Science Fiction and Fantasy 101: Thinking Academically About Genre

At ReaderCon this past month, I discussed the idea of introductory (100-200-level), intermediate (300-400-level), and advanced (500-700 level) texts in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres. I’ve thought about books as being 100-level for a while, but only in that conversation did I really flesh out the idea from 100-level to 700-level.

As background: At many colleges/universities in the USA, curricula are broken apart by school or department, and then by level.

  • 100-level courses tend to be surveys, covering basic aspects of a discipline, and serves as an introduction.
  • 100 through 400-level courses tend to be designed for undergraduate students
  • 500-700 level classes are designed for graduate students.

As an ex-academic (BA and MA, no PhD, for which my bank account is thankful), I think this 100-700 scale gives us a useful framework for describing different texts within any given genre, and the fact that different texts will tend to best serve different roles for different readers.

Most newcomers to the genre would be well-served by reading 100 and 200-level texts to start, while readers who have engaged with a genre for decades may prefer to read 400-level texts and up.

To illustrate, I’m going to use SF/F examples, since this is and I’m a SF/F guy.

100-200 level—Introductory Texts

These include survey works, which presume zero previous knowledge of a genre. These works serve to introduce common tropes (fantasy = feudal kingdoms, farmboy heroes, brave knights, wise old wizards, etc), story structures (the prophesied hero must take the McGuffin to the Place), and tones (epic fantasy’s elevated tone and archaic dialogue, urban fantasy’s wry wit and snarkiness).

This level would also include works that presume basic understanding of a genre’s major elements (tropes, story types, use of language, etc.), but are still fairly introductory in terms of how in-depth they get with the use of the genre’s distinctive qualities.

For years, I’ve talked about John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War as 101-level Science Fiction. It’s written in clean, straightforward prose, explains its speculative elements as it introduces them (the Brainpal™, the technology used with the volunteers to make them combat-ready, etc.). While it resonates with the work of Heinlein, I’d argue that more than being a child of Heinlein, it’s an updated successor, a Heinlein-esque text for the next generation, a new Science Fiction 101.

Other Examples:

  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is Steampunk 101.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir is Science Fiction 201—while largely very accessible and wide in its reach, The Martian includes a substantial amount of technical detail which is plot-essential.
  • Dirty Magic by Jaye Wells would be a Fantasy 201 (Introduction to Paranormal Crime Fiction).
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is Sword & Sorcery 101, with the subgenre updated for a more contemporary (and diverse) sensibility.


300-400 level—Core Genre Texts

Texts at this level delve deeply into one or more specific elements of the genre (a more sophisticated magic system, intricate sociological speculation based on a new technology, etc.), expecting the reader to have a solid grounding in order to get the most out of the text’s deep exploration of its topic. They’re the kind of everyday texts an experienced reader of the genre might get excited about, that investigate cool elements of a genre, bringing new ideas to them, without necessarily seeking to operate on a mind-blowing or genre-redefining level.

Some works at this level can be thought of as cross-listed as graduate texts, just as some colleges offer a 300/400 level version of a class and then a 500/600 graduate level version of the class. Most of the material is the same, but the depth of investigation and work expected of the student/reader is different.

N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods) would be 300 or 400-level fantasy. They require some grounding in kingdom-level fantasy, with succession conflicts, large-scale conflicts being resolved through court intrigue, massively-powered demigods who seem human, but are clearly not, a less-spelled-out magic system than many fantasy series, etc. These books may work best as a contrast to what has come before in the genre, rather than as introductory texts.

Ancillary Justice is 400/600-level Science Fiction. It can be read as ambitious Space Opera with interesting twists on familiar plots, delving into colonialism, artificial life (Breq is a spaceship, and yet she is no longer a spaceship). But keeping the gender identity and perception in the forefront, it becomes more like a 500-level graduate work, where the use of she/her/hers as the default pronoun casts the entire work in a more nuanced light for an advanced reader.

