Alternate World fantasy involves different worlds hidden within or parallel to our own. In past times these could be found in a mysterious country, as in Johnathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels. With the Earth explored, some were envisioned inside a mirror, as with Lewis Carroll's novel Through the Looking Glass. Others 'distill' whole fictional libraries, as with John Myers Myers' novel Silverlock. In a scientific era, often these worlds are in a parallel cosmos, as depicted in Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series.
Arthurian subgenre tales are set in the world of King Arthur's legendary Camelot. Merlin, Lancelot, Ygraine and friends are involved in fresh adventures. These novels have been popular for centuries, and one famous modern example is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
Bangsian fantasy takes its name from a 19th century author named John Bangs. This subgenre deals all or mostly with the afterlife. Early legends speak of Hades, and it's been going strong ever since. A modern example is Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" series. Though marketed as literary fiction, with its Heaven-dwelling narrator, Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones fits this category.
Celtic fantasy draws upon the rich lore of the Celtic peoples, mostly but not always from Ireland. C. J. Cherryh's novel The Dreaming Tree and Charles De Lint's novel The Little Country are fine examples.
Contemporary is a subgenre which posits that magical creatures are hidden amongst us. These tales are set in modern times, and deceptively familiar situations. Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere depicts a vast (yet hidden) magical underground London. Mercedes Lackey's "Diana Tregarde" novels bring realistic magic to Dallas and small town Oklahoma.
Court Intrigue is a subgenre set in royal castles, whether historical (but with magic), or in some recognizable alternate world. George R. R. Martin's novel "A Song of Fire and Ice" and its sequels (plus the HBO version A Game of Thrones) are good examples.
Dying Earth stories take place in just such a dismal setting. Often humanity is beset with ennui, as the world itself fades away. The Martin and Dozois anthology Songs of the Dying Earth pays homage to Jack Vance's namesake tome.
Erotic subgenre tales contain a strong sexual element. Examples abound, since medieval times and before. A popular modern example is Jacqueline Carey's novel Kushiel's Dart and its sequels.
Fantasy of Manners is a subgenre related to the literary 'comedy of manners,' and it depicts the elaborate rituals and relationships of some narrow social class. These stories downplay or omit nonhuman creatures. Author Ellen Kushner is regarded as the dean of this subgenre.
Feghoot describes a tiny yet distinct subgenre, rooted in the 'fan fiction' of serious fantasy enthusiasts. These 'flash fiction' (under 1000 word) tales are laden with inside jokes, and must feature a bad pun for an ending. The protagonist is always a loutish adventurer named Ferdinand Feghoot.
Gaslamp Fantasy is a genre which draws on a romanticised version of the victorian era, usually (but not always) focussing on exaggerated technological advances for the period. Often associated with steampunk.
Heroic fantasy centers on a conquering hero, or band of heroes; yet it often turns the genre's heroic trope on its head, with forgivable villains and deeply flawed protagonists. Stephen R. Donaldson's epic "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" series fits the bill perfectly.
High or Epic fantasy is, for many readers, the heart and essence of the genre. Entire worlds are created, with long histories and vivid lifestyles, and a large cast of characters. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings utterly dominates this subgenre. Elizabeth Moon's five "Paksenarrion/Gird" novels (plus some brand-new sequels) are excellent examples. (Hand-drawn maps, which show the landscape and competing realms, are essential.)
Historical fantasy is the genre's answer to historical fiction. A specific period from Earth's history becomes the setting, but with fantastic elements blended in. Gene Wolfe's dreamlike novel Soldier of the Mist and Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Tigana are two fine examples.
Historical High Fantasy is a subset of the 'historical fantasy' genre, in which the stories are vast and detailed enough to resemble 'high fantasy.' Stephen Lawhead's trilogies are preeminent. His Pendragon Cycle novels combine an expanded Arthurian legend with the doomed Atlantis.
Juvenile fantasy is a vast descriptive category, overlapping with the 'children's' and 'young adult' genres, which has stories written for a younger audience. Tolkien's The Hobbit is a stellar example, as are L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books. Joy Chant's novel Red Moon and Black Mountain is another.
Low Fantasy is a descriptive category. Its tales are written, if not in conscious opposition to, then with a serious lack of, the sweeping vistas and serious heroism of the 'high fantasy' subgenre. Few if any authors will claim the title for themselves, though video games such as Shadowrun have been placed in this category. (Some observers link this subgenre to 'sword & sorcery' tales.)
Medieval fantasy is defined by its name, as this subgenre's tales are set in that period, in between the ancient or Arthurian worlds and the modern industrial era. They will feature knights and knaves, often together with sorcerers and dragons. (Many fantasy subgenres, set on Earth or elsewhere, have a 'pseudomedieval' setting. That is: ox carts, tavern wenches, and swords; but no automobiles, stock brokers, or firearms.)
