Tue
Nov 2 2010 2:07pm

“A particular story, or moral, or scenario”: Why Science Fiction May Not be a Genre

Science fiction novel covers collectedDaniel Abraham has a very thought-provoking article on genre on his blog, I commend it all to your attention. He talks about what genres are, and he says:

I think that the successful genres of a particular period are reflections of the needs and thoughts and social struggles of that time. When you see a bunch of similar projects meeting with success, you’ve found a place in the social landscape where a particular story (or moral or scenario) speaks to readers. You’ve found a place where the things that stories offer are most needed.

And since the thing that stories most often offer is comfort, you’ve found someplace rich with anxiety and uncertainty.  (That’s what I meant when I said to Melinda Snodgrass that genre is where fears pool.)

I think this is brilliant and insightful, and when he goes on to talk about romances, westerns, and urban fantasy I was nodding along. Genre is a something beyond a marketing category. Where fears pool. Yes. But when he got to science fiction I disagreed just as strongly as I’d been agreeing before, because in that sense—the sense in which “a particular story (or moral or scenario) speaks to readers” science fiction isn’t one genre, it’s a whole set of different ones, some of them nested.

It’s always easiest to define a genre when it’s over. I’ve talked here before about the cosy catastrophe, a genre that’s science fiction except for when it was a huge bestselling genre briefly. They really are a genre in that sense—they are essentially variations on a theme. They fit a pattern. The really interesting thing about them for me is that I was massively invested in them as a teenager, I couldn’t get enough of them, and that twenty years before that they were a huge bestselling mainstream phenomenon—everybody couldn’t get enough of them. And just as I grew out of it, so that my interest in them now is primarily nostalgic, so did everyone else. They really clearly were where “fears pooled,” and they were fears about nuclear war and about needing to have a fair deal for people of every class, and they were consolatory comfort in that they said a few nice people would survive and build a better world, and that would be us.

I think there are other genres like this within science fiction. There’s the “wish for something different at the frontier” genre—Hellspark fits into that too, and Lear’s Daughters. There’s the “American revolution in space” genre. There’s the “Napoleonic war in space” genre. There’s my favourite “merchanters, aliens and spacestations” genre. There are others we could identify—there are some I’ve been thinking we don’t see much any more, like the “computer becomes person” genre and “cold war in space.” The thing about these is that they are doing variations on themes. You know what’s going to happen even when you don’t know what’s going to happen. You know the shape of the story in the same way you do in a mystery or a romance. And whether or not they’re about fears pooling, they’re about getting the same fix.

But science fiction also contains this huge set of things that don’t fit into subgenres, that you can’t fit into a Venn diagram of overlapping tropes, that are weird outliers—and yet they’re clearly science fiction. I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been looking at Hugo nominees. If you look at the Hugo nominees for any year, and remove the fantasy, what you have left is four or five excellent books that don’t look as if they came from the same universe, never mind delivering the same “story or moral or scenario.” Here, look at this year:

Look at last year:

Look at 2008:

Keep going back as far as you like, you can use the same Locus list I’m using. Here, have 1970:

What Abraham sees as fracturing is what I see as the long term strength of the genre as...not actually being a genre in his sense of the word.

Science fiction is a broadly defined space in which it’s possible to do a whole lot of things. Some science fiction readers do only want their subgenre doing the same thing—and that worries me a bit, because I think the real strength of the genre has always been that there are all these hugely different things out there and yet they are in dialogue with each other. Because that’s the other meaning of a genre, genre as writers group, where the works are sparking off each other. Science fiction really is a genre in that sense. It has reading protocols. It assumes a readership that’s read other science fiction. And it assumes it’s read other different science fiction.

You can look at the things Abraham thinks science fiction is fracturing into and they’ve always been there, and they have always fed into each other.

However, if there’s a thing paranormal fantasy readers get from reading that does something with their fears (and similarly for romance readers and mystery readers, etc) then the thing that I think science fiction readers get from reading lots of SF is the deep conviction that this world is not the only world there could be, that the way the world is is not the only way it can be, that the world can change and will change and is contingent. You don’t get that from reading any one book, or any one subgenre, you get it from reading half a ton of random science fiction.

