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Literary Fiction Genres

Science Fiction Subgenres

Fiction Genre Definitions


Science Fiction Subgenres


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

Science fiction stories often deal with challenges facing contemporary humanity. By placing these difficult problems at a great remove: in some alien culture, or in the distant past or future, it's much easier to examine them frankly. Other tales face current threats head-on, with an "if this goes on . . . " style.


Gay subgenre stories include male homosexuals. If not the protagonist, then a major character or two. This theme has become more common since the 1970s, but remains unusual. Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Ethan of Athos depicts a planet that's entirely male, and reproduces its population via artificial wombs. In recent times, several genre superheroes have 'come out' as gay. Another example is Lt. Cmdr. Ro Nevin, in the fan-produced series Star Trek: Odyssey.

Gedanken is German for 'thought' or 'idea,' and this subgenre's stories center around a striking concept, often instead of developing their characters or setting. Andrew Weir's popular novel The Martian (filmed by Ridley Scott) plunges directly into creative technological problem solving. Tom Godwin's short story "The Cold Equations" has obsessed readers for decades, with its inevitable sacrifice of an innocent human life. Several themed anthologies include this word in their title. Gordon Dickson's "Dorsai" novels feature distilled aspects of human nature, and thus, explore deep philosophical issues.

Generation Ship stories are set aboard that type of spacecraft. Often those ships are so large, and the voyage so long, that (most or all of) its inhabitants consider other worlds to be the stuff of legend. The subgenre was pioneered by J. D. Bernal, with his 1929 novel The World, The Flesh, & The Devil. A popular example is Robert Heinlein's novel Orphans of the Sky. Another is the original Star Trek episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky."

Gothic SF is an overlapping subgenre that slants toward the macabre, and deeply atmospheric settings, but not outright horror. ('Atmospheric' in a literary and cultural, not climatological, sense.) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often cited as the first such novel. Algis Budry's novel Rogue Moon sets a determined pair against a deadly lunar enigma. Arthur C. Clarke's short story "A Walk in the Dark" is another example.

Hard science fiction is a descriptive term. Stories in this broad subgenre depict technology that conforms to actual scientific knowledge and physical laws, or extentions of them that scientists consider plausible. Arguably, certain exceptions include favored 'tropes' such as antigravity and FTL travel. The works of A.C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov stand out among numerous examples. (One SF genre publication that maintains this 'hard' standard is Analog magazine.)

Hollow Earth tales are just that, set within a putatively hollow (or at least honeycombed) planet Earth. The flagship of this subgenre is Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Michael Flynn's novella "Where the Winds Are All Asleep" is a modern homage. A popular variant is the aquatic-cavern-filled planet Naboo in the "Star Wars" franchise.

Horrific SF is closely linked to the 'horror' genre, and while it's often bloody, science is crucial to each premise. In Sharman DiVono's novel Blood Moon, an entire lunar base goes slowly insane. Most examples of this subgenre are short stories, such as Michael Shea's "The Autopsy," Simon Ings's "The Wedding Party," and Terry Bisson's "Necronauts."

Hyperspace stories include that extra-dimensional realm as a setting. The pioneering classic of this subgenre is Edward Abbot's 1884 novel Flatland, a Romance of Many Dimensions, although our familiar third dimension is the "extra" one. Greg Egan's novel Diaspora includes rigorous, mind-stretching depictions of a fourth-spatial-axis realm. In some tales (often less rigorously), hyperspace allows the characters to travel rapidly between star systems (and/or time periods, etc.), or there might be human dwellings and/or aliens within that arcane realm. A good example is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its mysterious wormhole-dwelling 'prophet' aliens.

Immortality is a subgenre featuring humans or aliens with that vaunted attribute. (Characters who live effectively forever, or at least for millennia.) It might be humans with a rare mutation that's allowed them to survive since ancient times, or a future scientific development. Often these long-lived characters allow for vivid depictions of history. A fine example is Poul Anderson's novel The Boat of a Million Years.

Invisibility is the central attribute of these stories' main characters. Plato launched the subgenre with his allegorical tale of The Ring of Gyges. H.G. Wells made this scientific with his classic novel The Invisible Man. 'Cloaking devices' have now become very common in science fiction.

Kaiju or Tokusatsu is a Japanese subgenre, long popular in the rest of the world. These epics always feature one or more kaiju, meaning big powerful quirky monsters. A major example is the "Godzilla" franchise, and that creature's American counterpart King Kong.

