We’re spilling a lot of ink— well, spraying a lot of pixels— arguing about Science Fiction lately. Is it sick? If it is, what does its salvation look like? Is science fiction is the style of the pulps the only way forward for healthy science fiction? Is one form of scifi inferior to another form? Somewhere along the way, the assertion seems to have been made that splitting “Science Fiction & Fantasy” into “‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Fantasy'”– two separate genres.
Claims (With a Pratchett-captial ‘C’) have been made! Battle Lines have been drawn! Absurdity has been uttered! Wisdom has made itself known! Attempts to summarize a coherent message have been made, and the result is—
Well, the result is about 75 open browser tabs, and y’all are pushing my research on the Battle of Passchendaele off into the edge of the screen somewhere.
The Argument as I Understand It:
Once, in the Golden Age, Science Fiction and Fantasy was a genre, and all were happy. Then along came a man, praised by some and loathed by others, who changed the face of the Genre-sphere. One side claims he stripped the the genre of all excitement and thus helped pave the way for modern virtue-signal fiction; the other side claims that the Golden Age wasn’t really all that Golden, and most of it was crap, anyways, the same way most of it is crap now.The first side decided that the way forward was to, in fact, move backwards, and return to the Edenic existence of the Genre Monad. The second side thinks this is bunk, and the way forward is to focus on the superversive: the things that are true, good, and beautiful in fiction.
Like most arguments, I feel like there’s a lot of hyperbole being thrown around– and let’s face it, at least one party discussing this is known, in his own words, for “lobbing bombs.” That’s all well and good, I guess. It gets page views by enraging people. Maybe it furthers the discussion by making people feel the need to reply. There’s a downside to hyperbolic bombs, though: your message gets lost in the sensationalism.
The Genre and Genre.
A week or two ago, Daddy Warpig argued that there is no Hard SF— a claim that is ridiculous. There is, demonstrably, a sub-genre of science fiction that chooses to limit itself to science as we know it. Now, DW makes some decent points in his argument, but the article is flawed. What he’s describing– a narrative perspective that eschews anything unrealistic– isn’t hard SF; what he’s describing is mundane SF. Mundane SF might be a detestable rejection of everything the genre is, but it still exists. And even if we were talking about legitimate hard science fiction, it’s wrong to see the perspectives of scientific accuracy as buzzkills; it’s perfectly possible to write a joyous, pulpy adventure in a hard science fiction world. John C. Wright is very good at it. (Careful. TVTropes link.)
It would be terrible if the only thing in the world was Hard Scifi in much the same way it would be terrible if the only thing in the world for dinner was pepperoni pizza. Pepperoni pizza is pretty awesome, but it’s not going to hit the spot if you want tacos. But there’s more to the genre than Hard SciFi, isn’t there?
We’ve got space opera, cyberpunk, teampunk, military SF; dozens of subgenres and subsubgenres. Some have grown more popular. Some have faded with time. It’s what happens; tastes change. Now here’s what’s awesome about subgenres: I prefer stories that hit space opera notes, and I find steampunk somewhat overplayed. If I want a story that hits those space opera notes, I can safely avoid– usually– the steampunk authors. We shouldn’t be afraid to dream outside genre boundaries, but it’s handy to have that rough reference guide: “This is a story that I’m probably going to enjoy when I’m in this mood.”
The Way Forward
In several places, Daddy Warpig– and probably others– seem to suggest that the way to make written SF relevant again is to work to bring everything back under the aegis of “Science Fiction and Fantasy.” In general, I’m a fan of just writing your damn story and letting it go where you want it to– genres are a guide for readers, not the authors– but by insisting that everything SF fall under that category, you’re being just as prescriptivist as the folks who “chased out” all the fantasy from the SciFi world. Force anything into a mold, and you’ll break it. The way forward isn’t a return to an idyllic world of SF&F; it’s to tell your damn story in the way it needs to be told. Sometimes that will be a hard-to-classify genre mishmash; sometimes it’ll be a diamond-hard Hard SF story.
What’s critical isn’t the genre, subgenre, or subsubgenre. It’s the craft and the perspective.
A good science fiction story will look upward, towards the stars and away from the self.
A bad science fiction story will fixate downward, towards the ground and focus on the self.