Which Of The SF Sub-Genres Is Safe Or Unsafe And Why? An examination by: GF Willmetts (article).

After last month’s editorial, I thought it would make sense to have a look at the baker’s dozen of Science Fiction sub-genres and which I classify as safe or need expanding. After a few recounts and additions, it became more than thirteen than Wikipedia thinks is out there. The one thing all these seventeen sub-genres have in common which makes them fall under the umbrella SF genre is they adhere to a mostly consistent (that’s so it includes the borderlines) scientific rule change or fudging that makes for something out of the ordinary or a backdrop to show how people cope in such situations. In practice, especially these days, elements of each of these sub-genres are recombined into single stories than solely on their own. That isn’t unusual when you consider that I’m still cataloguing the number of basic plots and nearly reached the hundred mark. Therefore, you might find a little romance in cyberpunk but only a little, it hasn’t taken over the content of the sub-genre to remain in that classification. The sub-genres are the predominate pattern which helps readers, that’s you reading here, select the kind of book you want to read.

Each of them has their own fans and with the exception of the last one noted, all SF authors really ought to try writing in each sub-genre to see if they can do so. I confess that after compiling the list below that there are some that I haven’t done myself yet but that depends on whether I come up with an appropriate idea or not.

However, the point of this article is to assess which sub-genres are too safe and which looking ones could improve with new ideas. Even if you don’t agree with my assessment, then perhaps you’ll make them work better by feeding them new ideas instead of re-treading old ground yourself. After all, it only takes one great idea no one else has thought of to become an innovator in our genre.

Planet Stories Pulp.

Before I start, if you don’t find a particular sub-genre below or at the end find yourself saying, ‘I read across all the sub-genres, so isn’t there a sub-genre called ‘General Science Fiction’ that I belong to’, don’t feel put out. A few decades ago, everything was ‘General SF’ or, rather, just Science Fiction. The sub-genres came about largely because our genre was growing exponentially and there was a need to sub-categorise to make it easier to find certain books or authors even within genre speciality shops. If something like ‘Medical Science Fiction’ hasn’t got its own sub-genre then it’s mostly because it’s the domain of one or two authors than an entire clan.

For the sake of making the sub-genres stand out in the text below, they will all be treated as proper nouns and be capped for the duration of this article.


Hard Science Fiction

Hard SF confines itself to all the recognised scientific laws we have today and can only play with its limits. In other words, no fudging allowed! As such, you won’t find the likes of faster-than-light space travel or even time travel because we haven’t been able to do it. It’s only the science and technology you’re using is what we have about you. Any advances in technology are because scientists are on the verge of breakthroughs in that areas and even Hard SF authors have to think that it’ll be a couple years before their latest book using it will come out just how advanced they dare go. I should also point out that in other than quantum mechanics, there hasn’t been any significant major scientific law discovery so your building blocks are pretty static.

If anything, Hard SF is a lot trickier to write because if you write it in a present day setting, what differentiates it from a general genre? Any other time period will still have these restrictions and limitations. However, just because you only use what sciences we know, you aren’t restricted from a future setting so you can visit the local planets and might even send a starship to the nearby star providing you don’t go beyond an optimistic 10% of light speed. It doesn’t prohibit a lot of standard SF fare as it just means more work to explain how it’s done.

On some levels, I see this sub-genre as being safe, simply because although many SF authors have contributed to it they haven’t written anything revolutionary. This sub-genre doesn’t really allow for innovation and if anything is only an appliance of science or its ethical considerations. This does tend to suggest that we need something out there to make Hard SF work and not scare readers with too much modern science when used. You’re either going to scare the wits out of them with things like global warming which they already see happening and isn’t really ‘new’ or reassure them that scientists will sort everything out and you can go back to relaxing with a book in your garden. Hard SF stories therefore ultimately spend more time on the human condition than leaving readers in wonder.


Soft/Social SF

In many respects, Soft SF has the same restrictions as Hard SF because knowledge of the social sciences doesn’t extend beyond what we already know. Much of it originally stemmed from the likes of Harlen Ellison, largely because he didn’t want to write what we would call ‘Science Fiction’ with some fancy gadgets but about people in futuristic situations.

If you wrote about a society that was really odd, you would have to hope that your reader understood what you were doing or what metaphor of our own society you’re spinning. The greatest strength that Soft SF has is with social satire – itself a separate sub-genre, which unfortunately few SF writers write these days or if they do, don’t reveal they are doing. What should have been unsafe has become mostly non-existent and absorbed into the other sub-genres. More could be done with Soft SF but with the media showing us the real thing across the world on a regular basis, it has invariably fallen behind.



When Cyberpunk began its life in the early 80s, computers had barely infiltrated the home and a lot of people thought it was a bit of a mystery. It was also probably the first to have its own recognised name. Its main writer, William Gibson, has since revealed he is a fearful technophobe, which no doubt contributed to him also making his programmers drug-addicts, no doubt fuelled by his belief of being a bit crazy to do such things. Those of us who program know that you need a clear head to program a computer which immediately puts things at odds with how Gibson wrote his stories. Whether there will be a true cyberspace, only time will tell, let alone putting our consciences inside to manipulate it. To some people on the Internet, they are already have the equivalent of cyberspace already without having their heads wired into the system.

The problem is that Gibson’s template has been the one used for all other cyberpunk stories and as such hasn’t developed too much into how it would really be done. If Cyberpunk is to truly become unsafe then it really needs a wiping of the board and do an update and future based on where our current technology is going and the problems that could happen.

Throughout the history of Science Fiction, no one really foresaw the impact of computer games and true total immersion in them has been speculated but not achieved. The same also applies to the likes of the Internet although the possibilities it opens for Artificial Intelligence, simply from having the kind of memory space for…er…cyberspace has barely been explored. However, this really is an old trope when writers should really consider what else they can do with it. Without such moves, Cyberpunk will remain complacent reasonably safe. Any SF author wanting to change this will have to step off from our current time period and see where it leads and just be inventive with where is leads. Not so easy when you consider how rapidly computer technology changes so periodically that it’s already becoming our current reality.


Steampunk/Dieselpunk et al

Steampunk came about largely about from alternative history, only having innovation earlier than modern day and using steam power to run things. In other words, historical fantasy doesn’t really play with technological difference. As such, you would have the likes of Babbage’s computer earlier than possible. Everything is bigger than we have today and possibly likely to slow down the development from steam power to that new-fangled electricity stuff.

A lot of the time, such stories cover a lot of old ground and tends to be a back-drop than fully utilised. The Steampunk technology might be clunkier but it serves the same purpose and holds more to the Hard SF edict than anything futuristic. In many respects, Steampunk fills the gap for readers who needs something a little more primitive than standard SF fare but it’s more a change of means than much of a change of story.


Alternative Histories

In many respects, from the above, Alternative Histories aren’t what I would call ‘real’ Science Fiction. As most of the stories are set in the past and rewriting history we are familiar with, it doesn’t do anything that is wildly Science Fiction. If it does, there is a tendency to place it under Steampunk or the other sub-genres. Alternative Histories falls under our genre, simply because there is no other place to put it. Then you could ask why don’t historical romances fall under it as well, especially when its writers often modify historical events to fit their storyline. I’m not sure if their readers would like to be roped under our genre.

The stories that use an alternative past to set up an alternative future tend to be pretty rare and one has to wonder why make such drastic changes when it’s a lot easier for the writer to work out from our current reality to make such changes. As such, it’s a misfit fitting in with other misfits in our genre.


Time Travel

I’ve always been puzzled why Time Travel stories are regarded as a separate genre. I mean, much of the time it’s just a vehicle (sic) to get somewhere to have an adventure. For time travel itself, the exploration of paradoxes it can cause has even been accepted by the general populace which has restricted how many surprises it can contain that haven’t been written about yet.

Time Travel does differ from Alternative Histories in that what causes the change are the time travellers, not some change in a pre-existing event by someone making a different decision. Although it will continue to be used and be useful, Time Travel is safe because so many of its options have been explored.


Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic

Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic stories have a strong attraction for readers simply because it’s the end of everything and attracts our pessimism. Much of the time, it’s the effect of an atomic war although equally it could be any global disaster, including global warming. We’ve all seen the consequences of this in film without me labouring over any examples.

Unlike ‘normal’ wars where some people have a hope of survival, if you’re at ground zero, your chances for not being affected are less than zero and that has had strong resonances after since the Americans dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities to bring the end of World War 2. Even at the height of the Cold War, the USSR didn’t want to start a final conflict, knowing it would also bring about their own destruction. Stories using this situation today are more likely to choose a Middle East country for starting such a situation because they are far more volatile and worse, could actually happen. There would be survivors but nuclear fall-out would have assured that there would be no outright winners. As such, SF stories in this sub-genre both in fiction, film and TV have strengthened this image and have done the most to ensure such wars never come about. Hopefully.

