LESSON Science Fiction Genres

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Lstorm, Jan 30, 2013.

  1. Science fiction is a genre that spans multiple settings and has many potential focus points. It is a genre meant to focus on technology and predicting the future, or exploring rational consequences of an event. The following list is an attempt to document the most important types of science fiction and describe them in an easy-to-understand way. However, because science fiction is such a broad genre, not every single setting could be included, not to mention that these types of science fiction may interact with each other in strange ways. Like with many genres of literature, there are often no clear lines between the different types of science fiction, and as such, they may merge and meddle in a myriad of ways.

    Alternate History


    A rather specific type of science-fiction, Alternate History deals with “what-ifs”, specifically asking the question: “What if something happened differently in the past?” It usually takes a famous, well-known event from mankind’s history, changes it, and then explores the consequences of the changes. While Alternate History may take place in the relative past, it almost always explores technologies and ideas that are far ahead of the time it supposedly takes place in. It might also be a vessel for exploring a completely different take on humanity’s history.

    General Tone: Neutral

    Focus: Exploring ramifications of altered events, creating alternate histories, exploring altered worlds

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Alters the outcomes of past events or takes place in an alternate past
    • Usually uses technologies beyond the time it is set in, or uses a different take on familiar technologies
    • May reconstruct history as a whole and create an alternate reality
    • Conflicts span a broad range
    Literary Example: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

    Atompunk / Retro


    Atompunk can be easily recognised for its extremely streamlined, clean, polished and colourful aesthetics and its incredibly optimistic tone. It represents an age when technology was seen as a tool to solve every single problem and would be made available to everyone in ludicrous quantities in the future. Technology in this setting tends to be extremely futuristic, often rarely explained and nuclear power-based. Retro science-fiction is a sort of a re-invention of this genre, but it does not have to necessary focus on atomic power. It can be recognised by its devotion to adventure and fun.

    General Tone: Optimistic

    Focus: Technology, inventions, adventure

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Highly optimistic with a focus on how technology improves lives
    • Easily recognisable, shiny, streamlined, smooth and polished aesthetics
    • Technology is extremely common, available to nearly everyone and may have a silly edge to it
    • Conflicts can vary, but usually come from the outside in the forms of aliens or other creatures
    Literary Example: Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+

    Cyberpunk



    In a nutshell, Cyberpunk science fiction is best described as a technocracy, in which technology is put before everything. This type of science fiction is usually defined by the devices it uses, with sapient creatures often being pushed into the background. Information technology, cybernetics and robotics gain an especially large focus, along with what kind of effects they have on the setting. Human augmentation is quite common, not to mention different types of integration between man and machine. Technology is readily accessible to almost everyone. Usually, these worlds are ruled by human decadency and even its protagonists are questionable at best.

    General Tone: Pessimistic

    Focus: Technology, gadgets, inventions

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Technology and its effects take the main stage, seeping into every aspect of the setting
    • Sapient lives usually do not matter, sapience sometimes serves technology and not the other way around
    • Has a large focus on cities and metropolitan areas.
    • Conflicts span a broad range, but are usually between parties of questionable morality
    Literary Example: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash

    Dystopia



    To put it simply, a Dystopia is a very imperfect “perfect world”, where harmony or unity is achieved through the loss of something significant, or through questionable means. Dystopias are usually smooth, well-oiled machines which look happy and nice at first glance, but as layers and layers of restrictions or flaws are uncovered they become less and less desirable. The relative peace of a Dystopian setting is usually achieved through abandoning some value or principle that the current society considers important to their way of life. The point of a Dystopia is to introduce one to a society where everything seems to be in place, but either people in general or some groups have to pay a huge price for that.

    General Tone: Pessimistic

    Focus: Society, everyday life, restrictions and oppression

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Describes a society which seems “perfect”
    • While the society functions smoothly and without problems, living in a Dystopia is not desirable
    • Values or principles that are considered integral to happiness or morality are abandoned
    • Conflict comes from within the society, specifically its undesirable nature
    Literary Example: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

    Military


    This type of science fiction focuses on the combat and the action, putting a large emphasis on how new combat technologies effect combat and how wars would be fought in the future. Military science fiction usually goes to great lengths to develop new combat doctrines based on the new technologies and come up with ways to incorporate ideas validly into battle. However, militaristic science fiction is not necessarily realistic, as it is merely focused on the idea of battle, rather than seeing if everything makes sense from a design sense.

    General Tone: Neutral or Pessimistic

    Focus: Weapons, war, combat technologies

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • More often than not, it revolves around the frontlines and battles
    • Technologies that are introduced are usually combat technologies, or technologies that affect combat
    • Explores the effect said technologies have on the battlefield, often establishes new tactics and strategy
    • Conflicts can vary, but are likely to have a physical side to them
    Literary Example: Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

    Near-future


    Simply put, science fiction that takes place in a few decades from the present can be considered Near-future science fiction. While other genres can take place even thousands of years in the future, this type of science fiction tends to concern itself only with what is immediately predictable. Normally, Near-future science fiction does not go to great lengths with inventions and bases itself firmly in reality or technologies that are already in development. Naturally, there are some exceptions to this rule; most of the time, however, the science behind the inventions of Near-future science fiction tends to be solid and possible.

    General Tone: Neutral

    Focus: Technologies based on current scientific knowledge, plausible developments, predictions

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Focuses on the short-term, usually takes place within a few decades of the time of writing
    • New technologies are usually quite realistic or are based on existing proof-of-concept machinery
    • Tries not to make any wild predictions or unreasonable leaps
    • Conflicts have a wide variety
    Literary Example: Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

    Post-apocalyptic


    The world has already ended once, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Governments do not exist and there are only small groups left behind by an unknowable catastrophe that wiped out most forms of life in the setting. This type of science-fiction adopts a harsh, survivalist mentality and is focused on life after civilization has been wiped out. Technology is sparse at best, not to mention that even what little remains of it may be mistaken for magic if enough time has passed since civilization was devastated. Resources and food are sparse and must be conserved carefully. Sometimes, post-apocalyptic science fiction can focus on the apocalypse itself, but it will most likely address its consequences.

    General Tone: Pessimistic

    Focus: Survival, scavenging, re-building society

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Has a highly survivalist, scavenger attitude that defines the whole setting
    • Takes place after the destruction of civilization, or during the destruction of civilization
    • Resources, technology and food are sparse
    • Conflicts are usually centred around resources and survival
    Literary Example: Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven


    Science Fantasy


    A strange blend of genres, Science Fantasy mixes the elements of Science Fiction and Fantasy, including both technological and magical elements in its storytelling. Whether the scale tips towards the Fantasy or the Science Fiction side of the equation usually depends on the author, but when dealing with Science Fantasy it is important to keep in mind Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable for magic”, and its corollary, “Any sufficiently analysed magic is indistinguishable for technology”. However, regardless of how the author mixes and matches Fantasy and Science Fiction elements, they always remain blatantly recognisable.

    General Tone: Neutral

    Focus: Interaction between fantastic elements and science, story, adventure

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Fantasy and Science Fiction elements are mixed together, but remain clearly recognisable
    • Magic, if it exists in the setting, and technology usually have their own, well-defined limits
    • Usually tends to be adventurous, but may also explore ramifications of magic and technology deeply
    • Conflicts can span an incredibly broad range
    Literary Example: Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series

    Social


    Focused on the effect that new inventions have on society and the changes that happen in societies, Social science fiction can be a bit hard to grasp at times. While every single science fiction setting has a social component to it, Social science fiction has it as its primary focus. Technology, society and relationships between the groups of society are firmly established in Social science fiction, and the effects of new technologies on people are explored in-depth. Social science fiction may also take place in a time when a new technology is introduced and explore how it is integrated into everyday life.

    General Tone: Neutral

    Focus: Society, everyday life, integration of technologies

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Takes place in a stable setting, or shows a technological/societal transition
    • Deeply explores the social ramifications of new technologies and the changes they bring
    • Alternatively, explores a different society in-depth, analysing nearly every aspect of it
    • Conflicts usually come from changes, or from within the society itself
    Literary Example: Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall

    Space Opera


    The genre of the Space Opera is perhaps the easiest to understand, as it can be likened to the standard adventure, expect on a larger scope. Like its name implies, the Space Opera is an adventure that is spread across multiple planets, in a large universe. Unlike most science-fiction genres, technology is not especially important for the Space Opera. Aside from spaceships and interstellar travel being commonplace, one will not find any radical changes, though there are some exceptions to the rule. One good way to find out if something is a Space Opera is to consider its scope, as a Space Opera often revolves around large, galaxy-wide events and plots.

