Monday, August 25, 2014

The Taxonomy of Genre: Science Fiction as Supergenre

I recently stayed with Maureen Kincaid Speller and Paul Kincaid, two wonderful people whose book collections would make almost any sf fan drool.  One of the brief discussions we had before I headed off for my final days in London concerned the often pointless debates about what science fiction “is.”  Paul suggested that thinking of sf as a “genre” in the narrative sense is not accurate to the use of “genre.”  Unlike romance or crime, there is nothing unique to the narrative practice of sf that can be separated from everything else.  This might explain, for example, why there has been so much discussion about the nature of sf as a cross-pollinating genre – crossovers being so regular an occurrence that one would be hard pressed to find an sf text which does not cross over into other generic forms.

Paul’s observation, it seems to me, is spot on.  Even if I might define sf by such vague features as future time and extrapolation, these are merely functional terms to explain sf to someone who does not know what it is; outside of that narrow space, these definitions are practically useless, as the academic world has yet to define sf in any concrete, generally accepted sense – as opposed to other fields, such as biology, whose name defines itself (the study of life).  Likewise, no two people can agree on what sf “is,” with academics and non-academics alike debating the wide range of critical definitions, from Darko Suvin to Carl Freedman to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

During this conversation, I suggested that it might be more fruitful to think of sf as a supergenre rather than a straight genre, as doing so would allow us to apply the crossover potential of sf to a different set of parameters:  namely, the interaction of subgenres or genres with the supergenres to which they belong.  The supergenres would include realism, science fiction, and anti-realism, with the traditional genres of crime, romance, historicals, fantasy, and so on underneath.  These supergenres would not necessarily define the genres beneath them, but they would suggest a relationship between genres that moves beyond narrative practice, but never quite leaves it behind.  A fantasy novel might be as much historical as it is anti-realist; the former is a narrative practice, while the latter is a conceptual “game.”

In this respect, sf would be defined by its most basic roots – its conceptual concerns, not its narrative ones.  Futurity, extrapolation, and social or hard science, to give a rough sketch.  Of course, sf can interact with the other supergenres, producing sf-nal works which are more realistic than not (or the other way around); this seems a supergeneric necessity, as to define “realism” as anything other than “literature which attempts to represent the world as it is” would not allow for the widest range of possibilities, which I submit a supergenre requires in order to be defined as such.  A terminological shift from “as it is” to “as it could or might be” is fairly negligible in the long run.  Thus, an sf text can adhere to the rigors of science in its imagining of a possible real future, and a realist text can do the same in reverse order; whichever conceptual mode is dominant would determine the supergenre to which that text most aptly belongs, but the divisions would never be hard so as to discount the cross-supergeneric influences.  One might think of a typical Asimov or Bacigalupi novel as more sf-nal than realist and a Jane Rogers novel as more realist than sf-nal.  Naturally, this could make things rather messy.[1]  In a similar fashion, one might think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as both anti-realist and realist at once, which might suggest a contradiction if not for the fact that the rigor with which Tolkien wrote LOTR would seem to subvert the anti-realist tendencies of fantasy, if only minutely.  I’d suggest that LOTR is dominated by its anti-realist practices simply by being more tied to myth and folklore than to the Realist tradition (in the literary sense, not the supergeneric sense).  In that respect, one would place myth, fairy tales, and folklore firmly under the anti-realist banner.

Defining genre this way would also kill the endless discussions about how to classify texts which seem to borrow narrative traditions from all over the place.  A romantic comedy featuring a detective could be shoved into three separate genres (or subgenres), neither marring the value of the other in relation to the text.  Whether dominance should determine classification at this point is up to debate, though I suspect out of a need to keep conversations about texts relatively smooth and unencumbered one would need to focus on the dominant trait rather than apply a text’s multiplicities.  Outside of conversation, an acronymic practice might make things easier.[2]

These are all preliminary thoughts – ones which I’m expounding upon while on my train to London Victoria.  I do think they are worthwhile ones, though.  Expect more on this in the future.

