SERIES INTRO: As a speculative fiction writer, you need to know your genres. Why? Knowing your genres makes it easier to find your readers. Even if you’re not excited by the thought of marketing your book, knowing your readers helps you make the right creative choices. And, let’s face it, you save a lot of time if you can make those choices earlier rather than later.
The idea behind this series is to give you a tour of the sub-genres you’ll most often find within the different spec-fic genres. It’s a whistle-stop trip, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. Here’s the second in the series. Don’t forget to read about fantasy and horror, too.
What is Science Fiction?
Science fiction is my favourite genre, probably because a little bit of science fact really kicks my imagination into gear. And it’s exactly this tension between imagination and reality that illustrates the main difference between fantasy – the subject of my last article in this series – and science fiction.
In his excellent lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works, Professor Gary K Wolfe points out that monsters frequently appear in both fantasy and science fiction. In fantasy, they’re brought to life by magic. But in science fiction, they’re usually created by technology.
That’s not the last word on the matter, though. I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t include this provocative quote from sci-fi author and futurologist Arthur C Clarke:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Let’s bear these two apparent contradictions in mind as we explore some of the main sci-fi sub-genres.
Time Travel Sci-Fi
Time travel is the place where fantasy and historical fiction come together with sci-fi. This makes it fertile ground for the speculative fiction writer. But before you start to work out your time travel plot, you have to decide which way in time to send your main character: forward or backward. And then you need to decide how to get them there.
Most time travel sci-fi has its characters going backward, probably because it’s so delicious to speculate about events in the distant past. Michael Moorcock’s controversial 1969 novella Behold the Man sees its protagonist arrive in bible-era Palestine courtesy of a ramshackle, leaky time machine. Less fancy, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain sends his titular hero back in time with a whack on the head.
I’m not sure why there aren’t as many examples of time travel sci-fi which catapult characters into the future. Maybe it’s because time travel into the future is scientifically feasible, making it less interesting for writers. Or perhaps it’s because HG Wells frightened us too badly with his image of a dying sun in The Time Machine.
Space Opera Sci-Fi
Classic space opera is the junk food of science fiction. It’s exciting, it’s colourful, it’s super-sized, and it’s full of empty calories. And of course I love it. I can’t seem to help myself.
Best described as ripping yarns in space, the hallmark of space opera is bigness. You have colonial ambition on a grand scale, gigantic tools and weapons, massive chauvinism, and of course the epic sweep of space as a backdrop. Even as I write this I feel the excitement I first felt when I discovered Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. That’s the appeal of space opera.
Set in a galactic empire not only vast but impossibly long-lived, Foundation was based on Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Asimov was completely up front about his inspiration, and even wrote about it in a poem called The Foundation of SF Success.
But although he’s the best known writer of space operas, Asimov didn’t invent the sub-genre. That honour most probably goes to EE ‘Doc’ Smith with his 1928 story The Skylark of Space.
Although exhilarating, classic space opera is full of big men being big heroes in big settings where women – if they’re lucky – just make the tea. For those of you seeking an antidote to all the machismo, I’d recommend Downbelow Station by St Louis-based writer CJ Cherryh.
Downbelow Station is a story very firmly in the space opera mould, but features Captain Signy Mallory, commander of the war ship Norway. And thus it strays into the next science fiction sub-genre on our list, military sci-fi.
Although military sci-fi covers any work that touches on the subject of war and the armed forces, the more interesting examples have nuances. The 1985 novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a good example.
The first in a five novel series, Ender’s Game introduces child soldier Ender Wiggin, trained from a very young age by battle games in zero gravity. It’s a tribute to Card’s handling of the subject that this book is on the recommended reading list for the US Marine Corps.
Back to the Future
You’ll have noticed that none of the science fiction works I’ve mentioned in this article dates from this century. That’s because I’ve tried to find a clear-cut example for every sub-genre, and most of them turned out to be classics. Contemporary sci-fi is a fascinating genre, but it’s one where the boundaries are blurrier.
So help me out, if you’d be so kind. I’d love you to tell me about your favourite sub-genre sci-fi stories from the year 2000 onwards. And don’t forget to say which classics have inspired your own work – past, present and future.