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There's a whole truck load of subgenres that fall under the sci-fi umbrella
Compiled by SFMZ Webmaster

Many sci-fi fans know that there are a variety of subgenres under the umbrella of science fiction, but after doing some research online, I had no idea how deep that cyber-well really is.

In my research, I found subgenres that overlapped with others or they were almost the same category but a different label, and it may seem redundant to list them separately.

However, take these two subgenres for example: Romance Sci-Fi and Scientific Romance. Surely you would think they are close enough in intent that I could combine them, but read the descriptions in this article and you will see that the two really have different meanings.

The same thing with Western Sci-Fi and Space Western - again the two have different meanings from each other. So I have gathered the whole cornucopia of sci-fi SUBGENRES and their associated SUB-SETS to make the list as thorough as possible.

SFMZ being mainly a sci-fi film site, I tried to provide as many movie or television series examples as possible, but some subgenres, I or the reference source used literature examples, or I could find no examples at all.

The details provided come from a wide variety of resources and I have listed the reference and excerpt credits at the bottom of each page. These resources also have a wealth of similar information, so I encourage you to explore the provided links.

Classification Layers

Most movies you can often sort out it's classification layers:

Primary: It's parent genre(s)
Secondary: One or more genres, sub-genres and/or subsets
Tertiary: Includes minor elements of other genres, sub-genres, and/or subsets

For example, Zombieland. It has the classic horror visuals, lots of blood, gore, and an endless army of monsters. It has frequent spurts of action, and it's intended to be humorous from beginning to end.

It's apocalypse wasn't of the supernatural order considering the disease was epizootic, so we have a minor element of science fiction. More specifically, lab coat corporate puppets jacking with biology, tweaking nature gone wrong. It also has minor elements of serious drama (Tallahassee's break down, a little romance drama not intended to be comedic).

So I would sort Zombieland as....

Primary: Comedy
Secondary: Horror, Action
Tertiary: Drama, Sci-fi

Others may sort that in a different order, or even drop one of the classifications, since genre classification is as subjective as films themselves. And there are, of course, exceptions. Some films may not have multiple genres/sub-genres.

In the example above, I view the tertiary elements lacking hardly any significance regarding Zombieland, I would normally not even include them. I just included them in the sample above to give an example of tertiary elements can sometimes be considered.

A literal reversal of the physical aging of the body

An old man becomes like a teenager again. This might happen via some virus or serum, or by means of an elaborate multi-step process. Numerous SF tales include a 'regen' process, available to at least some of its characters.

A recent example is Robert Sawyer's novel Rollback. (Hollywood versions sometimes shrink a person clear into infancy, or even a puddle of goo.). David Fincher's Oscar winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really a fantasy instead of sci-fi, but it is a perfect sample of this subgenre.

Explores the realm of body modification through technological means

Biopunk is a spinoff of the 'cyberpunk' subgenre, involving hackers (and oppressive government agencies) who manipulate human DNA -- their own and/or someone else's.

Uses elements from the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir, Japanese anime, and post-modernist prose to describe the nihilistic, underground side of the biotech society. One example is Paul Di Filippo's novel Ribofunk. Another is Andrew Niccol's film Gattaca.

Though many stories about cybernetics and artificial intelligence fall into this category, most biopunk focuses on genetic and biological manipulation. Early examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, but generally the term is applied to post-cyberpunk fiction such as Rudy Rucker’s Ware and the titles mentioned above.



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Set in a world in which history has diverged from history as it is generally known

Alternate history or alternative history asks the question, "What if history had developed differently?" Common themes are: what if the South had won the Civil War, or Germany won World War Two? Most works in this genre are set in real historical contexts, yet feature social, geopolitical or industrial circumstances that developed differently or at a different pace from our own. The long running television series Stargate is a great example of exploring both alternate history and parallel worlds.

In literature examples, 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. The grandmaster of this subgenre is Harry Turtledove. Some alternate history tales, such as Eric Flint’s 1632 rely on time travel as an explanation as to how the alternate universe came to be.

Another example is P.K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle. While to some extent all fiction can be described as alternate history, the subgenre proper comprises fiction in which a change or point of divergence happens that causes history to diverge from our own. In other stories, such as H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series, the alternate worlds always existed — all that was required was a way to get there.


ALTERNATE HUMANITY SCI-FI: 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." Again, really a fantasy instead of sci-fi, Director Martin Rosen adapted Watership Down to an animated feature film in 1978.

Alternate Humanity, it could be argued, has its own sub-set called Bestiary Sci-Fi, which typcially centers around 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.

Holocaust like stories focus on the end of the world,
or the world just after the end

What happens to humanity AFTER the world blows-up? This subgenre usually tells the story of humanity's struggle to survive after some form of devastation. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten or mythologized.

The world may be wiped out by plagues, wars, or astronomical bodies, but however it happens, these stories focus on how we cope and the ways in which we rebuild society. There is a considerable degree of blurring between this form of science fiction and that which deals with false utopias or dystopic societies.

