In terms of the sheer variety in content, fans are in a new golden age of anime. There’s no shortage of platforms that are either using anime as their primary selling point — like Crunchyroll or Funimation — or as a healthy supplement — like Hulu or Netflix. That includes the subgenres that span the already-vast library of anime available on streaming, including science fiction.
Both it and fantasy are some of the most diverse genres in fiction, whether it’s through worldbuilding, storytelling, or being mixed with other subgenres. Regardless, there are many sci-fi anime out there more than worth the time of seasoned fans and prospective newcomers alike.
The original anime movie adaptation of mangaka Masamune Shirow is a bona fide classic, and many at the time surely felt like doing a fresh TV adaptation was a major risk. However, that gamble paid off and resulted in becoming a modern anime and cyberpunk classic. Taking place in a separate timeline from the events of the movie — as well as other adaptations — Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex follows Major and the rest of the Section 9 special forces as they tackle a series of sci-themed cases as well as two overarching plotlines.
This series still contains thought-provoking social commentary on the human condition, morality in an aggressively digital world, and the sense of self that longtime fans would expect, but it also injects a flavor of enticing The Wire-esque police procedural drama.
Another modern classic in the anime genre, Steins;Gate is a refreshing and thrilling sci-fi series that adapts developer Nitroplus’ visual novel video game of the same name. Part of what makes this series as inventive as it is is that it mostly takes place in modern-day Japan with the grander scale of the story’s conflict unseen.
It revolves around the eccentric and self-proclaimed “mad scientist” Okabe Rintaro and his friends who indulge him in his scientific antics back at their lab. However, things take a sudden and bleak turn as a widespread conspiracy begins to unravel surrounding their discovery of time-travel technology. Steins;Gate almost lulls audiences into a false sense of security with subversive storytelling before progressively, and then dramatically, raising the stakes.
Before starting Steins;Gate 0, the movie that caps off the original’s story is more than worth checking out as an honorable mention. The series does an excellent job at getting fans emotionally invested in just about every member of the main cast, and that’s what makes Steins;Gate 0 such an interesting entry in the franchise.
It’s not a “sequel” in the conventional sense, as it takes place in a splintered-off timeline after the events of episode 23 of the original. Things took a dark turn in this new canon, with Okabe vowing to drop the mad scientist angle and try to lead a normal life to cope with his grief.
There are few things that can be said about the anime icon that is Cowboy Bebop that hasn’t been said already. A pillar of the genre’s history at this point, Cowboy Bebop is a tantalizing combination of multiple subgenres, with sci-fi being the primary one.
Its world is a creative blend of sci-fi, western, and stylish film noir, as it follows an unlikely band of misfit bounty hunters navigating the far reaches of space taking odd jobs to get by in a universe where humanity’s corporate evil has left Earth nearly inhospitable. The narrative structure is mostly episodic, with some covering the main plot, but they all have something entertaining and meaningful to say about their engrossing cast and poignant social commentary.
Though perhaps not as well known as its contemporary, Trigun is another ’90s anime classic that earns its reverence — as well as the movie. While Cowboy Bebop was sci-fi western with an emphasis on sci-fi, Trigun is arguably the inverse. The story takes place in another dystopian land characterized by deserts and wild-west-inspired locales, centering on “Vash the Stampede.”
A legendary gunslinger spoken of in fear, Vash is actually a pacifist despite his reputation for leveling entire towns. Adding to the plot’s intrigue, Vash has no recollection of doing something so heinous. Trigun does a great job of throwing in comedic relief before fleshing out a darker, more serious, and emotionally resonant mystery and story.
The mecha anime subgenre can be an admittedly mixed back of beloved and instantly recognizable series, as well as poor attempts at pandering and fan service. However, Gurren Lagann is another more recent hit — as far as the history of the genre goes –that succeeds as an exhilarating mecha story by using its over-the-top action as a vehicle for the surprisingly emotional and hard-hitting tale underneath.
Following the downtrodden duo of Simon and Kamina, the two live persecuted in an underground mining village. But the story rapidly expands its world when the latter resolves to take the fight to the Spiral King above who’s driven most of humanity to the Earth’s depths. The show holds little back when it comes to the audience’s emotional investment, and it tells an invigorating story of the resilience of the human spirit.
It’s arguably more of a fantasy series than it is a sci-fi one, but the sheer quality, depth, and impact of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood can’t be understated. It’s still certainly both fantasy and sci-fi, with Brotherhood being praised (among several other things) for its excellent worldbuilding and attention to detail.
Combining high fantasy with science fiction and steampunk aesthetics, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood sees the Elric brothers work as state-sanctioned alchemists while on a journey to find the fabled Philosopher’s Stone to undo the consequences of the forbidden alchemy that took Alphonse’s body. Riveting action and rewarding character drama, Brotherhood has everything it needs to justify its 64-episode run.
While Ghost in the Shell is widely regarded — and understandably so — as the best cyberpunk anime ever made, another anime-original series in the form of Psycho-Pass admirably stands out on its own terms. Taking place in a Japan-set techno dystopia, Psycho-Pass sees an authoritarian government impede everyday citizens’ lives by monitoring their psychological states of mind to measure their likelihood of criminality.
Should they fail this “Psycho-Pass,” then the government and the lapdogs they send after them are more than willing to use lethal force. The story mainly revolves around the government’s Enforcers; a jaded group of detectives, until a new member with lofty ambitions for this job is thrown into the mix. The latter two seasons admittedly don’t feel as inventive, but it’s an overall exciting anime series with tasteful homages to the likes of Minority Report and Blade Runner.