Thursday, May 20, 2010

Controversial Statement of the Day

There is no such thing as a "science-fiction" genre. Or, for that matter, a fantasy one. These are just labels applied to books with certain narrative elements by people who are deeply uncomfortable with made-up things, and want to be sure that they can avoid any work of fiction that they can't pretend is real.

The proof is this: You can find a "pure" horror story, one that crosses no genre boundaries and is plain and simple an attempt to scare the ever-loving crap out of someone. (Like, say, "Friday the 13th", or "The Collector".) You can find a "pure" comedy, a "pure" romance, a "pure" drama, a "pure" adventure...

But it's impossible to find a science-fiction story that isn't also part of another genre. "Star Wars" is sci-fi/adventure, "Alien" is sci-fi/horror, "Ghostbusters" is sci-fi/comedy, "Dark City" is sci-fi/mystery/horror/adventure/horror/back-to-the-mystery-for-a-bit/romance/adventure...it's no coincidence that science-fiction/fantasy tends to be a pioneer in genre-blending. How can it not? It has to steal other genres simply to exist.

"Science-fiction" is simply a collection of narrative elements, involving speculations based on what we know of science, applied to stories in other genres. "Fantasy" is similar, but involves speculations based on what we used to think was true in science but now know better. (Which means that Isaac Asimov's "Lucky Starr" books went from being a sci-fi adventure series to a fantasy adventure series over the course of sixty years.) Neither one is a genre.

I am, of course, open to contradictions on this. Anyone want to cite a "pure" sci-fi or fantasy story? (Keeping in mind, of course, that "satire" is a genre.)

17 comments:

magidin said...

How would you rate things like "I, Robot" (the original cycle of stories, or the Harlan Ellison screenplay; not the stupid Will Smith version)? Or "2001: A Space Odyssey"?

lm3m said...

Gattaca always pops up as an example of a "just" science fiction film. In books I would say it gets a bit easier: Stranger in a Strange Land, or Dune. For fantasy how about the Hobbit?

magidin said...

I guess what you are saying is that "science-fiction" and "fantasy" are settings rather than genre, much like "victorian" (as in 'mysteries', 'romances', etc). There's certainly a lot of truth there. I would argue that there are some genres that are almost exclusive to the science-fiction/fantasy settings, like alternate history and space opera (I was going to throw in "quests" until I figured you could put in all the norse and icelandic sagas in there). But I would probably agree with you that it is more apt to describe them as settings/backgrounds. Answering my own question, "I, Robot" is probably a kind of 'locked-room mystery' (like the Agatha Christie novels); I'm still unsure on "2001", though.

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit it on the head (yet again).

I think 2001 qualifies as a mystery, on two levels. One HAL is the Who Done it, and the monoliths are more of a Who Done It/ Why Done it? but still a mystery.

Dune's political intrigue and or a Messiah story (which may or may not be the same thing depending on your upbringing).

The Hobbit's a basic Hero's Journey adventure tale.

Even Gattaca is a crime story told from the point of view of the criminal. What he needs to do to pull of the caper.

Jeff

D. Travis North said...

"2001": In book form, it was mystery/horror. In the movie form, it was much the same - but with a little bit of adventure trickled in. Dave fighting HAL? Classic.

"Gattaca": (one of my favorites, BTW) - I agree with the annonymous post - it is very much a crime story - but with several perspectives. Hawk's character was, in theory, the criminal. But there was also the murder mystery. Remember, his brother was the detective. But it was also somewhat of a romance as well (though greatly underplayed).

There is some potential in some of Ray Bradbury's work - specifically some of the short stories in "Martian Chronicles", or "R is for Rocket". Most of them were a blend of something. But many of the stories were purely sci-fi. "Frost and Fire", "R is For Rocket", "Rocket Man" and "Rocket Summer" - just to name a few - were focused entirely on the science element. There was no romance, no horror, no blending of genres. In the case of "Rocket Summer" - it was purely about rocket ships taking off. That's all.