This subgenre is a broad category. In general, these stories are set on our familiar Earth, and incorporate existing myths. Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys do a wonderful job of bringing ancient myths into our modern world. Tolkein used the term 'mythopoeia' to decribe his own work, in that it's evocative of humanity's deepest myths.
Mythpunk is a small subgenre, its name a derivative of cyberpunk. Vera Nazarian's edgy novel Dreams of the Compass Rose is the primary example.
Quest fantasies involve just that. It's a descriptive category, in which the protagonist is involved in some perilous all-consuming quest. In Peter Beagle's novelette Two Hearts, nine-year-old Sooz sets off alone to free her village from a murderous gryphon. Terry Goodkind's novel Wizard's First Rule is another example.
Romantic subgenre tales incorportate 'fantasy' and 'romance' genre themes. There are plenty of examples, though often marketed as romance (which pays better). Catch The Lightning by Catherine Asaro is a fine example. (As a physicist, Asaro blends elements of rigorous science into many of her stories.)
Superhero fantasy needs no introduction. Whether in films or comic books or novels, characters such as Superman and Thor are familiar indeed. Some authors will create their own new superheroes, incorporating familiar tropes. (These protagonists may gain their special abilities from magic or technology or something else, and those usually far exceed anything deemed plausible by science.)
Sword & Sorcery tales embody the action-packed aspect of fantasy, with powerful barbarians clearing a bloody swath across their pseudomedieval worlds. Robert Howard's "Conan" novels are perhaps the founding tomes. Fritz Leiber's clever "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" tales are popular (and much imitated) examples.
These novels are set in a modern, urban environment. Werewolves live in abandoned subway stations, or pixies hide in the small spaces of a campus dormatory. Jody Lynn Nye's novels often incorporate such characters. (It may be an unwritten rule that such tales, if they involve vampires, must be set in-and-around New Orleans.)
Vampire (Dracula, Nosferatu, sexy youth)
Originated in China. They are often set during Imperial times, and feature a hero advanced in the martial arts, who battles human (and sometimes supernatural) foes.
Aliens infuse this subgenre with relentless troublemaking. Overlapping with 'science fiction,' the source of terror is another planet, whose inhabitants are encountered there, or travel to our Earth, if not both. The "Alien" franchise (featuring Sigourney Weaver) leads this charge. Scott Sigler's novel Infected is a recent example, among many. In M. Night Shyamalan's movie Signs, mysterious rural visitors are revealed to be (somewhat improbable) aliens.
Bizarro fiction is often unreal enought to lean back toward humour. Carlton Mellick III's novel "I Knocked Up Satan's Daughter" is a fitting example.
Creepy Kids horror is defined by its name. Horror mavens have said that children are mysterious strangers coming into the world--and this subgenre takes that unspoken worry and runs with it. Stephen King's short story and film Children of the Corn are straightforward examples. Many others, such as Richard Donner's film The Omen, involve a child who is directly related to Satan.
Dark Fiction is a huge descriptive category, almost as broad as 'speculative fiction.' Many genre publications use it in their title and/or self-description. (Sometimes, for practical reasons, it's used to market a horror story without employing the term itself.)
Erotic horror contains a strong sexual element. In this subgenre the sex can be explict, but it's often far from pleasurable. Alfonsi and Scognamiglio's anthology Dark Seductions is an example. (As authors of this subgenre will regularly inform you, such tales are not for casual reading.)
This subgenre is as raw as fiction or film can be. The explicit violence and bloody gore are heaped on, often from start to finish.
Fabulist horror is a descriptive category. Its stories often emphasize a 'different' tone or setting, such as an old-fashioned style. Often they have a distinctive locale, such as the Caribbean. Sara Stamey's novel Islands is one such. (Several publications use the term Fabulist in their name and/or self-description.)
'Gothic' was originally synonymous with 'horror,' and in recent decades has come to indicate a certain tone and setting, in this and other major genres. This subgenre is often written in a 'literary' style. Many of these tales involve an evil from the past, as with haunted mansions; and/or encroaching personal insanity. Most of Edgar Allan Poe's work fits this category.
Hauntings subgenre tales feature exactly this. Often the persistant ghost is a specific individual, somehow connected to the building or protagonist. The (supposedly true) novel and film The Amityville Horror are famous examples. The TV show The Ghost and Mrs. Muir verged on romance, and the "Caspar" franchise on comedy.
Holocaust tales involve mass deaths, whether during the horrific 20th century event of that name; or involving a similar tragedy, past or future. Those deaths might be due to human slaughter, or from a plague or monsters. In a few bizarre versions, everyone has already died, and today's humanity is the replacement--but doesn't know it. Stephen King's novel and movie The Stand depict a near-future apocalyptic plague.
Humorous horror is fairly common, and its macabre elements are often understated--or exaggerated into parody. The old comic strip and TV show The Addams Family are familiar examples. The anthology Blood Lite from Kevin J. Anderson is a recent contribution to this subgenre.
Lovecraftian (Cthulhu mythos, etc.). These subgenres are rooted in the pioneering fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. The originals and newer works have a distinct style, with florid prose and an overwhelming pessimism. (They overlap with 'science fiction,' as his In the Mountains of Madness was first serialized in that genre's magazine Astounding.)
Mind Control horror exploits this particular fear. The method may be sorcerous or technological, but the victims are compelled to act against their will and better natures--often while fully aware of what's happening. False Memory, by Dean Koontz, is a popular example. Curt Siodmak's novel Donovan's Brain is an early example of invasive medical technology gone awry.
Noir horror is a discriptive subgenre. It invokes a gritty urban setting, much like its counterparts in other major genres. Weary, cynical characters populate these tales. The Midnight Road, by Tom Piccirilli, is a great example.
Paranormal is a subgenre with mortal heroes. Such tales emphasize a difficult battle against evil supernatural encroachment, whether by a saintly exorcist or high-tech ghostbusters. There are many popular examples, such as Tobe Hooper's film Poltergeist. (Unlike most 'horror' stories, there's 50-50 chance the good guys will prevail.)
This subgenre is usually written from a tight viewpoint. Is the protagonist really seeing terrible things, perhaps battling against demonic possession -- or is he (less often, she) going insane? On the flip side, this subgenre can feature an insane protagonist, such as a tormented serial killer. A modern example is the novel Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill.
Rampant Animals is a subgenre whose name says it all. Perhaps the dominant examples are Stephen King's novel and film Cujo, which feature an unstoppable rabid dog. Aggressive spiders and chthonic monsters and many other nasty critters fill such pages. (Opposite this, William F. Claxton's 1972 film Night of the Lepus attempts to scare people with gigantic rabbits!)
Rampant Technology exploits the fear that man has dared too much, and created mechanisms that will turn against us. In Greg Bear's novel Dead Lines, a spam-laden Internet infests the afterlife. In Stephen King's short story and film The Mangle, a possessed laundry machine starts attacking people. Many other tales depict familiar devices running amok--usually without needing to be plugged in.
Satanic Bargains a.k.a. "deal with the devil" stories are common enough to merit their own subgenre. The protagonist, usually an ambitious man, strikes a Faustian bargain with the prince of darkness (or his representative). In Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the deal is implicit and the moral lesson explicit. Dana Reed's novel Margo features a woman seeking eternal youth.
These stories focus on various types of monster from 'beyond,' persistantly ruining the lives of a suffering humanity. Often the setting is an isolated village, where the protagonist becomes stranded. There are countless examples. Anne Rice's novels are filled with powerful arcane beings.
Surreal horror incorporates bizarre imagery, often drawn from vivid, threatening dreams.
This subgenre is a broad descriptive category. These stories depict few if any supernatural elements, but rather, a continual (usually, unknown and growing) menace. David Morrell's story collection Black Evening is one example.
Viceral is in between the Extreme and Splatterpunk subgenres, and its stories aim for an "in your face" gross-out.
This is a descriptive category--in a genre which is comprised of nothing but weird! The long-running magazine Weird Tales is often cited in this regard.
Zombies are popular enough to warrant special mention. For example, Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend and its several film versions. Others, such as Edgar Wright's film Shaun of the Dead, contain humorous elements. A key element here is that the zombies are often more environment than antagonist
Age Regression tales involve, not necessarily a long life, but a literal reversal of the physical aging of the body. An old man becomes like a teenager again. This might happen via some virus or serum, or by means of an elaborate multi-step process. Numerous Science Fiction (SF) tales include a 'regen' process, available to at least some of its characters. A recent example is Robert Sawyer's novel Rollback. (Hollywood versions sometimes shrink a person clear into infancy, or even a puddle of goo.)
These stories involve characters with a distinct religion, which gives meaning and motivation to their lives, although this isn't always explored in much depth. Kay Kenyon's well-thought-out novel The Braided World describes a strange alien priesthood (and biology), which the human visitors must struggle to understand.
Alien Invasion stories are self-explanatory. The target is usually, but not always, our Earth. The classic of this subgenre is H. G. Wells' pioneering 1898 novel War of the Worlds, followed by Orson Welles' 1938 radio version. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's novel Footfall is a well-thought-out example. The film Independence Day, by Roland Emmerich, has become a cultural milestone. (Most--but not all--of this subgenre's tales depict an eventual human triumph.)
Alternate Histories depict might-have-beens, if one or more crucial situations had been resolved differently. Common themes are: what if the South had won the Civil War, or Germany won World War Two? The grandmaster of this subgenre is Harry Turtledove. Another example is Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle.
These stories depict a non-religious 'end of the world' scenario. Usually, a band of survivors endure tremendous hardships.
Gonzo Apocalypse tales are rare, and feature a surreal, even comic, element. Most, if not all, are set in the southwestern deserts of North America. Susan Torian Olan's novel The Earth Remembers is a good example. Neal Barrett, Jr.'s novelette "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" and Charles Coleman Finlay's story "The Texas Bake Sale" follow suit.
