Genres Explained Part 2: The Big List of Speculative Fiction Subgenres
You can think of speculative fiction as a kind of super-genre. Stories that live under this broad umbrella all deviate in some way from the laws and rules of everyday reality. That could mean they’re set in an entirely invented reality or in a world mostly like our own with a few minor tweaks, or anywhere in between.
The term speculative fiction was first coined by Robert Heinlein in the late 1940s, so it’s hardly a new concept. Its associations have shifted over the decades, though, from a term mostly syonymous with sci-fi to one that’s more fluid. In today’s parlance, speculative also includes fantasy and most horror, as well as stories that exist between the borders of these genres. It’s become an especially popular term among those who write settings or tropes from fantasy and sci-fi in a literary style.
Subgenre definitions aren’t set in stone. Some have had the same basic definition for centuries but there are new ones popping up all the time as writers and readers find new ways to categorize the vast body of speculative literature. To visualize how complicated this landscape can be, here’s a mapping of the subgenres listed here and where they tend to fall within the speculative umbrella:
What do all of those terms mean? Here’s a basic description in (roughly) alphabetical order.
____-punk – At the end of a literary label, “punk” indicates the work is somehow about resistance to the status quo. The various words added in front of it usually specify the level of technology used in the world, though it can also be a commentary on the work’s mood and outlook. Punk subgenres span the boundaries of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, and include:
- Cyberpunk – “High tech meets low life” is the typical description, and that works well enough. Typically set in a dystopian world where cybernetics, computerization, or an invasive and ubiquitous network has led to a breakdown in societal order.
- Biopunk – Similar to cyberpunk but focused on the ramifications of biotechnology, with less emphasis on cyberware or networks. Often set in a near-future, exploring the dark side of genetic engineering, or biohacking as either a means of control by a dystopian society or a way to rebel against it.
- Nanopunk – Cyberpunk but with a focus on nanotechnology, often specifically more on the impact of that technology than on the tech itself.
- Solarpunk – A more optimistic spin on cyberpunk, imagining a future where current environmental issues have been addressed to some degree. The worlds may be closer to a utopia than the dystopia common in other punks.
- Lunarpunk – Sub-subgenre that shows the nightlife and underbelly of solarpunk utopias.
- Steampunk – Stories set in an alternate 19th century where steam and gears are used to power anachronistic technology like giant robots and mechanical computers.
- Dieselpunk – Like steampunk but for the industrial era, when diesel replaced steam. Often includes aspects of pop culture in WWII and Korean War era US, like film noir, pinups, and art deco.
- Atompunk – Set in the pre-digital, post-WWII era. Common themes are Cold War-style espionage, the space race, and the rise of the military industrial complex.
- Steelpunk – set in world that uses technologies developed in late 20th century. Machines are normally built mechanically, often with rivets, with an emphasis on hardware over software. Think a Mad Max aesthetic.
- Clockpunk – Renaissance period reimagined to include retro-futuristic tech, often based on gears (hence the name).
- Stonepunk – Set during the Stone Ages or a similarly prehistoric time, using technology made from the right materials but far more advanced than would have been sued. Think a Flintstone aesthetic.
- Hopepunk – A newer genre term, first coined in 2017, for stories set in a sci-fi or fantasy landscape involving characters fighting for positive change. While the setting may be dystopian, the mood overall is optimistic, what’s been described as “weaponized optimism” fighting against apathy and cynicism.
- Mythpunk – Term coined by writer Catherynne M. Valentine in 2006, initially for her own work, which uses tropes from folklore and myth to challenge storytelling norms. Stories often have a multicultural or feminist lens and may use nonlinear storytelling or other experimental techniques.
- Splatterpunk – Horror with the gore ratcheted up to 11, often with graphic descriptions and intentionally gratuitous sex and violence. The main rebellion at play here is against societal conventions about things usually considered too explicit to print.
- Silkpunk – Genre created by author Ken Liu to describe his own works. The world uses technology that’s organic in form and function, blended with magic and other fantasy elements. Silk describes both a cultural rooting in Asian history and the language, which is lyrical and poetic.
