Science Fiction 101

Panhuman Books — January 24, 2023

Stories in the science fiction genre focus on how technology and science, currently unknown or unrealized in the real world, impact imagined civilizations and characters. They frequently involve intriguing ‘What if?” questions, exploring off-Earth settings, and examining deep human themes even if they use aliens instead.

This popular category falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction. Besides science fiction, this also includes fantasy, magical realism, horror, alternate history, and well-known subgenres like dystopian, supernatural, and more. The details surrounding speculative vs. realistic encompass much more than ray guns and spaceships. In fact, they usually have human responses, reactions, and intentions as the primary story drivers. In such a widely varied genre as science fiction, the human problems are what really bring it all together.

Sci Fi Subgenres

Many subgenres (and sub-sub-genres!) exist in the science fiction world. Readers can find anything to ensnare their interest these days. The most common subgenres include:

1. Hard Science Fiction

Science and technology form the foundation of books in this subgenre. The reader gets specific details about how systems work and how they undeniably influence the world around them. Expect accuracy and precision about things that could exist in the future. Some of the most notable examples of hard science fiction include:

The Martian

by Andy Weir

The Three-Body Problem

by Cixin Liu (Author), Ken Liu (Translator)

2. Soft Science Fiction

Although tech exists in these stories, the focus swings toward soft sciences like sociology and anthropology. These books explore people and worlds rather than systems or gadgets that make things happen. Here are two examples of soft science fiction:

Lilith's Brood

by Octavia E. Butler

3. Cyberpunk

Mix advanced future tech and gritty, dystopian worlds with characters steeped in counterculture mores, and you have cyberpunk. This subgenre was born in 1982 by Bruce Bethke, who combined cybernetics with real-world punk cultures to create something new and long-lasting. Some of the well-known cyberpunk novels include:

4. Steampunk

Although the “punk” in this sci fi subgenre has little to do with the subculture in the real world, it was combined with ‘steam’ (and many other terms like clockwork, diesel, bio, and solar to make even more sub-sub-genres). These stories blend Victorian aesthetics with steam-powered machinery and systems that are truly out of this world. The examples of steampunk sci fi include:

Leviathan (Leviathan Series)

by Scott Westerfeld (Author), Keith Thompson (Illustrator)

5. Military Science Fiction

As the name implies, these stories focus on soldiers, battles, and war. The unknown tech infiltrates primarily the realms of weaponry and advanced combat vehicles. It is often associated with hard sci fi and space opera and can include anything from weird tanks on alien planets to spaceship battles.

The Forever War

by Joe Haldeman

6. Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic

The planet (Earth or an alien world) has reached the end times… or at least a devastating interruption in life as the characters know it. These stories often focus on how people survive in a dark, dismal, and destroyed world. Some of the most famous novels of this sci fi subgenre include:

The Day of the Triffids

by John Wyndham

I Am Legend

by Richard Matheson

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler

7. Space Opera

This subgenre of sci fi has the grandest scope. Spacefaring civilizations travel between planets or galaxies, wage wars, raise civilizations, and go about the everyday business or life aboard spacecrafts. Expect intergalactic action and intrigue without a strong focus on detailed tech explanations. The following two Hugo award winners are space operas:

In the end, science fiction is less about speculative vs. realistic storylines and themes and more about humanity’s search for meaning and purpose. The fact that this essential story element happens in otherworldly settings with unique technology beyond current abilities just makes it all more intriguing and entertaining.