Genre Signals: Science Fiction

Starships! Computers! Blasters/phasers/proton torpedoes/lasers in spaaaaaaaace!!!! Toss those into your story, stir, slap on a tag and go right?

If only. (I decided on this before Karen posted her piece, so I’m riffing off of her, plus going a few other directions. No, we did not plan in advance. Pinkie-claw swear.)

Science fiction goes back to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’s Monster or A Modern Prometheus, if not earlier. She used state-of-the-art science as it was then understood, with one small piece of handwavium. Then she extrapolated, based on that science and on human behavior. Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others did the same thing, perhaps with more handwavium. Then along came the 20th Century and whee! Oh, and along came genre tags, and readers who wanted “Something new, but like that book there.” Hugo Gernsback, John Campbell Jr., and others gave readers what they wanted, and the rest is historiography. Genre begat subgenre. But what defines sci-fi today for readers?

Science, and fiction. Yes, that leaves a lot of wiggle room, but once you start looking at how the plot runs, and what science and technology cues are out there, it’s not quite that spacious of a genre, pun intended.

“My story has spaceships, and faster than light travel, or a generation ship, so it’s science fiction, right?”

Well, what’s moving the plot? Is it the spaceship, the exploration, the technology? No? It’s the story of an alien engineer and an administrator who fall in love and then separate but really need each other and . . . You have a romance with science-fiction trimmings. Label it that way. Otherwise, people who read David Weber for the tech-dumps will one star your “science fiction” for having the plot beats of a romance novel. And romance readers won’t pick up your book because they don’t know it’s romance. Or if your publisher calls it “a galaxy-spanning space opera” but reviewers all say, “It’s diplomatic fiction and empire with a bit of thriller, just in space,” you might have a problem with sales. Even if your publisher comes back and says, “We’re redefining space-opera for the modern reader!” Don’t be that person, if you can avoid it.

At some point, people started roughly dividing science fiction into hard and soft. Hard sci-fi is technology and science driven, with a lot of extrapolation from real technology. It can be spaceships, it can be genetic engineering, it can be trying to bat away an asteroid, it could be mining an asteroid, it could be cybernetic tech or other computer things, but the science has to be real at the core and has to push the plot. Andy Weir’s The Martian is hard sci-fi. Most of the older Venus Equilateral stories are hard sci-fi. Hal Clement’s A Mission of Gravity is very hard sci-fi. If the story centers on the science and not on the relationships between the characters, it’s hard sci-fi. You’ve got to know your tech, and extrapolate in a logical, traceable way. The closest I’ve come to this is the second chapter of one Cat Among Dragons novel Hubris, where the characters are doing genetic engineering to try to improve their species.

Soft science fiction tends to be more about relationships and how characters work with and around technology. The Foundation Trilogy would be soft sci-fi, because it is about sociology and trying to predict group behavior, at least at first. Lois McMasters Bujold tends to write soft sci-fi, where the characters drive the stories more than does the technology (but not always). David Weber seems to alternate, although some of his Honorverse books lean toward the harder end of the spectrum.

So, what do you need? Technology, be it hardware or genetic modification and alien species, or weather control and prediction. The Dragonriders books seem like fantasy, except . . . they’re sci-fi. Readers learn slowly that the dragons are not fantasy dragons, and the world has no magic. The science was interstellar travel, astronomy, and genetic modification. Orson Scott Card describes failing where McCaffrey succeeded, because he had a world where the settlers developed telepathy to deal with environmental challenges. His failure was not saying that, so the editors read the story as fantasy and magic, not telepathy and telekenetics. You have to be clear when you are signalling, even if you are subtle. Science is the key.

You also have to be careful about plot beats. Thriller can overlap more easily with sci-fi than does romance, because romance readers are so demanding of their beats and elements. Heist stories, noir, horror, police procedural, all of those can be done in sci-fi without readers fussing too much. Sci-fi is often a flavor as much as a genre. Space western? I’d call it sci-fi and then tag it “like Firefly or use your jacket copy to play-up the western elements.

