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Posts tagged ‘Speculative Fiction’

CROSSROADS: An Exploration of Science Fiction Romance


Amazing Stories LogoFor this week’s Crossroads post at Amazing Stories, I take an in-depth look at science fiction romance, and explore how its non-literary pop culture support may contribute to it selling less than paranormal romance. There’s also an in-depth discussion of how its devices contribute or impede the sub-genre’s accessibility.

Please, stop by and take a look: CROSSROADS: Science Fiction Romance – a Niche Before Its Time?

Satire and the Fantastic


NOTE: Sorry for missing the post last week! It has been a really crazy several weeks, and I’ve been absolutely swamped offline as a result. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this week’s post even if it is a little bit behind schedule!

There is no art more serious than humor. That’s a short, earnest, declarative sentence made all the more powerful by the fact that it is true. For as long as I can remember, I have been in awe of literary satirists from Lucian of Samosata, to Voltaire, Swift, Twain, Morrow, Holt, and Pratchett. Their ability to move me, to make me laugh, and then to make me think represents the pinnacle in authorial skill: the same words doing triple duty, affecting readers through the years.

Just about every satirist I can think of relied on elements of the fantastic, and even if they did not use them in every work, its preponderance begs the question: why? Why is literary satire bound so tightly with the fantastic? And how does satire actually work in fiction in general, and speculative fiction in particular?

Satire, Distance, and Cognitive Estrangement

As I started researching this post, I found that defining satire is about as difficult as defining science fiction (and don’t get me started on that one!). It can be defined by its characteristics, by its tone, by its focus, by the author’s intentions, by the audience’s response. Sound familiar?

I consider a work to be satire if it both makes me laugh and simultaneously focuses my attention on real-world philosophical, ethical, metaphysical, or moral concerns. And if nothing else, I think that definition should give some indication of why I think Sir Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld novels examine politics (in the City Watch cycle), personal ethics (in the Witch cycle), metaphysics (in the Death cycle), civics (in the Moist von Lipwig books and others), and cultural values (in all the rest), is the greatest satirist since Mark Twain.

In order to be effective, speculative fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to take us out of our quotidian existence and put us into a mental state fit to internalize the content/themes of the story. While all fiction does this to some degree, speculative fiction characteristically employs more obvious devices to achieve this effect (e.g. neologisms, anachronisms, impossible actions/beasts, secondary worlds, etc.). If speculative fiction is the literature of actualized metaphor, the metaphors work because they allow us to look at our world from outside, from some measure of cognitive distance.

Satire operates the same way. Satire – both in the Juvenalian and Horatian sense – is effective only when its audience is cognitively estranged, when they are with the narrator inside the story’s frame, looking out at the real world with gazes weighted with judgment. Every satire needs this level of cognitive estrangement, whether the satire features fantastical elements (e.g. Lucian of Samosata’s A True History, Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock“, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), or retains its realism (e.g. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal“, or Heller’s Catch-22).

The (adult and broadly middle class) audience for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were estranged through both the vernacular voice used in the novel, along with the protagonist’s age and social class. The readers of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” were estranged by the sheer ridiculousness of his suggestion. And Heller’s readers were estranged by the portrayed lunacy of the war theater (itself arguably a secondary world).

But while satire can achieve cognitive estrangement without relying on the tools of speculative fiction, there is no genre that has done more to develop those tools. It should therefore come as no surprise that the two have a long and close relationship, or that so much of the best satire can be solidly placed in the aisles of science fiction and fantasy.

The Story Comes First: Serious Reading of Satire at Face Value

Satire is just like any other story: in order to be effective, it has to first work as a story in its own right. If there is no conflict, if there is no tension, if the characters fail to earn our engagement, it will ultimately fail to hold our attention. And if the satire fails to hold our attention, then it is ludicrous to suppose it will affect our judgment.

In this, satire is very different from comedy of the absurd (e.g. Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide series). Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Holt’s Flying Dutch, or James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah can all have their stories reduced to a plausible structure devoid of humor but still engaging.

Their basic plot structures and character functions could – conceivably – be played straight: read the plot description for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Hogfather on Wikipedia. Even summarized without the color and humor of the actual text, the stories themselves remain engaging.

