Science Fiction – Let’s look at sub-genres differently

Science fiction museum
Science fiction museum (Photo credit: pelican)

Science fiction has its well-established sub-genres, like dystopian, cyberpunk, steampunk…. and everyone in the publishing business will tend to write in or work towards one of those categories as their main milieu in any given story.

But following on from the discussion following my previous blog, I would like to propose and discuss an alternative sub-genre breakdown. I’m in no way suggesting that the new sub-genre breakdown should replace what the publishing industry work to – for one thing it would take a lot of time and investment to do that – something that no financial business would undertake in these straightened times unless there was a clear benefit to the profit margins. No, the reason for examining a different breakdown is to get insights into the science fiction genre.

So let’s start with the breakdown I’m proposing, which is:

1) Adventure (anything from comic strip to the really serious hard science fiction exploration)

2) Social consequences of technology/science development

3) New invention description and uses

4) Explaining how current science works (usually put into children’s or YA slot)

I’m not in any way pretending this categorisation will cover every science fiction story, but it does cover a lot of them. Nor am I pretending that all stories will fall uniquely into one category.

Adventure: This has a long tradition that can be traced back through Jules Verne to the ancient Greek legends like Jason and the Argonauts. It’s all about exploring new places, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Most, if not all of the novels I have beta-read fall into this category. These days there seem to be very few novels that are not adventure. It’s as if the readership are like a pack of lemmings hurtling themselves off the cliff into escapism. Even the dystopias are a form of adventure. So has science fiction become the literature of escapism from reality?

Social Consequences: This really was started by Mary Shelley with Frankenstein, which she based on the then recently discovered science phenomenon, galvanism – the ability to make a dead frog’s leg twitch when electricity was applied to it. H G Wells, continued in this vein, and in many ways this is a very British sub-genre of science fiction. Think New Wave that was started in the UK in the sixties and seventies. There are a few novels still published today – like Light by Adam Roberts – but they are few and far between. Why should this be the case? Is it because this sub-gnere is exhausted? Could it be that there is so much doom and gloom about own future that there is no point about writing about the social consequences in the longer term, because we won’t exist? Are we that frightened of our own future?

New Invention: These tend to end up in short stories, and these are an even rarer beast than the social consequences stories. There used to be a whole set of of these stories in the Golden Age of science fiction – think Asimov and the laws of robotics or psychohistory, or Heinlein with the rocket that could land on its tail, or Arthur C Clarke’s Rama. Where are the stories about science fiction inventions now? Is it because science fiction has exhausted all the easy-to-explain inventions, that we are left only with those that are need such a long explanation that the reader is likely to dose off before they get to the end of the story? Or has science taken such a battering that people have lost trust in science? Well we’ll see… I’ve got a short story on offer somewhere with an interesting invention… it’ll be interesting to see if it is accepted.

Explaining How Science Works: This used to be what the so-called juveniles were written for in the 1950s. Where are the new stories of today? Or is this another casualty of the anti-science factions? I would say almost non-existant. However, there is a but to this one. There are now moves by at least one large firm to get their scientists to write science fiction about the inventions they are working – to see which inventions catch the imagination of people and are therefore likely to sell. In other words they are trying to get their employees to become more like Steve Jobs in choosing which products to go with! These stories are not written for public consumption, but the the firm’s investment strategists!

The interesting thing about this sub-genre division, it shows up clearly where the publishers are looking for stories… go forth with your writing implements and compose a swashbuckling yarn!

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4 thoughts on “Science Fiction – Let’s look at sub-genres differently

  1. Hi, Rosie. Interesting sub-genres. I think you could argue each one, but the truth is you made an interesting comment in “social consequences” I’d like to touch on.

    I happen to think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the first truly modern work of science fiction. But I also think Ms. Shelley posed questions about science and its consequences that we are still wrestling with to this day, hinted at by her subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus.”

    In this regard it might be relevant to look at the history of the Manhattan Project. The physicists responsible for developing the science behind nuclear weapons were generally people who believed in the “international” nature of science. This is nowhere better illustrated than the meeting of physicists in Copenhagen, literally from all over the world (including countries that in less than a month would be engaged in the deadliest conflict of the 20th Century) in late summer 1939, to discuss the actual meaning of the Hahn-Strasser experiment, and whether or not it really did mean atomic fission had been discussed.

    Surely one might have a retrospective genre of science fiction? A sort of historical science fiction, if you will, specifically to examine the social consequences of a given event, like those leading from Hahn-Strasser to the destruction of Hiroshima? For I also think that physics before WW2 and after it are two entirely different entities.

    Love to hear your thoughts!

    Tom Burkhalter

    1. You had me digging into my reference books. The idea to make fission a viable mechanism occurred to Leo Szilard on Tuesday 12th September 1933, in Bloomsbury, London. It was one of those serendipity moments because he read the Times headlines. (See Chapter 1 of The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.) He had read H G Wells’ ‘The World Set Free’ (published 1914!), which describes fission fairly well, although at the time he had dismissed as mere fiction… he had been reminded of it only a few days before by the The Times’ review of H G Wells’ ‘The Shape of Things to Come’.

      After this it was only going to be a matter of time and resources before nuclear energy and the atomic bomb came into being.

      The Copenhagen meeting however, if I remember correctly, had severe implications for Germany’s atomic bomb making capabilities – or to be more precise – the lack of them.

      So yes, the social implications to the what if something slightly different happened is relevant to science fiction – as a possible alternative history – to make us think about our current situation.

      Hope this helps.

  2. Some interesting thoughts here. Thanks for sharing! I’m sure we’ll all revisit this debate over and over again though, especially with that fine line between what constitutes educational scifi and that which is exploratory.

    1. To be honest, I think my blog is only scratching the surface of the debate and there are a lot more insights waiting to come to the surface… whether they’ll do so on my blog or elsewhere remains to be seen… but I’d love it if it was taken to a wider audience elsewhere. 🙂

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