Mastering English

Literary Fiction Genres

Science Fiction Subgenres

Fiction Genre Definitions

Science Fiction Subgenres

(Definitions and Examples A - F) (G - P) (R - X)

Science fiction is not meant to be predictive, but rather it develops myriad 'what if' scenarios. Virtually every feature of the 21st century world was anticipated by genre stories, often one hundred years or more in advance. (Some major trends, such as miniaturized electronics, were envisioned by only a handful of authors.)

Age Regression tales involve, not necessarily a long life, but a literal reversal of the physical aging of the body. An old man becomes like a teenager again. This might happen via some virus or serum, or by means of an elaborate multi-step process. Numerous SF tales include a 'regen' process, available to at least some of its characters. A recent example is Robert Sawyer's novel Rollback. (Hollywood versions sometimes shrink a person clear into infancy, or even a puddle of goo.)

Alien Invasion stories are self-explanatory. The target is usually, but not always, our Earth. The classic of this subgenre is H.G. Wells' pioneering 1898 novel War of the Worlds, followed by Orson Welles' 1938 radio version. Niven and Pournelle's novel Footfall is a well-thought-out example. The film Independence Day, by Roland Emmerich, has become a cultural milestone. (Most--but not all--of this subgenre's tales depict an eventual human triumph.)

Alternate Histories depict might-have-beens, if one or more crucial situations had been resolved differently. Common themes are: what if the Roman Empire never fell, or the South had won the US Civil War, or Germany won World War Two? The grandmaster of this subgenre is Harry Turtledove. Another example is P.K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle, which has been made into a (barely related) HBO series.

Apocalyptic (asteroid hit, gonzo apocalypse, nuclear war, pandemic)
These stories depict a non-religious 'end of the world' scenario. Usually, a band of survivors endure tremendous hardships.
An asteroid is the main villain of Niven and Pournelle's novel Lucifer's Hammer, and many others, including Mimi Leder's movie Deep Impact.
Gonzo Apocalypse tales are rare, and feature a surreal, even comic, element. Most, if not all, are set in the southwestern deserts of North America. Susan Torian Olan's novel The Earth Remembers is a good example. Neal Barrett, Jr.'s novelette "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" and Charles Coleman Finlay's story "The Texas Bake Sale" follow suit.
Nuclear war ends things in Peter George's novel Red Alert, filmed by Stanley Kubrick as Dr. Strangelove.
A sudden pandemic wipes out nearly all humans in George R. Stewart's classic SF novel Earth Abides, and in Rupert Wyatt's movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
(Zombie disasters fall under the 'horror' category, while 'nanotech' overlaps with various others.)

Artificial Intelligence tales assume that one, or perhaps many, artificial minds become fully sentient. They might be mainframe computers, or mobile robots, or more recently, the Internet as a whole. One famous example is D.F. Jones's novel Colossus, filmed by Joseph Sargent as Colossus, The Forbin Project. Another is Jack M. Bickham's novel Ariel. (Bickham's story, and many others, make the error of underestimating the human brain, and/or failing to envision how powerful modern computers would become -- yet still be far short of real intelligence, much less of sentience.)

Astrobiology centers upon alien life. Not necessarily intelligent or technological beings, but the very presence of life that has evolved beyond our Earth. Many such tales involve finding mysterious life forms on Mars or Europa, or floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter. An oft-quoted example is Arthur C. Clarke's short story "A Meeting With Medusa."

Astrosociobiology is an overlapping subgenre that's both narrow and broad. It focuses on the form and function of alien (non-human) civilizations. There are countless examples. CJ Cherryh's "Chanur" novels explore the psychology of a spacefaring feline race. (Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, in part, airing such speculations.)

Bigger Than Worlds is a subgenre well-described by its name. Vast artificial megastructures are the setting for these stories; almost characters in themselves. Olaf Stapledon's 1937 novel Star Maker is probably the first such tale, with a star-englobing construct of a type later known as a Dyson Sphere. Larry Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld introduced that carefully thought-out habitable structure. This subgenre's largest imagined construct (at tens of millions of light years across) is perhaps Bolder's Ring, found in Stephen Baxter's "Xeelee" novels.

Biopunk is a spinoff of the 'cyberpunk' subgenre, involving hackers (and oppressive government agencies) who manipulate human DNA -- their own and/or someone else's. One example is Paul Di Filippo's novel Ribofunk. Another is Andrew Niccol's film Gattaca.

