With the recent (huge) rise in popularity of science fiction, terms like “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic” are becoming increasingly common in everyday conversation. Unfortunately, not everyone who uses the terms actually knows exactly what they mean. There is a vast range of sub-genres within science fiction, and labels such as “post-apocalyptic-cyber-punk-dystopian fiction”, and it can all get pretty confusing.
Here is a list of basic definitions that, hopefully, will simplify some sci-fi terms, and make everything a bit clearer.
Apocalyptic: An apocalypse is a devastating disaster, usually of global proportions. It can be man-made (nuclear war, epidemic), natural (giant earthquakes, tsunamis) or alien/fantastical (invasion, zombies). Sometimes the natural disasters or creature-plagues (zombies, again) are inadvertently caused by humans. In fact, in apocalyptic fiction, humans are generally portrayed as pretty awful. This subgenre usually begins just before an apocalypse and involves fast-moving, tense stories of survival, focusing on character development in stressful situations. Many people tend to die – definitely one of the more violent subgenres, as a rule.
Cosy: Cosy sci-fi also deals with a kind of apocalypse, but moves a lot slower. Climate change, inevitable asteroid strikes, the world slowly running out of food – these are the scenarios in most cosy sci-fi books. Don’t let the name fool you: the stories are not necessarily pleasant (books like Children of Men are technically “cosy” and that is not a warm fuzzy story) but are generally more slow-burning than typical apocalyptic fiction – less action-packed and more speculative*. John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids) is the author most often associated with this subgenre.
Cyberpunk: Typically fast-paced and jargon-filled. Extreme technology and fairly scummy specimens of life tend to populate cyber-punk’s worlds, with a lot of the action taking place in cyberspace – hence the name. Computer hackers and artificial intelligence are common, if not essential, and antiheroes are definitely the usual protagonists. Just take the stereotypical idea of a computer geek, but give him (or her) the power of living in an entirely technology based world, usually in Earth’s very near future, and you have cyber-punk. Without a doubt, the defining work of this sub-genre is Neuromancer, by William Gibson.
Dystopian: While a post-apocalyptic society can be dystopian, and vice versa, the two are not mutually exclusive. A dystopia is essentially a significantly flawed society run by an oppressive government or dictator, where citizens are not free. Continuing the theme, mankind is generally viewed as inherently flawed and apathetic, though there are often bright sparks of hope in the form of protagonists. Though dystopian books are often set in a distant future, long after an apocalypse, this is not strictly necessary for the genre – equally often the government has come to power through slow corruption. The classic example of dystopian fiction is, of course, George Orwell’s brilliant 1984, but there are now a huge range of books in the sub-genre. Young adult fiction, especially, has embraced dystopia with the huge success of books like The Hunger Games (pretty good), which has led to many sort-of sci-fi teen romances masquerading as dystopian books (not so good). If you have ever been put off reading something with a dystopian label because of this unfortunate association, rest assured – the dystomance** is now a genre of its own, and fairly easy to avoid.
Feminist Sci-fi: Exactly as it sounds, this is science fiction of any sub-genre that has a feminist point of view. Authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin write stories that analyse and critique traditional female roles in literature (and real life) either through describing societies where these roles are exaggerated, or creating worlds where the opposite is true.
*Another sub-genre name to be explained later.
**Dystopian-romance. Yes, this is an actual word.