Visual and Literary Description of Sci-Fi Subgenres

Visual and Literary Description of Sci-Fi Subgenres

Guest blogger Dr. Lee Carroll (AKA EL Whitehorse)


Science fiction is a rich genre that thrives on exploring the unknown, leading to the emergence of a wide variety of subgenres, each with its own unique characteristics and themes. This article provides a comprehensive overview of these subgenres, presenting them in an easy-to-navigate alphabetical list. For each category, you’ll find a brief definition, key examples of books within the sci-fi subgenres, and visual illustrations to capture the essence of each one and bring it to life.

From the gritty, tech-driven worlds of cyberpunk to the strategic depths of military space fiction, from the intriguing possibilities of time travel to the optimistic visions of utopian societies, we cover the spectrum of sci-fi’s rich and diverse offerings. Embark with us on a journey through the varied and imaginative worlds of science fiction subgenres, providing both a guide for newcomers and insights for seasoned readers.


Afrofuturism incorporates African diaspora culture, history, mythology, technology, and mysticism into science fictional worlds that explore themes of identity and race among the Black experience. Afrofuturistic works synthesize the African diaspora’s real-world issues and struggles with imaginative speculation on its future evolution and societal dynamics. Africanfuturism is a term coined by Nnedi Okorafor to describe works rooted first and foremost in Africa and predominantly written by authors of African descent. An example is Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.Afrofuturism

Alien Invasion

Stories of alien invasion focus on extraterrestrials with superior technology, resources, and power invading Earth with aims of conquest, colonization, or destruction, forcing humanity into an intense struggle for survival, often necessitating global unification against a common extraterrestrial threat. Themes commonly explored include militarization, paranoia, sacrifice, humanity’s destructive tendencies turned back on itself, and moral questions around violence against alien species. An example is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.Alien Invasion

Alternate History

Alternate history speculates on the unfolding of actual historical events if key details diverge to alter the outcome, creating a timeline split from factual recorded history, which leads civilizations and technologies down vastly different developmental paths. Works explore the hypothetical rippling repercussions that apparently minor changes in the established timeline could have on present and future societies if seeded further back in history. Example: The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J. Sawyer.Alternate History


Biopunk fiction delves into the societal, ethical, and identity implications surrounding emerging biotechnologies capable of profoundly altering genetics, physiology, cognition, and human abilities through modification or enhancement of life. It extrapolates the consequences, both wondrous and horrifying, which rampant biotech advances might unleash if corporations, governments and unregulated biohackers apply these tools without ethical constraints for purposes stretching from medicine to eugenics to bioweapons—for example: The Sleepless series by Nancy Kress.Biopunk

Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction)

Climate Fiction explores scenarios aligned with actual climatology projections. Should humanity fail to change its unsustainable relationship with the planetary ecosystem, Cli-fi also examines the potential societal impacts of worsening climate change, global warming, rising seas, extreme weather, drought, famine, and forced migrations that may reshape geographic regions and future politics. It speculates on the human struggles for survival and authoritarian states that could emerge from profound global destabilization of food, water, health, economics, coastal densities, and biodiversity—for example: Fallen Angels by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn.Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction)


Cyberpunk posits technologically saturated, computerized future societies where invasive integration of man and machine via cybernetic implants, artificial limbs, neural interfaces enabling virtual overlay of the Internet onto physical Earth locations, and lethal cyberterrorist hacker threats, have radically transformed daily life. Often portrayed as dystopias of corporate-dominated urban sprawls kept orderly by privatized police brutality, these cynical punk futures wrestle with alienation in dehumanized postmodern cultures reliant on information technology. An example is Neuromancer by William Gibson.Cyberpunk


Dystopian stories depict undesirable, frightening nightmare futures resulting from societal failures or flaws in contemporary culture being dangerously amplified rather than corrected over time. Through authoritarian regimes, ravaged environments, collapsed infrastructure, eroded ethics, tribal factionalism, and trends predicting the means of society’s real downfall, dystopias showcase worst outcomes if ideas already extant went unmatched and unopposed by those championing rational humanism. An example is 1984 by George Orwell.Dystopian