For Science Fiction as a whole and probably its most important role is keeping this imagery up-to-date. Fear of consequences in this regard keeps everyone remembering the consequences. No other genre can do this. As we expand into the universe, it is also important to remember that other species might not have the same respect for this danger as ourselves. This, again, has been reflected a lot in our genre but it could do with a lot more solutions and fictional scenario examinations to keep it healthy and up-to-date rather than to make Mankind look blood-thirsty in adversity and for aliens to note from our fiction why we don’t think such actions are much good for them neither.

As so many stories have been written as to the after-math or post-apocalypse, it’s inevitable that they all follow a similar pattern and readers expect either a new society or mankind’s passing. There doesn’t seem much more than can be done with it. Despite the dire pessimism, it is almost too safe an end. Jo Walton’s book ‘What Makes This Book So Great’ that I’m reviewed this month has a category called ‘cosy catastrophes’ which belongs here. To briefly summarise, despite the disaster, things end on a happier optimistic ending. If that doesn’t make this a safe sub-genre, I don’t know what is.

We are increasingly becoming used to the idea of the end of civilisation. In some respects, this sub-genre should be regarded as a PR exercise that no matter how bad things are, we will survive. Whether that is optimism or not depends on the type of disaster and SF authors tend to be very careful around using the likes of global warming in their stories as the choice for what might really happen because they aren’t sure how.


Military Science Fiction

Military SF arrived on our doorstep through the likes of Robert Heinlein with ‘Starship Troopers’ (1959) and Gordon Dickson’s ‘Dorsai’ books (1959-1979) and wasn’t really regarded as a sub-genre until the last decade or so. I think the real turning point came with the ‘Aliens’ (1986) film showing military could be blended with SF. Quite why the early films like ‘Them’ and ‘Godzilla’ or even the quasi-military elements of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) and the original ‘Star Trek’ (1966-1968) didn’t attract the label earleir is hard to say. Hence I think the troopers in ‘Aliens’ with their state-of-the-art weapons that still couldn’t barely match the might of the xenomorphs set their own standards for then there is trouble, you don’t send adventurers in to resolve it but trained troops.

The problems with Military SF is that its only largely beefed up versions of ‘Aliens’, relying on small troops than overall bigger gameplays, so is ultimately just window-dressing than really doing something extra-ordinary with the sub-genre. Undoubtedly, someone will some along and change all of that, only it hasn’t happened yet. You have bigger menaces so you bring in bigger guns. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Readers who like Military SF have probably become bored with make-believe war stories and want something a bit more cutting edge. The time period might have changed with its weaponry but the final result is pretty much the same making this sub-genre too safe as well.



As a sub-genre, Super-Human covers all manner of abilities and technology from mutants, psionics to cyborgs and how they affect the world they live in. If it’s different to normal humans, then it’s included here and is a niche for super-heroes and super-villains as well. Whether the super-human is seen as a minority to be ousted and killed or for them to do likewise back, it is the genre that is gaining the most in current times, as witnessed by the growing number of films and TV series using the subject matter. These have been largely inspired by comicbook super-heroes although other brands are available. It is also flexible enough for even non-SF fans to recognise its significance. Who out there hasn’t had the dream of being able to fly or read minds? There is a synergy and appeal for everyone and hence its popularity.

If there is a problem, then the chief plot of human versus super-human is the one thing that gets over-played than any society development. As my own ‘Psi-Kicks’ stories fall under this sub-genre, it does appear that I’m the only one ignoring the standard psionic tropes and taking a stab at doing things my own way. Saying that, anything different here can too quickly become its own cliché and there is a need to remember that it’s what you do with these abilities that is equally important in any consideration. I’ve always thought that humans wouldn’t have much chance against such beings and when authors show they do, it’s only wishful thinking. As such, there is still a lot that can be done here in any other sub-genre else why would it have survived so long?

In some ways, Military SF does cross-over with this sub-genre showing that other sub-genres can as well. Providing SF writers start moving away from the clichés noted above then it could well open up more as it has a waiting audience.


Comedy Science Fiction

Oddly, Comedy SF is one sub-genre that seems to dominate in fantasy than SF, although the likes of Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s ‘The Space Merchants’ (1953) led the way before it fizzled out for a couple decades. In many ways, it’s been recognised that one of the strengths of SF is to play an open satire of modern society or even oppressive societies although to be fair, considering how much blabbermouths we are elsewhere from oppressive countries by recognising them, we put such authors under threat. As such, such fiction has fallen into disuse. Laughing at existing regimes to minimalise them can have serious consequences for those who live in them.

