Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Genres of Speculative Fiction

The Genres of Speculative Fiction

Introduction – or What in General is a Genre?

Stories have existed since the dawn of history; arguably without stories there is no history and thus they are the definition of civilisation. Stories give us the opportunity to examine difficult issues and explore ethical problems, or to escape from reality and live someone else's life, trials and triumphs. Most importantly, from my point of view, they give the opportunity to speculate: to ask "what if?"

Science fiction and fantasy are regularly placed together on the bookshop shelves. This is partly because some authors dabble in both types of story, and partly because the reading world seems to be divided into those who like SF and those who do not. Urban Legend has it that a high end literary supplement had a science fiction editor whose sole purpose was to ensure that no science fiction made it into the paper. Thus those who might be offended by the sight of an elf or rocket can browse safely for their work of high literature or chick-lit. Conversely, the rest of us can concentrate on interesting stories without worrying that our purchase is over concerned with "relationships".

What then is science fiction and what is fantasy? Both are aspects of Speculative Fiction, and thus ask the question "what would life be like if…" Science Fiction tends to concentrate on technological or scientific advances: the possible, and fantasy on magic: the impossible. As the dividing line between possible and impossible can be hard to agree on, some stories thus stray into the territories of both genres.

This very ambiguity has been used by some authors to deliberately blur boundaries. One notable example is Larry Niven, who wrote a series of time travel stories published in "The Flight of the Horse" where his science fiction character Svetz travels back into the past and encounters fantasy creatures such as unicorns and werewolves. "I had been claiming that time travel is fantasy as opposed to science fiction; that is, time travel is clearly impossible on any level … the extension cage is a fantasy vehicle and Svetz doesn't know it".

Science fiction and fantasy are not the only genres available. The list includes crime/detective, chick-lit/romance, and horror. It may be that because SF is typically read by geeks, who are by nature analytical, SF is often divided into a number of sub-genres. None of these genres are hard and fast. It is salutary to remember that when specimens of Duck Billed Platypuses were first brought back from Australia, scientists refused to accept that they were real as they did not fit neatly into our Mammalian definitions. After all, mammals do not lay eggs. When all else is considered, it is not what genre a story fits into, it is the quality of the writing.

But fitting stories into categories is such fun...

Science Fiction

It is usually thought that science fiction is concerned with the future. In actual fact science fiction is usually concerned with the society or technology at the time of writing, extrapolating it forward to see what could happen if something was taken to an extreme. In the words of Frank Herbert: "Sometimes the function of a science fiction author is not to predict the future, but to prevent it." For example, George Orwell's dystopian "1984" is a warning against allowing communism in the UK, as well as the protection of civil liberties and privacy.

Proto SF

This is science fiction written before anyone had thought of the term, and then retrospectively claimed. Into this list will fall Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" and works by H.G. Wells, such as "The War of the Worlds" and "The Time Machine", and much of Jules Verne. Sometimes these early works were referred to as Scientific Romances.

Sci Fi / Space Opera

This is what most people think of as science fiction. The stories are epic in scale, with little regard for science or logic, concentrating instead on the spectacle of grand empires and space battles. Typically Sci Fi refers to science fiction on the large or small screen, while Space Opera for the written version. Classic examples of this include Star Wars and Star Trek, but also E.E. 'Doc' Smith's "Skylark" or "Lensman" series.

Planetary Romance

While not too far from Space Opera, this is not a genre that is much found these days. Its heyday was the early pulp magazines, where motifs of rocket ships mixed with fantasy and swords in romantic stories on alien planets. Think original Flash Gordon or Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars".

Hard SF

Hard SF concentrates on the appliance of the physical sciences to stories: physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering. The stories aim to be as realistic as possible, but hopefully not impeding the storytelling. While the general public considers Space Opera as typical science fiction, hard SF tends to be the benchmark among serious readers. When you see authors considering thrust-to-weight ratios and arranging the ships' decks so that they are arranged like a skyscraper and not end on (yes Star Trek, we are looking at you), then this is where you are. Examples include Alastair Reynolds' "Revelation Space" and Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars".

