A new thesis of genre

Via Jim Van Pelt, here’s an essay from Daniel Abraham wherein he ponders the nature of fiction genres, those flexible, permeable and indistinct categories that we all recognise when we see them… even though we all see them in slightly (or sometimes not-so-slightly) different places. Abraham points out right at the start that his train of thought here is a work in progress, but don’t let that put you off following his reasoning through.

However, I’ll cut to the chase and quote his closing thesis, which chimes strongly with my own thoughts on the short-term fate of science fiction:

If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.

Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.

I think we can already see this happening, to be honest. And while I lack the spare time to sit down and thrash it out into something coherent, I think there’s probably a complementary narrative one can build around the fantasy and horror genres, too: a briefly-booming-then-shrinking hard-core market for inherently nostalgic forms, and a growth market for the new evolutions which graft the traditional tropes onto contemporary issues.

Your thoughts?

5 thoughts on “A new thesis of genre”

  1. It isn’t exactly a new idea. Gary Wolfe has been using the jazz analogy for years.

    But treating genrification as a process is entirely sensible. When a particular form becomes popular, publishers will demand “more like this”. Then, at some point, the public gets bored with that particular idea, and publishers start looking for someone doing something new and different.

  2. I should have remembered that particular Wolfe riff, really; must go back to my Masterclass notes, as I’m sure it came up there. But yes, the more I think about it, the more it applies to loads of other cultural forms as well, e.g. rock music. I think I’ve just found a potential thesis of my own…

  3. I think that conjecture has been playing out for several years, maybe almost a decade now. Though I would add the (one might argue the dominant) slice of the sci-fi demographic pie located at that exceptionally action-flickable Clancy-esque/Star Wars-esque intersection of genre, that is truly not *about* innovation but about precisely the definition of genre – “more of the same”. It’s that quiet majority of people who want Star Wars spin-off version 1200, Lord of The Rings incarnation XXXVVII, who open books (or stroke Kindles) not for the “novel”, the literary, the art, but to relive the raygun gothic past, seeking out the next hit that will get them ‘back to the Future’ again in some alternate-timestream version of it, keep them traveling again down the 80-lane mobius strip highways of a Gernsbeck Continuum. It’s precisely the well-mockumentaried reason why 60 year old rockstars are trapped by their own celebrity-self tulpa, by imprisoned by their own marketing, replaying the same saccharine-angry 18-year old’s songs even as they’ve got no grey hair left to headbang and their mortgages are going underwater, why Ozzy Ozbourne, though he hates it, must still bite the heads off of bats and sing “Crazy Train” every night. Because most people don’t really want to watch you “grow as an artist”, to “take risks” and “evolve”, they just want to relive their own years of misspent youth before they fell into routines of parting their hair this way, floating their own brooms, paying down mortgages, lawn mowing, anesthetized by sports and video games. It’s not about art, it’s about entertainment and escapism. Some people move on, but if you ask any bookstore owner, it’s the Dragonlance and Star Wars ripoffs that do the heavy lifting of unit-pushing and keeping (what’s left of) the publishing industries alive.

  4. Interestingly enough one of my favourite sci-fi writers has been down this route himself in the last few years, Stephen Baxter.
    Generally regarded as a hard sci-fi writer he has deviated from that path of late. That is not to say that he is still not a good writer nor that he does not write a kind of science fiction, it’s just that it is more now of speculative fiction that reflects the current fear and anxieties, namely enviromental issues.
    Besides, surely science fiction has always been niche anyway right? As it is in films, although luckily shows like Battlestar Galactica and the last Star Trek movie, although reworkings of past hits, have managed to bridge the gaps and appeal to wider audiences.

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