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley is a 400/600-level Fantasy text. On the one hand, it’s a sophisticated epic fantasy with complex interpersonal dynamics, interesting worldbuilding, and incredibly high stakes. It’s also even more than that—it’s a referendum on the tropes, biases, and blind spots of the genre, which makes it both an advanced 400-level text and a genre-challenging 600 level text, depending on how you’re reading it.


500-700-level—Graduate-level Texts

These are the kinds of books that get genre academics climbing the walls with excitement. They’re thoughtful, challenging, sometimes inaccessible texts by masters of the field working at a very high level. These are works that assume a deep and broad knowledge of the genre so that the reader can follow the work’s commentary on what has come before, be it allusion, parody, and/or moral refutation.

These books are capstone works that seek to challenge the fundamental assumptions of their genre. They’re master classes of technique and conceptual ambition, or calls to arms for a revolution in the genre. They tend to be very rare, and have a smaller readership when compared to the introductory texts.

Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryona series is graduate-level fantasy, as is Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Both rely on substantive pre-existing knowledge of their respective genres, and work at a very high level, both language and concept-wise.

Many of China Mieville’s books are 500-level, if not 600-700 (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, Embassytown). They combine Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Pulp. Their structures directly refute the tradition set down by The Lord of the Rings, instead looking to the New Wave and all the way back to the Weird of Gormenghast and similar works. Mieville’s works are filled with elevated, muscular prose and incredible conceptual richness, sometimes to the point of opacity. They’re very much books for people who have read a lot of SF/F and are looking for something new.


So, what does this all mean? And how can this be useful for us as readers, as members of the SF/F community?

As someone who’s been in the SF/F community as a reader for almost my whole life, and as a scholar and/or professional for going on ten years, I think it’s important to remember that different texts can be more or less useful and powerful for readers at different points in their reading history. We will always need new 100-level texts to help bring readers into the genre.

The SF/F 101 books of the 1940s and 1950s are not likely to be as accessible to 21st century readers. Especially readers from diverse backgrounds looking for themselves in the genre. We cannot keep pointing people at Heinlein, Asimov, Brooks, and Tolkien forever and expect those works to resonate as strongly with people born fifty years after the books were written.

It’s frequently said that Science Fiction is more about the time in which it was written than about the future. And so, just like we update textbooks, we need to update our genre curriculum, as readers and as writers. Authors like Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley, Max Gladstone, China Mieville, and others are pushing the genre forward, from representation to concept-work to worldbuilding and beyond.

In terms of the field as a whole, we’re likely to see more 100 and 200 level texts than 300-400, and more of those than 500-700-level. Some readers, the most voracious and/or academically-inclined, are going to scale the curriculum pyramid and spend a lot of time talking about what’s at the very top, the narrow point of the genre that scrapes the sky. But it’s critical for the genre’s future that we keep that the base of the pyramid, those first few steps up into the genre community, well-maintained, and replace them with new stepping stones as time goes on.

For every generation of readers, we need new 100-level texts, presumably written by the generation of writers that grew up with the last set of 100-level texts, and are updating, re-imagining the genre with their own perspective. 100-level texts never stop being important, as they serve as the entry points to new readers, and so it’s good for veteran readers to keep updated with the new introductory texts.

Each step up the pyramid, from the wide base to the narrow point, each level of intertextuality and orientation of focus, each part of the genre conversation is important, but let’s never forget what it was like to read those first few science fiction and fantasy books, to have our minds opened to worlds of wonder, with dragons and magic and lasers and spaceships. That sense of wonder, that desire to imagine a world other than the one around us, is what makes the SF/F field so powerful, and we have to make sure that we continue to be inviting, not insular, not elitist, and to make everyone feel welcome, so that the conversation can be enriched and made new over and over again.


Michael R. Underwood is the author of the Geekomancy series. He also has two new novels, Shield and Crocus and The Younger Gods, publishing in 2014. If he survives to the end of this year, he will have earned a party. He lives in Baltimore with his fiancé, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. You can find him on Twitter @MikeRUnderwood.


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