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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Guest Post: The Polarization of Genre Fiction by David Chandler

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When I was maybe ten years old I asked myself whether I preferred science fiction novels or fantasy novels.  My eventual decision was that I should prefer SF, since some day I might live on the moon, while I knew I was never going to see a real dragon.

Don’t judge.  It was the seventies, and we had a space program back then.

It was a weighty decision that took all of a lazy summer afternoon lying in a hammock in my back yard, listening to the swelling mechanical sound of the crickets all around me.  When I’d made up my mind, I nodded quite seriously to myself, and got back to the important business of reading.

Books were everything to me back then (they still are, but in a different way).  I read everything I could get my hands on, anything remotely related to genre.  I tried for a couple of days to stick to
just science fiction, but by the end of that summer I had probably read all of Thomas Covenant and C.S. Lewis and re-read the Hobbit, too.
You see, back then, despite my ten year old dilemma, there was no real need to make a choice.  You could have your fantasy and your science fiction and Stephen King and the more promising mysteries your mom checked out of the library, too.  You could have weird conspiracy books like the Illuminatus Trilogy, and bizarre hybrids like A Princess of Mars.  The big distinction between “genre” and “mainstream” was the only dividing line.  I had no interest in reading about alcoholic college professors contemplating their failed marriages.  I wanted adventure, and flashing swords (light-sabers or cavalry sabers, it was all the same) and desperate chases across dead sea bottoms on distant planets.  I wanted every story anyone wanted to tell.

So why, in the 21st century, is that kind of broad reading no longer possible?
Genre readers have split into camps.  Science fiction fans, especially those “hard SF” types, turn up their noses at anything resembling a magic sword… though variable swords with monomolecular blades are just fine.  And the devotees of Low Fantasy (who can tell you, at length, the difference between their genre and Swords and Sorcery) laugh and point fingers at those “skiffy” types who need a graphic calculator to make sense of their favorite books.  Don’t even get me started on what the horror enthusiasts think of you.  It isn’t very nice.

But good God, why?  Why, when we’re already marginalized by the mainstream, disrespected by the press, and treated like overgrown children because we enjoy the sense of wonder, do we divide ourselves even further?  Why do we feel such a need to stratify our own in-group?

Part of the reason is that, well, we won.  Nerd Culture is suddenly cool (well, sort of) and we don’t have to hide our fandom anymore.  But in the process we lost something.  We used to be members of a despised but unified subculture, a secret society who shared common interests.  Now we’re the same as fans of Country and Western music, or Metalheads, or Foodies.  The wider culture has come to accept a little more weirdness and that’s a good thing… but it means we aren’t special anymore.  It means when we run into each other in chat rooms or at conventions, we don’t automatically know we’re among the like-minded.  A rabid Star Trek fan you meet online could also be your school’s head cheerleader, for goodness’ sake.  So there’s no need for solidarity, and, as a result, we don’t stick together.

But another part of the problem is that the subgenres have become too robust.  Fandoms, like species, diverge as they evolve.  There was a time when Science Fiction was about bug-eyed monsters and starships, and that made sense to someone who was into elves and dragons.  As the genres grew more sophisticated, though, they became less alike.  Now science fiction is about singularities and server farms, while fantasy is concerned more with Vikings and complicated magic systems.  Even worse, fantasy has evolved to become more character-driven and generational, while science fiction has become the new Literature of Ideas and Naturalistic, borrowing from Post-Modernism while fantasy subsumed Magical Realism.  That’s hardly something to complain about.  Genre books today are a lot more sophisticated and enjoyable for a graying audience than they were thirty years ago.  The genres have grown up.  My father’s favorite joke used to be that the Golden Age of science fiction was thirteen.  That’s not true anymore.  But it does make it difficult for the subgenres to cross-pollinate.
Which is, in the end, why this kind of polarization is a problem.

The great genre writers of previous generations saw no real distinction between science fiction and fantasy.  They were modes, tropes that you employed because they fit a given story better, but they were happy to jump from one genre to another without worrying what their fans might think.  Even a great of hard sf like Larry Niven would occasionally delve into fantasy (though usually with a smirk), while an incredible fantasy writer like Glen Cook could spend decades noodling on science fiction empire stories.  That just doesn’t happen anymore.  Richard K. Morgan and Terry Pratchett keep trying.  And they’re really good at it… but the fans greet their efforts with a polite nod and a pat on the back at best.  And that really is a problem.  Both science fiction and fantasy grew from the fertile soil of planetary romance (I’m simplifying history, I know, but the point is valid)—John Carter of Mars gave us both Conan the Cimmerian and Flash Gordon, and they begat all the heroes and villains we love today regardless of what side of the aisle we choose.  When we specialize our interests, though, we lose that link to the past.  We also lose the more daring experimenters.  I mentioned the Illuminatus Trilogy above.  Without the subcultural soil to nurture it, could a bizarre mutation like that ever occur in today’s marketplace?  It seems unlikely.
Evolutionary scientists will tell you what happens when a species over-specializes.  At first it thrives because it’s better at exploiting its environment than it was before.  But in the end, when environmental conditions change, the species can’t adapt quickly enough.  It loses out to more generalized organisms, which benefit from what is called hybrid vigor—the tendency of a diverse population to prosper where pure-breds fail.  At the height of the genre subculture we saw the best example of this.  Star Wars was the ultimate hybrid—a Science Fantasy if there ever was one.  If we divide our house into ever smaller slices of the genre pie, will we ever see its like again?


David Chandler is the author of the Ancient Blades trilogy, comprising Den of Thieves, A Thief in the Night, and Honor Among Thieves, all of which are currently available from Harper Voyager.  He promises they’re straight-up fantasy, with none of that icky science fiction stuff at all.

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  1. Blah blah blah, Death of Genre, blah blah blah. This species isn't over specializing: it's diversifying. You know why I listen to metal? Because there's death, black, doom, power, thrash, folk, classic, experimental, and many other types of metal. And yet there are metal purists who decry the death of the scene. It seems like we have the same non-problem here: there are more and more people reading more and more types of fiction. Why is that a problem? Diversity be no curse.


  2. Ben: I'm not sure he's making the argument you paraphrase in your comment. I don't disagree with you, but I think David's essay is more nuanced than that. His argument is focused on two points: 1) that over-diversity prevents cross-pollination; and 2) factions of the community have formed, which makes integration difficult.

    I think #2 is inaccurate to a certain degree. There are factions in the SF/F community, but they are on the margins. But #1 is a more compelling premise, since it does seem like cross-pollinating within the subgenres (and, perhaps, it is more apt to think of them as subcultural genres, since that is what David seems interested in) comes with great difficulty.

    I suspect this has more to do with the political inhibitions of groups within the genre than it does with a disinterest in the tropes (though there are bound to be some who disagree with certain tropes because it's not "good enough"). If you take, for example, the LGBT community: there is a noticeable and well-documented attempt to marginalized and disinherit them from the SF/F community. Such an attempt has failed miserably, but that doesn't mean factions haven't formed which make integration of ideas between such groups difficult.

    But that's how I viewed it.