When did the science fiction community start using “genre” as a proper noun?
“It’s a common thing in Genre.”
As though “Genre” is a city you can visit. Or a distinct community unified by being “Genre”.
It’s one of those linguistic ticks that arise on the internet. But for science fiction it’s also symbolic of a deeper problem – the belief that science fiction = genre fiction.
That’s a belief we badly need to get over.
Please don’t interpret this as an attack on science fiction. Truly, it’s quite the opposite. It’s an appeal for science fiction to give itself the respect it so often fails to get from others.
Imagine you have a super intelligent and talented friend. Let’s imagine they are a research scientist, producing stunning new insights into physical reality. But they insist on calling themselves a lab technician, they get paid as a lab technician, and they allow the results of their research to be co-opted by others.
(No offence to lab techs, no doubt you too rock the world)
Eventually you would want to sit that friend down and perform an intervention. You would want to tell them they need to stop labelling themselves a lab tech.
This is how I’ve felt about the science fiction community for DECADES.
Science fiction does not equal genre fiction
Science fiction has produced some of the most powerful, and financially successful, storytelling of the last few centuries.
So it’s really no surprise that when science fiction stories succeed, especially in terms of making a lot of money, you get imitations and copies pouring out of publishing houses and movie studios.
But it’s a bad mistake for people who know better, for the professionals and fans who know the field inside out, to conflate the original storytelling that defines science fiction, with the copies and imitations that make up 90% of what reaches the bookshelf or the cinema screen.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing when we define science fiction as genre fiction.
The Forever Argument
Authors, editors, critics and fans of science fiction love to argue over its definition. We have been doing it science the universe was young, and will still be doing it when our star is a dying ember.
Here’s the thing – we don’t need to resolve the argument over what science fiction is, to agree on what science fiction is not.
And science fiction is not genre fiction.
Genre is a part of all storytelling. Genre is a part of science fiction. But to define science AS genre fiction is to place it in a box marked “ignore”. Exactly the box you then want to escape from.
It’s my working thesis that science is 21st century myth making. It’s the creation of mythic visions for the age of science. It’s the act of giving meaning to the world we’re making with technology. Science fiction is a wonderful thing.
Science fiction is NOT telling the same old familiar stories over and over again.
Science fiction is NOT a bunch of tired tropes saying the same old things.
Science fiction is NOT genre fiction.
You don’t need to defend genre, you need to escape genre
At this point there will be people leaping to the defence of genre fiction. “There’s good stuff in genre etc etc” “People just need to look harder etc etc”.
Why create this confusion of science fiction and genre fiction, then expect other people to sort it out?
There’s a reason why you will struggle to find the term “science fiction” anywhere in the marketing for films like the upcoming Dune, or tv shows like Westworld.
The makers of those movies and shows don’t want to be limited by genre. They want them to be seen as original creations, even when adapted from older stories, and judged for what they have to say, not by the limited and low expectations of genre.
Let’s reclaim science fiction from genre fiction
It’s sad to see science fiction giving away so much of the value it creates. Its best ideas and their creators get lost in the slurry of genre, where nobody is looking for them.
Except eagle eyed cultural vultures. Much of the most successful mainstream storytelling of today, in literary fiction and high concept Hollywood movies, has been taken from science fiction.
The mainstream writers and movie makers who profit from those ideas rarely created them. These people aren’t creators, they are marketers. They know a good idea when they see it, and they know all those ideas need is NOT to be marketed as genre storytelling.
It’s a lesson many talented science fiction creators could profit from learning.
Advanced SciFi & Fantasy
Writing the 21st century myth
Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.
5 thoughts on “Genre fiction is the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction”
Maybe the best idea is to get rid of the phrase “genre fiction” altogether instead of letting those who don’t know lump science fiction, fantasy and horror (and possibly romance and mystery) all in one group, also called not mainstream fiction.
Much of it is genre fiction though. Just not all of it.
You said that science fiction is not retelling tropes and worn out ideas. Is this what you mean by genre fiction? With horror, we know it’s that genre because of the tropes that flourish, as dragons and magic are part of fantasy. Yet science fiction should break away from the tropes of spaceships and such and explore new territory, expanding our thinking of what’s possible. Just trying to wrap my brain around all you’re saying. I appreciate your posts as they’re quite thought-provoking, which has become sadly rare these days.
There’s a sub-genre now called Regency Fantasy. It only exists because of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Every other book in that genre is correctly called genre fiction. S&N is literature. Which now looks very much like the genre that imitated it. This happens over and over again with everything.
Seems there’s now a “literary” sub-genre for everything. We have gotten carried away with how many sub-genres exist. It’s almost like each book is its own sub-genre of the main one. It’s a shame corporations have subverted this genre conversation so that it’s all just dumped into the “genre” vat. I’m only looking for good books to read!