Nuclear war ends things Peter George's novel Red Alert, filmed by Stanley Kubrick as Dr. Strangelove.
A sudden pandemic wipes out nearly all humans in George R. Stewart's classic SF novel Earth Abides.
Artificial Intelligence tales assume that one, or perhaps many, artificial minds become fully sentient. They might be mainframe computers, or mobile robots, or more recently, the Internet as a whole. One famous example is D. F. Jones's novel Colossus, filmed by Joseph Sargent as Colossus, The Forbin Project.
Astrobiology centers upon alien life. Not necessarily intelligent or technological beings, but the very presence of life that has evolved beyond our Earth. Many such tales involve finding mysterious life forms on Mars or Europa, or floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter. An oft-quoted example is Arthur C. Clarke's short story "A Meeting With Medusa."
Astrosociobiology is an overlapping subgenre that's both narrow and broad. It focuses on the form and function of alien (non-human) civilizations. There are countless examples. CJ Cherryh's "Chanur" novels explore the psychology of a spacefaring feline race. (Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, in part, airing such speculations.)
Bigger Than Worlds is a subgenre well-described by its name. Vast artificial megastructures are the setting for these stories; almost characters in themselves. Olaf Stapledon's 1937 novel Star Maker is probably the first such tale, with a star-englobing construct of a type later known as a Dyson Sphere. Larry Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld introduced that carefully thought-out habitable structure. This subgenre's largest imagined construct (at tens of millions of light years across) is perhaps Bolder's Ring, found in Stephen Baxter's "Xeelee" novels.
Biopunk is a spinoff of the 'cyberpunk' subgenre, involving hackers (and oppressive government agencies) who manipulate human DNA -- their own and/or someone else's. One example is Paul Di Filippo's novel Ribofunk. Another is Andrew Niccol's film Gattaca.
Biorobotics involves the practical intersection of human physiology and mechanical prostheses or enhancements. Robert Sawyer's novel Wake depicts a blind girl offered sight by means of an external "eyepod" device that processes her retinal nerve signals.
Clerical subgenre tales involve an organized priesthood, such as a religious order, of any human or alien religion. Set on Earth, Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Leibowitz chronicles one sincere and long-lived order. Frank Herbert's Bene Gesserit (in his "Dune" franchise) dominates human history, yet without profound expressions of individual faith.
Steampunk subgenre - focus on clockworks rather than steam power
Communalness is a specialized term and subgenre, involving a human future with relationships and communities 'boosted' into enhanced consciousness by cybernetic or other means. The namesake town in Frank Herbert's novel The Santaroga Barrier has achieved a kind of drug-induced unity. The disciples of V. M. Smith in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land achieve this (along with impressive powers) through learning to speak Martian.
Cosy Catastrophe is a type of postapocalyptic tale, usually set on Earth, in which an isolated group of survivors sets about rebuilding a new civilization according to their own particular ideas. (As with the 'cosy mystery' subgenre, unjust death has occurred, but the characters don't get too rattled about it.) The founding example is probably Mary Shelley's less-well-known novel The Last Man. Another is John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids, later filmed by Steve Sekely.
Cybernetic Revolt speaks for itself, and is one of SF's oldest and most common themes. Mechanical servants fail, or assert their rights, or go berserk, usually with tragic consequences. E. M. Forster's novella "The Machine Stops," written in 1909, depicts the former.
Cyberpunk is a term that's expanded well beyond the SF community and into popular culture. (It's also spawned a host of other "-punk" subgenres.) These tales are typically set on Earth, and involve a hacker immersed in a cyber-world, interacting (both on line and physically) with similar people. Often they're modified to 'jack' their brain directly into cyberspace. The founding tome is William Gibson's novel Neuromancer (It may be an unwritten law that all such tales must involve preening characters gathered in a flashy night club.) Technology use is a rare skill, rather than the norm.
Cyberspace as a subgenre is very similar to 'cyberpunk,' though broader in form and style. The term was coined by SF author William Gibson, and this subgenre involves characters interacting, not just on line, but fully immersed within a vast worldwide 'virtual reality' medium. Other such tales involve hackers who use more ordinary means of networking.
Cyborg fiction involves such a human/mechanical blend as a protagonist. The classic example is Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg, brought to television as The Six Million Dollar Man. Caidin also coined the word 'bionics,' now a legitimate scientific concept and commonly spelled 'bionic.'
Detective (robotic police, telepathic investigation, etc.) In these stories, often set in the near future, technology aids both criminals and law enforcement. Various short stories introduced robotic police
Steampunk subgenre - focus on internal combustion rather than steam power. Steel, oil and paint rather than polished brass and glass.
Dying Astronuat tales got a boost from the real-life events of the Apollo 13 mission, as depicted in the movie from Ron Howard. With the laws of physics precluding any possible (outside) rescue, these stories can range from tragic to poignant to heroic. In Alfred Bester's novel The Stars My Destination, a man abandoned on a derelict spaceship figures out a way to survive. In "Wonders of the Universe," a short story by German author Andreas Eschbach, a marooned woman dies gracefully on frozen Europa.