Within sci-fi there are so many sub-fields that you should be able to find a niche. Mil-sci-fi is well known with its own rules. Read David Drake, and Sterling and Pournelle’s Falkenberg books. Read the Bolo books, and the Honorverse. The Honorverse overlaps into space opera, but is much more clearly mil-sci-fi.

Space opera? Spaceships and drama and wild adventures in space, perhaps visiting worlds and space stations in the process. Pirates in space, salvaging alien ships, exploring in a race to claim new worlds for the good guys, all that falls into space opera. Yes, it overlaps with mil-sci-fi in spots. Sarah Hoyt’s Darkship stories fall into this category.

Galactic empire and colonization? Could include Dune, perhaps, or my Shikhari books, or Pam Uphoff’s work, Stephanie Osborne, et al.

Genetic engineering?

Steampunk? Ummm, it’s gotten so varied that I’m not sure entirely if it is still considered sci-fi, or if it is falling into a separate genre unto itself. It overlaps with Weird West, which often is more fantasy than sci-fi.

IMAGE: Pixabay Image by Michael L. Hiraeth from Pixabay

Note: I don’t agree with some of the sub-categories or examples the following use, but I’m tossing these lists out for cussin’ and discussin’.

For more (I know it’s Wiki, but some of the history-of-sub-genre is useful):

27 thoughts on “Genre Signals: Science Fiction

    1. Which is pretty irrelevant to whether Pern was SF or Fantasy. “Weyr Search” was in Analog in 1967. And Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, which, since they involved magic, were clearly Fantasy, appeared in Analog in 1964-76 — which shows that Campbell, at the time “Weyr Search” was in Analog, thought that fantasy was fine to be published there.

      If all that was published about Pern was Dragonflight, it would have been categorized as fantasy. The fact that McCaffrey retconned it into SF shows that the borders between the genres are flexible, although it is certainly true that they’ve hardened into much stronger reader and publisher (and Amazon keyword) expectations.

      A book like Leiber’s Conjure Wife keeps coming out with different treatments, because the readers in 1943 just thought it was a great story (and it got turned into several successful movies) — and, as genre boundaries became more solid, it kept getting marketed in different genres because it could legitimately appear in any of them.

  1. Well, god knows I’ve read them all over the decades… I’m much more of a sucker for Soft SF (with a nagging fondness for disaster porn Hard SF) because I like the humans-coping-with-tech, culture, aliens, and so forth better than straight-up MilSciFi or exploration-for-the-hell-of-it stories. I’d rather “Traders in the Stars” than “Soldiers/Scientists in the Stars”, if you see what I mean.

    It’s therefore not surprising that I like serious fantasy (by which I mean Tolkien and a very few others), where the fantasy is grounded in the same by-the-rules sensibility as SF, but overlaid with similar humanwave relationships (for values of “human” that include dragons, vampires, elves, etc.) Besides, I’m grounded in mythology and traditional tales, and it’s a very small step from there to Fantasy. The old human relationship stories are our fundamental tales, and all you have to do is add “a bit of wonder” and a sense of history to flesh it out and have it resonate.

    Re: Romance… The modern genre form “Romance” overrides all other settings, and even if it’s set on Mars, it ain’t genre SciFi. That said, for long series in particular, I quite enjoy long relationships in the romantic sense. Humans (or aliens) in SFF stories will bond and raise families, and a lot of SFF has included that well (Liaden, Cherryh’s Foreigner series, Bujold, Nathan Lowell, etc.) — it includes some of my favorite authors.

    1. Then you’re almost the Optimized Audience (if such exists) for a couple of stories I’ve launched as semi-soft SF in my current WIP universe. I wrote one as a prequel to the other, but you can check ’em out in either order.

      “Under a Wayward Sun” in the Planetary: Earth anthology (now only sold in audiobook) was the germ of the worldbuilding, and its prequel is Pyre & Ice, that was Promo-Posted here a couple of years ago. At some point, I’ll try to tie them into a longer and more cohesive story arc.

