SCIENCE FICTION SUBGENRES A TO Z
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.
AGE REGRESSION SCI-FI
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.
ALTERNATE HISTORY SCI-FI
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.
SUB-SET: 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.
APOCALYPTIC AND POST-APOCALYPTIC SCI-FI
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? Post Apocalytic Sci-Fi 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.
Apocalyptic Sci-Fi focuses on the armagedden-like event rather than surviving the aftermath. 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.
SUB-SET: 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.
SUB-SET: 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.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE SCI-FI
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.
SUB-SET: 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.
SUB-SET: 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.
SUB-SET: 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.'
SUB-SET: 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.
SUB-SET: 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 Units Roy, Pris, and others in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Roy leads 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.
SUB-SET: 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.
BIO PUNK SCI-FI
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.
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. The entire plot of the feature film The Sixth Day starring Arnold Schwarzenegger evolves around the above mentioned good vs. evil/cloning theme.
Colonization is the act where life forms move into a distant area where their kind is sparse or not yet existing at all and set up new settlements in the area. Colonization applies to all life forms in a sense though it is most often used in reference to insects and humans. Insect colonisation varies from species to species though it most often involves a queen setting out from its parent colony and establishing a colony of her own at a suitable location.
Human colonization is not to be confused with colonialism or imperialism, as colonisation is a broader category, encompassing all large-scale immigrations of an established population to a 'new' location, and expansion of their civilisation into this area. This process may or may not victimise an indigenous population (depending first on whether there is any indigenous population to victimize).
Communalness is a specialized term and subgenre, involving a human future with relationships and communities 'boosted' into enhanced consciousness by cybernetic or other means. The namesake town in Frank Herbert's novel The Santaroga Barrier has achieved a kind of drug-induced unity. The disciples of V.M. Smith in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land achieve this (along with impressive powers) through learning to speak Martian.
Defies distinction between sci-fi and other genres
Cross-genre stories defy easy distinctions between science fiction and other genres, such as fantasy ("if it's psychic power, it's science fiction; if it's magic, it's fantasy"). Regarding film or television, the Underworld film trilogy could be considered cross-genre, the warring factions are Vampires and Werewolves, but fictional high tech weapons are used. Kevin Grevioux, Underworld writer and a background in genetic engineering, stated that he used science as the basis for the creatures. He created a virus, which is the reason how werewolves and vampires have become.
Noted for its focus on "high tech and low life" and taking its name from the combination of cybernetics and punk
These tales are typically set on Earth, and involve a hacker immersed in a cyber-world, interacting (both on line and physically) with similar people. It's often set in a high-tech, often bleak, mechanistic and futuristic universe of computers, hackers, and computer/human hybrids. Characters are sometimes modified to 'jack' their brain directly into cyberspace.
It features advanced technology such as information technology coupled with some degree of breakdown in the social order. Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.
Cyberpunk often encompasses nanotechnology, cyborgs, androids, virtual reality, and/or a warning as to what could possibly go wrong if technology falls into the wrong hands. Humans may have built-in computer jacks or software ("wetware"), and spend considerable time "living" in a virtual environment, as in The Matrix (starring Keanu Reeves).
When mainstream fans think cyberpunk, likely they would think The Matrix, but perhaps better examples of this subgenre would be Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic (also starring Keanu Reeves). Johnny Pat Cadigan's Tea from an Empty Cup is another literature example of cyberpunk. Though it contains no synthesized worlds, it's often stated that Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is the father of cyberpunk in cinema, or at the very least, an early example. Blade Runner was adapted to film from Phillip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"
SUBSET: CYBERSPACE SCI-FI
Cyberspace as a subgenre is very similar to 'cyberpunk,' though broader in form and style. The subgenre was pioneered by Bruce Bethke and William Gibson, who coined the term "cyberspace" in Neuromancer. This subgenre involves characters interacting, not just on line, but fully immersed within a vast worldwide 'virtual reality' medium. Other such tales involve hackers who use more ordinary means of networking.
SUBSET: POST-CYBERPUNK SCI-FI
Post-cyberpunk describes a narrow and indistinct subgenre. These stories break with the tropes (such as cynical young hackers in garish night clubs) that dominated the cyberpunk trend. Usually set on Earth, these stories make a conscious effort to be more positive. One example is Greg Bear's novel Queen of Angels. Queen of Angels describes our world just prior to the binary millennium (2048 AD) through several parallel (and to some degree interlocking) tales.
Disney's feature films Tron 1982 and Tron Legacy 2010 could be considered a variant of both cyberspace and post-cyberpunk categories since its cyber universe is clearly digital (animated and neon infrastructure) as opposed to the life-like constructed world of The Matrix.
Robotic police, telepathic investigation, etc.
In these stories, often set in the near future, technology aids both criminals and law enforcement. Various short stories introduced robotic police. This was popularized by the eponymous (actually cyborg) character in Paul Verhoeven's film Robocop. Alfred Bester's novel The Demolished Man depicts a deadly cat-and-mouse game between psychic police and criminals.
DYING EARTH SCI-FI
The demise of our planet, faced with the prospect that it can no longer support life
Dying Earth tales show the death of the Earth as slower than from an apocalypse, and it can be due to any cause, including natural. More generally, this sub-genre encompasses science fiction works set in the far distant future in a milieu of stasis or decline. Themes of world-weariness, innocence (wounded or otherwise), idealism, entropy and the hope of renewal tend to pre-dominate.
A haunting vision of this appears in the far-future chapters of H.G. Well's novel The Time Machine, including a 'lost' chapter about a biologically decrepit humanity, originally serialized but not included in the novel and film versions. Isaac Asimov's novel Pebble in the Sky is another example. In cinema, the feature film WALL-E portrays a dying Earth from an ocean of refuse created by humankind. The lone entity of life on Earth is a tiny plant sprout (and a cute cockroach), which is the catalyst of the plot.
Glimpses into the possibility of really bad futures - crowded world, gilded cage, jaded society, theocracy, etc.
Dystopian fiction is the opposite of Utopian: creation of a nightmare world, sometimes also described as "the victory of forces of reason over forces of kindness". These tales are designed to make the reader ask the bleak question "Is life worth living if this is where humanity is going?". The anime series (and feature film) Aeon Flux was set in a bizarre dystopian world and the title character was a tall, latex-clad secret agent from the nation of Monica, skilled in assassination and acrobatics.
Another example is the spaceship Axiom in Disney/Pixar's movie Wall-E. Often this subgenre depicts inquisitive heroes breaking free of a bottled utopia, such as the sealed city in Douglas R. Mason's novel Eight Against Utopia. In most such tales, the protagonist seeks to better his-or-her own life, if not to liberate the entire society. 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. Cyril Kornbluth's novel The Marching Morons depicts a cityscape jammed with idiotic yet pampered workers. A.E. Van Vogt's novel The Empire of Isher portrays a decadent and sybaritic world-ruling class. Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100 is a novel that depict a puritanical religious ruling class.