Dying Earth SF tales show the death of the Earth as slower than from an apocalypse, and it can be due to any cause, including natural. A haunting vision of this appears in the far-future chapters of H. G. Wells' novel The Time Machine. (Including a 'lost' chapter about a biologically decrepit humanity, originally serialized but not included in the novel and film versions.) Isaac Asimov's novel Pebble in the Sky is another example.
Dystopian (crowded world, gilded cage, jaded society, theocracy, etc.) The opposite of Utopian, these horrid societies are all too easy to imagine. In most such tales, the protagonist seeks to better his-or-her own life, if not to liberate the entire society.
Edisonade* is a subgenre that was named retroactively, and it dates back to the nineteenth century. As the name Edison suggests, they center upon the adventures of some brilliant young inventor. The numerous "Tom Swift" stories, by Victor Appleton, are the best-known examples.
Environmental subgenre tales focus on the ecosystem, usually but not always our Earth's. Often there is a direct threat, caused by humanity or some outside force. A recent example is Bell and Strieber's partly-fictional book The Coming Global Superstorm, filmed by Roland Emmerich as The Day After Tomorrow. (While this is a serious enough topic, the science in many of these tales is abysmal.)
Erotica refers, in this context, to a science fiction tale with a strong sexual element. Explicit sex might be at the center of the plot, or it plays a vivid role in the character's lives. Norman Spinrad's novel The Void Captain's Tale combines these and other SF elements.
Alien worlds offer tremendous possibilities, yet much SF (in print and on screen) populates them with familiar humanoids. Robert Reed's novels, such as his The Remarkables, depict truly alien beings and environments; as does Ursula LeGuin's novella "The Word for World is Forest."
Extraterrestrial Life is a huge subgenre, almost a descriptive category. In many of these tales, the very discovery of life beyond the Earth (or even "just" its signals or ancient artifacts) has a tremendous impact upon current society. Carl Sagan's novel and movie Contact are excellent examples. Jack McDevitt's novel The Hercules Text is another.
Firm Science is a specific definition, which can be applied to many subgenres. It refers to a midway point between 'hard' and 'soft' SF, and the inclusion of technology and phenomena that are not too fantastic, but may never be invented. (Such as faster-than-light travel, antigravity, and wormholes.)
First Encounters means between humans and intelligent aliens. This could be an alien arriving here, or a human astronaut reaching some inhabited world. There are hundreds of examples in print and film.
First Landings (Mars, other planets; return to Moon)
Frontier (asteroid miners, rough colony, theme park). Most of this subgenre's tales transplant the 'western' genre into outer space. A good example is Peter Hyam's film Outland, which is an homage to High Noon. There are hundreds of examples in print.
Gedanken is German for 'thought' or 'idea,' and this subgenre's stories center around a singular striking concept, sometimes instead of developing their characters or setting. Tom Godwin's short story "The Cold Equations" has obsessed numerous readers, with its inevitable sacrifice of an innocent human life. Several themed anthologies include this word in their title. Gordon Dickson's "Dorsai" novels feature characters who embody distilled aspects of human nature, and thus, explore deep philosophical issues.
Generation Ship stories are set aboard that type of spacecraft. Often those ships are so large, and the voyage so long, that (most or all of) its inhabitants consider other worlds to be the stuff of legend. The subgenre was pioneered by J. D. Bernal, with his 1929 novel The World, The Flesh, & The Devil. A popular example is Robert A. Heinlein's novel Orphans of the Sky. Another is the original Star Trek episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky."
Gothic SF is an overlapping subgenre that slants toward the macabre, and deeply atmospheric settings, but not outright horror. ('Atmospheric' in a literary and cultural, not climatological, sense.) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often cited as the first such novel. Algis Budry's novel Rogue Moon sets a determined pair against a deadly lunar enigma. Arthur C. Clarke's short story "A Walk in the Dark" is another example.
Hard science fiction is a descriptive term. Stories in this broad subgenre depict technology that conforms to actual scientific knowledge and physical laws, or extentions of them that scientists consider plausible. Arguably, certain exceptions include favored 'tropes' such as antigravity and FTL travel. The works of A. C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov stand out among numerous examples. (One SF genre publication that maintains this 'hard' standard is Analog magazine.)
Hollow Earth tales are just that, set within a putatively hollow (or at least honeycombed) planet Earth. The flagship of this subgenre is Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Michael Flynn's novella "Where the Winds Are All Asleep" is a modern homage. A popular variant is the aquatic-cavern-filled planet Naboo in the "Star Wars" franchise.
Horrific SF is closely linked to the 'horror' genre, and while it's often bloody, science is crucial to each premise. In Sharman DiVono's novel Blood Moon, an entire lunar base goes slowly insane. Most examples of this subgenre are short stories, such as Michael Shea's "The Autopsy," Simon Ings's "The Wedding Party," and Terry Bisson's "Necronauts."
