Speculative Fiction is a big subject to cover, and it’s one that is sometimes hard to discuss because of all the crazy subgenres we like to come up with to describe groups of works. Last week I took a look at the subgenres of Fantasy, but that barely put a dent in my overall list of Speculative Fiction subgenres. This week I’m taking a look at Science Fiction.
Science Fiction is not my passion (though you’ll see a fair number of Science Fiction reviews from Dan), so I was surprised both by the lack of hyper-classification that is found in Fantasy subgenres and by the age of some of these subgenres. When I think of the height of Science Fiction, I often think of the so-called Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s, but Science Fiction really got its popular start in early twentieth century pulps and that background has heavily influenced a few of the subgenres listed below. Science Fiction also hasn’t been as popular in the last twenty years as other forms of Speculative Fiction, which may explain how it’s escaped the hyper-classification found in Fantasy and Horror that has plagued us since the age of internet shopping began.
Science Fiction: An overarching genre that encompases stories that use technology as a defining element. While space age stories such as Star Trek and Star Wars are famous examples, the scientific element can be subtler as in Flowers for Algernonby Daniel Keyes.
Cyberpunk: This subgenre features futuristic settings, with a plot that deals with advanced technology, cybernetics, or the breakdown of the social order, and can often feature hackers and crackers taking on megacorporations. The most prominent example is William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
First Contact: Primarily an off-shoot of Science Fiction (though it can fall under Fantasy or Horror), this subgenre deals with humanity’s first interactions with sentient non-humans. Orson Scott Card’s Formic War series (a prequel to Ender’s Game) is a prime example.
Hard Science Fiction: While all Science Fiction focuses on technology for its plots, themes, and settings, Hard Science Fiction puts an emphasis on scientific and technical detail and accuracy of the “hard” sciences such as engineering, physics, and chemistry. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a strong example.
Militaristic Science Fiction: A subgenre of Science Fiction centered around a future military organization. Often this organization is an intergalactic federation, but just as often it’s a military of all humans in a universe with other races and peoples. There is a heavy emphasis on military operations, settings, and rank structures. The Honor Harrington series by David Weber is a good example of Military SF.
Near Future Science Fiction: A subgenre of Science Fiction that takes place very close to the time in which it was published. It will usually deal with a particular new scientific or technological discovery and the impact it has on society. It is often written to be predictive or prophetic rather than fantastical. A good example of this is Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God or Illegal Alien.
Planetary Romance: This is an old Science Fiction subgenre that grew out of 19th century adventure novels and pulp romances. Emphasis is placed on exotic alien planet settings with distinctive physical and societal differences from Earth, and usually features space travel as a key element. It is not uncommon to see space age technology mixed with medieval social norms, such as in Edgar Rice Burroughs’Barsoom series (John Carter of Mars is an installment) and Frank Herbert's Dune. (Please note: this genre has nothing to do with the modern Romance genre.)
Romantic Science Fiction: Like Paranormal Romance and Romance in general, the major theme of these works is the building of a romantic relationship between one couple. Here this will happen within a setting that emphasizes science and technology or uses science and technology as a theme or plot device for the main conflict of the book. A major voice within the genre is Linnea Sinclair.
Science Fiction Horror: This is the intersection between Horror and Science Fiction. These titles have a setting and plot that use a high level of technology as a defining element, but the aim of the author is to cause fear or other discomfort in the reader. Stephen King’s recent Under the Dome is a prime example.
Sociological Science Fiction/Soft Science Fiction: This subgenre of Science Fiction focuses on the “soft” sciences such as sociology and psychology. These stories often take a look at the human condition, and they share many roots with Dystopian and Utopian fiction. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a good example.
Space Opera: This subgenre is often what people think of when they think of Science Fiction. The first important element here is that action takes place at least part of the time in a spaceship, and interplanetary travel is often commonplace. The story is often melodramatic, relying on the placement of characters in needlessly or overly dangerous situations to create tension. Star Trek is a classic and enduring example.
Sword and Planet: This subgenre is similar to the more popular Sword and Sorcery, but set within a Science Fiction universe rather than a Fantasy one. Generally, the protagonist and his/her entourage travel between planets engaging their adversaries in hand-to-hand melee combat, sometimes with weapons that are not technologically advanced (swords instead of blasters). This genre predates Science Fiction as a whole, and therefore does not always adhere to the otherwise strict scientific rigor of the parent genre. Early episodes of Star Trek: Original Seriesfollow this format relatively well, though there are numerous earlier examples in pulp literature of the early twentieth century.
And there you have it: an overview of Science Fiction and its subgenres. I hope you enjoyed it, and found it informative. Think I missed something? Leave me a comment and I’ll add it in to a later list. Stay tuned for more lists of subgenres in the coming weeks!