Science fiction explained: A survey of stellar sub-genres

By in Culture

Science fiction, or sci-fi, is a subcategory of speculative fiction — a broad genre that encompasses everything from superhero and fantasy narratives to horror stories and alternate histories. Speculative fiction constitutes imaginative, fantastical or futuristic conjecture designed to answer “what if” questions.

So, if fantasy and sci-fi both qualify as speculative fiction, how can we differentiate one from the other? Sometimes, there is very little separation between sub-genres, and indeed, there is a dedicated subcategory of speculative fiction called science-fiction fantasy, or simply “science fantasy,” that illustrates the potential crossover. However, the distinction can sometimes be useful.

While the line between sci-fi and fantasy can often be blurry, there are several distinguishing characteristics that point to a more scientific narrative. Firstly, sci-fi typically has a contemporary, futuristic or alien setting. Secondly, the sci-fi genre revolves around themes such as scientific or technological advancements, alternate or parallel realities, time or space travel and extraterrestrial lifeforms. And thirdly, unlike fantasy, sci-fi generally avoids supernatural and magical subject matter.

The genre is commonly split into “hard” and “soft” sci-fi — setting up a subjective binary wherein hard-science narratives focus on accurately depicting natural-science disciplines, like physics or chemistry, and soft-science stories focus on either unscientific or social-science themes, like superheroes or psychology.

Like all speculative fiction, sci-fi attempts to ask and answer hypothetical questions, which tend to explore the following predictive, cautionary or philosophical lines of inquiry: What does the future hold? What does it mean to be human? Are we alone in the universe? What are the consequences of our actions?

There are also many different sub-genres within the sci-fi genre itself, including scientific romance, alien-invasion narratives, sci-fi horror and thrillers, biopunk and cyberpunk fiction, social-science fiction and stories set on parallel or alien worlds.

Scientific romance actually has little to do with romance. The term refers to classic sci-fi novels written by 19th century Romantic authors such as H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne. The best part about reading a scientific romance is that these books have all been released into the public domain — meaning they can be downloaded for free on smart phones and e-readers.

The alien-invasion sub-genre, however, is fairly self-explanatory. Some of the best sci-fi explores the first contact between human beings and extraterrestrial entities, including Illegal Alien by Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer and The Word for World is Forest by American author Ursula K. Le Guin.

Sci-fi horror and thriller novels include everything from classic scientific romances, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to contemporary novels, like Michael Crichton’s celebrated Jurassic Park or his lesser-known biopunk novel Next. Biopunk narratives like the latter focus on human bioengineering, experimentation and cloning, exploiting the anxieties inherent in body horror and rapidly changing technology.

If you’d rather read about other worlds, check out Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax and Quintaglio Ascension trilogies, which primarily employ hard-science concepts. The former explores a parallel Earth on which Neanderthals became the dominant species of hominid, while the latter follows sentient Tyrannosaurs as they learn scientific concepts analogous to discoveries by Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Freud.

By contrast, social-science fiction explores topics such as human nature, society and culture. This subgenre is perhaps best represented by books like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven by Le Guin. Alternatively, read Philip K. Dick’s seminal cyberpunk story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to examine human consciousness, empathy and ethics via androids.

As you can see, sci-fi is a broad sub-genre of speculative fiction that spans all scientifically themed works of fiction from the 19th century to the present day. This complex and varied genre explores everything from outer space and alien cultures to alternate realities and futuristic robots. If you’re interested in learning more about science fiction, the English department at the University of Saskatchewan offers a 200-level speculative fiction course.

Amanda Slinger / Copy Editor

Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk