TIME TO SHAKE THE PILLARS OF HEAVEN!

Monday , 27, March 2017 41 Comments

SHAKE THE PILLARS OF HEAVEN!

It is a great day, a glorious day, a day for Daddy Warpig to once again SHAKE THE PILLARS OF HEAVEN!

Everything you know about “Genre” is wrong.

Okay, maybe not you. You’re an unusually intelligent and attractive individual, who has risen above the petty restrictions which bedevil lesser minds. But those other guys—PHEW!—do they need to be set straight:

“Genre” does not exist.

Hold your horses! Before you do a spit-take and ruin another good monitor, let me explain.

“Genres” were created by bookstores and publishers as a set of vaguely-defined categories that grouped similar works together, so the audience could find books kinda sorta somewhat like those they already enjoyed. In the beginning, genres didn’t even exist.

“[B]ack when H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, A. Merritt, H. Rider Haggard, and others were inventing the genre of science fiction, their novels were published and displayed right alongside [non-fantastic] contemporaries like James, Dreiser, Woolf, and Conrad.”—Orson Scott Card

In those days, there was no difference between fantastic tales of magic and technology, and every other kind of book. Books were just books. “Genre” came later, to help sell books.

What “genre” is not, and was never intended to be, is a system of perfectly precise categories into which any and every book can be placed without any difficulty. It simply cannot do the job—works are too varied, too disparate for any system to exactly categorize them. “Genre”, in this sense, DOES NOT EXIST.

Yet, at the end of the Golden Age of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a Great Wall was erected between F and SF, and upon its completion a Great Decree issued:

FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION SHALL BE UTTERLY SEPARATE FROM ONE ANOTHER, FOR NOW AND FOREVERMORE. NO MAGIC IN SF. NO HIGH TECHNOLOGY IN FANTASY. SO LET IT BE WRITTEN. SO LET IT BE DONE.

And the decree became holy writ, and in time people forgot there had ever been an era in which the two had been one.

Yet, what distinguishes an SF story from a Fantasy tale? There is no precise and perfect delineation. Sometimes a story is clearly SF, more often SF includes rubber physics and impossible technologies to make the story work and to make the setting cool. Sometimes a story is clearly magical, but it turns out to be set not in medieval times, but in the far future on a planet colonized by humans, and the “magic” is really psionics or nanotechnology. Robert E. Howard often mixed alien races, magic, tropes from Westerns, and horror—all in the same story.

Write something that seems to be fantasy (even if tech is behind it all), it’s fantasy. Something that seems to be SF (even if it turns out to be magic), it’s SF. It’ll be read as that, it’ll be sold as that.

Orson Scott Card, again: “If you have people do some magic, impossible thing by stroking a talisman or praying to a tree, it’s fantasy; if they do the same thing by pressing a button or climbing inside a machine, it’s science fiction.”

If doing the exact same thing via a tree versus a machine is the dividing line, the differences are merely a matter of props, costuming, and scenery. Steampunk, for example, is all about Victoriana with gears and goggles. Urban Fantasy is about magic (prop), magical races (costuming), and the modern world (scenery); Cyberpunk about metal limbs (props), mirrorshades (costuming), and the Matrix (scenery for a high-tech dungeon crawl, complete with wandering monsters and treasure chests). Change the props, costumes, and scenery, but leave the story the same, and the genre changes.

Card: “Most science fiction novels could easily be turned into fantasy by changing starships back into ocean-going vessels. Frank Herbert’s Dune would fit right in with the best medieval romances, if planets became continents and the spice became a source of magical power instead of a drug necessary for space navigation.”

Yes, F&SF should include mind-blowing technologies, fascinating magical systems, or other cool ideas that can be interwoven with these trappings. But “genre” is determined by the trappings, not what ideas are present or how accurate they are, nor how rigorously the consequences of them are extrapolated.

You can write good SF—a novel that sells well, is sold as SF, and which readers accept as SF—without such extrapolation, and you can write good Fantasy with such extrapolation. Technical accuracy and internal consistency are not solely the domain of SF, and it’s arrogant to claim that only SF writers do or should care about them.

Card: “I’ve written both, and have found my fantasy stories to be no easier to write, no less rigorous than my science fiction; nor have I found my science fiction to need any less sense of mythic undertone or any less passionate action than my fantasy stories.”

All of these Card quotes, by the by, come from the same source: Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, literally the manual on how to write stories in the F&SF genre. This is the same manual that says “You must be aware of the boundaries [between F and SF] … but you are not their prisoner.”

YOU ARE NOT THEIR PRISONER.

