Hi everyone, and welcome to the second blog post on the series on Genres I’m doing. Last week I talked about fantasy subgenres, and this week my sole focus is science fiction.
For those who are still kinda confused, there’s a difference between Fantasy and Science-Fiction. People often lump them together, as if it’s one big genre, but in reality, they’re separated mainly by one thing: in one hand we have magic, and on the other, we have science.
Those are the simplest, most basic terms to define what falls under which category. Under fantasy, the world is shaped by magic and its properties, and any event can be explained that way. In sci-fi, the way to head towards an explanation is science. Sure, science in sci-fi isn’t the most accurate thing, but it’s the way we humans dream how science could be.
Of course, there’s a lot more complexity than that. Science fiction doesn’t only englobe maths and chemistry and physics, but also often sociology or history, especially when exploring human nature as a theme. Science fiction doesn’t rely on magic — it relies on understanding humans, and understanding the world around them. Which is often why things like “alternative history” or “dystopia” are also considered in the big wide genre of science-fiction. Much like fantasy, sci-fi has one of the widest range of subgenres, and it doesn’t disappoint.
And with no further ado, let’s discuss some of the genres of sci fi and some of its main subgenres.
Alien invasion is as simple as it sounds. It’s about aliens invading the Earth. Ta-da! Usually, the focus of the alien invasion are the aliens themselves: how they came to Earth, what they want here, how humans are battling them. The battle itself can take many forms, but the story’s plot focuses mostly on the invasion arc (and how humans stop it).
Good examples of Alien Invasion: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, Independence Day, Pacific Rim, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.
Alternate History is a genre where the storyteller imagines a different future for a specific event in the world: a single choice or a single event changed, and the whole world changes around us. It may not focus so much on science as in maths and physics, and more on the social sciences — how the world would be restructured, how humans would react to a change of events, and so on. The most common example of this is “What would happen if Germany had won WWII?”
Good examples of Alternate History: The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K Dick, Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin.
Sounds simple, right? Apocalyptic science fiction has often to do with the end of the world, or the apocalypse as we know it. Usually, it’s grounded in reality — meaning natural disasters, nuclear war, epidemics and plagues are turning the world into ash. The phenomenon of the apocalypse itself can be explained scientifically, and it is something that could happen on the real world.
Good examples of Apocalyptic Sci-Fi: 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, I Am Legend, World War Z by Max Brooks.
Cyberpunk is a subgenre of sci-fi that is often set in the future. Its main focus is the technology around it and how society has evolved to the point where we’re driving around in flying cars, having robot arms, and everything is pretty much connected in technology. A lot of the main characters are cyborgs, and the focus of this is to bring attention on how much humans rely on inventions.
Good examples of Cyberpunk: Neuromancer by William Gibbson, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Matrix.
With the explosion of Dystopia some years ago, I doubt I really need to explain what it is. A dystopia starts with the principle of a perfect world — and then it suddenly presents its ugliness. It’s the future of humanity, but gone extremely wrong. Dystopias often present a bleak future, with disregard for human life, authoritative governments, human experiments and the like. There are many ways it could go, but it’s all about the setting, ultimately: in the future, something goes wrong for humanity, and we’re forced to fight our way out of this terrible destiny.
Good examples of dystopia: 1984 by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Brave New World by Adolf Huxley, Divergent by Veronica Roth.
Hard Sci-Fi is the equivalent of “High Fantasy” but for science-fiction. It’s all about how the world is created and what elements are used in the worldbuilding. Usually, it’s super high-tech — with complex spaceships and sky cities, with robots and everything technology can bring. The science is also deeply embedded in the worldbuilding itself. It’s never grazed over. We can delve deep into the possibilities that scientific discoveries will bring, and just let ourselves be taken by a bright future full of hardware and robot arms.
Good examples of Hard Sci-Fi: The Martian by Andy Weirr (a personal favorite), 2001 by Arthur C Clarke, Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.