Hyperspace stories include that extra-dimensional realm as a setting. The pioneering classic of this subgenre is Edward Abbot's 1884 novel Flatland, a Romance of Many Dimensions, although our familiar third spatial axis is the "extra" one. (In a later sequel, Sphereland, by Dionys Burger, a talking hypersphere arrives.) That realm might play a major role in allowing the characters to travel rapidly between star systems (and/or time periods, etc.), or there might be human dwellings and/or aliens within that arcane realm. A good example is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its mysterious wormhole-dwelling 'prophet' aliens.
Immortality is a subgenre featuring humans or aliens with that vaunted attribute. (Characters who live effectively forever, or at least for millennia.) It might be humans with a rare mutation that's allowed them to survive since ancient times, or a future scientific development. Often these long-lived characters allow for vivid depictions of history. A fine example is Poul Anderson's novel The Boat of a Million Years.
Invisibility is the central attribute of these stories' main characters. Plato launched the subgenre with his allegorical tale of The Ring of Gyges. H. G. Wells made this scientific with his classic novel The Invisible Man. 'Cloaking devices' have now become very common in science fiction.
Kaiju or Tokusatsu is a Japanese subgenre, long popular in the rest of the world. These epics always feature one or more kaiju, meaning big powerful quirky monsters. A major example is the "Godzilla" franchise, and that creature's American counterpart King Kong.
Light or Humorous tales are exactly that. This laugh-out-loud subgenre includes John Sladek's novel Mechasm, Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide" novels, Rudy Rucker's novel Master of Space and Time, and many others.
Lost Worlds (mysterious islands) is one of the oldest SF varieties. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World, based upon South America's then-mysterious 'tepui' plateaus, lent its very name to this subgenre. Later novels 'discover' isolated valleys in central Asia or elsewhere.
Math is a tiny subgenre, similar to 'gedanken' and 'hyperspace' science fiction. These stories center around actual mathmatical concepts. Douglas Hofstadter's scholarly tome Godel, Escher, Bach uses short fictional stories as illustrations. Catherine Asaro's novella "The Spacetime Pool" features life-and-death math puzzles. Vandana Singh's short story "Infinities" is based upon math's most profound concepts.
Microbiological SF stories feature tiny life-forms, whether Earthly or alien, as a dominating force. They might cause a disease, or act as a transforming agent, deliberately or not. Greg Bear's novel Blood Music is a good example. Janine Ellen Young's novel The Bridge is another.
Military is a huge subgenre, with its own specialized publications. Soldiers and warfare are central to these stories. Some are near-future, and depict humans fighting each other. Others span star systems and even whole galaxies, with vast ongoing conflicts with aliens. David Drake and Elizabeth Moon are masters of this field, while Joe Haldman's novel The Forever War will soon be filmed. David Feintuch's "Hope" novels essentially translate the 19th century's British Royal Navy into outer space. (Usually the humans and aliens are closely matched, lest it become a rather short "Bambi vs. Godzilla" type story.)
Mind Transfer is what takes place in this subgenre. A conscious mind is downloaded into a computer system, or shifted (or swapped) into another human brain. (Robert A. Heinlein's novel Time Enough for Love ends up with three separate minds within one female body.) Such a transfer might be permanent or temporary, and the process may allow for one or more copies to exist at once. The early Star Trek episode "Turnabout Intruder" is a famous example, and Paul Flaherty's film 18 Again! a lighthearted one. In David Brin's novel Kiln People, humans send out temporary/disposable 'golem' copies of themselves, to have specific experiences then return with those memories.
Multiverse stories feature multiple universes, often with differing versions of our familiar Earth. This subgenre assumes that some variant of the Multiverse/Landscape cosmological theory is true. There is always some way (whether secret or common) to travel between the universes, or at least to communicate. Michael Kube-McDowell's novel Alternaties is a fine example. The TV series Sliders was another.
Mundane SF is a descriptive category. It features near-future stories, without any improbable technologies, or interplanetary settings, at least beyond what known spacecraft can reach. (It's regarded as a controversial 'movement' within the SF community, and magazine issues and anthologies have begun to feature it, sometimes as a book title.)
Mythological stories depict aliens and/or humans using high-tech means to recreate mythological settings, and the "magical powers" of the ancient gods. For example, Dan Simmons' novel Ilium brings an idyllic Mount Olympus and the bloody Trojan War to Mars--sort of. In Roger Zelazny's classic novel Lord of Light, the main characters employ technology to cast themselves as deities from the mythology of India. An example from TV is the Star Trek original-series episode "Who Mourns for Adonais?"
Nanopunk is a narrow subgenre, and one of cyberpunk's many offshoots. It explores to effects of advanced nanotechnology on humanity. Linda Nagata's novel Tech Heaven is the principal example, while Michael Crichton's novel Prey introduced the concept to the mainstream.
