Wednesday, April 8, 2015

PERSPECTIVES III: "What is Science Fiction? Or, Hell, What is Genre?"

Welcome to Perspectives III, which is not only a companion, but a response to Blogtable III.

Here’s how it works: an editoral, opinion piece or critical essay written by an external blogger, critic, journalist or creative person is presented by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by three other regular 'nerds of a feather, flock together' contributors. Crucially, each respondent will also respond to each preceding respondent. This episode's cast o' characters:

The G (Respondent #1)

The G is founder and co-editor of ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F, crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

Vance K (Respondent #2)

Vance is the co-editor and usually cult-film reviewer for ‘nerds of a feather, flock together.’ He records loud folk songs under the name Sci-Fi Romance, and writes and directs things for a living.

English Scribbler (Respondent #3)

Our resident Londoner, English Scribbler gets to see all the BBC shows before any of the other contributors, and lets us know about it whenever it best pleases him.

EPISODE 3: In which three nerds of a feather debate what it is that makes science fiction a coherent genre, and if it can even be considered that...

The discussion around the question of "Defining Science Fiction" and the insightful but wildly different responses that made up our Blogtable III simply had too many facets to be left to a single post. So in this installment of Perspectives, the nerds of a feather respondents will begin directly from the comments of Blogtable participants Ian Sales, Aliette de Bodard, and Paul Kincaid.

The G

All three discussants in this month’s Blogtable offered compelling visions of what, if anything, makes science fiction science fictional. Paul Kincaid contends that “science fiction” is more attitude or approach than genre, rendering its boundaries inherently subjective--a position that grows more attractive as one explores the permeable boundaries demarcating science fiction (by any definition) from fantasy, horror and mimetic fiction. Ian Sales also believes science fiction is defined primarily by attitude or approach, and not by its tropes (spaceships, robots, etc.) or the supposed “hardness” of its science; rather, he argues that for something to be truly science fictional, it must be grounded in a rational or scientific worldview. Though generally accepting of this framework, Aliette de Bodard makes the important point that defining science fiction strictly in relation to science or a scientific worldview embeds certain normativities (often Western-biased) in the discourse, which can be off-putting or exclusionary to those raised outside the West--or, indeed, those raised inside the West but outside the strict rationalism that pervades its urban intellectual enclaves.

While I see much value in all three contributions, my own feelings are somewhat distinct from each. For me, at least, science fiction denotes something very specific. More to the point, what makes a story science fictional is the degree to which it explores what life would be like and what kinds of stories could be told if certain variables were altered from the present or any historical state, provided that the alterations are scientifically plausible.

Now what I mean by “scientifically plausible” is in need of clarification. First, “science” includes a whole lot more than just the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, cybernetics, etc.). It also includes the social and behavioral sciences (sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, etc.). Second, plausible does not mean “adhering closely to the stable of scientific facts we possess at this moment,” but rather “adhering to the much broader category of scientific theorization we possess at this moment, or reasonable extrapolations from that theorization.”

I think this is a reasonably broad definition, and casts a fairly broad net across genre. Take Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, in which technology has progressed to such a point as to be nearly magical. Some might conclude that these books, like other space operas (e.g. Star Wars), aren’t really science fictional. But, from my perspective, they are. After all, the fundamental preoccupation of the series is to speculate on what life would be like and what stories could be told if a society progressed to the point where scarcity no longer existed, while bordering any number of societies in which scarcity was still very much the norm. Or take John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, an almost disturbingly prescient novel that involves very little technological or physical-scientific speculation. But it is sociologically speculative, and thus — in my view — very clearly science fictional.

Wait...what about stuff like Dune? That’s kind of science fictional by your definition, but also kind of fantastic too….

Thank you for bringing that up, disembodied rhetorical voice. And to answer your question, I’d suggest that any definition of what science fiction “is” or “is not” should adopt the logic of correlation rather than causation. Or, to put it another way, even as we look to set boundaries, we should reject the idea that those boundaries are hard or immutable. Categories are useful sorting mechanisms, but only if one recognizes that the boundaries are fuzzy and permeable, and that lots of stuff fits in the in-between spaces. And that’s a good thing. Rules are made to be broken, after all.

So is Dune science fiction? I’d argue it’s closer to fantasy. However, I’m inclined to put it in one of those interstitial spaces, and to say while it’s not strictly speaking science fiction, it does have elements of science fiction.

Okay, fine. But what about spaceships, robots and laser guns? Isn’t that what science fiction is really about?

Ian makes the point that science fiction should not be defined by its tropes. I agree, as you can surely tell, but given that these tropes create certain expectations and provide certain parameters that most readers (and consumers of related media) use for sorting, it doesn’t make sense to dismiss the idea that they are meaningful. They clearly are, and to many people. Thus I’d suggest that this is what we have the alternate term “sci-fi” for — not to use as a synonym or shorthand for science fiction, but to denote the broader category of works that deploy these tropes. The categories “science fiction” and “sci-fi” overlap, to be sure, but strike me as both distinct and helpful in distinctive ways.

To illustrate, consider space opera. Some clearly counts as science fiction according to the scheme I’ve laid out — Banks’ Culture series, for one, but also Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds), Downbelow Station (C. J. Cherryh), Leviathan Wakes (James S. A. Corey) and Fallen Dragon (Peter F. Hamilton). On the other hand you have Star Wars or Hidden Empire (Kevin J. Anderson), which don’t really fit the parameters. Actually, they strike me more as fantasy-in-space. At the same time, they all would fit within the broader category of sci-fi.

So that’s pretty much how I see things -- for now at least. Over to you, Vance.


I come to the idea of genre from a very different angle than the other voices in this conversation, I think. As a musician and film writer, genre is for me and has always been a marketing discussion. I love the comments of all of the people who have weighed in on this topic, and find Paul’s observation that he can nod in agreement with both Ian and Aliette’s positions (even while they’re saying different, somewhat contradictory things) particularly resonant. The reason why such a thing is possible, in this case, is that in a linguistic sense the word genre is almost utterly useless.

Take for instance Paul’s suggestion that the “more generally accepted” definition of genre is a characterization of story in which we know the basic structure. First, more accepted by whom? Writers? Critics? Academics? Readers? Publishing house marketing departments? Bookstores (long may they live)? In this space, guest contributor Peter Higgins argued compellingly that there was no such thing as a book that belonged to only a single genre.

Call me maybe. Or I kill you!
I would argue as a creator that a structural pattern or framework has nothing whatsoever to do with genre. Wikipedia defines bildungsroman as a genre, sure, but how is that a helpful categorization tool when one may come of age on the farm, on a space station, in an underwater colony, in a World War I trench, in any country on Earth, or within any other of countless locales or situations? That’s structure. In the same way that an Intro/Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/ Bridge/Chorus song structure tells you nothing of the “genre” of that song. Carly Rae Jepsen has written those songs, and so has the Polish death metal band Vader. So have I.

When I was writing (unproduced) screenplays for studios and what-have-you, the genre conversation was pretty damn short and uncomplicated. It was a comedy, drama, thriller, romcom, horror, sci-fi, maybe adventure. That’s about it. Very few mysteries, very few romances, very few heists. I was writing comedies, so during development hell larger winds would blow through the culture, and maybe the “R-rated comedy” would wax and the “family comedy” would wane, and suddenly I was being asked to get a lot more balls jokes into certain scripts. But they were still comedies and were still going to be sold accordingly. You know, if they had ever gotten shot. Metal is infamous for its myriad sub-genres, but most people still agree on something being either metal or not. That classification is much more at the band-level, though, rather than the individual song.

All this is why I love the notion of “sci-fi” that The G has proposed above. The idea of macro-genres like that seems to me to have far more value to anyone who’s got skin in the game, either as a fan, a creator, or a business. We can all argue over drinks about sub-genres, but under the communal umbrella of understanding that we’re all sci-fi fans. I will quibble with The G’s reading of Aliette’s point about people being excluded. If we’re defining genres, we certainly have to draw lines. But I read Aliette’s comments to be more about not allowing the lack of a shared language become a barrier to genre inclusion, rather than as a rejection of using science or a scientific worldview as a liminal criteria. Look at that -- I used a fancy academic word! I think science or a scientific worldview has to be part of any definition or science fiction, although I’d broaden it to include civilizations in which scientific capabilities or understanding are sufficiently different from our own as to be a signature trait for a reader.

So in a language where the word “genre” no longer has any linguistic value whatsoever because it can mean almost anything (how can “crime” be a genre in any meaningful way when Michael Clayton, Unforgiven, Snatch, and the legend of Prometheus all revolve around crimes?), I think that relying on a marketing understanding isn’t such a bad guidepost. I mean, that’s what we’re after anyway, right? As ardent fans, we want to know which shelf at the video store (long may they live) or bookstore is most likely to scratch the itch we have for new stories and adventures that push our buttons or help us cope or make us feel at home.

(Incidentally, when I put out the first Sci-Fi Romance album, reviewers called it “alt-folk” which had no meaning whatsoever to most casual fans I actually spoke with, so when I got blank stares, I said “We sound like that time Johnny Cash covered Soundgarden.” The most common response I got then was, “Whoa. Johnny Cash covered Soundgarden?” You're damn right he did.)