I think there’s another thing we get, which is the urge to say “Hey, will you look at that!” Habitual SF readers want to talk to other people about what they have read—that’s where fandom came from, and it’s something I’ve noticed in people who read a lot of science fiction but have no connection with organized fandom. I think the other genres that cluster around SF and which science fiction readers also read—fantasy of various kinds, historical fiction, mystery, science essays—share this characteristic to greater or lesser degrees.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

21 comments
AlecAustin
1. AlecAustin
I think you're right that science fiction as a genre discourse is more inherently discursive and variable in its content than a lot of the genres that Abraham highlights.

Part of that, I think, is that he's actually pointing at very prominent or dominant sub-genres, rather than the umbrella genre as a whole - what writers like James Ellroy do with the mystery genre, for instance, is a far cry from Agatha Christie & Ellery Queen, much less Dorothy Sayers, and you'd be hard-pressed to say that they all build off of "a particular story (or moral or scenario)" except in the loosest of senses. And yet White Jazz and Gaudy Night both get shelved under Mystery, and for reasons that make sense to lots of people, all of which boil down to the fact that the macro-discourse they're engaged in is the same, even if they barely engage with each other in terms of specifics.

There's a lot more to say here, but I'm laid up sick, so my thoughts are all falling apart on me. More later, perhaps.
Clark Myers
2. ClarkEMyers
I'm inclined to say the other genres share this characteristic to a mostly greater degree.

I'm reminded of a then fairly longstanding convention - since deceased - where the GOH was Anne McCaffrey at the height of her popularity - all it took was a luxury liner both ways and putting up at horse farm before, during and after with volunteers to do all the muck work. There was full volunteer participation by young folks not otherwise attracted to the Con neither the previous nor the next year as the ConCom aged out and gafiated. I see the same thing as what might be called the Con umbrella ages out while the Klingons and the Browncoats compare martial virtues and the Vampires could take down anybody who didn't have a watcher.

Thus I'm not so confident they will always feed into each other in the future - nor have all that many volunteer - as opposed to commercially mediated - venues for a meetup.

Still shelved under SF is likely the best definition of the umbrella today.
hapax
3. hapax
Building on what AlecAustin says above, what I think that Daniel Abraham was identifying (and you are rejecting as definitive for sf) is not "genre", but "trope."

Paranormal romance and urban fantasy -- thought of in the narrow sense of "kickass female with tats alternately slaughtering and sexxoring supernatural baddies" is a trope. So is "Cecil Rhodes with airships." So is "Cold War with robots".

Sf, mystery, romance, and so forth are diverse enough to encompass a wide variety of tropes, which eddy and pool in response to fashion, social anxieties, and good marketing.

I think that the defining characteristic of any genre is what you point, a body of literature in conversation with itself. Tropes do not converse -- they may ring small changes to make a chord, but they mostly echo.
hapax
4. jessicaemilymoyer
When I teach library school students and librarians about SF this is something they struggle with. Other genres are easier to grasp because they have a specific type of plot, all mysteries have a crime that needs to be solved, all romances have a happily ever after ending, etc. but SF can be so many different things that in some ways it is more of a concept than a genre that can be neatly defined. Which may be why I love it and loving it certainly makes it easier to explain it to my students, who are rarely SF readers.
AlecAustin
5. AlecAustin
@Hapax: I think the approach you're taking is a good one, but I suspect that "trope" is a little too granular for the kind of regularized sub-genre structures and patterns at play in some of the examples Abraham talks about. When you look at (say) the supernatural romance discourse as a whole, it's assembled from a fairly wide variety of tropes and common structures, not all of which are deployed in every instance. Yet even works that don't have the default protagonist, or develop the default types of relationships, or whatever, are still recognizable as supernatural romance because enough of the other tropes are present.

