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How to Decipher Sci-Fi Sub-Genres

Think you know your Science Fiction from your Fantasy? Think again...

Unfathomably large space ships, otherworldy creatures attempting to take over the planet, exploding moons — there is no shortage of action, speculation, and mystery in science fiction and fantasy novels. These books are remarkable, too, for the way they boldly combine tropes from many different genres. Sci-fi and fantasy are, by their very nature, an enormous genre, and so are normally broken down into a series of smaller, more niche set of sub-genres. Read on to decipher the language of any sci-fi fan, and maybe even spark your own interest in a whole new world of novels.


The art of Victorian futurism. What the future would’ve been like if it happened sooner. Steampunk incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery – think lots of cogs and lots of brass and copper!
Example: Lockwood & Co.


Space Opera
One of the oldest types of Science Fiction. Looking beyond planet earth for a new adventure in the stars. Often epic with multiple series and editions. Space Opera emphasises space warfare and melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space. It usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technology.
Example: Star Wars

Set in a world after a disaster or catastrophic event that has caused the end of human civilisation in one way or another. Often a world where only scattered elements of technology and humanity remain. This genre, is not interested in how people react to the cataclysmic events as they occur, but rather how people change and evolve as time goes on.
Example: Z for Zachariah

Literally the opposite to the term utopia which means a perfect place, or the notion of a perfect existence. Dystopia as a genre is quite often used to describe a place that appears perfect on the surface but is bad underneath - sometimes this corrupt existence is known but suppressed. A society characterised by human misery, oppression, disease, and where overcrowding can prevail – like Westfield malls in the weekend.
Example: George Orwell’s 1984

Urban Fantasy
Magical/fantastical characters creep in at the edges of an urban environment in which it is not the norm. Often based around a romance, most people will lead normal lives, oblivious to what is hiding amongst them in plain sight.
Example: Fallen series

Second World Fantasy
Stories (mostly epics), set in a completely fictional world with its own unique culture. Often still with human characters, but based in a completely different world – not in a parallel universe or alternate reality.
Example: Discworld® Series

Alternate Reality
The world – but not as we know it, also known as a parallel universe. A hypothetical self-contained separate reality co-existing with one's own reality.
Example: Robert Harris' Fatherland

The Genre-Buster
When it has it all! To use when you get a mix of genres that in combination, break out and work outside of the standard Sci-Fi & Fantasy fanbases and genres.
Example: Doctor Who, Outlander

Often hand in hand with the classic horror genres, this will have a specific focus on the occult or some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. Witchcraft and magic will prevail and our heroes will have to battle the forces of darkness. Beware the things that go bump in the night – you may need to sleep with the lights on!
Example: Magisterium: The Copper Gauntlet

Hard Science Fiction
A hard science fiction novel is characterised by an emphasis on scientific and/or technical accuracy . The relationship of the scientific content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, is the heart of hard science fiction. It requires the narrative to be procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and thorough in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible.
Example: The Martian

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