The majority of the books that I read belong to the overarching genre called Speculative Fiction, which generally refers to stories set in worlds that are different, however slightly, from our historical world. Speculative Fiction loosely divides into the major genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. This is a description of Speculative genres and sub-genres designed for the uninitiated. It is not exhaustive.
The fact that modern writers deliberately combine elements of sub-genres makes the distinctions fairly limited. I’m sure many who read this ‘guide’ will disagree with my definitions.
Science Fiction – primarily involves stories in which the fantastic elements are theoretically possible, given our understanding of modern science and potential future technological advancements.
Hard Science Fiction – characterised by scientific accuracy and high levels of scientific detail. Hence many of the best writers in the sub-genre are scientists or mathematicians, like Vernor Vinge. In an infamous example a group of engineers picketed author Larry Niven at a book signing, chanting that his Ringworld was theoretically unstable.
Military Science Fiction – involves interplanetary or intergalactic conflict, typically between humans and an alien race. The characters are usually soldiers and military training, procedure and weaponry feature heavily. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War are two classics in the sub-genre; John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a modern example.
Space Opera – revolves around adventure in an outer space setting and science often takes a back seat to action. E. E. Smith is considered to be the pioneer of the sub-genre; modern examples include Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series and Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.
Cyberpunk – is typically characterised by near-future dystopian settings. The protagonist is likely to be an antihero and the antagonist is likely to be a mega-corporation abusing some element of technology (often Artificial Intelligence) rather than a government (see Dystopian). The most famous examples are Neuromancer by William Gibson and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
Alternate History – investigates what may have happened if certain historical events turned out differently. A typical scenario involves different sides winning major conflicts, such as the Axis winning World War II in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. A more recent example is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.
Dystopian – typically involves a near-future setting in which a totalitarian government has assumed control and placed restrictions on humanity, inevitably leading to rebellion. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 are classic examples.
Fantasy – primarily involves stories in which the fantastic elements are in no way scientifically possible, hence the use of ‘magic’ and (more often than not) imaginary worlds.
Epic Fantasy – stories are set in a fictional world and present a conflict of epic scope, usually involving the fate of the world. The process of in-depth world creation contributes to the epic length of books (or more accurately, series) in this sub-genre. The classic epic Fantasy is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Two modern epic fantasy series are Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Heroic Fantasy – tales may be set against the backdrop of an epic but the focus is on the heroic character. The story will often detail the life of the hero and explore how their deeds made them into a legend. Legend by David Gemmell pretty much defines the genre. A more recent example is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
Sword and Sorcery – typically tells the story of an antihero or unsympathetic protagonist who is struggling primarily for their own survival, or perhaps revenge, and any good that is done in the world is incidental. The sub-genre can be traced back to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, but for a more recent example try Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.
Historical Fantasy – uses real world history and draws magical or supernatural elements into the story to either change events or provide a fictional explanation for them. One of the foremost writers in the sub-genre is Guy Gavriel Kay (see Tigana, among others). Another recent success was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Urban Fantasy – was originally defined, unsurprisingly, by its city-based settings. It seems to be expanding to include any stories which are set in our world but incorporate fantastic elements. The most popular books in this sub-genre are Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, though J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series might qualify.
Steampunk – revolves around a steam power era setting and introduces technologies (often incorporating magic) that might have been and which take society down an alternative path. One of the most successful current proponents of the sub-genre is Cherie Priest (see Boneshaker) and
Dark Fantasy – combines traditional fantasy elements with horror. Typically stories involve human characters threatened by supernatural forces beyond their understanding and power to defeat. Clive Barker and Anne Rice are popular authors in this sub-genre. I claim very little knowledge in this sub-genre, or the Horror genre entirely.