Biorobotics involves the practical intersection of human physiology and mechanical prostheses or enhancements. Robert Sawyer's novel Wake depicts a blind girl offered sight by means of an external "eyepod" device that processes her retinal nerve signals.

Christian SF is just that, stories which features an explicitly Christian protagonist. Anthony Boucher's short story "The Quest for St. Aquin," and the novels of Kathy Tyers, are good examples. The protagonist of Timothy Zahn's novel Deadman Switch has profound Biblical knowledge and morality. (Such tales are common enough to have their own subgenre, yet they're unusual in the SF genre, especially compared to the English-speaking Christian population. The reasons are open to debate.)

Clerical subgenre tales involve an organized priesthood, such as a religious order, of any human or alien religion. Set on Earth, Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Leibowitz chronicles one sincere and long-lived (basically Roman Catholic) order. Frank Herbert's Bene Gesserit (in his "Dune" franchise) dominates human history, yet without profound expressions of individual faith.

Communalness is a specialized term and subgenre, involving a human future with relationships and communities 'boosted' into enhanced consciousness by cybernetic or other means. The namesake town in Frank Herbert's novel The Santaroga Barrier has achieved a kind of drug-induced unity. The disciples of V.M. Smith in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land achieve this (along with impressive powers) through learning to speak Martian.

Cosy Catastrophe is a type of postapocalyptic tale, usually set on Earth, in which an isolated group of survivors sets about rebuilding a new civilization according to their own particular ideas. (As with the 'cosy mystery' subgenre, unjust death has occurred, but the characters don't get too rattled about it.) The founding example is probably Mary Shelley's less-well-known novel The Last Man. Another is John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids, later filmed by Steve Sekely.

Cybernetic Revolt speaks for itself, and is one of SF's oldest and most common themes. Mechanical servants fail, or assert their rights, or go berserk, usually with tragic consequences. E.M. Forster's novella "The Machine Stops," written in 1909, depicts the former.

Cyberpunk is a term that's expanded well beyond the SF community and into popular culture. (It's also spawned a host of other "-punk" subgenres.) These tales are typically set on Earth, and involve a hacker immersed in a cyber-world, interacting (both on line and physically) with similar people. Often they're modified to 'jack' their brain directly into cyberspace. The founding tome is William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, and a popular followup is Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash. (It may be an unwritten law that all such tales must involve preening characters gathered in a flashy night club.)

Cyberspace as a subgenre is very similar to 'cyberpunk,' though broader in form and style. The term was coined by SF author William Gibson, and this subgenre involves characters interacting, not just on line, but fully immersed within a vast worldwide 'virtual reality' medium. Other such tales involve hackers who use more ordinary means of networking.

Cyborg fiction features thoroughly-integrated human/mechanical blend(s) as main characters. The classic example is Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg, brought to television as The Six Million Dollar Man. John Scalzi's novel Old Man's War and its sequels feature soldiers with nanotech blood and mixed DNA. (Caidin coined the word 'bionics,' now a legitimate scientific concept and commonly spelled 'bionic.')

Detective (robotic police, telepathic investigation, etc.)
In these stories, often set in the near future, technology aids both criminals and law enforcement.
Various short stories introduced robotic police. This was popularized by the eponymous (actually cyborg) character in Paul Verhoeven's film Robocop.
Alfred Bester's novel The Demolished Man depicts a deadly cat-and-mouse game between psychic police and criminals.

Dying Astronuat tales got a boost from the real-life events of the Apollo 13 mission, as depicted in the movie from Ron Howard. With the laws of physics precluding any possible (outside) rescue, these stories can range from tragic to poignant to heroic. In Alfred Bester's novel The Stars My Destination, a man abandoned on a derelict spaceship figures out a way to survive. In "Wonders of the Universe," a short story by German author Andreas Eschbach, a marooned woman dies gracefully on frozen Europa. Two excellent new examples, with happier endings, are the Alfonso Cuaron film Gravity; and Andrew Weir's novel The Martian, filmed by Ridley Scott.

Dying Earth SF tales show the death of the Earth as slower than from an apocalypse, and it can be due to any cause, including natural. A haunting vision of this appears in the far-future chapters of H.G. Well's novel The Time Machine. (Including a 'lost' chapter about a biologically decrepit humanity, originally serialized but not included in the novel and film versions.) Isaac Asimov's novel Pebble in the Sky is another example.