Lesbian subgenre tales feature women with that orientation as main characters. These stories became popular in the 1970s, and are more common than gay male themes. Sherri S. Tepper's novel The Gate to Women's Country depicts a planet divided by gender. Nicola Griffith's novel Ammonite takes this two steps further, with a colony planet that's entirely female, and which doesn't refer to males even once.

Light or Humorous tales are exactly that. This laugh-out-loud subgenre includes John Sladek's novel Mechasm, Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide" novels, Rudy Rucker's novel Master of Space and Time, and many others.

Lost Worlds (mysterious islands)
This subgenre is one of the oldest SF varieties. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World, based upon South America's then-mysterious 'tepui' plateaus, lent its very name to this subgenre. Later novels 'discover' isolated valleys in central Asia or elsewhere. John Darnton's novel Neanderthal, which overlaps with 'adventure,' is one example.
Television's popular series Lost, from J.J. Abrams, expanded the tradition with its bizarre isolated island. (While not SF, the book and movie Life of Pi include a strange unknown island.)

Math is a tiny subgenre, similar to 'gedanken' and 'hyperspace' science fiction. These stories center around actual mathmatical concepts. Douglas Hofstadter's scholarly tome Godel, Escher, Bach uses short fictional stories as illustrations. Catherine Asaro's novella "The Spacetime Pool" features life-and-death math puzzles. Vandana Singh's short story "Infinities" is based upon math's most profound concepts.

Media tie-in (game-based, Star Trek novels, etc.)
This is a self-explanatory subgenre. Whether originally a book, a video game, or a screenplay, the novel versions build upon these tale's on-screen popularity. These stories must conform to strict rules, like not allowing the main characters to change very much, so that they'll continue to match the series' canon. (Often these books have a huge marketing budget, and they tend to dominate chain bookstore shelves.)

Microbiological SF stories feature tiny life-forms, whether Earthly or alien, as a dominating force. They might cause a disease, or act as a transforming agent, deliberately or not. Greg Bear's novel Blood Music is a good example. Janine Ellen Young's novel The Bridge is another.

Military is a huge subgenre, with its own specialized publications. Soldiers and warfare are central to these stories. Some are near-future, and depict humans fighting each other. Others span star systems and even whole galaxies, with vast ongoing conflicts with aliens. David Drake and Elizabeth Moon are masters of this field, while Joe Haldman's novel The Forever War will soon be filmed. David Feintuch's "Hope" novels essentially translate the 19th century's British Royal Navy into outer space. (Usually the humans and aliens are closely matched, lest it become a rather short Bambi-vs.-Godzilla type story.)

Mind Transfer is what takes place in this subgenre. A conscious mind is downloaded into a computer system, or shifted (or swapped) into another human brain. (Robert Heinlein's novel Time Enough for Love ends up with three separate minds within one female body.) Such a transfer might be permanent or temporary, and the process may allow for one or more copies to exist at once. The early Star Trek episode "Turnabout Intruder" is a famous example, and Paul Flaherty's film 18 Again! a lighthearted one. In David Brin's novel Kiln People, humans send out temporary/disposable 'golem' copies of themselves, to have specific experiences then return with those memories.

Multiverse stories feature multiple universes, often with differing versions of our familiar Earth. This subgenre assumes that some variant of the Multiverse/Landscape cosmological theory is true. There is always some way (whether secret or common) to travel between the universes, or at least to communicate. Michael Kube-McDowell's novel Alternaties is a fine example. The TV series Sliders was another.

Mundane SF is a descriptive category. It features near-future stories, without any improbable technologies, or interplanetary settings, at least beyond what known spacecraft can reach. (It's regarded as a controversial 'movement' within the SF community, and magazine issues and anthologies have begun to feature it, sometimes as a book title.)

Mythological stories depict aliens and/or humans using high-tech means to recreate mythological settings, and the seemingly magical powers of the ancient gods. For example, Dan Simmons' novel Ilium brings an idyllic Mount Olympus and the bloody Trojan War to Mars--sort of. In Roger Zelazney's classic novel Lord of Light, the main characters employ technology to cast themselves as deities from the mythology of India. An example from TV is the Star Trek original-series episode "Who Mourns for Adonais?" (Plus a recent web-based followup show, reprising the same actor as Apollo.)