Features blue collar protagonists, on Earth or in recognizable circumstances, rather than hifalutin scientists or astronauts. Eg. accountants, drivers, plumbers, sales reps, etc... The hero of John DeChancie's novel Starrigger is a truck driver. Piers Anthony's novel Hard Sell realistically depicts several workaday occupations. Most other examples are short stories.
Parallel Universe SF is similar to the Multiverse subgenre. In this case, the other universe(s) can be very strange, with differing physical laws, or (number of) spatial dimensions. Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves is a classic example, with its utterly different intelligent aliens. Greg Egan's novel Diaspora features mind-bending descriptions of a four-dimensional universe.
Pastoral or Small Town SF takes place in that sort of setting. (Most SF is urban, at least when taking place on Earth.) Clifford Simak's classic novel Way Station is set entirely in rural Wisconson, while the heroine of Kay Kenyon's novel Leap Point is a small-town lass.
This subgenre resembles the Multiverse category. In this case, the other planes are often 'psychic' or 'spiritual' in nature, and are reachable by altering one's state of awareness. The novel India's Story, by Kathlyn S. Starbuck, depicts its young heroine India experiencing multiple states of consciousness via meditation, drugs, etc. Another example is Howard Hendrix's novel Standing Wave. (In most such tales, this goes beyond passive experience, into 'granting' the characters special powers.)
Planetary Romance is an operlapping subgenre that shades into the vast 'romance' genre. In this case, the love story is embedded in futuristic (or fantastical) technology, and the striving lovers can be separated by more than Earthly distances. Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" series features luscious Martian princesses, while Andrew M. Greeley's novel Final Planet does a good job of fusing these often disparate literary styles.
Post-apocalyptic stories are set well after some vast upheaval. Rather than showing the immediate aftermath, these tales depict a new society that has arisen from the ashes, usually here on Earth. Often the survivors remain leery of technology, as in Edgar Pangborn's classic novel Davy. (Its Holy Murcan Church maintains a ban on gunpowder, along with "anything else that might reasonably be construed to contain atoms.")
Cyberpunk was grim, gritty and at the technology involved was state of the art. Post-cyberpunk involves that technology now being commonplace, dumbed down and in use by everyday people, not just highly skilled hackers.
Posthumanism is a subgenre tied to a philosophical type movement. (Going beyond the percieved limits of traditional Humanism, as expressed in fiction.) In practice it's very close to Transhumanism, and is controversial even to define. Charles Stross's novel Accelerando is one example.
Progenitive SF is a small subgenre, which features humans and/or aliens who create science fiction of their own. One example is Vernor Vinge's novel Grimm's World, in which seagoing humans on another planet operate a respected science fiction magazine. "The Garden: A Hwarhath Science Fiction Romance," by Eleanor Arnason, is a short SF story told by aliens. In the Star Trek: DS9 TV episode "Far Beyond the Stars," Sisko is shown as a 1940s SF author.
Pulp SF is another descriptive category. The old SF magazines were one of many varieties of 'pulp fiction' literature, with a distinct style and format. Usually their cover art was garish, featuring brutish monsters, heroic spacemen, and scantily-clad women in distress. "Amazing Stories" was perhaps its best-known publication. (This subgenre has been revived again and again over the decades.)
Recursive SF is comprised of stories that include direct references to the SF genre, and/or SF authors. A mind-bending example is the novel Venus on the Half Shell, "written" by Kilgore Trout, a pseudonym of Philip Jose Farmer. Trout is actually a fictional SF writer created by author Kurt Vonnegut. The protagonist makes frequent mention of his own favorite writer, a galactically-famous SF author. (Venus's first edition does not mention Farmer at all!) Another example is HG Stratmann's short story "Wilderness Were Paradise Enow," which mentions plenty of SF-genre trivia.
Restored Eden tales are set in the mid-to-far future, here on Earth. In this subgenre most of humanity has gone on to other worlds, and the Earth has healed (all or in part, and naturally or with subtle help) into a renewed paradise. Arthur C. Clarke's novel Against the Fall of Night decribes the technological redoubt of Diaspar and the natural haven of Lys. Clifford Simak's novel City populates the wildlands of a future Earth with speaking dogs and intelligent ants.
Robot SF tales are self-explanatory. In a sense, the concept of robots predates SF itself, and the two visions have developed in parallel. Isaac Asimov's many "Robot" stories are a preeminent example. One of the earliest such novels is Adam Link, by Eando Binder.
Science Fantasy is an overlapping subgenre, comprised of stories that meld the SF and Fantasy genres, and tilt toward SF because they feature advanced technology such as spacecraft. Many of the works of Andre Norton, and Anne McCaffrey's "Pern" franchise, fit this subgenre.
Science Tales are intended for children. They depict common futuristic activities such as space travel, but without so much scientific rigor. A famous literary example is the book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Some of the "TinTin" graphic novels, by Herge, fit this category.
