Writing Excuses Episode 9: Sci-Fi Sub-Genre

This week we continue our discussion on Science Fiction with a discussion of various Sub-genres, why they’re different, and what you can do to make sure you know your audience.

Sub-genres covered: Space Opera, Military, Hard SF, and Cyberpunk.

Sub-genres not covered: Dystopia, Steam-punk, and whatever it is Philip K. Dick writes.
Ad: Tor Book Of the Week Keeper Of Dreams


33 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 9: Sci-Fi Sub-Genre”

  1. Right now it’s outside of the 15 minutes and since ads will only be around 10-20 seconds long or so I think it will stay that way.

  2. I just had a couple questions/comments hoping to clarify a couple specific authors/books with the sub-genre.

    First off, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game.” If we look at just the first book in this series, it would seem to be a military SF but feels more like a space opera. Card’s characters are always one of his strong points which would lend itself more to a space opera, but you don’t travel to many places besides the space station and eventually one other location. What do you think?

    Secondly I just wanted to again say thanks to you guys for taking the time to do these podcasts! Every episode seems to shed light on something new for me.


  3. “This podcast is brought to you by TOR…”

    No it isn’t. They are just advertising in it.
    Why must an ad lie? Ah, this great mystery of life.

  4. Actually it’s true, if TOR didn’t give me money Brandon, Howard and Dan would be sitting around on Fridays talking for 15 minutes but nothing would be recorded.

  5. Getting ad money for this podcast puts me one step closer to doing this for a living, and it’s a nice boost for Brandon and Howard who already do this for a living. We talked about this long and hard to find a way that we could incorporate advertising without annoying the listeners, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job. Part of that, of course, was setting up a personal deal with Tor rather than just grabbing random ads about laundry soap, so at least you’re hearing an ad for something that stays on topic.

    In other news, our newly-instated No Waffling rule was not yet a rule when this episode was recorded, which is why you can hear me waffling all through the whole fricking thing. This is because I am not much of a sci-fi guy, so I was nervous and fumbling as I tried to discuss it intelligently. So on the downside, I sound like a dork in this episode, but on the upside, we now have a No Waffling rule. Yay!

  6. For readers who want a fun YA sci-fi series , check you Larklight and Starcross by Philip Reeve. The third book, Mothstorm is coming out in the fall. The series is definitely more of a space opera.

  7. By the by, I thought the Tor ad was non-intrusive. I’d much rather have an ad than have no Writing Excuses!

    I appreciated the YA comments last week and this week. I have several short stories set in an SF milieu that has been worrying at me. Generally, it’s near future, dystopian, quasi-cyberpunk. Writing in the milieu has been very helpful to me because it’s rich and is helping me hone my skills. On the other hand, it’s cyberpunk and dystopian and that’s been done way more than just a lot. The comments from the podcast about dystopian YA hit me like a rock. The main characters in the various stories are typically young, with a few exceptions. There is no reason why these could not be YA. I’d just never considered the thought.

    Thanks guys!

  8. Having Tor as a sponsor is pretty cool. Way to go guys! Does everyone know they’re giving away free digital books and artwork?–check it’ at Tor.com.

    Also, it’s nice to have a sponsor ‘sign off’ at the end of an episode to avoid confusion on my iPod. One time I was listening to an episode of ‘Writing Excuses’, and at the end, it kicked over to Episode One where the listener is told “drink a bunch of Diet Pepsi and take a bath”. It seemed like some quirky new sign off. I’m afraid I laughed aloud at the gym.

  9. Hi,

    I’m listening to your podcast not as a writer but purely as a reader. And I wanted to let you know that it is very interesting from this perspective as well – I feel I’m getting a better understanding of story structures, and I think I’ll be able to appreciate stories more.

    Also, I like it when you ‘pimp’ your own material, and not just because I like the humming that goes along with it. I think your thoughts about your own material really give a unique insight into how writing works.

    Finally: the podcast makes me read your books/comics. I’ve started Mistborn (Tor’s free eBook, but I’ve just ordered the real thing because the book is too good to read on the screen) and some of Dan’s books are on my wishlist…

    Well, ’til next week then, kai

  10. I may have missed it, and I don’t want to belabor the point, but I think you missed out on recognizing one of the SF greats here when Isaac Asimov wasn’t mentioned in any of your sub-genres.

    I’m very much enjoying your podcast, though. And, for the record, I thought your addition of the Tor ad worked nicely. It doesn’t hurt that it is Tor and I would actually be interested in what they are selling. :-)

  11. Another person who is like Neal Stephenson (writes what one would call cyberpunk if we didn’t already live in it) and who’s work I would recommend in a heartbeat, is Charles Stross.