I believe that satire’s ability to be read at face-value, devoid of any humor, is the foundation for the form’s strength. If at any level we look to fiction to find viable models for life, then a story’s ability to hold together under its own weight suggests that it communicates a workable worldview. Subconsciously, it establishes the credibility of the narrative, which I believe to be a necessary prerequisite for the satire’s message.

Whether satire features fantastical elements or not, the story has to be there for it to have any chance of working.

Incongruity, Humor, and the Fantastic

Psychologists and neurologists believe that humor arises out of the incongruous, out of a situation, event, or phrase which generates a cognitive dissonance between the audience’s expectations and the reality presented to them. Satire is humorous to the degree that it plays with reader expectations, and to the degree to which it introduces and maintains such incongruities.

Pratchett’s Discworld novels – which focus on wizards, dwarves, vampires, police, etc. – rely on a set of expectations developed from genre conventions. Reading within the genre and growing up in Western culture, we have certain expectations as to both the behavior of such characters and the values they hold. Pratchett’s humor derives from the incongruity of his characters’ simultaneous adherence to expected behavioral patterns, and to sensibilities and values recognizable from our real contemporary society.

We smile when Pratchett shows us the highly aristocratic, upper-crust Lady Sybil Ramkin…and portrays her as a down-to-earth volunteer devoted to saving much-maligned gastrically-challenged swamp dragons. Vampires with the blood-drinking equivalent of AA are so poignantly true-to-life that we cannot help but laugh. The humor is disarming, and that is the function that it serves within the broader text: it establishes a cognitive environment in which Pratchett’s themes can be explored through his characters. But it is not, perhaps paradoxically, his humor that makes his books into such effective satire.

Pratchett’s humor is broadly Juvenalian in nature, and it is very different from the more Horatian humor of James Morrow’s Godhead trilogy. The incongruity from which Morrow’s humor derives is more focused, and more central to the themes he wishes to explore. One cannot separate the incongruity of Morrow’s fantastical events (e.g. the comatose body of God) from the quotidian social reactions to those events (e.g. putting God on trial for crimes against humanity).

Divorced from the themes his characters wrestle with, Pratchett’s humor rarely extends beyond genre parody. To be clear, this is not a complaint: genre parody is important, and Pratchett executes on it so well as to be in a class all his own, but his satire happens in parallel to his humor, not as a result of it.

Character as the Source of Satire, Built on Story and Incongruity

Stories are effective when their characters have agency, when they must make difficult choices according to the values that they hold. When their held values are in mutual opposition (Tolstoy’s famous case of “two rights” pitted against each other), their story gains in drama and amplitude.

Satire itself derives from the application of incongruous values by characters who either hold to them or come to do so. Whether we’re talking about Voltaire’s Candide and Pangloss, Twain’s Huck Finn and Jim, Pratchett’s Captain Vimes and Death, or Morrow’s Martin Candle and Anthony Van Horne, it is the characters’ values applied in (fictional) practice that makes their stories satire. This is only possible because of an alignment between the incongruity employed by the story’s humor and its themes. This is the primary difference between satirists like Pratchett, Morrow, and Holt and humorists like Douglas Adams, Philip Reeve, or (to a lesser extent) A. Lee Martinez).

When a work of fiction uses humor but does not align the incongruity at its root with the broader themes of the story, then it fails to produce satire. It may still produce an excellent, entertaining, and even meaningful story. But it becomes a different kind of story, one that is plainly not satirical.

Douglas Adams, for example, can rightly be considered an absurdist. His novels, though hilarious and entertaining, lack the exploration of moral, ethical, or metaphysical themes common to true satire. His incongruous moments (e.g. the pot of flowers thinking “Not again” moments before its destruction) are used in an absurdist fashion, to highlight the impossibility of finding true meaning.

Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy uses humor to increase the accessibility of its characters and thus strengthen reader engagement with the overall story. But however well executed and enjoyable, the incongruity of setting and tone is independent and broadly unrelated to the books’ character-oriented themes.

A. Lee Martinez uses humor in a fashion more closely approaching the satirical, however his incongruities tend to fall short of unified alignment with his stories’ central themes. They are incidental or tonal in nature, used more to establish the character’s initial situation or the story’s narrative voice than to establish the particular themes explored by those characters.

I do not mean these comments as criticisms of these authors or their work, as their stories are all excellent, enjoyable, and often quite funny. Superficially, they resemble satire in that they rely on incongruity to produce humorous effects. But that is where the resemblance ends: lacking an alignment of incongruity, character, and theme, a work of fiction simply does not become satirical.

The Challenge Inherent in Satire

As I mentioned at the very start of this essay, I consider satire to be the single highest form of literary art. A true satirist must be an excellent storyteller, a consummate artist, and a deep thinker all at the same time.

To execute on the satirical imperative demands of the artist control over every aspect of their storytelling: the humor must be tightly controlled and painstakingly aligned with the themes of the story, the characters must be believably drawn even when divorced from the incongruities underlying the humor, and the events of the story must somehow hinge upon the values that are themselves inherent in the incongruity.

If that seems like the literary equivalent of juggling chainsaws while singing a pitch-perfect cantata and accompanying themselves on one foot when painting an oil-paint masterpiece with the other, well there’s a damn good reason for that. I am in awe of those writers who manage to pull off that trick, and I wish there were more of them.

NOTE: This is a pretty long essay (even for me) and I’ve touched on a lot of authors and titles here. I know some of you like when I provide a single list of referenced authors and works, so I hope this one helps!

On Where Genres Come From and How to Stitch Them Together


Victor Frankenstein had it easy. He had to muck about with viscera and body parts, and though the result was an eight-foot tall, sallow-skinned monster, at least human anatomy provided him with a map to follow. Writers don’t have such guidelines: the scope, direction, and style of our art is only constrained by the scope, direction, and style of our imaginations. And while such a wide-skyed vista might be freeing, our desire to navigate its uncharted expanse is precisely why we create genres.

Mommy, Where Do Genres Come From?

Most of what I’ve read about genres centers on three concerns:

1. Taxonomy What [set of] characteristics determine membership within a particular genre?
2. Interpretation How does a title’s membership within a genre affect the way it is interpreted?
3. Historical Application How do a critic’s views on genre taxonomy and interpretation work when applied retroactively to works that predate them? or When did a genre begin?

All three are interesting concerns, but they fail to address a fourth question that is – to me – just as interesting: for what purpose and by what process are genres created? To say that genres are created by booksellers or by readers puts the cart before the horse: a book has to be written before it can either be shelved somewhere or read. And this suggests to me that writers are the creators of genre: we develop genre as the scaffolding on which to assemble our stories. They are the blueprint that we use to stitch our monsters together.

Why Genre is Helpful to Writers

It is rather silly to look at a piece of writing – any writing – in isolation. All writing, all art, is in dialog with the writing, art, and culture which preceded it. Sometimes, that dialog may be overt and the writer conscious of it. Other times, that dialog may be inadvertent: a consequence of the writer’s subconscious interpretation of and response to their own idiosyncratic stimuli. But communication requires a shared substrate to be functional, and all writing uses words to produce its artistic effects. Our words are the cells in Frankenstein’s monster.

When we assemble those words into particular narrative constructs, when we structure our story in certain ways, we are building the muscles, sinews, and bones of our creation. These components, taken together, constitute the morphology of our story and help to guide the reader’s experience along the route our artistic vision demands. In that, the conventions of genre are a helpful shorthand, a finely-balanced compass that gets the reader to our destination.

Different genres have different strengths: thrillers get the blood pumping, category romance provides an escapist catharsis (note, that’s not a pejorative!), realistic literary fiction excels at intellectual exploration, science fiction produces a sense of wonder, etc. These are the responses that different narrative conventions evoke in the reader. When we understand how the text produces such responses, then we can begin to understand the art of storytelling.

And when we write, we apply – either knowingly or not – the tools and techniques that we have learned from other stories. We might say “That’s a cool trick – let’s play with that” or we might say “That’s an overplayed cliche – let’s subvert it”, but in each case we utilize our inspirations in our own work.

When one of us applies a particular technique, it is an individual act. But when enough of us use the same tool, our individual applications rapidly accrete to create a convention. When enough such conventions have accreted, then we look around and find that we have created a genre, or a style, or an artistic movement. And eventually, these conventions become tropes at which point their subversion becomes another convention, and the cycle repeats. In other words, genre is an emergent property of the act of writing.