Dystopian (crowded world, gilded cage, jaded society, theocracy, etc.)
The opposite of Utopian, these horrid societies are all too easy to imagine. In most such tales, the protagonist seeks to better his-or-her own life, if not to liberate the entire society.
Cyril Kornbluth's novel The Marching Morons depicts a cityscape jammed with idiotic yet pampered workers.
Often this subgenre depicts inquisitive heroes breaking free of a bottled utopia, such as the sealed city in Douglas R. Mason's novel Eight Against Utopia. Another example is the spaceship Axiom in Disney/Pixar's movie Wall-E. (In both stories the need for protective confinement had, unknown to the characters, diminshed over time.)
A.E. Van Vogt's novel The Empire of Isher portrays a decadent and sybaritic world-ruling class.
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100 are novels that depict a puritanical (and rather hypocritical) religious ruling class.

Edisonade* is a subgenre that was named retroactively, and it dates back to the nineteenth century. As the name Edison suggests, they center upon the adventures of some brilliant young inventor. The numerous "Tom Swift" stories, by Victor Appleton, are the best-known examples.

Environmental subgenre tales focus on the ecosystem, usually but not always our Earth's. Often there is a direct threat, caused by humanity or some outside force. A recent example is Bell and Strieber's partly-fictional book The Coming Global Superstorm, filmed by Roland Emmerich as The Day After Tomorrow. (While this is a serious enough topic, the science in many of these tales is abysmal.)

Erotica refers, in this context, to a science fiction tale with a strong sexual element. Explicit sex might be at the center of the plot, or it plays a vivid role in the character's lives. Norman Spinrad's novel The Void Captain's Tale combines these and other SF elements.

Exotic Ecosystems {unusual life forms}
Alien worlds offer tremendous possibilities, yet much SF (in print and on screen) populates them with familiar humanoids. Robert Reed's novels, such as his The Remarkables, depict truly alien beings and environments; as does Ursula LeGuin's novella "The Word for World is Forest." (Which, along Poul Anderson's 1957 novella "Call Me Joe," inspired James Cameron's hit movie Avatar.)

Extraterrestrial Life is a huge subgenre, almost a descriptive category. In many of these tales, the very discovery of life beyond the Earth (or even "just" its signals or ancient artifacts) has a tremendous impact upon current society. Carl Sagan's novel and movie Contact are excellent examples. Jack McDevitt's novel The Hercules Text is another.

Firm Science is a specific definition, which can be applied to many subgenres. It refers to a midway point between 'hard' and 'soft' SF, and the inclusion of technology and phenomena that are not too fantastic, but may never be invented. (Such as faster-than-light travel, antigravity, and wormholes.)

First Encounters means between humans and intelligent aliens. This could be an alien arriving here, or a human astronaut reaching some inhabited world. There are hundreds of examples in print and film.

First Landings (Mars, other planets; return to Moon)
Originally this meant a journey to the Moon, the only 'obvious' world beyond ours. Jules Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon is not the earliest example (that honor goes to Lucian of Samosata, an ancient Roman author), but it's the best known.
There are numerous 'first to Mars' novels, such as Robert Zubrin's First Landing.
There are similar stories involving most of the known planets and nearby star systems.
After the short-lived Apollo program, this subgenre began to depict a hoped-for return to the moon. (In many cases, by determined private entrepreneurs who outrun a moribund NASA.)

Frontier (asteroid miners, rough colony, theme park)
Most of this subgenre's tales transplant the 'western' genre into outer space. A good example is Peter Hyam's film Outland, which is an homage to High Noon. There are hundreds of examples in print.
Similar to hardscrabble miners, crafty independent spacemen ply the asteroid belt in search of resources to send back to civilization. Alfred Bester's novel The Stars My Destination is one such novel. (In many of such stories they're threatened by an aggressive government or big corpration from Earth.)
New or cut-off colony planets, left to support themselves, are depicted with a frontier aspect. Joss Whedon's popular "Firefly/Serenity" franchise envisions such rough colonies.
In a few stories, the 'western' aspect is recreated as entertainment for tourists. Michael Crichton's film Westworld is one example.

Top of Page

Literary Fiction Genres

Mastering English