually in the 19th century and often in Victorian era England. Steampunk stories have strong images from either science fiction or fantasy. Steampunk can have imaginary inventions like those found in books by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Examples include The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and the Girl Genius series by Phil and Kaja Foglio. The start of this style may be seen in some writing by Michael Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer and Steve Stiles.
I know, that’s a lot of information. I’m sure there are many more genre’s out there. The number of science fiction subgenres is only as limitless as your own imagination.
Can you name some science fiction subgenres that I didn’t include here?
Leave a comment here with a description of the subgenre and some authors who write in it.