A Brief Guide to Science Fiction Subgenres

Post-apocalyptic, science fantasy, cyberpunk…do you know the difference?

For the benefit of any non-native English speakers in the audience, a genre is defined as “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” Jazz is a genre of music; horror is a genre of film; and science fiction is a genre of literature.

If you fancy yourself a sci-fi writer, you should know your genre. That means reading a crap-ton of sci-fi books. You can’t really call yourself a sci-fi writer unless you’ve read a few books by the greats: H.G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin (who, I just learned, passed away on Monday at the age of 88—I sincerely hope she’s riding a dragon over Earthsea right now). Pretty much anybody whose sci-fi book has ever been made into a movie or a comic, or anyone who was ever nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula Award.

It may also be useful for you, as a writer, to know what subgenre of sci-fi you fit into. From both a marketing and a writing standpoint, you gotta know where you are on the sci-fi map if you want to market yourself successfully, appeal to your targeted audience, and write appropriately within your genre. Genres aren’t brick walls erected around your fiction, by the way; there’s plenty of room for a little genre-bending here and there. But when you start a story, there should be some consistency of style and subject matter in it. A reader who sits down with a good fantasy story expecting to read about dragons and elves isn’t going to be happy when they find out that the dragon is actually a cyborg and the elves are just pointy-eared aliens.

Now, I’m not actually going to try to list every single freakin’ subgenre of science fiction on this page. There’s way too many of them for that. Sci-fi and fantasy stories are like sandwiches. You can add or remove a single ingredient and you’ll have an entirely different sandwich, with a wholly different flavor. If you want a semi-complete breakdown of all the different sci-fi subgenres, I suggest you check out this excellent post on scifiideas.com, or this one on worldswithoutend.com.

What I’m going to talk about in this post are the subgenres of science fiction that I think are the most prevalent today. We’ll start with the big ones and then get a little more specific.


Hard science fiction: As with any fiction story, plot and character are important…but equally important to the plot of a hard sci-fi story is scientific accuracy. You’ll still find big ideas and advanced technology here: alien planets, genetic engineering, space viruses, sentient androids. But they’re all scientifically proven (or at least scientifically plausible) ideas. You won’t find many wormholes in hard science fiction (at least not ones that you could travel through and pop out on the other side alive and well). Hard sci-fi doesn’t truck with faster-than-light travel, or telepathy, or green rocks. It stays rooted in the practical, the tangible, the proven, and the realistic. Arthur C. Clarke was famous for writing some of the hardest science fiction around. My personal favorite is Rendezvous with Rama, where humanity detects a clearly artificial object entering the solar system and sets out to land upon it and explore it. The Martian by Andy Weir is another example of rock-hard sci-fi. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is an excellent example of hard military science fiction. Both the book’s title and its drama are derived from the time dilation the main character experiences while fighting a never-ending war on different planets far away from Earth, and the displacement he feels upon returning home and meeting his rapidly aging loved ones. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton also qualifies as hard sci-fi. (For a more complete list of hard science fiction stories, novels, TV shows, and movies, Wikipedia has you covered.)

Soft science fiction: This has two meanings. A “soft” science fiction may either explore one of the “soft” science (such as psychology, sociology, or anthropology, as opposed to the “hard” sciences like physics, chemistry, or biology); or it may simply be scientifically inaccurate. A lot of soft sci-fi stories involve faster-than-light travel, time travel, humanoid aliens, and/or dogfights in space (bonus points if the spacecraft can change direction without firing thrusters or rockets, and if their laser guns fire visible bolts of light and go pew pew pew in the soundless vacuum of space). Maybe the best way to define the difference between hard and soft sci-fi is that hard science fiction operates on a set of clear, strict, and usually physical laws, while soft sci-fi operates on whatever rules drive the plot forward. The late, great Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific writer of soft sci-fi, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness being prime examples. Some others are Dune by Frank Herbert and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. (Again, check out Wikipedia if you want a fuller list of soft sci-fi TV shows, books, and films.)

Scattered across the realms of hard and soft science fiction, we find:

Alternate history: This is exactly what it sounds like. In alternate history stories, history develops along a different path than what it did in the history books you and I read in high school. Alternate history novels ask some really interesting questions. Alan Smale’s Clash of Eagles asks “What if the Roman Empire invaded North America?” Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series asks “What if aliens invaded Earth in the middle of World War II?” The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson asks “What if the Black Plague had killed 99% of Europe’s population instead of a third?”

Cyberpunk: Low life, high tech. If you’ve got a story that’s dystopian in nature, with a society defined by human suffering despite advanced levels of technology (especially computer technology and virtual reality), chances are you’re reading a cyberpunk story. Famous examples of cyberpunk books include Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and practically anything by William Gibson. And in case you think you’re not a fan of cyberpunk, or have never encountered it before, I got news for ya: if you like the films RoboCop, The Matrix, or Blade Runner, congrats. You’re a cyberpunk fan. The anime Ghost in the Shell is also a classic example.

A classic and extremely sexy example. 

Dystopian fiction: A dystopia is the polar opposite of a utopia. Dystopias are worlds characterized by human suffering. Everybody’s poor. Or sick. Or there’s a totalitarian government in place keeping everyone misinformed and powerless. Or the aliens have enslaved us all. Or technology has advanced to a ridiculous degree, but humans are still savage to each other anyway. Or the crime rate has shot through the roof and everyone lives in fear of their lives. George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury are all dystopian sci-fi novels. Escape from New York is a great cinematic example, and one of my favorite movies of all time.