Considering the range of SF and comedy, you would have thought there would have been more that could be explored. Writing comedy is an art-form and few have the necessary timing and ability to use or do it well, let alone build a significant fan base. If you are so inclined, then bring it into your fiction slowly and play with the reality of the situation and hope someone notices other traits in your work. Giving some of your characters a sense of humour will at least add another dimension to their personalities.


Romance Science Fiction

A couple years back, a couple of the bigger SF publishers tried Romance SF as a means to get SF onto the romance shelves and see if they could garner a readership there. As they now appear few and far between, I don’t think it was that successful. Our genre is still male dominated and the fairer sex are more interested in the other SF sub-genres or they would have moved long ago to the romantic genre.

As I reviewed some books in this sub-genre, they had a heavy dose of SF compared to romance. I should point out that these worked far better as Space Opera than they did as romances. This doesn’t mean it can’t work but I don‘t really think there is much of an audience out there for it.


Science Fiction Horror

In many respects, SF Horror can apply to most of the sub-genres, depending on how much fear you put into the reader. The fact that the first two novels, ‘Carrie’ and ‘Firestarter’, Stephen King had published were actually Science Fiction and not horror tends to escape most people. It is only what it does to the people concerned that makes it branch between the two genres. When you consider Alderan’s destruction in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ (1977) or Vulcan in the pocket universe ‘Star Trek’ (2009) films, wouldn’t you consider them as horror than SF films? What can be more horrific than genocide? SF Horror would also feature Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic sub-genres as well. However, none of the key characters are that close to personal disaster, when say compared to ‘Alien’ (1979), which is described as a horror house story set in space and yet we all still see it as Science Fiction.

Differentiating horror from fantasy is just as hard as from Science Fiction. People like to be frightened. If the dictates of being SF is that it applies to being consistent to a set or implied rule structure and chilling consequences, then it should be considered Science Fiction Horror.


Crime Science Fiction

I’m in debt to my colleague Rod MacDonald for suggesting Crime SF. It was more prevalent back in the Golden Age, especially with Isaac Asimov, and certainly still persists in filmed SF. Like with the more general crime fiction, it needs a certain kind of mindset to write it well. Putting in an SF element means the writer has to adhere to the conditions laid down in the opening of the story and lay the clues to the solution from such changes and not cheat the reader by revealing the solution with a fancy gadget. Saying that, this does not preclude Crime SF creating an alternative solution with the evidence given so the reader can’t anticipate the solution, hence making this sub-genre semi-safe.

In many respects, Crime SF is still a very specialised sub-genre. It isn’t likely to attract the more mainstream mystery reader which also means there might be limited appeal within our own community, although we do have some tendencies that way. Having said that, Crime SF included in other aspects of the sub-genres might make this a bit of a goer if it’s allowed to blossom. It certainly deserves as much chance as Romance SF.


Human Condition Science Fiction aka Near Future

I was wondering if the Human Condition SF deserves its own categorisation but as it is something that came up across the sub-genres and they themselves can be mixed and matched, then it should be considered as a separate entity even if it might also belong to the Soft SF sub-genre.

So just what is the human condition really about? Well, think of the various aspects of your own personality, including its strengths and weaknesses and then explore them. Now have you seen all of this explored in Science Fiction? Often as not, this is done by an alien looking in than by self-assessment, with Edgar Pangborn being a good example. A lot of it is often sub-context so that it’s only by the time you reach the end of the story do you realise the writer has sneaked it in to make you see how you might have done under similar conditions. It’s the element that grips you that makes you care for the characters in the story. As these human conditions are unlikely to change, wherever you place your human cast, doing this properly is a sure way to get the sympathy of the reader who will live that situation with them.

This doesn’t mean more can’t be done with it. There’s a vast amount about ourselves that can be addressed and have plenty of variety not to be boring. It could be regarded as unsafe providing we are prepared to explore ever more deeply into the human psyche which means putting more of your ‘soul’ on paper.


Space Opera

If ever there was a sub-genre whose standard plot gets constantly re-used and could be compared to the reusable plot of romance than Space Opera is ours. How many times have you seen the powerful empire brought down by rebels for a new beginning, although it’s rare to see what happens next. It borders on the Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic stories sub-genre but doesn’t go quite that far and, if anything, tends to be quite middle class about its activities. If the evil emperor or empress and their people are removed, then thing would get back to ‘normal’ tends to be the message. As we have seen in our own reality, the truth doesn’t tend to match this. Even the good guys without a rival tend to adopt bad practices themselves when they have no significant opposition although SF hasn’t caught up on that regime yet.