Military Sci-Fi is the novel that mostly deals with war and military institutions. It’s a very specific subset of the sci-fi genre, but one of the most popular ones. As humans, war is an ever present subject, and military sci-fi deals with that — often in the form of humans vs aliens, or humans vs robots. The main character is most often a lowly soldier who gets recruited to the front to see the horrors of battle.
Great examples of Military Sci-Fi: The Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, Edge of Tomorrow, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
Multiverse is exactly what it suggests — sci-fi set in several worlds, which expand the idea that the world we live in is but one reflection of the enormous, giant universe. In multiverse, the MC usually hops between all the universes, exploring alternative realities and worlds that are similar to our own, but not quite. Universe hopping is very common in this type of fiction, as well as portals.
Great examples of Multiverse: One Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray, Every Heart a Doorway by Seannan McGuire, Tandem by Anna Jarzab, Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.
Post-Apocalyptic is neither dystopia nor apocalyptic. In apocalyptic science fiction, we see the world ending, and we experience it. Post-apocalyptic is what happens after the world ends. There are many great takes on this, and they usually focus on how humanity learns to survive after the world as they know come to an end. The main story is never why the world ended, but mostly how it began again, and the aftermath of dealing with the loss of everything we know.
Great examples of Post-Apocalyptic fiction: Blood Red Road by Moira Young, Angelfall by Susan Ee, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, Snowpiercer.
Space Opera is best known as the widely popular Star Wars. Star Wars, we can agree on, is not even vaguely scientific. Still, it’s set in space, it’s got spaceships, it’s got robots. But it’s also full of adventure and the actual science of these things is swept aside to make way for a big plot of some magic, heroic narratives and thrilling quests. It’s, at the lack of a better description, fantasy set in space.
Great examples of Space Opera: Dune by Frank Herbert, 27 Hours by Tristina Wright, Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, Zodiac by Romina Russell.
Soft science-fiction is the sci-fi version of ‘low fantasy’. The science appears and it’s there on the setting, but it doesn’t have pages and pages of explanation on how robots are made and how the mechanics of spaceship works. It’s a lot more to do with the human nature exploring, aided by science. Or it can also take the form of other sciences, and offer a more sociological take on a book. Most dystopias can be classified as soft science fiction as well, because although they’re set on the future, they also offer a sociological take on the plot.
Great examples of soft sci-fi: Star Trek movies, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Handmaiden’s Tale, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Steampunk is the subgenre of sci-fi that brings the science to the Victorian Era. We have hot air balloons, we have trains, but we also have robots arms and advanced machinery fueled by charcoal. It’s the industrial revolution, to the standpoint where no machines are beyond reach, and they’re all fitting in that Victorian aesthetic. Automatons, zeppelins, goggles, inventions and big guns. Steampunk is all this, and I recommend you this post on it.
Great examples of Steampunk: A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard.
Time traveling is another subgenre that defines itself. We all know what time travel is. There are no rules for time travel fiction — but for sci-fi, it usually means a time machine. Time travel can also be used as a subplot for other stories like romance (The Time Traveler’s Wife) or thrillers (The Butterfly Effect). The original sci-fi time travel stories are usually used as a plot device to go to the future of humanity to discover what’s become of us, or if we have a terrible future, go back to the past and try to fix it or learn where we went wrong. Both of these are great examples of how the genre can be done, and it can be subverted in any manner of ways.
Great examples of Time Travel: 12 Monkeys, Looper, The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov.
As you can see, science fiction is a huge genre, much like fantasy. It can mash up with anything (Westerns and sci-fi, anyone? We’ve got Westworld and Cowboys VS Aliens), or do a twist on all kinds of different narratives. Sciece fiction can be classified as one or many subgenres, and take as many forms as human technology and imagination allows us.
Next week or so, I’m going to talk a little more on a very weird, very unique, and very complicated genre: Magical realism.
Once again, I hope this post helped!