Hybrid Monsters: How to Merge Genres

Much as I love readers, much as I respect booksellers, at a general level this process has nothing to do with either: it has everything to do with how writers experience stories and respond to them in our own work. But when we look at individual stories, at a particular writer’s specific application of a set of techniques, the (unknown and unknowable) reader’s experience becomes relevant. Will they be able to interpret it? And will they be able to enjoy it? The answers to these questions are, alas, never discrete. They are always found somewhere on a continuum that varies across readers, from one story to the next, and that are changeable in time. That’s why applying conventions from one genre alongside those from another can both be incredibly rewarding, and incredibly risky.

When done well, our words serve double (or triple) duty, eliciting the responses familiar from each of the genres we endeavor to blend. Consider John Crowley’s Little, Big or Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy: on the one hand, each story clearly employs the narrative conventions of disparate traditions of fantasy (interstitial/wainscot fantasy in one case, and secondary-world fantasy in the other). And yet both incorporate stylistic techniques more common to mainstream literary fiction.

When done poorly, the result is a story that is impossible to interpret or that fails to satisfy its audience. In one sense, this ties to the concept of the author’s contract with their reader: the reader goes into the story with a particular set of expectations, and if the story neither conforms to those expectations nor distracts the reader sufficiently to change them, then the reader will be dissatisfied. One example that comes to mind is the criticism often leveled against Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which in its attempt at existential philosophy broke with the prevailing thematic conventions established by the television series that preceded it while maintaining its aesthetic and structural conventions.

So what, then, is the trick to merging genres? I think the answer is to focus on the core of each genre. Though the creation of genre is an accretive process, at the heart of every genre there lies a kernel of convention so intrinsic to that genre’s function as to be indelible. That kernel is the core of the genre, what makes that genre distinct from its siblings. More often than not, that kernel even forms the root of the genre’s name: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, realism, etc.

The narrative devices that comprise the conventions of each genre contribute – in some fashion – to that kernel of genre truth. Identifying what that kernel is, and then determining particular narrative techniques that contribute to it gives us techniques that can be ported across genre lines.

For example: looking for a faster pace and heightened tension in your fantasy? Many commercial thrillers use short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences, and cliffhanger chapter-endings to contribute to that effect. Looking for a hint of the numinous in your realistic novel? The language of realized metaphor found in fantasy and myth might be just the ticket.

Though these are just two simple examples, the same principle can be adopted at all levels of storytelling: linguistic, structural, thematic, emotional, etc. So long as we focus on techniques that contribute to the genre’s core, I believe those techniques will play well outside of their “original” genre.

Maps Are Not the Journey

While genre conventions provide us with techniques and guidelines for how those techniques interact, they are no substitute for skillful storytelling. I do not advocate turning to genre conventions as a “paint-by-the-numbers” guidebook for aspiring writers. If that’s all you want, then I urge you to check out Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook (which, incidentally, is a fascinating morphological study of classic pulp plots – an interesting theoretical read in its own right, even if one doesn’t take its prescriptions to heart).

No amount of theory can make up for poor execution. The quality of our execution comes from a variety of factors, not least being our own creativity, the vibrancy of our imaginative vision, and our ability to communicate that vision to our audience. Without the skillful application of whatever genre-derived techniques we employ, we risk stories far less interesting than Victor Frankenstein’s eight-foot tall, yellow-skinned monster (though, to be fair, writing stories that interesting is hard!).

It is not the quality of the map – nor even that of the roads – that determines the quality of the journey. It is the skill of the navigator.

BEA 2012 (Day 2): Speculative Fiction Programming Rationale and the Death of a Teacher


NOTE: This is a recap post of the second day of BEA 2012 (Wednesday, June 6th). You can find my earlier review of the BEA Blogger Conference here, and my comments on the first day here.

Wednesday was definitely a light day at the expo. The crowds – which had already seemed thinner than in previous years – had thinned further, making it much easier to cross the show floor. I had visited most of the booths I had meant to visit the day before, so Wednesday became the day when I got to focus on programming, even though most of Wednesday’s programming was on topics entirely unrelated to speculative fiction.