Afrofuturism/Africanfuturism – These are related terms, both focused on a fusion of African culture and mythology with technology and futuristic settings, though Afrofuturism focuses on the perspectives of the African diaspora, while Africanfuturism is related to the African contient. The defining characteristic is a rooting in African culture that doesn’t center Western perspectives.
Alien invasion – Story in which a technologically superior society invades earth, usually with malicious intent. A sub-category is the alien infiltration genre, in which aliens take on the look of humans in order to blend into society and take control from within.
Alternate history – Story set in a world where history has diverged, usually because of an opposite outcome for a well-known world event. Often, these are set in a slant version of the present that explores what else would have changed had history turned out differently. While it’s inherently speculative, it may or may not involve anything that would otherwise be seen as non-real—the speculation is at the society and cultural level, not technological or supernatural. One sub-subgenre of this is speculative evolution, which looks at hypothetical ways life could evolve, on Earth or other planets.
Alternate reality/parallel universe – These stories involve multiple iterations of reality that exist side-by-side. Characters may use technology or magic to move between these realities. Normally “alternate reality” is seen as exploring multiple versions of Earth’s reality, while “parallel universe” is broader and could include stories of parallel realities completely separate from Earth’s galaxy. How these worlds are connected is a common theme in these stories, along with questions of identity and choice vs. fate.
Analog horror – Literary offshoot of the found footage film genre of horror. These stories usually take place in the mid-to-late 20th century and incorporate technology like tube TVs or VHS tapes into the plot, often as the source of the horror.
Anthropological science fiction – These works focus on the social sciences as the center of their thought experiments. They extrapolate alien or future societies, with the same attention to in-world logic and accuracy as hard science fiction but with a focus on humans over machines and technology. They may feature civilizations that use sci-fi style, advanced technology, but that’s relegated to setting and worldbuilding rather than the focus of the story.
Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic – Stories that take place during or after the collapse of civilization. These could overlap with Christian fiction with Rapture narratives, or sit more in the horror genre, focusing on the terrors faced by those going through the collapse. The setting is often present or near-future Earth, though others take a far-future view or show the end of a completely alien civilization.
Bangsian Fantasy – Fantasy story that uses the afterlife as its main setting. The characters may be fictional or famous historical figures, and frequently use a mix of both. The genre is named for author John Kendrick Bangs, who often wrote it. His stories were humorous tales where famous ghosts had good-natured adventures, and most works in the genre follow that pattern.
Body horror – Stories whose core plot centers on something grotesque or disturbing related to the human body. This could be either internal and psychological, sharing traits with Gothic storytelling and themes of identity and shame, or a more violent and sensational slasher-style gore.
Camp/Kitch – Works that self-consciously use cliches, overly-utilized tropes, or melodramatic storytelling. Usually these sit at the inersection of horror or sci-fi with comedy (sometimes even intentionally).
Climate fiction – Stories based around the consequences and impact of climate change, the speculative arm of eco fiction. These works are usually set in the present or near-future and could lean dystopian or utopian, depending on the outlook of the writer, and what potential futures they see for humanity.
Contemporary Fantasy – Fantasy set in the real world and close to the time period when it was written. Often, the setting is mostly realistic but magic and mythical creatures exist in secret, either hidden on the edges of society or in a separate world that bleeds over into our own.
Cosmic horror – Stories built around the existential terror that arises from the vastness and incomrprehensibility of space and time. A subset of this genre is Lovecraftian horror, involving the “old gods” like Chthulu as written about by H.P. Lovecraft. These stories can also overlap with science fiction, taking place in space or during interactions between humans and other immortal, all-powerful creatures.
Dark Fantasy – Stories that use topes and elements normally found in horror but set in a fantasy setting, often a sword-and-sorcery style one. Like horror, its aim is to unnerve or scare the reader, the main thing differentiating it from other forms of fantasy.
