A Crash Course in Science Fiction Sub-Genres

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re into the third episode of my exploration of genres, and today we’re going to look at science fiction. (I’m currently planning to also cover suspense/thrillers, mystery, romance, and horror. If there are any other genres you’d like me to delve into or you have any other questions about genres, please let me know in the comments.) Keep in mind as we go through these posts together that the lines aren’t immovable, and they aren’t always perfectly clear. Some books cross genres. What I’m trying to do here is bring a little more clarity to a particularly murky area.

What is Science Fiction?

Science Fiction Genres

Image Credit: Fred Fokkelman

A week ago in our discussion of fantasy sub-genres, I touched just lightly on the difference between science fiction and fantasy. I suggested the difference was one of possibility. Fantasy is always set in the realm of the impossible. Science fiction, on the other hand, is based in what we either wish or fear the future might bring.

Science fiction looks toward the future and asks what might be possible–technological and cultural changes, space travel, alien races, and yes, sometimes even parallel universes and time travel.

Please notice that I said possible. Something can be possible while still being highly improbable. It’s highly improbable that we’ll ever be able to travel faster than light or that we’ll ever establish colonies on alien planets. But it’s not impossible because we don’t know everything there is to know about natural laws, future technological advances, and life outside our solar system.

Science fiction takes what we’re only just beginning to think of or wonder about and extrapolates from it. More than any other genre, science fiction asks you to suspend your disbelief and ask what if. Part of what makes science fiction great, and what many who’ve never read scifi fail to realize, is the way it often explores questions of morality and identity and forces us to really consider what the future might be like if we follow certain paths.

Star Trek fans will also be happy to tell you about the influence science fiction and science fiction writers have on the present. The man who invented the first cell phone got his inspiration from Star Trek tri-corders and comm badges. And automatic doors appeared in Star Trek before they ever made their way into stores all around the world.

Defining 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 often take place in Victorian England or another real-world setting (though Lindsey Buroker has had success with her Emperor’s Edge series, which is steampunk set in a secondary universe). 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. (There’s also some argument about whether steampunk should be classified as science fiction or fantasy. In the end, it comes down to the content of the individual book. For example, because Lindsey Buroker sets her steampunk in a secondary world, they’re technically fantasy, not science fiction.)

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. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a YA example. 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. Clear as cement, right?)

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 opera 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. 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?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including How to Write Dialogue and Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.

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