Ten Sci-Fi Subgenres You Should Know
When you are querying a science fiction novel, it's useful to understand your story's subgenre. Agents and publishers want to know where it might fit on the shelf, and you can subvert or meet reader expectations if you understand them first. You should also read books in your subgenre that have been published in the last five years; this helps with inspiration and to understand the types of stories that are being successfully marketed to your target readership.
While there are many more than ten subgenres under the umbrella of science fiction, these ten have been favoured in the last five years.
1. Action & Adventure
Action and adventure books generally feature characters in danger and fast-paced action sequences. In sci-fi, these stories often include dastardly supervillains and a world that might exist in the near- or far-future.
May overlap with: space opera; apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, & dystopian; suspense & thriller
Typical elements: quests, battles, survival, romance, high-tech gadgets, exploration, personal journeys, space travel
Recent examples: Weaponized by Neal Asher, Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta, The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm
2. Apocalyptic & Dystopian
Apocalyptic fiction takes place as civilization is ending, and focuses on characters trying to prevent or survive the apocalypse. Post-apocalyptic fiction takes place after civilization has ended, and centers on what happens to humanity in this new, ruthless world. Dystopian shares similarities with post-apocalyptic fiction, except a new society has been created, usually by an oppressive government.
May overlap with: horror, suspense & thriller
Typical elements: survival, anarchism, oppression, poverty, climate crisis, nuclear holocaust, resource depletion, pandemic, zombies, A.I., alien invasion, dying Earth
Recent examples: Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth, Under This Forgetful Sky by Lauren Yero, It's the End of the World and I'm in My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds
Science fiction horror uses futuristic settings and technology to inspire fear. One of the first books published in this genre was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is just as much about the horror of how society treats the monster as it is about the monster itself. There are often beasts and creatures involved in sci-fi horror, though some stories are about surviving in space or scientific discoveries gone wrong. Zombie apocalypse and alien invasion stories can also fall under this category.
May overlap with: suspense & thriller; mystery; apocalpytic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian
Typical elements: murder, mystery, bodily autonomy, survival, aliens, monsters, zombies, A.I., space exploration, bioengineering
Recent examples: Leech by Hiron Ennes, The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown, Eat Your Heart Out by Kelly deVos
People disagree on the exact definitions of commercial and literary, but the majority of genre fiction, such as sci-fi, falls under the former category. Commercial fiction is meant to be, first and foremost, entertaining—concerned with plot, character, and story; some would argue it sells better than literary fiction, though that’s not always the case.
Literary fiction is just as much about the writing as it is about story, in which authors play with structure, focus on character journeys, and explore philosophical themes. The tone of literary fiction is usually introspective, and the pacing is slower than commercial fiction.
May overlap with: any other genre
Typical elements: exploration, personal journeys, coming of age, social and political themes, metaphor, symbolism
Recent examples: Flux by Jinwoo Chong, On Earth as It Is on Television by Emily Jane, Appleseed by Matt Bell
Science fiction mystery blends the two genres. Mystery stories follow a crime from its beginning (e.g. a murder) to its resolution (e.g. the murderer is put behind bars). Many of these stories feature a detective trying to solve the mystery. In sci-fi, these tales often take place aboard spaceships or colonies and the mystery involves futuristic technology.
May overlap with: horror; suspense & thriller
Typical elements: death, murder, action, A.I., secrets, detectives
Recent examples: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older, No Beauties or Monsters by Tara Goedjen, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge
If you'd like to see more examples of novels under each category, I've made a database of sci-fi books published in the last five years. You may find it helpful if you want to read recent books in your subgenre or are searching for comps for your query letter.
Near-future science fiction imagines what our world could look like in the next decade or two. It often plays with technology that is currently in development and warns how this technology could be misused.
May overlap with: horror; apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, & dystopian; suspense & thriller
Typical elements: nanotechnology, genetics, A.I., space travel, politics, societal structure, climate change
Recent examples: The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird, Half Life by Lillian Clark, Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao
Science fiction romance blends the two genres. Romance stories usually have happy endings and often include tropes like enemies to lovers, forbidden love, and secret identities. Sci-fi settings can create unique barriers for star-crossed lovers; for example, they might literally need to cross stars to reach each other.
May overlap with: action & adventure; space opera; apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, & dystopian
Typical elements: time travel, apocalyptic settings, arranged marriages, politics
Recent examples: Hunt the Stars by Jessie Mihalik, The Half-Life of Love by Brianna Bourne, The Stars Between Us by Cristin Terrill
8. Space Opera
Space Opera has many similarities to the action & adventure subgenre, but the stakes are always big. These stories are usually set in outer space or on a distant planet and detail conflicts between civilizations, worlds, or galaxies. The plot and characters are more important than realistic science, so you can expect FTL drives, laser weapons, and teleportation devices.
May overlap with: action & adventure
Typical elements: faster-than-light travel, spaceships, politics, battles, wars, mysteries, empires, pirates, aliens, A.I., colonization, factions, exploration, interplanetary heroes, romance
Recent examples: The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa, Translation State by Ann Leckie, The Red Scholar's Wake by Aliette de Bodard
9. Suspense & Thriller
Thrillers are usually about an imminent threat that needs to be stopped, and sci-fi can provide some horrifying options, such as zombies, climate disasters, pandemics, or alien invasions. These stories are tense—full of action, danger, and conspiracies. They are meant to keep readers at the edge of their seats, so the pacing is quick. There’s often a ticking clock and multiple plot twists.
May overlap with: action & adventure; apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, & dystopian; horror; mystery
Typical elements: murder, scientific speculation, scientists, action, A.I., genetic engineering, surveillance, biological technologies, conspiracies, clues, crime, espionage, plot twists, cliffhangers
Recent examples: The Death I Gave Him by Em X. Liu, The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei, Mindwalker by Kate Dylan
10. Time Travel
Time travel stories are so popular, they get their own category! In these stories, characters travel backwards or forwards in time, often with a goal, such as saving a dead partner, preventing a catastrophe in the past, or stealing futuristic technology. The consequences of characters’ actions are often explored, as their decisions could affect history as they know it.
May overlap with: action & adventure; literary; mystery; romance; suspense & thriller
Typical elements: time machines, aliens, geniuses, inventors, alternate histories, paradoxes, time loops, time wars
Recent examples: Eversion by Alastair Reynolds, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, Glitch by Laura Martin