Steampunk, Werewolves, and Spaceships—What’s All That About? by Suzanne Johnson

Hope everyone had a great weekend! :) It's genre Monday time, and Suzanne is helping us with something I know I was definitely in need of--a breakdown of all the different types and hybrids of fantasy and science fiction. There are so many genres being crossed and straddled, that it makes my head spin when I looking through book choices. So take it away, Suzanne...

Steampunk, Werewolves, and Spaceships—What’s All That About?

by Suzanne Johnson

It’s a common question we all get as authors: “So, what kind of books do you write?” I used to say “urban fantasy with a touch of romance”—to which I’d get a lot of polite, blank stares.

Then I’d try to qualify it more: “You know, my books are sort of Harry Potter and Stephanie Plum meet Stephen King, except in a real city.” Blank stares turn to the type of nodding looks usually reserved for the crazy aunts we keep locked in our attics down here in the South.

Now, I just wave my hand around and say, “oh it’s kinda like science fiction,” which seems to satisfy them.

Except, really, it’s not. So, here we go, my attempt at a Lexicon of Speculative Fiction. Next time someone throws a term like “steampunk” or “historical paranormal romance” at you, you’ll know what to expect. It’s a whole brave new world out there!

I do a series of monthly columns for my publisher’s website (the oh-so-fabulous called “Fiction Affliction,” in which I look at all the speculative fiction books being released the next month. So I’ll divide the speculative sub-genres here much as I do there.

First, there’s


Sci-Fi is the granddaddy of speculative fiction, of course, and basically refers to any alternative reality or futuristic story that has its basis in science (as opposed to magic). All may have romantic elements, though romance is secondary to the plot in most, and books in each category are published for either adult and Young Adult (YA) readers. Common sub-genres within Sci-Fi are:

Space Opera

These are the stories set on space ships, on other planets, or that have alien critters running around on Earth.

Hard Sci-Fi

Just what it sounds like. Usually some technological advance that goes awry or is misused in some way.


“End of the world” stories that usually involve a radically degraded culture due to environmental negligence, a virus, or technology run amok.


Sort of a street-level science fiction, if you will. I’ve heard it called “high-tech, lowlife” fiction. Tends to be violent and dark.

Alt History

Want to find out what happened if the South won the Civil War, or if Hitler had prevailed in Europe? Alt History’s your genre.


Stories are set in the late 1800s, reimagining what life might have been like had the rapid (often steam-driven) technological advances of that era run amok. A newer subgenre called “Weird West” sets the wacky technological marvels in the American Wild West. (Cowboys in airships, anyone?)


This is self-explanatory and can be either science fiction or fantasy, depending on whether the time-travel results from scientific advances or magic.

Sci Fi Romance

Can be any of the above subgenres, only the romance is the centerpiece of the story, and there’s at least a happily-for-now ending.

Next, leaving science fiction behind, we have


High fantasy, also known as epic fantasy, features stories based on the magical or supernatural, either in character or plot or setting.

Sword and Sorcery

These are the “dungeons and dragons” kinds of stories, set in imaginary realms, with lots of swordplay and magic.


A band of oddly matched travelers, who might or might not be human-like, work to achieve something noble like saving the world. Think Lord of the Rings.

Historical Fantasy.

Often set in imaginary, medieval-like worlds, and featuring warring kingdoms or political factions.

Fantasy Romance.

Could be any of the above fantasy subgenres, only the romance is the centerpiece of the story, and there’s at least a happily-for-now ending.

Finally, we have the FANTASY HYBRIDS, the genres that have really taken over in the last two decades, beginning with Harry Potter and then Twilight and True Blood and now Hunger Games. Fantasy hybrids involve paranormal creatures such as vampires, werewolves, zombies, wizards, name it...but in a real-world setting.

Urban Fantasy

A head-on collision between the fantasy world and the real world. Usually set in a real urban area but with magic or paranormal creatures. Urban fantasy often has romantic elements, horror elements, or both.

Paranormal Romance

Basically, urban fantasy where the romance is the central focus of the book, with the requisite happily-for-now ending.

So there you have it—a handy guide to speculative fiction. There are other sub-sub-genres, but we’ve at least hit the high points. Now...a recommending reading list? Here are a few:

*Sci-Fi/Time-Travel/alt history:

Kill three birds with one book by reading Connie Willis’ Blackout and sequel, All Clear.

*Epic Fantasy:

You can’t go wrong with anything by George R.R. Martin, but try his A Song of Ice and Fire series, beginning with A Game of Thrones.

*Urban Fantasy:

This is my genre and there are so many I love, but try Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, beginning with Moon Called.

* Paranormal Romance:

For hot and sexy, read J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, beginning with Dark Lover.

For hot and funny, go for Jeaniene Frost’s Dark Huntress series, beginning with Halfway to the Grave.

Suzanne Johnson is an author of urban fantasy “with romantic elements.” Her first book, Royal Street, a magic-based fantasy set in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, will be released by Tor Books on April 10, 2012. Two more in the series will be released in Fall 2012 and Spring 2013. Find Suzanne online at her Preternatura blog, or read about her books at her website.

*Look for more from Suzanne here every 3rd Monday of the month!