  12. Kai and Geoff:
    Thank you very much; it’s always gratifying to hear that we are appreciated.

    I’ve never read Charles Stross, but it sounds like I’m going to have to look him up. Thanks for the tip.

  13. I too missed hearing a mention of Asimov last week or this week. I am not sure if Asimov really can be pigeon-holed into any genre, which may be why he was not discussed (is he also a can of worms unto himself?), but for such a foundational writer (no pun intended) in SF he deserved some acknowledgment. Asimov will always hold a sweet spot in my heart because he was my first and great introduction into SF in Middle School. Maybe Asimov falls under being a “given”, but to be a “given” I would think that mention of him must first actually be given.

  14. I’ve been listening for some weeks now, and I eagerly await each new instalment; I don’t do so to improve my writing skills, but because I enjoy listening to the interesting, intelligent and entertaing conversation – may there be an endless supply of can of worms!

    This time I sat glued to the screen, being hypnotised by the bright lights, anxious not to miss a word – and you were discussing a topic about which I care very little. I say “very little” rather than “not at all” because – apart from trying to be nitpickingly truthful – I at the moment think that I do care.

    My reactions and thoughts tend to be those of a reader, though, and quite often not about fantasy/sf, although I read a lot of fantasy, and a little sf. (For insance the Villains-episode made me think of Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” – by choosing evil he not only caused the death of Clarissa, but destroyed himself as well. The novel has no hero – he’s the ultimate villain-who-could-have-been-the-hero. ) So I doubt if my comments are really useful – but I wanted to thank you gentlemen for all the fun & food for thought.

    The ad was not annoying in any way, because (in no particular order): it was short and to the purpose; not trying to assure me that my life would be a desolate desert without an oasis if I didn’t get the advertised product; it was a about a book; and I’ve read Orson Scott Card so I actually appreciated the information.

    Oh, and Mr Wells – I noticed no whaffling!

  15. To me Cyberpunk probably is best described as a sub genre of Dystopian. I have yet to encounter a cyberpunk story where the people are happy or feel that they or society is better for having the technology. There always seems to be a bleakness, a sadness lingering in the background that leaves me depressed, even as I am impressed (and perhaps horrified) by the plausible predictive aspects of the story. (This is why I admittedly don’t read a lot of Cyberpunk.)

    In spite of the foreboding it caused (or maybe because of it), I humbly suggest the YA novel “Feed” by M.T. Anderson. Wonderfully envisioned and ultimately deeply disturbing. (Think of the “Minority Report” scene of Tom walking through department store, only worse.) One side note, I HIGHLY recommend enjoying this story as a recorded book. Very well done and makes the predicted technology all the more horribly believable. (See your neighborhood public library)

  16. The discussion of Cyberpunk and the hardware of hard/military SF got me thinking about technology in general. The use of technology in a story could probably be its own Podcast, but I see it falling into one of three camps: 1) technology is good and society will be better for it (see Star Trek); 2) Technology is neither good nor bad, but depends upon how and who uses it (see Howard’s Teraport in “Schlock Mercenary”, or at least Kevyn’s belief about it); and 3) Technology is ultimately bad because either we as humans cannot truly control it or the humanity/individuality we lose because of it makes whatever gains it may bring not worth the cost (see “The Matrix”).

    I wanted to bring this up because I find how technology is used or portrayed in a story fascinating. I think it presents at least one possible window into the writer’s own world view. Three examples that might correspond to the categories above could be: Are humans inherently good given the chance and freedom? Are we born as blank slates, etched by our choices and environment, able to change, for the better or for worse? Or are humans fundamentally flawed (in religious terms: all are sinners / totally depraved from day one)?

    I mention world views for two reasons. 1) Readers are very discerning. If you, as a writer have not really thought about or are unable to articulate your own world view, chances are your story (especially the characters) will likely be just as muddled and undefined. 2) Writers need to not only be able to know and articulate their own world view, but also just as fully know other world views / philosophies of life outside of what they personally believe. I think ultimately, conflict in stories revolves around a clash of world views. The better articulated the world views of each main character, the deeper, more real the characters become and the more dramatic and relevant the conflict.

    *Note: I apologize for posting three times here, but I was dismayed by how long a previous post ended up being, so I distilled this one into separate posts.

  17. Are you going to talk about what *not* to do in a story? One of my own pet peeves is stupid technology, such as the Mecha tanks in Matrix where the pilot is completely exposed in the middle of the advanced fighting robot. Might as well add a “shoot here” sign.
    Another example would be the extremely inefficient robots attacking Obi-Wan’s X-wing in the opening of Revenge of the Sith is another example.

  18. For the record, I’ve read Glasshouse by Charles Stross, and I loved it. Very, very fresh.

    I also have a large collection of Asimov’s work. He was a master of short fiction. His novels weren’t as compelling — I suppose in retrospect that’s because I can’t really remember any of his characters as PEOPLE. Just as POVs around which his universes were unfolded. Still, his laws of robotics were wonderful.

    Where does Asimov fit? I don’t know. Space Opera, in part. Dystopia, in part. He certainly wrote his share of cautionary tales. I think that since so much of his work is “golden age” sci-fi, it is categorized much more generally.

  19. I believe that an excellent example of cyberpunk would be Brave New World by Aldous Huxley as it not only shows a dystopian society but one that was very futuristic when published in 1932 but now some of the technology is practically common place. So if there are any readers who are as much of a bibliophile as I am i strongly recommend it.

    Just don’t read it in when you are on holiday in Cyprus as I did.

    I would also like to say that I found writing excuses while browsing through some of Brandon’s work (and was browsing through that as I found out he was finishing the Wheel of Time series) and have now ordered quite a bit of Dan’s work as well.
    Always room in the collection for more Horror.

    Keep up the great work guys!

  20. Ryan:
    I’m flattered that you wanted to order some of my stuff, but sadly none of it has been published yet–unless you’re talking about my long and storied repertoire as a corporate writer, which is often pretty horrifying in and of itself.

    My guess is that you bought some stuff by Dan Willis, since I’ve been confused for him a couple of times, but I suppose it’s also possible there’s another author out there named Dan Wells who also writes horror. In which case I want him found and incarcerated–go, my minions!

  21. First off, I want to say I quite enjoyed this episode. I think the key point of identifying genre as a writer is to make sure one is aware of the clichés and standards of it. One wants to know when one is walking across ground already well trod, and when one is doing something unexpected. There’s nothing wrong with either, but if something has been done over and over in a genre, one generally has to do it better in order for readers to enjoy it.

    I wanted to respond to a couple of comments here. Asmund mentions silly technology in regards as things not to do, particularly referencing the attack droids from Revenge of the Sith and the exo-skeleton mecha from The Matrix: Revolutions. The thought that occurs to me is that there’s a definite sliding scale when it comes to weird or inefficient technology depending on sub-genre. Harder scifi sub-genres are obviously going to have a low tolerance for such features, but in the case of space opera, it actually can serve as a major stylistic feature. Star Wars of course has lightsabers, which are very weird/inefficient technology; it’s not only acceptable but is embraced because of the sub-genre. In space opera, technology can be forgiven for being kind of absurd as long as it adds an enjoyable stylistic element – basically, as long as it’s cool and doesn’t break suspension of disbelief too badly. The droids in Revenge of the Sith did not bother me because they created an interesting dilemma and fit the style of the setting. Sure, an actual warhead would be more realistic and effective, but the droids added an element of suspense and felt more dangerous. Essentially, space opera (and other soft genres) can – and probably should be encouraged – to ignore realism in favor of the dramatic. Of course, a writer has to be careful not to go too far. The exo-skeletons from The Matrix provide a great example of this. Walking tanks are a bit of a ridiculous idea in the first place, but the open cockpit, as Asmund mentions, puts them way over the top – a viewer simply cannot take them seriously, cannot get over the glaringly obvious flaw. Simply enclosing the operator in some sort of cockpit would have resolved this – the viewers are willing to accept the silliness of a mecha if the writer (or in this case film-makes) make at least a nod towards realistic concerns. Different readers will have different tastes and how far they’re willing to stretch their sense of disbelief varies, but if the writer at least addresses the readily obvious problems in some way and makes it dramatically or stylistically interesting, the readers will often go along for the ride. (And please excuse me, but as a card carrying geek I must take this moment to be pedantic lest I am stripped of my membership – Obi-wan’s starfighter in Revenge of the Sith is actually a ETA-2 Actis Interceptor ;-) ).

