An Overview of the Science Fiction Sub-Genres

As discussed previously, science fiction often deals with the advancements of science and technology in a futuristic setting. Science fiction stories can take place on future Earth, in space, or on other planets. Now let’s focus on the science fiction sub-genres.

Science fiction has many sub-genres. The following list is far from comprehensive (and the definitions are intentionally brief), but it should give you a better understanding of the more common science fiction sub-genres out there.

Apocalyptic Fiction

Apocalyptic fiction takes place in a time where our world is coming to an end. It describes how and why this event may occur and how humanity reacts to the situation.

For example, The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, and Flood by Stephen Baxter.

Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Post-apocalyptic fiction takes place after the world as we know it has already ended. It focuses on the people who survived the cataclysm and how they now live.

For example, The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.


Cyberpunk takes place in a high-tech futuristic world. It has a heavy focus on computers, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Cyberpunk stories typically take place in urban settings.

For example, Neuromancer by William Gibson, The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter, and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

Hard Science Fiction

Hard science fiction is more focused on the scientific and technological ideas rather than the characters. The science and technology must be plausible in order for the story to be considered hard science fiction.

For example, The Martian by Andy Weir, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and Spin State by Chris Moriarty.

Military Science Fiction

Military science fiction equals space wars! Seriously though, military science fiction is all about war and combat in the future. Typically set in space or on planets other than Earth, military science fiction focuses on high-tech weaponry (including genetically altered soldiers) and military protocols.

For example, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, A Soldier’s Duty by Jean Johnson, and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

Parallel/Alternate Universe

Parallel/alternate universe means for every decision made there is another universe that plays out the consequences of the decisions that weren’t made in this one.

For example, A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, and Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.


Slipstream is essentially a mainstream or literary fiction with strong speculative elements.

For example, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Mount by Carol Emshwiller.

Soft Science Fiction

Soft science fiction is the reverse of hard science fiction: it is more about the characters than the science and technology. It focuses on how the science or technology affects the characters and their society as opposed to how the technology works. Soft science fiction is rooted in the “soft” sciences (anthropology, psychology, and sociology).

For example, Blackout by Connie Willis, Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson, and Borne by Jeff VanderMeer.

Space Opera

Space opera is essentially an adventure story set in space. They aren’t concerned with how technology works; they are more focused on the action, adventure, and melodrama.

For example, Willful Child by Steven Erikson, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie.


Steampunk is typically set in an era where steam engines are widely used. It has strong technological elements combining what was used in that time period with future or imagined technology. Delightfully, this is a subgenre that does not adhere to the futuristic aspect commonly found in the definition of science fiction.

For example, Soulless by Gail Carriger, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

Time Travel

Time travel stories are about characters who travel (or are visited by someone who travels) either forward or backward in time. These stories are often more about the consequences of time travel rather than the act itself.

For example, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.

Those are some of the most common sub-genres of science fiction. The boundaries of these sub-genres are not hard lines, but soft squishy edges that easily blur into each other. So if you’re worried your story doesn’t fall neatly into one category or another, take a deep breath and remember that very few stories are only one thing.

If you have any questions or think I’ve missed any important sub-genres, let me know in the comments.

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