Meet Some of Sci-Fi’s Greatest Subgenres

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Welcome, weary storytraveler 🍸👽

This log is filed under our #SciFiMonth archive. SFM is a month-long celebration of the wonders of Science Fiction, a blog event combining the love of the genre with the connective power of book blogging.

For more info on Sci-Fi Month, check out the introductory post on Imiryl’s blog and join us in this mission to read and rebel! I really recommend you follow the event’s Twitter as well, to stay on track with everybody’s posts.

For today’s post, I was inspired by day 4’s prompt: “Celebrate a subgenre”. Yes, I’m a day late, but that’s because I’m running on Mercury time, so if you think about it, I’m quite ahead 😉

Because sci-fi is all about deep exploration, and I’m extra, I’m celebrating not a but 9 of my favorite subgenres of science fiction, those I personally consider the greatest.

Head’s up, two of them I was reticent to add to the post, since imo they’re not as much subgenres as they are a blend of two genres. If that makes them subgenres, it’s entirely disputable, but I decided to highlight them as such anyways. I’ll leave it up to you to decide your own categorization 🙂

There are also others I love to read like space exploration, parallel universe, singularity, and galactic empire, though personally I’ve always perceived them more as tropes than subgenres. Not to say they can’t be both; in all fairness, both subgenres and tropes come with their own blurry boundaries and broad definitions.

I’ll be giving recs for each subgenre, if you want to plan your first voyage into them, but beware that these are pretty interchangeable and most times, if not always, a story is a flavorful cocktail of more than one subgenre.

Whether you agree with the definitions or not, love or hate them, scroll down the post to meet some of sci fi’s greatest subgenres, along with recommendations you can pick up to plunge into each!


Cyberpunk

Hands down my favorite subgenre of them all. Combined with the subgenre that comes next? Literary ecstasy.

I absolutely love everything cyberpunk discusses, even though most times it highlights the dystopian roads we’re headed to as a species, and I strongly believe tech is the defining tool of an accessible, just future, its distopian probabilities are all too high.

It surged alongside the technological, industrial, and capitalist revolution of the past few centuries, and attempted to forewarn of the oligarchic heights these paths could take us to.

For me, the wonder of cyberpunk is the social commentary, the intersection of humanity and technology, the highlighting of inequality (granted, most of sci-fi’s subgenres, as well as other speculative fiction, deal in this).

Cyberpunk is often a witness to the power of our choices when applying technology to society, and what roles that may play in the future of our species.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Centers technological and scientific advancements in worldbuilding;
  • Immersive cybernetic/technological societies and their social, political, cultural, linguistic intricacies;
  • High contrast between privation and opulence, achieved through the inequitable distribution of the aforementioned advancements and the ascension of plutocracy;
  • Often gritty, harrowing, a red herring;
  • Interaction and intersection human-machine.

3 to read:


Afrofuturism

Did I say cyberpunk is my favorite genre? Well, it is, but make it cyberpunk afrofuturism and you cocktail two of my favorite subgenres in the world into a spellbinding drink. I’m talking the greatest book hangover of all times.

Afrofuturism is not a subgenre restricted to sci-fi, rather, it encompasses all speculative fiction. According to AFRINOMENON‘s Chika:

The term Afrofuturism was popularly coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay Black to the Future, defining it as, “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth- century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.”

Afrinomenon newsletter (21 October, 2020)

Chika alludes to Ytasha L. Womack’s work, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, to try to further break down the ultimate purpose of this amazing subgenre.

Veery summarily, afrofuturism can be taken as a subgenre that explores futuristic landscapes through the eyes of Black culture, though it’s much more intricate than that.

The concept is expandable and mutating constantly, and though Mark Dery seemed to restrict it to African-American culture, current Afrofuturism seems to encompass the universe of Black cultures, from African-American to the whole of the African diaspora to beyond.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Emphasizes the expansiveness, future, and complexity of Black cultures;
  • Broad across genres;
  • Culturally innovative and brimming with the transformative journey of tradition;
  • Cultural and philosophical exploration of the intersection of Black cultures with technology;
  • Aims to connect the Black diaspora with their ancestral traditions and heritage, by envisioning its future.

3 to read:


Space Opera

Space operas are, to me, the hardest subgenre to define, but easily the most physically expansive of them all.

Space operas generally don’t stay in one place, they take their main characters and you, the reader, through the system they’re reside in. Usually centered around epic battles, exciting chases across the stars, and heavily political, space operas are the perfect vehicle for those wanting to be taken through the void of space.

Sprawling spacefaring civilizations, galactic empires or governing bodies, political intrigue, all these fantastically exciting ingredients fold together in the bowl of outer space.

Although the term originally appeared as a derogatory attempt to denigrate serial radio dramas (like Orson Welles’ infamous narration of The War of the Worlds), it was reclaimed again and again until it evolved into the (loosely agreed upon) subgenre we have today.

