You’ve got to hand it to science fiction and fantasy. No other genre subdivides itself into so many sub-genres.
We asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see their responses. And be sure to tell us your pick for favorite sub-genre!
I am a great fan of science fiction movies and novels, but one thing sometimes gets in the way. Being a physicist, I get irked a bit when I see simple violations of the law of physics in the plot. It sometimes gets in the way of enjoying the story. As a consequence, I like science fiction stories set thousands to millions of years in the future, where the science is so advanced that it is indistinguishable almost from magic. Then I don’t have to worry so much about violations of the laws of physics, and can enjoy the show.
For example, my favorite novel of all time is the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, which takes place tens of thousands of years into the future, when we are witnessing the fall of the Galactic Empire. At that point, the science is so advanced that we can assume that scientists have solved pesky problems, like hyperspatial drive and portable nuclear power plants.
Also, I am a great fan of Star Trek, but the episodes that for forgettable are the ones that have Western-like ray gun battles between the good guys and bad guys. The more interesting one are those that challenge you to question social and personal decisions. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” you have to choose between saving the life of someone you love, even if it means unleashing a horrible world war in which the Nazis win, or letting that person die. In another episode, a capsule containing the frozen bodies of 20th century disease victims is discovered in space, and are quickly revived using medicine of the future. One capitalist among them quickly realizes that his investments must be worth a fortune after so many centuries in space, so he demands that the crew tell him what happened to all his money. The crew is puzzled, because in the future, there is no money. If you want something, you simply ask the replicator. A very seditious concept, if you think about it.
One of the wonderful things about SF is its fecundity of offspring and offshoots, side roads and tributaries, things and other things. It’s fun if you don’t take it all too seriously and get mired in the bog of definition and taxonomy, trying hard to define everything just right and put it all in its place. Labels are fun when you can peel them off, but they sting when they become brands.
Maybe that’s why I like the most imaginary and least actual of labels. I like the subgenres that flare up for a day, a week, or a flamewar. Life is nothing if not ephemeral, and I’m a fan of stuff that highlights its ephemerality. I was all for New Weird while it was being battled about on the TTA discussion boards, but once that died down I lost interest in the term, though not some of the writers and works that briefly camped under the New Weird tent.
I was, myself, Interstitial for the length of my story in the Interfictions anthology. I liked that because some people created jewelry based on the stories.
For a few days, we had the idea of Infernokrusher fiction, and I was all for it. SF and monster-trucks were both a part of my childhood, and so I could support their intermingling. I even dreamed for an hour about a rural Infernokrusher movement that would add tractor pulls. Fiction without tractor pulls always somehow seems lacking to me.
But really, these days I keep coming back to an imaginary movement I once proposed somewhere, taking off from China Miéville and Kelly Link saying, at various times, that the stuff they write is “weird shit”. I thought the next set of writers should take that even farther and propose to write Batshit. They could call themselves guanistas. We couldn’t really call it a movement, though, without giggling. But I do think we need more Batshit writers to fertilize the soil of literature.
My answer would be that I’m still trying to get used to a division between science fiction, and fantasy…
I would have to say that my favorite subgenre is the mystery or suspense/thriller crossover, with the crime caper running close behind.
The pull of a mystery that needs to be solved, or of an unseen and looming threat that needs to be thwarted is alluring for many readers, and for me, combining that with either an epic, urban or alternative fantasy setting is better than ice cream and cake.
The stories about the private investigator, and more frequently of late, the “fixer”, are a favorite of mine. They are the ones who desperate people turn to as a last resort, to find a lost soul, to help correct an injustice, and sometimes to work where the authorities can no longer tread. While those elements alone can come together to weave wonderful tales, mixing in a dash of fantasy or a sprinkle of science fiction can add more levels of intrigue and more options for investigation and obfuscation for all of the characters to employ.
Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series is probably the most well-known of this bunch, but favorites of mine in this corner are F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series, Mercedes Lackey’s way-too-short Diana Tregarde series and Liz Willams’ Inspector Detective Chen series. Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustainis is the start of a new series that could prove to be a good addition to this list.
The caper tales are almost the reverse of the mysteries; sometimes I think of them as a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in creating and pulling off the heist or sting that will be the mystery someone else might have to solve off-screen, after this story is done. In the meantime, the thief or the assassin or the warrior betrayed gets to bask for a moment in success.
