Nasa / Space

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?

48 comments
polarcityman1
polarcityman1

cli fi as a new subgenre of sci fi can u add to list? google NPR and cli fi and also "dan bloom + cli fi" to see how i coined the term in 2007 add to list as subgenre of sci fi? danbloom AT GMAIL

polarcityman1
polarcityman1

cli fi as a new subgenre of sci fi can u add to list?

james.jensen1350
james.jensen1350

I was thinking about Philip K. Dick's Martian Time Slip and the Valis trilogy. These have a very schizophrenic feel to them. They also pose several religious questions, like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Perhaps there is a Metaphysical genre as well.

davidterry
davidterry

What about Isaac Asimov's novels, in particular The Foundation Triology, but you also have his detective serices?

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

I'm just amazed at the number of Hugo and Nebula award-winning authors who were NOT mentioned.

darije.djokic
darije.djokic

Hear one from a guy that has been associated with SF (at occasions professionally) for almost 40 years. An attempt to categorise the sub-genres of SF to those that are in contact with it just sparingly is a laudable one but it also requires some knowledge from the theory of literature, and some customs of the SF-fan world and the SF-professional one. The mayor categories (not sub-genres) of SF are: Hard (core) science fiction (well defined in this post), Soft (core) science fiction, referred to as Science Fantasy by some oldies, but the two are not quite identical (rather well defined too) and Space opera (not well defined since definition just by example can not be considered a rigorous one) - that would be a story that has nothing to do with any scientific concept, proven or not, but is a usually heroic one just set in a scenography generally associated with SF (the last one is a professional term for the physical world description of where the plot goes on - the set in theatre, TV and movies). Some hard-nosed scholars (and fans) do not consider this last one to really be SF. From the bona-fide sub-genres the ones listed here are: Alternate history, Apocalyptic, Cyberpunk, Time travel; we could also squeeze: Alien invasion, Steampunk and Superhero. Horror, Mystery, Military (science fiction) and Western are genres in their own right and by definition can not be sub-genres of anything else - it is similar to the Space opera thing: a mere setting or way of presenting the plot does not qualify something to be a specific sub-genre inside the SF just because it associates to the aforementioned genres. Overlapping was always present in literature and to determine the (sub)genre the core element must be identified. There are other standard sub-genres and good new ones can added - good luck, go for it.

myepals
myepals

How can you NOT mention David Drake in reference to the genre

amk32
amk32

Of all the genres, alternate history (S.M. Sterling's "Dies the Fire" series) and space operas (especially David Weber's "Honor Harrington" series) have hooked me over the last few years.

Dr_Bill
Dr_Bill

What about "sword and sorcery"?

ltl_vidorg_se
ltl_vidorg_se

Or a blend of genres? Fe. as I have tried different ways to forward my grounding ideas for the new paradigm of science-in vain so far (due to "repressive tolerance"?).Possibly a novel-in a form of sci-fi biography,description of history in social path of my creator work (to change the world with deeper,better,more abstract paradigm of science since openings 1974,in the 1.thesis version in Theoretical Philosophy,Univ.of Uppsala,Sweden after which the boundaries became manifested for me),take up new theories (my solution(?)for Einstein?s problem how to unite the 4 basic forces+ my 5.conc.the mental energy;new theory of universe (how to explain the empirical data of parapsychology-various-;make Dunne?s time-travelling sensible with a new concept of Time-within space-time world,sp-ti w systemtime,between formers);life-death data and question of re-incarnation explained with my new theory of causality,abave said new,many-dimensional universum th.,my basic function th. in ontology). What do you think? Could this kind of ebook sell? Comments,good links,etc. Send you comments fe via my Facebook(Lasse T Laine) By "Avatar of Synthesis" (no,no,I?m human inspite my metamotivation-see fe my Vidorg?s Google site about Vidorg H.C.project at

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Both the movie and the series also fit squarely in the steampunk category.

Jaqui
Jaqui

with throwing Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories in as excellent examples of comic space opera. tears of laughter will drip when reading. :D Pol Anderson's MUTE is a good example of Metahuman. Ringworld cause any bells to chime for you? :D You might find David Drake's work a good fit for the military Science Fiction Genre, most of the mindset he portrays in ALL his works stems from his own experiences in Vietnam. He tends to focus more on the human aspect than the technology, but gives enough about the technology to support the storyline. and you missed the Environmental sub genre entirely. Herbet's DUNE being the best known work that fits it. but Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars trilogy is a far better example of the subgenre.

