The best sci fi subgenres are:
- Hard sci fi
- Space Opera
- Space Western
- Cosmic Horror
- Alien Invasion
- Quantum/Time Travel
Sci fi is one broad genre. It simply means fiction based around plausible scientific theories. Theoretically, humankind should be able to populate the outer planets of our galaxy, living in efficient homes with artificial intelligences taking care of our every need, but for now that life is still firmly existing only in our imaginative minds. From time, to biology, to exploration and our meaning in the universe, this genre blossomed in the last two centuries or so, giving us a wide variety of stories with a wide variety of possibilities.
To list every subgenre that’s been created since would be tedious, to say the least. So, I’m just going to list the most popular, with meaningful movies or novels as examples.
Some lists tend to get more detailed than mine, but I believe most of the details fit inside these broader subgenres. Okay, I’ll stop saying subgenre. Just kidding.
Hard Sci Fi
This category is reserved for the purist definition of science fiction. It’s fanbase can be hardcore, like there is no sci fi but hard sci fi hardcore. In general, there is a scale to how “hard” the sci fi story is, based on how closely tied to reality and “hard” the science is. This section is giggle-inducing, I know, but stay with me.
Two authors come to mind when I think of hard sci fi: Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov.
Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and Congo, was a doctor long before he was a novelist, at least professionally—the man had talent, which probably came from years of writing something somewhere. His novels have a special flare for explaining complex science and global issues in a way that takes serious knowledge, intellect and research. He was prolific at piecing together the weird influences that pushed scientific development, for better or worse.
Though Crichton wrote an amazing book called Timeline, which I’ll discuss further down the article, he was primarily an author of biological story lines. One of his biggest successes, Jurassic Park, dealt heavily in genetics. Thing is, this dinosaur book was layered with an examination of unbridled capitalism and was arguably more about chaos theory than dinosaurs. This man was knowledgeable, a doctor before becoming a writer. I learned when I read his fiction.
The godfather himself…
And, of course, Isaac Asimov. For me, Asimov was the guy who wrote the Robot series, most famously portrayed in theaters as iRobot. This is the series that put artificial intelligence on the map way back in the 1950’s. Now that A.I. is more of a reality, people will retroactively look back to Asimov’s writings for inspiration. He did, after all, set up the rules for robots—you know, the don’t-kill-humans kind of rules. It’s one of those situations where fiction paves the way for actual mind-blowing science that’s close to existing. I just hope the A. I. we produce follow his commandments.
Intergalactic empires, romance and widespread space fleet combat rules the realm of the space opera. This genre is more on the “soft” side of science fiction, projecting out to distant futures and unfathomable mysteries of the universe, so who knows how precise the science is. Warp speed, force fields, friendly side-kick robots, all fit into this grey area of “yeah, that could happen”.
The fact is, space operas aren’t about the science, per say. They give us Shakespeare in outer space. It’s about the romance, an adventure in outer space. Of all the worlds and creations and wonders that are possible in the universe, why not bring the grand scale of classical epics into that arena?
Flash Gordon is probably the most famous example of a space opera. Beginning as a comic strip in 1934, Flash Gordon took elements of Buck Rogers and connected it to an upstanding American. The hero is a popular athlete, and of course a Yale graduate, who finds himself forced to save earth from Emperor Ming and his galactic forces. He’s just too hardcore for Earth adventures.
Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’ Star Wars are examples that push the boundaries of the space opera genre, so they deserve a sub-subgenre place on the list. This isn’t a usual classification, but the similarities are too strong, compared to the rest of science fiction. Both works are multifaceted, drawing inspiration from many different sources.
Dune is a fascinating look into the distant future, where technology develops in a cyclical way that resembles knights and magic. Forcefield technology, both personal shields and planetary protectors, have rendered most projectiles useless, bringing melee combat back into the fold of conflict, along with laser weapons. The universe is ruled by an intergalactic feudal empire, with as much palace intrigue as adventure.
The concept of spice, a universal energy emanating off the desert planet and giving its human inhabitants psionic abilities, is introduced as a mysterious element. Sand worms of titanic size feed off the energy, which gives the story a fantastical edge of monsters and magic. Our hero Paul Atreides comes face-to-face with his destiny, both with the mysterious spice and intergalactic empire.
The legendary Star Wars…
Star Wars is probably the most “fantasy” of science fantasy, following a young man on his hero’s journey. Black knights, evil wizards, alien monsters, laser swords, the force, a little, old elven sword master monk in the swamp, a princess, a pirate, it’s all there. George Lucas, however, doesn’t stop at medieval romance for inspiration.