    General Tone: Neutral or Optimistic

    Focus: Adventure, characters, story

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • It is best likened to a traditional adventure on a different scale
    • Has a large scope that stretches across multiple planets or an entire galaxy
    • Ramifications of technologies are usually not explored, the main focus is on the story and characters
    • Conflicts can vary, but are usually epic in scope
    Literary Example: Frank Herbert’s Dune


    Space Western


    Like its name implies, Space Western is a hybrid of science fiction and western, in which the rapidly expanding human civilization faces problems similar to that of the Wild West. Like some other types of science fiction, technology is not very important from the point of the story, and varying levels of technology are present. Space Western is notable for its sense of adventure, its focus on character independence and borrowing many elements from traditional Westerns. It also evokes a feeling of nostalgia, with gunslingers, horses and sometimes a touch of silliness.

    General Tone: Neutral or Optimistic

    Focus: Adventure, exploring the new frontier, independence

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Borrows many of its elements from traditional Westerns
    • The level of technology varies though the setting, often decreasing towards the fringes of civilization
    • Science and technology may be just background props and not given much importance
    • Conflicts usually have a wild west flavour to them
    Literary Example: Andre Norton’s The Beast Master

    Steampunk


    Defined mostly by its reliance on mechanics and steam power, Steampunk represents a certain futuristic vision. In these settings, machinery is often more advanced than it should be, not to mention that steam is presented as a still-valid, sometimes supernaturally strong power source. Machinery and technology are one of the focuses of this setting, although they do not tend to eclipse characters like in other types of science fiction. There also might be a theme of human augmentation or replication of human intelligence by clockwork machinery.

    General Tone: Neutral

    Focus: Technology, steam-based machines, inventions

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Has a large focus on steam-based inventions, which are commonly available
    • Steam is sometimes given supernatural properties
    • Technology and its ramifications are explored without eclipsing the characters or the story
    • Conflicts are varied and have a broad range
    Literary Example: Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan

    Time Travel


    This type of science fiction centres around a single idea, namely that travelling through time is possible. Generally speaking, time travel has two mechanisms that it uses. While there are many names for them, Linear and Non-linear will be used here. In Non-linear Time Travel, the protagonists are free to do whatever they wish with the timeline, feel the effects of their actions and act accordingly. In some cases, these actions may have absolutely no effect, but that is rare. In Linear Time Travel, protagonists move on a fixed timeline, which means that the events in the past happened because people travelled back in time and made it so. Simply put, it is impossible to make changes to the timeline, because the changes have already been made.

    General Tone: Neutral

    Focus: Exploration, action, time periods

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Usually takes place across different time periods
    • The relationship between different time periods is important, especially in Linear Time Travel
    • Time travel is possible either voluntarily or involuntarily
    • Conflicts can span a ridiculously broad range across time and space
    Literary Example: Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife


    Utopia


    While the creation of a “perfect world” is not necessarily exclusive to science-fiction, it is a concept that is frequently explored by the genre. Unfortunately, one really big problem with the concept of a “perfect” world is that every individual has their own ideas about just what is the best for humanity or themselves. One person’s utopia might be another person’s eternal punishment. With that said, Utopistic science fiction usually deals with the structure of said Utopia, which is usually focused around a single idea that the author thinks would describe a “perfect” society. Well-written Utopistic fiction will attempt to consider every implication of said idea and incorporate them into the story, not to mention it attempts to solve every problem caused by this idea in a non-negative way.

    General Tone: Optimistic

    Focus: Society, everyday life, ideals

    Distinguishing Characteristics

    • Describes a “perfect” society, at least according to the author
    • Is based on a core principle that influences the whole setting
    • Attempts to find realistic, well-developed solutions to problems that present themselves
    • There is usually little to no conflict, and if there is, the conflict comes from outside the society
    Literary Example: H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods