Guest Post by Karl Gallagher: Genre and Emotion

Friday , 10, February 2017 17 Comments

Jeffro’s Appendix N crusade is smashing the idols of the SF establishment and chasing off their high priests, to the joy of readers discovering forgotten works. But one of the idols being smashed is John Campbell, founder of hard SF, and his Big Three writers. As Jesse Lucas said, there’s some irony in that: “Note the recent spate of articles critical of Campbellian SF, with a Submissions page on the same site that calls for a return of Campbellian SF.” Let’s take a look at what’s we’re really disagreeing about in the conflict between Pulp and Campbellian SF.


“Pulp SF” and “Campbellian SF” are genres, or sub-genres, of SF. But what is a genre? There’s some reductionist definitions—“Just tells the bookstore where to shelve it” or “X is whatever a X editor buys”—but putting a genre label on a story does mean something. It tells the reader what kind of story to expect.

Specifically, the label tells readers what emotional experience the story will give them.¹ For some genres this is obvious. Romance provides a taste of love, horror fear. Thrillers are exciting. A mystery provides the satisfaction of seeing justice done. A Western does as well, this time outside of the framework of law. Action novels give the joy of seeing someone deservedly shot or pummeled. Military stories have that with the added feeling of brotherhood in a unit.

Those are mostly positive emotions. “Mainstream literature” focuses on negative ones: Shame, envy, jealousy, loneliness, fearing the loss of relationship or position. There’s a reason people complain about it being depressing. That’s the effect it’s trying to produce.

The borders among these are rarely neat. Authors will mix genre, or bring in a flavor of another in a book that’s focused on one. The traditional mix is adding a romantic subplot in anything else. And romances have been known to have mystery or adventure subplots to give the couple something to do before the inevitable.

Our Sub-Genres

So what are the emotions of the genres discussed here? Pulp fiction and fantasy provide the feeling of heroism², often with a bit of romance mixed in. The Campbellian or “hard science fiction” emotion is harder to describe. It’s referred to as “sense of wonder” or “conceptual breakthrough,” defined as “having understood the universe in a new and larger way.”³ Another way to look at it is the sensation of having a new idea.

This isn’t limited to hard science fiction. Let me present an example from a fantasy novel, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.⁴ That novel tackles two questions I’d never seen addressed before:

What does the Tooth Fairy want with all those teeth?

Why do parents encourage children to believe in the Tooth Fairy?

It provides answers that are both new and so obvious that it’s amazing no one presented them before. [SPOILER: The Tooth Fairy holds the teeth so they can’t be used in magic the way hair and nail clippings are used to make voodoo dolls. Meanwhile, parents teach about the Tooth Fairy as preparation for believing in harder abstract concepts such as justice and mercy. This is presented in an adventure plot where a villain steals the teeth to make children stop believing in the Hogfather (Santa Claus), at the behest of greater villains who want to eliminate all creatures capable of thinking of abstractions from the universe.]

That’s sense of wonder. John Campbell wanted it, found authors who could provide it, and cultivated an audience who sought it out.

Since then the New Wave and later ‘Pink SF’ / ‘Gray Goo’ writers have been creating stories with the same emotional impacts as mainstream literature. Dangerous Visions tried to shock and scare (21st Century readers will find it less horrifying than the daily news). “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” delivers shame. “Lady Astronaut of Mars” has despair. These authors don’t want heroism or sense of wonder. They want mainstream stories in alternate settings.

Weird fiction probably has a different impact on readers than the above, but I don’t know the genre well enough to verbalize it. Readers are welcome to comment with their definition.

Why Do We Fight About It?

The initial fight between the pulps and Campbellian sense-of-wonder was driven by the same thing that starts so many wars: resources. The market could only support so many magazines, there were only so many readers, and people competed for them by attacking their rivals.

Some of that drives the current in-fighting. Even with unlimited server space at Amazon, there’s only so many readers, awards, and best-seller slots. But a big part of it is competition over expectations.

