All our genres be broken

Take a look at this marvellous think piece by Gareth L Powell on the problems with defining science fiction by its Golden Age origins.

(I should add that the Golden Age isn’t the origin of science fiction any more than McDonalds was the origin of the burger. It’s just the moment it got reduced in to a commodity.)

I’m a far more severe critic of the genre than Mr Powell. If the twitching body of the SF genre was in the boot of my Cadillac begging for one more chance at life, I’d put it out of its misery and give it an unmarked grave in the desert. Most of what was most interesting about science fiction happened before the term was coined, and most of what was most of interesting since has been desperately trying to escape the choke hold the label has over imaginative literature.

But fantasy is no better. Fantasy is one of the most basic functions of human psychology. The debate about the the value of fantasy, or the lack of value, has raged across philosophy and literature. The novel, beginning with Don Quixote and running to the present day, is a form implicitly concerned with the interrelation of fantasy and reality. And from this the fantasy genre has coagulated as a faux medieval setting and a pulp adventure quest story. Or a way of writing historical fiction that doesn’t require researching history.

Horror may be the worst of all. I enjoy reading some horror novels and there’s a renaissance of interesting writing in the genre coming up this year. But none of it is remotely horrific. Much of it is off putting, some of it repugnant. But mostly for the wrong reasons. I don’t find unexpected interruptions of reality by the weird at all scary. In fact, I kind of enjoy them. I’d love to find a coven of occultists in my home town. Those are the kind of people I’d like to go for a drink with.

The three central genres of imaginative fiction are broken. They’re an albatross around the neck of writers naturally drawn to the imagination who find themselves shoved in to one or other of these outmoded marketing categories. Let’s be shot of them, and find better ways to shape the wonders of the imagination for today’s generation of readers.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

10 thoughts on “All our genres be broken

  1. An interesting post, but I feel that something is missing at the end.
    Personally, I suspect anything “new” or “revolutionary” that could replace the various speculative genres will just be co-opted back into those very genres you have dead in the boot of your car.
    Fundamentally, though, are these genres broken? I don’t quite know if I buy Powell’s argument or your own harsher descriptions. Are most works of science fiction (or fantasy or horror) trash? Yes. But so is the majority of most works of literature. And, of course, trash is a subjective term. A harsh reader will see more trash while another may not see nearly so much. It is all a matter of taste.


    1. If we say that about 10% of what is professionally published in the genres is “not trash”, then I’m not aiming to belittle the value of that 10%. I think they need new labels. New marketing, in effect.


  2. “Classic” science fiction was a product of its cultural time and the concerns that drove it. Today the concerns have changed, along with the culture; therefore, writers are producing different kinds of stories. These do not fit in the genres established yesterday and, as a result, writers and readers chaff under the labels at hand.

    If the history of change tells us anything, either the genres will be radically redefined or new names will appear. My feeling, and hope as a writer, is that there will still be a need to tell stories that hold a mirror up to the present and image what its alternatives and possibilities are.


  3. I couldn’t disagree more. Science Fiction and Fantasy writing is alive and well. In fact, stronger and better than ever. Even Horror is seeing a resurgence with more and more terrific novels every year.

    On screen in film and TV we are virtually overwhelmed with choices. I remember the 1970s as desert of SF/F on screen. We were lucky if there was ONE SF/F show on TV. Now, there are more SF/F TV series than any one person could possibly watch.

    Let alone keep up with all of the major novel releases. Yes, in the 70s & 80s SF/F regularly made the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. Nowadays, SF rarely hits the NYT Best Seller lists but no doubt due to the fact that there are so many great novels to choose from.

    SF/F/H novels have improved in quality as well as in numbers. Here in the midst of the 10s and in the previous decade, we have seen significant and marvelous novels flourish. I cannot imagine a better time to be a fan of SF/F/H fiction.


  4. “Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms”. — Theodore Sturgeon, 1958.
    I thought this this whole faux debate seemed oddly familiar


    1. My intent in using the quote, which was in reference to your own Sturgeon’s Law “10%” argument three or four comments above, was not to introduce you to the content, but to mark the date – the “death of SF” so-called discussion has been taking place for more than 50 years.
      If you believe the contrary as you say, that the writing is alive and well, who cares what it’s called? If the genres have morphed and spread so far that they no longer encapsulate only the Golden Age writers, doesn’t that disprove Powell’s argument?
      Who do you honestly know, Damien, who introduces kids to science fiction via Asimov or Heinlein? How do Heinlein and The Hunger Games compare in shelf-inches at your local bookshop?
      This is a faux debate, an aunt sally that keeps columnists and academics fed and Margaret Atwood ducking and diving, but in the end achieves little.
      I found Powell’s piece interesting, but it was woolly in the extreme. Jonathan McAlmont has a far superior piece (, with which I’m sure you’re familiar, on the dead hand of Golden Agers “guiding” current SF.
      Powell’s piece, by contrast, manages to not define what he meant by Golden Age science fiction, muddle it wholesale with the earlier age of pulp, and then doesn’t name anybody who is supposedly defining the current state of the genre by either era’s standards. It does however, manage to namecheck most of his own books – that’s modern marketing for you.
      As for your solution, I think calling for “new marketing” or new labels to solve this supposed problem will just make the current trend toward fragmentation more pronounced and probably make those subgenres more sclerotic. Wouldn’t “simian steampunk” be just as constricting a genre to a future writer as you find science fiction to be now?


      1. Science fiction is not about science. Fantasy is about reality. Horror is not horrific.

        These are not good names.

        I don’t know McAlmont beyond being one of the little sect of SF fans who seem to spend their time BEING VERY ANGRY. I think they are just angry people, and SF is something they can vent at.

        Gareth on the other hand is critiquing something he actually loves, which is why what he says is interesting. I’m not really interested in proving or disproving anyones argument. Too many people mistake discussion for armed conflict.



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