Graphic Novels and Speculative Fiction

One of the aspects of BEA that I appreciate every year is that its graphic novel programming consistently focuses on graphic novels outside of the super-hero genre. Don’t get me wrong, I like well-written super hero stories, but I find they are rare and quite difficult to pull off well. The fact that the Graphic Novel Reporter’s panel on the “hottest graphic novels for 2012” featured only two super hero stories was much appreciated.

Yet, in looking at Wednesday’s programming I was a tad confused. Much as I love graphic novels, their sales across all outlets (let alone bookstores) are dwarfed by sales of speculative fiction. In 2010, graphic novels had sales of only $340 million (according to ICv2, via Publisher Weekly), while science fiction and fantasy had sales of $559 million (according to Simba Information, via the Romance Writers of America). Since 2010, I don’t believe these proportions have really changed. So why, then, does BEA feature three graphic novel events on its program to its one science fiction/fantasy event?

Consider: on Tuesday, BEA featured a Tor panel of speculative fiction authors (see my write up yesterday). And yes, there were a number of speculative fiction signings in-booth and at the signing tables. But that was it in terms of speculative fiction programming. By contrast, graphic novels had three events on Wednesday in addition to their signings: a session on hosting great graphic novel events, a “meet graphic novel authors” session, and an excellent review of the best graphic novels in 2012. Why don’t other genres – like speculative fiction, or romance, or mystery – get this kind of programming love?

Featuring this kind of programming for other genres would, I think, be just plain smart for BEA. It would give speculative fiction publishers (read: potential exhibitors) a chance to get in front of booksellers and librarians to better communicate how to move their titles. Even longstanding genres like speculative fiction have to educate the marketplace. And many of the booksellers and librarians who I spoke to at BEA are looking for exactly that kind of education: they might cite galleys and autographs as their cynical motivation, but everyone is there to learn.

The Death of a Teacher

While Wednesday was a light day in terms of the expo itself, the entire day was clouded by the announcement of Ray Bradbury’s death. I remember very clearly the book that got me into speculative fiction (in fact, I still have it). I was eight years old, and I had walked one and a half miles into town (an intimidating distance for an eight year old even in a small, safe town) to pick up some books with the change I’d gotten out of my piggy bank. I went to the little used bookstore we had in town, and wandered into darkened corners that smelled of cobwebs. And that’s where I found a small battered paperback for seventy five cents, face-out and with an awesome cover:

The Illustrated Man is what got me into speculative fiction. I begged my parents to stay up late so that I could scare myself reading it. It was darker, more serious, more magical than anything I’d read previously, and I was probably too young to really appreciate it. But it showed me what writing could be, showed me how words could open infinite reaches of imagination. Ray Bradbury is the writer who got me into speculative fiction, and his control of language got me into writing. Though I never met him, I feel a deep sense of loss to know that he has died.

Ray Bradbury’s greatest gift to us was to expose the sublime dark side of innocence, and in doing so to show us that the scary grown-up world remains magical. We have lost one of the greatest writers of the past hundred years, and I am sad.

BEA 2012 (Day 1): The Relationship of Speculative Fiction to Mainstream


NOTE: This is a brief write-up of Tuesday, June 5th, the first full day of BEA. You can find my write-up of the pre-BEA Book Bloggers Conference here, and I’ll do a write-up of the second day (Wednesday) tomorrow.

Overall Impressions of BEA 2012 and its Relationship to Speculative Fiction

Last year, speculative fiction was omnipresent at BEA, though subsumed by other genres (see my write-up here). This year, I got the impression that outside of YA, that trend has slowed. Yet that is not all bad: YA strikes me as the most vibrant category here at BEA, and it seems like half of the YA titles at BEA are speculative to some degree (take that, folks who claim YA has no SF!). But outside of YA, adult fiction publishers seem to be focusing on more mainstream titles.

Even the large houses (almost all of which have SF/F imprints) seem to be soft-selling their speculative lines at BEA year, with fewer signings and fewer galley giveaways than I’ve seen in the past. Of course, there are plenty of genre publisher parties and the like, but the official / formal presence at the expo is muted. I’m sure there are many solid economic reasons for this, and I’m also sure that it was carefully discussed and considered by the various publishers. Since I’m not privy to those discussions, I’m curious as to what they might be, and why adult speculative fiction is becoming increasingly sidelined at BEA.

The Tor Panel: Was It Preaching to the Choir?

