Genre, What Genre?

by Jason Block

Aug. 24, 2009

At some point just about every dedicated SFF fan  has gotten into one of those endless debates – is a certain book SF? Or is it really Fantasy? Hard or Soft? Regardless of how we categorize the tales we read, the reality is that it it can be difficult to tell the two genres apart.  Sometimes it’s easy, anything technological will go with SF, anything magical with Fantasy. The main tropes and symbols found in one genre don’t often show up in another.  But there’s a more fundamental way to look at the issue, at which point genre distinctions become irrelevant.

Historically speaking, novels evolved from epic fantasies – the epic romances of knights, magical beasts and chivalry that were popular in the late medieval period. Even now it’s difficult to find a novel in which there is not some element exaggerated to the point of unreality – whether it’s the Romance genre, lately so easily blended with fantasy and horror elements like sorcerers and werewolves,  or Science Fiction, which has always had elements which assumed so much about our technological progress that it is nothing short of fantasy. Hyperspace? FTL drives? What are those common tropes if not entirely fantastic, violating every known law of physics? How much of brand new SF is a kind of technological wish fulfillment, performing the same function as Fantasy, except the heroes have different gear?

In the context of the long history of books and novels, maybe the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree – maybe all our favorite genres are Fantasy at the core, like the first Romances of half a millennium ago.  Some of them have science in them to different degrees. Some of them focus on exaggerated and fantastic relationships between outlandish characters. Some still have swords and dragons. Isn’t a cop story or a mystery a kind of mythology about heroes seeking some kind of justice?

It seems like all these genres are blending together an awful lot lately – maybe because they are all fundamentally the same thing. If by ‘Fantasy’ we can mean anything which takes place in a state of radical difference or unreality, something that takes place in a setting either completely bizzarre or in which there is something fantastic or highly unlikely, it really is difficult to find any novel that couldn’t be called ‘Fantasy’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that genre distinctions are completely bad – I like to know which part of the bookstore to start in as much as the next person, but do we have to view genres as more than the arbitrary signposts that they are?  When we walk into a bookstore, what would happen to the way we think about genre if the SF/Fantasy section just had ‘Fantasy’ written above it, or had ‘Fantasy’ written first with the words ‘Science’ and ‘Fiction’ following? And isn’t Science Fiction also ‘Fiction and Literature’?

What would happen if the ‘sci-fi’ books were mixed in with the rest?  How long would there be such a thing as ‘science fiction’ at all, and how long would it be before more and more mainstream books had science fiction elements in them?

There are already Romances that are Mysteries, and mysteries set on other planets. There are Thrillers set in magical dark ages, and spy novels featuring romance and ancient, inhuman mystery. As fans then, maybe we shouldn’t pay so much attention to the minutiae of genre distinctions, maybe we should just share good stories with one another.

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