Dying Earth – Stories set in a far distant future at the end of time, when the sun is dying and the laws of the universe are starting to break down. Common themes are entropy and world-weariness, but also a hope for renewal and idealism. While they have high technology, it’s often reached the point of being indistinguishable from magic, often putting these stories in a science-fantasy space.
Dystopian – Stories set in some version of a nightmare world. This could be due to an authoritarian regime or the opposite, a complete lack of societal order leading to violent anarchy. The setting is often understood to be a future iteration of Earth, though invented world dystopians certainly exist.
Edisonade – Fictional stories about young inventors and their inventions that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The original versions were dime novels marketed to young boys, and could be seen as an early form of young adult sci-fi.
Fantastique – Genre popularized in French literature dating back to the Middle Ages. In a fantastique, the world is mostly realistic but supernatural phenomenon intrude, often without explanation, and this is as strange to the characters as it is for the readers. The supernatural was often a source of horror in traditional fantastique, though that’s not a defining characteristic of the genre.
Fantasy of Manners – The fantasy equivalent of a Comedy of Manners, a genre that satirizes a social class (usually an upper class), often by using stock characters. The same thing happens in the fantasy version, but set in a world that uses magic or other non-real elements, often a sword-and-sorcery style environment.
Gothic – An early ancestor of the modern horror genre, original gothic stories were brooding, dark tales of the uncanny written and set in the 18th and 19th centuries. They commonly featured forbidden loves, ruined castles, fallen aristocracies, and the various spirits and creatures that haunted the above. It has spawned several more contemporary subgenres:
- Southern Gothic – Popularized in the early 20th century, set in the American South.
- Suburban Gothic – Set in the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s, focused on the anxieties specific to the shift to suburban communities. A common trope is a danger that arises within a self-contained neighborhood, rather than an external threat.
- Urban Gothic – Stories with a Gothic atmosphere set in post-industrial urban society of the US or UK. It emerged in the mid-19th century, and stories are often set in that time period, though more modern iterations certainly exist.
Grimdark fantasy – Stories using similar tropes and characters to high fantasy, but focusing on the grittier side of those worlds. Common features are morally ambiguous characters who engage in the seedy underbelly or criminal underworld of a sword-and-sworcery style society.
Hard science fiction – This is one of the more contested subgenre labels on the list. The generally accepted definition is fiction that has technology at the core of its plot, with an emphasis on the accuracy of that technology within the world, even if it could not possibly exist in reality. Robots and space travel are common themes, though it can also center technology like terraforming, genetic engineering, virtual reality, or nano-technology.
Heroic fantasy – Stories set in a world with magic or mythical creatures that focuses on the journeys and trials of a hero or band of heroes. Usually the central conflict is a good vs. evil duality and the fate of the world rests on the success of the hero’s mission. Multi-book series with intricate plots are common, as are massive invented worlds with accompanying maps.
High fantasy – Also called epic fantasy, there is a lot of overlap between high fantasy and heroic fantasy, and some would argue they’re basically the same thing. For others, high fantasy is a specific subset of heroic fantasy that’s set in an invented world with medieval-level technology, where mythical creatures like elves, dwarves, and dragons are an accepted part of reality.
Historical fantasy – The fantasy arm of alternate history, these stories are set in a specified historical time period, but with some added element of magic or non-reality. That non-reality may be hidden on the edges of society, similar to in contemporary fantasy, or may retreat into the background after the events of the story, allowing history to continue on unchanged. Within historical fantasy are subgenres with settings that are based on historical Earth time periods but not explicitly set during Earth’s past. These include:
- Arthurian Fantasy – Based in the world of King Arthur and his court at Camelot
- Classical Fantasy – Based on Greek or Roman mythology, or in those eras of history
- Gaslamp Fantasy – Victorian or Edwardian setting that often uses similar tropes, themes and characters as Gothic literature
- Gunpowder Fantasy – Epic fantasy elements combined with 19th-century technology such as rail travel and rifles, also known as “muskets and magic”
LitRPG – Stories that integrate conventions of RPG video games into a written narrative. The term was first introduced in 2013 to describe stories that are based in both a “real world” and a world where they’re a player, with character stats, leveling up, and other tropes common to video games. When those video game elements are downplayed or absent it may be referred to as “GameLit” instead, which can also include stories of being trapped in games, or games coming to life Jumanji-style.
