Confused about the categories? Obfuscated by the organization? Perplexed by the…posty…pagey…things? You’ve come to the right place. There are about a bafillion little subgenres of fantasy and science fiction, but we’ve taken a handful of them and defined them on our own terms. This may not actually make things less confusing for anyone, but it gives us a feeling of power. We like that.
High Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery takes place in a world completely separate from our own. It is usually (but not always) vaguely medieval, and usually (but not always) contains elements such as quests, knights, wizards, dragons, elves, and walking. Lots of walking.
- Ex: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Prydain, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books
Portal Fantasy involves characters passing from the “real” world to a fantasy world. Although people and things can pass through the portal (which may not be a portal per se; see also: “the second star to the right”), the world are separate; stories in which the hero discovers a previously-unknown supernatural aspect to the “real” world (like Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer) do not fall into this category.
- Ex: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan, the Oz books
Contemporary/Urban Fantasy takes place in a world that resembles our own, but with supernatural or magical elements.
- Ex: Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, many Roald Dahl books such as The Witches
Historical Fantasy/Steampunk takes place in a world that resembles our own, but with supernatural or magical elements, and set in an earlier historical period. This may include some alternate history, such as that in His Dark Materials. Although this genre often takes place in the Victorian or steam-powered era (hence “steampunk”) it does not include books that were actually written at that time, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- Ex: Sorcery and Cecilia, His Dark Materials, The Sea of Trolls
Fairy Tale/Mythic novels draw on, well, fairy tales and myths for their plots. Often these fall into the High or Contemporary Fantasy categories as well.
- Ex: Ella Enchanted, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Till We Have Faces
Horror contains vampires, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night. Books with Gothic tropes fit in here, too.
- Ex: The Ghost in the Third Row, Twilight, R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps
Time Travel is pretty self-explanatory.
- Ex: The Time Machine, The Time Warp Trio, Time and Again, and almost everything else with “time” in the title
Space Opera takes place mostly in outer space and on distant planets, with extremely advanced technology and often with many alien species. It is often epic in scope; its closest cousin in fantasy is Sword and Sorcery.
- Ex: Star Wars, Dune
Aliens Among Us does not require actual aliens, and is much more domestic than Space Opera. They take place mostly on Earth, but a contemporary Earth with some science fiction elements — a sort of cousin of contemporary fantasy. The characters may go into space, but the emphasis remains on Earth.
- Ex: My Teacher is an Alien, ET, Aliens Ate My Homework
Apocalyptic/Dystopian Science Fiction focuses on the destruction of civilization and/or the aftermath of said destruction. Chipper!
- Ex: A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Uglies, City of Ember
Humor here refers to books that are still very much in a fantasy or science fiction mindset, but which play with the genre in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.
- Ex: The Princess Bride, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Discworld