And on that note:  I leave the comments to you lot.


[1]:  Obviously, this concept is only useful outside of the marketing apparatus.
[2]:  If one is clever, the acronyms could be turned into clever words.  A romantic comedy set in 18th century France would become a HRC, or “horic.”


  1. A conversation I wish I could have participated in!

    Is SF and Fantasy a grabbag of "genres. Maybe. Is it less distinct than it used to be? Yes, and I think that's part of the point here. SF is less...homogenized than it used to be, if it ever WAS homogenized. The tools and images of SF, appropriated elsewhere, make SF less of a distinct, singular genre, and more of a mass of things.

    Mark Charan's Newton's DRAKENFELD is a police procedural set in a fantasy world, but doesn't have a lot of the trappings of fantasy. Is it fantasy?

    Is author *intent* key to placing it in a genre?

    1. A couple things:

      1) Fantasy would *not* fall under the rubric of a supergenre. It would be a standard genre, as its narrative practice mandates a rupture with the real world. This would further break down into subgenres of fantasy, which one could debate if they had a lifetime.

      2) I don't think SF was ever actually *distinct* as a genre. It was codified as a perceived narrative practice, but aside from a small number of specific narrative types, none of which are unique to SF, it is wholly conceptual. In that sense, I don't agree that SF was ever homogenized. It appeared to be, but only because it was always borrowing from other generic traditions that existed in some form or another. We mistake those narrative practices as "SF-nal."

      3) I think authorial intent is irrelevant. In that sense, I'm firmly of the New Criticism type. In the domain of categorization, I just don't care what an author meant to do, as the reader's interpretation of a work is the only valid interpretation. The author does not control perception -- and shouldn't.

      So whether an author intends a work to be realist or SF or anti-realist doesn't much matter to me, in no small part because what someone perceives as "real" may not coincide with the accepted "real."


  2. If someone writes a police procedural set in 2050, is it science fiction? Does it matter if the author is a science fiction author, or an author police procedurals? My point being that there is something about science fiction which trumps all other descriptive elements of a text. Take, for example, a crime novel set during a past historical period - Lindsay Davis's Marcus Didius Falco novels, for instance, set in Imperial Rome. Are they crime novels or historical novels? Sue Grafton's W is for Wasted, published last year, is set in 1988. Both are considered crime novels...

    But then "crime", "mystery" or "police procedural" applies solely to the plot of a novel, whereas "science fiction" applies to the way in which the author has constructed the narrative - the deployment of everything from setting to characters to the tokens which enable the plot.

    1. It's the exact problem which I think lends weight to the supergenre idea. A supergenre serves as the overarching categorization of a text, marking its conceptual relationship to the world of the author. SF, as you rightly note, overrides much of the subgeneric text, though I would argue that has to do with its conceptual relationship to narrative, which is not easily exchangeable for something else (unlike, say, replacing a romance plot with a crime plot).

      I don't think we actually disagree here. Your second paragraph basically coincides with my view of genre, though the language we use is somewhat different.

    2. So do you view the In Death novels by J.D. Robb, which are police procedurals set in the 2050s written by romance writer Nora Roberts under a pen name, as science fiction?

      Cause the Robb books are mostly shelved under mystery/crime, though some also consider them romance or the hybrid subgenre romantic suspense because the strong relationship elements. Meanwhile, hardly anybody seems to realise that the series is also science fiction.

    3. In short: yes. That does not mean the other narrative genres don't apply, just that Robb's novels fall under the SF supergenre. From there one can classify the text based on its narrative tendencies.

      Just to clarify: I don't think my supergenre idea is useful as a marketing category. I'm not even sure one can replace the market with more efficient categories. That said, the marketing of sf does suggest it isn't narrative based, hich is unlike the other genres ("literature" not being one of them). Going into the sf section, one would be hard pressed to find a common narrative thread between every SF text. The same cannot be said for books on the romance section.