Genre

Hal Duncan links to Gary Gibson’s post on the distinctions between science fiction and fantasy. I think arguments of this kind generally require one to make some pretty sweeping generalisations – Gibson’s argument makes all SF speculative and all fantasy inherently non-speculative, and it’s a distinction I’ve heard made by various other people (including one of my teachers at college) and I really don’t think it’s necessarily true.

Partly because, of course, he’s taking fantasy “in its purest form” (whatever that means) to mean “elves, magic swords, and orcs”. This is useful, really, since any examples of speculative fantasy that are thrown up clearly do not come under his definition of fantasy and therefore do not undermine his argument in any way. (I’m reminded, perhaps unfairly, of science fiction fans’ complaint that the genre is looked down upon to the point that any science fiction that gains favourable critical attention is classified as something other than science fiction. Basically, “All science fiction is crap. This book is good. Therefore it’s not science fiction.” This would be so much easier if I could find the quote! Anyone?) One might as well define “pure” science fiction as being all spaceships and lightsabres.

I find the little hierarchies that come into play here terribly amusing – anti-genre snobs looking snottily down upon science fiction, science fiction readers also looking snottily down upon fantasy (Gibson may claim he’s not doing this, but I honestly can’t read the piece any other way). And I could sit here for hours listing fantasy writers who are brilliant and certainly speculative, but I think at some level there’s a judgement about what sorts of speculation are more valid than others. And in some vague and undefined way it reminds me of discussions I’ve had as a student of the humanities with people who went into science, where they’d be all about Real Things and Big, Important things like the universe, while we were concerning ourselves with comparatively petty matters like politics and, you know, how people actually lived and the like. There’s probably a post there, if I could only collect my thoughts on the issue.

Duncan’s post on categorisation is a really good read, by the way, and I lean towards his views on this.

12 Comments to “Genre”

  1. Never really tht of the distinction till now…I thought Gary’s blog was much more coherent than Hal duncans ( too personal rather than trying to make a good arguement).. and Gibson tries to make it clear that it was a distinction that he wanted to make clear for the reason that he wants to be called so and never really takes a superior attitude towards SF.. how did you conclude as to him saying fantasy being non speculative? great blog by the way..:)

  2. I don’t know. I think the distinction for me is not whether a book is science fiction or not, but whether it’s anything but science fiction, or, put differently, whether it’s primary value lies in its science fictive speculations or in something else.

    Take a book like Handmaid’s Tale. Or Never Let Me Go. Or Fahrenheit 451. Or Brave New World. Or, for that matter, most of Vonnegut. At one level, each one of these books is SF. But they don’t get classified as such, not because of a reflexive reaction to SF, but because what’s good about them isn’t necessarily the nature of speculation involved. I didn’t read Brave New World for it’s SF speculations. I read it for what Huxley had to say about the human condition – the fact that he transcribed that into some futuristic / alternate world was frankly irrelevant.

    The point I’m trying to make is that for those of us who are not SF fans, SF speculation per se is not interesting (I personally, for instance, have never managed to see the point of Philip K. Dick). So if books we favor get classified as something other than SF, it’s not because we’re saying ‘This book is good. Therefore it’s not science fiction.’, it’s because we’re asking ‘Does this book give us something more than a well-told story set in speculative alternate world?’ – in other words, does it have an appeal beyond the SF elements. If we find it does, we classify it based on that appeal. If we find it doesn’t, SF ends up being the residual category it gets put in.

    Obviously, this is somewhat unfair to a lot of SF writing, especially since after a point the assumption becomes that if the book is being marketed as ‘Science Fiction’ it must be because it doesn’t have anything else to offer. But it’s a categorization problem more than a value judgment.

  3. I’ve never been good at figuring out genre.

    Everything I ran into when I was a kid was the same genre: “strange people in exotic settings”. Some of those exotic settings were other planets or futures; some of those exotic settings were faerie or a world where magic worked; some of those exotic settings were … Scotland.

    I was … fourteenish? Before I learned that there were people who didn’t read what I called “sci-fi”, which was … most of everything. So I spent a while in a universe where there were two genres — “strange people in exotic places” and “romance novels” — and then my perspective broadened a bit more and I discovered mainstream and other things, and now I’m just hopelessly confused.

    So genre discussions are sort of anthropology to me. “The customs of these interesting other tribe are so fascinating.” I don’t know that I’ll ever make sense of them ….

  4. “All science fiction is crap. This book is good. Therefore it’s not science fiction.”

    guh, yes. You get interesting backpedalling with this regarding Tolkien, and to a lesser extent with Harry Potter. Then there’s Doris Lessing, who can’t possibly have written sci-fi because she won the Nobel Prize. And Angela Carter, who is adored by an English Lit/gender postgrad student I know who insists she doesn’t like fantasy. Sadly, I could go on. :/

    Ever seen Phil Foglio’s two contributions to the debate? :)

  5. Filarial – It was the combination of this:

    Science Fiction, then, is a form of writing that allows one to speculate on the apparently impossible, given that history is littered with incidents in which the impossible has been shown to be, in fact, possible.

    with this:
    I think it’s fair to say these are things which neither exist nor are going to exist, ever. One might speculate as to the (im)possibility of faster-than-light travel, time travel or alternate realities; no one to my knowledge has ever speculated on the possibility of finding elves, orcs or magic swords any time soon.

    I can sympathise with Gibson’s wanting to classify his writing as he sees fit, but I think the particular distinction he’s making between the genres is singularly uninformed, especially since he admits that he doesn’t actually read fantasy, and is therefore not in a position to know what he’s talking about.

    Falstaff – You say that these books are not classified as SF because they “what’s good about them isn’t necessarily the nature of speculation involved”, but honestly, can you think of any work of science fiction (or of fantasy, for that matter) which is valued purely because of its “science fictive speculations”?
    I mean, take something like The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The central premise (travelling to and colonising Mars) is certainly something that may be possible in the future, and it’s certainly speculative in that it’s looking at the possible social ramifications of this colonisation. But in doing so it’s also saying a lot about humanity as it is in the present.Sure, he’s speculating about space travel, but doing this also allows him to look at particular aspects of “the human condition” (giggle) and. er. speculate (that word is getting used far too much in this comment) about where we’re going.
    I’ve barely read any P.K Dick myself, but I get the feeling from friends who are fans that his appeal is somewhat similar for them.

    Kiya – Genre discussions are all rather useless, aren’t they? I think I’m just going to turn into one of the “I know what I like” people.

    Thene – I hadn’t seen those comics, no! They’re hilarious, thanks. :)
    Mieville (since it’s you I’m addressing this comment to) said in an interview somewhere something about hating authors who were genre snobs. I must find it and add it to the post.

    You, of course, being delightful in every other way, are an Angela Carter fan, yes?

  6. 1) Oh, is it the umpty-umpth anniversary of People Being Too Stubborn to Listen to Chip Delany already? And I didn’t even send anyone a card or anything.

    2) I appreciate what Hal Duncan is trying to do with his work, but I’ve never known a blogger more in need of an editor. (This entry was, if anything, rather restrained for him; I only thought “The point has now been well made, and more so” once or twice.) That said, I’d be very very slightly more inclined to be on his side of the issue, except that I can’t help but feel there’s a sort of retroappropriation going on, where Fantasy says to SF “We claim you as ours, ’cause you’re all pretty much just Making Stuff Up, same as we are!” and then doesn’t understand why SF doesn’t thank it for that. By and large, while I do get irritated at genre denial syndrome, especially when it’s clearly motivated by snobbery (“I do not write science fiction! No rocket-ships here! I just have Ideas!”), I think people pretty much ought to be allowed to pick their own words for what it is they’re doing; it pains my squishy syncretist lumper heart to say it, but there it is.

    3) I think the fact that the genre community just can’t quit having this conversation points to a fairly profound divide in fandom, not between SF and fantasy, but between the reasons why people become fans. (I’m including writers under “fans” here, both because it’s unusual to be one without being the other first, and because the debate is, obviously, not limited only to authors and creators.) ISTM that there are a lot of people in fandom who come in because fantasy and/or sf push their OMGwow, Cool Shit, sensawunda buttons, and they may or may not be completely discriminate about the trappings that evoke this, as per the Foglio comics thene links to above. (I am certainly a person like this, who doesn’t care all that much if my Cool Shit fix comes from Middle-Earth or Gallifrey or Sunnydale, depending on mood; but then “a small slice of each, please” was ever one of my ruling principles.) OTOH, there’s also a not-insignificant subset of fandom who can only get that fix from stuff they can accept as “rational” or “plausible” – and that’s where wanting to cordon off SF comes from, with its strain of hard-SF triumphalism and looking down noses at anything they can brush off as “escapist.” I don’t know how much of this is longing for respectability (and thus feeling like the elves and dragons and space opera are holding them, and Fandom, back*) and how much of it is pure and genuine love for the shiny Science! – I suspect a good proportion of both.

    *I’m reminded of how several of the more “mainstream” gay advocacy groups in the US are pretty obvious in wanting to keep transfolk and bisexuals and the leather community at arm’s length; they’re nice and decent, see, not like those embarassing queers over there.

  7. Dan – If Gibson’s an example of SF snobbery, I’m tempted to cheer for the fantasy fans who are trying to reappropriate SF. ;)

    and looking down noses at anything they can brush off as “escapist.” I don’t know how much of this is longing for respectability (and thus feeling like the elves and dragons and space opera are holding them, and Fandom, back*) and how much of it is pure and genuine love for the shiny Science! – I suspect a good proportion of both.

    I’m guilty of this too, but I suspect in my case it’s partly the EngLit student wanting to read cool things she can then write papers about. :D

    Also? You and Thene are officially my favourite commentors.

  8. Heh. Well, I’m tempted too, just because Gibson is, as pointed out, spectacularly clueless in his post. (Not as bad as some I’ve seen in the last year, not by an order of magnitude; but still.) Starting out with “I don’t really read this stuff, but I’m going to go on about it at great length anyway” is grounds for a couple of lashes with the Cluestick all by itself, never mind all the things he just gets painfully wrong.

    Nonetheless, I do appreciate his charitable intentions enough, and his repeated point that he isn’t trying to elevate one over the other, that I’ll cut him some slack. And I also pretty much think that we fantasy fen have enough to deal with sorting out our own house that we don’t need to be, yanno, grabby. :)

    It comes down to respect for fellow-travellers, really, and I get that some of the “Well, you SF people are just doing fantasy, really” is because there’s been an awful lot of disrespect from the “other” side of the aisle. (In quotes for reasons that should be obvious, I think.) But I’d rather rise above it than make it a grudge match, myself. You’re that invested in drawing a line between what you do and what I do? Hey, whatever. Be my guest. I’ll be over here with my sparkle-pony fluffy escapism and my Hero’s Journey and my monsters. Feel free to come over and visit if you change your mind.

    (Oh, and, uh, thanks. *blush*)

  9. Aishwarya: Hmmm…maybe. Personally, I would put most of Asimov and all of the Clarke that I’ve read in the purely ‘speculative fiction’ category. I enjoy Asimov, but I can’t say I’m impressed with his insight into human nature, or his prose – just his ideas are kind of fun.

    I guess what puzzles me is always why people are so keen on being ‘science fiction’ fans, as though being somehow associated with the science of it made them cooler. I suspect my assumption (somewhat in line with dan’s comment) is that if people are choosing to insist on the SF-ness of the books they like it’s because they see the scientific speculation as being the main point. If that’s not true, as you suggest, then why all this concern for SF as a genre?

    The point is, if I were trying to get someone to read Vonnegut I wouldn’t bother using the genre label at all. Which is why when someone describes a book to me as a great work of SF, it’s a turnoff, because I assume (wrongly perhaps) that if there’d been something else about it that he / she liked (it was funny, had great prose, was very imaginative) they would lead with that.

  10. Falstaff, in all honesty, you’re probably over-analyzing the issue. :)

    My cryptic reference in the 1) paragraph of my first post upthread was to an oft-quoted line of Samuel Delany’s, in response to when this subject came up at some point in the dim and distant past; he said people should quit trying to define science fiction and start describing it instead. It’s sound advice, not least because what we think of as “science fiction” and/or “fantasy” is actually a cluster of interrelated themes and tropes and literary devices that’s developed out of decades of writers responding to works they like (often, at least in the beginning, with “I wish there were more books like this one, but there aren’t so I need to write it myself”). Which is also why one of the inevitable answers to “What is SF?” is “A marketing category,” because there’s a good argument to be made that the most important function of the term is to give readers a place to look in Borders when they want More Books Like This.

    One potential downside of this is that there’s a strain of SF that’s mostly defined by the conversation it’s having with other SF, which can be fascinating for fans but not terribly accessible for people who haven’t been immersed in genre for a while. (In fact, we just had a big discussion about all this in a recent open thread on Making Light, in the context of art and categorization and half a dozen other connected subjects.) But the upside, if you’re not actually hostile to the idea of genre, is that there’s enormous diversity in the kind of books that are included in the category. Some of them are focused on Ideas, some of them on shiny tech, some on exploring a particular philosophy, some on digging at the notion of Story itself. Some of them aren’t interested in being anything other than Romances in the original sense, exciting yarns that stimulate the imagination and provide a few hours’ diversion. (I certainly have a lot of sympathy for Thomas Ligotti when he says “Literature is entertainment or it is nothing.”) Many, many are combinations in various measure of several of the above.

    I will say that I think the SF fans who focus on the speculative element (meaning, in this case, the technological ideas of SF) to the exclusion of all else are a minority. Which is not to say that SF readers aren’t interested in that aspect, or that it’s not important; the speculative element is vital as a means to tell the story that could not exist without it. You can’t have Handmaid’s Tale or Farenheit 451 without twiddling the knobs on reality to get the worlds they describe. To say that the speculation isn’t what’s “good” about them is beside the point; it’s not meant to be the focus of the story, it’s meant to be the thing that the story couldn’t happen without.

    As far as what fans and readers are looking for, and why they focus on genre-works-as-genre, it all comes down (as almost everything does) to Cool Shit Theory. People respond to books that have things in them that they think are cool, and they build community and identity around shared ideas of coolness. Some people think pyschological realism and human drama is cool; some people think immersion in historical period is cool; some people think locked-room mysteries and puzzle-solving procedurals are cool. And some people’s Cool Shit buttons are set to starships, or chainmail and broadswords, or magicians-in-big-coats. There’s nothing wrong with not responding the same way to someone else’s idea of coolness, but it helps to understand that that’s what’s going on. People who declare themselves SF fans are, consciously or not, owning their Cool Shit and hoping to find solidarity with other folks who feel the same way.

  11. Came to this party – and the blog (hello) – late.

    On a very simplistic level, defining a book as falling into either category has always been easy for me – “Sword and Sorcery” vs. “Futuristic/alternative technology”.

    But I agree with dan – it’s a mostly a marketing word. And there are several books which cross the gap.

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