A rapid advance in computing and networking technologies in recent years has caused what some might call a science fiction renaissance. It wasn’t too long ago that many of us can remember buying our first personal computer, complete with a snail’s pace dial-up internet connection. Since then, we’ve been rapidly catapulted into the digital age, with the introduction of more powerful personal computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets every year.
These advancements happened at such a lightning-fast speed that it has many people feeling a little like they are living in a science fiction novel. That’s triggered many readers to revisit older science fiction classics as well as explore the latest offerings of the genre.
It’s also triggered many artists and creators to produce new science fiction movies and TV series that incorporate some of the recent trends we see in these rapidly progressing technologies. Many modern science fiction books and movies deal with issues like consumerism, social media misinformation, and cybersecurity, which are issues our society is already having to grapple with at present.
As many consumers have struggled to keep up with how to operate all of the new gadgets in their lives, many have begun to ask where all of these trends are leading and how they’ll impact us in the future. As a result, a lot of modern science fiction is put in the unique position of drawing inspiration for fictional stories from real ones.
This has influenced the genre as a whole in a big way and spawned new subgenres of science fiction. Let’s explore five science fiction subgenres and what type of reader each might be best suited for.
1. Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
This first subgenre of science fiction takes a look at what might happen in the future if things go horribly wrong. Many readers have a natural fascination with the possibility of catastrophe. In fact, it’s an idea that has been a part of human storytelling for a very long time, with ideas of the end times appearing even in some of humanity’s oldest myths.
Many post-apocalyptic novels deal with the destruction of civilization and in doing so shed light on social or environmental issues which, if left unaddressed, could prove fatal. Some of the threats to humanity explored in this subgenre include nuclear war, biological warfare, and the spread of global pandemics, natural disasters, and environmental degradation.
It can be a powerful genre that gets readers to feel the emotional weight of issues like climate change more readily. For many people that are concerned with their own day-to-day concerns, environmental problems like climate change can seem quite abstract. However, reading an immersive story that explores the possible catastrophic effects of climate change can help a reader feel more connected to the urgency of the issue.
This piece by the New York Times offers a list of books, some nonfiction, and some science fiction, that deal with how climate change will affect humanity in the future.
Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that rose to prominence in the New Wave movement of science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. It was at this time when many popular authors that would go on to write science fiction classics began to explore more dystopian versions of the genre. Prior to the New Wave movement, much of science fiction was quite utopian in nature, assuming a benign development of humanity.
The cyberpunk genre challenges this version of humanity’s possible future and instead features fictional worlds in which new scientific achievements such as AI and cybernetics are juxtaposed with a breakdown in the social order. It was through the cyberpunk subgenre that many science fiction authors began to explore what could happen if civilization’s social and emotional evolution was outpaced by its technological evolution.
The cyberpunk genre has had a resurgence in popularity in recent times, as many authors feel that there is evidence of such a breakdown in social fabric occurring today while technological advances speed ahead. In fact, many classics of the genre including books like Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep have been adapted for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Many young readers are revisiting old and new works of cyberpunk as they see some of the themes discussed in the books mirrored in their everyday life.
This piece by the LA Times offers a deeper dive into the history of the genre and why it’s finding new life in readers today.
3. Space Operas
Originally coined as a pejorative term by Wilson Tucker for a science fiction comic, space opera has since grown into a thriving and beloved subgenre of science fiction. Thrust into popular culture by George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, which went on to become one of the most widely consumed examples of the subgenre, it is now among the most popular kinds of science fiction literature.
In fact, from 1982 to 2002, the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel was often given to a space opera nominee.
Space opera incorporates some of the same themes often found in traditional fiction including large-scale, dramatic military battles and character-based melodramatic elements.
Some examples of space operas include Dune, Ender’s Game, and Triplanetary. If you’re looking for more inspiration, Cool Things Chicago has a good starter list of the best space operas ever written.
4. Science Fiction Comedy
Science fiction comedy is a subgenre that takes a comedic approach to science fiction, often by offering a satirical take on many of the themes explored by conventional science fiction.
It often touches on typical science fiction conventions such as alien invasion, nuclear war, or interstellar travel. However, it commonly does so to satirize traditional science fiction tropes.
Many readers will appreciate making light of some of the heavy themes that they read about in traditional science fiction and find learning to laugh at some of the most serious issues facing humanity a cathartic exercise.
Reading some science fiction comedy can be a great way to unwind and take a break from the doom-and-gloom presented in so much science fiction.
This piece by the Washington Post takes a look at some of the wacky and underappreciated books in this subgenre as well as science fiction more broadly.
5. Social Science Fiction
Social science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction that focuses more on social trends in the abstract than a specific plot or storyline.
Unlike the space opera subgenre, social science fiction places more on an emphasis on the trajectory of society than on particular characters.
A classic and widely-read example of social science fiction is the novel Brave New World. In Brave New World and in many other novels, social science fiction takes a precautionary tone, warning of disturbing social trends that could lead to dystopian outcomes.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is another extremely popular example of the subgenre that takes a similar precautionary tone. Readers interested in social issues will likely find this subgenre fascinating.
As we’ve seen, the genre of science fiction is extremely vast and incorporates a wide array of different subgenres, many of which we didn’t touch on here. Reading up on modern technological trends by keeping up with a good tech publication can be a great way to inspire you to pick up that science fiction novel that’s been sitting on your bookshelf.
Science fiction is a beautiful genre that can expand readers’ minds to the possibilities of what the future might hold. Hopefully, these subgenres will be a good place to start exploring the different literary elements that science fiction touches on.