Soft SF

Unlike Hard SF, Soft SF majors on the "soft" sciences, such as psychology, sociology and politics. Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars" is one of the rare works that manages to deal with hard and soft aspects successfully, examining both the detail of constructing a Martian colony and plotting its political development. Another example is Larry Niven's "A Gift from Earth" (and several others), where he takes the idea of using condemned criminals for organ transplant spare-parts, and then extrapolates to the scary conclusion of the death penalty being applied to more and more trivial crimes or even to support a totalitarian regime. Sometimes SF can be very prescient.


In the 80's, punk ideals swept away the overblown styles of the past to replace them with something new, gritty and contemporary. Cyberpunk borrowed from new wave writing, American "hard boiled" crime fiction and the technological aspects of Hard SF, especially the burdening field of computing. The style tended to include a lot of invented technological slang, some of which entered mainstream language, such as "cyberspace" and "virtual reality". The language can be brutal, but also beautifully poetic at the same time. Classic examples of cyberpunk include William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and Bruce Stirling's "Mirror Shades". On the big screen "Jonny Mnemonic" was an (unsuccessful) adaptation of a Gibson short story, and "The Matrix" owes much of its inspiration to the Cyberpunk movement.


While Cyberpunk deals with the harsh realities of a computerised age, Steampunk takes Victorian technology into the future. In some respect H.G. Wells and Jules Verne could be counted as proto Steampunk, but then they were Victorian. Writers who have taken a deliberate Steampunk approach include William Gibson and Bruce Stirling's "The Difference Engine", where a totalitarian state is created using the power of Babbage's mechanical computers. A more recent example is the "Mortal Engines" series by Philip Reeve, featuring giant steam-powered cities preying on each other. In the cinemas, Will Smith's "Wild, Wild West" fits into this genre.

Alternative History

Alternative history considers what the world would be like if some significant event had, or had not happened. This can also include travel into parallel universes and time paradoxes. Recent examples of this include "The Yiddish Policeman's Union", with the non-formation of Israel and its replacement Jewish homeland in Alaska, and in "Timescape", where scientists deliberately send messages back in time to prevent ecological disaster.

Military SF

Military SF is a sub-genre of Space Opera that is concerned, as you might expect, with blowing stuff up. These can take the pro-military stance of Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers", the anti-war view of Joe Haldeman's "Forever War", or the more balanced / ambiguous approach of Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game".

Post-Holocaust SF

Oh my, we are all going to die! Or at least, most folk already have. Post-holocaust stories can been gloomy warnings, such as Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" or Frank Schätzing's "The Swarm" (which is strictly holocaust rather than post-holocaust), or jolly Hollywood romps like "Mad Max" and "2012".

Literary SF

Literary SF is SF published outside the genre, or is by authors not normally classed as SF writers, or is of an exceptionally high standard so that it is recognised outside the genre, or even SF that the authors or publishers do not want classified as SF. As you can imagine, it is a controversial sub-genre. Examples of this include "1984" by George Orwell, "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margret Atwood, "The Time traveller's Wife" by Andre Niffenegger, and arguably William Golding's "Lord of the Flies".


While Science Fiction (generally) looks to what might be, Fantasy (generally) looks to what might have been. Interestingly, while fantasy is pushed into its own corner in the adult section of the bookshop or library, in the children's section the books are fully integrated. Perhaps we need to learn from our offspring.


A fairytale is a fantasy that is populated by folkloric creatures and characters such as dwarves, elves, trolls, and faerie. The setting is often Germany in the time of the Holy Roman Empire, rural Russia, or other medieval European setting, though can be further back. They are invariably escapist, sometimes moral and sometimes scary, but as Tolkien states in his essay "On Fairy Stories", they "should be presented as 'true'… but since the fairy-story deals with marvels, it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion." They were not always for children; the tales from the Brothers Grimm were certainly not initially, but rather supernatural horror stories for adults.

