Do you know all the shades of science fiction? And by ‘shades’ I mean sub genres. Knowing a little about science fiction sub genres can help you find that next awesome book or TV show. Unfortunately, everybody and their sister has their own interpretation, so your mileage may vary. Let’s look at some categories and the discussions around them.
Hard vs. soft science fiction
Hard science fiction tries to stay true to the current advances in the ‘hard’ sciences: biology, physics, chemistry, etc. Authors extrapolate the scientific advancement for their fictional worlds. Its counterpart is soft science fiction, which is more concerned with the ‘soft’ sciences like psychology, anthropology, and politics.
The distinction is often made differently, contrasting a story with a focus on ‘hard’ technology, logic and world-building with a ‘soft’ approach focusing on characters, their relationships, and interactions.
Of course, these distinctions are far from black and white. Take a series like the Expanse by James S. A. Corey. It extrapolates a lot of hard sciences for its setting, but then adds an alien ‘protomolecule’ that defies physics. The series also has sections about orbital trajectories, but also focuses on an ensemble cast of characters. So, hard or soft?
What’s worse, the hard-soft distinction is often used for gatekeeping. People try to keep female authors out of hard science fiction by filing their works under the ‘soft’ sciences that are ‘not really scientific at all’. Looking at the Expanse example, this is often more about perceived ideas about women than actual genre distinctions.
Others hold up hard science fiction as proof science fiction cannot be ‘literary’, because literary supposedly means a focus on character. If you then swap out the definition of literary to mean ‘superior’, science fiction automatically becomes ‘inferior’. It takes quite the logical contortionist act to pull off that logic leap, but I’ve seen it done.
So, your miles with hard and soft science fiction may vary, but if you like to explore hard scientific progress, here are some examples: The Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton, the Uplift books by David Brin, and the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal.
A famous subcategory of science fiction is the space opera. It’s the amalgam of the terms ‘space’ and ‘soap opera’. Soap operas are television shows with melodrama and sentimentality, but let’s not be negative: these shows are often popular for decades. Most science fiction readers have heard of the term, but the definition is somewhat complicated.
Space opera features dramatic events, exciting adventures, and warfare in space. You can see that that again includes the Expanse series. Stories that focus exclusively on the warfare part fall more under the military science fiction banner — but the two overlap. If there is barely any space travel, even if set in a distant future, it’s also not considered space opera.
Examples of the genre include the obvious elephants in the room: Star Wars and Star Trek. But also works like the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers, the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, and the Teixcalaan series by Arkady Martine.
Military science fiction
As I wrote above, when you lean into the warfare part of science fiction, you end up in the military science fiction corner. With fictional extrapolations of science come extrapolations of our military capabilities. Military fiction is the genre that follows the soldiers of the future into war.
A famous example of this genre is Starship Troopers, which is also exemplary of another aspect of this genre. On the one hand, the genre veers into fetishizing war and weapons, and interestingly, on the other, this genre often shows the dark results of this mindset. The Starship Troopers novel has been held up as an example of Heinlein’s more fascist views, while the movie’s director Paul Verhoeven tried to use it to deconstruct fascism and make the audience see the dark world it leads to.
Another example of the genre is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which explores future warfare, but also the ethics of extending life using technology. Leaning more into the military side, and less on the moral ambiguity is a work like Ruins of the Earth.
One of my favorite examples, though, is The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, which really goes where Starship Troopers falls short: it highlights the utter horror of futuristic war.
Let’s veer in another direction now: the space western. Space is — according to Star Trek — the final frontier. And it’s not hard to look at it like that other ‘frontier’: the wild west. I’m putting quotes on frontier, because of course, there were already humans on the other side of the frontier back in the wild west. The indigenous population of the American continent suffered enormously under the cowboys of the wild west.
Space westerns explore the same themes of a frontier in space, and the cowboy-like setting that can invoke. The TV show Firefly immediately springs to mind. A futuristic world where the main characters actually herd cows from planet to planet, have shootouts, and do train robberies.
