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.