Subgenres of SF

A mind-blowing infographic showing the history of SF. Click through to take a look. I like how it starts with “fear” and “wonder” intertwined way, way back in prehistory. But as far as I can tell, this graphic only identifies five main subgenres in modern SF: hard, soft, space opera, new space opera (that’s interesting! Though I agree, come to think of it. New space opera is distinct from Golden Age space opera), and cyberpunk.

However, interesting as the linked infographic may be, it’s really not particularly useful for what I was looking for. I just wanted an infographic sorting out SF subgenres. So, hey, since I couldn’t find that kind of infographic, let’s see what Canva can do for us if we want to make a simple (sort of simple) Venn diagram.

Great job, Canva! You know, frustrating as it is to try to get Canva to do various trivial tasks, such as put a frame around a picture, which you wouldn’t think would be especially difficult — anyway, what I’m saying is that honestly, Canva is a great tool. I never used it before this year, and I have to say, I kind of love it. I’ve never found an easy way to make a Venn diagram before, and here we are, piece of cake. I see the printing is a little fuzzy, but whatever, it’s good enough. (This seems to be Canva’s unofficial motto: We’ll help you make images that are good enough!).

I do not by any means think the above Venn diagram is actually all-the-way correct. You can probably think of lots of books that can’t easily be placed on it because the circles don’t really overlap exactly the way they should. But it was fun to make and I think some things about it are correct.

You can see that I put No Foreign Sky in an overlapping area where it belongs to space opera, military SF, and sociological SF. Then I placed Invictus in sociological SF, just brushing the edge of military SF, but outside the space opera circle. I think this is pretty much correct, though maybe not exactly. I’m sure it’s all debatable.

Some of the books I put on here to illustrate the subgenres are certainly familiar to us all, but some may not be. Those include:

Military SF — Prince of Mercenaries, Honor Harrington, Forever War, Valor series, Seafort Saga

And I have said this before, but the Valor series by Tanya Huff is my personal favorite military SF series.

Space Opera — Trading in Danger, The Warrior’s Apprentice, Chanur series, The Long Way.

As you see, I put the first two on the intersection between military SF and space opera. I think they’re more the latter than the former, but there are things that kind of push the boundaries for these series. And I put the Chanur series but not the others up in the Sociological SF circle. I’m not sure The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has all the characteristics I listed off earlier for space opera — I don’t think it has high, ratcheting stakes. Hmm. Even so, I feel that it’s space opera.

Golden Age Space Opera — The Lensman series, and it looks like you can pick up all seven books for $1.99. Fine, who knows if I’ll ever get around to reading this series, but I’m picking it up because that price is irresistible.

Sociological SF — Persona is the one you might not recognize. It’s near-future SF, a subgenre that generally doesn’t appeal to me, but I’ve read a handful. Genevieve Valentine is one of the rare authors who seems to be so good she can make any subgenre work for me. I note that the publisher is once again behaving like a lunatic and failing to link the second book to the first. This is pretty awful since it’s really one story cut in half. It’s also surprising, as Saga normally does better than that. For your convenience, book two, Icon. This is an intense, claustrophobic SF novel about celebrity. I really did like it a lot, but while we’re on the subject, the single book of Valentine’s I actually like best is a historical called The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. I note that the hardcover is half the price of the ebook. Publishers, I swear. But if you would like the hardcover, good time to pick that up.

Near-future SF — Corsair, Hot Moon. Corsair is by James Cambias, and I liked it quite a lot given that it’s near-future. I haven’t read Hot Moon yet, but I really liked the Cahokian Mound Builders Meets Romans trilogy by this author, which I will warn you is quite grim at times, but I will add that it does wind up in a good place.

Far-future SF is also a subgenre that doesn’t really appeal to me, but I think it’s as much a real subgenre as near-future SF. I haven’t read Count to a Trillion, but it takes the reader very, very far-future, I know that.

Hard SF is a big category and includes things like A Darkling Sea, the Mars trilogy, Dragon’s Egg, and, entertainingly enough, the Steerswoman series, which looks very much like it should be fantasy, but isn’t; it’s also the single series I most wish the author would finish because I just love it.

