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July 11, 2012

Science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you read too many essays in your spare time, or sci-fi, if you’re a barbarian) is a vast genre. I suppose that any genre is sufficiently broad when you over-think it, but I think SF goes beyond that – it includes everything from short, surreal parables like Harrison Bergeron to present-day, magic realism-esque works like Primer to galaxy-spanning, Tolkienishly detailed universes like Dune and The Culture. You have popular television, film and video games – compare the 90s shooter Doom to, say, The Matrix – and then you have the controversially SF, like post-apocalyptic, techno-fantasy such as Discworld, and steampunk fiction.

Man, that was dry and verbose. Listen, science fiction big. Different kinds of science fiction very different from each other, grunt grunt, go hunt mammoth.

Anyway. I think SF would get a lot more readers if it were easier to tell what kind of SF you were reading, so I’ve created/tweaked/blatantly copied a sorting algorithm for science fiction. (I also did it because I’m a neurotic mess who loves tables, graphs and straightening pens). I divide things by the GENRE, the HARDNESS and the STYLE.


The GENRE is the kind of story it is. Pretty simple. Obviously this can overlap with other, non-Emmett-invented genres like romance, horror and noir.

Clarke: Relatively short, literary SF based around a single complex idea about technology, the future or human nature. A very concise, concentrated piece that says something novel about a technology or an attitude, often based around a ‘twist’. Named after the master himself.

For example, most of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov’s short stories. Heck, most short SF stories in general (Vonnegut, Dick, Pohl…). Rarely shows up outside the written word, although 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, the TV series Dollhouse and, arguably, the film Sunshine are all (excellent) exceptions.

Space Cadet: SF focused on space flight, politics and war within the next 50-100 years, adopting a hyperrealistic attitude, often overlapping with rocketpunk.

For example, most 50s and 60s literature. Rare in other media. Smith’s Lensman series, most of Heinlein and Corbett’s work, and the old Buck Rogers pulp are examples.

Wagon Train: Episodic SF where a group of adventurers regularly encounter new planets/races/alien menaces, and defeat them through a combination of heroism and intelligence.

The original Star Trek invented it, and every SF television series since has been at least partially Wagon Train as a result. Most Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica and even Babylon 5 are examples.

Arc opera: long-running, often high-concept SF that tells a long, complex story involving multiple arcs and many characters. Usually combines elements of Clarke and Tale Opera.

For example, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Dune series, most modern literary SF (Hamilton, Niven, Reynolds, Haldeman etc), and more debatably, Discworld.

Tale opera: short, self-contained SF (like Clarke), but instead of illustrating a single ‘clever’ idea about the future/human nature, instead focuses on telling a traditional story with normal characters and themes, but set in the future. Sometimes not considered ‘real’ SF, but this doesn’t make it bad.

For example, Firefly, Star Wars, Transformers, the vast majority of SF movies.




The HARDNESS is, basically, how realistic the SF is. Bearing in mind that being unrealistic does not make something bad, I modified TVTrope’s Mohs Scale, seen here[1]. Note that ‘handwavium’ is any technology invented when the writer waved his hands and said ‘we need it for the plot to go forward’.

Water – no particular attention paid to science as we know it, or internal consistency. For example, Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Transformers.

Plastic – little regard for science as we know it with lots of handwavium, but with some internal consistency. For example, Star Wars and Discworld.

Wood – decent amounts of handwavium, but with a decent attempt at internal consistency, and attempts to link with existing laws of science. Star Trek started out here, but has descended to Plastic over the years; most TV, video game and film SF falls here.

Iron – one or two carefully thought-out pieces of handwavium, and an otherwise sincere attempt at realism. Most good literary SF falls here, as well as Dollhouse, Primer, Blade Runner, 2001, Terminator and many other good films.

Diamond – no handwavium or other undiscovered/probably impossible things at all. Very rare in popular culture (Apollo 13 is the only one I can think of) although more present in Space Cadet and Clarke literature.


The STYLE is like the visual aesthetic. It’s not that important to the guts of the story, but it affects what the reader pictures in their head… at this stage, I’m just being neurotic.

Spires and Togas: the idea of an idyllic, utopian, ludicrously advanced society where everyone lounges around all day like Romans, far above the petty concerns of modern-day humans. Showed up a bit in Star Trek and Babylon 5, as well as a lot of Asimov’s literature.

Biopunk: an emphasis on cloning, genetic engineering and biotechnology. More modern stuff tends towards this, ranging from the conservative (The Island, Michael Crichton’s works) to the fantastical (Peter Hamilton).

Rocketpunk: an emphasis on realistic, nuclear-powered space travel, often with little computer technology and a 50s-style culture. Generally found in Space Cadet works. Heinlein and Doc Smith

Postgothic: a gothic, surrealist setting with deliberately arcane, intricate and evocative technologies and settings, often with an emphasis on horror stories. Reynold’s novels, and some of Vonnegut’s stuff.

Cyberpunk: technologies based around virtual realities, cybernetic modification and advanced computers. The Matrix, for example, as well as the vast majority of authors at one point or another.

Neon Lights: an overabundance of neon holograms, simplistic but shiny interfaces and disco-ish settings. Mass Effect, Deus Ex and a bit in the Star Wars prequels.

Presteam: cultures and races that resemble or play off pre-Industrial Revolution Earth, and in general is less ‘high technology’ and more ‘very imaginative fantasy’. The Dune novels are a triumphant example, and Star Trek wandered into this occasionally as well.

Alternate History: Exactly what it says on the tin. Harry Turtledove is the undisputed master, although John Birmingham isn’t too bad.

Weirdnow: Basically the world and technology of today, but with one or two important technological or cultural differences. Almost unseen on television apart from Dollhouse, but most authors hit this at some point, and many movies, from The Thirteenth Floor to Terminator, stray into this.

Military-Industrial: the future is gunmetal-grey, riveted and named things like ‘M955 Vulture, 62mm’. Halo, Avatar and Aliens are particularly explicit examples.

From → Thoughts

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