So burn the Great Decree—”NO MAGIC IN SF. NO HIGH TECHNOLOGY IN FANTASY.” Burn it, defile it, shred it, repudiate it.

Write what you want to write. Make it as awesome as you can. And go out and find your audience AND SHAKE THE PILLARS OF HEAVEN.

SO LET IT BE WRITTEN. SO LET IT BE DONE.


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

41 Comments
  • Anthony M says:

    If genre does not exist, neither does pulp fiction.

    • Anthony M says:

      (By the way, I basically agree with the gist of your post, and am willing to accept that without losing sleep. But what about all of you guys?)

    • Jasyn Jones says:

      “‘Genres’ [are] a set of vaguely-defined categories that [group] similar works together.”

      “[‘Genres’ are not] a system of perfectly precise categories into which any and every book can be placed without any difficulty… ‘Genre’, in this sense, DOES NOT EXIST.”

      Moreover, “Pulp” is not (yet) a recognized subgenre of F&SF.

      Though perhaps it should be.

      • cirsova says:

        “Though perhaps it should be.”

        Nah…

        The difference between what Cirsova publishes and what comes out of #NewPulp alone gives me the sense that this would be a bad idea.

        If I talk about “Pulp”, I mean the storytelling sensibilities of the eras and the zeitgeist it captured rather than any sort of genre sense of “Oh, you mean like ‘two-fisted tales’, right?”

        • Jeffro says:

          There’s a reason why we reflexively reach for words like “ethos” rather than “genre”. But people don’t grasp why that is. “I see you’re creating a new genre. What are the rules of your genre so that I can properly place you on my conceptual totem pole.” Uhh… no. You don’t get it. GENRE INDUCED BRAIN DAMAGE IS REAL!!!!

          • cirsova says:

            It’s why some people are at first confused when they see stories like Lost Men or Shark Fighter or and then have a lotus sermon enlightenment moment

        • Jeffro says:

          Note the anger that JimFear138 had when he first read Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure. You can hear the combination of elation and anger when he achieved pulp enlightenment. Why anger…? Because he thought awesome science fiction was something out of reach for him, something he couldn’t participate in because he’s not detail-oriented or high brow enough. When the genre-blinders came off… it’s like he was faced with the fact that something as stupid as AN IDEA kept him from creating for decades.

          Note that this is the same barrier that prevented me from grasping how to run 1970s rpgs.

    • Nathan says:

      Care to defend this assertion?

  • deuce says:

    Pulp isn’t a “genre”. The pulps covered an incredibly wide span of categories. Literary Realists and others are the ones who cooked up “pulp” as a perjorative to use against whatever they didn’t like. “Fun” seemed to be high on that list.

    I’ll sleep fine tonight.

    • Anthony says:

      The pulps covered an incredibly wide span of categories.

      Mmmmm, then I suppose there’s no real way we can talk about writing more pulp fiction, then.

      • Jeffro says:

        The awesomeness of pulp is unimaginable to a mind suffering from genre-induced brain damaged. Sad!

        • Anthony says:

          That’s not a useful response. I’m literally saying that you either need to define pulp as a thing, or talking about more pulp fiction is preposterous.

          • Jeffro says:

            I can name five authors that are RIGHT NOW publishing works that revive the pulp ethos. They are fundamentally different from what is currently on the market right now. Check back tomorrow for criticism of a short story that is antithetical to the pulp ethos. The contrast is unmistakable.

      • Loyd Jenkins says:

        Pulp was not a genre. Westerns, Conan, space opera, Tarzan, Lucky Starr, detective noir. They were the stories I grew up on. And I have skipped the war stories. They were all unpretenious and fun.

        Go out and write them.

      • cirsova says:

        Pulp is more about the zeitgeist than it is genre. Ubiquitous short fiction for everyday entertainment that is fun to read.

        R.L. Stein figured that out and had kids reading half a dozen books a weeks, while teachers were buttmad that kids weren’t reading serious or important fiction. Most kids can’t relate to Amy Tan, but they sure as hell dig being scared by monsters who aren’t overbearing Asian mothers.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      Amazon’s got 99 genres, but pulp ain’t one. Nor is there a ‘Pulp’ shelf at B&N.

      • Cameron says:

        Well, there is, but it’s back in the receiving area. Just remember to tear those covers off before they go in the returns box. #badbooksellerjokes

  • Cameron says:

    I blogged a bit about this myself a few days ago (shameless plug). The dislike I have the for word “genre” lies in its current use by a certain variety of literati as a pejorative. There is good literature, they say, and there is genre literature, and genre literature cannot by definition ever be good literature.

    It’s maddening.