    In reference to cyberpunk, Jon W. suggests it should be a sub-genre of dystopian works. I think there’s good reason to feel this way, but I disagree for a few reasons. Primarily, in dystopian works the entire population – even the supposed elite – live in oppressive and restricted circumstances. Even the supposed elite are better off only in comparison to the general populace, and rarely live in anything that could be likened to opulence. In 1984, for example, the Party leadership have but a few privileges – they can turn off their CCTVs, have slightly better living quarters, personal vehicles, and a few other relatively minor allowances. However, they are if anything watched even more closely and face even worse repercussions should they break their society’s rules. In cyberpunk, however, the world is dystopian primarily from the viewpoints of the standard protagonists. These characters are on the outside of the system, either by circumstance or choice, and the system by nature tends to grind down and oppress outsiders. However, they conversely have a great deal more individual freedom – they may be in constant danger and have no support net besides what they create themselves, but they are also not beholden to the powers that control a cyberpunk world. Those at the top of these powers, on the other hand, enjoy virtually limitless wealth and privilege, and can get away with almost anything they want. It’s really only the people in the middle – part of the system, but not controlling it – that face what would be considered the typical dystopian oppression. In fact, this aspect can vary greatly depending on which corporation or government or whatever a person is part of. Some cyberpunk works even call this version of circumstances into question – are the people in charge really that bad, and are regular people that sheep like, or are the protagonists just violent underworld extremists, paranoids, and criminals?

  22. Would you guys think that Jules Vern was a Space-Opera verging to Hard SF of his time?
    He actually wrote about alot of things we take today for granted like submarines and space travel.

  23. @Gorbash: Sorry, man. I’m not usually a lazy reader, but you posted too much text. TOO MUCH. You probably said something interesting, but I missed it. Brevity is the soul of wit, my friend. BREVITY.

    If you want to upload 1000-word essays (you only posted 823 words, but who besides me is counting?) it’s a good idea to break your paragraphs up.

    This, by the way, is good advice for writers in any genre. Too many unbroken walls of non-indented text can and will intimidate readers, and your content will go unread.

    @Thanos: Verne’s work “predicted” submarines and space travel, but more importantly it foreshadowed the entire genre in which we currently write. You can call it Space Opera, Hard SF, and even Fantasy. Those elements are all there, and he predates the rise of the genre by an entire generation, so any categorization you apply is wholly artificial. Verne certainly wasn’t thinking of genres in that way when he wrote.

  24. This was the first writing excuses episode I came across (sorry, I don’t remember who pointed it out to me) and I’ve subscribed to it since. I particulary like the mix of information and the relaxed tone and fun in each recording. I am not worried about that Tor advert as long as it stays in that short format.

    Regarding this particular episode – it came to me as a blessing, cause right now I am exploring a lot of new books and realized that the little SciFi I read would probably be Space Opera. This podcast made it clear for me why I like this subgenre and why I stay away from others (as much as niches are always oversimplifications).

  25. Just a quick note to let you guys know I’ll be writing a letter to Tor to let them know what a great idea it was for them to sponsor your podcast. I left you an iTunes review a few weeks ago as well. Love the podcast, want more.


  26. I have never understood most advertising in general, but this particular gambit seems especially awkward. Do they seriously expect people to go “Oh, my favorite podcast was interrupted by a mention of a book, guess I’ll go buy it now?” Does anybody buy a book because an internet celebrity was paid to mention its name? Do human beings react that way in the wild?

    I mean, you’re not even endorsing it, you’re just stating that the book exists. Why interrupt your train of thought and waste 30 seconds of the podcast to simply mention that a product exists? It serves no one and accomplishes nothing.

    I sure hope you’re making a mint off of this. The only thing that would suck worse than a pointless out-of-place advertisement in what was formerly a sincere and informal discussion of the art and science of fiction, would be to discover that they’re not even making it worth your while.

    So yeah, I hope you’re all talking into solid gold diamond-encrusted microphones in the next podcast. Or, conversely, I hope that our locust-like internet browsing habits were eating you alive with bandwidth expenses until you this advertising deal came along to help stop the hemorrhaging.

    I guess what I’m saying is, I sure hope it was worth it.

    The ad did nothing for me. Hopefully it did something for you.

  27. Would you, if you have time, also go over the sub-genres you did not cover? I am especially interested in Dystopian and Steam-Punk. Thanks!

  28. Sorry, also forgot to mention. If you did this already, just tell me so. this is as far as I have gotten, having just been introduced to W.E. and I started from the beginning. My brother, who has interviewed at least Dan and Brandon (Bryce Dayton, from the Intelli-Gent reviews) was the one who showed it to me. I have long been a fan of fantasy (not so much sci-fi, although I do love cyberpunk) but I have also been interested in writing, and I’m hoping by listening to you all, I can get some help without having to pay for classes and such, cause I’m broke. Anyway, thanks for your time again! Great stuff, I feel that it has helped me understand the basics of what writing a story is all about!

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