Low Fantasy – This is a term that’s picked up a few different meanings. Low fantasy could refer to:
- Fantasy stories that deal with the dark side of high fantasy worlds, similar to grimdark, featuring drugs, crime, prostitution, and similarly sordid things, but with magic or mythical creatures.
- Fantasy mostly set in a realistic world with light use of magic and supernatural elements.
- Pulp fantasy, with action-driven plots and thin character development, often set in a pseudo-historical setting.
Magical Realism – Stories set in a world just slant of present reality, where fantastical elements are typically subtle and accepted as normal parts of the characters’ day-to-day life. Closely tied to surrealism, magical realist writers often use the supernatural as a metaphor to highlight or explore aspects of their present.
Military science fiction – The obvious must-have here is a plot related to war or the military. More specifically, though, these stories are normally told from the perspective of a soldier involved in an interplanetary conflict. Stories usually include detailed descriptions of battles, and may also involve the politics and planning of characters higher up the hierarchy.
Monster literature – The obvious defining characteristic here: these stories have a monster. The tropes associated with that are themes like loneliness, isolation, identity, and duality. In more sci-fi orientated takes, the monster is often created, and may ultimately turn on its creator or need to be destroyed. Stories with more supernatural monsters often focus on the victims, who are usually helpless against the powerful creature attacking them until they uncover its weakness.
Mundane science fiction – Stories set on present day Earth or in the near-future where characters use technology that believably could exist, even if it doesn’t yet. Like hard sci-fi, accuracy in the science is emphasized and the technology is often central to the plot. The speculative aspect may not be so much the technology itself, however, but the potential ways humans may see to use the technology and the consequences of those choices.
Mythic fiction – Works inspired by or rooted in mythology, using the tropes and symbols found within the folklore or religious mythology of an existing earth culture. This category also includes:
- Fables – Stories that use personified animals and other supernatural or mythical beings to impart moral lessons. Fables are one of the oldest types of storytelling, featuring in the myth and folklore of cultures around the world, where they often serve an educational purpose, teaching the society’s rules to children. Modern fabulists repurpose the traditional conventions of fables but often write for an adult audience.
- Fairytale Fantasy – Fairy tales are similar to fables in that they were originally written for children, often to convey a moral lesson or teach kids about the rules and history of society. They’re typically set in a loosely-defined magical world (“Once upon a time…”), though modern fairy tales may utilize modern worldbuilding techniques. Usually they’ll involve creatures like dragons, trolls, witches, elves, and—of course—fairies, which are an accepted part of the reality of the story.
- Fairytale horror – Twisted versions of known fairytales, or stories of fairytale creatures taking revenge on humans who invade their spaces.
- Folk horror – Stories based on urban legends or folk tales with a horrific or terrifying aspect
Occult detective fiction – Stories that combine tropes of crime fiction with supernatural or magical elements. Often, the protagonist will be a supernatural detective who investigates cases involving ghosts, demons, curses, and monsters, which may also spill over into sci-fi territory if these creatures turn out to be extraterrestrial or man-made.
Paranormal –These stories are typically set in a mostly-realistic, contemporary world but with a paranormal element central to the story. They often integrate tropes from fantasy and horror, including themes like haunting and curses and creatures like vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, ghosts, and zombies. Stories featuring witchcraft and sorcery may be instead labeled as “occult fiction”, but tend to utilize the same overall mood and tropes. These paranormal elements are central to the story and supernatural beings may serve as protagonists or villains (or love interests, in paranormal romance, a popular sub-subgenre).
Portal fantasy – Stories where characters from the real world travel into a fictional fantasy world. Once there, they’re typically swept up in the culture of the fantasy world, becoming involved in battles, regime changes, or other historical moments, before eventually returning to their own reality.