    I’d love the word to disappear, but it won’t. Not as long as people need to find ways to market their books to a ready audience in a world that is flooded with books and more books and yet more books.

    And, on reflection, the word is actually quite useful. It’s not really the word itself I want to see disappear, but how it’s used, and, sadly, until “critical” reading is rescued from the universities where it’s currently being held captive by the sadistic and book-hating camp guards masquerading as Literature professors, with their rolled-up New York Times Book Review rolled up as clubs and used to beat a good story like a rented mule until it’ll confess to anything, anything you want, please let the beating stop . . !

    But I digress.

    We’re stuck with the word. The intelligentsia won’t come around in our lifetime.

    Their loss.

    Let’s own the word “genre” as best we can instead of wishing for its disappearance.

  • Durandel Almiras says:

    Me thinks you miss the point Anthony and either you lack reading comprehension skills or you are trolling.

    I look forward to the day when genres are nothing more than useful descriptions for discussions, rather than iron rules on how to tell a story.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Sears in 1912 seemed to think there were three Genres:

    Fiction

    Adventure

    and New Mrs Southworth books

    and after that genre division Sears then abandons it and threw them all into one big alphabetical list titled “World’s Best Fiction.”

    http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/c4/0a/b4/c40ab49c35b0c5af26bff94912dd242b.jpg

    • Jeffro says:

      But… I can’t imagine fiction existing outside of the current genre constraints. That’s simply UNPOSSIBLE!!! NNNNNOOOOOOOOO!

      • L Jagi Lamplighter says:

        Have you ever seen a Bollywood movie? (Or even a Chinese one, occasionally?) Sometimes, you’ll get crazy stuff–like it starts as an adventure, there there’s melodramatic romance for a bit, then a tragedy. Then a ghost.

        It really is a bit of a wakeup about how we put stories together here in the West. 😉

        • Jeffro says:

          The new anime on Netflix features oni coming from space… turning out to be giant robot pilots out to kidnap children. (?) It also features a unfrozen caveman samurai and a girl that looks like a ancient princess gradually working their way up to some sort of romantic entanglement. (With lots of blushing.)

          Granted, the girlie protagonist is not at all consistent with the way of pulp. But a lot of ailments we have are either understated or nonexistent. It’s more like pulp than most anything in the Western scene.

    • Cameron says:

      “Skeleton in the Closet” looks particularly interesting.

  • UF says:

    It’s not as if people will refuse to read a fun, well-written story because “it’s the wrong genre.”

    Often people who say they prefer fantasy to science fiction enjoy, say, Ender’s Game. They just don’t like romance IN SPACE. Favoring science fiction doesn’t mean they hate Tolkien, just that they don’t want to read yet another hack ripping him off.

    Or, put another way…
    Q: Is WAR AND PEACE literature, historical fiction, romance, alternate history, or philosophy?
    A: Who cares?

  • L Jagi Lamplighter says:

    I both agree strongly and don’t agree. I agree strongly that these boundaries are arbitrary and for book stores.

    I disagree in that I do think there are different areas of taste that serve different functions: such as romance mystery. But I think these areas are for readers, to help them find what they are in the mood to read.

    Writers, should write without fear of these boundaries. 😉

    • PCBushi says:

      Indeed. Genres aid readers and vendors in categorizing and communicating. They’re imperfect and they shouldn’t constrain writers. Simple enough.

    • idprism says:

      ^ yes. because i would much rather have seen “the collapsing empire” published under the label of romance/adventure so i would know to avoid it even if the drama surrounding it did not exist.

  • Dude, one of the many reasons I love your work is that I get the sense that you truly understand. Not just that you truly understand how fucking epic BTILC was, but the fact that Jack was in no uncertain terms the protagonist, hero, and the entire fulcrum of which that epic work turned. If you wanna know if someone can write truly compelling fiction just ask them what they think of Jack Burton.

  • deuce says:

    I’m glad to see Orson Scott Card had the good taste to name-check not only Merritt, but H. Rider Haggard as well.

  • In terms of writing, “genre” walls may or may not matter. It’s all speculative fiction.

    But in terms of reader expectations, it sure matters. If it didn’t matter, then why do so many successful writers, use multiple pseudonyms? Because (chances are) you don’t want your sweet-romance fans to pick up you BDSM erotica by mistake because they went on name recognition.

  • anonme says:

    Please tell me that image exists in a larger form. It’s a beautiful thumbnail.

  • deuce says:

    “Search Google for image” is a handy tool, one that I only recently began to appreciate.

    http://cdn2.wallpapersok.com/uploads/picture/533/11533/sci-fi-army-soldier-helmet.jpg?width=2160&height=1080&crop=true

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