Once again with publishers screwing things up for authors: A Darkling Sea isn’t available as an ebook and wow, look at that official price for the paperback. Since I have it as an ebook, there seems to be NO REASON for this book to be unavailable in that form. But here’s something nice, a two-novella collection by Cambias that is available for $1.99. This sounds really fun and I’m glad I happened to be looking at Cambias’ author page.

The Mars trilogy currently has the most super-basic covers I’ve ever seen:

Wow, this is a little too basic imo

SF fantasy really is fantasy, with handwavy SF elements. We’re all familiar with Pern, surely? Archangel is Sharon Shinn’s SF fantasy. Like the Steerswoman, it looks like fantasy. Unlike the Steerswoman, it really is fantasy. The SF elements are thoroughly handwavy. It’s one of my favorites by Sharon Shinn; I should read it again.

Psionics is a specific category of SF fantasy, so I gave it its own circle. I don’t know that this was really justified. Psion is the one by Joan Vinge. This is the first book of the Cat trilogy, which I liked a lot. It’s interesting because I debated dropping it into the intersection between Psionics and Space Opera, but didn’t wind up doing that because it’s such a personal story that I don’t think really fits the space opera category — maybe the adventure category. Maybe I should have used two circles there, one for Adventure that encompassed the Space Opera circle, but was larger and provided room for adventure SF that isn’t Space Opera. In retrospect, I probably should have done it that way.

Cyberpunk is my least favorite SF subgenre up there because I’m not that crazy about the punk style, which usually includes urban grittiness. The only one that leaps to mind for me is Snowcrash, which I read long ago but don’t remember much about.

Have I missed any huge subgenres? Maybe I should have added “Post-apocalyptic SF” somewhere. Or, slightly broader, “Dystopian SF.” Probably I should have added that. In fact, if I’d put Adventure SF as a really big circle, I could have dropped all of Space Opera and almost all of Dystopian SF into that category. Oh, oops, I can see now that I should have overlapped Adventure SF with everything, honestly, including Hard SF, which it doesn’t overlap at all.

Fine, pretend that the circle just says Space Opera and that Adventure SF pretty much encompasses everything else. A few books lie outside the Adventure category, though, including Persona, for example, and actually a lot of sociological SF isn’t going to fall into an Adventure circle.

Anyway! Fun to create this diagram. You may now all critique it and explain where it goes wrong, which I’m sure is a lot of places.

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15 thoughts on “Subgenres of SF”

  1. Alt history? I’m thinking of the Lady Astronaut of Mars series, although there are plenty of others.

    This is fun to think about.

  2. OtterB, sure, by all means! Alt History SF, and then Hot Moon would fit that category. Smale puts the alternate history timeline in the front of the book.

  3. I’d move Far Future SF down so it overlaps with both Hard SF (the Count to a Trillion series is at least close to the overlap, actually) and Space Fantasy. Technically, you could put The Mountain of Kept Memory into the Far Future / Space Fantasy overlap.

    Cyberpunk overlaps a lot with Near-Future SF, and I’m not sure it overlaps Hard SF at all — can anyone think of an example? Probably it should overlap with Sociological SF, too, since social commentary was a major element.

    Alt History (thanks, OtterB), has a lot of overlap with Time Travel . . . and both of them should probably have Sociological SF overlap, which would be hard to work in that diagram.

    I feel as though there’s a distinction between Adventure SF and Space Opera, but given the last post & comments there may be enough different ideas of “Space Opera” in use that the distinction isn’t worth drawing.

    Does Dystopia deserve its own circle? It was a major marketing category for a few years there.

  4. Another win for Canva! It really is amazingly versatile. And I see you did get a frame around your diagram!

    I got kind of turned around on the question of what is a space opera, not having read many of the examples mentioned, but there’s an old discussion on stack exchange about the difference between science fiction and space opera that was enlightening to me. The consensus there being that space operas are Westerns set in space, with some commenters adding caveats.

    What about romance as a sub-genre? Or should it be SF as a sub-genre of Romance?