Psychological horror – These are stories with an explicitly non-supernatural antagonist, and in fact often don’t use any overtly non-real elements. Even so, they may get included under the speculative umbrella since they’re a part of the horror genre. They often involve serial killers, stalkers, and other types of non-supernatural evil set in a realistic world with an overall dark, tense atmosphere. It overlaps with the thriller and mystery genres, though these stories tend to focus more on inciting fear in readers than solving a puzzle.
Romantic fantasy – or fantasy romance, if you prefer. These stories are normally set in a high fantasy or heroic fantasy setting but have a romance at the heart of the plot. The protagonists are often warriors of either gender, and stories frequently involve a quest during which the heroes fall in love, but there are deviations from that norm. The key characteristics are the romance and the sword-and-sorcery setting.
Science Fantasy – Stories that utilize tropes from both sci-fi and fantasy. This could be a world that uses both advanced technology and magic, or one populated by mythical creatures who use technology. It’s also sometimes used as a synonym for soft sci-fi stories that use storylines and tropes common to high fantasy but in a futuristic, high-tech landscape.
Slipstream – This is another term that’s taken on multiple meanings. It’s sometimes used in a similar way to science-fantasy, for works with elements of both genres. More commonly, it refers to works that crossover between literary and sci-fi/fantasy, with a character focus and themes found in mainstream fantasy along with speculative elements.
Soft science fiction – Stories that take place in futuristic, alien, or otherwise science-fiction settings, but that focus on the characters and their relationships rather than the tech and science. This is also sometimes called “literary sci-fi” and has a lot of crossover with slipstream.
Space opera – Epic stories that take place in space or on a distant planet. Normally they focus on a hero or group of heroes in a good vs. evil type of conflict over the course of sweeping story arcs that span multiple locations, including planets, space stations, or even multiple galaxies. While technology is certainly central, there’s less concern with the plausibility of the science behind it, gleefully using faster-than-light travel, rayguns, and intelligent robots without explaining how they function.
Space western – Stories that use the tropes and themes found in Westerns but in a sci-fi setting. Often the stories focus on exploring lawless frontiers, often populated with criminals who are set against bounty hunters or other law enforcement.
Superhero – Stories involving a protagonist who has supernatural abilities and is one of a select few who possess these powers. How the hero acquires these abilities is often a key plot element, and while the powers may be pseudo-scientific in origin, they’re rarely concerned with accuracy or plausibility. The central conflict is normally a fight of good guys vs. bad guys, though modern superhero narratives play more with moral ambiguity.
Sword-and-sorcery – A genre closely related to high fantasy and heroic fantasy. These stories take place in invented settings styled off of medieval Europe. The plot centers on sword-wielding heroes and, as the name suggests, there’s usually a magic system of some kind involved.
Tech noir/cyber noir – Combination of film noir and sci-fi. These works retain the gritty, dark tone of noir with robots, AI, cybernetic modifications, and other tropes of the sci-fi world. The setting is often a dystopian take on a present or near-future Earth or analog, where technology has become a malicious force threatening human reality or existence.
Transrealism – Blending of the techniques of natural realism with surreal, supernatural, or sci-fi elements. These works are firmly grounded in reality to the point they may be partially autobiographical. The non-real elements are often connected to the character’s perception being altered, or somehow knocked askew of consensus reality.
Urban fantasy – Fantasy stories with an urban setting. Most often they’re set in a contemporary world, but they can also take place in the past, future, or a completely invented reality, so long as it takes place in a city. They often have a grittier, darker feel than high fantasy and frequently play with dystopian societies or underworld narratives.
Weird – Originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these works exist in a space somewhere between sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. They use tropes like space travel, time travel, aliens, and other devices from science fiction, but placed into a surreal and macabre world. It has a lot of overlap with cosmic horror, with H.P. Lovecraft often cited as a representative author for both, though the weird label also extends to authors like Edgar Allen Poe.
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