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Books and Reading: Science Fiction

An exploration of the science fiction genre past, present and future. Enjoy!

The Science Fiction Genre


There has been a lot of discussion about the definition of Science Fiction, one of the most misunderstood reading genres.  With roots in the 19th century, science fiction is very diverse and overlaps with a number of other genres.  Film and television are primarily responsible for the misconception most people have about science fiction which has focused on accounts of alien invasion, monsters, “space opera” and futuristic adventure tales.

One simple definition of Science Fiction is that “posits worlds and technologies that could exist, in a setting outside everyday reality”.   One useful way of understanding science fiction is by dividing it into the two major categories of “Hard science fiction” and “Soft science fiction”.

Hard science fiction focuses on technology and the physical sciences such as astronomy, biology and physics.  Soft science fiction focuses on psychology and sociology.  The are many small categories or “subgenres” within science fiction, but  keep in mind that any one work of science fiction may fit into many subgenres.


Adventure: The exploration of unexplored places that may include war, political intrigue, the military, and fast-paced physical action.  All are characteristics of the science fiction adventure subgenre.  Strong heroes and heroines may be involved.

Some examples of science fiction adventure include:

1.    Journey to the Center of the Earth –Jules Verne Northfield SF VERN

2.    The Lost World: A Novel – Michael Crichton – Northfield SF CRIC

3.    Ringworld: A Novel – Larry Niven – Northfield PF/SF

Alien invasion:  Alien invasion is a common theme in science fiction.  In this science fiction subgenre extraterrestrial life forms come to Earth to do one (or more) of several things such as try to exterminate, enslave or eat humans.  The aliens may be obvious about the invasion or stealthy, infiltrating human society and subverting it clandestinely

Some examples of alien invasion science fiction include:

1.    The Puppet Masters – Robert Heinlein – Northfield PF/SF HEIN

2.    The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells – Northfield YA WEL

3.    The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (also Astronomic impact subgenre) SELCO

Alternative History/Parallel Worlds:  Seen as both a subgenre of historical fiction and science fiction, alternative fiction stories are set in worlds in which history has diverged from actual history.  Alternative history may involve time travel to the past or the future.  It may involve travelling back and forth between both as well as current time.  This is known as cross travel time.  Alternative history stories may focus on a “psychic awareness” or universes parallel to our own.  All alternative histories have three things in common.  The story must have a point of divergence from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing.  The story must involve a change that would alter history as it is known, and the story examines the ramifications of that change.  Parallel world stories feature earths or universes that exist simultaneously with Earth.

Some examples of alternative history science fiction include:

1.    Archangel – Mike Connor –Northfield SF CONN

2.    1942: a Novel – Robert Conroy SELCO

3.    Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax series) – Robert J. Sawyer – Northfield PB/SF SAWY

4.    Worldwar series – Harry Turtledove – Northfield and SELCO depending upon title

5.    Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut – Northfield FIC

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic:  This subgenre includes works that have been written as a result of a nuclear holocaust, World War III and other apocalyptic wars between humans, pandemics, astronomic impacts, ecological catastrophes, cybernetic revolts.  They may be about the decline and fall of the human race, an expanding or dying sun, a religious, supernatural, sociological or economic collapse.

Some examples of apocalyptic and post-apocalytic science fiction include:

1.            Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban (nuclear) Northfield FIC HOBA

2.            A Canticle for Liebowitz – Walter Miller (nuclear) Northfield SF MILL

3.            On the Beach- Nevil Shute (nuclear war) SELCO

4.            The Earth Abides – George Stewart Northfield SF STEW

5.            The Chrysalids – John Wyndham (nuclear war) SELCO

6.            Doomsday Book – Connie Wills (pandemic) – Northfield SF WILL

7.            Oryx and Crake– Margaret Atwood (decline and fall of the human race) – Northfield FIC ATWO

8.            The Children of Men – P.D. James (decline and fall of the human race) – Northfield FIC

9.            The Stand – Stephen King (pandemic) – Northfield PB/FIC

10.         Life as We Knew It – Susan Beth Pfeffer (astronomic impact) – Northfield YA PFE

11.         Moonfall – Jack McDevitt (astronomic impact) – Northfield SF McDe

12.         Drowned world and the Wind From Nowhere –J.G. Ballard (ecological catastrope) - SELCO

13.         Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut (ecological disaster) – Northfield FIC

14.         Time of the Great Freeze – Robert Silverberg (ecological catastrophe) - SELCO

15.       The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (ecological disaster and decline and fall of the human race) – Northfield PB/FIC

16.         Aftermath – Charles Sheffield (ecological catastrophe) SELCO

17.         Berserker series – Fred Saberhagen (cybernetic revolt) SELCO

18.         Computer One: A Novel – Warwick Collins (cybernetic revolt) SELCO

Artificial beings:  The three major types of artificial beings in science fiction are androids, cyborgs and robots.  Robots are artificial devices or beings created through mechanical means.  When a robot starts to look more like a human and less like a machine, it is called a humanoid robot or android.  The fusion of human tissue and robotics are called cyborgs.

