Anyone can write
a book - but it takes something special to create
Lee Masterson's step-by-step guide can show you
Science Fiction Sub-Genres
by Lee Masterson
"By 'scientifiction' I mean the
Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story
-- a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact
and prophetic vision."
-- Hugo Gernsback, in "Amazing Stories" (April
In recent times, science fiction has evolved from the
'pulp-futuristic' tale, into a whole unique genre. The
broad term 'science fiction' covers only the trunk of the
tree, but there are many, many branches, called
sub-genres, that also fall into this classification.
Let's look at some of the qualities each sub-genre
creatures from outer space or other planets. Possibly the
first novel about aliens visiting Earth was
"Micromegas", by Voltaire (1750), in which two
giants from other worlds come to Earth to humble our
primitive mental capacities. However, it was in 1898,
when H.G Wells published the wildly popular "War of
the Worlds" that this sub-genre seriously came into
REALITY: Stories telling about life if history might
have happened differently. Edmund Lawrence may have
invented the modern form of this genre in 1899 with his
novel "It May Happen Yet", where Napoleon
invaded Great Britain.
HUMANITY: Animals who speak, think or act human. Some
of these stories are written to show humans as bad by
comparison to the lives of the animals in the tale.
Others are designed to make a political or social
statement. Whatever the reason, most such animal stories
are written to make the reader willingly suspend belief
and begin to view them as being human. The most notable
'alternate humanity' story that springs to mind George
Orwell's classic "Animal Farm", followed
closely by perhaps "Watership Down",
"Charlotte's Web" and "Babe",
BESTIARY: Worlds populated
with unicorns or cat-people or sentient frill-necked
lizards. A kind of 2-dimensional alien, created by
authors wanting their 'aliens' to seem more human. Anne
McCaffrey is noted for creating dubious 'evolved
animals', such as her "Acorna - Unicorn Girl"
series, or her Cat-People from the Doona novels.
Stories of genetic engineering, usually
filled with the moral and ethical ramifications of people
"playing god" and creating people. The most
popular rumor to arise from this form of fiction is that
cloned people cannot have souls as they were not created
"in God's way". Gives authors plenty of room to
ponder the good vs. evil plotlines, featuring cloned
people as the bad guys.
PUNK: High technology in
the not-so-distant future, featuring a bleak grim outlook
and setting, displaying humanity destroying itself with
its own advances. The word "cyberpunk" was
coined by Bruce Bethke, and made wildly popular by
William Gibson, who coined the term
"cyberspace" and popularized it in
"Neuromancer" (1984). Encompasses
nanotechnology, cyborgs, androids and/or virtual reality.
Cyberpunk is a warning as to what could possibly go wrong
if technology falls into the wrong hands.
Glimpses into the possibility of really bad
futures (opposite of "Utopia"). These tales are
designed to make the reader ask the bleak question
"Is life worth living if this is where humanity is
going?". Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"
(1932) is a tale of classic dystopia with an emphasis on
brainwashing, censorship and destruction of the family
unit. George Orwell's "1984" coined the term
"Big Brother" in his bleak, dystopian view of a
future gone mad.
SF: Science fiction
stories containing a strong element of erotica.
PERCEPTION: Tales featuring characters with telepathic
abilities, psi powers, or other powers of the mind.
Julian May's excellent "Saga of the Exiles"
immediately comes to mind here.
Features abilities like:
Telepathy - reading minds
Telempathy (reading emotions),
Psychokinesis (PK for short), telekinesis
or "mind-over-matter" - the ability to move
inanimates object using the power of the mind alone
Teleportation - the ability to move oneself from
place to place - kind of like a psionic "beam me up,
Psychocreativity - the ability to pull elements
from the atmosphere surrounding the empowered person and
create a new object or item from them
Levitation - the ability to fly (or become
airborne) using the power of the mind alone.
Coercion - Julian May used the term 'Coercion'
for the power to make other people comply with another
Healing (Redacting) - Again, Julian May used the
term "Redacting" to describe her mind-healers,
people with the ability to heal - physically or mentally
- with the power of the mind.
Divination - the ability to find hidden
resources or objects
Precognition - the hypothetical ability to sense
future events before they occur.
Clairvoyance or Scrying - the talent
for seeing things not actually before your eyes. Psychometry
- the ability to hold an object and 'feel' who or what
has touched it previously
Bilocation - the ability to be in two places at
the same time.