The highlight of Tuesday’s speculative fiction programming, at least for me, was the panel of Tor authors who spoke to genre’s crossing into the mainstream. The panel featured Walter Mosley, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and John Scalzi and was moderated by Ryan Britt (of Tor.com). The discussion was definitely interesting, and as erudite and thoughtful as anything we could have heard from mainstream authors.

One statement from early in the panel struck me as particularly interesting: Walter Mosely said that “For a hundred and fifty years [weird] fiction has been preparing us for the world [we live in],” which the panelists suggested is why speculative fiction is and will remain relevant for readers and our culture. I cannot agree more.

Yet despite the panelist’s erudition and intelligence, I walked away with a worrying impression: looking around the audience, I saw many faces I recognized from the SF/F community. That’s not a bad thing, of course, since I love that community. But were the panelists preaching to the choir? I fear that in some ways, much of the rhetoric about speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream fiction is isolated within the confines of the genre. Are we just marinating in our own sauces? Or are we in fact engaging and educating booksellers, librarians, and consumers outside of our existing fanbase?

As I walk the aisles of BEA, the relative invisibility of speculative fiction makes me worry that we have been isolated in our ghetto for so long that we have become acclimated to its confines. Our narrative devices have escaped to live free and exciting lives across all genres. But as a component of the broader publishing industry, perhaps the creators, editors, salespeople, and booksellers who created and popularized those narrative devices in the first place should break out themselves.

Audiences love speculative fiction, which means booksellers and librarians should, too. Speculative fiction is all about powerful stories, and the genre itself has one. So why do we tell it so quietly?

Accessibility: Speculative Fiction’s Pernicious Strawman


NOTE: My thinking here is a bit of a tangential response to some of John H. Stevens’ recent Erudite Ogre columns over at SF Signal. I strongly recommend those columns as an insightful exploration of genre and genre identity. Here’s a link.

Once we create a work of art, the next step is to get that work into the hands of the largest (hopefully appreciative) audience we can. That’s a natural and universal desire, and it is this desire that lies at the root of the ever-present question faced and posed by speculative fiction writers: how can we get more people to read speculative fiction? But a real, substantive answer to that generalized question is a lot more complicated than the question itself. Which is why, more often than not, we re-formulate that question into the more tractable: why don’t more people read speculative fiction?

That question tends to elicit a Pavlovian response among fans and creators alike: SF needs to be more accessible. Characters over idea. Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, the question and its stock answers suffer from three related problems: first, they observe non-existent symptoms (audience disinterest in speculative fiction), and then misdiagnose the causes of their incorrect observations (accessibility), and prescribe the wrong medicine for the wrong illness (making SF more accessible).

Hypochondria in the Speculative Genre

The rumors of speculative fiction’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Those who claim that interest in speculative fiction is flagging must be living on a different planet. Consider:

  • Box Office Results. This past weekend, six of the top ten grossing movies were explicitly science fiction, fantasy, or horror. According to Rotten Tomatoes, their combined weekend gross was over $120 million, which represented 83% of the top ten combined weekend gross. If speculative fiction no longer resonated with audiences, would they flock to see alien invasions, science-based super heroes battling it out over New York, or vampires?
  • Adoption of SF Devices across Genres. Genre fans like to grumble that mainstream literary fiction is “stealing” genre devices (the fact that all literature steals from other literature tends to go conveniently unmentioned). But why would mainstream literary novels – neither marketed at genre cons or with genre markers on the cover – adopt the devices of a “failing” genre? It would be rather counterproductive. And the fact is that they aren’t. In fact, they are adopting new (for their genre) narrative devices that resonate with readers.
  • Young Adult Speculative Fiction is Going Gangbusters. The younger generation is devouring speculative fiction. But these younger readers don’t distinguish between science fiction, fantasy, and horror and older readers don’t notice what’s happening in YA (see my earlier rant on this score).

If speculative fiction were dying, then none of these three observable phenomena would hold true. What these trends do mean, however, is that a genre that spent most of its life cloistered in its own “genre ghetto” is now interfacing with a broader community – with new readers and new viewers, who are not as versed with genre history, or who are ostensibly not as focused on the issues that our community holds to (the future! big ideas!).