Military science fiction: Don’t be fooled by the name. Military science fiction isn’t just any sci-fi story that involves the military, or a war. After all, Gone with the Wind has a great deal to do with the American Civil War, but it’s not military fiction. The Plumed Serpent by D.H. Lawrence is set in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, but we never hear a single shot fired, nor hear about the outcome of a single battle. (Trust me, I paged through the whole freaking book just waiting for some good romping military fun, only to be immersed in ancient Aztec rituals and Quetzalcoatl mythos.) Nope—military science fiction, to some degree, has to involve warfare. The dictionary definition of the word warfare is “engagement in or the activities involved in war or conflict.” We’re talking the nitty-gritty details of a science fiction war: weapons, tactics, battlefields, full-blown battle scenes. Excellent examples of military science fiction (all of which I have read) are Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (you gotta read the book; it’s nothing like the shitty movie); The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; Old Man’s War by John Scalzi; and the Hammer’s Slammers series by David Drake. Incidentally, you don’t have to be a veteran or an active service member to write good military sci-fi. Haldeman and Drake are Vietnam veterans and Heinlein served in the U.S. Navy, but Scalzi, to my knowledge, has never served, and Old Man’s War is a marvelously realistic (and surprisingly light-hearted) exploration of futuristic warfare. I’m working on a military science fiction novel myself. It’s called Charlie Ward: Interstellar Soldier-of-Fortune. It’s based on the life of Frederick Townsend Ward, an American sailor who somehow wound up fighting in the Crimean War, joining William Walker’s filibustering expedition to Sonora, Mexico, and then fighting against the Taiping Rebellion in China. I moved the story into outer space and made the protagonist a woman. It’s got lavish descriptions of futuristic ship-to-ship and ground combat. I’m going to pitch it to agents at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in February.


Post-apocalyptic fiction: Again, this is just what it sounds like. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories are generally set on Earth after the apocalypse has taken place. Could be anything: a nuclear war, a plague, an alien invasion, runaway global warming, whatevs. Some of the most famous post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels are The Stand by Stephen King, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard. Famous post-apocalyptic movies include, of course, the Mad Max trilogy, Planet of the Apes, The Quiet Earth, and 28 Days Later.

Pulp science fiction: The word “pulp” simply means the cheap paper on which a lot of the Golden Age science fiction magazines of the 1950s were printed. But I’d argue that it constitutes a subgenre in and of itself. If you’ve ever read a story about a brawny, two-fisted spaceman with a helmet on his head and a laser pistol at his side rescuing a scantily clad human (or alien) woman from slavering aliens, that there’s a pulp sci-fi story, my friend. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip José Farmer, and the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet are classic pulp sci-fi.

And believe you me, pard, it don’t get much pulpier than this. 

Science fantasy: The lines between science fiction and fantasy are blurred, or erased altogether. In science fantasy stories, you may find standard sci-fi fare like robots and spaceships alongside fantastical elements like magic and mythological beasts and monsters. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, which I mentioned in my last post, are both science fantasy novels. I’d argue that Jack L. Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls is also science fantasy, even though there’s a perfectly sound scientific explanation behind the race of centaurs that appears in it…


Space operas: Wars that span star systems. Battles between planets. Heart-stopping excitement. Deadly risks. Swashbuckling adventures. Chivalrous heroes. Stellar romance. Space operas are romantic fiction (literally) writ across the stars. If you took Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, booted them into orbit, threw in a supernaturally powerful bad guy and a beautiful princess or two, added some chills and thrills and death-defying adventures and close calls, well…congrats, pal, you’ve got yourself a space opera. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (which is now appearing on TV as The Expanse), Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (which I’m actually reading right now), and Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (which I have already read) are all space operas. As for space opera movies, well…you guessed it, pal. Star Wars for the win.

Duh duh duh duh, DUH, duh-duh-duh DUH duh, duh-duh-duh DUH duh, duh-duh-duh-duh…

Steampunk: Hissing steam. Chugging locomotives. Airships. Goggles. Gloves. Clanking gears. Gorgeous period dresses. Handlebar mustaches. Monocles. Brass telescopes. Brass-headed canes. Brass banisters. Brass, lots of brass everywhere. Steampunk stories are stories in which the theme, tone, setting, and/or technology all borrow heavily from the 19th century: specifically, the age of steam and the Industrial Revolution. They frequently take place in alternate history worlds where steam is the dominant technology, and may power everything from cars to weaponry to computers. I never cared much for steampunk myself, but one of the best stories I ever read that was considered “steampunk” was Kenneth Oppel’s book Airborn and its two sequels, Skybreaker and Starclimber. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might be considered one of the first steampunk stories. Popular steampunk movies are Wild Wild West, Van Helsing, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, not to mention the excellent 1995 French sci-fi film, The City of Lost Children.

Needless to say, these aren’t the only sci-fi genres out there. There’s dozens more. Moreover, some authors frequently write books that fall into multiple genres. (For example, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is an untidy blend of the science fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and Western genres.) This post is meant to be a primer, a brief introduction to the various subgenres of science fiction that exist out there in the ether. If you have a particular liking for one of these, or are trying to write a novel using one or more of them, I hope this post has been instructional.

Just remember one thing: no matter what genre (or subgenre) you write in, you still have to tell an engaging story set in a believable world with consistent rules and with real, interesting characters, all of whom want something.

As long as you remember to do that…you can go completely crazy.