The stories in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards sequence are fine caper tales, as are the ever-increasing number of books (thank goodness!) in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos saga. I think Steve Perry’s original Matador trilogy could be classified as a quest masquerading as a caper that took decades to set up, but that’s an argument best held elsewhere.
Either way, I think I’d more readily choose either a caper or a mystery mix over a standard quest as an impulse read on a lazy weekend afternoon.
Well, I don’t read much fantasy these days (because I’m perpetually short of time), but as for favourite subgenres of science fiction, I’m not sure I really have one – principally because I don’t see subgenres as discreet divisions of books (or anything else).
To me, they’re more like fuzzy sets or complex Venn diagrams; a subgenre isn’t something that a book *is*, it’s something that a book *partakes of*, and may well partake of more than one. And while I’ll admit to having favourite flavours – post-cyberpunk, Mundane, near-future, post-apocalyptic, gonzo – I’m increasingly unwilling to dismiss a book or story simply because it’s been tagged with a subgenre term from beyond that spectrum, because their definitions are fluid and vary from person to person. Sort of like the definition of YA, really… or that of science fiction itself.
In fact, I’ve rambled at length on my theories of subgenre boundaries – you see, sub-genres are floating-point variables, not binaries.
So, in summary, if you were to force me to pick a favourite sub-set of science fiction, I’m going to pick “the stuff that doesn’t suck”. An inherently subjective answer to an inherently subjective question. 😉
My answer’s going to be short and predictable: My favorite sub-genre is funny fantasy. Go figure.
I think it’s pretty easy to argue that Hard SF, of the type written by Larry Niven, is the strong right arm of Science Fiction. But personally I think I’d have to throw my full support behind the Social Science sub-genre of SF. Science Fiction works best when it shows us the possibilities that we never imagined, but can envision. Novels like 1984, Brave New World and The Left Hand of Darkness illustrate worlds that aren’t ours, but could be. Utopias and dystopias are a big part of social SF. Another big part is showing the alien as different, but comprehensible. Jack Vance’s “The Moon Moth,” for example, contemplates a world obsessed with something we at first see as surficially silly. Once inculcated though, we understand it as a fully realized, complex and functional world – something we can fully appreciate. And by the end of it we know that Vance’s isn’t the only world of odd masks and strange attitudes. Social SF sneaks up on you, teaches you by exposing truths hidden in unthinking custom. Social SF is a mirror, showing us our own masks – it transmits frightening and wonderful ideas synthesized from human history and trends in the present day. It does so in a safe sandbox mode – Social SF is the place to experiment with radical social and political policies prior implementing them in the real world.
One of my favorite sub-genres (perhaps to the point that it’s a guilty pleasure) is that line between high fantasy and epic fantasy. The most iconic fantasies for me for have heroes and heroines wielding swords or flinging spells at their enemies. The qualifier there is that the prose must be well-written.
What first got me into the genre are these types of books, from Terry Brooks’s Shanarra series to David Eddings’s Belgariad series. There’s a certain investment in these type of books, especially when they span numerous novels, that’s unavailable in other mediums. (Well, there are the shows like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica but in today’s network TV climate, who can tell when the network executives will end them prematurely?) They seem to pack a little of everything, from action, drama, romance, tragedy, and the like. Of course the peril of such a sub-genre is that many of these elements might sound repetitive, either because you’ve read a lot or because they were written by authors trying to mimic Tolkien too faithfully. (An example is Ian McFadyen’s infamous How to Write a Best Selling Fantasy Novel.) But those that do break the mold tend to stand out.
These days, I’ve moved on from the Tolkien-clones to more exciting fantasy epics such as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series to the type of stories featured in All-Star Stories’s Twenty Epics (which is perhaps the biggest eye-opener for me: stories don’t have to be long to be epic).
I actually like books that don’t fit neatly into a subgenre, or that cross-breed between genres. I like things that blur the boundaries–an urban fantasy technopunk, for example, or a fantasy with steampunk elements, or a horror/fantasy/noir mix. I’ve been working in bookstores for most of my adult life, in one capacity or another, and a book generally catches my attention when there’s a confusion over where to shelve it.
There’s also the fact that genre conventions, like any conventions, exist to be tweaked. My favorite books are ones that play with the tropes and conventions, snapping them like rubber bands or just gently tickling them into a new configuration. Books like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, for example, or Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam.
