Sometime, I think this year, the Space channel (the Canadian sci-fi network) stopped talking about ‘sci fi’ or ‘fantasy’ and started talking about ‘the world of genre’. Which irritates me linguistically, because ‘genre’ is not a mass noun (like rice), but is probably a good choice overall, because it broadens and narrows at the same time – ‘genre’ as they use it obviously includes things that people would normally call science fiction or fantasy or SF or SFF, and more to the point stories qualify based on how closely they cleave to a particular style. One of the fights that SFF folks and non-SFF folks get into is about the classification of stories. Margaret Atwood is a key figure here; she said Oryx & Crake wasn’t science fiction because it didn’t feature spaceflight, teleportation, or aliens. She had a tendency to be highly dismissive of science fiction, summing it up as “talking squids in outer space”.* This is nothing new, many people have some categories of writing they consider unworthy – my favourite being some internet commenter I encountered who said that, with a couple of exceptions like Hemingway, all novels were a crude and vulgar thing to be read in shame. (I don’t feel the need to wish anything unpleasant on that person, because: wow they must be so miserable basically all the time.)
Atwood has mellowed somewhat, deciding that the phrase ‘social science fiction’ is a better match for her work, but the tension is all over the place: calling something science fiction or fantasy creates expectations, and depending on the person, those expectations could be good or bad. So in looking for a new label without so much baggage, people have often gone with ‘speculative fiction’, a term that apparently originated with Heinlein. That’s good, really, speculative, because it does more than describe the trappings of the result (‘people do things with science‘), it describes the process of the creation of stories. Start with an idea about how the world could be different, and then speculate on what the implications would be. Brilliant. Active. And overbroad, because strictly speaking all fiction is speculative – if it wasn’t fiction we wouldn’t need to speculate – but good enough for now.
Meanwhile, there’s Space and its ‘world of genre’, which also means science fiction and fantasy and horror, but (HAT OF JUDGING DONNED, DEPLOY JUDGMENTALISM) at a much more basic, superficial level. SFF fans get irritated for two reasons: because authors and critics of things like Oryx & Crake will shun any association with vulgar science fiction, but also because, in the framework that gets applied to a lot of SFF, Oryx & Crake isn’t even good science fiction. Note here that I’m not saying Oryx & Crake or any other such totally-not-SFF books are bad books. I’m saying they need different criteria. For example, by general SFF consensus, its worldbuilding is weak and patchy. But if it tells the story it was meant to tell, maybe the robust worldbuilding isn’t the point, and maybe those of us who like robust worldbuilding can just read something else. These books are certainly speculative fiction, and they may or may not be science fiction, but they are clearly not genre fiction.
Genre is the kind of story; genre fiction is about the kind of story. Genre science fiction is the sort of thing that can be created by surfing through TVtropes and slapping enough pages together until it forms a plot. And that can be good, that can be exactly what I’m looking for (I am a huge fan of Timothy Zahn – have I mentioned him before?) but it isn’t all of science fiction. It’s not synonymous; it’s not a subsection, it’s a wholly independent thing, a style that can and frequently does get attached to SFF. Murder mysteries are a genre, but that doesn’t mean that every story in which someone is killed and the killer is eventually found should be judged by the standards of genre mysteries. Imagine evaluating every possible story featuring a romantic couple using the criteria for a good romance novel. These are separate concepts, science fiction and genre fiction, premise and style, and the confusion about their overlap continues to cause grief.
