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Literary Fiction Genres

Science Fiction Subgenres

Fiction Genre Definitions


Science Fiction Subgenres


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

Science fiction has many traditions, and 'tropes,' which become familiar to avid readers. Time travel, rapid shapeshifting, and faster-than-light spacecraft may well prove impossible, however for now, the genre widely assumes they will happen. The better stories don't usually depend upon such gee-whiz concepts, but develop the characters in depth, as done in literary fiction.


Recursive SF is comprised of stories that include direct references to the SF genre, and/or SF authors. A mind-bending example is the novel Venus on the Half Shell, "written" by Kilgore Trout, a pseudonym of Philip Jose Farmer. Trout is actually a fictional SF writer created by author Kurt Vonnegut. The protagonist makes frequent mention of his own favorite writer, a galactically-famous SF author. (Venus's first edition does not mention Farmer at all!) Another example is HG Stratmann's short story "Wilderness Were Paradise Enow," which mentions plenty of SF-genre trivia.

Religious (alien faiths, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, etc.)
These stories involve characters with a distinct religion, which gives meaning and motivation to their lives, although this isn't always explored in much depth. ('Christian' tales are common enough for a separate category.)
Kay Kenyon's well-thought-out novel The Braided World describes a strange alien priesthood (and biology), which the human visitors must struggle to understand.
Islamic tales center upon characters, and/or entire societies, of that faith. Donald Moffitt's novel A Gathering of Stars features an interstellar Muslim civilization, while in Nancy Kress's novel An Alien Light the derivation is more subtle. Ahmed Khan's recent anthology A Mosque Among the Stars has a fine variety of stories.
Jewish SF features characters of that faith. WR Yates's novel Diasporah is set in a huge orbital colony which has replaced a destroyed Israel.
Hindu tales center on that faith, but remain quite rare. (India itself has a growing native-languages SF market, however very little has been translated into English.)
A few subgenre stories focus on other human faiths, whether current, in the future, or via time travel.

Restored Eden tales are set in the mid-to-far future, here on Earth. In this subgenre most of humanity has gone on to other worlds, and the Earth has healed (all or in part, and naturally or with subtle help) into a renewed paradise. Arthur C. Clarke's novel Against the Fall of Night decribes the technological redoubt of Diaspar and the natural haven of Lys. Clifford Simak's novel City populates the wildlands of a future Earth with speaking dogs and intelligent ants.

Retro-futurism is a subgenre that celebrates the 'pulp' SF stories of the past. Most of these depictions are in comic books, and revive the garish cover art and 'fifties' style of the past.

Robot SF tales are self-explanatory. In a sense, the concept of robots predates SF itself. The ancient Greeks told of the smith Hephaestus and his bronze guardian Talos, and the Chinese of Yan Shi's clever artificial man. Isaac Asimov's many "Robot" stories are a preeminent modern example. One of the earliest novels is Adam Link, by Eando Binder.

Science Fantasy is an overlapping subgenre, comprised of stories that meld the SF and Fantasy genres, and tilt toward SF because they feature advanced technology such as spacecraft. Many of the works of Andre Norton, and Anne McCaffrey's "Pern" franchise, fit this subgenre.

Science Tales are intended for children. They depict common futuristic activities such as space travel, but without so much scientific rigor. A famous literary example is the book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Some of the "TinTin" graphic novels, by Herge, fit this category.

Scientific Romance* is an old description, primarily British, that predates the wide use of the term Science Fiction. It has seen occasional revivals, making it a subgenre.

Shapeshifting tales are a staple of speculative fiction. As an SF subgenre, this ability is explained in scientific terms. It varies from gradual cellular alteration to a near-instantaneous ability to change size and form. John Campbell's 1938 short story "Who Goes There," filmed several times as The Thing, is a stellar example. (Many such tales ignore the issue of mass. The creature becomes an elephant, then a mouse, so how much does the mouse weigh?)

Shrinking/Enlarging Humans (endless, episodic, giantess)
This subgenre is self-descriptive, and has a long tradition, merging back into mythology.
In the short story "He Who Shrank," by Henry Hesse, the protagonist keeps right on shrinking, visiting a succession of 'atom-as-galaxy' worlds.
Lewis Carroll's novel Alice in Wonderland depicts Alice growing and shrinking in a mysterious fashion.
Giantess stories are epitomized by the film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, from Nathan Juran. (They often feature a sexual element, though in that film the woman's clothes grew along with her.)

Social SF is a wide subgenre, which combines anthropology with futuristic themes. Its focus is on the social aspects of a distant society, rather than fancy technology. Isaac Asimov's short story "Nightfall" is a classic example.

Soft SF is cast as the literary opposite of 'hard' SF. More precisely, it focuses on the future development of the 'soft' sciences (the humanities), rather than gadgetry. Ursula LeGuin's "Hainish" novels are good examples. Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" novels feature a predictive social science called Psychohistory.

Space Opera (noir)
This is a huge descriptive category. The subgenre features swashbuckling action, set in a vast panorama. There are countless examples, and almost all of the most popular SF novels and films, such as Star Wars, are usually included. Often they have elements resembling 'fantasy,' which are assumed to be technological, but there's no explanation provided.
Noir tales are an homage to darker-toned tales of the past, such as Raymond Chandler's distinctive style. Ron Goulart's SF novels do this well.