It is a very old and rich sub-genre, going back to at least Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Read the original version (not the edited-down kiddie versions)! Note how each strange folk Gulliver meets is a satire of the real world or some aspect of human nature. The Liliputians are a spoof of the pettiness of European kingdoms; the crazy scientists of Laputa are a satire of science in Swift’s reality, and so on.
SF is the ideal vehicle for satire: you can pick any subject at all, and exaggerate it to make your point:
Advertising – One of the very first SF books I read, before the age of 10, was C.M. Kornbluth & Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants (a.k.a. Gravy Planet). A satire of 1950s advertising and rampant capitalism, it made me laugh and also see ads in a new light: I realized how advertising could be a brainwashing menace.
Prejudice – Gerd Brantenberg’s novel Egalia’s Daughters depicts a society where gender discrimination has been perfectly reversed. Women have all the privileges and men all the disadvantages in a system where men are indoctrinated to diminish their own minds. The book is simultaneously funny and frightening, as good satire ought to be: You read it and realize how discrimination works as a system and can make people believe racial or gender stereotypes are true.
Society – In the Soviet Union and its satellite states, SF writers were the few who could get away with poking fun at society. Take Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, for instance. In one of his “Space Pilot Pirx” stories, the hero visits a planet where the reigning ideology claims people should live underwater. The planet’s hapless citizens are forced to live literally up to their necks in water, always on the verge of drowning, while pretending to be water-breathers.
War – Harry Harrison’s novel Bill, the Galactic Hero, is not only one of his funniest, but also a hilarious satire of war as self-perpetuating madness. Naive farmboy Bill is drafted into a futile interstellar war against alien lizards, and gets to visit every part of a decaying galactic empire in the process. He ends up being corrupted by the system, and becomes a kind of monster in the end. (Note also how the book sends up SF classics like Starship Troopers, the planet Trantor in Foundation, and countless other SF clich@eacute;s.)
Oppression – George Orwell’s 1984 is, on one level, a satire of the oppressive state as such. Consider how savagely gritty and bizarrely surreal it is – at the same time. The society described in the novel couldn’t exist – or could it? (Parts of it could, or already have existed.) Unlike his allegory Animal Farm, Orwell’s 1984 seems to exist at the limits of satire. What makes this novel different from most other satires, is that isn’t content with simply holding up its subject to ridicule. It asks the oppressor for a serious answer, without jokes or winks: “Why? Why does this society exist? What is its purpose?” As long as you cannot safely ask that question in any part of the world, we are still going to need satire.
Oh and by the way, check out my political satire “NURGLON Speaks! Exclusive Interview“.
I try to read all across the spectrum of speculative literature, and while I could probably name books I love from any subgenre (even vampire fiction, which doesn’t interest me much but has still given us Charlie Huston), nothing gives me the thrill I get from great space opera.
This probably goes way back to my childhood, when my father would take me to the planetarium to see star shows that wrestled with huge cosmological questions, and when I would sneak downstairs late at night to watch Star Trek reruns on our black-and-white television. When I stumbled onto Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr books in my grade-school library, with their synthesis of real science (at least for the time they were written) and grand adventure, I was hooked.
For me, the best space opera combines wild scientific invention, complicated intrigue, and fast-moving action, setting it against a background so vast and complex as to overwhelm the imagination. As a young reader, I got my fix from Asimov, Andre Norton, Jack Vance, Jack Williamson, C.J. Cherryh — and, I must admit, from Piers Anthony, whose novel Macroscope from the late ’60s was honestly one of the most mind-blowing things I read as a teenager.
I’m thrilled that space opera has been undergoing a renaissance these past several years, though of course it never really went away. John Varley loomed large for me back in the ’80s when I began seriously trying to learn to write and publish, and Vernor Vinge took the subgenre to a whole new level, I thought, with A Fire upon the Deep.
My favorites now include Ken Macleod, Jack McDevitt, Scott Westerfeld for his wonderful Succession, Peter Watts for Blindsight, and especially Iain M. Banks. All these writers have spun out scenarios that excite the mind while evoking the majesty of our vast and varied universe. That sense of awe is about as close as I get these days to a religious experience, and I always want more of it.
My favorite sub-genre of science fiction is theological sci-fi, if one can call it that, science fiction that uses the genre’s unique aspects to explore religious questions and themes.
This perhaps would not surprise many people who know me. I’m a professor of religion, after all. But it deserves to be noted that this particular sub-genre is not at all a recent invention. Indeed (as I argued in a chapter I contributed to Religion as Entertainment edited by Chuck Robertson), one could view ancient Jewish apocalyptic as a form of science fiction, not merely because it involves other-worldly journeys during which strange new beings are encountered, but because many of the key elements found in Jewish apocalyptic works like the Book of Enoch resurface in the X Files and more widely in contemporary UFO mythology.