When you start reading a story that was promised to you as providing one experience and you get an entirely different you can be angry. I posted a rant about “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” because I expected “sense of wonder” SF and found an almost-mainstream piece full of shame.⁵ Someone wanting a heroic adventure only to get an idea piece is going to be just as angry (Possibly including readers of this essay who were offered a violent metaphor as a hook and then received only a category analysis).

So we’re fighting over ownership of the labels, the themes, the meaning of cover art. If there’s a rocketship on the cover are you going to wind up reading about men braving new worlds, ideas about space travel, or abandoning a lifeless Earth? This is a real fight, and there’s no easy resolution.

The worst part of the fight is that those sub-genres closest to each other wind up with nastier combat. They’re competing for similar symbols and the same readers, because there’s overlaps in the stories. Not always—but there’s Heinlein stories with brave men fighting and Pratchett ones with new ideas.

Do We Have to Fight?

Probably. We’re fallen creatures. And there’s always going to be some symbol being competed for.

But we don’t have to be vicious about it. Arguing stories about is good. Attacking authors, less so. And the best outcome is teach authors to create stories that incorporate the best of multiple sub-genres, and encourage readers to try the best of other niches.

Remember that Pulp SF, Campbellian SF, and heroic fantasy are all closer to each other than they are to the grey goo stories invading SF from the mainstream. So let’s fight like brothers, not strangers.

Karl K. Gallagher is the author of Torchship, Torchship Pilot, and the upcoming Torchship Captain: hard SF stories with sense of wonder, heroic battles, and a touch of romance, available on Amazon and Audible.

1. For how to produce an emotional effect in your story, I recommend starting with Dave Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines.
2. Credit for this insight to Alpheus,
3. Credit for that term to ESR, “Why the deep norms of the SF genre matter,”
4. The book and movie are equally good.

  • Gaiseric says:

    And how do brothers fight? Sometimes viciously if my own experience with my own brothers and with my own sons is any experience. But when anyone ELSE steps in, we instantly abandon our rancor and form up ranks as one against the interloper. We may not always agree, but we’re always united against the rest of the world!

    Neo-Campbellian hard sci-fi and neo-sword & sorcery may argue between themselves, but are completely united in the fact that they detest gray goo pink sci-fi and that it must be defeated in favor of a superversive element that people WANT TO READ.

  • Lela E. Buis says:

    Good analysis. I’d love to find an updated version of turn of the 20th century adventure SF/fantasy. I also agree that the infighting needs to cool down. It’s time for moderates to speak up on the issues.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      Shuyler Hernstrom is a great starting point. Also look for the Stolen Future Trilogy by Brian K. Lowe – it’s got that 20th century man flung into a strange new world vibe and something about just feels like it would have fit right in on the pages of Planet Stories.

  • Rod Walker says:

    Rod Walker thinks this assessment is correct. The key issue is genre expectations. Writers argue endlessly over genres, but genres are mostly a tool for indicating to the reader what kind of story awaits within the book.

    It is interesting to note that this happens outside of SF/F as well. Apparently the best way for a romance novel to fail is for it to be classified as the wrong kind of romance – a “cozy” romance where the protagonist commits suicide at the end, for example.

  • Dave says:

    Nice to see Mr. Gallagher posting on the Castalia House Blog. Read TORCHSHIP after seeing Alex’s interview and Jeffro’s review last year and then TORCHSHIP PILOT when that came out. Will be counting down to the next release. Hope to see more posts by Mr. Gallagher and no, I’m not angry at the category analysis.

  • Jasyn Jones says:

    Campbell’s revolution wasn’t about sense of wonder. The genre already had that—witness Barsoom. It was about elevating scientific accuracy and sparse, trimmed down prose above heroics, adventure, and “purple prose”.

    Campbell himself had good motivations (the Futurians less so)—he was genuinely trying to inspire people towards careers in sciences and engineering—but he failed. Technical accuracy didn’t inspire people as much as stories of heroics and adventure did.

