Friday, January 03, 2014

SF and Subgenres

What is Science Fiction, anyway?

One definition is that SF is a "literature of ideas". Authors use it to explore possibility and make commentary on modern-day events either through satire or outright attack. By this measure anything that deals with Time or Technology in a fictional setting (despite bearing a resemblance to the modern day world) is science fiction.

So we need to have subgenres that allow for further categorization. Steampunk, cyberpunk, time travel, space opera, alternate histories, military, superhuman, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, utopian and the list goes on and on.

Related to science fiction are the genres of Science Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. There are subgenres within those, too. In Science Fantasy, someone is usually carrying a sword ala John Carter of Mars.  In Speculative Fiction one tends to see more literary aspirations including the likes of Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood and even Kurt Vonnegut. These authors don't necessarily want to be marked as science fiction writers or they don't want to be constrained by the perceived limits of science fiction.

It seems to me that despite whatever boundaries are set upon the subgenres or related genres, it's all science fiction. Yet why is there a need to delineate differences between these subgenres?

Marketing.

The average bear likes things to be neat, needs to have pigeonholes to put things in in order to feel satisfied that everything is clean and neat. That's not necessarily my way nor is it the way of others. I've read many a SF novel that had fantastic elements to it and many fantasy novels that dealt with hard science of its world and time. My library lumps SF and Fantasy together. Several organizations do so, as well. It's convenient.

Perhaps it's the nature of fandom to tick off boxes and divide the genre of Science Fiction into smaller, more manageable parts. Dystopian means something very different than cyberpunk, after all.

But when authors crossover the subgenres it gets confusing and so Science Fiction becomes the banner for the work. It works the same in the Mystery genre, too, where there are a number of delineations such as cozy mysteries, detective fiction, crime fiction and subgenres within those, too.

So the publishers saw an opportunity to pinpoint certain audiences with neat classifications and marketed to fandom subsets. What got ignored was the tendency of many readers (like me) who read across genres and find that Fantasy is just as much fun as a good Mystery which can also be as interesting as a political Thriller. My friend Rachel writes urban fantasy stories, another friend writes detective stories and I read both. And I love Science Fiction and many of its children.

Things have become too neat, too stodgy. A Science Fantasy Mystery should be a helluva lotta fun, right? And yet books that mash up too many genres get lost and end up failing to attract any readers. What happens instead is a title mashed up with urban fantasy or horror elements. I tell you I'm just waiting for someone to go whole hog and release Uncle Tom's Cabin in the Woods. I won't read it and I won't promote it but someone will be silly enough to do it and self-publish it, at least.

Or perhaps that's a line that won't be crossed. I hope that's the case.

People tend to lock themselves into only reading or watching one kind of story. Even in the case of Science Fiction. I recommend reading not just across the genre you tend to like most but to read across all genres. Watch a lot of different kinds of movies. Listen to a wide variety of music, too. Your mileage may vary from mine, but I've found a lot of inspiration and a world full of stories and entertainment I mightn't have if I'd only ever watched Star Wars and its sequels.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

And yet the Science Fiction in this belief is that it's a Fantasy. Nothing will change unless you help someone do it. If you're genre people, try something you haven't before. Widen your horizons.

Try out some new ideas.