New Wave SF was a movement and a literary style, beginning in England and spreading to the USA and beyond. Michael Moorcock launched the trend in 1964, and Harlan Ellison's two "Dangerous Visions" anthologies are now viewed as its high point. This subgenre rose and fell with western society's embrace of 1960s radicalism, and desire to 'shock the bourgeoisie.' (Echoes of the movement have affected SF, and literature in general, ever since.)

Nanopunk is a narrow subgenre, and one of cyberpunk's many offshoots. It explores to effects of advanced nanotechnology on humanity. Linda Nagata's novel Tech Heaven is the principal example, while Michael Crichton's novel Prey introduced the concept to the mainstream.

Occupational (accountants, drivers, plumbers, sales reps, etc.)
This subgenre encompasses a wide reach, and yet remains unusual. It features blue collar protagonists, on Earth or in recognizable circumstances, rather than hifalutin scientists or astronauts. The hero of John DeChancie's novel Starrigger is a truck driver. Piers Anthony's novel Hard Sell realistically depicts several workaday occupations. Most other examples are short stories.

Parallel Universe SF is quite similar to the 'multiverse' subgenre. What makes this subgenre distinct is that the other universe(s) can be very strange, with differing physical laws, etc. Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves is a classic example, with its utterly strange intelligent aliens. Greg Egan's novel The Clockwork Rocket (and its sequels) depict the strange physics of an alternate cosmos, with rigorous charts.

Pastoral or Small Town SF takes place in that sort of setting. (Most SF is urban, at least when taking place on Earth.) Clifford Simak's classic novel Way Station is set entirely in rural Wisconson, while the heroine of Kay Kenyon's novel Leap Point is a small-town lass.

Planes of Existence (altered consciousness)
This subgenre also resembles the 'multiverse' category. In this case, the other planes are often 'psychic' or 'spiritual' in nature, and are reachable by altering one's state of awareness. The novel India's Story, by Kathlyn S. Starbuck, depicts its young heroine India experiencing multiple states of consciousness via meditation, drugs, etc. Another example is Howard Hendrix's novel Standing Wave. (In most such tales, this goes beyond passive experience, into 'granting' the characters special powers.)

Planetary Romance is an operlapping subgenre that shades into the vast 'romance' genre. In this case, the love story is embedded in futuristic (or fantastical) technology, and the striving lovers can be separated by more than Earthly distances. Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" series features luscious Martian princesses, while Andrew M. Greeley's novel Final Planet does a good job of fusing these often disparate literary styles. Lee and Miller's "Liaden" series has a devoted following.

Post-apocalyptic stories are set well after some vast upheaval. Rather than showing the immediate aftermath, these tales depict a new society that has arisen from the ashes, usually here on Earth. Often the survivors remain leery of technology, as in Edgar Pangborn's classic novel Davy. (Its Holy Murcan Church maintains a ban on gunpowder, along with "anything else that might reasonably be construed to contain atoms.")

Postcyberpunk describes a narrow and indistinct subgenre. These stories break with the tropes (such as cynical young hackers in garish night clubs) that dominated the cyberpunk trend. Usually set on Earth, these stories make a conscious effort to be more positive. One example is Greg Bear's novel Queen of Angels.

Posthumanism is a subgenre tied to a philosophical type movement. (Going beyond the percieved limits of traditional Humanism, as expressed in fiction.) In practice it's very close to the 'transhumanism' subgenre, and is controversial even to define. Charles Stross's novel Accelerando is one example.

Progenitive SF is a small subgenre, which features humans and/or aliens who create science fiction of their own. One example is Vernor Vinge's novel Grimm's World, in which seagoing humans on another planet operate a respected science fiction magazine. "The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fiction Romance," by Eleanor Arnason, is a short SF story told by aliens. In the Star Trek: DS9 TV episode "Far Beyond the Stars," Sisko is shown as a 1940s SF author, imagining his future starfaring self.

Pulp SF is a purely descriptive category. The old SF magazines were one of many varieties of 'pulp fiction' literature, with a distinct style and format. Usually their cover art was garish, featuring brutish monsters, heroic spacemen, and scantily-clad women in distress. "Amazing Stories" was perhaps the subgenre's best-known publication. (This subgenre has been revived again and again over the decades, and in our current politically-correct times it has produced much controversy.)


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