Star Trek did (and sometimes still does) both in varying measures. Sometimes it’s about social change and sometimes it’s about inverted tachyon pulses. This is the gift that speculative fiction offers a writer, the opportunity to add so many trappings to a story that it looks totally unreal and then instantly bend right back to relevance by throwing reality at the audience. The ability to become so far removed from the modern context that we can see it clearly. Chekov and Uhura on the bridge, stating through their existence that the great horrors of the 20th centry would one day be forgotten chapters in the history books that grade school students pretend to have read. The white|black man chasing the black|white man across the stars because their version of racism makes perfect sense to them. And we laugh at those ideas, decades later, but give them a break – they were writing for their audience, their day, not for us. Let’s see the next Star Trek have a practicing Muslim science officer and then see how laughable it is to think that in our modern society just being there can be an act of unity and protest.**
That is the problem I have with so much of science fiction and fantasy; the failure to be speculative fiction while still managing to be genre. A fantasy world filled with magic and dragons and cultures with no connection to Earth as we know it, but for some reason still with exactly the same hardline gender roles and concepts of race, somehow still cramming people into even tinier pigeonholes than we use in reality. Stories about strong women defying their patriarchal society – well, yes, all good there, but how about a world in which there isn’t any sexism to begin with? If you’re going to put fire-breathing reptiles in there and have them flap around in total defiance of the square-cube law then let’s not pretend that mimicking Earth societies is the top priority on the list.***
(I have thoughts that I was originally going to put here regarding the Doctor Who season finale, but they may do better if placed in the next separate post and nurtured into healthier, more expansive gardens of ire. I didn’t like it, partly because it couldn’t decide what genre it was.)
Genre is fine, it can be good, and I have nothing against the trappings of science fiction and fantasy – I use them a lot myself and there are parts of my stories that are there for no reason except a touch of genre – but the confusion of these things weakens fiction as a whole. Star Trek in the 1960s and Star Trek 2009 are equally genre, but they are not equally speculative. What a shock. Star Trek 2009 was an attempt to remake a beloved story from decades ago – it can’t be as relevant to today as it was back then unless it changes substantially or, worse, unless we have progressed no further now from where we were then. Star Trek in 2009 looked like a modern movie – still primarily focused on a particular type of man but with other sorts of people in smaller, varyingly meaningful roles. It looks like basically every other modern movie. It did not speculate.
That’s treated as a grave flaw, but it does matter what kind of goals people engaged it with, and honestly: does anyone think the best speculative fiction we can get is by giving a 40-year-old science fiction story to JJ Abrams? Anyone at all? It coasted on its legacy. Most of our fiction is coasting. Most of our fiction isn’t trying very hard to show us a radically different world. Star Trek in its original form had a human woman and an alien man sharing second-in-command, and they made Roddenberry get rid of one, so all we got was the alien. That was, as I understand it, still kind of a big deal, alien as comrade instead of monster. That’s good. And it’s instructive – try to take a step and maybe we’re stuck in place; try to take a leap and maybe we can keep a step.
*I tried to find a source for this quote, but couldn’t. Or, more accurately, it immediately became so infamous upon being spoken that it is everywhere on the web. I found it on wikipedia first, if that matters.
**I can’t be sure of the episode, but I think it was ‘Space Seed’, the one that introduces Khan, that serves as a very efficient primer on what Uhura was allowed to do. This isn’t mentioned on wikipedia or at Memory Alpha, so if I’ve got the wrong episode, perhaps a better geek will recall – Uhura is at one point grabbed by a man and is effectively disabled, because she is a woman and if bad fiction tells us anything it is that a man grabbing a woman by the upper arm inflicts total body paralysis. However, in an immediately subsequent scene, a woman tries to do the same thing, at which point Uhura kung fu-s her right the frak down. It is beautiful to behold, and it serves me as a reminder that, in the times when her character was terrible, it wasn’t always because the writers didn’t respect her. I wonder what they would have done with a free rein.
***And sometimes there are evilminded real-world references that make no sense in context, which is part of what I’m going to talk about in the next post. The latest Song of Ice and Fire book has continued to divide the readership between those who think it’s brilliant again and those who are sick of George RR Martin. I was pretty excited to get the book, and the opening chapters seemed like they could be promising, but then we were back in Misogyny Town (Population: Trying Desperately To Move Away) and it was boring again. And I kept plodding along in hopes that it would pick up again, and then Tyrion threw in an offhand comment about ‘proper priests’ staying out of politics and just abusing their power and sexually assaulting little boys. This makes no narrative sense. There is nothing in Song of Ice and Fire to suggest that there has been a history of abuse like that in their priesthood. It’s a clunky connection to real horrible things, one that’s just as out of place as Jon Snow making an American Idol reference and several billion times more offensive. I dropped the book on the spot.