In fact, his primary inspiration were Japanese films like Seven Samurai, which gave Darth Vader his helmet design. Other characters, such as Han Solo, seem to blend multiple archetypes together, such as cowboy and pirate. The man shows us a quick draw against a bounty hunter in the cantina on Tatuine and, around the same time, offers our heroes the fastest ship in the sea, urm galaxy. He’s a gambler and a runner, an outlaw, which brings me to the next subgenre on the list.
If space operas are equivalent to Shakespeare in space, space westerns are equal to John Wayne in space. Often centered around newly terraformed planets at the edges of civilized space, this genre takes the concept of planet colonization and mirrors that concept with the expansion of the American West. The storylines of this genre can take many forms, from bounty hunters to lone laser gunmen to deep space exploration.
This subgenre is often blended with others, mixed with space operas or cyberpunk elements. Firefly comes to mind, blending the space opera elements of intergalactic conflict with traditional western elements. This crew of outlaws have to pull off heists and blast their way through bad guys just like any other western.
The purest form of space western that I can think of is the manga/anime Trigun. Vash the Stampede is a wanted outlaw, the most famous wanted outlaw. The problem? He’s actually a pacifist. He just happens to be a savant at gunslinging, to the point where he doesn’t have to pull the trigger in most cases.
Set on a desert planet, as many space westerns are, the entire setting of Vash’s world mirrors the Wild West. Homesteaders work the land and build townships, putting hard work into transforming the barren planet. Outlaws with cybernetic limbs and otherworldly skill sets fill the story with fascinating obstacles, and the story arch is true to Western form with a haunted antihero.
Most recently, The Mandalorian has taken the cake for top space western. Director John Favreau clearly took strong Western elements that Lucas originally planted and filled his own chapter of the Star Wars franchise with that direction. Our hero, a gunslinger of renown, finds himself protecting baby Yoda and finds meaning as a hero. This trope is Western gold time and time again (the same trope used in Logan).
But wait, there’s more than just gun-slinging to this subgenre. Westerns are as much about exploring the great American wilderness of the Wild West than high-noon bullet blasting. In the same way, properties like Star Trek and Avatar actually fit the mold.
A broader Western…
Gene Roddenburry’s Star Trek is a bit of a reach but hear me out. The original inspiration for the show were novels like C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series of novels, Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and classic westerns like Wagon Train. Not all of these influences are about cowboys here, but the spirit of exploration has been a “Western” trait in a broader sense of the word. The same folks that pined over the Wild West read these romantic European adventures as well. Plus, Captain Kirk is totally a cowboy.
Avatar is often compared to Dances with Wolves for many reasons. If you ask me, it’s more like FernGully: The Last Rainforest, but the connection to Dances with Wolves is certainly present. Interaction with native peoples, for better or worse, is weaved throughout western tropes, and Avatar is absolutely cut from that cloth.
Space is a creepy place. It’s as big and old as we can possibly imagine, and there’s no telling what lies out there. This is the theme behind cosmic horror: it takes our deepest fear of the unknown and it confronts us with this fear. It takes the mind-blowing scale of the universe and reminds us how little and insignificant we are, but not in a cool stoner way.
The granddaddy of cosmic horror is H.P. Lovecraft, a prolific author of the early twentieth century who broke the domination of gothic style horror. His most well-known work is The Call of Cthulhu. Inspired by the idea of meaningless existence, Lovecraft creates an ancient alien entity that exists beyond human understanding. I’ve always found brilliant connections that Lovecraft made to ancient gods and man’s worship of these cruel entities. What if they were real? What if a quantum tear in reality unleashes something unfathomable?
Anyway, it’s a spooky concept.
The legacy of cosmic horror…
A more modern example of cosmic horror is Ridley Scott’s Alien. This film is a bit more “down to earth” so to speak, even though it takes place in outer space. The concepts interwoven in this film play on the same eerie theories of what could exist, both on a mind-blowing cosmic scale and an immediate, visceral threat. All of this with an allegory on motherhood. Lovely.
The crew of the space freighter Nostromo stumble upon an ancient structure of unknown origin, awakened from stasis early by the ship’s A.I. Landing on an alien moon to investigate a distress signal, they instead find hundreds of large eggs. One of these pods crack open when, of course, someone touches it. A parasitic organism impregnates a dude by latching to his face and doing its business. After the poor guy explodes in birth, the crew is hunted by the perfect predator.
What’s terrifying about this original concept is the question it raises. The crew didn’t simply land on an alien planet full of life to find this: it was cultivated by a race far superior to humanity. Who put this here? Why?
Consider that this was much more impactful when the movie was first release, as we’ve seen some attempt to answer these questions with the recent franchise releases.
