Updates Fridays

some musings on genre

The topic of genre and how we define it has been cropping up a lot in my life lately. It keeps coming up in conversations, creeping into blog posts, and tickling the back of my mind when I’m trying to actually get work done. So I’m going to do myself a favor and tackle some of the questions and ideas that have been plaguing me head on, and hope that gets it out of my system.

I’m pretty sure that we can all agree that Half-Man falls clearly into the category of science fiction. Sure, we can argue about sub-genre at length. We can go back and forth about whether this is military sci-fi (it’s not) or space opera (maybe?) or something else until we’re all blue in the face. But the general science fiction label: that at least I think we can all agree on. I mean, it’s got spaceships, so it has to be science fiction, right?

Wait. Why are spaceships the defining factor? What does that have to do with anything?

I mean, genre is weird, right? Spaceships mean science fiction. Elves, on the other hand, mean fantasy. Elves in spaceships, that’s some strange, genre-mixing hybrid; but elf-like aliens in spaceships, and we’re back to sci-fi.

I know I’m being reductionist here, and there’s a lot more to both genres then just spaceships and elves. But what is the true distinguishing factor between the two? Well, there are probably a bunch, really, but the closest I can get to a real rule is that both genres are concerned with worlds that are drastically different from our own, but sci-fi deals with worlds that could exist, while fantasy focuses on worlds that couldn’t.

Think about it. Magic = fantasy, obviously. But if you have a technomancer, or come up with a technological rational for magcial-seeming phenomena, then you’re back in science fiction land. If it’s a strange world that just exists nebulously without any explanation of how it relates to our own, then that’s fantasy, but if it’s just another planet in the universe, or another point in time, or both, we’re back to sci-fi. You see what I mean?

I haven’t found an exception to this rule yet. Let me know if you can think of one.

But here’s the rub: what happens when you stop trying to make your science fiction realistic? I mean, this isn’t a fringe case. Most science fiction isn’t very realistic. Consider Star Trek, for instance. Inertial dampers? Really? (I will totally use inertial dampers in Half-Man if the opportunity comes up, it’s so beautifully nonsensical and I love it. Definitely among my favorite techno-babble phrases of all time.)

But people pass this off as insignificant. If the story makes even a vague nod to science or technology then that’s good enough. Science fiction achieved. Is that just because the quality of education in the hard sciences among the majority of science fiction readers is abysmal? Or is it because it doesn’t really matter that much?

I think it’s because it doesn’t really matter. The point of the story isn’t usually the science (with some exceptions, I admit), so we can accept the flaws and outright impossibilities and focus on what is important. But then, if that’s true, what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? Is there one?

No, I don’t think there is. Not a significant one, anyway.

Whoa now, Anna, just what are you saying here? Everyone knows that science fiction and fantasy are different. We can point clearly to the differences. Heck, YOU JUST DID a couple of paragraphs ago. So what’s your point?

My point is that yes, science fiction and fantasy are different. But not meaningfully so. Marketing people probably care a lot about the distinction, but I don’t believe that the majority of readers give a crap. I mean, I can count the number of people who I have ever met who read one genre but not the other on one hand. (Probably. I haven’t actually asked everyone I’ve ever met, so I could be way off.) Heck, most libraries don’t make a distinction between the two in their catalogues.

I think that the distinction between a fantastical element and a speculative element has far less impact on the reader’s experience of a story then other questions that aren’t considered in this arbitrary genre distinction.

Let’s use Half-Man as an example again. (What can I say, I’m biased.) I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I believe the speculative element of Half-Man belongs in the background, supporting, but not distracting from, a primarily character-centered narrative. The priority that I give to character over setting has a far greater impact on which readers will enjoy this story then the fact that it is sci-fi and not fantasy. I mean, I could have placed Half-Man in a fantasy world where humans are battling an ancient race of magical beings who want to wipe us out, and some ambiguously evil sorcerers used their magic to create a super warrior to defeat them. It would be the same story, and it would have the same audience.

The artwork would be pretty different, I’ll give you that.

But aesthetics aside, genre is largely irrelevant, at least within the narrow confines of science fiction and fantasy. Which is why I don’t think that distinguishing between these particular two genres is a productive exercise. And I do believe that genre in general is a useful tool, I just have a problem with the relationship between these two in particular.

This blog post is already way, way too long, so I’m going to stop here. I have barely scratched the surface on what I’ve been thinking about lately, so I may inflict another rambly, speculative post on you all in the near future. Sorry.

To make it up to you, here’s an article about a lake draining away down an honest-to-god natural drain hole.. Lava tubes are crazy, man. Crazy.