  2. The main cause for cussin’ I see on the lists is the one describing a subgenre called Mutants where “Characters who exhibit powers often like superheroes. Unlike the human development subgenre, these powers come about more naturally, as opposed to via experiments.” and then as an example cites Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll (where the alter ego is EXACTLY the results of experimentation). (I am Legend is fine as an example because in the book it is some kind of rando virus; I think at least one of the film adaptations implies that the virus is a military experiment gone wrong.)

    For steampunk, I’ve seen the divide listed as “steampunk is science fiction, otherwise it’s gaslamp fantasy” but this may be one of those things more often honored in the breach than in the observance. And of course, there’s this:

    1. One notes that the list does not go on to include superheroes. Mind you, I would argue it’s a separate genre, where sitting loose with fantasy and SF tropes is part of the central definition.

      Mutants is also a poor name for that genre.

  3. So Ms. TxRed – (Or anyone else who wants to take a stab – just not at me) – what would be your guess at the genre of the following? (‘Cause I sure can’t figure it out!)

    1. Modern world, Drug baby got a little “extra” in the womb. They use it in their daily life, but, mostly just try to keep it under control. Meets cop and starts helping them (reluctantly) to solve issues, as the MC is forced deal with the circumstances thrust on them. No romance, but some URST, a crime or two dealt with. The “extra” is sensory, not physical. The police procedural part is very minimal, very little thriller. (Science based- extrapolated, no “magic”)

    2. Modern world, hidden vampires, slowing becoming known “zombies”, but they are still rare. MC basically “normal”. Saved by a vampire (but doesn’t know it for a long time). Has some relationship dramas, but is mostly about stopping the bad guy’s plans/experiments. (Science- based – extrapolated, no “magic”)

    3. Modern world, cop gets shot, gets well, and is now able to see “ghosts”, uses that to start solving cold cases while on light duty. (This is might be police procedural? (Again, though light on the procedure.) Or Urban Fantasy? Because there are ghosts, even if there is no magic?)

    4. Supers in Space (Sci-fi? Fantasy? It’s more about the people and their relationships…)

    5. Modern world, cryptids- but science based (They evolved beside humans). No “magic” per se. Sort of a romance while MC dealing with learning about this “new world” situation. Solving a crisis of morality. (Paranormal Romance? Fantasy-Sci-Fi Romance?)

    1. 1. Might be either “mutants” or “mundane” according to the thirty types list TxRed linked to. Possibly superheroes, but iffy.
      2. Mundane/mutants; maybe technothriller (thinking Dean Koontz Watchers) if the bad guy caused the vampire/zombie things somehow.
      3). Urban Fantasy, Fantasy Mystery; maybe Dark Fantasy or Horror if there’s a lot of emphasis on the more disturbing possibilities.
      4). Depends on what you mean by a super. If there’s a lot of emphasis on leotards in primary colors, unique powers, and goofy code names, probably just plain superheroes. If you’re talking something more like the Jedi or the Lensmen, where there’s a defined spectrum of unusual abilities people may or may not be able to use, and they have formal titles, dress code, etc, might be space opera or sword and planet.
      5). Paranormal or Scifi Romance, but Paranormal would cover it, I think, inspite of the sciency explanations.

      1. 3). After a bit of searching, Paranormal Mystery or Gothic Mystery might also fit, but depends on execution.
        5). Rule of thumb for classifying a book as romance is that the romance arc has to take up at least half the story or more, and must end on a good note (either a Happily Ever After, or very obviously on the road to a Happily Ever After that might take a couple more books to reach). The romantic leads cheating on each other tends to be something of a disqualifier.

          1. I would say “no”. The lack of an HEA is usually a killer and will get you unhappy reviews.

            Now, in a romantic relationship which is not genre Romance, it’s not an issue.