Enough of all this outer space talk, what about the direction our own technology is moving? Could we be the reason for our own demise? Cyber punk tackles these concepts through characters who understand the technology, most notably hackers. More often than not, these stories take place in a dystopian future. The dystopia could be because of malicious human use of technology, or perhaps A.I. run-a-muck. The “punk” moniker refers to the ideal of self-reliance and individuality in a hyper-connected world.
Hackers don’t need society’s confines, man.
These stories take many forms, as far as setting and plot is concerned. Blade Runner, once again helmed by our man Ridley Scott, is probably the movie that put cyberpunk on the map. The concept of consciousness and artificial intelligence is ripe throughout this movie: it’s the moral conundrum. Rampant consumerism has left the world in urban decay and produced something ethically questionable.
In other cyberpunk classics, such as Ghost in the Shell, the protagonist is a product of technology themselves. Written and illustrated in 1989 by Masamune Shirow, this manga/anime property follows a secret police force who track cybercrime. Protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, a beautiful android and master hacker, leads a team of cybernetically-enhanced specialists to hunt criminals. The team chases enemies of the state in a future century, encountering cybernetic hackers, enhanced terrorism and strange philosophical quandaries along the way.
The “Plug-in” sub genre…
This genre is notoriously heady, with a splash of punk rock cyber fashion. Or leather, I guess? Looking at you, The Matrix.
Speaking of, this leads me to the next type of story often found in cyberpunk: the fully immersive digital world. I don’t see many articles or videos linking these properties to cyberpunk, more like LitRPG (which sounds so trendy), but they nearly always fit the criteria. A few examples are Ready Player One and Sword Art Online. Oh, not to mention the eclectic anime Summer Wars, which is a weird and random Easter egg here.
All of these LitRPG novels, manga and movies ask the viewer to consider why this escape is so important. There’s often critiques of civilization within these works, or full-blown dystopias. What are we escaping? What are we finding? Of course, the technology to reach fully immersive environments is well on its way, and we, as consumers of sci fi, get to imagine it first.
I love what this genre represents: an alternative reality to technological advancements. Inspired by classic science fiction writers like Jules Verne, this genre takes the elements of technology in Verne’s time, the early twentieth century, and reimagines the possibilities of Industrial Age technology.
Flying “airships” (such as are featured in the Final Fantasy franchise) are common piece of steampunk technology, as are automatons or clockwork golems. Properties such as the BioShock video game, Fullmetal Alchemist manga, and the novel trilogy His Dark Materials, are rich with these fantastical creations of a bygone time.
Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky is another fantastic example of steampunk. The story treats the sky itself as the setting, with characters piloting twin-engine propeller planes or gliding across the clouds in passenger airships. There’s even a floating island named Laputa, built from an even older ancient technology. Plop in a couple of young protagonists chasing after an antigravity Macguffin with a crew of sky pirates and we have a unique and imaginative adventure.
Other steampunk properties like Wild Wild West (that’s right, I went there) dial the clock back a few more years to reimagine cowboy tech. This action/adventure western blended cool elements of advanced technology, such as clockwork gadgets and a giant mech spider, with a typical western (or maybe more like an 1860’s buddy cop movie).
This one seems to be popular. The concept has been around for quite a while, but it most notably gained traction in public consciousness with H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds. This original work was written while people still traveled by horse and buggy, imagining Mars to host advanced civilizations who want some pretty, blue Earth property.
I could go in deep about how spacefaring civilizations would hardly need to do little more than push an asteroid at us or laugh at our feeble attempts to fight back against warp-capable aircraft. I could also mention the only thing Earth has that the rest of the universe doesn’t carry in abundance is our own genetic code. Not sure what a conquering civilization capable of space travel wants with that, other than a science project.
Either way, the aliens are gonna get what they want.
This subgenre has historically thrived in the movie world. The middle of the twentieth century was a time of near hysteria over flying saucers, with incidents like Roswell and other sightings fueling the public’s imagination. B movies and low-budget flicks were full of sinister aliens with human-like ambitions, desiring to conquer and rule. Of course, they shared a wiser side of alien visitors as well, with movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which forced audiences to hold an intergalactic perspective of mankind.
Later decades saw alien invasions of a smaller scale. Predator is technically an alien invasion film, even though it’s only one alien invading. Species, a nineties gym about a predatory alien disguising itself as a beautiful woman in order to mate, could be considered in the same light. Though the aliens were lazy in that one, they just radioed in our demise to foolish scientists who actually created the damn thing.
More recent invasions…
More recently, alien invasions have been mega blockbusters. Franchises like Transformers, Independence Day and The Avengers have placed the invasion genre back on the map in a big way. For some reason, American cinema has been drowning in alien invasion for the last few decades. Perhaps it has to do with our appetite for war. Maybe the opposite is true, and our appetite is for some kind of shared humanity.