I think the distinction I see between a (macro-) genre and a sub-genre is the degree to which the discourse between works resides in their use of specific tropes versus how they draw on larger themes or topics of interest. So the Western is just a very prominent and regularized instantiation of the larger frontier/adventure story genre, while nurse novels and True Confessions would be sub-genres of romance that spiked and then faded without sinking the larger discourse. And Supernatural Romance is, of course, engaged with both the larger romance genre and the contemporary fantasy/horror sub-genres.

To extend your description of the difference between genre and trope, the difference I see between genre discourse and sub-genre discourse is that works in a sub-genre are (often) engaged in more technical, detailed-oriented discussions, while works that share a genre but not a sub-genre can be seen to be addressing shared issues from very different directions.
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
It is something like the supreme court ruling on obscenity--hard to define, but "I know it when I see it."
This can come in handy as not all science fiction is filed under Science Fiction.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Clark: I've said this to you before, you're going to the wrong cons. And anyway, it's reading and thinking that makes the cross-connections, not necessarily hanging out.
Natalie Luhrs
8. eilatan
This is the very first time I have ever seen someone who is not me use the phrase "paranormal fantasy" to refer to the current iteration of urban fantasy.

It's late here and sadly, I have nothing more intelligent to offer. Except that I think you're on to something, Jo. SF really does feel a lot more diverse in what kinds of stories it tells as opposed to something like romance. Which is absolutely not an insult to romance--I adore romances, but my expectations for them are different from my expectations of a science fiction novel.
Nancy Lebovitz
9. NancyLebovitz
I've got doubts about Abraham's premise-- it's unprovable, and it's got an air of "I know why you love something, and your real motive is not at all impressive".

We do have a mystery of why there are fashions in popular art-- and there are long historical patterns, too-- allegory has become very rare, for example. I don't have a solution for the mystery, but I'd at least like some more hypotheses.

That being said, I think you're on to something about sf-- if it's assauging an anxiety, the anxiety is probably a fear that the world might be too boring.

However, I think taking pleasure in play isn't about anxiety.
John Ginsberg-Stevens
10. eruditeogre
"Science fiction is a broadly defined space in which it’s possible to do a whole lot of things."

There's a lot to respond to in this piece, but that idea of space is perhaps the most salient observation. SF is a genre, but a different sort of genre, one that benefits from cross-pollination and mutates its progeny at a greater rate than others. It is the fierce territorial literary mutt that begs for attention as often as it urinates on the shoes of more proper genres. And the anxieties that it portrays and sometimes strives to ameliorate are more legion and in some ways more seminal than those of other genres. I think this is why it is so useful as a bundle of conventions and tropes to play with, and also why talking about it, criticizing and analyzing it, is often very fruitful.
Clark Myers
11. ClarkEMyers
I'd give John Campbell the first and last word on SF as a genre - he wrote in effect that SF is the universe and everything else is a subset including especially mainstream.

Given that SF deals with absolutely anything from before the big bang to after the heat death both inside and outside any actual or hypothetical time or place then SF embraces absolutely any and all possibilities - anything else that embraces as much must itself be congruent with SF and anything less a subset.

Parlor games of let us define your terms or arguing semantics are amusing and so worthwhile as the game leads us to enjoy the exotic flavors - never to have learned to read SF finding new ideas and new terms - turned on..... is indeed analogous to never ate a peach.
Michael Burke
12. Ludon
While I love science fiction stories and ideas, I can see the question of just what is the Science Fiction Genre. Is the genre just an umbrella designation for the old tropes when they are dressed up with scientific trappings? Or is there more to it?

The Star Wars Saga - A story of fall and redemption set in a different time and place.

Ringworld and the Known Space stories - Adventures in distant lands.

Alien - The thing that goes bump in the night is on a spaceship.

Aliens - Wild west shoot'em up with gadgets.

Fahrenheit 451 - The plight of the oppressed in a possible future.

Close Encounters and Independance Day - Strangers approaching our (town, village, terrirory, tribe), what will they be like? In this case the word 'world' would be used.

Time Travel stories may seem, at first, to be immune but even they can be broken down into a classic idea. A few that I can think of are Battling the corrupt leaders - The Time Machine, forbidden love - Time After Time, and not knowing when to quit - one I've written.