English Scribbler

The downright terror I feel in any attempt to follow such eloquent and erudite voices as the excellent ones in our Blogtable, and my esteemed editors above, with these feeble scribbles is perhaps suitably akin to what many an aspiring science-fiction author must feel as they stare at the proverbial carte blanche. However, attempt I shall.

Vance makes the point that genre to him is a bracketing exercise based in post-creative marketing, and I agree as far as that goes. I would argue in fact that science fiction writing deals far less in genre-aspiring or group mentality than music or film often does. I've seen enough gigs and worked for enough directors to see a lifetime of eager yet deluded would-be imitation. Sir, you will never be Mike Leigh, and you lads will never be Joy Division, but his point stands. All these media are afflicted by post-creation external attempts to pigeon-hole or make them ‘fit’ a genre for easy consumption.

However, Ian Sales makes a valid argument for the idea of SF being a distinct mode for which certain boundary values apply, the transgression of which makes a proud genre merely a mask to wear, "a box of tropes" to play with. So is genre, as such, the chicken or the egg, creatively? Is SF something that writing falls in into, or takes advantage of, or is it a labelling exercise that is an after-thought to a writer's intention? Asimov called science fiction “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings”. On that basis, by the very move to concern themselves in writing with this impact, is a writer thereby determining to be a Science Fiction Writer, or just wandering into the woods of the genre by coincidence? And does intention matter, or only outcome?

One of my very favourite novels of the last two years is Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. A Nigerian-origin American, she has written eloquently about the lack of creation of and interest in African-made science fiction, and so her attempts to tell very sci-fi tales set very much in and on the continent are therefore bold and refreshing. She has specifically attempted a genre for a definite, and political purpose, and is therefore pigeon-holing herself intentionally; however, this is not a reductive venture, and she uses Lagoon as a funnel to explore far more than alien invasion plot devices. So she may have then found her work marketed as ‘African fiction’ or ‘magic-realism’, but it would remain in her eyes as science fiction and those that read it would hopefully see that too.

My other stand-out science fiction novel read recently was Michael J Sullivan’s Hollow World. He himself frequently described it as science-fantasy, while many reviews saw it as a foray by a fantasy writer into science fiction. Time-travel, post-humans, dystopia/utopia = science fiction, surely? Where does fantasy start in science fiction? Is Star Wars fantasy using science fiction elements, and The Matrix sci-fi using fantasy elements? Does it matter?

Both the above novels are remarkable for me because they cover ideas, subjects and emotional themes that I find attractive, but they work because they happen to be great stories, beautifully told, and if there is an element to both I could describe as key to my enjoyment it would be originality. So I’m not responding to the same flavour, the same feel, every time. I’m no longer the child who would happily guzzle horror after horror, sword-fantasy after sword-fantasy, space opera after space opera, with little desire for variety, beyond the desire to never be bored.

Professor H. Bruce Franklin was perhaps not the first to do so, but he very neatly described the term science fiction by stating, “On one side lies fantasy, the realm of the impossible. On the other side lie all the forms of fiction that purport to represent the actual, whether past or present. Science fiction's domain is the possible.” This is at odds with what I thought s.f. meant as a child. I had through naivety and cultural osmosis defined it mentally as fictional science-based plots — i.e. time-travel, alien life, thinking robots — and so saw it a world of joyful fantasy. I never read Dan Dare Pilot of The Future concerned by how its 50s origin dated its view of space travel or the surface of Venus. I never cared how Dune reflected medieval royal politics. I just wanted to leap onboard a mind adventure.

Perhaps, then, despite my admiration and frequent agreement with all the preceding opinions, it is maybe arrogant yet honest to concede that the only opinion that matters to me is the eight year old who thinks “oh cool this cover has an alien AND a robot on it!!” If that is science fiction, great; but it doesn’t matter to the child. If the tale then transgresses genre, does that impress the young reader because it furthers the life of the genre or because it keeps things original and fresh after the 17 previous space robot novels she/he read? If the science of the robot is hard, does that matter to them unless ‘hard’ means ‘dry and dull’? This questions remain, I think unanswered at the end of all this wonderful debate. Yet in the mind of the child, they are irrelevant to a pure fascination with the fantastically impossible-possibilities of a story that happens to be science fiction. In the same way as chocolate cereals remain on our market shelves due to the raw demand of the clear-minded youth, I hope science fiction long remains on the bookstore shelf.

Posted by Vance K, who already told you plenty up there at the top. Nerds of a feather co-editor since 2012.