Space Frontier and Space Western also tend to fall under space opera, so I’m noting them in passing as this is where they would be categorised. With both of these, Science Fiction is more the window dressing for old fashion westerns.

SF authors are notorious reality creators but very reluctant to play madly with the tropes themselves. Indeed, as a sub-genre, it cross-populates from across the other sub-genres and mainstream genres for what it needs. As such, there hasn’t been much need to do anything different and its fans lap up what is offered. This makes Space Opera one of the safest sub-genres that could do with some growth by looking at the regimes around us for inspiration than follow whatever else has been done so far.


Science Fantasy

As its name suggests, Science Fantasy has closer bonds to fantasy than to science, often playing fast and loose with our known science laws with little regard to the consequences of how anything is done. It might be fair to say it is possible to totally fudge everything you know in them. Then again, faster-than-light and time travel could be classified here as well. What differs between the two, though, is an inconsistency of application and few authors deliberately want to write in this sub-genre for lack of credibility. In many respects, I would see these as being adventure stories with SF window-dressing than using it per se within the story.

In many respects, I’m glad Science Fantasy has fallen out of fashion because it is a misleading title and is almost as bad as the final one…



One can’t really avoid noting down ‘Sci-Fi’, mostly because this is the lowest nadir of our genre and there is a gray area between it and Science Fantasy. So what constitutes ‘Sci-Fi’? It isn’t just fudging but also not allowing for the consequences of what is fudged simply because it looks neat. It ranges from enlarging insects beyond their ability to breathe. It is forgetting the Cube-Square Law with having giants where their increased mass would make it impossible to move. It is the use of unsubstantiated beliefs of aliens affecting ancient civilisations and using the examples already in books, which on some levels is also a level of fiction, solely because of cloudy evidence. I could go on, but it tends to boil down to a poor level of plausibility, credibility and poorly researched, if any, unoriginal writing. It is invariably written by hacks who haven’t researched what Science Fiction is all about and lacks plausibility, let alone understands how we fudge things a little. It is no wonder we die-hards wince when journalists use the term ‘Sci-Fi’ and think all Science Fiction live under that label. It can’t be ignored so is left to be the bottom and is definitely the joker in our pack. Educating the media to tell the difference should be in all our best interests.


Looking at the results above isn’t that encouraging, is it? I suppose it is possible to cross-match some of the sub-genres and come up with something totally new and this has been done very effectively on occasion. Whether anyone can come up with a new sub-genre or three is hard to say because what is covered above could almost certainly be slotted in them.

This doesn’t mean all Science Fiction stories will come out safe, just that it needs a lot more work in plotting them so the reader will not second guess you.

Reviewing what I’ve written above, I suspect the real problem is that all of the most significant things that can be done in Science Fiction have already been done. When you consider my previous thoughts that we already live in a Science Fiction world where things are changing on a regular basis, the SF author can’t stay ahead of the changes before they are yesterday’s news. That would also explain why many of them coast along than innovate.

Are there new innovations out there? I really do hope so but they have to be sought and used than waiting for them to be announced on the front of newspapers. There is a need to make Science Fiction unsafe and unpredictable. This happened in the Golden Age and is certainly a contributory factor in modern day SF. Granted that a lot of early SF looks dated today because they didn’t have home computers or mobile phones but as a genre, that has never made much difference because each SF author has created their own realities based off what they knew in their life-times. That, in itself, should be the clue to what we should do. Science Fiction feeds off our uncertainty of the future. Currently, other than the fear of global warming, we are coasting along when we should be shaking things up. Complacency is the last thing we need in Science Fiction. By showing our worse fears or problems with uneasy answers, we can make Science Fiction a little more unsettling and certainly not as safe as it appears now.

© GF Willmetts 2014

content can be used elsewhere as I want to spread the message

but please remember to credit it.

Apart from Rod MacDonald, I would also like to thank Pauline Morgan

for her useful comments on an earlier draft.



Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

2 thoughts on “Which Of The SF Sub-Genres Is Safe Or Unsafe And Why? An examination by: GF Willmetts (article).

  • Sadly, your overwhelming fear of ‘global warming’ seems
    to consume your intellect a great deal. That is a sad state to life. Someday, you will hopefully see thru the fog bewildering your mind, to that of the natural earthly/solar reasons of climate change.

    Till then, Good Day.

  • Hello Bilbo
    My mind isn’t fogged.
    My comment on global warming is that no SF author has tackled the subject in novel form. Considering the number of other ends for mankind being tackled, you would have thought someone would have dared tackled Man’s damage to the environment, which is true, global warming or no.



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