There is no SF – only Zuul

Thursday , 30, March 2017 35 Comments

I’m not particularly interested in joining the recent brouhaha over genre, but it seems to me that there’s an elephant in the room that I need to point out.

This may seem like a strange thing for a science fiction fan to say, but if we’re honest there’s no such thing as science fiction.

OK, now that I have the shocking revelation out of the way I suppose I should explain where I’m coming from, what led me to this idea, why it’s not quite what it seems, and why I’m starting to take it seriously.

To begin the story, let’s go back – waaay back – to 1851.

In this year, a little book with an outrageously long title was published in London by Darton & Co. – A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old SubjectWith the Story of the Poet Lover by the poet and critic William Wilson, who had earned himself some notoriety in Hood’s Magazine[1] and in a few previous volumes of literary commentary. Much of Wilson’s work is of limited interest for discussion here, but in chapter 10 Wilson neatly coins the term “Science-Fiction” right in the opening paragraph[2] – and provides us with this mission-statement for it in the second:

“Campbell [not John Campbell of SF fame] says that “Fiction in Poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanting resemblance.” Now this applies especially so to Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true – thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life. The influences of Science inter-penetrate the whole Earth, breathing eloquently through the framework of Creation.” (emphasis added)

He goes on in his discussion of the wonders of science, remarking that “the Magnetic Needle…has more magic about its reality, than the wildest creations of child-fiction have in their ideality” and otherwise bubbling enthusiastically about both the emerging technologies of the future and the place fiction has in acquainting the public with them.

If this sounds familiar, hang on to your hat while we fast forward to 1926.

Wilson’s term didn’t really catch on, though the idea did – at least among authors such as Jules Verne and Herbert Welles, to name just two of the best known. In fact, by the end of the 19th Century science fiction was firmly ensconced as an admittedly vague marketing category with a sizable oeuvre accumulated: between Wilson’s declaration of Richard Horne’s The Poor Artist as the first science fiction story[3] and the end of the century at least one major science fiction story or novel was published in English – with significant bumps around the publication of The Battle of Dorking and The Coming Race in the early 1870s, followed by a steady increase through to the end of the century with the popularity of Verne, Wells, and their imitators.

Enter Hugo Gernsback:

Gernsback was a great enthusiast of the promise of a scientific future. He was both an inventor and a writer of “extravagant fiction” and frequently graced the pages of his own magazine The Electrical Experimenter not only with factual articles and editorials but with his own creative work.  In one of his essays here in 1916, he urged his readers to take up their pens and produce their own “extravagant fiction” – brushing off the term science fiction when he was at it.

When Gernsback came fresh from rescuing the emerging amateur radio community from being regulated out of existence to try the same trick with science in 1926, he brought the term science fiction with him, and his own variant – scientifiction.

Again, the term didn’t really catch on outside the minuscule fandom[4], but some of the ideas did: notably the concept that the place of science fiction was as a vehicle for teaching science and breeding enthusiasm for the future. These utopian concepts were snagged by the Futurians – a group of authors and critics (but mostly fans – the oldest of the first Futurians was in his early 20s at the time) who wanted the science fiction community to join them in building the inevitable scientific-socialist utopia of the future.

Needless to say, they got short shrift[5] from fandom in general, but the ideas had legs and they got built into the emerging “hard science fiction” (no lets not rehash that argument please) market that was emerging with Campbell at the reins of Astounding Science Fiction and the stable of familiar names who were writing stories for him.

This is where we start to really see science fiction emerge as a term for a distinct genre, not so much because of clear differences between these stories and the other material being produced at the time (planetary romances, weird tales, science and sorcery, space opera with the Flash Gordon vibe) but as a marketing category: it was now clear that there really was a market for stories that did what Gernsback (and Wilson) wanted, and the industry – newly expanding into the fresh sales categories of inexpensive pocket-sized paperbacks – was eager to supply.

You can even see the effect if you want: Google’s ngram viewer[6] shows the curve for the frequency of the use of “science fiction” in their database of digitized texts:

None of the common terms for genre are particularly common until science fiction starts to take off in the early 1940s – it sees healthy growth right up until 1960, and then – WHAM – it explodes![7] Is it a coincidence that this explosion of awareness of “science fiction” as a category coincides with the era in which publishing was consolidating, bookstore franchises were growing, and the value of systematizing the way books were marketed was understood, the approach applied? It’s certainly not a coincidence that it coincides with Donald Wollheim’s masterful application of new printing options to both revitalize old, beloved classics and discover a bevy of amazing new authors while editor for Avon and Ace, and later with his own imprint at DAW.

It’s notable as well that this era saw a huge growth in the big publishers, and the consolidation of the industry into just a few big houses: the industrialization of the industry is what drove the classification, and at the same time it set up standards and definitions that – while they shifted over time – nevertheless restricted what could qualify as “science fiction”, and since the commercial big-business publishing model implicitly involves gatekeepers the result was that now instead of the readers inventing terms to describe and sort what they were reading, the publishers – and the book-stores – were sorting things for them and telling them what was science fiction and what was not.

This is why I am coming to think there is no such thing as science fiction – not really. Oh, there are stories that draw on science – some lightly, just hinting at technologies like a magician hints at mystic powers, some relying heavily on hard-core science and engineering to make the plot even make sense. There is a science fiction out there in the pages, but the term science fiction as we’ve come to understand it is a marketing category, not a literary genre. That’s why when you ask 10 people to define science fiction you get at least 11 answers. That’s why when you come upon old stories from the pulp era and beyond that are clearly scientific your mind sometimes stumbles on the term.

I believe in what Gernsback quaintly termed “extravagant fiction”, I believe in “scientific romances”, and in “the fairy tales of science”[8] – but science fiction?

It exists well enough, but it’s been taken over by box store librarians and the sorting algorithms of a certain online retailer. To be “science fiction” is to meet rules laid down by Campbell’s era regarding technology and rockets and hard, cold facts. But it bears remembering that – unlike other genres – “science fiction” as it is understood today is really defined in negative terms: ie a story is not science fiction if it contains X. There are obviously positive criteria as well, but many of them are common to other genres – the real dividing line is The Guardians of Not. Their demands have possessed the gatekeepers in the publishing industry so that only things that meet these specifications have much chance of getting through as “science fiction” these days.

But maybe the new era has just the right capabilities to reverse the ghettoization trend – if we have the will to apply them. You see, the big mistake is in thinking of genre as a set of boxes in which to file books. This thinking comes from the limited shelf-space of a brick and mortar store and the demands of marketing.

The truth is that we were right the first time around: genres aren’t boxes – they’re tags.

There’s nothing stopping a story from being science fiction, and fantasy, and a gumshoe detective story, and an action adventure story at the same time.

The same has happened to other streams of what was once a whole genre of course – fantasy, mystery, horror – they’ve all been relegated to strict marketing categories, and god forbid you cross these streams in a single story.

But here’s the secret: the marketing and sales giants that actually deliver the stories into our hot little hands have sold us a bill of goods. They’re not the gatekeepers – we are. The readers.

And as the masters of our own sense of genre, we get to cross the streams.

We get to decide what science fiction is and is not, and while that might well lead to as many definitions as there are readers the genre will be the richer for it. It may lead to things being both science fiction and something else, something normally shelved in a very different part of the store.

Just imagine what we might create, if only we have the courage to go beyond genre!


[1] A curious publication that wasn’t particularly successful (only 61 issues) but which combined humorous essays on topics of common interest in the middle classes (politics, philosophy, art reviews) with poetry, original fiction (particularly satire) and other material. It could be argued that Hood’s and Punch triggered the explosion of mass-market periodicals in the US in the 1860s which ultimately gave birth to the pulps – and thus to the genre we know and love!

[2] Though it’s possible he’s not the originator – the casual way in which he throws the term out in the opening paragraph suggests he felt it might be familiar to his readers – but then, this follows on his essay in chapter 9 on the poetry of science; perhaps he simply felt it was too obvious to explain.

[3] Interestingly eliding Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the reason for this will become clear.

[4] And it should be remembered that while organized fandom was small and new, magazines like Weird Tales and Argosy had impressive readerships with broad demographics – as demonstrated by letters sections that featured commentary from readers ranging from teenagers to grandmothers!

[5] Remember: Wollheim and Michel’s manifesto was delivered in 1937 – things were getting ugly in Russia, the Spanish Civil War was getting bad press, and the world was becoming alarmed by events in Germany. It wasn’t exactly a good time to be selling anything labelled “socialism” in the US. Of course, 1937 is also the year Ronald Reagan did the screen test that launched his career. Make of that what you will.

[6] An amusing name for the tool, given the subject matter!

[7] As an aside, I would love to know what causes the decade-long dip in the 1980s. I have my suspicions, but I’ll not air them here.

[8] Tennyson used the phrase in his poem Locksley Hall, alluding to the theories of his time, as well as hinting at the next lines where he considers the wonders of the future, and Wilson referred to it in his Little Earnest Book. John Cargill Brough used it as the title of his primer on science for children, published in 1859. But for me the phrase definitely evokes the idea of speculative fiction – both the scientific and the purely fantastic.

  • Jasyn Jones says:



  • Jasyn Jones says:

    Folks, THIS is what living inside a revolution looks like.

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    Bravo. Exactly so.

  • Anthony says:

    Good stuff! Really interesting.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “Now this applies especially so to Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true – thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life.”


    “interwoven with a pleasing story”


    “Hello Mr Clarke, That Childhoods End novel you got there. Terrible if something were to happen to it.”

  • Jon Mollison says:

    And perfect timing, too. Bravo.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    Thanks for the kind words fellas. Glad it turned out timely – I’ve been sitting on that one for months!

  • Frisky says:

    Good piece.

    I’m a bit skeptical about the democratic power of social media and on-line retailers, though. I think that an increased ghettoization (or, at least, an increase in literary subcultures -which is something I approve, by the way-) will be more likely than this genre cross-pollination. Authors will start using more and more specific, sometimes ad hoc, genres and labels to describe their works and to talk to their fans and how what they write is different from Sub-Genre of Sci-Fi #345.

    Still, this is about labels, not content, so I don’t think it’s a critical issue and people will keep gaming them (the labels) to maximize their exposure.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      It’s not so much democratic power I’m advocating as a reframing of the function of “genre” as a sorting tool.

      We absolutely need ways to connect readers with the books they want to read.

      But the conception of genre we’re working with is rooted in assumptions that are no longer true: essentially the physical limitation on shelf space in a B&M shop or a library, and the inability of a book to be displayed in more than one location at a time. This is still true for physical shops with physical books, but in a digital marketplace?

      There’s no reason a book can’t exist in more than one place at a time.

      To some extent digital marketplaces already achieve this, but:

      First, while the publisher has control over which categories a book appears in the *reader* can really only find one genre at a time. This is because the search features are still wedded to the “limited library shelves” model of genre.

      Second, while you can tell [insert digital marketing giant] to display your book in both fantasy and SF categories, what you can’t really do is tell them *how* fantasy-like it is, the categories are black and white.

      You’re right – no matter what kind of sorting we use people will game it to get their book in front of possible buyers, even if it’s maybe not completely appropriate.

      But what if we embrace the idea that books and stories can really be multiple things at the same time, Shroedinger-like, and make publishers *say* just how much of one thing or another their book is, so that it’s *more* present on the SF shelf and less on the fantasy one. Then we let *readers* search for books with priorities: I want something mainly SF but I want a cup of gumshoe as well, and maybe a dash of fantasy.

      That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about, not a free-for-all, but a recognition that without the physical limitations we can let genre categories go back to being *tags* instead of boxes. And even better, we can leverage modern technology to make those tags more or less influential as appropriate.

      And all to get the story you want in front of you.

      • Jesse Lucas says:

        I think it’s more likely that rather than increased or decreased ghettoization we’ll see more personality-based marketing, which is how word of mouth has always worked anyway. Authors will recommend their friends, readers who follow authors will read authors’ friends and recommend to their friends, and so on.

        So not exactly a democratization, because he who shouts loudest will still sell most, but it will be a… flattening? An intensification of how books are already sold.

      • Dedicating Ruckus says:

        Purely as an anecdote, I find that I’ve discovered 90% of the new content I’ve read over the past several years via either 1. recommendations directly from others, either via critical outlets like the PulpRev/Superversive/Puppy blogs or online platforms’ ubiquitous “My Favorites” listings, or 2. network-based similarity indexes, like Amazon’s “books like this” popup. Neither need to have much to do with genre.

        Both are also existentially dependent on the new paradigms in communication enabled by the Internet. So it could well be that “genre” as a necessary categorization is in the process of dying out, replaced by more sophisticated means of organization that are only possible when communication is of ~0 cost.

        • Kevyn Winkless says:

          No, genre is still being used in both cases: your word of mouth network recommends things based on genre similarities, the digital marketplaces use genre tags in their algorithms. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with *genre* per se – we need some way to identify books by similarity after all – but there is a tendency in some circles to use genre as an exclusionary purity test. “That’s not really SF because it has wizards” or “That’s not fantasy because the heroes have high tech tools”. My point is really a trivial one that most people already feel to some degree (it’s why we argue about genre at all): Those wizards on a 5 year mission? It IS fantasy – wizards after all – but it’s ALSO SF.

          We realise this, but the reality of how genre has evolved over generations of marketing is that there is ALSO a compulsion to try to figure out which shelf a book should be displayed on – despite the fact it’s not really necessary anymore. Not such a huge problem when we’re talking about fantasy and science fiction I suppose – since they’re often shelved together anyway – but what about crossovers to other “genres”? Should something like Dresden Files be stacked only in fantasy because: wizards? Or does it make sense for it to be stacked with gumshoe detectives as well? The new tools make it possible for the book to exist in both places at once – perhaps existing MORE on the fantasy shelf than the gumshoe one. But we haven’t really taken advantage of this feature of digital marketing yet.

