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Defining the Sub-genres of Speculative Fiction

© Marg Gilks

When Hugo Gernsback introduced "scientification" stories in Amazing Stories in 1926, the new genre he described as "a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision" captured the imagination of adolescent boys throughout the thirties and forties. L. Sprague de Camp, when he described science fiction as "fiction based upon scientific or pseudo-scientific assumptions (space-travel, robots, telepathy, earthly immortality, and so forth)" in his 1953 Science Fiction Handbook, summed up how most people viewed the genre: robots and space ships; a genre devoted to the wonder of science and technology.

But just ten years later, in 1963, Theodore Sturgeon defined science fiction as "built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its speculative scientific content." Science fiction became speculative fiction; rather than predicting conditions in the future, this new breed of fiction now examines the human condition.

That sounds familiar, doesn't it? Like all other forms of fiction, speculative fiction is about people. It's often an examination or commentary on current societal mores and foibles, disguised as speculative fiction and set in another where or another when to make it "safe." Speculative fiction now includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, and any other genre, it seems, that can't find a niche of its own. And each of these genres contains a whole bevy of sub-genres.

This boggling morass of labels does more for the end market than it does for writers. Publishers wanting to define the tone of their magazine, booksellers wanting to know what shelf to put a book on, and readers who want to quickly find their favorite type of speculative fiction may find these endless categories useful, but for writers, they're simply problematic: what is all this stuff?

Ignorance of the sub-genres is a two-edged sword. Send a story to a magazine that wants horror, and you may receive a rejection stating, "We don't publish gothic!" (Huh?) Okay, so you've developed a thick skin; the cranky rejections just roll off your shoulders. But finding out your story is "gothic" when you thought it was simply horror may have cost you money, and it definitely wasted both the editor's and your time.

You've never received such a rejection? Well, perhaps it's because you've played it safe and avoided sending anything to a magazine that wants mysterious sub-genres you've never heard of. By playing it safe, you may have missed an opportunity. For years, I avoided markets whose guidelines called for "slipstream," only to discover that most of my stories are slipstream. Too late now.

Knowledge of the sub-genres allows you to effectively market your work — or at least categorize it, if you choose. Following are the most popular sub-genres, defined.

First, admittedly broad definitions of The Big Three:

Science Fiction

Called "the literature of ideas" by Pamela Sargent, science fiction has as its basis science — it utilizes either actual scientific facts or scientific constructs made plausible by the author. While science fiction is no longer only about science, there's usually something technological or futuristic about its setting.


Where science fiction either works within, bends, or at least acknowledges the laws of nature and the universe, fantasy has its own set of laws, often considered impossible in the real world. Fantasy draws on the reader's intuitive instincts rather than the cognitive; it says that, yes, magic exists; it evokes wonder. Some people consider fantasy "escapist literature" — itself a necessity in today's high-stress world.


If it scares the bejeebers out of you, it's horror. Think Stephen King and Peter Straub. It's ghost stories and monsters and bumps in the night — fiction that utilizes often unexplainable phenomena to play upon a reader's primal instinct: fear.

And now the sub-genres:

HARD SCIENCE FICTION – "pure" science fiction, often driven more by ideas than by characterization. Plausible science, engineering, and technology are central to the plot. Writing in this sub-genre usually requires that the author be knowledgeable in one or more of the "hard sciences," or those ruled by mathematics — astronomy, physics, chemistry. Gregory Benford, himself a physicist, draws on his knowledge of how scientists work for his novel Timescape.

SOFT SCIENCE FICTION OR SOCIOLOGICAL SF – character-driven science fiction; more emphasis is placed on the characters or societies that interact within the scope of the technology, rather than on the technology itself. Ursula K. LeGuin is considered a master in this sub-genre (The Dispossessed), but Stephen R. Donaldson also examines the darker side of human nature in his "Gap" series begun with The Real Story.

SPACE OPERA – this term comes from "horse opera,"a sub-genre of the Western genre. Generally, it's good guys against bad guys, in a stellar setting. Space operas are often epic, and usually take place out in the galaxy somewhere. They usually don't worry about scientific impossibilities like faster-than-light travel and the likelihood of finding other intelligent life-forms. Despite this, they're extremely popular — witness "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." Most well-known SF authors have done space opera; Lois McMaster Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" novels are popular examples.

SCIENCE FANTASY or FUTURE FANTASY – can be considered a cousin of space opera, in that it alters or breaks known natural laws or scientific theories in order to make the story work. As long as the writer can convince the reader to suspend disbelief in these instances, usually with large injections of suspense or wonder, the story can be considered successful. Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" novels are science fantasy (A Princess of Mars, 1912).

CYBERPUNK – popularized by authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk uses "cyberspace" as its setting — usually a near-future world of computers, hackers, and computer-human combinations like cyborgs. William Gibson's Neuromancer is one example; the "Matrix" movies are also cyberpunk.

NEAR-FUTURE SF – the story takes place in the present day, or within the next fifty years or so. Elements of setting are familiar, and the scientific basis exists in the present day. Stories based on nanotechnology or genetics would be candidates for the near-future SF label. Greg Bear dabbles with cell restructuring in his novel, Blood Music; Jack McDevitt's Ancient Shores is set in a contemporary North Dakota.

DYSTOPIAS – future societies in which something is very, very wrong. Many dystopia stories contain couched commentaries on some undesirable aspect of contemporary society. Classic dystopias are Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and 1984 by George Orwell (1949) — the original "Big Brother is watching" novels. Others include the movie Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Gattaca, in which the social stations people hold are determined solely by their DNA.

FIRST CONTACT – the initial meeting of alien beings and cultures. Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, Carl Sagan's Contact and Niven and Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye are all first contact novels.