    Campbell and his contemporaries and successors have had 70 years of propagandizing against the Pulps, 70 years of portraying them as inferior and worthless. If Pulp advocates say “Campbellian SF is better than the New Wave and later efforts, but inferior to the Pulps”, well then he’ll just have to suck it up.

    By trying to banish the Pulps, by enforcing a foolish Hard->Soft gradation of scientific accuracy as the primary measure of worth of a tale, and by trying to split F&SF into mutually hostile and opposite subgenres, he did damage to F&SF, damage that lasts till today.

    It’s time to set the record straight, and begin repairing that damage. It’s time to recognize that, while many Campbellian tales were excellent and worthy, the critical frame of Hard->Soft is a useless metric to judge SF stories by, and the artificial wall between Fantasy and Science Fiction does nothing for “sense of wonder”.

    Writers need to free themselves of the Campbellian critical framework. They need to free their imaginations. Scientific accuracy is fine as one potential element of an F&SF tale, but it is not the primary gauge of excellence or worth.

    Stories that move, that inspire, that thrill are what matters, not whether or not a particular tale has managed to conceptualize a drive system that plausibly evades the restrictions of the Speed of Light vis a vis traveling in time. Catering to a small fraction of the audience failed F&SF, and we can do better.

    We can write better stories. More moving stories. Stories that cater to a wider audience than Campbell and successors reached. We can beat Blue SF and Pink SF at this game.

    And we should.

    • John W Campbell died before most readers of this site was born. I’m confident he doesn’t care about our arguments.

      Having stories that fit reality matters to many readers, including me and other tech types who’ve been inspired by Heinlein and the other Campbellian authors. When an author makes up “facts” that were disproved by Isaac Newton (8th & 9th ray, seriously?), that throws us out of the story. I can still enjoy some of them but I’d rather have a story that adds to my understanding of the universe.

      Campbell succeeded in inspiring future rocketeers. Read a book about a rocket company and see which books the rocket engineers mention. Heinlein tops the list, followed by Anderson, Asimov, Niven.

      I’m all for seeing more pulp stories. But don’t tear down the fans who want technical accuracy. We need to stand together. After all, both audiences together are tiny next to the romance readers.

      • Man of the Atom says:

        “Karl Gallagher says: When an author makes up ‘facts’ that were disproved by Isaac Newton (8th & 9th ray, seriously?)”

        Speak for yourself. Multi-decade hard scientist here who would take Barsoom over most Futurian “scientific accuracy” oatmeal in a heartbeat.

        Can I have both? Ok, I’ll take it! Choose? Science loses by a parsec.

        I’ve got bookshelves of science and math texts if I want “scientific accuracy” in a book.

        SF&F is Entertainment. If “Science” can’t entertain me within SF&F, then that book hits the trash.

      • Nathan says:

        For the works that he found, Campbell can be praised. For being the indefensible man of American SF, he can be honored – SF has never truly had a vision since his death. For ghettoizing American science fiction from weird fiction and the traditions of world science fiction, limiting the audience, and taking a leap towards the elimination of wonder in both science fiction and fantasy, he can be cursed.

        Campbell was the tastes of New York fandom imposing its tastes on American science fiction. It essentially ghettoized American science fiction from the rest of the world in thought. There is and always will be room in classic science fiction for hard SF like Campbell. Unfortunately, Campbell and the New York clique abused their gatekeeper positions to run out anything but met their tastes. Even Campbelline writers in hindsight wonder what other science fictions were discarded because they weren’t written by the Campbell crowd.

      • JD Cowan says:

        “When an author makes up “facts” that were disproved by Isaac Newton (8th & 9th ray, seriously?), that throws us out of the story.”

        That’s fine for you, but I really don’t care about it, just as I didn’t care how John Carter got to Mars.

        It’s all fantasy at the end of the day. As long as the writer is consistent in his own universe and does it well then I’m satiated.

        • PCBushi says:

          To this and to Man of the Atom — I think Karl *was* speaking for himself.

          The point is, there’s room for both. We don’t have to choose. Some people enjoy hard and soft SF. Some people enjoy only one, or one more than the other. And all that is fine. There’s no accounting for taste!

