Book Genres: Sifting Through That Mess (Part II)

Continuing with my series on book genres, today I’m going to talk about science fiction and fantasy.

Science fiction and fantasy are closely related, and can sometimes overlap. But if you’re looking to find an agent, often times they’ll list one or the other as preferred genres. Orson Scott Card gives us the difference:

“If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction. If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our rules, it’s fantasy…Science fiction is about what could be, but isn’t; fantasy is about what couldn’t be.”

To be science fiction, a story should have elements of science in either the conflict and/or the setting, and most take place in the future (but this isn’t a requirement). Most of the science is based on currently known facts. Fantasy, on the other hand, lacks science, and instead relies on mythology, magic, imagination, etc. for the setting and conflict.

Got it? Good. Let’s move to the subgenres of each. And keep in mind there can be quite a bit of overlap between sci-fi and fantasy.

Science Fiction Subgenres

Alternate History

This is one of the crossovers. It’s fantasy with scientific elements that deals with changing the accepted account of history. [Examples: Ted Mooney, Ward Moore, Philip K. Dick]


The story here is set in a high-tech, usually near-future society where computers have changed the way society functions. While the technology is high, life is low. In other words, there is normally a social breakdown in these stories. The characters are considered to be tough outsiders. [Examples: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Wilhelmina Baird]

Hard Science Fiction

These stories use logical extrapolations of real science in the future. The setting is as or more important that the characters. [Examples: Hal Clement, Larry Niven]

Military Science Fiction

Stories about war that feature traditional military organizations/tactics extrapolated into the future. [Examples: Jerry Pournelle, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon]

New Age

Deals with subjects like UFOs, astrology, psychic phenomena, mysticism, and other aspects of the occult. [Examples: Walter Mosley, Neil Gaiman]

Science Fantasy

Blends traditional fantasy elements with scientific support, like genetic engineering explaining dragons. These stories are more character driven than hard science fiction. [Examples: Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Marion Zimmer Bradley]

Sci-Fi Mystery

Crossover. Blends whodunnits with science fiction. [Examples: Philip K. Dick, Lynn S. Hightower]

Sci-Fi Romance

Another crossover. Sci-fi with a strong romantic subplot, or a romance with science fiction elements.

Social Science Fiction

Deals with how characters react to their environments. Includes social satire like Orwell’s 1984. [Examples: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaiden’s Tale; Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness; Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time]

Space Opera

Emphasis on sweeping action and larger-than-life characters. These stories tend to make good movies. [Example: Star Wars series]


Alternate history based in Victorian England where characters have access to 20th-century technology. [Examples: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling]


Fantasy Subgenres


Reworking anything to do with Arthur or the Knights of the Round Table. [Examples: T.H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley]


Traditional fantasy elements, like magic/elves, are incorporated into a modern setting. [Examples: Mercedes Lackey, Terry Brooks]

Dark Fantasy

Related to horror, but not as graphic. Characters are vampires, witches, demons, etc. [Examples: Anne Rice, Fred Chappell]

Fantastic Alternate History

Set in an alternate historical period where magic would not have been a common belief, but where magic works. Often feature actual historical figures. [Example: Orson Scott Card, Alvin Maker]


Plots/characters similar to high fantasy, but are based on a particular RPG. [Examples: Dungeons & Dragons; Magic: The Gathering; World of Warcraft]

Heroic Fantasy

The fantasy equivalent to military science fiction. Stories of war and its heroes/heroines. [Examples: Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian series, Elric series]

High Fantasy

Set in an entirely fictional world (which can be separate from ours, parallel to ours, or a world within ours), the fate of an entire race/nation is threatened by an ultimate evil. These often feature non-human races and/or creatures. [Examples: Tolkien, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Tracy Hickman]


Set in any era where the belief in magic was strong. Essentially historical novels where magic is a key element. [Examples: Tim Powers, The Anubis Gate; Margaret Ball, No Earthly Sunne; Susan Schwartz, Silk Road and Shadow]

Young Adult

Can be any type of fantasy geared toward youths. [Examples: Harry Potter series, C.S. Lewis]

Science Fantasy

See earlier in the post under Sci-Fi subs.


That’s all, folks!



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