After Hours

Know your science-fiction subgenres

Alien invasion, hard science, space opera, and time travel are just some of the subgenres of science-fiction books and movies. What is your favorite sci-fi subgenre?

Science fiction is, in some ways, like a river. Some science fiction run straight and true, but there are also shallows, rapids, and holes that can suck a person in for hours. When people are apprehensive about what lurks below a surface, sometimes this scares them away. I think this may be the case for people who are not aware that there's more than one genre of science fiction.

This is a list of some subgenres of science-fiction books and movies (the lines between the genres aren't hard and fast).

  • Alien invasion: Who doesn't like a good "Earth gets invaded" story? You know how it's going to end, but it's still fun to read about the aliens dying from the sniffles (as in The War of the Worlds) or getting conned into destroying their home world (as in Battlefield Earth). Ah, good times.
  • Alternate history: Some alternate history tales, such as Eric Flint's 1632 rely on time travel as an explanation as to how the alternate universe came to be. In other stories, such as H. Beam Piper's Paratime series, the alternate worlds always existed — all that was required was a way to get there.
  • Apocalyptic: What could be more of a science fiction theme than the end of the world? It doesn't matter what causes the world to end — gray goo, plague, nuclear war, asteroids, comets, aliens, de-evolution, or zombies — this subgenre is just fun. (Related TechRepublic discussion: Post-Apocalyptic/Survivor movies that I've missed?)
  • Cyberpunk: Say the word cyberpunk before 1999, and you'd probably receive blank stares. Well, you still might receive blank stares today, but at least now you can reference The Matrix, so folks will have some vague idea of what you're talking about.
  • Hard science fiction: These stories conform to the scientific knowledge of the day. While this subgenre might sound limiting, as in; "What do you mean, no hyperspace?" it's actually quite flexible. Larry Niven's novel A Gift from Earth is an example of hard science fiction. (Related Geekend post: Does the science in science fiction have to be accurate?)
  • Horror: Yes, this is a disturbing topic, but horror and science fiction go hand in hand. Remember though... don't go after the ship's cat alone.
  • Military science fiction: I really stink at military games, but this doesn't mean that I haven't read all of Jerry Pournelle's John Christian Falkenberg novels and Keith Laumer's Bolo novels. Maybe I'm trying to pick up something through osmosis, so that I can beat my kids in video games.
  • Mystery: There is often an element of mystery in science fiction. For instance, why did HAL go crazy in 2001: A Space Odyssey? If this is a genre you enjoy, I recommend reading Richard Doetsch's The 13th Hour.
  • Soft science fiction: In soft science fiction, technology exists but it could be confused with fantasy elements. If you've read Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels, you know what I mean. The dragon's ability to teleport is just accepted by everyone and never explained, kind of like the way odd Star Trek movies used to suck... it's just one of those things.
  • Space opera: Vast intergalactic fleets battling bravely against a backdrop of stars. Wow, in one line, I just described half of the Star Wars movies.
  • Steampunk: Steampunk refers to an advanced technological level achieved through 19th century means. Edison's Conquest of Mars is an example of this subgenre, as is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
  • Superhero (or metahuman): This is probably the best known science-fiction subgenre. These stories range from the heroes with superpowers like Superman and Spider-Man to those with super-toys like Batman and Iron Man.
  • Time travel: We have the forward down pretty good, unfortunately the ability to reverse, fast forward, and pause is currently beyond us. But this lack to practical applications doesn't stop us from dreaming. Who among us wouldn't like the ability to send a message to ourselves in the past? (Related Geekend post: Time travel and English don't mix.)
  • Western: Think Firefly or The Wild Wild West (the series). There's usually something for everyone here, excluding network executives.

What science-fiction subgenres would you add to the list, and which ones are your favorites?

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