            1. Ok cool. Is that its own separate genre, or does that end up being handled as a sub-genre to a main genre?

              I.e. if it is urban fantasy, with the relationship driving the plot, would it be classed as Romantic Relationship, or Urban Fantasy with romantic relationship sub plot?

              1. You would just treat it as urban fantasy, I think. Romance subplots are common enough there that nobody thinks anything of it, and any urban fantasy readers who also read romance usually understand that they’re not necessarily going to get a classical romance in an urban fantasy novel.

              2. Urban fantasy with romance in the plot. Avoid Paranormal Romance as a sub-genre tag unless you have very, very clear romance beats, a HEA (or at least a happy ending for the foreseeable future, or for the main characters with the understanding that other characters will get their turn soon), AND are PG-13 or R rated at least.

                OR you are already so well known and have a large fan-base that won’t mind a PNR that doesn’t have a lot of spice in it.

          2. The ending is one of the most fixed parts of the Romance genre, so not much room to flex on that. If you want a feel for what Romance with a significant amount of other genre elements in play looks like, try Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle (pen names for the same author). The other issue to watch out for is that the audience generally tolerates edgy/dangerous/anti-heroic male leads better than it does female leads with those traits.

      2. I’m playing with “supers in high fantasy.” Given that I decided to name them knights and the classical insignia are, of course, effectively coats of arms, and the heroic ones serve the king — that’s what the government is — I am finding it’s very “high-powered high fantasy.”

    2. I’d go with 1 and 2 being sci-fi. As for subgenre, you’d need to read or at least find similar books and see where they are listed on Kobo or Amazon. Some publishers (Rocket?) actually list subgenres on the back cover of the print version, and I’ve seen some really niche descriptions. 3 fits closest with fantasy, probably urban depending on the time and setting. 4. What others have said – superheroes are their own thing in most cases, with sci-fi because of the extraterrestrial setting. That is, unless you make it very, very clear from the outset that you are dealing with the supernatural in the fantasy sense, but in space. Then, focus on the superhero aspect with fantasy second. 5. Does the romance hit all the romance beats and include a happily-ever-after? Yes? Romance with sci-fi elements. Romance is THE most pattern-driven genre, and the pattern overrides all other genre cues, as Mary, Theresa, and others have said. If the romance is incidental to the surprise cryptids and the associated problems, then sci-fi with romance elements and let the sci-fi part show up front and often.

      Genre is a sales tool. Don’t shelve fresh mushrooms with the cream of mushroom soup and the mushroom-shaped air fresheners because all three are mushrooms. 🙂 (Unless you are the grocery store in Tiny Midwest Town where molasses is in with popcorn and snacks instead of syrups because no one in that region uses molasses for anything other than popcorn balls. Lesson: know your customer base/reader base.)

  4. Romance is very flexible. Sci-fi romance is a huge area but the relationship and HEA are paramount. No HEA, it’s not romance. Be careful what you ask for though, when you’re searching. A surprising amount of sci-fi romance falls into “I was the alien’s love slave” category.

    I write sci-fi romance set on a terraformed Mars and always tell people that I don’t write “I was the alien’s love slave” genre because it’s often the first thing people think of! I’m more like big sprawling family sagas with a strong class structure and a core relationship, which isn’t easy to distill down.

    There’s also romantasy, a romance in a fantasy world, but yeah, if you don’t have your HEA, it’s not a romance.

    1. Hard Fantasy would include: Science-of-magic – rules which can be discovered and manipulated. Witches aren’t usually thought of in that way, but witchcraft and (esp.) alchemy would arguably fall into that camp. And academies…

      All speculative fiction (being non-quotidian world) has hard (world-building-rule-following) and soft (exotic critter/deity relationships) potential components (if you speculate, you have to provide rules for the reader’s guidance, since it’s not realistic). But usually only SciFi is spoken of in those terms, not Fantasy or Horror.

    2. Barsoom is properly Planetary Romance, a term that is fading because people are completely forgetting the non-love-story genres that are romances.

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