If you are a science-fiction fan, you may have come across the subgenres of “dystopian” or “speculative” fiction. But what exactly is speculative fiction? And is there really a huge difference between utopian and dystopian fiction? With the recent rise in science fiction’s popularity, these terms are becoming increasingly common in everyday conversation. Unfortunately, not everyone who uses the terms actually knows exactly what they mean.
With this in mind, here is part two of the list of basic sci-fi definitions. Hopefully this will help clarify these terms for you!
Hard science: Though all science fiction should, in theory, incorporate actual science alongside the fiction, a lot of books just throw science-y sounding terms about, focusing more on human relationships. Hard science novels are truly science fiction, written as accurately as possible, using the most recent scientific and technical knowledge. The scientific principles utilised can be entirely theoretical and unproven (as yet), as long as the ideas within the story are explored logically and consistently. The instrumental Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov, is a good example of this – though set far in the future, and spanning hundreds of years, with technology that we can currently only dream of, the plot is based entirely around consistent scientific rules.
Post-apocalyptic: Similar to apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, this subgenre tends to focus, mostly, on character development, as people struggle to survive in a ruined, harsh new Earth. The main difference between this and apocalyptic fiction is the time frame – think overgrown cities and rubble from years ago, rather than the raw newness of Armageddon occurring during the story. Classic books such as I Am Legend, where the main character is the only human left alive after a devastating plague, focus deeply on psychological effects (such as, how does it feel to be the last member of your species?) while series such as The Walking Dead focus more on the attempts to rebuild a new life. A large percent of this subgenre involves some kind of plague or nightmare creature (zombies are a favourite) but the most harrowing are the stories where the main or only threat is humanity itself – The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a good example, as is The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell.
Space and Space Frontier: What most people think of when they think of science fiction. Films and television shows such as Star Trek are obviously the embodiment of space frontier fiction, but there is also a wealth of great writing in the subgenre. The main difference between space fiction and frontier fiction is that the latter focuses more on exploration and the discovery of new worlds, but the line between can be very blurry – there may even be more of a spectrum between the two. Dune is a classic example of space fiction, set in another Galaxy on many different planets.
Speculative fiction: Rather than being a specific subgenre, speculative fiction is a blanket term for any sci-fi that “contemplates” an idea. It just sounds wonderfully intelligent to claim that you are reading “speculative fiction” – people who don’t read sci-fi are less inclined to judge, as they don’t immediately think “Star-Wars” and write you off as a geek.* There are limitations, of course – not all contemplative sci-fi fits this label. Generally, speculative fiction is more philosophically driven than action-based. Many of Phillip K. Dick’s short stories fit this theme well: Survey Team is the first that comes to mind here.
Steampunk: One of the few sci-fi subgenres that looks more to the past than the future, steampunk tends to be gloriously tactile and ornate with its focus on steam-powered machines, cogs, wheels and clocks, and clever inventions based on the industrial era. Usually set in alternate pasts around the Victorian era, or occasionally in post-apocalyptic futures, the world of steampunk has moved beyond the page to become a full-blown culture and lifestyle. I will admit to personally not being very familiar with steampunk works, however, I can recommend China Miéville, a brilliant author who incorporates steampunk elements into many of his books. (Railsea, while not definitive of the genre, is a gorgeous story set upon steam trains and definitely a must-read.)
Utopian: The direct opposite of dystopian, a utopian society is considered to be one that works perfectly and therefore is unlikely to exist – the word “utopia” is a combination of the Greek words for “no place” and “good place”. In literature, utopian societies are written about either to contrast how flawed our contemporary societies are, or as satire, to show how there may be no such thing as a perfect society. The most obvious and definining work in this subgenre is Utopia, written in Latin in 1516 by Sir Thomas More.
*Not meaning to imply that there is, in fact, anything wrong with liking Star Wars or being a geek (I’m guilty on both counts).