Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Science Fiction categories, part 1

All science fiction can be divided into two categories...

Uh, yeah, that’s true, but the problem is what two categories are they? There are probably as many different categorization breakdowns of science fiction as there are definitions of it. And since I’ve never been afraid to offer my own definitions of sf, why should I shrink away from categorizing it either? So here goes...

All science fiction can be divided into genre versus non-genre. I know in this day and age that sounds a bit like a marketing category rather than a solid demarcation, but it really does make a difference in the type of science fiction being read. Genre science fiction is the offspring of Hugo Gernsback who isolated sf into magazines devoted to it during a time when all the pulp fiction magazines were fragmenting and genre-type fiction was either finding its own special niche or dying out. Gernsback’s definition of science fiction was a rather restrictive one, a restriction shown by the name itself which was coined by Gernsback, but it served the purpose of allowing true fans of science fiction, both readers and writers, to devote themselves to it divorced from outside influences. This concentration of efforts enabled science fiction writers to examine its ideas far beyond what could possibly be done in a more-scattered mainstream, as well as to explore those ideas in considerably more depth. Even though there were several dozen sf magazines being published at various times between 1927 and the present, most serious writers of the genre were familiar with virtually everything being done, certainly with everything important being done, so that writers regularly took an idea introduced by somebody else and expounded on it considerably. This feedback loop gave genre sf a wealth of well-developed ideas, many of which might be stunning to an outsider approaching the genre for the first time.

This might be one of the factors why science fiction which appeals to “outsiders” or the “mass public” tends to be old-fashioned to genre insiders–think Star Trek or Star Wars here–since its ideas are somewhat simpler and more easily accessible. But to a devoted insider, science fiction to some extent is ideas. Thus it is not surprising that even the finest examples of non-genre sf often appears weak in ideas or examining aspects of ideas which have been done decades ago and probably numerous times in genre sf. Look at two relatively recent examples of non-genre sf: Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs and Russell’s Sparrow. Both examine fairly standard genre ideas, one going back pre-genre to the seminal Frankenstein and the other at least as far as James Blish’s groundbreaking A Case of Conscience. Both received some resistance from lifelong insiders because they offer absolutely nothing new in the way of ideas but instead are purely literary examinations similar to what has been done in-genre decades ago. This is certainly not unprecedented, even in-genre, as writers continually examine traditional genre ideas with new foci. The main difference is that genre writers tend to explore more deeply ideas related to their topic that have floated through the genre for decades while non-genre writers show an obvious ignorance of them. Thus their works often demonstrate a naivite with regards to a topics that to a genre insider seems simplistic or even condescending. This seeming condescension along with its dearth of new, exciting ideas makes it unsurprising that some insiders reject non-genre sf as reflexively as some mainstream writers reject genre sf because their own primary image of sf comes from non-genre filmmakers warping and dumbing-down of the finest genre works.