From exciting space travel adventures to dystopian survival stories, science fiction is one of the most popular literary genres of our time. Children and adults alike fall in love with the fantastical stories that seem just slightly out of the realm of current possibility, but have enough scientific evidence to make them seem plausible. This guide will jump right into just what makes sci-fi so appealing to audiences around the world, as well as the multitude of subgenres that science fiction contains. Let’s get started!
Sci-fi novel conventions & tropes
Science fiction (often shortened to simply “sci-fi”) is similar to fantasy in the sense that it’s imaginative and can have some highly creative worldbuilding elements, but the key difference is that everything is based in science. Some novels may rely more on theories, whereas others stay strictly to scientific facts or theories to ensure that their fantasy worlds are as realistic or plausible as possible.
Science fiction is usually associated with futuristic content, aliens, space travel, or other concepts similar to the Star Wars franchise, but sci-fi books can reach far beyond these ideas. Since sci-fi is based in both imagination and scientific quandaries, anything is possible. Stories can exist in any type of world, real or imagined, feature characters that the author created themselves, take place in an alternate timeline, reimagine past events, and all kinds of other scenarios. But, despite the limitless possibilities that sci-fi authors can conjure up, there are some basic guidelines that most novels tend to follow:
- Stories take place in an authentic, or believable, world. No matter what the chosen setting is, the audience should have a solid understanding of how the world operates, what conditions are like there, and other details that make the setting unique. For example, if a character is able to teleport, the author should explain the mechanics and technicalities of this ability. An unexplained capability is simply fantasy.
- Novels feature exciting, unfamiliar elements. The beauty of sci-fi is that readers get to explore a new world of the author’s invention, while also being privy to the scientific explanations that make the characters and world function. Cyborg characters, aliens, time travelers, and other unusual protagonists add excitement and intrigue to the story.
- Authors shouldn’t take shortcuts. Unlike fantasy worlds, sci-fi authors should feel compelled to explain the scientific technologies and ideas that their ideas are founded on. For instance, if an author wanted to write a story that dealt with the possibility of extending the human lifespan by another century, they would have to do serious research abou current medical technologies to make their imagined situation believable. Then, they should be able to succinctly describe how this technology would be further improved, eventually leading to an extension of human lives in their novel.
- Stick to the scientific facts. Sci-fi authors should resist the urge to introduce more fantastical elements for the sake of their story or to further embellish their characters. Although rules can often be broken in fiction, authors should strive not to break any laws of science in their writing (at least, not without repercussions for the characters).
- Pose ethical dilemmas or challenging futures. Sci–fi novels often pose difficult moral and ethical questions. Some examples might be should sentient androids or human clones have the same rights as humans? Should we impose our version of morality on aliens? When the singularity arrives and machines have superintelligence that far surpasses all human intelligence, what will our role be? Will the machines enslave us or dispose of us?
Common Sci-fi Subgenres
Generally speaking, science fiction can be divided into two general categories:
Hard sci-fi deals with proven scientific facts in the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, or astronomy. Hard sci-fi authors are meticulous about technological accuracy, even to the point where the science in a novel becomes more important than the characters in the story.
Soft sci-fi often revolves around the social sciences, which are based on theories more than “hard” facts. Psychology, sociology, or anthropology are some common “soft” sciences used within this genre.
From these subdivisions, readers can quickly understand what kind of sci-fi novels they’d prefer to read. For example, if you prefer to see how technology affects the lives of characters, you’d likely enjoy soft sci-fi. On the other hand, if you’d rather read about the technical aspects and scientific explanations of a story more than the human relationships, hard sci-fi would be right up your alley.
If you’re not sure what kind of science fiction you’d enjoy the most, consider the science classes or topics that interested you in school. Did you prefer biology and chemistry, or did you lean more towards psychology and philosophy? Peruse the following list of subgenres to help jog your memory (or inspire you to try something new):
Alien invasion. This is a common theme in sci-fi stories. Typically, an alien race from another planet or galaxy travels to Earth in the search of food (sometimes using humans as good), destroying Earth, or enslaving humans to help them achieve their extraterrestrial goals.
Alternate/Alternative history. Alternate history or alternative history dives into the question of how things would be different if something in the past hadn’t happened, or if a situation developed in another direction. A book in this subgenre might ask what might have happened if the Wright brothers had never successfully built an aircraft, for example, and highlight how flight eventually became possible in another way. These novels often blend social commentary and true historical facts with a generous helping of science fiction to create truly unforgettable tales.
Apocalyptic/Post-apocalyptic. Apocalyptic sci-fi is categorized when a story is taking place during a civilization’s end times, such as during a major nuclear disaster or a deadly global pandemic. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels discuss what life is like for survivors after an apocalyptic disaster leaves most of civilization in ruins. These books tend to be dark, gritty, and may feature some psychological horror.
Biopunk. Biopunk literature focuses specifically on combining biotechnology and genetic engineering to create characters that are somewhere between human and machine. Gentific manipulation, body modification, and eugenics can be common themes in biopunk novels, and they can also take place in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic landscape.
Cyberpunk. Similar to biopunk, cyberpunk explores the idea of blending high-tech elements with human characters. Cyberpunk might include characters living in a virtual reality setting (as opposed to the “real world”), digitally-enhanced prosthetics, cyborgs, and other things that blur the line between the biological and the cyberspace.
Dystopian. Dystopian novels are often social commentaries on current political or social issues, but ramped up to the next level to point out the disturbing nature of limiting human freedoms. Police states, surveillance, banning certain behaviors, and corrupt governments are common in dystopian tales. George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most prolific novels in this subgenre.
First contact. This subgenre can be either exciting or horrifying, depending on what types of characters the author chooses to introduce. Basically, first contact novels describe the initial meetings between humans and extraterrestrial beings. Sometimes, humans are the benign explorers to another planet and accidentally invade a hostile land of aliens, or sometimes these novels describe an alien race coming to Earth and meeting humans for the first time.
Humorous/Light. Light sci-fi is humorous, typically acting as a refreshing satirical outlook on overused sci-fi tropes or subgenres. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an excellent example of humorous or light science fiction.
Military. This subgenre of sci-fi has, as you may have guessed, a distinct militaristic theme. These books typically revolve around a small army, a massive militia, or an organized group of outcasts fighting against some deadly opponent. Traditional military tropes like nationalism, honor, pride, and duty can be frequently found in these novels.
Space opera. Space operas, or space epics, are long-running, fantastical, and highly detailed stories that can take place over several novels, involving dozens of characters and two or more planets. Star Wars is a common example of a space epic, as it deals with a large-scale event (a galactic war), features numerous recurring characters, and shows many examples of heroism, space travel, betrayal, political tensions, and a hint of romance.
Steampunk. Steampunk is the unique but easily recognizable literary genre that blends sci-fi with alternate history and technologies and aesthetics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Steampunk can imagine what it would be like if more modern technologies, or even futuristic technologies, were introduced or invented during the Industrial Revolution, or the “Age of Steam.”
Time travel. This sci-fi subgenre has been a popular concept since the 1880s, with novels by Edward Page Mitchell’s The Clock that Went Backwards and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Characters can travel to the past or to the future, or they might be visited by people from other timelines or centuries. These novels can be highly exciting and fun, or they can ask darker questions, such as, “What would happen if you went back in time and killed your own father?” Time travel stories can sometimes overlap with the “alternate world” subgenre.
Ready to find your next sci-fi read? Head to Just Kindle Books’ free books page to discover eBooks available for free download through the Kindle store! Browse through the broad sci-fi genre, or choose a more specific subgenre to find the perfect book to suit your interests.