Episode 11: Science Fiction Subgenres

On September 22nd, Kasie and Rex welcomed Brian Barr, science fiction writer, into the studio. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, fiction writer and English instructor

Brian Barr, fiction writer

Theme for the day

Science Fiction Subgenres


  • Who we are and why we’re here
  • The topic for the week: science fiction sub-genres
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird
action android device electronics
Photo by Matan Segev on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

Here are some basic characteristics of science fiction according to our friends at Shmoop.com:

  1. Setting in an alternative world
  2. Non-human characters
  3. Allegory — a commentary on some real-life happening in our world done through the clever use of Science Fiction (think Orwell’s Big Brother or Asimov’s Foundation – the Roman Empire)
  4. Science (duh) and technology figure prominently in the plot and our characters’ personalities
  5. Time travel
  6. Journey
  7. Dystopia
  8. Age of Reason (roots) think Frankenstein: an appetite for knowledge has disastrous results
  9. Advances in science and technology — units can do more than they can do now.

Types of Science Fiction:



Alternate History

Alien Invasion

Parallel Universe


Hard SF (interested in scientific accuracy)

Galactic Empire

Why sub-genres? What is the value of categorizing all these books/stories in all these different sub categories? How does it help readers? Writers? Marketers? Publishers?

Segment 2

Last week we did conflict. Here’s a recap:

10 Types of Narrative Conflict

  1. Person vs. God/Fate
  2. Person vs. Self
  3. Person vs. Person
  4. Person vs. Society/Establishment (as in revolution, against those massive uncontrollable things that constrain us like school and government)
  5. Person vs. Society (as in the conflict exists elsewhere, but affects us like all those WWII novels)
  6. Person vs. Society (as in transcending the social norms and seeing one’s inner beauty, a lesser rebellion but rebellion nonetheless)
  7. Person vs. Nature
  8. Person vs. Technology
  9. Person vs. Science
  10. Man vs. Woman or Woman vs. Man

What are the predominant conflicts in Science Fiction? Or are there any?

Let’s talk about the tension between The World and Character in science fiction. How much character development is really expected? Is that a flaw in the genre?

Segment 3

“Genre fiction radiates from a literary center”

This article in The Guardian argues that all fiction is “literary” and that genre fiction is like spokes on the wheel.

Following the Spoke-of-the-wheel as a metaphor for how genre fiction pulls off Literary and the closer to the hub, the more literary the fiction, the further, the more “pure genre” it is:

“I’ll give few examples of books that are somewhere on the science fiction spoke. JG Ballard’s The Drowned World: a hallucinatory evocation of heat and decay, containing a fascinating idea about the regression of the human central nervous system. These are literary qualities. But it goes into a thrillerish escapade with a bunch of pirates which has nothing to do with anything and can only be explained by the need to invent a plot.

Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: original, but do we care whether the people of the dreadful planet Gethen join the Federation? No, and nor does Le Guin, because what she is interested in is the fact that they are hermaphrodites. But this aspect, well explored, is not completely integrated; you could have the story without it.

Brave New World: a classic. The writing is as smooth as silk and there’s a brilliant premise: human beings are conditioned from the womb to be contented with their lot. Hence no conflict, or no conflict that stands a chance of getting anywhere. And no complexity of character: the premise excludes it.

In Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas – hard SF – a solid world, an integrated whole, but, again, no character. Genre doesn’t demand character: some writers are good at it – John le Carré, Raymond Chandler – but it isn’t essential.”

I like this concept of the wheel and spokes — let’s expound on that. Where on the spectrum is your work? If the spoke is defined as HORROR, where are you? If it’s ROMANCE, etc.

Next week we’ll talk about Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid and review some elements of genre. For now, we’ll admit that there are obligatory scenes and conventions in Science Fiction. They help to meet a reader’s expectations.

Here’s one writer’s take on what those obligatory scenes are:

  1. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: We must learn early on that this universe differs from ours because it has some magic/tech that our universe does not.
  2. Rules of the Universe: We must have some insight into how the magic/tech works—not the mechanics of it, but the global rules, such as who can use it, what it allows, etc.
  3. All Magic Has a Price: There must be limitations to the magic/tech, a cost to using it.
  4. Magic Makes Trouble: The magic/tech must shape the character and/or society in a way that drives the plot. The magic/tech or the society it enables, creates the problem.
  5. Magic Aides the Hero: The magic/tech must also be relevant to how the problem is solved. (Even if the solution involves destroying it, as in Forbidden Planet, or being destroyed by it, as in 1984.)

Segment 4

Kasie – so the few science fiction pieces I’ve read that I can contribute here include The Martian which is considered in the Hard SciFi sub-genre because even though it’s about Man vs. Nature, as the character himself says, “he’s gonna have to science this shit outta this” to survive. Andy Weir was painstakingly accurate with the details of space travel and survival on the planet. But I also read Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork series which was Steampunk before I even knew what Steampunk was and I really enjoyed the intersection of science from an Victorian-era mechanical invention perspective with magic. And of course, YA/teen romance. Total package.

Craft book — Anne Lamott

Ready to support Write On SC? Visit Patreon.com/WriteOnSC and become a patron.



One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s