Sports SF is a tiny subgenre, represented mostly (if not exclusively) in short stories. In a few stories, an alien visitor shows a love for baseball. Most of the others depict the impact of modern science, and genetic engineering in particular, on professional sports. Analog magazine has run several of these in recent years. (Jack Haldeman, brother of the better-known Joe, has written numerous short stories in this subgenre.)

Spunky Heroine tales feature one as their protagonist, to the point they're usually referrred to "by" her, more than by their plot or premise. David Palmer's novel Emergence, featuring young Candy Smith-Foster, is a great example, as is its long-awaited sequel Tracking. Another is Alexei Panshin's novel Rite of Passage, with the adventures of young Mia Havero; plus Reefsong by Carol Severance, with its transformed Angie Dinsman.

SpyFi is a descriptive category that brings espionage into the future, with clever high-tech duels. Often the technological gadgets are "way over the top," in a spoofish fashion. The Daniel Mann film Our Man Flint is a fine example. (By some definitions the 'fi' means general fiction, and this category is defined more broadly.)

Steampunk (clockpunk, gaslamp or gaslight, weird west)
This is a rapidly-growing subgenre. Such tales are usually set in the Victorian era, and presume that its characters have developed a form of high-tech at that time. (Some of these tales include a sort of restrained magic.) The novel Anti-Ice, by Stephen Baxter, includes a newly-discovered heat source much more potent than coal.
Gaslight stories are defined a little more narrowly. Ron Miller's anthology Astronauts By Gaslight has five stories which actually date from the Victorian era.
Weird West tales are set in the frontier USA, and many feature real-life pioneers and inventors. Michael Piller's short-lived TV show Legend starred John de Lancie as Nikola Tesla.
(The Steampunk subgenre has spawned an entire artistic and cultural movement, with functional custumes and more.)

Sword and Planet SF brings a medieval aspect to interstellar space. Poul Anderson's "English Empire" novels literally transport English knights into rulership of alien worlds.

Synthetic Biology stories feature artificial life forms. It's a small subgenre, and its protagonists are often biologists who crack the secret of creating life. Linda Nagata's novel Limit of Vision depicts a created-then-evolving new lifeform called
LOVs.

Terraforming SF centers around vast projects, with the characters busy altering whole planets (such as Mars) to make them more earthlike and habitable. Kim Stanley Robinson's epic "Mars" series is a good example. (The term itself was coined by SF author Jack Williamson, back in the 1940s.)

Time Travel (timepunk)
This is a vast subgenre, whether or not its protagonist travels in space as well. In these stories, this capability is possible, and is put to use by the characters -- in secret or in public, easily or with great difficulty, and rarely or often. The effects of such temporal ventures vary in each portrayal. (With paradoxes, new timelines, historical immutability, etc.)
Poul Anderson's novel The Time Patrol is a prestigeous example. Neal Asher's Cowl and Paul Levinson's The Plot to Save Socrates are novels which depict the extreme complexities implicit in time travel.
As a spinoff of cyberpunk, timepunk is more outrageous.

Transhumanism is the philosophy which embues this subgenre. It depicts the possible transformations that humans beings may experience in the future, from helpful improvements to total alterations. Bruce Sterlings's "Mechanist and Shaper" novels are a pioneering example.

Undersea SF takes place in such an environment, usually here on Earth. For this subgenre, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a cornerstone. Several of Arthur C. Clarke's early novels fit this category.

Utopian (19th century visions*, ideological, New Age, etc.)
This thought-provoking subgenre got its name from Thomas More's 1516 novel Utopia, though by modern standards that eponymous country has plenty of drawbacks, such as penal slavery. Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward is imaginative--and eerily prescient.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 novel Herland is a feminist classic, and depicts a remote, ideal society comprised entirely of women. In Ernest Callenbach's novel Ecotopia, the west coast has become in independant 'Green' paradise.
Thea Alexander's novel 2150 AD is a classic in New Age circles.
(There are many other utopian novels in print, though for debatable reasons, modern SF is often more cynical and jaded.)

Voyages Extraordinaires* was a descriptive attached to the groundbreaking novels of Jules Verne, and then to several of his imitators (also French).

Wetware Computer SF is a narrow subgenre, featuring 'wetware' (living biological) technology, as opposed to 'hardware computer' devices. These stories depict the invention and/or the actions of an artifical thinking brain.

World-building stories are exhaustively researched, and feature unusual planets as a setting. Usually exotic aliens have evolved there, and humans can visit only with difficulty, if at all. Hal Clement's novel Mission of Gravity, and Robert Forward's novels Rocheworld and Dragon's Egg are extreme examples. Jack Vance's novel Big Planet is set on exactly that, though most unusually, without a huge amount of mass-thus-gravity.

World Government SF features a world (usually Earth) ruled by a unified government. In many stories it's a monarchy, and often a corrupt one; however there is plenty of variety. Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers depicts a federation governed by military veterans. (It bears little resemblance to the movie version!) In the "Star Trek" franchise, contact with aliens prompts humanity to unite at long last.

Xenofiction is a subgenre that features cultures extremely different from our familiar ones. For example, Iain M. Bank's novel Excession features huge sentient spaceships. Ian McDonald's novel The Broken Land has disembodied human heads (supported by an advanced if undescribed technology) acting as willful characters. The Star Trek canon's Borg are another popular example.


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