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Why Science Fiction Is Not A Genre

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Apr 07 2012 · 386 views

Essays, Not Rants! 003: Why Science Fiction Is Not A Genre

Walk into any book store and you’ll find them sorted into categories. You’ve got your Fiction, Children’s, Military History, Home and Garden, Romance, Young Adult, the odd shelf titled ‘Young Adult Paranormal Romance’, and, of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s fairly obvious where books go, works of Fiction goes in fiction, kids’ books go in Children’s, non-fiction goes with its topic, and so on.

Now, a work of fiction, whether it’s set in 1950’s New York City, medieval England, or present day Rio De Janeiro, is classified as Fiction. But add a spaceship or another planet and it’s suddenly Science Fiction. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Space Opera or a gritty post-apocalyptic war, they all go on the same shelf. Wanna add an elf to your modern day crime drama? Same problem. Fantasy is fantasy, no matter the subject matter.

Why’s this the case? Dracula features a vampire and yet it’s put in Fiction. Animal Farm has talking animals that run a farm and it’s in Fiction. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a weird dystopian novel with tropes straight out of science-fiction but it gets classified along with ‘proper literature’.

I realize my examples up there are all works that have been accepted as classics due to literary significance. So what about The Lord of The Rings? It’s got immense literary significance (reinvented the conventions associated with fantasy) and a truly epic plot with universal themes transcending its own story. So it gets put on the Fantasy shelf, and rightly so, because its setting is the archetypical fantasy world. Yet it’ll never be formally classified as ‘proper literature’.

The same idea extends to film. Super 8 is a movie about a bunch of kids making a movie. Throughout the plot they solidify their relationships with parents and each other; it’s about growing up. There’s also an alien in there, but it’s a plot device, not the point. But there’s an alien so it’s science fiction. Monsters has aliens too but it’s more like Lost in Translation than War of the Worlds. Once again, the titular monsters are a plot device, they exist to move the protagonists’ and the plot along. They’re not antagonists or even characters in the least. You could replace them with another trope and the plot would still work just as fine.
But because it’s an alien, it’s science fiction and thus not eligible for any ‘real’ awards. Super 8 and Monsters weren’t even considered for an Oscar because they’re science fiction and, ergo, not art.

My point is: the use of certain tropes doesn’t disqualify a work from being art. District 9 deconstructed much of what was accepted of a typical alien inversion. It was different and asked question normally never asked. Ender’s Game took the idea of the young hero and took it apart, adding the grief and trauma one would expect from such an event. They got their accolades from the science fiction community but beyond that, not much at all. Timothy’s Zahn’s work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe justified the movies and codified the universe. But because it could be written off as glorified Star Wars fan-fiction, no one outside the Star Wars fandom cares.

When it comes down to it, science fiction is a setting not a genre. Genres are romances and comedies, tragedies and dramas. A setting is a spaceship or downtown Chicago. The only real difference between science fiction and ‘regular’ fiction is setting. You have humorous science fiction (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), character focused drama (Firefly), and sweeping adventures of pure romance (Star Wars, natch). There are post-apocalyptic adventures and galactic tragedies. To lump all of them together under one category due to similar setting would be like categorizing a Jeffery Archer book, The Great Gatsby, and The Bourne Identity under the same genre because they’re all set in the 20th Century. A story having binary suns should not detract from its merit as a work of fiction. If it still engages and it still carries its themes then it’s literature all the same, right?

In any case, I still like science fiction. I like space. I like adventure.
And I’m willing to accept the stigma of being a science fiction fan if it means I get spaceships.

Writer’s Note: Granted, science fiction and fantasy have more than their share of shoddiness which unfortunately stereotypes the ‘genre’ as a whole. But within all that there are some brilliant gems. And shine they do.

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-Toa Lhikevikk-
Apr 07 2012 05:18 PM
It's especially annoying when works like The Lord of Rings get lumped in with science fiction as well.
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It's especially annoying when works like The Lord of Rings get lumped in with science fiction as well.

Or when you find a copy of Hitchiker's Guide between two dumb romance novels that involve yet another human/vampire romance.
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I think part of the issue is that some SF/Fantasy (both good and bad) tries to make the setting into the genre. For example, speculative fiction tends to take an element of the setting (a new technology, for example) and extrapolates a plot from the effects of that element being present. As a result, the genre and the setting are confused in the eyes of the public, and it becomes much easier to assume that something with that setting is going to be defined wholly by that setting. Thus SF and Fantasy tend to be lumped together - they're seen as one genre of "let the setting dictate the plot", which, while sometimes true, is hardly always the case.
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I know some people who hate that SF and Fantasy are put together, but one reasoning for it that I read is that authors who write SF also typically write Fantasy (and vise versa) so putting them together makes more sense.

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Apr 07 2012 08:46 PM
Good points, all of ya'll. My issue isn't so much about putitng SF and Fantasy together so much as with them being cordoned off into their own little niche with little literary merit.

And GSR, you heard of Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction?
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I have now (ah, the information age.) I particularly like the examples provided by the page I read about it on:

Gadget sci-fi: Man invents car, holds lecture about his invention.
Adventure sci-fi: Man invents car, gets into a car chase with a villain.
Social sci fi: Man invents car, gets stuck in traffic in the suburbs.

Reading this makes me think: another reason the idea of a SF/Fantasy setting defining the work is so prevalent is probably by dint of the reasoning behind having such a setting in the first place - why set something in the future if you're not going to make good use of such?

However, as to why the 'genre' is looked down upon - I think that when not written very well, any of these kinds of sci-fi or fantasy can easily slip from engaging the reader with their unique setting and its implications to simply feeling show-offy. People instinctively can relate to more realistic settings even if the author fails to make the reader connect with them, but in a fantasy or sci-fi context, the onus is entirely upon the author to make the reader care about the setting. If they can't, it's the equivalent of showing off your new phone to your cat - what does your cat care about your new phone? The shiny lights might draw attention for a bit, but after that he's more concerned with the mouse toy in the corner.
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Zarkan: Master of Storms
Apr 08 2012 12:59 PM

But because it’s an alien, it’s science fiction and thus not eligible for any ‘real’ awards. Super 8 and Monsters weren’t even considered for an Oscar because they’re science fiction and, ergo, not art.

Well, I would say this in particular is more the result of the Academy Awards being extremely out of touch with the general public than anything else. This is the organization that didn't give The Dark Knight a best picture nomination, even though it was one of the most critically acclaimed and commerically sucessful movies of the year.
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-Toa Lhikevikk-
Apr 14 2012 07:54 PM
Random question: was there ever an Essays, Not Rants! 002, and if there was, what happened to it?
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