Of course, there are other ways to do science fiction with the wild west. There was the not so brilliant Cowboys & Aliens movie, which pitted actual cowboys against space aliens. A better example might be Prey, featuring a native american woman fighting the Predator. Although one can argue that this kind of work is ‘alternate history’, or ‘second world’, or something completely different.
Finally, I wanted to give the example of the movie Wild Wild West, which was arguably pretty terrible, but it does lead nicely into the next subgenre.
Steampunk is a very different part of the science fiction landscape. It is ‘retro futuristic’, using science fiction advances but also hailing back to early-industrial times. So, basically, steam-powered ideas seasoned with science fiction. Which is why I named Wild Wild West before. It features things like a giant steam-powered mechanical spider armed with dynamite-powered cannons.
Staples of Steampunk are science fiction versions of zeppelins, steam-powered trains, and clock-work robots. Authors often go all-out on the early-industrial feel.
If you’ve ever read Perdido street station by China Miéville, you know about the going all-out. The world of that book and its successors is awe-inspiringly weird. Closer to home is the comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore — and no, please ignore the dreadful movie.
Dystopian science fiction
Science fiction isn’t all space ships, wild frontiers, and steam engines. If you follow the course of progress, you might well end up imagining the end of our own world. Dystopian science fiction explores futures where an apocalypse happened on Earth, or at least we enter a new dark age.
The juggernaut of dystopian science fiction is probably 1984 by George Orwell. It’s referenced all over the place, often by people who’ve never actually read it. 1984 paints a future where the world is divided into a few warring dictatorships. In the dictatorship of Big Brother, where the protagonist lives, the ministry of Truth spends its days rewriting facts to conform to the new truth of the day.
Other dark examples of dystopias are Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Both of which are frighteningly close to places we are heading right now. That the republican party in the US seema to be using the Handmaid’s Tale as guide book is profoundly disturbing.
But there’s more. The Hunger Games is about a future where most of the world has been destroyed, and the survivors force the children of oppressed city states to fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses. And Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz shows a world destroyed by nuclear fire, which crawls back out of the ashes, only to fall back down again.
All, in all, the genre doesn’t show the brightest futures.
Cyberpunk is a relative of dystopian science fiction, showing a dystopian future with some very specific tropes. The stories are usually set in high-technology near-future worlds, but with a dystopian view of the life of regular people. Corporations often rule the world, with technology as the tool to dismantle democracies. Scientific advances are used to increase the inequality between the poor masses and the elite.
Movies like Blade Runner have cemented the neon-and-noir esthetic we’ve come to associate with cyberpunk, although the genre really became defined around the release of the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, which was a few years after Bladerunner.
But the genre is broader, also covering dystopian settings like that of Judge Dredd. If you look at that world, it has the trudging masses living in mega cities, with Dredd the only one to bring justice. It steps away from the neon-and-noir, but keeps the punk.
Science fiction horror
Veering away from the dystopian to the frightening, you come the science fiction horror genre. This — not surprisingly — is the overlap of the horror and science fiction genres.
In the movie sphere we can’t really go around Alien and it’s successors, but we shouldn’t forget classics like The Fly either. Science fiction is often fertile ground for horror, because extrapolating technology opens a pandora’s box of horrible things writers can play with.
On the book side, there are stories like Hyperion by Dan Simmons, but also recent works like the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir. I do feel I should mention Dan Simmons has ventured far into the right-wing corner since then, meaning some disconcerting prejudices have slipped into his books, such as the book Olympos exploring how Muslims brought about the apocalypse.
Anyway, there are as many types of science fiction horror as there are types of horror: from serial killers in space to demonic entities trying to enter our world, to scifi vampires and zombies. So if horror and science fiction are your thing, science fiction horror might be too.
I’ve covered some of the genres most familiar to me, but there are more. Genres are very fluid, you can differentiate into smaller and smaller subgenres, and still many stories will not fit neatly into one or the other. But that’s half the fun.
Genres form a starting point, but are not the destination. They help readers find things they like, and introduce them to different things. However, they are not fences to keep people out of certain parts of the genre.
Hopefully this post has helped you make some sense of the different flavors of science fiction. Have fun reading and watching.