Even stories told from alien points of view can be broken down. Again from my work - a novel I'm working on can be described as "A self-exiled person finding his way back to his family - set against the classic land-grab story."

Back to the original question. Just what is it about the Science Fiction genre that can set it apart from the other genres? I believe that difference is in how the writer develops the idea into the plot then the story and in how the reader is expected to approach the story. This is the difference between "There was..." and "What if there was..."

There was a man who was born in a stable. There was a war between two great nations. There were brave people who fought against oppression. There was a lonely woman who longed for that special lover. There was a man who tried to cheat everybody.

What if humans had struggled for freedon in another galaxy many years ago? What if a society decides to ban reading books? What if we have to question the definition of life? What if vampires are the unexpected aftermath of a long forgotten alien encounter. What if a species had been taken from the Earth in the distant past then allowed to develop on another world? What if they happen to discover Earth?

Historical Fiction relies on the history. Westerns rely on the settings. Romances rely on the love interest and Crime Dramas rely on the crimes. Science Fiction relies on the question of "What if . . ."
Emmet O'Brien
13. EmmetAOBrien
Ludon@12: to talk about SF as old tropes in new trappings requires preselecting a subset of SF, and the easy ones to make fit a story-shape from another genre are notably skewing towards blockbuster movies, which are constrained if nothing else by length. That subset excludes the SF stories which could not exist as the same stories in a mimetic setting, such as Permutation City or, if you want to think in cinematic terms, 2001 or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Michael Burke
14. Ludon
I'm not familiar with Permutation City and I've not seen Eternal Sunshine... so I can't comment on those but I will address 2001.

In one sense, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a coming of age story. Humans have grown to where they are able to leave the cradle (Earth) and maybe try to play with the big boys.

James White's Second Ending - a story about the last man on the Earth - is a quest. If you've read it, think about it. The quest was not his.

While many would think of A.I. as a take off of Pinocchio, it would probably fit better as a variation of The Ugly Duckling.

THX1138 and Seconds are both stories with roots in business and ecconomics.

A Boy And His Dog is a twisted Romance story - or at the very least, a Buddy Story.

If you strip away all the dressing (all the what if this happened in a spaceship, or wherever) and look at the core of the story you are likely to find its roots.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Ludon: Yes indeed, you can tell any kind of story in science fiction. Which is why I was suggesting it wasn't about telling one kind of story. Yes it relies on "what if". But when you get to where you're defining 2001 as a coming of age story you've left the path of useful comparison. It is a coming of age story, but it's a fundamentally different one than it could be if it wasn't SF. You couldn't take the monolith and the spaceships out and have the same story.
Nancy Lebovitz
16. NancyLebovitz
What do you gain by stripping away the setting, when the setting is a lot of what supplies the unique pleasure of the story?

The Swiss Family Robinson is about a family shipwrecked on an island. It wouldn't be the same story if they were reclaiming an abandoned chunk of city. There would probably be a distinct shortage of ostriches to ride.

You could view Star Maker as an unrequited love story, but you shouldn't.
Michael Burke
17. Ludon
Bluejo -

But when you get to where you're defining 2001 as a coming of age story you've left the path of useful comparison. It is a coming of age story, but it's a fundamentally different one than it could be if it wasn't SF. You couldn't take the monolith and the spaceships out and have the same story.

And that is the point that I'm trying to make. What if the entire Human Race was coming of age and what if they had to be in space to be recognized by the elder race(s) as being of age? The 'What if' is what sets Science Fiction apart as a genre.

Storytelling is basically lying - you are trying to get your readers to accept that people who didn't really exist did things that didn't really happen. To be successful, you have to follow the rules of the world in which the story is taking place. In most fiction that world is our real world. Therefore, you can't have a person walk from New York to London (without diving gear). However, the 'What if' in science fiction permits you to do just that. You could approach your story then your readers with this question "What if there were cities on the ocean floors and those cities were connected to each other and the surface by tunnels?" If your readers are willing to accept that 'What if,' then the stage is set for you to tell a far fetched story that couldn't possibly happen in the world around us today. The Chunnel (If they are still calling it that) connecting England with the rest of Europe could be the foundation upon which the readers anchor their acceptance of this 'What if.'

