Science Fiction Sub-Genres


An Old Friend
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

Cross Genre:
Of course is you can establish genre lines, then horror crosses them. When genres -- horror, fantasy, science, and speculative fiction -- start slipping into one another the Brits call it (appropriately) "slipstream."

Cutting Edge:
This term's meaning shifts -- often from person to person -- so I can really only offer what I think it means. For ME, cutting edge means that the fiction usually refuses archetypal, supernatural aspects -- unless those elements are used so originally they become antithetical to traditional horror. Cutting edge can be hard, soft, quiet, psychological, surreal, eerie, avant pop, post-modern, literary, alternative, have erotic, and sexual aspects, etc. The idea is that it is not exactly the same old thing -- even if the departure is only stylistic rather than purely thematic.

Dark Fantasy:
A term that could arguably be applied to most horror and sometimes is, but generally it means a fantasy story that can have supernatural elements but is not the supernatural fiction of vampires, werewolves. etc. You'll often find stories like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian refer"#CC0000" to as dark fantasy. A "purer" reference in this context, however, would be Karl Edward Wagner's doomed immortal anti-hero Kane. Characters/fictions that originated in graphic narratives (comics) like James O'Barr's The Crow and modern interpretations of Spiderman and Batman are dark fantasy.(Although the heroes and magic of "sword and sorcery" is sometimes dark fantasy, "S&S" generally belongs to the fantasy genre more than horror.)

Dark Fiction:
Back in 1994 I started using the term "dark fiction" to (1) allay the fears of writers and readers who didn't want to be associated with "horror", a word that's always been troublesome and was, at the time, falling even further out of favor in some circles; (2) have an inclusive term that covered more than some folks thought horror did; (3) use as the title of the AOL workshop --Dark Fiction/Horror Writers Workshop -- for the first two reasons and also because, in alphabetical listings "d" was preferable to "h". It wasn't original, of course, but I honestly don't know where/when it started to be used to label a particular type of fiction. (Thomas Monteleone used the acronym HDF in the introduction to the first volume of the Borderlands anthology series to refer to "contemporary horror, dark fantasy, and suspense literature." I don't think he used it for long, though.) In any case, for the first couple of years I was repeatedly told that "dark fiction" was not an acceptable term, that no one in publishing used the phrase, that it meant nothing, and that, surely, I meant "dark fantasy." Well, that was probably true then, but I used it anyway. Now I see it used all over the place.

Erotic Horror:
Usually "erotic" means sensual sexual content integral to the story and can be as mild as "romantic suspense." Many editors and writers prefer the term "sexual horror" over erotic, as the sex in horror can be far from nice or arousing. "Erotic" can be stretched to mean graphic, intentionally explicit sex in a story meant for a pornographic market. The code word being "explicit."

It's, well, extreme. It goes straight to the blood-and-guts and aims for the gross-out without hesitation. In guidelines you might find terms like "splat," "splatter," or "splatterpunk" and "gore," "grue," and "gross." (Most GLs tell you to AVOID these things.) Splatterpunk, by the way, was just a label made up to describe the "young Turks" bringing a more visceral, gritty edge to horror 10-15 years ago.


1. English Gothic: Novels and tales that developed as a reaction to the Age of Reason and dominated English literature from 1764 with The Castle of Ortanto by Horace Walpole into the early 19th century. Characteristic theme is the stranglehold of the past upon the present or the encroachment of the '"dark'"ages of oppression upon the "enlightened" modern era. Enclosed and haunted settings (castles, crypts, convents, mansions), gloomy images of ruin and decay, episodes of imprisonment, cruelty, and persecution are used to express this.
2. American Gothic:Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), considered America's first novelist, gave Gothic an American setting and more of a psychological interest in aberrant mentality. Gloomy atmosphere plays a smaller role in American Gothic, psychic breakdown plays a larger role.
3.Although sometimes used as a synonym for "horror," it shouldn't be. Although there is academic debate, gothic can probably be identified by themes of a character being *trapped* -- by location, by family destiny, whatever. Joyce Carol Oates extends this to what she calls "assaults on individual identity and autonomy."
4. An entirely different meaning arises when Gothic or "Goth" subculture is refered to in connection with horror fiction. Any attempt to define Goth winds up stereotyping an extremely diverse subculture. It's also wrong and probably stupid and calling fiction "Goth" is just the same. Since the stereotypical goth wears nothing but black, too much eyeliner, and is full of gloom, pretension and angst, then I suppose "goth fiction" is the first form of literature to wear make-up.

Lovecraftian, Lovecraft Mythos, Cthulhu Mythos, etc.:
As long as you have some idea of who H.P. Lovecraft was and what he wrote, these probably make sense. Lovecraft's fictional premise was that the world was once inhabited by another race of dark powers. Although cast out, they live on somewhere always ready to take the world back. "Lovecraft style" is florid and never stints on adjectives.

Usually set in an urban underworld of crime and moral ambiguity. Dark, cynical, paranoid themes of corruption, alienation, lust, obsession, violence, revenge and the difficulty of finding redemption in a far from perfect world. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion, and dingy realism. You'll also find the term in combinations like neo-noir, future noir or noir sf, tech-noir.

Psychological Horror:
Based on the disturbed human psyche. Obviously psychos on rampages fall into this category, but it is just as often more subtle. Since the reader's perception is sometimes altered by exposure to an insane viewpoint, psychological horror can also deal with ambiguous reality and seem to be supernatural.

Quiet (or Soft) Horror:
Subtle, never visceral or too shocking, with atmosphere and mood providing the miasma of fear rather than graphic description. The opposite of "Extreme."

The rules of the normal world don't apply; ghosts, demons, vampires, werewolves, the occult etc. Within this sub genre is an ever-growing list of sub-sub-genres -- most of which deal with vampires.

Not really sub-generic, it can be used just to mean unreal; strange or bizarre. Or it can be used to tie a style to the surrealist movement in art and literature that attempted to express the subconscious and move beyond accepted conventions of reality by representing the irrational imagery of dreams and bizarre juxtapositions.

Suspense (or Dark Suspense) and Thriller:
No supernatural elements, but a constant sense of threat coming from an outside menace. Add a strong investigative angle and becomes mystery more than horror. Add action and adventure to suspense and you come up with "thriller" -- except you can have "supernatural thrillers."

A term, not a sub-genre, that refers to earthier, more reality-based or supernatural fiction with a tendency to be "in-your-face" with descriptions of the bad stuff -- but not as extreme as Extreme.

Can be used in several ways. "Weird fiction" is sometimes used as a synonym for horror. It can also mean only strange, uncanny, supernatural stories or refer to a school of writing popularized by the pulp magazine "Weird Tales" that tended to be Lovecraftian or occult; more "traditional" horror. "Pulp" is also a word used to describe this type of tale, although "pulp" can also mean more action-oriented material.