Hard Science Fiction

Hard science fiction focuses on scientifically accurate frameworks speculating on the practical development and integration of emerging technologies, space exploration, and cosmic phenomena based on rigorous adherence to facts established in the physical sciences. It portrays futuristic inventions grounded in current engineering trajectories and theoretical physics while minimizing fantasy elements for plots rationally projecting experimental discoveries in areas as wide-ranging as interstellar propulsion, robotics, renewable energies, medicine, evolution, digitization, cybernetics, nanotechnology, and cosmology. Examples: The Martian by Andy Weir and To the Stars by L. Ron Hubbard.Hard Science Fiction

Military Science Fiction

Military science fiction centers on futuristic depictions of armed forces personnel, structured ranks, soldiers, pilots, and command leadership undertaking wartime missions reliant on fictional evolutions in weapons platforms, battle strategies, and technologies predicted to become critical for defense policy-making assumptions about future conflict theaters against national adversaries. It speculates on warfare’s changing character, risks, and politics shaped by bleeding-edge applications from military research investments made to guarantee national security interests. An example is The Honor of the Queen by David Weber.Military Science Fiction


Post-apocalyptic science fiction imagines the remnants of humanity struggling to survive and rebuild following near-annihilation by a natural disaster, nuclear war, planetary collisions, alien attack, or engineered pandemic where civilizational foundations prove incapable of withstanding catastrophes that shatter global order. Most works follow characters living in barren wastelands, lawless zones, or tyrannical enclaves left in the collapse of nation-states, infrastructure, supply chains, and ethical constraints where daily subsistence trumps ideals of progress—for example: Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.Post-Apocalyptic

Science Fantasy

Science fantasy blends futuristic technologies with magic like spells, dragons, and prophecies within an imagined realm unbound by physics laws. It incorporates science fiction tropes like starships or robots and fantasy like divine visions or psychic abilities. The subgenre unites the intergalactic and arcane, where spaceship crews could encounter magical beings. As a subgenre, authors and readers most commonly used it between 1950 and 1966. An example is Waldo & Magic, Inc. by Robert A. Heinlein.Science Fantasy

Soft Science Fiction

As opposed to the technological focus of hard sci-fi, soft science fiction concentrates on the social, psychological, cultural, and political influences of hypothetical futures rather than the plausible innovations that drive them, relaying stories of human challenges, daring, and ethics facing alien contact, artificial intelligence integration, genetic manipulation, space exploration, and fantastic frontiers. Soft sci-fi allows for optimistic faith in utopia, belief in transcending limits of light speed or relativistic frames, and mythic Jungian archetypes reflected in alien others—for example: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg.Soft Science Fiction

Space Opera

Space operas graft mythic themes of brave quests, tyrannical empires, lost civilizations, and daring rescues onto richly drawn, galaxy-spanning interstellar settings depicting faster-than-light space travel, inhabitable worlds, technologically advanced alien species, and frequently tense diplomatic relations as rising interplanetary superpowers balance competition, trade and threats of war. The scale features heroic individuals influencing grand events with clashing space fleets, exotic planetary risks, and mystical scientific discoveries—for example: Dune by Frank Herbert and Ole Doc Methuselah by L. Ron Hubbard.Space Opera

Space Western

This subgenre applies the frontier American Old West setting to interstellar frontiers among distant colonized exoplanets. Space western depicts gruff independents, rogues with checkered pasts, settlers seeking freedom from authoritarian oversight and lucrative opportunities as they adapt to life on off-world mining outposts, farming habitats, trading hubs, and military buffer zones in untamed landscapes that test the moral codes transported from home worlds. With limited law enforcement and sparse, rugged living, new space western societal norms form. Example: Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future by Mike Resnick.Space Western