This is an old description, primarily British, that predates the wide use of the term Science Fiction. It has seen occasional revivals, making it a subgenre. "Romance" used to just refer to stories with heroic protagonists.
Shapeshifting tales are a staple of speculative fiction. As an SF subgenre, this ability is explained in scientific terms. It varies from gradual cellular alteration to a near-instantaneous ability to change size and form. John Campbell's 1938 short story "Who Goes There," filmed several times as The Thing, is a stellar example. (Many such tales ignore the issue of mass. The creature becomes an elephant, then a mouse, so how much does the mouse weigh?)
Involves humans changing size, usually either by accident or to achieve some specific goal (eg: removing a clot in Fantastic Voyage)
Social SF is a wide subgenre, which combines anthropology with futuristic themes. Its focus is on the social aspects of a distant society, rather than fancy technology. Isaac Asimov's short story "Nightfall" is a classic example.
Soft SF focuses on the future development of the 'soft' sciences, rather than gadgetry. Ursula LeGuin's "Hainish" novels are good examples. Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" novels feature a predictive social science called Psychohistory.
This is a huge descriptive category. The subgenre features swashbuckling action, set in a vast panorama. There are countless examples, and almost all of the most popular SF novels and films, such as Star Wars, are usually included. Often they have elements resembling 'fantasy,' which are assumed to be technological, but there's no explanation provided.
Spunky Heroine tales feature one as their protagonist, to the point they're usually referrred to "by" her, more than by their plot or premise. David Palmer's novel Emergence, featuring young Candy Smith-Foster, is a great example, as is its long-awaited sequel Tracking. Another is Alexei Panshin's novel Rite of Passage, with the adventures of young Mia Havero; plus Reefsong by Carol Severance, with its transformed Angie Dinsman.
SpyFi is a descriptive category that brings espionage into the future, with clever high-tech duels. Often the technological gadgets are "way over the top," in a spoofish fashion. The Daniel Mann film Our Man Flint is a fine example. (By some definitions the 'fi' means general fiction, and this category is defined more broadly.)
This is a rapidly-growing subgenre. Such tales are usually set in the Victorian era, and presume that its characters have developed a form of high-tech at that time. (Some of these tales include a sort of restrained magic.) The novel Anti-Ice, by Stephen Baxter, includes a newly-discovered heat source much more potent than coal.
Synthetic Biology stories feature artificial life forms. It's a small subgenre, and its protagonists are often biologists who crack the secret of creating life. Linda Nagata's novel Limit of Vision depicts a created-then-evolving new lifeform called LOVs.
Terraforming SF centers around vast projects, with the characters busy altering whole planets (such as Mars) to make them more earthlike and habitable. Kim Stanley Robinson's epic "Mars" series is a good example. (The term itself was coined by SF author Jack Williamson, back in the 1940s.)
This is a vast subgenre, whether or not its protagonist travels in space as well. In these stories, this capability is possible, and is put to use by the characters -- in secret or in public, and rarely or often. The effects of such temporal ventures vary in each portrayal. (With paradoxes, new timelines, historical immutability, etc.)
Transhumanism is the philosophy which embues this subgenre. It depicts the possible transformations that humans beings may experience in the future, from helpful improvements to total alterations. Bruce Sterlings's "Mechanist and Shaper" novels are a pioneering example.
Undersea SF takes place in such an environment, usually here on Earth. For this subgenre, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a cornerstone. Several of Arthur C. Clarke's early novels fit this category.
This thought-provoking subgenre got its name from Thomas More's 1516 novel Utopia, though by modern standards that eponymous country has plenty of drawbacks, such as penal slavery. Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward is imaginative--and eerily prescient.
Weird West tales are set in the frontier USA, and many feature real-life pioneers and inventors. Michael Piller's short-lived TV show Legend starred John de Lancie as Nikola Tesla.
Wetware Computer SF is a narrow subgenre, featuring 'wetware' (living biological) technology, as opposed to 'hardware computer' devices. These stories depict the invention and/or the actions of an artifical thinking brain.
World Government SF features a world (usually Earth) ruled by a unified government. In many stories it's a monarchy, and often a corrupt one; however there is plenty of variety. Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers depicts a federation governed by military veterans. (It bears little resemblance to the movie version!) In the "Star Trek" franchise, contact with aliens prompts humanity to unite at long last.
World-building stories are exhaustively researched, and feature unusual planets as a setting. Usually exotic aliens have evolved there, and humans can visit only with difficulty, if at all. Hal Clement's novel Mission of Gravity, and Robert Forward's novels Rocheworld and Dragon's Egg are extreme examples. Jack Vance's novel Big Planet is set on exactly that, though most unusually, without a huge amount of mass-thus-gravity.
Xenofiction is a subgenre that features cultures extremely different from our familiar ones. For example, Iain M. Banks' novel Excession features huge sentient spaceships. Ian McDonald's novel The Broken Land has disembodied human heads (supported by an advanced if undescribed technology) acting as willful characters. The Star Trek canon's Borg are another popular example.