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How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy


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 1926)

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 usually contains:

ALIENS: Other-worldly 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 its own.

ALTERNATE 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.

ALTERNATE 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.

CLONES: 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.

CYBER 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.

DYSTOPIA: 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.

EROTIC SF: Science fiction stories containing a strong element of erotica.

EXTRA-SENSORY 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, Scotty".
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 person's will.
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 "Firestarter").
Apportation - the subset of teleportation mentally bringing an object to the empowered person.

FASTER 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 work with.

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.

HARD 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.

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.

Obviously, tales about people who can't be seen by others!

LOST 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".

MILITARY 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.

OTHER 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.

PARALLEL 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, parallel dimension/world/universe.

POST-APOCALYPSE: 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!

RELIGIOUS 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.

SOFT 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

SPACE 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 evil morality

SPACE TRAVEL: People traveling through space - for whatever reason.

SUPER 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)

TIME TRAVEL: Any tale featuring time machines or travel to the past or the future.

UNDER 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



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