Chris Beckett: sf is not a genre, it’s a toolkit

Paul Raven @ 26-04-2010

British sf author Chris Beckett has been browsing through the BSFA survey book, and decided to respond to some of Charlie Stross’ comments contained therein regarding science fiction’s longevity and mutation:

I agree with [Stross] that it would indeed be ‘the trump of death’ to try and endlessly recreate the science fiction of a previous generation.  But I increasingly think that it is mistaken to think of science fiction as ‘a genre’ or ‘an art form’ (singular).   Think of  Orwell’s 1984, Ballard’s  Terminal Beach, a Star Wars movie,  Dan Dare, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, District 9…   Are they really all the same genre?  Hardly. But they are all science fiction as I would define it.

Rather than think of SF as a genre, perhaps we should think of it as a resource which can be used for many different purposes, as a pack of playing cards can be used for games from Bridge, to Poker, to Canasta to Snap and Old Maid.  SF’s continuing value as a means of telling stories and exploring ideas is illustrated by the frequency with which authors who don’t think of themselves as SF writers nevertheless make use of it (Orwell is a case in point, but see also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Doris Lessing etc etc.)

Stross is rather sniffy about this sort of thing.  He speaks of SF being ‘colonized by backpackers from the literary faculty, who appropriate the contents of the [SF] toy chest’.   But surely it is precisely the concern to cling onto our toys, to be pure,  to discourage miscegenation, which lead to the kind of death by staleness and repetition that he himself warns about?

Another iteration of a long-running (and probably interminable) debate, for sure… but I was intrigued by its serendipitous chiming with Tom Hunter’s comments about literary outliers in the Clarke Award shortlist earlier today:

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of there being a toolkit for science fiction rather than a manual, but even more than this I’m drawn to the idea that, these days, the science fictional element is simply part of a much larger toolkit for the work of making art and unpacking meaning from our world.

Perhaps I’m being a bit disingenuous, because both Chris and Tom are talking in parallel with my own theory that science fiction is a floating-point variable rather than a binary.

But what about you lot – do you think there is a distinct genre that can be labelled as science fiction, and if so, where (or how) do you draw the boundaries? Can leakage across those boundaries be prevented, and if so, is such prevention an admirable goal?

[ In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Chris Beckett is a client of mine, not to mention a jolly decent chap. ]