Science fiction, sub-genres and the consensus of definitions

Ah, the sweet taste of vindication … or at least, the satisfaction of seeing someone else agree with your own hypothesis by result of their own reasoning. Mondolithic Studios asks rhetorically whether science fiction is still a distinct genre:

I think what confuses some people is the fact that Science Fiction isn’t really a distinct genre unto itself anymore. It’s mutated into dozens of sub-genres and movements, liberally exchanged genetic material with Fantasy and social satirism and burrowed into the internet in the form of hundreds of thousands of scifi and fantasy-oriented blogs, galleries, fanzines, vlogs, podcasts and short story webzines.


A new life in the off-world colonies!

I’d add metaverse platforms like Second Life to that list; it’s early days yet, but Jason Stoddard and Eric Rice are leading the pack on this one, and I’m confident we’re going to see new ways of telling stories (genre or otherwise) emerging from virtual worlds in the next few years.

And let’s not forget the mash-up projects; the first one that leaps to mind is Jeremy Tolbert‘s Dr. Julius Roundbottom site, where he’s combining ‘shopped photography and clockpunk vignettes and feeding them out over RSS just like a blog. [Disclosure – Jeremy is a good friend and co-blogger at Futurismic]

Then there’s Pete Tzinski, who’s delivering his ongoing God in the Machine story as a serial, just like Wells and Conan-Doyle did, but on the web instead of in magazines. Or Don Sakers, doing the same thing with a novel. I can’t vouch for the quality of the material, because I’ve not read either of them yet – but what I can say for certain is that these people are out there using the web as a delivery system for fiction in new (or new-old) ways. People are often dismissive of pioneers until the first successes appear on the new frontier – and appear they will.

Sub-genres as suburbs

But back to Mondolithic again:

You could think of traditional Science Fiction as the built-up, established, older city core, and Sprawl [Fiction] as the rapidly expanding literary suburbs young writers are fleeing to in search of more elbow room to test out new ideas. So people who assert that “Science Fiction is dead” are looking at where scifi used to be and missing the bigger picture completely. Science Fiction has changed out of all recognition and if you want to think of that as a crisis, it’s a crisis of diversity rather than a morbidly existential one. [my bold]

This reminds me of my genre ghetto analogy; the Mondolithic writer has reached a very similar image, although he’s come to it from a different angle. And that angle reminds me of my floating point variable analogy – if I might be so vain as to quote myself:

For me at least, it’s that simple. A book is not, in and of itself, science fiction. But it may well partake of science-fictionality (science-fiction-ness?) to a lesser or greater extent – and that extent is, at least partly, determined by my perception of the book in question, as well as my perception of the canon of works that inform the term ‘science fiction’.

I could also delve back into my analogy to the sub-genres of rock music, but I think everyone’s heard enough of that by now. And why belabor the point? After all, I’m not saying anything that far smarter and more qualifier commentators aren’t saying too. Lou Anders on the steampunk resurgence:

…a visit to Wikipedia shows how large the canon of steampunk really is, including a lot of alternate history, much of Tim Powers, and labeling a lot of classic fiction as “proto-steampunk” in the same way PKD and Bester are sometimes said to be proto-cyberpunk.

So, is steampunk a niche of a niche of a niche? Or is the real age of steampunk just beginning?

I’d argue it’s having a high moment right now, but it will never die completely – and nor will any sub-genre, ever again. This is the internet, baby – everything here will last forever, or at least until civilisation as we know it collapses.

Sub-genre definition by consensus

But to close, I’ll just reiterate that sub-genre is in the eye of the beholder. Damon Knight’s adage is an enduring one, and filters down into the subdivisions with the same power it had at the top of the pyramid – in other words, steampunk means what you point to when you say it.

And it’s the debate over these definitions that, in my opinion, keeps genre fiction alive – if we care enough to debate the labels, that’s a sign of vigour. And debate we do, as Kathryn Cramer observes while riding flank on some Wiki wars:

Since there are not commonly shared theories of literary genre underpinning the evolution of these [Wikipedia] articles, they tend to devolve into something reminiscent of the end game of a game of life when the little groups of pixel enter a repeating pattern; cycles of argument about whether a work or writer is or is not hard sf, as if this was as easy to decide as something like nationality …

I’d suggest the fluidity of definition is actually a good thing, at least as far as literature is concerned; floating point variables, as mentioned above. (But then I’d also argue that nationality is a much more fluid concept nowadays, too.) Consensus is morbidity.

But the take-home point is this – as the chap at Mondolithic observed, science fiction is far from dead. It just appears to have gone through a metastasis.

3 thoughts on “Science fiction, sub-genres and the consensus of definitions”

  1. Consensus is morbidity.

    I like that, and I think it’s basically true. I view genres mostly as a form of literary game defined by the players own moves. If true and stable consensus is reached, the game is over.

    Genre, to me, is a transaction between writers and audiences, which is often confused with the related notion of marketing category, which is a transaction between publishers & distribution systems.

  2. I think that is partially true.

    Another part of the problem is the term science fiction has gotten corrupted and stuff that ain’t is called that these days. The producers of Star Wars admitted that it was not sci-fi back in 77. There is a TIME magazine article where they state it. But how many people think that today? Star Wars fans get insulted if you tell them it ain’t SF.

    But movies and television are more expensive than magazines and novels so they need to attract big audiences. If the SF is too intellectually sophisticated and the bump in the bell curve drops out then how can AVATAR make 2 billion dollars? 2001: A Space Odyssey got panned by the critics back in ’68. Rock Hudson said it made no sense. LOL

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