A Deep Dive Into How I Categorise Sci-Fi

A space ship icon to represent Sci-Fi or Science Fiction

Hey all!

Today I wanted to talk a bit more about the genre that forms the basis of pretty much everything I write: Science Fiction (or Sci-Fi).

Science fiction is defined as a fictional genre which explores concepts such as science, technology, outer space, space travel, space exploration, advanced technology, time travel, the multiverse theory, alien life… From that definition alone, you get the sense it’s a pretty broad topic. And it is!

Sci-Fi can go in a lot of directions. I tend to think of it as a scale from the Authentic Sci-Fi to the Cartoon Fantasy Sci-Fi , with various categories in between. I want to talk a bit about this scale, each category (or subgenre) inbetween and where my two series fit into this.

Full disclosure, these categories are of my own making, nothing official.

Authentic Sci-Fi

This category is all about Sci-Fi that delves into real scientific concepts and theories, exploring them through its storytelling. Some call it hard science fiction. Obviously, it’s still a story and fiction, but the use of real information mixed with ideas about what our future could be create a story that feels like it could actually happen.

What has become my favourite Sci-Fi in recent years is a TV Series called The Expanse, based on the series of science fiction books by James S. A. Corey. It is set in a future where humans inhabit Earth, Mars and The Belt (various asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter). It can be a very political show when it explores the tensions between these factions, but also goes beyond this to space exploration, exploring new planets and alien life. This series embodies what this category is all about – blending science, science theories, predictions of the future and a compelling narrative to make a great story that feels so authentic.

Authentic Feeling Sci-Fi

This category was harder for me to determine. Basically, what sits here uses some scientific notions but is also wildly imaginative and more unlikely to occur. This category basically embodies the above and below categories blended together.

My go-to example for this category are some of the films by Christopher Nolan (my favourite film director btw). Films like Inception, Interstellar and the recent Tenet blend some real and scientific concepts or theories with a fantastical idea. Together these create compelling and interesting stories which feel like they could be real despite not being that plausible. Even Nolan’s take on Batman manages to create a world and hero that feels like it could actually happen.

Mass Effect was an even harder call, but I also think it sits here. It tries incredibly hard to sell a world that feels like it could be our future. Humans blending with aliens in a society with a unified political structure. But it also pushes the boundaries of science, and the alien cultures hold it back from feeling fully authentic. All aliens speak English and take a lot of cultural cues from humans (would every alien species have bars and nightclubs…?). That being said, I don’t think Mass Effect would be as good if it didn’t take these liberties. Not many want an exciting story hampered by language barriers and subtitles at every turn.

Fantasy Sci-Fi

This category has all the classic (sometimes cliché) markings of Sci-Fi but doesn’t really factor in scientific concepts or theories at all. This category goes more officially goes by the name ‘space opera’. Sometimes they make an effort to drift to Authentic Feeling, but rarely do they go out of their way to explain things this way. While good fantasy Sci-Fi can make a world that FEELS real, the whole thing is usually completely unrealistic and unfeasible as opposed to just elements. But you buy into it because it sucks you in. You want it to be real. I don’t think these are at all a bad thing. Sometimes it’s nice to just let your mind wander and enjoy something without getting too bogged down in the details.

Star Wars would have to be the perfect example of this category. I enjoy much of the series pre-Disney. When Star Wars is at its best, it’s truly able to push into the fantasy and deliver atmospheric and diverse alien worlds and cultures. You truly feel like you’re in a different galaxy – far, far away from Earth. This is especially visible during the Clone Wars era. My favourite Star Wars story is the Knights of the Old Republic video game. This game is able to tell an incredibly compelling story with so many intricate details that build an in depth and authentic world, even though it’s entirely fictional and unrealistic.

I would also place superhero films here. I feel some would disagree with this, seeing superheroes as their own thing. I personally find they often involve advanced technologies and can introduce us to strange and whacky worlds. Marvel films like Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy come to mind. DC films like Man of Steel and Aquaman too. Like Star Wars, there isn’t much in the way of actual science and realism in these.

Fantasy Cartoon Sci-Fi

The last category I want to share is a bit of an outlier. Cartoon series (and movies) which utilise Sci-Fi elements and settings also count as Sci-Fi to me. These lean very heavily into the fantasy element and as cartoons, aren’t meant to be taken too seriously. But they’re fun!

Rick and Morty, Inside Job and Final Space (I miss it already) are three of my favourite cartoons that fit here. Rick and Morty follows a mad scientist going on crazy space and inter-dimensional adventures with his grandson Morty. Inside Job answers the question “What if all conspiracy theories were real?”. Final Space follows a human named Gary and his team, which includes various aliens and creatures, as they try to stop the destruction of the universe as we know it. Both very general descriptions but hopefully you get a sense of how Sci-Fi applies here.

A diagram illustrating where all my favourite movies and TV series sit on a sliding scale from Authentic Sci-Fi to Fantasy Cartoon Sci-fi

Nash & Highton Heroes

As illustrated above, I tend to drift more towards the fantasy. Even though I love Authentic Sci-Fi like The Expanse, I don’t think I could ever personally write that way. I don’t like to be constrained by much. It’s actually why I write Sci Fi in the first place. I want the freedom to make up what I want, to tell the stories I want, without being constrained by scientific, geographic or historical limitations.

I take Nash more seriously than Highton Heroes, placing it somewhere between authentic-feeling and fantasy. It’s biggest inspiration in terms of tone and atmosphere is Mass Effect. I want it to feel real, but I also don’t want to get bogged down by real scientific concepts. In an effort to help make it feel more authentic, I actually hand Nash materials over to a friend of mine with quite a bit of scientific knowledge to give me feedback on how to make things more authentic.

Highton Heroes, on the other hand, doesn’t even try to feel real. Earth itself is completely reimagined, nothing is explained scientifically, you can walk on Jupiter… Need I say more? I don’t seek any scientific advice on this series. I just write with the intention of delivering something fun to experience.

I hope you found these categories an interesting way of categorising Sci-Fi. What do you think? Do you categorise differently? Or is it all just Sci-Fi to you? Let me know in the comments…

Til next time,

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