How to define a genre … and why not to bother

Jonathan McCalmont @ 25-06-2008

Blasphemous Geometries returns, ready to bask in your merciless indifference.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

This month Jonathan McCalmont has been thinking about that perennial discussion that is mathematically certain to arise in any situation where three or more sf fans or critics are gathered – how do we define science fiction? Jonathan has decided that we should stop trying.

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This month, I am turning my eye to that old fan favourite : the boundary dispute. Scientists have proved that 86.4% of all arguments in genre boil down to disagreements over what does and does not fit within a particular genre or subgenre. What begins as a description rapidly becomes a proscription and the second someone suggests that genre should be about something in particular, that proscription instantly becomes a doctrinal pointy stick with which to jab at other people.

If genre is a broad church it is only so as to allow more room for heretics. This is a column that will attempt to put an end to such venomous wastes of time by suggesting not only that we do not need a definition in order to discuss things in SF, but also that discussion might be more fruitful if we all felt free to create our own terminology.

The desire to define things is a product of one of the more interesting quirks of human neural architecture; the desire for abstraction. This desire expresses itself as a tendency to see the world not in terms of individuals but rather clumps of objects that share characteristics, and which can therefore be expected to behave in similar ways. This is a cunning evolutionary strategy that allows us to deal with the world without having to haul around wetware capable of formulating and storing completely separate understandings of every individual thing we encounter.

Of course, this is in fact a double-edged sword: the quirk that gives us racism and denies us an experience of the world that is one of permanent wonder (“if you’ve seen one elephant playing the banjo, you’ve seen them all”) is also the quirk that gives us quantum physics and the theatrical farce (“My husband? In bed with the Bishop?”).

One product of this quirk whose benefits have long been over-stated has been the need to define what exactly constitutes science fiction. From Darko Suvin‘s “estrangement and cognition” to Damien Broderick‘s “metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics”, it has long been considered necessary to define SF before one can talk about it.

The SF critic and author Damon Knight tried to get away from the problem of definition by saying that “Science fiction is what we point at when we say, ‘This is science fiction’.” What he meant by this was that, even if we cannot satisfactorily define the essence of SF, we all know what it is when we see it. However, a different spin on this definition might be to suggest that the mere fact that someone is willing to label something as ‘science fiction’ is enough to make it worth thinking about as a piece of science fiction.

A notable example of this approach to SF is the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which every year elicits howls of protest from SF fans as its shortlist leaves off notable SF books in order to include works that might more easily be thought of as mainstream. Similarly, in 2007 the author and critic Adam Roberts released a history of SF that avoided giving a definition in favour of suggesting texts throughout history that might well have contributed to the evolution of the genre as we know it today.

In other words, Roberts and the Clarke Award do not give us a definition of SF. Instead, they simply point at works that interest them and say “this is SF”, inviting us to consider these works not as an attempt to encapsulate and define a genre, but rather as interesting ways of thinking about a genre whose limits are ultimately arbitrary.

Of course, if “science fiction” is ultimately an arbitrary term, then what of other SF labels?

According to Wikipedia, there is a genre called ‘dieselpunk’. However, you will not find a ‘dieselpunk’ manifesto, an anthology of stories or even a group of authors associated with the name, even though it currently generates over 20,000 hits. Dieselpunk exists because a number of people have decided to point at some films, games and design styles and call them ‘dieselpunk’. Indeed, some of the after-dinner entertainment at the 2008 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass included sitting around coming up with -punk subgenres. All of them are critical terms that could inspire a story or be slipped into a review or a critical essay.

Critical terms do not only exist to help us categorise things, they can also be used to cast new light on old favourites by suggesting that we reconsider a particular work in conjunction with other works that we might not previously have associated with it. For example, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) might be dismissed as needlessly fantastical if seen as a detective story, but if seen as a work of steampunk cinema, it takes on a whole new set of meanings – despite the fact that it is rather unlikely that the writer or director had even heard of the term at the time.

Genres are not just about books. They are also about people. The other way in which this free-flowing approach to labelling can be useful is in thinking of genres as creative communities.

The textbook example of this vision of genre is cyberpunk. ‘Cyberpunk’, initially at least, was defined by a group of authors with similar ideals and perspectives. It is only since then that we have come to associate the term with a collection of tropes such as cybernetics, virtual reality and apocalyptic, decaying cityscapes. The same was true of the New Wave authors whose tendency to be published in similar places and touch on similar themes resulted in their style acting  like a sub-genre for authors who were not initially part of that creative community.

In some cases (such as Mundane SF) the creative communities even publish manifestos, staking out the territory they intend to work in and signalling to other authors that a creative community is being formed. Indeed, in some cases, the creation of the manifesto is the totality of the subgenre’s existence. Were someone to actually produce an Infernokrusher anthology, the joke would cease to be funny.

To think of a genre as a list of boxes to tick or a set of necessary and sufficient conditions is to stifle it both as a venue for creativity and as a useful critical tool. Language evolves constantly and the boundaries of genre are drafted and redrafted with each new publication. It is vital that our way of talking about SF reflects this fact.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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21 Responses to “How to define a genre … and why not to bother”

  1. ZZMike says:

    Even though it’s a bit slippery, I think most of us could agree that science fiction is about the effect of science and technology on civilization in general and people in particular, and about how using that technology changes the world or the people.

    So Jules Verne gets in the door, because at the time, submarines and spaceships were emerging technology. A novel today about car-racing wouldn’t, because cars have been here for some time.

    A book like “The Magnificent Ambersons” might get in, because it’s about the effects of developing technology on the Amberson family.

    But that raises a question: is “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” still science fiction, because submarines are old hat now? Probably it is, because the story is about the effects of that submarine on people.

    Some science fiction is easy to categorize: all of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Firefly, … Some non-SF is also easy: “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, for one. (I’m still trying to figure out where to put Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. The only thin certain is that it’s somewhere in Fiction.)

    Like almost everything else, it’s the boundaries that aren’t as sharp and distinct as we’d like. For the stuff in that area, I can live with “if you say it is, then it is”.

    Finally, there’s the question of “why do we have to categorize, anyway?”. Is it just to figure out what shelf to put the book on? It won’t be long before we won’t need shelves at all.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    With all due respect, Mike, I think you’ve highlighted a very small subset of the books that can usefully be called science fiction by saying it’s “about the effect of science and technology on civilization in general and people in particular, and about how using that technology changes the world or the people.”

    Sure, it’s a common theme, and the majority of sf titles have such considerations hidden somewhere within them, but sf can do (and does) so much more than the Gernsbackian “gadgets and consequences” tale.

    Also, Star Trek as science fiction – not only does it not fit your definition above, but Trek is actually benign colonial/imperialist fiction dressed up in a thin veneer of the future, involving very little genuinely rigorous speculation at all. Not knocking it, but Trek is about as far from my definition of sf as you can get without cracking the spine on a Jane Austen novel. 🙂

  3. Jonathan M says:

    The problem with a fixed definition in a genre that is always changing is that it either winds up shutting stuff out or it becomes meaningless.

  4. Sean OBrien says:

    Stories about FTL starships, matter transporters, and aliens are not Science Fiction? I’ll be cordial and simple say Huh ?

    When I walk into a bookstore I like the fact that the books are separated into categories. It helps me quickly find stuff I probably will like. An angry flame war about what does and does not belong in that section is beyond absurd. The only people who are relevant in this are authors. If an author doesn’t want his/her book in that section, or does want it moved to that section, their wishes should be respected. Everyone else should put their precious time and energy into ending starvation and crime.

  5. Edward Willett says:

    Oh, please, Author John C. Wright just answered this definitively:

    Science Fiction is that genre of cognitive estrangement in a post-Gothic mode, utilizing a willing suspension of disbelief, transcending anthropocentricism and temporal provincialism, where spacemen, raygun in fist, soar through outer space with a glamorous brunette Space-Babes in their brawny arms.

    He bolsters his argument with extensive pictorial proof. To get the full flavour, read the whole thing.

  6. Heather says:

    Great column! I love the idea of SF being inclusive rather than exclusive.

    >where spacemen, raygun in fist, soar through outer space with a glamorous brunette Space-Babes in their brawny arms.

    Sign me up! I am so there. One great factor about SF is the variety–and variety is the spice of life, right? Let’s enjoy it.

  7. Paul Raven says:

    That’s the spirit, Heather! 🙂

  8. Agent Z. says:

    “Language evolves constantly and the boundaries of genre are drafted and
    redrafted with each new publication. It is vital that our way of talking
    about SF reflects this fact.”

    This pretty much says it all for me.

    In recent years I’ve found some excellent sci-fi
    in places I wouldn’t expect to find it.
    Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ and Michel Faber’s ‘Under the Skin’
    were both in the literary section of the bookstore.
    Octavia Butler was in the African American Lit section.
    Linnea Sinclair and Susan Grant were in the Romance section.

    The broader and more creative the genre – the happier I am.

  9. Heather says:

    Then there’s films like CHILDREN OF MEN which on the surface can be defined as SF but are so much more.

  10. Tom Marcinko says:

    So much on the screen seems to get there because “it’s not sf, it’s [fill in the blank].” Or, “We’re doing something that’s never been done in sci-fi before,” because it’s never been done on tv or in the movies. I wonder if it’s time for writers to try that trick, just for marketing purposes (especially since agents have told me what a tough sell sf is these days). My apocalyptic world-busting space opera is NOT science fiction; it’s a family saga, a love story, a religious/political allegory, a mystery.

