One of the most enticing features of science fiction is the new ideas and philosophies it can explore.
For instance, Harry Harrison wrote the novel, Make Room! Make Room!, to explore what happens with an unchecked and unmitigated population. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky defined the term “stalker” in their influential novel, Roadside Picnic. And of course, in I Am Legend, Richard Matheson subverted the dystopian narrative by proposing a world in which the human being becomes a legend, something of folklore.
Science fiction is an amazing resource for the geek who's hungry for more philosophical ideas to chew on — and you're sure to find something powerful and inspiring in these sci-fi subgenres.
Open your mind and take a tour through the wide world of sci-fi today!
A subset of the solarpunk art movement, this subgenre deals with environmental issues. But solarpunk also takes the “punk” attitude of its suffix, and imbues a rebellious spirit that is inherently optimistic.
Most works of solarpunk deal with communities facing environmental hardship, and building stronger relationships. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Trilogy rockets readers to 2065. The world has returned to its naturalistic “green” roots, but is on the verge of another industrial revolution that threatens to undo society's balance.
Another example is Cory Doctorow's 2017 novel Walkaway. In the book's world, many live in a dystopian society known as the Default. However, those who choose to leave the Default and make a world outside the cities can do so with relative ease.
Ecofiction or Cli-Fi
Where solarpunk tends to focus on a positive social element, a return to natural wholeness and even some sense of utopian quintessence, cli-fi (short for climate fiction) is more in the realm of apocalyptic fiction.
Jeff VanderMeer has been actively writing inventive and urgent cli-fi and literary fiction for over a decade. Though it might be difficult to choose one title over the other, it’s his Southern Reach trilogy — and more so the first volume, Annihilation — that acts a primary example of the genre.
Another example is Ian McEwan’s Solar, which follows a physicist who discovers how to derive power from artificial photosynthesis.
Cyberpunk is one of the most essential and versatile (not to mention visually striking) sci-fi subgenres.
You’ll be familiar with the genre from the films Blade Runner and The Matrix, and yet there are so many other entries worth checking out. For instance, the highly underrated world of Jeff Noon, particularly his novel, Vurt, takes a psychedelic approach to cyberpunk, and is set in a world where the drug vurt is used to enter a shared alternate reality.
Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle series, in particular the first volume, Infomocracy, blends the ingredients of cyberpunk with political intrigue. The novel takes place in a world in which Information is an all-seeing and powerful search engine, and part of an ongoing battle for governmental power in the nation-states.
Social Science Fiction
Social science fiction doesn’t pay as much attention to technology or space as other subgenres do. Rather, it speculates and obsesses about society. It is far more sociological and anthropological in its aims, with the primary lens being on human society’s interactions.
Many classics are part of this genre, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A more recent example is Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, The Road. Though it is indeed post-apocalyptic, its focus is also on the social, and the splintering away of a human society after a reality-ending event.
Another example of the genre is J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which takes the fetishization of automobile crashes into an erotic social niche. By presenting such an odd and outlandish kink, Ballard’s social commentary addresses the merger of technology and desire.
Megan Angelo’s Followers takes the burgeoning career of social media influencer and the increasing digitalization of our social lives, to a near future where that digital life is more real than ever before.
Gothic Science Fiction
Gothic science fiction blurs the lines between dark atmosphere, horror, and Gothic principles.
Early examples of the subgenre include books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which in their many decades of being adored have undergone universal acceptance into our literary canon. A more recent example includes Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin.
Films like Alien and Event Horizon can also be considered Gothic science fiction due to their trademark desolation and grimness.
Hard science fiction refers to the technical integrity of the science it's based on — not on the ease of the reading experience itself.
Because some of the biggest authors working in this space are male, there's a frequent misconception that hard sci-fi is a man's world — but many female authors have also helped define and evolve the subgenre.
There are several different ways of defining soft sci-fi, but the genre is almost always compared to hard sci-fi. However, the two aren't as oppositional as they initially sound.
Like hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi can be intricately detailed, and science-based — but like social science fiction, it usually draws on soft sciences such as anthropology, rather than hard sci-fi like physics. In soft sci-fi, the internal logic of the story also doesn't need to necessarily make sense through our real-world lens (consider the science within Star Wars, for example).
The parallel universe sci-fi subgenre is just what it says on the tin — stories set in alternate universes and worlds that exist simultaneously alongside others.
Parallel universe books share a lot in common with alternate history. However, the major distinction is that the latter is typically set in our own reality, rather than another reality occurring concurrently. Notable books include The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, and This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar.
Alternate history books ask what it would look like today if history had happened very differently.
What if, as in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, the U.S. lost the war against the Axis Powers? What if an enclave of safety had been created in Africa for survivors of the slave trade, as in Nisi Shawls' Everfair?
Alternate history books take these compelling questions and use them to build depictions of our world that are typically complex and compelling.
Weird sci-fi can be characteristically hard to define. Frequently, it marries horror, sci-fi, and even fantasy elements for stories that are unsettling, left-of-center, and unforgettable.
Standout books include Annihilation by Jeff VanerMeer, and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.
Generation Ship Sci-Fi
When humanity is ready to colonize space, we'll need a ship to help us survive the long journey to terraform distant habitable planets. That's where generation ship sci-fi comes in.
This subgenre usually takes place aboard a ship that will house would-be colonizers (sometimes also the last remnants of humanity) for generations, until they reach their distant destination.
Examples include the Noumenon trilogy by Marina J. Lostsetter, or Starship by Brian W. Aldiss.
Afrofuturism books explores themes from the Black diaspora to imagine liberated futures.
Author Octavia E. Butler is often rightly heralded as an influential figure in Afrofuturist literature, but as The Portalist's Anifowoshe Ibrahim writes, the genre has been around for longer than there's been an official term for it.
Afrofuturism is also distinct from Africanfuturism. The latter subgenre was defined by Binti author Nnedi Okorafor, and does not focus its narratives around the West.
RELATED: 12 Must-Watch Afrofuturist Movies
Gene splicing, biotechnology, and unholy mergers between beast and man — welcome to the weird and wonderful world of biopunk.
Unlike cyberpunk, which harnesses familiar and often larger-than-life tech, biopunk often deals with hacking the invisible world, from viruses to DNA. An early example of the genre is H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau, whereas a recent book is The Windup Girl from Paolo Bacigalupi.
Military sci-fi originated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and explores the tech, politics, and philosophy of war across space and time.
Classic works in the subgenre include The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman; Old Man's War, by John Scalzi; and Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, which featured soldiers outfitted in iconic mechanized exoskeletons.
The precise definition of space opera varies based on who you ask, and can be as expansive as the galaxies the subgenre is set in.
Still, the basics include swashbuckling spacefarers; romance; intergalactic adventure; and twisting allegiances. Star Wars might be the IP that is most widely-accepted as a space opera, while others say that The Expanse fits the bill.