I would contend that there is pure sci-fi - but it's few and far between. Very few authors could pull it off. And even the greats, like Bradbury, couldn't do it as a novel-length.

John Seavey said...

I'd say 2001 is a bit of a mystery, but it really is a strong candidate for "horror" for most of its length; let's face it, Kubrick is doing a very stylish version of the classic "killer computer" horror story that's beloved of technophobes everywhere. It's only the weird, trippy, inexplicable ending that confuses the issue.

Dune...hmm. I'd say it's a political thriller, with a bit of a historical epic to it. (Only the history is all made-up. You know, kind of like "JFK".)

Can't answer "Stranger in a Strange Land" because I never actually read it, but "The Hobbit" is a pretty straightforward adventure story. And yeah, Arturo, "I, Robot" falls under 'mystery' for me. Clever mysteries, too.

magidin said...

I'm not really sure that you are being too controversial when all is said and done. I'm sure I've read a lot of authors say essentially what you are saying: that science-fiction provides a setting, not a topic. It allows for certain kinds of exploration that would be difficult to do straightforwardly (or which you can take to more radical extremes in the science-fiction setting), but then so did "Gulliver's Travels" and the original Star Trek. Many extol the flexibility of science-fiction (and fantasy), which essentially is what you are talking about.

Acrophile said...

My one attempt to cite a "pure" science-fiction example would be "The Man Who Sold The Moon". It is an anthology of short-stories, which follow your line of thinking (mysteries, etc) excpet for one story: the opening story. It sets the stage for the entire book. Thhere is a science fiction jump-off point: Cold fusion. All the other stories have science-fiction as their *setting* as you say. But that opening story just tells the story of the figuring-out of cold fusion. A "What If" that is the creating force of any "pure" science fiction story. Maybe I'm wrong and it is definable as some other type of story, but I am also remembering reading it about 30 years ago!!! ;D

E. Wilson said...

How about Next by Michael Crichton, (RiP)? I don't think it's got enough action to qualify as 'adventure', and like most of his novels, the bulk of it is characters talking about the possibilities of the science they're interested in.

Elizabeth said...

That's probably why a lot of people will now refer to this genre as "speculative fiction", or simply SF. And, I would most certainly label Star Wars fantasy/adventure.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, and many people believe that the SF genre falls within the fantasy genre. Which I think is fair.

John Seavey said...

But whether they refer to it as science-fiction or speculative fiction, it's still not a genre. Characters in a "speculative fiction" don't actually just stand around speculating, they do things. :)

Dean said...

I think stories like THE HOBBIT are pure Fantasy stories. Saying that it is "just a Hero's Journey" is a bit of a cheat, since Joseph Campbell and JRR Tolkien were drawing on similar mythic sources. No genre springs fully formed from the air. It is all derived from an earlier, "purer" genre. I would argue that any consciously constructed Hero's Journey is, in fact, a fantasy story regardless of its setting.

However, I agree that both Sci-Fi and Fantasy are far more likely to be used as settings rather than as genres. The reason is pretty simple, it is much harder to devise an idea like sentient machines, or faster-than-light space travel than it is to apply that idea. Honestly, it is also more interesting to 99.99% of the population.

Jeremy said...

[ Can't answer "Stranger in a Strange Land" because I never actually read it ] = fail!

Pick it up; it'll be among the best few hours you've spent reading.

John Seavey said...

I'm sure I'll get to it, but keep in mind, I have an entire bookcase of books I own but haven't read. Not a bookshelf, a bookcase. :)

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Anonymous said...

You are playing games by contrasting items that are termed genre according to only one meaning of the word with items that are termed genre according to a different meaning of the word.

You also don't seem to understand what the term really means in any of its definitions.

This makes your request for a "pure" example absurd because of a language trick.

Also, those of us who study literature and the various notions to which the overused term "genre" has been applied think in terms of morphologies, and we do not delude ourselves into seeking "pure" forms. The closest equivalent is when we look at Ideal Genres in the same way that physical scientists look at Ideal Gasses -- something that helps one think but has no real life instantiation.