Jitse Klomp
Jitse Klomp

I think Douglas Adams deserves his own subgenre, Adams Fiction. I have never read science fiction novels that were funnier than the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy or The Salmon of Doubt.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Culture shock Might be more of a meta-genre than a sub, but to me the real interest in sci-fi isn't that the alien is small and green, but the impact of no longer being alone.... If anyone does this better than CJ Cherryh, someone let me know.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

Multiverse: Similiar to alternate world history; however, often distibguished by multiple universes existing parallel to one another which characters can access, eitehr intentionally or otherwise. Multiple universes sometimes feature wildly divergent histories and or physical laws. Zelany's Princes of Amber is an example of multiverse novels. The term multiverse is generally attribited to Michael Moorcock, originally in reference to his works, especially the Elric series of high fantasy. First Contact: Distinguished by Earth discovering advanced life forms not from Earth, generally of a technologically similiar or advanced race. Often distinguished by mankind's reactions to the dsicovery. Rendevaus with Rama is a good start. Secret History: Generally distinguished by the revelation that the generally accepted version of reality is not the truth. Often features characters that are under threat due to this newly dsicovered information from individuals and secret societies which wish the information to not be known. The comic Planetary would be an excellent example of this type of science fiction. Those are some of the ones I thought of in the few minutes I had to spare. Excellent and thoughtful article!

Stalemate
Stalemate

William Gibson, I believe, was the first to use the term "cyberpunk" and his books were the central hub for all things involved with that genre for me as I grew up. Matrix was interesting for having cyberpunk elements, but I'd point to Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) as the definitive example for movies. And yes, I played the Shadowrun RPG for a while too, since it drew amply from cyberpunk elements. The style has always drawn me in - perhaps because it was more realistic and near our own time period when compared to other SF styles. Besides steampunk having a place in my heart as well, if only for the retrofuturism it can open up, the top spot remains the superhero genre for me. ...which might explain how come I have all the movies of the style (yes, even the bad ones) and have been playing City of Heroes for over 6 years. ;)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'd put Dragonriders under 'Hard Sci-Fi', since 'Dragonsdawn' explained the genetic background and development of the beasts. For the record, I tried hard to like Todd McCaffrey's continuations but I just can't cotton to the boy, as we say in the South.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

to the Robots of Dawn, but then his whole Robot series were more detective stories than anything else.

psomerset
psomerset

Two classics of this genre: Starship Troopers (Heinlein) The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)

StomsAz
StomsAz

David Weber and John Ringo

PonderousMan
PonderousMan

If you like Stirling's alt-history, I'd strongly recommend the Draka series - it ,ay have been his earliest work, but it was very very well done, IMO.

MikeLeone
MikeLeone

If you like alt history, Harry Turtledove is excellent. Well-researched. He also does fantasy works, but he's so prolific with alt-history, I never get around to the fantasy works ...

erruve
erruve

one could make an arguement that a number of the sub-genres are fantasy, not SF

DNSB
DNSB

Her later books in her Vorkosigan series seem to be to a romance/science fiction genre -- Komarr, A Civil Campaign, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Winterfair Gifts. Heck, include Shards of Honor and Barrayar in that genre. Hmmm... ditto for Anne McCaffrey's Pern series.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Fits into a few. Mind you given the size and scope it's not too surprising. If you haven't picked it up, Antartica is well worth a read. Ka !

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Or the Stainless Steel Rat series from Harry Harrison. Neither series is as in-your-face funny as the Hitchhiker series, but both were written with tongue slyly in cheek... Added: And if you can take the [i]pun[/i]ishment, try almost anything from Spider Robinson.

PonderousMan
PonderousMan

Mentioning Cherryh made me think of another, if rare, sub-genre: alien cultures. Not a whole lot of stories about aliens interacting with aliens... but they can be very interesting. And again, if anyone does this better than Cherryh, let me know...