High Fantasy

High Fantasy is figure headed by J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", extending as it does the fairytale into something more. It deals with epic deeds, fair sylvan and beastly races, high magic, maps and trilogies. Actually, trilogies are not confined to High Fantasy, but they do seem compulsory and are the singular fault of Mr Unwin, who deemed that the Lord or the Rings was too long to publish in a single volume and insisted that it be split into three. Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea" series can also be placed here, and is actually homage to Tolkien, as shown hidden in the word Earthsea itself: earth is "tolk" and sea is "inien"

Sword and Sorcery / Heroic Fantasy

This is the polar opposite to high fantasy. Here are no elegant elves and carefully constructed languages, but rather loin cloth clad barbarians hacking their way out of trouble. Sword and Sorcery is personified by Robert E. Howard's "Conan", though also includes the (slightly) more cerebral Fafhred and the Grey Mouser from Fritz Leiber's tales of Lankmar.

Science Fantasy

Science fantasy is very much the border between science fiction and fantasy, featuring as it does both magic and technology. Prominent in the recent additions to this genre are Eoin Colfer's "Artimis Fowl" series, featuring high-tech fairies that are armed and dangerous (and very funny).


Superhero stories are another borderline category. They usually feature a mixture of technology, mutation-induced special powers and magic. While they pretend to be more science fiction, the characters typically fall more into exhibiting impossible abilities, and thus fall better into the fantasy section. Typical works include anything published or derived from Marvel and DC Comics, but also intelligent recent works like "Heroes". Note that as the themes are rarely subtle (with a few notable exceptions), the plots thin (ditto) and the action in the forefront, superheroes are most commonly found in visual mediums.

Magical realism

Magical realism is concerned with where real everyday life meets the supernatural. Here the fantasy is real: there is magic and the fairies really are at the bottom of the garden. In the words of Lindsay Moore: "Magical Realism is characterised by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality." Bruce Holland Rogers says that while "science fiction and fantasy are always speculative", "magical realism is not speculative and does not do thought experiments". While there are many examples that can be classed as Magical Realism, the best example for me is the beautiful, thought provoking and chilling story of the young girl's encounters with a faun set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War: the film "Pan's Labyrinth".

Comic fantasy

Where would the British writing industry be without Sir Terry Pratchett, OBE? Who else could turn out two books a year while maintaining consistently high quality ideas, writing and jokes? A werewolf with pre-lunar tension, a six foot plus dwarf, a wizard who can cast no spells, comedy murder mysteries, and devastating parodies on modern life. Unlike most fantasy, Terry Pratchett's books hold a mirror up to our own current society in a way more akin to the science fiction genre. Interestingly, his first two published books were science fiction, before finding the groove with his Dungeons and Dragons spoof "The Colour of Magic", after which there was no looking back. As Sir P does not have the genre all to himself, we ought to mention other notables like Douglas Adams "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", Robert Rankin, and Tom Holt.

Science Fiction is not immune to comedy (think "Red Dwarf", "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" and "The Stainless Steel Rat"), but fantasy seems to have more scope for jokes. Certainly, the SF comedies tend to avoid the science aspect, because keeping things logical and rational can only get in the way of the humour.

Conclusion – or Why Speculate on Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction is genre fiction; science fiction and fantasy are sub-genres of SF, and there are sub-sub-genres and possibly beyond, though with books being atomic, there is a limit to how far you can go; certainly there is a useful limit. I thought about making a section entitled "School of Magic, or "Harry Potter", but decided against because J.K. Rowling monumental success leaves little room for anyone else. There are other books with a magical school theme, such as "The Worst Witch". They all tend to be children's books, but that is not surprising as children are more concerned with school than adults. Does it really count as a sub-genre though? After all, an author is not a genre.

Where would one put Jasper Fforde? His "Thursday Next" and "Nursery Crime" novels are wonderful and cross so many boundaries they are in danger of forming a Literature Fantasy genre. Mind you, with works like "Lost in Austen" and "Sense, Sensibility, and Sea monsters" now on the shelves, perhaps he has started something.

So what use is a genre? And if it matters, does it matter that it matters? Some, like Jasper Fforde, feel that genres are barriers against reading widely. In an interview at Greenbelt 09 he stated that fiction in libraries would be better grouped by colour. Others find them useful, like maps to better understand the literary landscape.

In the final review, what is important is not the genre of the book, but the quality of the writing.


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter! This was very thorough but an enjoyable read nonetheless. Thank you. AA

Peter Debney said...

Some links to this article:

Peter Debney said...

and another link: