Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clear cutting the Genre Jungle

We think of science fiction as being a relatively new phenomenon.  Even if you include the works of Jules Verne, that still only makes the genre 148 years old[1].  However, I would argue (as do many others) that science fiction has been with us since the beginning of the spoken language.  When early humans stared up at the stars and postulated reasons that they were up there, who put them there and whether or when they might want them back, the first science fiction stories found their grip. 

Speculative fictions have been used since the dawn of time to entertain and enlighten, to help us to accept and process our fears and hopes as they were reflected by the unknown and the unknowable. 

When Jules Verne put us at the center of the earth, on the moon or 20,000 Leagues deep he was expressing the popular scientific ideas of our time, the potential of the industrial revolution, and the latent fears of his age -- that our technologies were maturing faster than our culture.  During the 1950's, science fiction achieved its golden age in that heady moment when the industrial revolution surged forward once more and our hopes and fears got tangled in a time of cold war paranoia.  In a time when our culture wasn't willing to look inward with clear eyes, some of America's finest writers showed us ourselves in the mirror of the sky.  Aliens and robots infiltrated our world as a stand-in for our fears of communists and flying saucers came to get us because our official narrative was that atomic power was our Great Hope even as school children were taught to duck and cover. 

As the Soviet war machine crumbled, we turned simultaneously to more hopeful messages of Utopian visions and turned to the likes of Gene Roddenberry's quietly subversive*[2] Star Trek even as our fears of ourselves cranked ever inward.  Star Trek's hopeful future was always at war with the apocalyptic and dystopian visions of the cyberpunks and with the dawning of the new century, our fear of ourselves gave rise to shambling hordes of zombies.  With the 21st century dawning as a time when our greatest fears are infectious diseases, the onus of exploring our fears shifted ever more heavily onto the shoulders of the horror writers who once spent their ink on the spooky and  supernatural.

In some ways, this frees science fiction to return to celestial matters and even though the dystopian continues to infect the culture (see Firefly), we're slowly returning to the idea that our future lies in our hope of a better place elsewhere.  Even when we look back, our eyes have a gauze of the fantastic drawn over them embodied best by the advent of Steampunk.

Science fiction has long been uneasy bedfellow to that other monolith of the speculative, the fantasy novel.  The roots of this lie in the fact that what was science in an earlier time becomes the fantasy of the present.  And is further complicated by movies and novels of the Star Wars variety which use of science fiction as a setting rather than a mission, using it as a language and framework to explore our imaginative realms with little regard for how, or if, the things we’re talking about would actually work in any sort of scientific way.

Many authors and fans of the science factor bridle at this comingling of science fiction and fantasy in the bookstores and movieplexes.  As you might imagine, I personally think that there’s nothing wrong with using an existing framework to just have a little harmless fun.  Howard Carter Saves the Earth certainly swims in that end of the pool.  

I bring all of this up because I firmly believe that the genre distinctions that I’m describing are evaporating far more quickly than we can argue about where the borders lie.  Genre is and always has been largely a matter of marketing and it is an illusory map that we’ve drawn for ourselves to help our fans find our works in libraries and bookstores.  But in a world where the library and the bookstore are virtual, where it would be shelved is less meaningful than what it might be tagged in a database.

Think of a tag as a keyword or category label. Tags can both help you find items on the Amazon site as well as provide an easy way for you to "remember" and classify items for later recall.”

At Amazon, a book like Howard Carter might be tagged with any of the following: young adult, adventure, comedy, humor, science fiction, government conspiracies, time travel, mad scientists, robots, science fiction, giant robots and any one of a dozen or so more.  

Out of curiosity, I went and clicked on those tags and looked at what -- other than any other books I write -- Howard Carter will be “shelved” alongside at Amazon.  I was surprised to discover that Howard, who would live comfortably in either the YA or science fiction/fantasy sections of any bookstore or library, would share the monitor screen with the likes of  The Dangerous Book for Boys and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, both of which I sort of expected, but also Eat, Pray, Love (I kid you not), a boatload of adventure novels I’ve never heard of, and for better or worse, the Wedding Crashers DVD.

Now, I’m the first to admit that the latter half of that list is pretty silly.  I sincerely doubt anyone will ever say “I loved Eat, Pray, Love, let’s go read this book Howard Carter Saves the World.  Never mind the big robot on the cover; I’m sure they’ll be exactly alike.”  But it does illustrate how far the barriers have eroded. 

Readers of books much closer to Howard Carter might stumble across my funny little book from more likely crossover titles ranging from Hitchhiker’s Guide to Harry Potter and even places that wouldn’t normally be on the same floor in a brick & mortar store like Catcher in the Rye.  Not because I think I belong on the shelf next to Mr. Salinger, but because the database doesn’t really care what I or Mr. Salinger might think about it -- a book is a book and a coming-of-age story is a coming-of-age story.

Science Fiction has always been a way of exploring the hopes and fears that lie in the unknown.  In some ways Howard Carter is an expression of my own hopes and fears for what this future world without genre might hold.  In a time when everyone -- myself included -- are bemoaning the death of the physical bookstores, it’s worth it to pause and reflect on some of the other changes that are happening in the shadow of the battle between the real and the virtual.

Just as the clear cutting of any real jungle is not adviseable, I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to just wipe out the delicate ecosystems that have evolved in our bookstores and libraries just because we are transferring to a virtual economy.  But maybe that's just because the most basic concern of all humankind is shelter and at the moment the entire literary world is looking askance at the future and asking "Once this is gone, where shall we live?"

Or maybe it's just time for us to evolve.  Maybe it's time for the literary amphibians, a time for both readers and writers to make themselves at home in more than one environment.  Or is that just my Utopian ideals surfacing again?  Only the future knows for sure...


[1] Verne wrote Paris in the 20th Century in 1863, though it wasn't actually published until the 1990's.  Journey to the Center of the Earth would be published a year later.

[2] Don't think of Star Trek as subversive?  The original Star Trek debuted in the disaffected years of the Viet Nam era, in the heart of the Johnson Administration, after the assassination of Kennedy and what was viewed by my father's generation as the fall of the dream of an American Camelot.  It took place in a future where money was meaningless and the striving of capitalist societies were viewed with distaste.  Which, considering the tone and tenor of the time, makes it pretty darned subversive.

1 comment:

  1. For the record, today's blog post isn't about ignoring genre conventions in the here & now. For better or worse, this is the ecosystem in which we have evolved and thrived. It's speculating about what I think is coming, not what I think is now viable for a writer.

    I assure you that publishers and literary agencies remain devoted to the genre conventions and if you want mainstream publication, you will still get nowhere quickly thinking that genre is a dead concept. It is being eroded, but that's a generational change, not a light switch we can flick as it suits us.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).