Science Fiction and its Subgenres: A World of Possibilities

AuthorPicIanKaneI was thrilled when Assent Publishing asked me, Ian Kane, science fiction author for Farther Books, to write their welcome blog. Science fiction has come a long way since it was originally conceived. Science fiction, which is founded in science, now encompasses many subgenres. The narrative can take place in the future or in other time periods and usually involves some sort of looming calamity or catastrophic event that is either caused or thwarted by the use of scientific fields or advanced technologies. The term sci-fi was popular in the ’50s, though SF began to gain usage in the late twentieth century.

Many science fiction stories cross over into other mainstream genres, such as romance, scifiromancefantasy, horror, even western. Subgenres sprout up and occasionally contain the unusual ingredients that necessitate the birth of a new cult classification. So, with such a broad spectrum of possibilities, what is Assent Publishing looking for in science fiction submissions? Creating a list of all of the subgenres would be impractical so I will cover the most viewed and read ones.

Civilization as we know it is about to end! In this subgenre a disaster is happening or is about to happen as the story is being told and the impending catastrophe that is approaching must be avoided somehow, usually through the use of science or technology. Apocalyptic events can include nuclear wars, global viral epidemics, and sudden catastrophic natural disasters or climactic shifts. This type of plot favors a fast pace as the event is either unfolding or is about to. Examples are Max Brook’s World War Z, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.

Alien Invasion / First Contact
silhoetteThese two elements are usually intertwined. They involve the discovery that humans are not alone in the universe and contact with aliens has occurred either on Earth, in space, a distant planet, or even an alternate or parallel dimension. These encounters can range from benign to a horrific full-scale alien invasion and alien abduction. Government cover-ups and conspiracies may also play a role in these narratives. Examples are H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, Carl Sagan’s Contact.

A more recent subgenre of science fiction, Cyberpunk centers around gritty, futuristic universes with apathetic overtones and a heavy dose of high-tech. Mysterious megacorporations, virtual realities, hacking, androids, cybernetic implants, and omniscient artificial intelligences may all be found in these tales. Settings usually describe a reality where advancements in technology have not been accompanied by similar improvements in the quality of life. Examples are William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

The opposite of a beautiful and harmonious utopian society, dystopian science fiction is characterized by a highly oppressive police state, which instills fear in the populace to enforce conformity. Corporate state fascism runs amok. Human greed is at an all-time high, while human rights and individuality have greatly diminished or have vanished altogether. The nail that stands up gets hammered down. Examples are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

Science and technology, described with accurate detail, are prominent in hard science fiction. History has revealed some of these hypothetical outcomes to be surprisingly accurate, and many not so true. The real protagonist is science, with much less emphasis given to the characters. Examples are Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

This subgenre combines the realms of science fiction and horror. Many of these tales are scifihorrorfilled with a sense of isolation and being cut off from the rest of society and safety. Supplies such as food, weapons and ammunition, and other resources are frequently scarce, and the characters are usually facing insurmountable odds. The plot usually revolves around fighting off alien life forms, genetically engineered entities, or other superhuman characters. Examples are Alan Dean Foster’s Alien, Michael Crichton’s Prey.

Military science fiction is where futuristic combat and advanced militaristic technologies play center stage. Duty, honor, and sacrifice are on display. Combat can take place in any number of futuristic battlefields such as alien worlds in far-away galaxies. The scale is usually larger than that of other subgenres, and it features different types of high-tech adversaries, including genetically altered super-soldiers, alien warriors, and power-suit-wearing infantry. Examples are Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

A catastrophic event of some kind has taken place resulting in a sharp decline of the human race, and small groups of survivors struggle in the aftermath. These worlds are characterized by a bleak outlook and the grim possibility of an early death due to starvation, disease, radiation, and other horrors such as roving bandits, mutants, or zombies. Examples are Stephen King’s The Stand, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

Character development and interaction play a stronger role in this brand of science fiction. The intricacies of technology take a back seat to the deeper implications of its effect on society overall. Sociological and psychological questions are pondered and investigated in great detail, and the plots are largely character-driven. Examples are Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, William F. Nolan’s Logan’s Run.

Space Opera
SciFieThese sweeping epic sagas are large in scale and feature interplanetary travel on star ships. Conflicts between various factions can range in scale from a couple of planets to full-scale colliding galactic empires. Space opera is usually serialized with large numbers of characters that share a narrative. Fantastical science and technology is rarely explained in-depth, but used more as a means to an end. Popular themes in this subgenre include colonialism, exploration, human-alien interaction, rebellion, strategy, and heroism. Examples are Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Time Travel
When are we? In this type of science fiction, characters can travel either forward or backward in time—sometimes back and forth—usually by some form of technology, either built or discovered. Alternate histories and universes frequently arise. Examples are H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

My personal favorite subgenre? It’s kind of a blend and could range from Dystopian to Apocalyptic, with a heavy dash of good old duty, honor, and sacrifice, and a healthy sprinkling of monstrous entities added to the mix. My new series Fading Empires just launched, with Rising Storm still hot off the press. Established empires are fading and altered realities embrace a sinister future. Fading Empires is a time and place where unlikely heroes, scheming villains, monstrous entities, and ruthless super-gangs clash for dominance. Fasten your seatbelt!

Ian Kane

Author of Rising Storm: Fading Empires Volume I


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