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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.

Virtual rape is possible – but is it a crime?

That’s the question being asked here and there on the intarwebs at the moment, after a story appeared in a Belgian newspaper claiming that police in Brussels are beginning an investigation into allegations of a rape that occured in Second Life.

I’m no lawyer, nor am I an ethicist, and I don’t claim to have an answer one way or the other. But the fact that we can even be asking such a question is fascinating; the walls between the real world and the virtual – what Edward Castronova calls the ‘permeable membrane’ – are becoming increasingly thin and easy to cross, and the legal machinery is going to take a long time to catch up.

I like to use the ‘Wild West’ metaphor, describing MMOs like Second Life in terms of new frontiers where new experimental ways of life can take place, thanks to the relative lawlessness that prevails. It’s a double-edged sword, as the virtual rape case demonstrates, but these spaces are test beds for the social systems of the future.

Of course, much like there was in the American West, there is pressure on the people benefitting most from the expansion into new territories to police the anarchic goings-on. Which is probably why Linden Labs has announced their intent to exclude SL users from ‘Adult’ content in-world unless they can provide evidence of their legal majority … though the fact that the enforcement of non-adult content in a region labelled as such is to be left as the responsibility of the landholder leaves them a neat get-out clause for when something goes wrong. Every lazy sherriff needs a box-full of deputy badges.

Two tests of writing quality

Personally, I have no problems with being objective about the quality of my fiction writing – it’s plain to see, even to its creator, that it’s bloody dreadful.

However, it’s a little more difficult for people further down the path of storywriting craftspersonship to assess their own work. A. R. Yngve suggests that you:

“1. Open one of your unpublished manuscripts on your computer.

2. Using the Search function, search and count the number of times the following phrases and words appear in your writing prose:

– “that will/would change your/his/her/their life/lives forever”
– “He/She loves me. He/She really loves me.”
– “heart will never heal”
– “as you know” (followed by exposition)
– “was all he/she had to live for”
– “love him/her forever”

If ANY of the above clichés appear in your prose, it ain’t good enough to be published.”

Brutal, but pretty fair.

Meanwhile, Jim van Pelt is working toward a more positive assessment method:

“My thoughts on this aren’t fully formulated, but I think there must be something right going on in a story that establishes a context for a line that would make no sense in any other context. What I mean is that a fully functioning story creates an environment for sentences that could only make sense within that story.”

He uses examples from movies, but that strikes me as a great way of drawing a line between works of science fiction that have truly absorbed the novums into the narrative and those that have merely used them as window-dressing.

The genre ghetto is a myth

Here is a random Livejournalist by the name of Luc Reid who found his way into one of my Technorati tag feeds, talking about that perennial bugbear of genre fiction categorisation:

“The essence of mainstream science fiction as compared to genre science fiction is how it expects its readers to deal with speculative elements, their tolerance and ability to grok them. So mainstream vs. genre is a meaningful distinction that is useful to readers, because it helps them select books that are or are not suited to their tastes…


Why is this important to writers? Because while every book you write has to be a book you love, you also have to know who else out there in the world will read it. If you want to reach a larger audience, you have to tell your story in a way that they will be willing to read. If you want to reach science fiction readers, you need to tell the story in the way that they want to hear it told. And these are basic writing choices rather than simply labels slapped on by publishers.”

Strikes me as sound advice – somewhere in there is a blueprint  for dismantling the ghetto walls, though I’m not sure that’s the intent that Mr. Reid had when writing it. I think I shall keep an RSS eye on him in future.

Flawed feeds

It has been pointed out to me that my feeds are not showing complete posts; this is not intentional on my part, but apparently is intentional on the part of the WordPress development people.

I have unearthed a hack that should put things back to the (very satisfactory) way they were before, but I’ll have to wait until I get home to actually sort it out. In the meantime, thanks for your patience; regular service will be resumed as soon as is practicably possible.