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.
(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?)
Only if it is called the ERB-REH-Lovecraft-Smith-CLMoore-Brackett-weirdustial-complex.
Otherwise no dice and no genres.
I like the looks of that, where do I sign up?
Excellent! Except…you left out H. Rider Haggard. Trust me, he belongs in there. Every other author you named was an HRH fan.
Care to defend this assertion?
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.
Amazon’s got 99 genres, but pulp ain’t one. Nor is there a ‘Pulp’ shelf at B&N.
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
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.
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.
Let’s own the word “genre” as best we can instead of wishing for its disappearance.
I agree with you 100% but I think hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi are used in the same way inside the genre.
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.
Sears in 1912 seemed to think there were three Genres:
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.”
“Skeleton in the Closet” looks particularly interesting.
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?
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. 😉
Indeed. Genres aid readers and vendors in categorizing and communicating. They’re imperfect and they shouldn’t constrain writers. Simple enough.
^ 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.
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.
Please tell me that image exists in a larger form. It’s a beautiful thumbnail.
“Search Google for image” is a handy tool, one that I only recently began to appreciate.
If genre does not exist, neither does pulp fiction.