Steampunk extrapolates a technologically advanced civilization where combustion-based steam power remained ascendant over petroleum and electronic energy sources, thereby retaining a landscape of belching smokestacks, clacking mechanized workshops, and clockwork-powered automata. It also depicts steam-propelled vehicles alongside speculative machines conceived but never built by 19th-century inventors within a recognizably Victorian-esque cultural setting influenced by the British Empire and Western Europe. The divide between social classes, underlying colonial tensions, and contrasting ethos toward industrialization and empiricism provide ripe storytelling backdrops. Example: Clockwork Angels series by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart.Steampunk

Time Travel

Time travel stories involve persons or messages intentionally sent forward or backward in time, which threaten causal paradoxes upon interacting with historical persons or events and risk altering the future timeline upon return based on any resultant ripple effects distorting the original sequence of events from which they departed. Thriller plots force characters to preserve causality amid compound paradox threats that ensure critical history unfolds as recorded to permit their original future existence. Philosophically, the genre also explores determinism, morality, and human purpose. Examples: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.Time Travel


Utopian science fiction envisions hopeful futures where scientific discoveries and social innovations allow enlightened societies to overcome present-day faults like economic inequality, racism, existential risk, governance gridlock, and environmental damage to usher in unprecedented global cooperation, prosperity, health, and fulfillment for mainstream civilization through technological advances carefully guided by ethical deliberation on societal priorities. It provides thoughtful dreams of plausible paradises emerging should humanity realize its higher ideals. An example is Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.Utopian/Optimistic


While some subgenres dwell in dystopia, others inspire with utopian visions. Even the bleakest cataclysmic post-apocalypse carries the hopeful theme of bands rebuilding from civilization’s ashes. All forms speculate technology’s promise and peril based on humanity’s higher or baser natures.

Yet, running through each subset remains that iconic sense of wonder unique to science fiction. A sense of humanity’s next leap outward among the stars.

Please comment below if we have omitted any subgenres or categories or would like to add examples.


Anderson, Kevin J. and Neil Peart (2012). Clockwork Angels The Novel. ECW Press

Card, Orson Scott (1991). Ender’s Game. Tor Books.

Flynn, Michael, Pournelle, Jerry, & Niven, Larry (2000). Fallen Angels. Baen.

Gibson, William (1984). Neuromancer. Ace.

Heinlein, Robert A. (1940). Magic, Inc. Doubleday.

Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune. Chilton Books.

Hubbard, L. Ron (1982). Battlefield Earth. St. Martin’s Press.

Hubbard, L. Ron (1993). Ole Doc Methuselah. Bridge Publications.

Hubbard, L. Ron (2004). To The Stars. Galaxy Press.

Kress, Nancy (2002). Beggars in Spain. Avon Books.

Okorafor, Nnedi (2015). Binti.

Orwell, George (1949). 1984. Secker & Warburg.

Piercy, Marge (1976). Woman on the Edge of Time. Knopf.

Powers, Tim (1987). The Anubis Gates. Ace Books.

Resnick, Mike (1980). Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future. Tor Books.

Sawyer, Robert J. (2022). The Oppenheimer Alternative. Ace Books.

Silverberg, Robert (1972). Dying Inside. Scribner.

Weber, David (1993). The Honor of the Queen. Baen Books.

Weir, Andy (2012). The Martian. Crown Publishing Group.

Wells, H.G. (1895). The Time Machine. William Heinemann.

EL WhitehorseDr. Lee Carroll (AKA EL Whitehorse)

Working abroad in 10 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, both as a doctor and teacher, has shown me life through a prism of viewpoints. That experience has enriched my writing to the point where I enjoy showcasing the admiration I feel for varied cultures.

For example, my WOTF Semi-finalist entry is published for Kindle as Death Clearinghouse: The Novelette, featuring Apache ingenuity.

When I’m not writing, I’m yanking swords out of stones around the world.

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