The spacecraft we see in 2001 didn't exist during the 60s but their designs were based on both existing Apollo technology and planned technology for the next ten to fifty years. People around the world were already aware of this technology because they had been following the Moon Race so accepting Kubric and Clarke's 'What if' was an easy task. The Monolith fits in with the UFO culture so that too was not that far of a stretch.
Michael Burke
18. Ludon
NancyLebovitz-

You are correct. Swiss Family Robinson would have been a different story if it had been set in an abandoned city. It was a different story when it was set on a spaceship in Lost In Space. But, in each case it was still a story of survival in isolation.

And, you also made my point.
What do you gain by stripping away the setting, when the setting is a lot of what supplies the unique pleasure of the story?

For the story to work, the reader is required to accept the 'What if this story takes place with . . . and in a place where . . .?" That requirement is not attached to stories like Domby And Son or Payton Place. As I just said to Bluejo, I believe that the 'What if' is what defines Science Fiction as a genre.
hapax
19. Nick Smale
Science Fiction, in my opinion, is defined by the emotion that it induces in the reader.

In this, it's akin to comedy, or tragedy, or horror. Comedy makes you laugh, tragedy makes to cry, horror makes you afraid... and science fiction makes you feel the less known (but nonetheless important and real) emotion that fans call sensawanda.

Sensawanda? That's "sense of wonder". It's that glorious "OMG!" jumping-up-a-quantum-level, top-of-your-skull-opening-up feeling you get when you realise what's really going on in a story, when the scales fall from your eyes and you get a little glimpse of the infinite...

(I suspect that sensawanda is the same leap-of-faith emotion that the religious feel when they read the fantasy story called The Bible.)

In terms of writerly craft, the feeling of sensawanda is created through the carefully controlled release of story information. It's exactly the same way a laugh is generated by the punchline of a joke. That's why comedy writers like Douglas Adams and Steven Moffat create such good SF - they're using the same writing skill set in both areas.
Kevin Maroney
20. womzilla
Musing, agreeing in part and dissenting in part, follows.

There's a strong case to be made that at the time of the creation of the genre of science fiction*, science fiction did appeal to a single moral--the valorization of "creative intelligence", usually in service to creating a better future.

*1926, by Hugo Gernsback, with the candlestick portable radio Amazing Stories in the conservatory United States.

But at the same time, many of the techniques of science fiction--which preexist sf as a genre--were practiced outside of sf, for instance in British non-genre sf landmarks by the Usual Canonical Suspects like Huxley, Stapledon, and Orwell, to very different morals. (Nineteen Eighty-Four is very much not the type of cautionary tale that evolved within the genre, which is one of the reasons, I believe, that Asimov detested it so.)

At the same same time, but in a very different direction, the trappings of genre sf were used to coat adventure stories in shiny sf drag, disregarding Gernback's original moral impetus. It's worth noting that the most canonical, most preserved works of the early period of sf fit nicely into that original moral, an idea studied at length in Rationalizing Genius, John Huntington's examination of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame vol. 1.

All of this, and series after series of backlash against the original moral of sf, have lead to a widening of the genre beyond that original moral, to the point that sf as a genre has incorporated many morals, many approaches. Mysteries are no longer "about" solving and punishing crime; the fracture within that genre is so clear that there are now recognized separate genera of "mystery" and "crime" fiction which share many features.

Within sf-the-communal-discussion, we think of these very different things as "subgenres" rather than genera in their own right. I think that one of the great unexplored stories of the history of sf is precisely the degree to which its commercial growth and success lead, in the 1980s, from what had been a unified, if fractuous, genre into a plethora of poorly recognized but separate fields which often were barely in contact with each other, let alone in dialog.
Evan Leatherwood
21. ELeatherwood
Michael Moorcock agrees with you, in Death is No Obstacle. He and his interviewer in that book agree that SF is an approach or a sensibility, rather than a genre. Therefore SF contains all genres refracted and changed.

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