It is not that this new audience rejects speculative fiction: they simply value different aspects of it, and thus prefer certain types and flavors of SF. That’s evolving taste, and it is nothing new. Every genre – speculative fiction included – is at all times subject to the evolution of taste.

The Misdiagnosed Illness: Accessibility

Those who lament the death of speculative fiction look for a quick fix. That’s only natural, and I certainly understand the impulse. But much of the community tends to see both the illness and the solution in one place: accessibility.

Speculative fiction has spent so long in its ghetto that it has developed a natural superiority complex to “other” genres. This psychology has even filtered into our genre’s discourse: ours is the genre of ideas, ours is “high concept”, we build worlds, etc. That all of these statements are true, however, only makes it easier for us to (by implication) look down on works that lack SF elements. And “accessibility” is more of the same.

The concept of “accessibility” is vast, and it does contain many facets. But the least complicated, most easily-grasped dimension is that accessibility equals simplicity. When many of us say that SF needs to be “more accessible” what we are really saying is that it needs to be “less challenging” or “simpler”. You know, so that mainstream folks “can get it”. Fewer neologisms, less science, more unobtanium, etc. This is a solution that lets us retain our superiority: after all, we are the cognoscenti who grok the rarefied heights of speculative fiction. But to be more popular, we have to dumb it down for everyone else.

This type of thinking is wrong-headed. The fact is that “everyone else” groks SF just as much as we do. That’s why consumers lap it up in film, books, comics, television, etc. Time travel, alternate reality, dystopia, space travel, magic…these are no longer outré narrative devices: they have entered our social consciousness, have been absorbed and internalized by popular culture.

Terms like “accessibility” are dangerous because they make it too easy to prescribe simplistic and inaccurate solutions. For too many, they mischaracterize the symptoms, misdiagnose the illness, and prescribe the wrong treatment.

Engage-ability vs Accessibility

The dimension of accessibility that, I think, makes more sense and is more helpful (and more accurate) is not the degree to which a work of fiction is “accessible” or not. Instead, it is the degree to which its audience can engage with it.

Some might say they are the same, but that’s incorrect. Accessibility is a negative concept: it implies that someone “can’t get in.” But engagability (and yeah, I know that isn’t really a word…but it should be!) is a positive concept, and it is a lot more difficult to both define and achieve. To make a work more accessible is simple: just make it easier to follow, easier to understand. But how to make a work more engaging? How do we make a work of art more compelling for our audience? That is the question that keeps artists up at night, always has and always will.

Engagement with a work of fiction is driven by a host of factors, and the balance between those factors among different readers will vary significantly. That’s why it is so complicated. Some of us might value plausibility over excitement, or characterization over world-building. And even these are false dichotomies: the reality is a spectrum spanning all aspects of narrative.

Alas, I don’t have a prescription. I wish I knew how to make stories more engaging. I have my theories, but they work for me as a reader and me as a creator and might not work for either other readers or other creators.

If we write the stories we care about – stories that engage us intellectually, emotionally (whatever pushes our personal buttons) – then odds are those stories can find a like-minded audience. Getting the word out, informing that audience of these stories’ existence, is an entirely different challenge, and one in which the artist is only one actor among many (publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and yes, readers, all play a role). If we focus on the quality of the work, on making it as compelling and as engaging as possible, then by doing so we maximize the likelihood that it will develop a devoted audience. And an entirely separate discussion should be had around the marketing and promotional methods that can help maximize that audience’s size.

As creators of speculative fiction, we should rejoice that our potential audience – that segment of the population who can grok the devices we employ – is now so large, and growing every day. We should credit them with the intelligence to recognize compelling art when they see it. After all, we don’t like it when mainstream literary snobs condescend to us. Should we really return the favor?

eBooks and the Death and Ongoing Life of Genre


So the last couple of weeks have seen a lot of interesting discussion around the nature of genre, and the future of speculative fiction. What really got me going on this started in a fascinating Twitter discussion with @JMMcDermott and @EruditeOgre, and was then furthered by Elizabeth Bear’s hilarious essay at Clarkesworld, to which Abi Sutherland at Making Light offered a poignant rejoinder, and then Charles Stross posited that e-books will kill the concept of genre within our lifetimes. These essays are part of the periodic paroxysm of existential fright that grips genre aficionados about once every eighteen months. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the second book printed on a Gutenberg press was a polemic about the death of genre.