Pyrokinesis - the capability to start fires by
mental action alone (Stephen King's
Apportation - the subset of teleportation
mentally bringing an object to the empowered person.
THAN LIGHT: Since Albert Einstein's Theory of Special
Relativity, and until the 1990s, it was the scientific
consensus that matter could never travel faster than
"C" -- the speed of light in a vacuum. Because
of the impossible distances involved in interplanetary
travel, Science Fiction writers evolved the idea of FTL
(faster than light) travel to make plotlines easier to
FRONTIER: Stories of people
conquering new frontiers, leaving our world to colonize a
preferable one. Usually told with a "Grass is
greener" aspect, only to learn that the same (if not
worse) problems face them in the new colony.
HABITAT: Tales of people
living in Habitation Domes, to avoid the hostile
surrounding environment (either atmospheric or aquatic),
or in Generation Ships.
SCIENCE FICTION: Stories based on real science &
engineering. The real test of whether a story is 'hard'
sci-fi or not is this: remove the technological factor or
the science from the plotline. If the plot caanot
maintain its integrity without it, then the story is
'hard' sci-fi. If the story remains intact, then it is
more likely soft sci-fi. Must contain the inclusion of at
least one of the "Hard Sciences" such as
Astronomy, Physics, and Chemistry, sciences ruled by
mathematics and stringent rules.
IMMORTALITY: The quest for
immortality is ages old. Writers tell stories of people
seeking their own forms of immortality, to what lengths
people will go to find it and how low they're willing to
stoop to get it.
INVISIBILITY: Obviously, tales
about people who can't be seen by others!
WORLDS: Stories about the discoveries of lost
civilizations, lost worlds or lost cultures. Anne
McCaffrey took a shot at this sub-genre, too, with her
dismal "Dinosaur Planet".
SF: Everyone joined the SpaceCorps to fight to
save the universe from the nasty, vicious aliens. (Robert
Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" gave us a grim,
overly patriotic view of precisely this plot). Or worse,
one of the multitude of "Private
Eye-in-the-future" stories where all the cops have
memory chips implanted, at least one mechanical appendage
and talk like bad versions of Joe Friday.
WORLDS: Totally fictional worlds/universes feature
in these stories. Frank Herbert's classic "Dune"
featured perhaps the most popular 'other world' in
science fiction history. Anne McCaffrey also created a
hugely popular fictional world, "Pern",
populated by telepathic dragons.
UNIVERSES/WORLDS: Often part of the 'alternate
reality' sub-set, this genre looks at events occuring in
our world being run on a parallel with an alternate,
What happens to humanity AFTER the world
blows-up? Usually tells the story of humanity's struggle
to survive after some form of devastation. This sub-genre
grew immensely popular in the late '70's and '80's. Think
"Mad Max" films and you have the sub-genre in a
nutshell. Patrick Tilley's sprawling six-book series
"Amtrak Wars" tells the tale of the
'lucky' survivors and the 'unlucky' survivors - and what
happens when they meet. Although most books of this
sub-genre focused on the aftermath of a holocaust,
Stephen King decided to wipe out humanity in a different,
uniquely 'King' way. He introduced his fictional world to
a deadly flu-virus in his post-apocalyptic tale "The
Stand" (1978), and then proceeded to tell how
the survivors - well, survived!
SF (Theology): Futuristic stories containing an
overtly religious overtone or message. The book that
comes to mind is John Wyndham's classic "The
Chrysalids" (1955). The main characters in this
story are ruled by their religious beliefs - and are also
castigated by the very same belief system.
SCI-FI: Stories founded on or based upon the
'softer sciences' - e.g. fuzzy subjective fields such as
Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Social Structures,
Religious, Biological, Cultural
OPERA: Tales of huge battles between good and evil,
taking place on or around planets and stars. Almost a
futuristic version of the old Western Horse Opera. Okay
to use heaps of non-explained technology as long as
there's some form of human element and good overcoming
TRAVEL: People traveling through space - for
HUMANS: Stories containing a race of
"Super-people" among us! People with
super-powers, super-human strengths or abilities, perhaps
even bio-engineered to be superior.
THEOLOGY: Science Fiction or
Fantasy about Religion (See Religious SF)
TRAVEL: Any tale featuring time machines or travel
to the past or the future.
SEA: Undersea cities, Underwater living. Jules
Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"
pioneered this sub-genre.
UTOPIA: Fictional and
Nonfictional glimpses of an ideal future
Copyright Lee Masterson. All rights reserved