Subject Material

Science Fiction - Genres and Sub-Genres of Sci-Fi Literature

Published: 11.09.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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One of the characteristics that separate homo-sapiens from the animal world is that animals seem to be equipped only to survive in their environment. Home-sapiens, on the other hand, have the ability to change their environment; for instance through technology and science.

Science Fiction is the fiction genre that more than any other deals with man’s technological and scientific development. At the same time, it reflects our need to ponder the potential consequences of these developments.  

What is Science Fiction?

The Invasion of MarsThe Invasion of Mars
Fotograf: The Granger Collection
Science fiction literature revolves around science and technology that does not yet exist and may never exist. But to keep the attention of most readers, it has to be plausible; therefore the science and technology described is based on the principles of science. These stories are most often set in the future. Sometimes they are about life on a changed Earth, but they also often deal with aliens, life on other planets, parallel worlds or even time travel.

The main concern for many science fiction authors is not the scientific and technological developments themselves, but how they affect mankind. In fact, some science fiction stories depict situations arising mainly from the social or political change resulting from these developments. In other words, a lot of science fiction can also be seen as comments on important societal issues.

It was the editor, Hugo Gernsbach, who coined the expression “science fiction” in the 1920s. Not very successful himself as an author, he launched the first science fiction magazine in 1926, in which he published the works of other science fiction authors. Since then, the science fiction genre has become increasingly more popular and has developed into several sub-genres.  These sub-genres are not, however, surrounded by impermeable genre borders; most sci-fi stories cross over into other sub-genres - and even other genres.

Hard Science Fiction

Most of the classic science fiction literature belongs to the genre of hard science fiction, in which the plot revolves around the science and technology itself. Isaac Asimov, a Russian-American professor of bio-chemistry, was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He is best remembered for his science fiction short stories and novels. Many of his short stories were eventually published in collections, most notably I, Robot (1950) and Nightfall and Other Stories (1968).  

Another writer of hard science fiction was Robert A. Heinlein, often called the “dean of science fiction writers.” His most famous novels include Methuselah’s Children (1958) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), both having to do with space travel and the technology involved. Both of these novels cross into the sub-genre of space exploration. 

Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds

Apocalyptic science fiction focuses on the end of the world, while post-apocalyptic stories focus on the world that develops after the end. In The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a father and son walking through a bleak landscape ravaged by an unnamed catastrophe that has destroyed most of life on Earth. Their most dangerous threat is from other human beings, who, in their desperation for nourishment, have resorted to cannibalism. In Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, most of human life is wiped out by the release of a man-made virus. The surviving human beings have to contend not only with their personal losses, but also with the confusion of a completely new kind of existence and the violence that this existence entails.

In Margaret Atwood’s novels, Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) the plot is about life after man’s fatal abuse of science and technology. These novels tell the stories about some of the survivors in a world having succumbed to “the waterless flood” – a world run to ground by biotechnology corporations; a world in which human life has been all but obliterated, while genetically engineered life-forms are proliferating.

Dystopian Societies

Front Cover of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four (1949)Front Cover of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four (1949)
Fotograf: The Granger Collection
Dystopian science fiction tells stories about nightmare societies, usually states controlled by rulers who abuse the available technology to repress the population. One such dystopia was depicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932). This story takes place in 2540 A.D.  Political boundaries no longer exist, and the world is run and controlled by World Controllers. In this society, human beings are created in laboratories and conditioned, both as embryos and as babies, to be happy. The theory is that happy people create a stable society. Individualism is discouraged. Monogamy is looked upon with suspicion – close bonds between individuals may result in rebellion. The authorities provide everyone with Soma – a happiness-inducing drug.  But the stability of this society is threatened when two men begin to ask questions.

George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) depicts the totalitarian society, Oceania, where the ruling party and its leader, Big Brother, is present in every aspect life. Political dissent in any form is forbidden and heavily punished. In this society, sex is forbidden, as is individuality. The novel explores the fate of one man who is critical of his society and who allows himself both to fall in love and to join a group of people who oppose the Party.

Time Travel

Time travel science fiction is based on the concept of travelling backward or forward in time. Sometimes this travel through time involves travelling through space, to a parallel world or universe. As early as in 1895, H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, which tells the story of a scientist who invented a machine that would take him to whichever point in time he wished to go. We follow him on his adventures as far as 30 million years in the future. Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife (2005), tells the love story between a young woman and the love of her life: a man suffering from a disorder that causes him, involuntarily and without warning, to travel to different points within his own life span.

Space Exploration and First Contact

Space exploration sci-fi is about space exploration – the physical travel through space. In 1865, Jules Verne, often called the father of science fiction, wrote about space exploration in From the Earth to the Moon. In C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (1939 – 1945), the protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ranson, travels to Mars and Venus before returning to Earth.  Poul Anderson’s novel, Tau Zero (1970) is about the journey of fifty men and women to a planet thirty light-years away.

First contact stories describe the first meeting between humans and aliens from outer space. Written as early as 1898, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has attracted the interest of radio- and television producers for nearly a century. A typical first contact story, The War of the Worlds, is about how Earth is invaded by hostile Martians looking for a new planet to settle down on, since their own planet is dying. They fail in their attempt, collectively succumbing to bacteria indigenous to Earth.

Space Opera

The space opera has a more pompous content than other sci-fi sub-genres: they deal lightly with the science and technology they are based on. Plausibility is of little consequence. These stories take place on space ships that travel around outer space, and the characters meet various exotic life forms on strange planets. Both the heroes and the villains have uncontested strength and intelligence. The main theme the plot revolves around is the battle between good and evil. Space operas are very visual and are therefore often adapted for TV, for instance Robert E. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Others are created especially for TV – for instance Lost in Space, Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and Battleship Gallactica.

On the Light Side

With all this concentration on abused science and technology, scary worlds and life forms, natural and unnatural disasters and the end of the world as we know it, it is difficult to imagine that science fiction can in any way be funny. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a delightful blend of imagined technology, space travel, and both subtle and hilarious humour. This novel and Adams’ subsequent four novels defied the reputation of science fiction as a genre for originals and geeks and stand as proof of the versatility of the science fiction genre.


Tasks and Activities

 

  1. Read through the text again and see if you have ever heard of any of the books, films or TV series mentioned. Perhaps you have read some of them or seen the film version? Tell the class if any of them looks familiar.
  2. Google one of the books or films mentioned and write a short synopsis of it. Then present it to the class or in a group.
  3. The text tells about some of the sub-genres of science fiction. Look up another sub-genre and make a presentation of one of it, much like the presentations in the text. Then read your presentation in groups or to the class. The following websites may be useful:
  4. Read the blog entry: “Science fiction: the genre that dare not speak its name”
    Science Fiction: The Genre that dare not speak its name 
    • What does this blog entry say about how people have looked upon the science fiction genre?
    • What does it say about where the genre stands today and about its future?
    • What does it say about categorizing books into genres in general?
  5. A number of science fiction awards are given annually to authors whose works are considered outstanding within the genre. Look up the authors mentioned in the text. Have any of them received any such awards? What kinds of awards have they won?
  6. Do you have a favourite science fiction book, film or series? Explain why you believe it belongs to this genre. Does it cross into other genres? Which sub-genre of science fiction does it belong to? Does it cross into other science fiction sub-genres?