    Would you count Murderbot as space opera? Or is it adventure SF? I would think it’s too personal, at least it is at the beginning, for space opera although it has all the other elements.

  5. Yes, Mona, I was using the Whiteboard function, and shapes seem to work really well that way.

    Not sure I agree about the Westerns In Space idea. Hmm. I think there’s more general agreement about space opera than low fantasy, or at least I did think so before this, but maybe not.

    Westerns In Space would equal … nothing at all about high stakes. Nothing. Westerns are always or almost alwas written on a personal level. The quintessential Western has The Oppressed Townspeople or The Vulnerable Widow, and then The Evil Rancher and Goons, and then The Loan Gunman rides in, someone falls in love with him — the widow, if there’s a widow — he sorts out the problems with or without a lot of help from the townspeople, and then he rides away again. This is a very classic Western, isn’t it? How does that map onto space opera? I don’t see it.

    I do think SF Romance ought to be a circle! Definitely! And Dystopian SF. Then yes, Far Future SF probably ought to overlap with Hard SF — I didn’t do that because when you’re that far in the future, technology turns into magic, doesn’t it? And that looks much less hard to me. But I haven’t read much Far Future SF.

  6. A warning re Amazon’s Lensman ebooks: when I last tried them (admittedly some years back), they were what looked to be uncorrected OCR scans to the point of being nearly unreadable.

    Project Gutenberg Canada has much better copies. Though possibly not for much longer since Canada has adopted the excessive copyright terms of the rest of the world. (No doubt that will prompt Doc Smith’s ghost to greater productivity.)

  7. It’s very cool in concept, but I found a lot of the choices very odd as I drilled down. Tehanu in hard SF? Why is Narnia an isolated tributary? (It draws a lot more openly on its influences than, say, The Lord of the Rings.) The Worm Ouroboros (set nominally on Venus and effectively in a secondary world) in historical romance?

  8. Well, Mike, I can only hope they’re decent. Let me just take a look … okay, looking just quickly at the sample on Amazon, it looks okay, so I’m hoping this is a much, much better version than the one you saw! Publisher data says

    Publisher ‏ : ‎ Positronic Publishing (May 13, 2023)
    Publication date ‏ : ‎ May 13, 2023

    So I think this is hopefully totally different than the version you saw that was so bad.

  9. Mike, I didn’t look that closely, and … huh, some of those choices are definitely on the weird side.

    Oh, look up at the top, it looks like it’s putting The Vor Game and Barrayar up in Cyberpunk? Maybe it means “Soft” SF, whatever that is, but it’s really close to the Cyberpunk area. Wait, what is Paladin of Souls doing on here at all? ???

  10. No Foreign Sky doesn’t feel like milSF to me. Possibly because the first contact story is foregrounded and the viewpoint is more from the uman perspective. I’d compare it to another first contact story, The Mote in God’s Eye: Pournelle wrote a lot of milSF and it certainly shows in some of the scenes, but Mote isn’t milSF even though most of the viewpoint characters are naval officers. (Maybe first contact should have its own circle?)

    As previously discussed, my sense of space opera is different, and ditto Pern. (I know, dragons. :-) But on the other hand colony world settled by spaceship that fights biological menaces with genetic engineering and nitric acid, and periodically rediscovers lost tech. And whose breaks from reality are Campbellian psi rather than wizardry. At least it should be moved over to the psionics circle. :-) )

    I wonder if there should be something for overlaps of sf and fantasy that don’t really take place in space, like Dragaera. (Which was settled by humans from Earth which is explicitly across interstellar space, but also clearly has genuine magic and real gods.)

  11. Mike, nothing will make me put Pern in a real SF circle, but I actually agree about NFS, which I think doesn’t really seem like Military SF. I think you’re probably right that it should be nudged out of that circle. The comparison with Mote is helpful there!

  12. Re: Kingfisher club’s price, looks like hardcover is actually out of print, so that’s a used book price. But, I also remember liking that one – wasn’t it sort of a 12 dancing princesses retelling?

  13. Sarah, yes, I should have added, it’s very distinctly drawn from the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which is a favorite fairy tale for me.

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