  • Gaiseric says:

    Although Amazon has taken the first step in the opposite direction, by saying that if a book is a romance it is ONLY a romance and should not be tagged with any other genre.

    Which I approve of. So… I guess, it’s complicated.

  • Blume says:

    I am with you on the uber genre idea but I think everyone always has been. I have never been in a library or book store that had a different scifi section separate from it’s fantasy section. They have always been scifi/fantasy sections or university libraries that just had fiction period.

  • deuce says:

    Well done, Mr. Winkless! The ship was beginning to yaw just a bit, but now we’re back on course.

  • Is ‘short thrift’ a typo? A condemned felon was shriven before he died, that is, allowed the sacrament of confession, and if the guards were unsympathetic, they would give the man but a short time to do it, a short shrift. Thrift refers to prudence with money.

    An interesting essay, but it argues a point not in dispute, at least as far as I know. Is there anyone who claims that a science fiction story cannot also be a detective story? Asimov and Niven wrote plenty. Science fiction romances? Too many to mention. Science fiction horror? Lovecraft and his whole subgenre.

    Since, like fantasy, science fiction describes only setting, I would argue that each story must be a member of at least one other genre, usually adventure, mystery or horror, in order to be a story.

    I suggest that the breakdown of the gatekeepers already happened with the rise in popularity of Star Wars and Japanese Anime – the first is pure pulp in the fashion of Flash Gordon, and the second pays no mind to American genres.

    Also, superhero comics were once only kkds stuff, not the source of major blockbuster movies–and supers routinely ignore genre bounds, and put Dr.Strange, Iron Fist, Hulk and Ant Man in the same comic, even thougn they are denizens of fantasy, kung fu film, horror, and science fiction.

    I think the gatekeepers began to crumble in the 1980s and 90s.

    • deuce says:

      Indeed. “Shrift” is to “shrive” as “thrift” is to “thrive”.

    • Midnight Avenue J says:

      Thank you, was wondering same.

    • Dedicating Ruckus says:

      > I think the gatekeepers began to crumble in the 1980s and 90s.

      It seems to me there are two distinct stages here: Star Wars became popular as a Hollywood movie, which have separate production/distribution mechanisms from SF literature, and anime originally (and still, to a great extent) was passed around by samizdat-style mechanisms (torrents, copied VHS tapes) which only became technologically available after the 80s or so. Both ended up kind of end-running the gatekeepers of SF literature publication. Meanwhile, those gatekeepers themselves began to lose their power in the ’00s, with indy publishing and Amazon becoming viable means of distribution.

      Does this sound right? I don’t have a sense for what the SF movie landscape was like before Star Wars; was there a distinct set of gatekeepers there?

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      You are correct of course – a typo, now fixed. Thank you for pointing it out.

      You’re also right of course that the overlap of genres isn’t an innovation, but your examples are perfect: when was the last time we saw Niven’s Gil Hamilton stories shelved with the detective books?

      I don’t think anyone really disputes that a book can in fact be 2 or more genres at the same time – though there *are* purists who try to enhance their sense of legitimacy by advocating strict, exclusionary definitions. But the physical realities of book-selling have imposed a framework that insists a book can only be in one place at a time. This, I think, both hampers discovery by readers AND has a tendency to drive a lot of published work into ever tightening spirals around the ur-genres used by marketers.

      The best writing of course is not harmed: the author writes a story and *then* decides what it turned out to be, so as to get it in front of interested readers. But many stories also start with the author thinking “I’ll write a science fiction story” – because he or she thinks that’s where a sale can be had, and (it is rumoured) writers need to eat.

      But shelf space is no longer limited, and stories can exist in a “superstate” where they exist simultaneously on multiple shelves, perhaps manifesting more strongly on some than on others.

      I don’t think we’ve really embraced the implications of this in terms of delivering books from writers to readers, and I think the box-like genres of the past still constrain many readers’ opportunities for discovery.

      • “When was the last time we saw Niven’s Gil Hamilton stories shelved with the detective books?”

        You make a good point; I stand corrected. Science Fiction and fantasy, unlike any other genre, requires the reader to enter into another world. The muggle reader cannot enjoy such an exercise: his imagination flags.

        What is funny is that Science Fiction and Fantasy are in the same tradition as Dante, Homer, and all ancient poets and medieval tales of marvels and other worlds. It is the moderns, the muggles, and the unimaginative so called Literati who are cut off from the strong roots of literature, and read a dumbed-down, dulled-down sub genre.

