More than Genre

It seems that everyone involved with science fiction has taken a stab at defining the genre somewhere along the way. I don’t know that that’s a particularly good idea and I’m not going to throw my hat in the ring, but I can tell you that if it were my job to draw a line down the middle of the SF&F section at the bookstore, I wouldn’t do it at the ampersand. The matter of which fantastical tropes a work is using seems so much less important than how it is using them.

It seems that everyone involved with science fiction has taken a stab at defining the genre somewhere along the way. I don’t know that that’s a particularly good idea and I’m not going to throw my hat in the ring, but I can tell you that if it were my job to draw a line down the middle of the SF&F section at the bookstore, I wouldn’t do it at the ampersand. The matter of which fantastical tropes a work is using seems so much less important than how it is using them.

When I think of what attracts me to science fiction (or, as is perhaps a more appropriate moniker for this conversation, the slightly suaver “speculative fiction”), I think not of spaceships, lasers or robots, but rather of new perspectives and previously unasked questions. If the questions are interesting and the perspectives compelling (which requires fleshed out characters, incidentally), then I’ll invest myself in any world, be it filled with aliens, vampires or half-elven cat-witches. But when those questions fail to be interesting, or worse aren’t asked at all, the story fails to trigger that need in me that makes me read genre. And no amount of orbital platforms, nanobots or malicious otherworldly organisms will help.

Speculative fiction is really the literature of “what would happen if …” and, in some ways, the question of “what would happen if aliens were among us” is not all that different from the question of “what would happen if dragons were real.” If the answers offered bring unexpected revelations in good faith, then sign me up.

Too often though, in all fantastical genres, the marvels of the fictional world are taken as given. Take, for example, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance novels. The dragons, who are arguably the stars of the show, bring no surprises. They are Smaug and Fáfnir and Bahamut and it is made quickly clear that, though they are meant to be magnificent and awe-inspiring, these are dragons you already know. When compared with Gordon R. Dickson’s magnificent The Dragon and the George or even Anne McCaffrey’s frequently bewildering Dragonriders of Pern novels, the difference is night and day. Dickson asks us to imagine a world where the dragons of medieval myth are the good guys and humans are collectively referred to as “Georges” in reference to a single dangerously misguided “saint.” McCaffrey asks us to imagine a distant planet where human colonists have genetically modified the indigenous dragons to serve in the place of fighter jets. Weiss and Hickman, in contrast, are simply asking us to imagine a world with dragons, because dragons are awesome. I wouldn’t for a second argue that they aren’t, but when it comes to selling me on a story or a world, it takes more than that.

I feel the same way far too often when I go to the movies, lured in by posters and trailers heavy with SF imagery. Science fiction is experiencing a sort of renaissance in the world of film, but for every Moon or District 9 there are a dozen Tron: Legacies, Books of Eli and Transformerses. Is Transformers science fiction? Absolutely. It doesn’t get much more sci-fi than giant robots from outer space. But does it engage the audience on the level of science fiction? Not at all. It is an action film with giant robots as set-dressing and an excuse for bigger explosions.

I have friend who is a horror-movie buff and who once worked in a video rental store, back when those still existed. He loved to rant about the absurdity of the shelving system. “What is Alien doing in science fiction?” he would ask. “It’s a horror movie that happens to take place on a space ship.” And though I love Alien, I have to agree. I love it as a horror film, not as a science fiction film.

Looking at genre literature in this light of questions asked rather than tropes used, a few things shake out. Alternate history, for example, has a long, um, history as the red-headed genre stepchild: never quite comfortable on the fantasy shelves, the science fiction shelves or even the historical fiction shelves. Of course, with Michael Chabon’s divergent-history alternate-present The Yiddish Policeman’s Union winning a recent Hugo for best novel, it is clear that the genre is gaining more acceptance in the SF community. And why not? What purer form of the what-if story could there be? Alternate history gives us the speculative core of science fiction, stripped bare of all fantastical trappings. After all, the hypotheticals posited when an author like S.M. Stirling asks what might have happened if a meteor impact had wiped out most of industrialized civilization in the late 1800s (as in Peshawar Lancers) look little different in practice from those explored when Robert Charles Wilson what might happen if peak oil and climate change wiped out most of industrial civilization in the late 2000s (as in Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America).

In a sense of course all historical fiction is alternate history, positing as it does imagined events in the midst of our real timeline. How, for example, does one measure Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, with its fabricated nation of Qwghlm and mysteriously ageless priest Enoch Root existing in an otherwise largely historical World War II milieu? And what of Iain Banks’s Steep Approach to Garbadale, which is set in the familiar present day world except that it centers around a family who made their fortune on a vast board game empire that is purely fictional. Are these science fiction? In the first case, maybe, in the second almost certainly not. But that is exactly the wrong question. What is more important is that they scratch the itch that I am used to soothing with science fiction.

And so, just as we exhort the merits of science fiction to those who are skeptical of it, we fans should also remember that those things which are the greatest strengths of the genre are not exclusive to it.

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