Be that as it may, one can look back to classic sci-fi authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip José Farmer and Michael Moorcock, and find they explored these issues in sympathetic and not-so-sympathetic ways, long before it became so popular in our time to include reference to God, so that we find Battlestar Galactica, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Heroes adding a sprinkled dose of religion and God-talk each week. A consideration of religion was there even on the original series of Star Trek, where a conscious decision was made not to have a chaplain on the Enterprise, as its enlightened crew encountered sophisticated areligious societies and primitive ones enslaved by superstition. Even the absence of religion often says something about religion.
In more recent years, excellent novels that explore religious themes and questions have been authored by Robert J. Sawyer (Calculating God) and Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow and Children of God). The latter is in essence a two-volume story and is a really excellent example of this sub-genre. The Jesuits make first contact with a new culture – a classic scenario, but this time set in the space age, and exploring deep perennial issues like the problem of evil and theodicy in the process.
Sci-fi regularly penetrates deeply into big philosophical questions, and so it is not surprising that religion should make an appearance. Yet for a while the connection of the two seemed odd to many fans. Yet the current state of affairs is a resurgence rather than something wholly new, and as someone who is connected on a personal and professional level with both sci-fi and religion, I look forward to many more contributions to this sub-genre of sci-fi in years to come.
What’s my favorite sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy? That’s a great question. To fully explore it, let’s first dive into the sweet subject of brownies, those resplendent squares of chocolaty joy. Everyone knows them; everyone loves them.
At the moment, I’m thinking of one type of brownie in particular. Imagine one that has not only two sumptuous, dense layers crafted with Callebaut Belgian chocolate and fresh creamery butter, but also a decadent layer of caramel, toffee bits, marshmallows, and chocolate chips sandwiched between them. Sound good…?
To me, science fiction romance is that brownie.
I love SF tales wherein authors weave romances throughout. Sometimes the romance is rich and gooey; other times it’s simply a light, sweet aftertaste in your mouth. Other times the romance and SF elements strike just the right balance between ambrosial filling and fudgy cake.
While I read and watched SF books and films without any romance while cutting my teeth on the genre, I tended to gravitate to those stories that involved one. I discovered early on that I enjoy science fiction romance because there’s more focus on character development. I’m intrigued by mind bending speculative aspects or phantasmagorical realms, but I enjoy the ride more if it involves engaging characters.
Not just that, but I think so many SF characters are cool, and it’s even cooler when two of them get it on. But it’s not just about the sex. Another aspect that interests me is the couple in jeopardy scenario. Whenever the hero or heroine or both are in danger, tension arises. The threat is not only against the protagonist(s) but also against the couple’s Happily Ever After. The more an author tortures them, the better.
I enjoy the drama that unfolds as a relationship develops in the midst of galactic war, political turmoil, or during the rise of mysterious, untamed technology. Sweet, indulgent moments of affection lend a story warmth as well as respite from the turbulent dangers prowling in the shadows.
Sexual tension, with its push-pull momentum, provides an appeal all its own. When will we encounter that first smoldering gaze between the hero and heroine? How soon until they engage in that first touch-and the first kiss. Were you hoping I might elaborate further, perhaps about the hero’s piercing eyes and broad chest, or the gentle curve of the heroine’s belly and her firm thighs? Hmm, I thought so.
And there’s nothing like a maelstrom of conflict as the hero and heroine face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, whether from interpersonal misunderstandings or feelings of fierce, stubborn protectiveness about their significant other’s safety. Aren’t Han Solo and Princess Leia, the quintessential science fiction romance couple, known as much for their romantic bickering as for the hot chemistry between them?
Often, these relationship challenges occur because each is scared to death about losing the other. Especially since the threat of loss hails not just from everyday events, but also from extraordinary circumstances. We, the reader, know the underpinnings of the couple’s angst; however, that’s the excitement of a science fiction romance-going on the journey as the hero and heroine discover this fact for themselves while saving the cosmos.
Which brings me to my final observation: The heart of any good story is conflict. Like a flavorful multi-layered brownie, science fiction romance couches the conflict of a romance within the conflict of an overarching plot. By tale’s end, I feel so satisfied that my own heart is ready to burst.