        Mainstream so called realistic literature is actually the side-stream. SFF is mainstream.

  • “genres aren’t boxes – they’re tags” Good words from a good article. Vonnegut/Cherryh/Burroughs/Ellison/ Pohl/Vinge – dissimilar, yet related.

  • Midnight Avenue J says:

    “notably the concept that the place of science fiction was as a vehicle for teaching science and breeding enthusiasm for the future.”

    and now it is reduced to expositions on the thoughts of an unwilling emperox as she piddles on her throne. Yes. SciFi was once all that could be, for me. Then somewhere it lost me, or I woke up, or both. Wasn’t until I started re-reading Heinlein and found this somewhat subversive and therefore attractive community that I realized message had surpassed intent and became purpose.

    Nicely done here. The lines that define who is what to whom, in literature as in many things, are blurred, but if you get down to basics you see truth define real boundaries. How deep to dig is less critical, though, than the question of your pleasure.

  • Durandel Almiras says:

    Great article. This along with Mr. Wright’s reprint feel like the conversation and discussion is back on track.

  • Dan Wolfgang says:

    I think I finally understand why Harlan Ellison always called these stories as the “literature of the fantastic.” I thought that it was because he believed that his own stories didn’t really fit the category of Science Fiction—that they weren’t really like what Asimov wrote. But now I see that it was because that was the best way for him to describe the stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in a way that was inclusive of the whole field.

  • McChuck says:

    Cross category stories can be quite good, and decently popular. See, eg, the ‘Garrett, PI’ series by Cook. Noir detective, in a fantasy setting, with some sci-fi and occasional political thriller background/subplots.

    Good stories fit a genre. Great stories generally cross boundaries, or even create new genres. Where was urban fantasy thirty years ago?

  • deuce says:

    Sword & sorcery and “Weird Westerns” — both arguably created by Robert E. Howard — were exactly the result of mixing two or more genres. REH was in many ways the epitome of the pulp fictioneer, and embodied the pulp fiction ethos. He wrote — and sold — everything from humorous boxing and Western yarns to cosmic horror to planetary romance sf to straight historical adventure. All of it — all those tales set in myriad genres and hybrid genres — was fast-moving and ENTERTAINING. The pulp fiction ethos in a nutshell.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Does anyone use amazon’s genre lists for discovery?

    I think I almost did or sort of did some time back.

    Basically GRRM recommended some contemporary Fantasy (this is in a pre-jeffroed era of my life) and I bought some of it. Along with that I checked them against their listed genre and they did line up to what i was looking for. It was the nudge that pushed me to buy two of those books.

    I was burned. those two books were the worst of the bunch.

    I imagine anyone who discovers buys and reads by the tags will get just as burned just as quickly.

    I have no doubt publishers use genres for marketing. My pondering is: Do genres even work from a marketing stand point of reader discovery and increased sales?

    Furthermore any new reader who say reads a great book by some chance it was recommended by friend found in an attic etc and then moves on to find more like it using genre as a map what chance will there be for that next book to be horrible and not what the reader wanted?

    My guess is they will get burned 100% of the time.

    Genre from a market perspective looks to me to be a huge nightmare trap for authors and publishers that can only result in new readers and old getting disenchanted and quit.

    The fact that “Science Fiction” started to jump on that graph at the same time sales were moved into its decades long death spiral is not coincidental.

  • Man of the Atom says:

    Interesting inflection point at 1980 for “Science Fiction”. What factors might be contributing?

    Note that “Science Fiction” falls off in 1980 (is the 1979 “Thor Power” — — decision rearing its head here?)

    “Star Wars” probably has some pre-existing meanings in 1974, but picks up in 1977, peaks in 1988, and takes the same trajectory as SF.

    Pity it only tracks through 2008 — likely to show steep decline continuing through 2014.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Interesting point – I’ve wondered if the Thor decision played into “The Great Delisting” in the 80s, but didn’t make the connection to the SF ngram. Worth looking into!

  • Man of the Atom says:

    Drat. Lost the ngram link.


  • Man of the Atom says:

    How cool would it be to find reliable sales figures for 1900-2017 to match to this type of data? How much of the 1980 decline was money driven? Then as the houses declined, and were consolidated and began to hunt profits, the SJWs began to move in due to various social pressures from the mid- to late-90s onward.

  • A triumph of critical and market analysis!

    Creating a system that applies genre tags to books, along with the degree to which a book matches each tag, is an innovation I’d definitely get behind. It would certainly help my chimerical books reach their audience.

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