          I mean sure, anyone who wants to rip Campbell or tear down “Men with Screwdriver” SF is free to do so. Just doesn’t seem productive to some of us.

          As someone who’s only relatively recently gotten into the pulp stuff, I love it. But that hasn’t diminished my love of the stuff I already enjoyed, like Asmiov’s Foundation trilogy. Doesn’t really make any sense for me to get defensive when I read people ripping on it, but it still happens. I think it’s natural to become a little defensive of the things that you like. But ultimately, as Karl says, we’re on the same side here.

  • I am going to have to disagree with your characterization of New Wave, and also with your thesis that modern “mainstream” SF grew out of the New Wave movement.

    I see New Wave as a reaction against what Jasyn describes as “elevating scientific accuracy and sparse, trimmed down prose above heroics, adventure, and ‘purple prose’.”

    New Wave was an attempt to recapture the emotional impact of the pre-Campbellian Weird Tale. It broke down the walls between genres and deliberately invoked taboo subjects. The best of the New Wave–novels such as Fritz Leiber’s “You’re All Alone” or Philip Dick’s “VALIS”–have an impact that lasts long after the reader has finished the last page. They were intended to shake people up, to unsettle them.

    Modern genre fiction, on the other hand, seems to me to be designed to confirm the reader’s expectations. A story like “Cat Pictures Please” is written to tell the audience that they are right in their beliefs and prejudices, which is why it utterly fails to reach an audience that isn’t already in agreement with the author.

    Compare that to, say, Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” from Dangerous Visions, which set out to show how ideas that it could be assumed the audience would be in agreement with could yield uncomfortable consequences.

    • You’re right that New Wave is a different movement from the modern gray goo stories. I’m bucketing them together only because they are going for negative emotional impacts. I’ll confess to not having a good grasp of the weird fiction genre.

      “The Jigsaw Man” was always my favorite DV story. It stands up much better than the rest of the volume.

    • cirsova says:

      Some of the new wave gets a bad rap, but there were a lot that were utter celebrations of the pulps and what they had to offer. Farmer’s Maker of Universes was absolutely a love letter to Burroughs.

  • While I don’t disagree, especially about the New Wave, which I hold responsible for the “death” of sci-fi (at the same time that sci-fi books died because of the trick/unexpected ending, sci-fi movies and games took off because they maintained, for the most part, the positive endings), I submit for your consideration, that genre is about setting and endings/expectations.

    Speculative fiction is defined by setting. The setting is contrary to reality. In Fantasy it involves magic. In sci-fi it usually means some extrapolation of science. The further we extrapolate, the more we get away from hard SF and towards soft (like my personal favorite, space opera). Alt history and time travel are more ‘magical’ but still solidly in the spec fiction genre because the setting is contrary to reality, even though that involves a ‘historical’ reality that wasn’t.

    Fantasy outsells sci-fi and I think that’s because readers know what to expect. They don’t pick up a book expecting to be depressed and go off in search of razor blades. If they pick up a dark fantasy, then they usually know it. But since sci-fi has no prescribed outcome thanks to the New Wave writers who killed the “good guys win” endings, sci-fi readers flock to writers, not the genre. Those who seek out positive endings owe their allegiance to writers who deliver them. It becomes, more and more about meeting reader expectations.

    As far as emotion goes, I’d posit that at least part of what you’re saying is actually about narrative distance. While I enjoy idea stories and the sense of wonder and discovery, I am desperate for stories where those expectations are met through characters, not authors vomiting info dumps on the page. If I want those, I’ll go read a journal or non-fiction article.

    To illustrate how important reader expectations are, I point out Romance. This is big “R” romance, where the ending is prescribed. That ending is HEA (Happily Ever After) or HEAFN (HEA for now). Readers want to know what they’re getting.

    I submit that readers want positive endings, heroic characters, the good guys winning, the bad guys losing. No whiny, depressed losers emoting all over the page. I want to see sci-fi get back to that.

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