Types of Science Fiction: An Overview of the Literary Genre

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From 1818 with the publishing of the first modern science fiction novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, science fiction (SF) as a literary genre has blossomed and captured the imagination of readers. SF flourished during the 50’s to 70’s, branching into various sub-genres. In the 2010’s, approaching the 2020’s, SF has seen as boost in reader and writer interest once again.

As we step into a new era of science fiction, let’s have a look at the established sub-genres and those starting to develop in their own niches.

The Sub-Genres

I will not name all the sub-genres as there are many, and several overlap with those I’ll be looking into as well. In this list, you may find you know many of these sub-genres and discover new ones to escape into. I will also include examples of literary works in each sub-genre as reading recommendations to test the waters with, so to speak.

Cyberpunk

Perhaps one of the favoured of science fiction sub-genres, cyberpunk stays strong in various works of literature such as in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. This sub-genre shows alternative means of human development and evolution using technology to achieve a higher standard of life and living. From cybernetic implants to virtual realities and futuristic technologies, such as robots and androids along with sophisticated artificial intelligence, cyberpunk caters to the uptopian and dystopian possibilities of advancing technology.

Biopunk

From genetic engineering to organic technologies, biopunk appeals to the natural in advancing technology and the improvement of life and lifestyle. Biopunk can be considered the opposite of cyberpunk in the matter of artificial versus natural, though the means to achieve both technologies are acquired through human (or sentient) intervention. Technically, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is a work of biopunk, focusing on the element of biological manipulation as the science element. Neuromancer by William Gibson, while cyberpunk, has elements of biopunk and the sub-genre’s influences stemmed from this novel.

Space Opera

Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction popularly known by the Star Wars franchise created by George Lucas and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. This sub-genre is iconic for voyages through space and the adventures that follow, often between landing on planets or space stations. The stories of the space opera sub-genre tend to be large and as vast as space itself. Drama is also a key element in the stories of space opera, sometimes leading to chivalry between characters. Notably, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series employs space opera to a major extent, with several other science fiction sub-genres blended into the books.

Hard SF

In hard science fiction, the sub-genre places focus and importance on the plausibility of the natural sciences within the story, to an extent where most — if not all — of the science is plausible. Works such as The Martian by Andy Weir and The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton showcase plausible science within complete stories. While a small niche enjoyed by few readers, the sub-genre of hard science fiction yet thrives, marking a return to interest in the 21st century, which arose during the 60’s and 70’s as an established type of science fiction.

Social SF

Also called soft science fiction, social SF places focus on the social sciences rather than the natural sciences. Works in the social science fiction sub-genre analyse and critique issues and matters within society from various points of view of subjects in the social sciences. Novels such as 1984 by George Orwell and the Earthseed series by Octavia E. Butler take a look at the implications of social discourse. This sub-genre flourished in the 60’s and 70’s as well, alongside hard SF, and is marking a return within young-adult dystopian science fiction.

Post- or Neo-Apocalyptic

The settings that mark apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic science fiction involve great catastrophes that affect most or all of the world, often showing the collapse of modern civilisation and a fight for survival. This sub-genre is icon with works such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke where the destruction of the world is imminent. Whether due to social matters of from natural science influence, post- and neo-apocalyptic works display the end of the world as it is known, in a utopian or dystopian manner.

Steampunk

While often shown in fantasy works, steampunk is very much a type of science fiction where the world follows an alternate timeline to use steam-powered or analogue technology instead of electricity as the main form of technology. Another sub-genre of science fiction was born from steampunk and is known as dieselpunk — using diesel-fueled technology instead of steam. Known through works such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series by Alan Moore as well as The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, steampunk brings a 19th Century Victorian atmosphere to the setting.

Military SF

Works of military science fiction showcase military rank, rule, and structure as the prime setting for adventures within the plot. Works such as Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein show how civilisation has turned to military leadership above other forms of government. On the other side of the political spectrum, The War of the Worlds by H.G Wells focuses on the military — under civilian government — and their efforts. Military science fiction explores present day warfare or futuristic battles as key elements to the story.

Dystopian

Mostly used as a setting in science fiction, dystopian fiction is also a sub-genre of its own. In contemporary science fiction, dystopian SF is popular within young-adult fiction and often blends with social science fiction to show a speculative future that criticises current social matters. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and The Maze Runner by James Dashner are works of literature that combine the natural sciences with social sciences to show a dystopian future marking this sub-genre.

Emerging Sub-Genres

As technology evolves and advances, bringing both fascinating and terrifying concepts, new sub-genres of science fiction rise with it to speculate and critique on the future or alternative present of these technologies. Blockchain technology, while being around for approximately a decade already, is only recently beginning to surface within works of fiction.

Sub-genres of blockchain SF include Steempunk — where the focus of science lies in the Steem blockchain, such as with the Hard Fork Series produced through the literature and efforts of users on the Steem blockchain. A new form of cryptopunk is another emerging sub-genre that focuses on cryptocurrency and the blockchain and its consequences as with (ID)entity by P.J Manney.


What sub-genres do you enjoy and what about them appeals to you? Perhaps a fascination with evolution and genetics, or the fantasy that appears to live in advancing technology? I’d love to know, along with any recommendations for books and stories on your favourite science fiction.