A work of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction might also be called a ruined Earth story, or dying Earth if the apocalypse is sufficiently dire. The "Mad Max" films are set in a post-apocalyptic premise.

Post-apocalyptic stories are set well after some vast upheaval. Rather than showing the immediate aftermath, these tales depict a new society that has arisen from the ashes, usually here on Earth. Often the survivors remain leery of technology, as in Edgar Pangborn's classic novel Davy.

Post-apocalyptic often take place in an agrarian, non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain. This sub-genre grew immensely popular in the late '70's and '80's portraying a band of survivors endure tremendous hardships.

Other relevant movies - An asteroid is the main villain of Mimi Leder's movie Deep Impact and Nuclear war ends things in Peter George's novel Red Alert, filmed by Stanley Kubrick as Dr. Strangelove.

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) along with the Television mini-series, and then proceeded to tell how the survivors survived.

Other literary works include Patrick Tilley's sprawling five-book series "Amtrak Wars" tells the tale of the 'lucky' survivors and the 'unlucky' survivors - and what happens when they meet.


GONZO APOCALYPSE SCI-FI: Gonzo Apocalypse tales are rare, and feature a strange cosmic element. Neal Barrett, Jr.'s novelette "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" is set in the American Southwest, as is Charles Coleman Finlay's story "The Texas Bake Sale."

Disney's animated feature film Treasure Planet launches the story with the human race getting instantly wiped out by a hostile alien race.

In Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer, society is wiped out by a comet and must rebuild; in Nevil Shute's On the Beach, humanity is destroyed by a nuclear holocaust.

Also, a sudden pandemic wipes out nearly all humans in George R. Stewart's classic SF novel Earth Abides. Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and David Brin’s The Postman are other works that fit in this category.

COZY CATASTROPHE SCI-FI: Cozy Catastrophe is a type of postapocalyptic tale, usually set on Earth, in which an isolated group of survivors sets about rebuilding a new civilization according to their own particular ideas. (As with the 'cozy mystery' subgenre, unjust death has occurred, but the characters don't get too rattled about it.)

The founding example is probably Mary Shelley's less-well-known novel The Last Man. Another is John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids, later filmed by Steve Sekely. A television miniseries of The Day of the Triffids was produced in 2009, starring Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science that deals with intelligent behavior, learning and adaptation in machines

Artificial Intelligence tales assume that one, or perhaps many, artificial minds become fully sentient. They might be mainframe computers, or mobile robots, or more recently, the Internet as a whole. One famous example is D.F. Jones's novel Colossus, filmed by Joseph Sargent as Colossus, The Forbin Project

Research in AI is concerned with producing machines to automate tasks requiring intelligent behavior. Examples include control, planning and scheduling, the ability to answer diagnostic and consumer questions, handwriting, speech, and facial recognition.

As such, it has become an engineering discipline, focused on providing solutions to real life problems. Stephen Spielberg's sci-fi feature film A.I. Artificial Intelligence centers around this very premise.

AI systems are now in routine use in economics, medicine, engineering and the military, as well as being built into many common home computer software applications, traditional strategy games like computer chess and other video games.


BIOROBOTICS SCI-FI: Biorobotics is a term that loosely covers the fields of cybernetics, bionics and even genetic engineering as a collective study. It is often used to refer to a real subfield of robotics: studying how to make robots that emulate or simulate living biological organisms mechanically or even chemically.

In the one sense biorobotics is referred to as a theoretical discipline of comprehensive genetic engineering in which organisms are created and designed by artificial means. While it is currently limited to science fiction; the actual field is in its infancy and is known as synthetic biology and Bionanotechnology. The term is also used in a reverse definition: making biological organisms as manipulatable and functional as robots.

CYBERNETIC REVOLT SCI-FI: Cybernetic Revolt speaks for itself, and is one of SF's oldest and most common themes. Mechanical servants fail, or assert their rights, or go berserk, usually with tragic consequences. E.M. Forster's novella "The Machine Stops," written in 1909, depicts the former. I, Robot starring Will Smith features such robots that revolt against mankind.

CYBORG SCI-FI: Cyborg fiction involves such a human/mechanical blend as a protagonist. The classic example is Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg, brought to television as The Six Million Dollar Man. Caidin also coined the word 'bionics,' now a legitimate scientific concept and commonly spelled 'bionic.'

ROBOT SCI-FI: Robot SF tales are self-explanatory. In a sense, the concept of robots predates SF itself, and the two visions have developed in parallel. Isaac Asimov's many "Robot" stories are a preeminent example. One of the earliest such novels is Adam Link, by Eando Binder.

SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY SCI-FI: Synthetic Biology stories feature artificial life forms. It's a small subgenre, and its protagonists are often biologists who crack the secret of creating life.

A good feature film representative of this sub-set would be the Nexus Unit Roy in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Roy lead a group of renegade Nexus units in search of their creator to seek a longer life span since they were engineered to live for only four years.

WETWARE COMPUTER SCI-FI: Wetware Computer SF is a narrow subgenre, featuring 'wetware' (living biological) technology, as opposed to 'hardware computer' devices. These stories depict the invention and/or the actions of an artifical thinking brain.



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