The point of these properties has been the same since its inception: we need to consider our place in the universe.
Not all of the bizarre and uncanny lifeforms of the universe exist in outer space. We can create some seriously weird stuff right here on Earth.
If most of the other sci fi genres are about physics and mechanical technology, the Mutant subgenre places its focus on biology. The advent of the nuclear age left us with some bizarre side effects. Radiation’s effect on DNA was a big deal, creating birth defects and horrendous cancers in the regions that suffered from some sort of radiation pollution. We thought the big boom was bad enough, it was only the start.
I should mention Godzilla here, because many versions of the film interpreted the creature as a mutation in response to nuclear blasts (and tensions, metaphorically speaking). However, apparently the original only mentions the beast as a prehistoric creature. So, there’s that. If you ask me, nuclear breath is a pretty clear signal of what’s going on here.
That being said, early sci fi loved the concept of radiation mutants. I think Marvel’s take on the superhero is much more based in mutant sci fi than epics of the past (DC’s main influence). Sure, Marvel had Thor and DC had the Flash, but overall there’s a trend. Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, the X-men, Fantastic Four, Inhumans are all mutated humans and happen to be Marvel’s bread and butter.
The 1980’s-90’s were all about mutations. My childhood was packed full of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jurassic Park. The genre evolved as knowledge of mutation evolved. Radiation was most likely to result in one kind of mutation, cancer. Cancer is no fun, so genetic engineering was introduced to give us better plausibility.
As I mentioned in the cyberpunk blurb, advancements in technology can mess up society. We know how power corrupts, both in reality and fiction, and several prolific authors projected societies we should definitely avoid.
Classic sci fi produced authors such as Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), who brought the issues of their time to light.
Brave New World shows us a society that lulls its population into submissive obedience through pleasure. The citizens of this civilization have nearly every desire at their fingertips yet sacrifice true freedom and experience for these luxuries. Genetically engineered humans take happy pills called soma and learn while they sleep, but Huxley’s protagonist finds himself lost in a search for meaning.
Fahrenheit 451 shows us a world dominated in a type of knowledge tyranny. “Firemen” burn books considered outlawed by the state, “protecting” their citizens against thought crime. Our protagonist, Guy Montag, works as one of these firemen, until he meets a young girl with a thirst for free thought. After smuggling away an illegal book for himself, he finds himself in deep water (ironic pun? I think so). So, yeah, BOOKS.
Of course, we can’t forget recent inclusions to the subgenre, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies. I’m just going to assume everyone knows about those. The movies were huge.
Oh, and I should mention the definition of dystopia. It’s the opposite of eutopia, a civilization which maximizes its governing for peak human happiness. Because of this stark contrast, dystopias can show us how current political or social attitudes can lead us to dark endings. Dystopian stories are for thinkers: they’re cognitive and often well thought-out. At least the good ones are.
I could have simply taken the time travel route here, and technically one could separate these two as completely separate genres. But, also technically, space and time are fixed together like an inseparable fabric. One isn’t affected without the other, and time travelers are more likely to end up dimension hoppers instead. This level of weird physics doesn’t separate such things, so neither will I.
H.G. Wells once again shows a perfect, classic example of time travel sci fi with The Time Machine. This story is a bizarre look at the fate of humanity, not within our own petty time frames of centuries, but hundreds of thousands of years in the future. The humans of this time have diverged into two different sub species: the Eloi, a soft and pathetic product of evolution for the leisure class, and the Morlocks, the brutish working-class creatures who dwell in darkness.
These were the early days of time travel, at least in science-based way. Wells is often credited with popularizing the idea of a “time machine”. However, this was still a new concept in his day, and the nuts and bolts of moving through time weren’t quite there.
The quantum side of things…
Enter the master of late twentieth-century hard sci fi.
For the life of me, I can’t think of new authors for this category, because Michael Crichton has the next best time travel novel, Timeline. As I mentioned before, time travel is far more complicated than simply hopping over to the fourth dimension (the general explanation in Wells’ novella).
In Crichton’s Timeline a team of post grad college students and historians are presented with an incredible offer to travel back to 14th-century France. As this master writer often does, Crichton sets up his science fiction with precise technical detail and a daring adventure. Once again, the awe-inspiring science is built by gifted, yet short-sighted capitalist on a quest to destroy the competition.
As it happens, the plan blows up in everyone’s face, and these modern American kids and their historian companions now must survive a brutal conflict between kingdoms.
They aren’t actually in the past. They’re in the past of another dimension. People can’t just break time like that. Quantum physics is next-level bizarre.
That about sums up my breakdown of the best sci fi subgenres of all time. It’s the best. For real.