    Not knocking it, but Trek is about as far from my definition of sf as you can get without cracking the spine on a Jane Austen novel. 🙂

    There it was, my moment of zen…

  11. ZZMike says:

    Paul:”… the Gernsbackian “gadgets and consequences” tale… ” I once met SF writer F. M. Busby, and we were talking about a story about whales, and he said something dismissive like “Oh, that’s F&SF stuff”. So I can see a wider division between Hardware Stories (maybe Space Opera) and more speculative stuff, like Bradbury.

    But somewhere the has to be a line (not “has to” because we decree it, but “has to” because there is) between what we can call SF, and not-SF. Obviously, most Harlequin Romances fall into the not-SF category, but there are one or two that try (not necessarily successfully) to force their content into a SF world.

    Star Trek as “benign colonial/imperialist fiction”????? Would you put Haldeman’s “The Forever War” in that category? And what about “the Prime Directive”?

    Sometimes it seemed like the people they ran into were there to show us how primitive they were (once when they ended up in a Roman-empire world, once when they came across the people who were worshipping a god-like creature, …) But you could also say that they were saying “look! aren’t we a bit like them?”. And sometimes they gave us the point with a big hammer, like the story about the two guys fighting throughout time, both half black and half white (literally), who hated each other because “but look, he’s white on his left side!!!”.

    “… sf can do (and does) so much more than the Gernsbackian “gadgets and consequences” tale.” Do you have any examples (of that? I haven’t been reading that much recently (mainly some of Charles Stross)).

    I think I understand about “The Road”. Once you’re pegged as “a science-fiction writer”, you’re expected to keep being one, and therefore, forever banished from “serious literary circles”. I see from Wiki that he’s not really a science-fiction writer, but one who writes in “post-apocalyptic genres”. Now I feel better.

    Speaking of Wiki, they have an entry for “science fiction”. Jonathan: can we rely on what’s there?

    Edward: “Author John C. Wright just answered this definitively:…” A long time ago I read a short-short story (author and title unknown); it started out like a Conan-the-Barbarian book, with a Brawny Hero riding a Reptilian Beast, rescuing a Busty Damsel from a hoard of Pursuing Creatures. Through several paragraphs, he’s fighting them off with bow & arrow and sword, then the last sentence is something like

    “At that point, he said, “The hell with it!”, pulled out his neutron blaster and vaporised the warriors to pieces.”

  12. ZZMike says:

    PS: I hate it when I get closing tags wrong. I only meant to emphasise “really”.

    Really.

  13. ZZZMike says:

    PPS: How does “The Road” compare with “CAnticle for Liebowitz”?

  14. Heather says:

    >I wonder if it’s time for writers to try that trick, just for marketing purposes (especially since agents have told me what a tough sell sf is these days)

    They may have to in order to get that next contract. Imho, there’s a tendency on the part of marketing folks to make a product, in this case SF books/films/tv shows, appeal to the widest possible audience. Marketing copy might not reflect the actual art itself.

    It has nothing to do with the quality or anything else–it’s about moving product. Unfortunately.

    >But somewhere the has to be a line (not “has to” because we decree it, but “has to” because there is) between what we can call SF, and not-SF.

    Good point. I agree with that.

    >Obviously, most Harlequin Romances fall into the not-SF category, but there are one or two that try (not necessarily successfully) to force their content into a SF world.

    While I agree that quality varies (as with any genre), I must respectfully disagree that authors are “forcing” their content when mixing genres. I think it’s about exploring entertaining pairings. Of course, there is the subjectivity factor at work as well.

    There are many readers who love the romance-SF pairing and the sales aren’t showing any signs of slowing. Harlequin is not all romances, and they have some great SF-romance stories. But the books may not work for everyone and that’s perfectly understandable.

  15. Heather says:

    oops, “make” should read “market”

  16. TomMarcinko says:

    I wouldn’t say that Star Trek is NOT colonialist/imperialist. That doesn’t disqualify it as sf, IMO.

  17. Agent Z. says:

    It’s probably not fair for me to give an opinion on ‘The Road’ vs.
    ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz.’ It’s been so many years since I read the
    latter. I remember enjoying it and thinking it a good book, but I’ve
    never had the urge to re-read it. ‘The Road,’
    on the other hand, is definitely a book I will be reading again and again.

  18. Paul Raven says:

    I think this lively debate actually supports Jonathan’s hypothesis! We all know it when we see it, but everyone sees it slightly differently … 😉

    Colonialism aside, Trek disqualifies itself from ZZMike’s original description, which is the point I was trying to make – it’s almost never about the impact of change or innovation on the characters. The acid test is: would the plots still work if you set them on a Victorian-era steamliner, or a clockpunk-fantasy airship? Strip away the superficial trappings of space travel and ray-guns, and Trek is just another adventure series.

  19. ZZZMike says:

    Paull Raven: “Strip away the superficial trappings of space travel and ray-guns, and Trek is just another adventure series.”

    Like “Firefly”?

  20. Paul Raven says:

    Exactly, Mike.

  21. Babylon says:

    Firefly is a western.