TIME TRAVEL – H. G. Wells popularized this with The Time Machine in 1888, although Edward Page Mitchell wrote The Clock That Went Backwards seven years before that. Characters travel into the past or the future. The recent novel Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove sends a modern woman back to the Roman Empire.

MILITARY SF – science fiction focusing on war and the military. Sometimes compared to C. S. Forrester's Horatio Hornblower stories, David Feintuch's "Seafort" novels are examples of military SF. Joe Haldeman and Orson Scott Card examine future war and its toll on the participants in their novels Forever War and Ender's Game.

MILITARY FANTASY – yes, it does exist. Glen Cook's "Black Company" series is an excellent example.

ROMANTIC SF, ROMANTIC FANTASY, and, yes, ROMANTIC HORROR – the story focuses on the romance between the hero and the heroine, within a science fiction or fantasy setting, or in a story containing elements of SF or fantasy. Steven King's Wizard and Glass contains a commendable love affair amidst the horror. Fantasy? Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella are obvious examples.

LIGHT SF or LIGHT FANTASY – humorous fiction within these genres. Douglas Adams' Hithchiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" series are "light." This may be the oldest form of speculative fiction. Authors in the 1600s and 1700s often satirized scientific experiments and theories put forth at the time in fantastic stories. For his flying island, Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's Travels (1726), satirized Sir Isaac Newton's Principia; Thomas Shadwell (1642 – 1692) ridiculed blood transfusions and mechanical looms as "impractical" in The Virtuoso.

SLIPSTREAM – fiction with a speculative fiction element — often fantasy — that is either weak enough that the story can be marketed as mainstream, or that deals with mainstream themes. ("Mainstream" = non-genre; popular fiction.) Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a science fiction story marketed and accepted as mainstream, can be considered slipstream. Likewise Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Slaughterhouse Five.

ALTERNATE HISTORY and STEAMPUNK – the altering of historical fact to hypothesize on what might have been, under the different circumstances established by the author. Steampunk focuses this further; it's set in Victorian England and the characters utilize twentieth-century technology. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel about an 1820s computer, titled The Difference Engine, is steampunk. Harry Turtledove's name is synonymous with alternate history; he unites enemies in World War II by throwing alien invasion into the mix in Worldwar and lets the Confederates win the Civil War in Guns of the South.

HIGH FANTASY, HEROIC FANTASY, TRADITIONAL FANTASY, or SWORD & SORCERY – the setting is usually medieval, the plot is often based on the quest theme, and the characters often consist of wizards, elves, witches, dragons, and unicorns. Magic is an essential ingredient in these stories. Terry Brooks' "Shannara" novels epitomize this sub-genre. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is considered its master by many.

MAGIC REALISM, SUPERNATURAL, and NEW AGE – the common becomes strange. The author offers magical, otherworldly, or supernatural explanations for natural events, creatures, objects, or human actions. Stories may contain aspects of the occult, UFOs, psychic phenomena, and so on. "The X-Files" springs to mind. Along the same line, Surrealism draws on the subconscious for its imagery; surrealistic stories exhibit unreal or dream-like qualities.

URBAN FANTASY – fantasy in a contemporary setting. Esther Friesner's Here Be Demons and, to a lesser degree, Tom Deitz' "Otherworld" series (Windmaster's Bane and so on), where the line between our world and Faerie thins, are urban fantasy.

HISTORICAL FANTASY – Many of these stories may have started as straight historical fiction, but the belief of historical peoples in magic, or fantastic elements injected by the author, allow these stories into the "speculative fiction" category. Whatever the reason, there's a lot of historical fantasy out there. Judith Tarr has written many historical fantasies (The Hound and the Falcon, set during the fall of Constantinople, and Lord of the Two Lands, about Alexander the Great). Pauline Gedge's Scroll of Saqqara is set in ancient Egypt.

DARK FANTASY or GOTHIC FICTION – contains elements of horror and sometimes mystery, as well. It often deals with evil magic in some form. Gothic fiction, which originated in the late eighteenth century, predates dark fantasy. Favorite settings included graveyards and castles. Yes, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are classic examples of gothic fiction; Anne Rice has popularized the sub-genre with her Interview With the Vampire and other novels about the vampire Lestat.

SPLATTERPUNK – excessively violent horror with excessive gore, all related in graphic detail.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR – no gore at all, and probably no bogey-men, either. It's all in your mind — or the characters'.

APOCALYPTIC and HOLOCAUST – disaster and world-comes-to-an-end stories — comets strike the Earth; society is wiped out in a global nuclear holocaust (On the Beach by Nevil Shute); dinosaurs walk the Earth again (Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park), with catastrophic results.

After the disasters come the POST-APOCALYPTIC or POST-HOLOCAUST stories — how humans (or other intelligent beings) survive and create new societies. Ordinary people rebuild their lives after nuclear holocaust in Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. Esther Friesner's duo The Psalms of Herod and The Sword of Mary examine social structures after widespread ecological disaster.

And finally, SHARED UNIVERSE – when you write within another author's universe, using their setting and characters, you're writing a shared-universe piece. Star Wars and Star Trek novels, no matter who writes them, are shared-universe stories. Roger MacBride Allen shared a universe created by Isaac Asimov when he wrote his three Robotics novels, Caliban, Inferno, and Utopia.

Even armed with a broad knowledge of speculative fiction's sub-genres, you may still receive a rejection stating that you've sent your piece to the wrong market. Don't despair, just send it out again. For, much as Tom Shippey stated in The SF Book of Lists (1982), speculative fiction is the literature of change; it changes even while you're trying to define it.

Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.

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