PurpleSkys
PurpleSkys

I loved that series, too bad it was cancelled :(

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

Amber is a great series, you also might like Farmer's World of Tiers series. My favorite first contact stories are Murray Leinster's "First Contact" and Anne McCaffery's Decision at Doona. The twists in both stories make them worth reading.

myepals
myepals

Spend an hour building a character 5 minutes to die

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

For some reason I always think of the phrase, "The way the future was." The future keeps becoming the present, this is the reason that steampunk will last.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

Alien Invasion, but the majority of them, especially the early ones are basically about humans with ESP and nothing to do with aliens or invasions. I agree Todd has a slightly different style, but I find he's OK. You do realise that Anne was his chief advisor and editor for his early Dragon stories?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

There's not one spec of science behind it. One electron goes left instead of right and the confederacy wins the war, yeah right... Got to say I really enjoyed the world war series though.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Have to distinguish between fantastic say McCaffrey's dragons and fantasy, one lone american Jonnie Goodboy Tyler defeats a multi-galactic empire with the help of a few scots and enemies with the brains of a dead gnat. :D

PonderousMan
PonderousMan

While we're on Robinson, has anyone else read the 40 Days... series? I'd almost qualify it as not-science fiction, more like Michael Crichton with carefully researched science and more believable characters...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Certainly she set the mark, a hard one to supass as well. I like it when the aliens are human as well, the early merchanter novels were hard to beat, Faded Sun, brilliant, Chanur Saga a joy, but Foreigner, I'd love to see someone do better than that. Walter Jon William's Ambassador of Progress, Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed, and Barry B Longyear's Manifest Destiny a few to come close.

CodeCurmudgeon
CodeCurmudgeon

Back in 1984, I was moved to ask, "If this is the future, why doesn't my car fly?"

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is why I also suggested 'Soft Sci-Fi'. Yeah, and their last collaboration came in the mail a couple of days ago. I wasn't happy when he introduced a trader with precognitive abilities. That Talent had never been mentioned on Pern before, on either side of the Pass he's writing in (Third or Fourth). I also think Dragongirl was just way too long. I don't think he was writing just to hear himself, but I can read only so many chapters of 'Thread falls, dragonriders are decimated'. It was his longest solo work to date and he still needed another book (Dragon's Time) to wrap up the story. You'll notice she didn't let him loose on F'lar and Lessa / Ninth Pass.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

starts with an initial and usually unquestioned assumption, usually that one in some form or another. After all without some assertion of existence even nihilism falls into posturing. If I was to give up my day job, I'd want to be a landscape gardner, too much self respect to bother with your other two professions.

santeewelding
santeewelding

You used both "is" and "exist" twice in your complaint without having first asked and answered [i]how[/i] "is" and "exist" are, skipping straight to their [i]what[/i] of the past. Don't quit your day job, Tony, to become a literary critic, or philosopher of the existential.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but one the AKs was used to shoot the forebear of the guy who went back, so he never existed to do so. Time travel is bollocks, even if the past exists which is a dubious proposition, where was it? I loathe time travel, it's a literary device for the lazy...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The John Esten Cooke Award for Southern Fiction. Strangely, the organization that makes that award doesn't seem to view the award as so important they should keep the history of it posted. edit: Nor is the award deemed so important as to be included in Wikipedia's list of awards for American literarature.

Jaqui
Jaqui

but the title makes me think of the Weapon Shops of Isher.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

In which white supremacists time traveling back to the Confederacy and supplying them with AK 47's and the Confederate states win the war. That one is defintely science fiction. :)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Mars trilogy set too high an expectation maybe. It's a bit like Steven Erikson, finished Malazan tales of the fallen. Hard act to follow that. Or George RR Martin, he seems to be so conscious of how he's going to do better than a Song of Ice and Fire, he's putting off finishing it. :p

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Actually, the government in general doesn't want civilians flying cars. They have a hard enough time with private pilot licenses. Washington D.C. is already a no-fly zone for most aircraft; so flying cars won't do you any good there unless owned and used by Uncle Sam, i.e. the political elites, the police, and the military. Not without reason. Imagine John Doe deciding to fly home after a night of drinking with his buddies and plowing into the local hospital at 200 mph with a 2000 pound car and a half-filled tank of fuel. Worse, can you imagine a flying car filled with explosives with a terrorist at the wheel/stick/yoke?