Some examples of science fiction with robots, androids and cyborgs include:

1.    Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (Robots) –SELCO

2.    The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (Robots) - SELCO

3.    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (Androids) – Northfield SF DICK

4.    Steelheart by William C. Dietz (Androids) - SELCO

5.    Diaspora by Greg Egan (Cyborgs) - SELCO

6.    Code of the Lifemaker by James P. Hogan (Robots) – SELCO

7.    Man Plus by Frederick Pohl (Cyborgs) - SELCO

Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk is a combination of the words cybernetics and punk.  The term was first coined by writer Bruce Bethke in 1983 as the title for a short story he wrote titled “Cyberpunk”.  Cyberpunk science fiction are usually earthbound post-industrial dystopias set in the near-future.  They usually feature computer hackers, artificial intelligence and mega-corporations.  Cyberpunk has been defined as “Cynical tales of a high-tech future in which humans are not necessarily the highest life-forms, science may not be our salvation, and the universe has gone awry” **

Some examples of apocalyptic and post-apocalytic science fiction include:

1. The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner - MnLINK

2. Neuromancer – William Gibson – Northfield SF GIBS

3. Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson – Northfield SF STEP

4. Islands the Net – Bruce Sterling - SELCO

Horror science fiction:  Although not a branch of science fiction per se, works of horror often incorporate science fictional elements.  Some horror science fiction works make use of various sorts of monsters, including witches, werewolves, vampires and zombies.  Examples include:

Some examples of horror science fiction include:

1.   The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker – Northfield FIC BARK

2.    Fledgling by Octavia Butler – Northfield SF BUTL

3.    Hungry Moon by Ramsey Campbell - SELCO

4.    Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Northfield J Fic SHELLEY

5.    The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells SF WELL

6.    The Dark Door by Kate Wilhelm – SELCO

Mannerpunk also known as Fantasy of Manners:  In Mannerpunk science fiction, the setting is generally between the early 17th and mid-19th century (or is set in a fantasy world modeled after one of those eras).  The story largely concerns the protagonists rise and/or fall, struggles and/or triumphs surviving in a highly stratified society which tends to put manners over morality and style over substance.  For example you may lie, cheat, and steal all you like so long as you don't get caught and you do it all with a certain amount of panache, but woebetide the individual who finds himself in a publicly humiliating situation. The fantasy elements in these stories are often (but not always) dark. They tend to have lots of witty dialogue and the characters wear stylish clothes. Often there is romance and a certain amount of swashbuckling.

Some examples of Mannerpunk science fiction in include:

1.    The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust – Northfield SF BRUS

2.    Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners by Ellen Kushner – SELCO

3.    Carolus Rex series by Andre Norton – Northfield SF NORT

Military :  Military force and conflict set in space or planets other than earth feature large in this science fiction genre.  Detailed descriptions of the conflict, and the tactics used to wage war are included, and the story is usually told from the point of view of the major character(s) that are usually part of the military.  There can be some overlap between the military and space opera subgenres. The Star Wars series is an example of this overlap.

Some examples of military science fiction include:

1.    Dorsai by Gordon R. Dickson - SELCO

2.    Ranks of Bronze by David Drake – Northfield PB/SF DRAK

3.    Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein - SELCO

Space Opera: This subgenre of science fiction features romantic adventure on a grand scale set in outer space. Key characteristics include interstellar travel, heroic space battles and romance.  Many space operas are written in series format.

Some examples of space opera science fiction include:

1.    The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold – Northfield SF BUJO

2.    Foreigner Universe series by C.J. Cherryh – Northfield SF CHER and SELCO

3.    A Fire Upon the Deep by Verner Vinge - SELCO

4.    Star Wars series by various authors

Steampunk: In this subgenre advanced technological levels are achieved through 19th century means when steam power was widely used.  These novels are often set in the Victorian era or were inspired by it.

Some examples of steampunk science fiction include:

1.    The Horns of Ruin – Tim Akers - SELCO

2.    Leviathan Trilogy – Scott Westerfeld – Northfield YA WES

3.    Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne - SELCO

4.    The Golden Compass series – Phillip Pullman – Northfield J FIC PULLMAN

SuperhumanOriginating in American comic books, superhumans have expanded into other media through adaptations and original works.  Superhuman fiction features costumed crime fighters or superheroes and those they fight against, also known as supervillains.  This subgenre may also feature characters with extraordinary abilities that appear outside of the superhero/supervillain dichotomy.

Some examples of superhuman science fiction include:

1.    Astro City series by Kurt Busiek - SELCO

2.    The Adventures of Superman by George Francis Lowther - SELCO

3.    Watchmen by Alan Moore - SELCO

4.    Batman, Knightfall by Dennis O’Neil – SELCO