Tag Archives: ghetto

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.

Indeed.

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.

Norman Spinrad and the victimisation of genre fiction

In between giving some awards to a whole bunch of stuff I’ve never read, the SFWA held some discussion panels over the weekend of the Nebula ceremonies. GalleyCat has a run-down of one that featured science fiction editors and other notables discussing the ‘market problem’. As I wasn’t there (I guess my complimentary tickets got lost in the mail or something), I have no idea how balanced the report is, but taken at face value it suggests that Norman Spinrad has a serious case of victim syndrome on behalf of the genre:

“After some of the other panelists spoke, Nielsen Hayden rexplored the notion that the hardcore SF fan who had long constituted the genre’s target audience was gradually being replaced by a young reader who delves into all sorts of popular culture, only some of which is science fiction and fantasy. Bantam senior editor Anne Groell ran with that ball, talking about her own experience seeing fantasy titles cross over to romance audiences. “There’s a lot of freedom in how you can cross genres today in ways you couldn’t before,” she said, to which Spinrad countered that he believed it was harder for established SF/fantasy writers to make that crossing than writers from other fields who added fantastic elements to their writing. “Science fiction creates a floor,” he insisted, “but it also creates a ceiling.””

So, any thoughts? Is the genre a box? If it is, have genre authors created that box for themselves, or are they being picked upon by the cruel and merciless chain book stores and amalgamated publishers who care only for quick profits?

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…

(snip)

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.

Science fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison; part 3

Yesterday I discussed the tribal behaviour of subcultures, especially regarding their relations with the mainstream culture. Due to the paucity of comments, I must assume I’ve either blown away everyone with my staggering insights, or baffled and bored everyone into submission…either which way, I’m going to wrap this one up today by discussing recent cultural shifts, and what they mean for subcultures like SF and rock music. Continue reading Science fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison; part 3