The Fiction of Genre And What It’s Really For
This is part 3 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:
I strongly suspect you already know whether your book is going to be Science Fiction or not. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that you had a shrewd idea of what type of science fiction it was before you read “How To Decide What You’re Writing.”
To genre or not to genre.
Although this discussion pretends to be about Science Fiction, what it’s really about is genre, and what, if anything, it’s for.
The Story of Genre (Part 1)
Why do we have literary genres?
Once there was a man, and he wanted to buy a book. Until that day, all the books he had ever read had been gifts, given by well-meaning friends and relatives, which he had dutifully read, and over time he had developed a taste for certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of characters, certain kinds of books.
Arriving at the end of his bookshelf (he was very systematic; the books were added to the end of the shelf when he received them, and he read them in the same order), he realized that he would have to go to a shop, and buy a book.
When he arrived at the shop he was amazed by the sheer number of books that were available. His bookshelf contained a few hundred books, but in the shop there were tens of thousands. They all had attractive titles and attractive covers, they were all glossy, bright, and smelt of new-cut paper.
But how could he find out which one to read next?
Fortunately, he was not the first person to find himself in this quandary.
Upon announcing his despair to the nearest member of staff, the clerk immediately asked him a simple question:
“What sort of book do you like?”
“Oh…” the man said, as a new idea penetrated his imagination, “books can be sorted?”
“Yes indeed,” the clerk replied, “over the years, a system of classification has been developed that we call genre. If you tell me the titles of a few books that you like, I can tell you which genres to look in for more books to read. Doing so will narrow your choice to books that you are more likely to enjoy.”
“Supposing I like all kinds of books?”
“In that case, you might as well shut your eyes and take the first book you buy. There are too many books in all the world to be able to make any kind of meaningful choice.”
The Illusion of Genre
Genre is a happy lie we tell ourselves because we know that life is too short to be able to try every book before we read it.
Readers have to comfort themselves with the idea that keeping to a genre they like will improve their chances of reading a book that pleases them. This may even be true, but even within genres, the choice is impossibly large.
But like many convenient illusions, genre has found a way to become real.
The Reality of Genre
You will often hear me talk about the importance of rules, of boundaries for the imagination when telling a story.Those boundaries ensure that the reader finds the story sufficiently familiar, and encourage the writer to be more inventive and original.
In genre fiction, most of the rules derive from genre convention.
Genre convention evolves, like anything else cultural, but is nonetheless an ongoing accretion of recurrent story features.
Conventions of Rockets & Rayguns
In the Rockets and Rayguns genre, the primary convention that noone questions is that there are no physical restrictions to space flight. We can fly as far and as fast as the story requires.
We are practically certain to encounter intelligent aliens. Some of them will be our allies, others our enemies.
It’s also critical to the genre that almost any kind of damage can be repaired, and spacecraft, spacesuits and other equipment are extraordinarily robust.
The Story of Genre (Part 2)
What happens when you have genres?
Since the man had enjoyed reading stories where people had travelled great distances and discovered strange new places, the clerk directed him to the “adventure” fiction. But the man found those stories to be too much about physical hardship and willpower, and not enough about people.
So he told the clerk about stories he’d enjoyed where people dealt with their troubles by pulling together and cooperating, and the clerk sent him to “kitchen sink dramas,” but he didn’t like the way that all the characters started out as victims of difficult circumstances; the man realized that he was more interested in the idea of people who were trying to solve new problems.
The clerk sent him to the Science Fiction section, but advised him to start with Hard SF to ease him into the genre.
The problem was that the stories very quickly became political, and were either one person opposing the state or pressure groups and protesters, or lengthy discussions of science and economy, or the characters seemed weirdly academic.
By now, the clerk knew enough not to send the man into the techno-thrillers section, and instead directed him to Space Opera. For a time, the man seemed to be completely happy with what he found there.
Does it sound idealised? Certainly if genre is itself a fiction, readers find it a very attractive one.
The Story of Genre (Part 3): Science Fiction
The man enjoyed discovering all those new books for many months. One day, however, he approached the clerk with a heavy heart.
“I’ve been reading this Space Opera series, and something seems to be wrong with it. It’s almost as if it isn’t science fiction.”
“What’s wrong with it? Aren’t there spaceships?”
“Yes,” the man admitted; there were spaceships.
“Aren’t there aliens?”
“Yes,” the man conceded; there were aliens.
“Isn’t there wondrous, imaginary, future technology?”
Again, the man had to accept that there was indeed wondrous, imaginary future technology.
“In fact,” the man slowly began to say, “that’s the problem.”
The clerk looked at him, and raised an eyebrow.
“Every time there’s some obstacle or problem, someone invents a wondrous, new, future technology that solves it; couldn’t negotiate with the aliens? Invent universal translator. Sun about to explode? Invent universal Sun containment field. Population about to rebel? Invent universal love cannon. Whenever something goes wrong, made up science solves it.”
What people who don’t read science fiction think it is.
Plenty of science fiction readers and authors know that there is so much great SF out there, and that so much SF deals with exactly the same human issues that literary fiction covers.
So they wonder, authors and readers alike, why it is so difficult to convince some people to read SF. It’s true that many readers dismiss SF because they: “don’t want to read about rockets and rayguns” – in other words, aren’t interested in things that aren’t real. This is fair enough.
In any case, some of the people who raise that objection do eventually discover that not all SF is Rockets and Rayguns; that some of it is set in the near future or the recent past; that much of SF deals with current society, not with the future or space.
But there is a bigger, stronger objection, that is much harder to shift from the potential reader’s imagination:
The idea that science fiction is all about using science to solve problems. Those people are quite right when they suggest that a book where the author can just invent some new science to overcome any obstacle is not going to be an interesting book.
How to Write Science Fiction
To be certain that what you are writing is science fiction, follow these easy steps:
- Pick some recent science or technology that has been widely reported in the press, and that the general public is aware of, and at least mostly understands.
- Take that science or technology as a point of departure, and imagine what it is going to lead to, a chosen number of years into the future.
- Imagine how that future technology will affect people, and…
Try to describe how real people deal with the problems created by science.
Science fiction, like all fiction, is about people. Fantasy is not about dragons. Gothic horror is not about vampires and werewolves. Police procedurals are not about crime. Tech-thrillers are not about technology, superhero stories are not about super-powers.
Take any book of any genre. They’re all about the same thing: being human.
Dealing Fairly With Genre
In an age of tagging, books can belong to a lot more categories than ever before, and categories can be, to some extent, established by consensus, rather than by book distributors’ convenience. In theory at least, giving categories to a book you’ve written will help the right people to find it.
So what are your choices?
- No genre. – Surely the purist’s choice. Write the story you intend to write, without ever considering what category of book it is. If you take this approach, you will, I guarantee, still want to find suitable categories for it once you’ve finished writing. This is because although some readers will certainly appreciate your taking a stand for pure literature, most will to know something about what you have written, and many more will be browsing lists of books by genre!
- Pure genre. – Before you even start writing, you’ve decided the precise genre of your book. The choice that you make will define anything from the kind of characters your book can contain, to the types of location and even the types of even that can occur. In some cases, even the eventual outcome of the story could be, to some extent, dictated by the conventions of the genre.
- Crossover. – You might hope that by crossing Space Opera with Body Horror you will attract readers who love either genre – this may be true, but you’re more likely to please readers who love both genres. Mixing conventions from more than one genre can be a stimulating challenge, since the conventions may not be altogether compatible. But that only requires you to be all the more inventive and original. The biggest risk comes when you have to market your book, since it may be difficult, genre being understood the way that it is, to make it clear that this book is in both genres, and isn’t just, Space Opera with elements of Body Horror.
- Vague / Weak genre. – Some genres are of themselves vague or weak – like urban fantasy – it’s sometimes difficult to be sure that a book fits the genre, or indeed that the genre fits the book. You’re likely to find yourself in this position if you want to write in a particular genre but don’t want to be limited by the genre’s usual conventions. This is the kind of writing that causes a genre to evolve. So it’s worthy, but risky. The Twilight series may well be an evolution of teen pulp romance, rather than what it seems at first – an evolution of gothic horror. However Anne Rice’s vampires are an evolution of gothic horror.
- Counter genre. – Deliberate flouting of genre conventions in the end just serves to reinforce the genre. This is the foundation of parody.
In all cases, genre is there to help readers to find the books that they will love. So it becomes essential to manage genre at some point. Whether genre choices are made before, during or after writing is unimportant.
But as soon as you are hoping to sell your book, you will need to think about what your potential reader is expecting from it, and in this, genre is a powerful ally.
If your book fits into a strong genre, then coordinate title and cover with genre, and readers will know what to expect.
This is part 3 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction: