What's a genre for?

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to sci-fi, fantasy, horror and all the other things that come under the umbrella of ‘speculative fiction’. It might just be that elephant is called Genre. The question is, are we approaching the point where it's more of a hinderance than a brave new world?

The other day I read The New Future of Science Fiction by Gareth L. Powell (Ack-Ack Macaque, Angry Robot). The first lines of this article are, ‘Science fiction and Fantasy have always been genres prone to ‘movements’ and manifestos. They are slippery genres to classify, and each successive generation has had its own stab at pinning them down and redefining them.’

Powell’s message is clear - progress happens, it’s happening right now and it presents an exciting opportunity for writers and readers alike. We should embrace it, and ignore sub-editors hawking click-bait headlines like The Death of Science Ficiton! In his words, ‘rather than bemoaning the moribund state of fantastic fiction, or trying to distance themselves from the old guard, these new authors are instead building on the achievements of the past, and warping them into new and unexpected shapes – producing unique, individual work.’

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, after the burgeoning explosion of the science fiction in the 20th century into popular culture, that people are looking beyond familiar pastures now. There are familiar themes and elements to a great deal of all of the speculative genres these days. But then the same applies to literary fiction, romance, TV programmes and all the rest of, well, pretty much everything.

Now I don’t know about you, but to me that just sounds like the development of Art. That’s right, I used a capital A. Science fiction, fantasy, horror and all their lesser-known kin - it’s time for them to be welcomed into the fold. Just imagine a world where you didn’t meet people who said ‘I don’t like science fiction.’ Conceive, for a second, that people wait for you to tell them what it’s actually about.

It’s happening. Even in the mainstream Marvel blockbusters are staple now and Game of Thrones is enchanting the world, converting new fans every day. Sure, it’s ‘fantasy’, but it’s also political thriller, odd-couple comedy, good old-fashioned romantic melodrama and the rest. 

It’s almost as if the genre labels don't really mean that much.

At the other end of the spectrum Powell lists five novels at the front of the pack that redefine genre. They’re not the only ones though. We will bring you more soon:

Déjà Vu

A thriller first and foremost, this is a quest for identity and meaning in the early 21st century. Don’t expect to be wowed with gadgetry here, or bowled over by the cool lasers. There are greater forces at work in Déjà Vu, fundamental and universal. Hocking weaves a web that is as much about how we discover characters and how they discover themselves as it is about the exciting conclusion. (It’s got an exciting conclusion as well, obviously.) 

The Beauty

Aliya Whiteley is precisely the kind of writer Powell was talking about. She deftly turns all of the facets of speculative fiction to her favour so the most mundane of settings is subtly and fundamentally reconstructed. The central element to her stories are always the characters. It wouldn’t be fair of me to pin influences or labels on her. Suffice to say I find it’s best to leave expectations at the door. That or expect to be caught off-guard.

The Death of Science Fiction!

I couldn’t resist it. But you know what? I don’t think I’d mind if the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres died. It wouldn’t stop people writing those books. In fact, maybe it would mean more works bleeding into whatever territory is required to make it incredible.

I’ll leave you with Ward Shelley’s admirable attempt to make a timeline of science fiction. You’ll want to note that he starts it at ‘Fear and wonder’ before moving on to animism and legend. Now about those people who ‘don’t do sci-fi’…

Ward Shelley's The History of Science Fiction. You can check a high-res enlargement on his website if you want to start ticking things off.

Ward Shelley's The History of Science Fiction. You can check a high-res enlargement on his website if you want to start ticking things off.