These large-scale, high-stakes stories usually set in a distant future and bringing together an eclectic cast of characters are, without a doubt, among the best of the best.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Wide cast of characters;
  • Large-scale, high-stakes storylines and confrontations;
  • Sprawling spacefaring civilizations;
  • Galactic empires/governing bodies;
  • Fraught with political intrigue and commentary;
  • Journey through the void of space.

3 to read:


Steampunk

Steampunk is one of those blurry genres that often breaches the barriers between science fiction and fantasy.

Throughout my readings, I found this genre is often paired with magical elements, though its basis is a scientific one: clockwork/metal technological advancements powered by steam. It also seems to me that steampunk is the genre of science fiction which most allows for explorations of pre-industrial/pre-technological settings.

I don’t know if it’s a question of aesthetic (it probably is, you visual consumer), but this has grown to become such a fascinating genre. I love the way it generally centers a transition or a transformation from what was before to these new forms of technology, an industrialization by itself.

Though most times I find myself wondering where they get all the water for that steam…

Either way, I love the idea of alternative fuels and energy sources as the core of a technologically advanced society, which is usually interpreted to be all about electricity.

It’s hard to scientifically imagine a technologically advanced world without electricity, but if sci-fi, and particularly, steampunk, teaches us anything, it’s that imagination knows no boundaries, especially when it comes to the future.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Clockwork/metal-based technological advancements;
  • Aesthetic af;
  • Steam-powered tech;
  • Highlights transition, transformation, and industrialization;
  • Usually an alternative history setting.

3 to read:


Biopunk

Biopunk is the twin sibling of cyberpunk. It shares in its characteristic, only it focuses mainly on the effects of bioengineering/biotechnology, the melding of human and machine and the possibilities this ever-evolving transition from biological to cybernetic, or simply genetically altered beings, might bring.

It’s a stunning subgenre in many ways, but its most fascinating aspect is this philosophical discussion on what being human means, and if ever a point will come when we’ll need to redefine the concept of humanity.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Focuses on the future possibilities brought by bioengineering/biotech;
  • Shares defining elements with cyberpunk;
  • Discusses the philosophical implications of synthetic biology.

3 to read:


Tech-Noir

Tech-Noir’s designation is much explained in its name: a frightening, astounding blend of sci-fi (many times cyberpunk or space opera) and noir.

It’s got a lot of both genres and mixes them in irreverent ways, but is generally more character-focused (although it seems to demand marvelously detailed worlds), and narrated in the 1st person POV. Following the tradition of noir, it seems to center a character with a particular view of the world around them and their flaws.

Imagine detective noir stories with all their grit, murk, and unforgiving realness, but brimming with the implications of technologically advanced worlds. While other genres can present a more pronounced view on the duality of technology, tech noir takes a particularly dark, apocalyptic approach to its reverberations.

I love investigative mysteries so this genre is in many ways right up my alley, though I’d love to see it explored beyond the man investigators and the barely concealed (or invasively evident) sexism that so often pervade it.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Centered around an investigative mystery;
  • Noir detective stories blended with technologically transformed worlds;
  • Murky, unforgivingly real;
  • Often enhancing the apocalyptic, dark, and murky future of tech;
  • More character-focused;
  • Generally, the flaws of the main characters are a center-point.

3 to read:


Science Fantasy

Science Fantasy blends the best of two already awesome worlds: science fiction and fantasy fiction, as the name implies.

Although I’m not sure I’d call this a subgenre exactly (as it appears to comprise a multitude of subgenres in itself), I still decided to highlight it for its wonders and the way it takes from the best genres of speculative fiction (sorry, Horror) to create deeply imaginative and immersive worlds.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Explores the blurry line between sci-fi and fantasy;
  • Takes from a multitude of subgenres within SFF;
  • Arises debates on where magic ends and tech begins or vice versa;
  • Blends ancient and futuristic, mystical and scientifical.

3 to read:


Sci-Fi Horror

Another pretty self-explanatory subgenre. Sci-fi horror is one of the most harmonious blends there is.

And why’s that? Because although in science fantasy this blend is intriguingly built around contrasts, in sci-fi horror we are bringing together two genres that are simply a match made in heaven.

They bring together the epitome of the unknown: what lies in the dark (and what could be darker to us than the void of space?) and what lies beyond the stars.

The answer is a terrifying possibility only bound by an author’s imagination. And those are generally horrifyingly boundless.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Focuses on an unseen or unknown to all threat;
  • Usually set in a constricting setting; either alien worlds or in the void of space;
  • Centers the heightening of emotions, the elevation of suspense, keeps the reader guessing until the moment of climax;
  • Implies sense of finality, doom, dread, fear, terror, or/and disgust.

3 to read:


Dystopia

What can rise from the ashes of an old world, what horrifying futures are we headed towards? That’s the question dystopian science fiction explores in its myriad of answers. Sometimes phoenixes spread their wings to a new, fiery dawn, and sometimes embers just fade to the winds of another world, where humanity and freedom are but a memory.

Dystopia doesn’t always concern heavily futuristic worldbuilding, or even technologically advanced societies. It can deal both in transformation ot regression.

Tech isn’t always the looming threat surrounding us, awaiting its chance to realize our greatest fears. Sometimes it’s the creation of a slightly exaggerated but highly plausible society analogous to our contemporary that scares us the most (like George Orwell’s 1984, though certainly tech plays its central role in it too).

Whatever the fate in question, dystopia is an unputdownable genre that means to force us to assess the state of the world, and educate us on the very real, horrifying directions our society is currently striding towards.

A few defining characteristics:

  • Focuses heavily on political and social aspects of society;
  • Dehumanizing, terrifying future that centers oppression;
  • Usually postdates a cataclysmic, world-ending event that has eradicated the previously implemented society, causing downfall;
  • Often connected to environmental causes;
  • Deals with totalitarian states.

3 to read:


What about you? Have you read any of these and what are some of your favorite subgenres?

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20 thoughts on “Meet Some of Sci-Fi’s Greatest Subgenres

    1. Thanks for reading, Rin! Granted, when I was thinking of recs for each subgenre, I was thinking abt how some books don’t seem to fit into any subgenre at all! They’re just “sci-fi” to me, and though they may have something from a subgenre, they don’t rly seem to take its defining rules to heart. Thought that was interesting but perhaps it’s just tmi :p

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that’s an issue with SF that I’ve come across. I was trying to update the master list of reviews on my site, and realized that a lot of the SF is just….SF. Especially with novellas and short stories, they’re just people on ships doing…things. I don’t know. It’s frustrating, and not something you see in fantasy. I think it’s because the “baseline” of fantasy has subgenres like “sword & sorcery” whereas SF lacks “ships & space.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, that’s actually great substance for a blog post I’d gladly read!

        V interesting that you mentioned sword & sorcery and so true.

        Sci-fi has designations of “artificial intelligence” and “time travel” but just like you said, they seem to not become subgenres, in that they don’t define specific and major storyline/plot/worldbuilding characteristic like s&s does. Seems subjective though, as I’ve seen time travel being described as a subgenre, but I agree that stories are too unrelated except just that one common characteristic to be considered subgenre.

        So what makes fantasy more conductive for all those subgenres while sci-fi seems to work more with tropes/ideas? Maybe because fantasy’s the genre that most, at least until recently, followed a certain structure? But that’s not always true…

        Rly interesting discussion and sometimes might make it difficult to find sci-fi books that you know you’ll love because you adore that subgenre.

        Like

  1. Great post and I love your rec choices!
    I’m currently reading Ghost in the Shell, and it’s cementing the fact that I really don’t like cyberpunk. I think mostly it gets me down cause it always feels like a warning that no one is heeding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! You’re definitely right, cyberpunk tends to lower down a mood and rly spotlight the worst of humanity…But I think the thing that rly attracts me to the subgenre is that, though the main focus appears to be on that terrible, dystopian future, it tends to focus on a main character with a huge drive to push through it and (most times unwittingly) find the good things abt it.

      Like

  2. This was an interesting post to read!! Thank you for all your work! I have to come back and read it again from my pc because my phone doesn’t let me see your recs and I am dying to know which books you put in each category!!

    Like

  3. Bravo – that’s a brilliant round-up. Tech Noir is new to me; I’ve mostly just thought of that as cyberpunk and then tied myself in knots because I can absolutely make an arguments for Androids NOT being cyberpunk. So hooray, now I know what to call it! Thank you 🙂
    As a side-note: don’t forget to add links to the master schedule to help us boost your signal 🙂 I’ve added your two posts this week, but as work ramps up the next couple of weeks Lisa and I are likely to start missing things. If you add links to the schedule, you’ll definitely get a tweet (at some point; we inevitably fall behind mid month and time is an illusion, the hashtag is a time machine) and be included in the Mission Log the Monday after you post (or possibly the Monday after that if you post on a Sunday).

    Like

    1. Thank you! And I’m glad you found it interesting and it raised discussion. Personally, I think there are books that don’t even fall under a subgenre; they don’t quite 100% match all of the defining characteristics, even if a book has f.e. cybernetic humans, it doesn’t automatically make a book biopunk. Hence my case for Do Androids as a Tech Noir.

      To that sidenote: Thanks for the reminder, I tend to leave that for later and then end up bypassing it unintentionally. Will make sure to add them right after posting!

      Liked by 1 person

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