And yet, we come back to this question time and again because it does have value. It is valuable to us as both creators and consumers of speculative fiction, in that it forces us to explore our consensus definition of genre, and shapes the borders at which innovative creators strain. I have nothing significant to add to either Bear’s essay or Sutherland’s response, but Stross’ contention that “within another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die” (emphasis his) is one with which I strongly disagree.

Stross argues that the concept of genre is relevant inasmuch as it assists in channeling economic activity: facilitating the organization of physical books in a bookstore so as to aid consumer navigation, and indicating to consumers books which share characteristics with other titles they might have enjoyed. And yes, genre and the genre markers that adorn (so often laughably) book covers do serve these two purposes. And Stross is absolutely correct that as digital distribution of narrative increases (and potentially overtakes its analog ancestor) the relevance of genre to these economic functions will decrease (possibly to zero, though I doubt that). But this will not mark the death knell of genre for the simple reason that genre’s uses go beyond the two economic purposes he focuses on. To paraphrase V for Vendetta, genre is an idea. And ideas are very hard to kill.

The Idea of Genre

When we talk about genre – about speculative fiction, historical romance, literary fiction – we are engaging in an activity that separates homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom: pattern recognition. As we read and write, we notice patterns. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into our neurology, and it is something that our brain just does. And it is precisely this capacity for pattern recognition that gave rise to genres: when the first audience told the first storyteller to tell them a new story “like that previous one” genre was created.

Whenever we compare one work of art to another we are engaging in a discussion of genre. When we label a genre (mysteries, for example) we use that to define what Brian Attebery calls a “fuzzy set”: a porous, inexact understanding of shared characteristics. What I understand as “mystery” might differ significantly from your understanding. But if there is enough overlap in the characteristics that comprise our definitions, then my mystery and yours become compatible. And we can discuss them. At its heart, this is the core of genre. It does not have a purpose other than to group a set of narratives which share some common pattern. But such a pattern can be utilized for a variety of purposes – including, but not limited to those that Stross suggests may be doomed.

The Utility of Genre

Because genre is a construct that emerges from our human nature, we all use it. Consumers use it. Booksellers use it. So do publishers. And writers. And yes, even critics. But the ways in which each actor makes use of genre differ.

In essence, a consumer’s primary relationship with genre is to identify it when they see it. Whether consumers apply a genre label to a work of art or not, it is their consensus view of shared characteristics that ultimately defines a genre. Even if – as Stross describes – traditional genre labels (science fiction) grow more fragmented (becoming police procedural, cyberpunk, near-future), consumers will still rely on the concept of genre to differentiate between types of texts. But consumers do not operate in a vacuum: their view of characteristics is shaped by (and in turn shapes that of) all the other actors, especially other consumers.

It is in this sense that the idea of genre defining and being defined by a community arises: a mutual appreciation for a set of narrative characteristics implies further commonalities between people. It’s that old pattern recognition deal again: if we both like X, then we have similar tastes, we think the same way, we are fans, we are friends. And at extremes of identification, it becomes “we are Borg”. This natural sense of community is centered around the thorniest aspect of consumers’ relationship to genre: value (which stems partially from individual taste, and partially from socially-constructed norms). When we mix genre and community with value (which is wholly independent from either), then we get conflict. Bear in mind, however, that this conflict can occur either between genres (SF versus mainstream literary fiction) or even within a genre (e.g. light-hearted vs grimdark). Yet when such conflict arises, it ultimately strengthens community ties within genre, though this can lead to ghettoisation of genre (or sub-genre). And this evolving identification and valorization of genre and its constituent components feeds back into the other actors’ and their view of genre.

The backdrop to Stross’, Bear’s, and Sutherland’s points is that we now live in a world where the traditional lines conflict between various genre labels is fading. Today, one traditional genre (mainstream literary fiction) can blithely adopt the devices and conventions of another (magic, imaginary technology, etc.) and vice versa, all without finding its genre label changed. This is not – contrary to Stross’ point – an erosion of the concept of genre. It is merely the evolution of our current genre labels.

Booksellers – whose goal is to get a consumer to purchase a book – have the narrowest set of uses for genre, and rely most heavily upon genre labels and their external markers. They use the concept of genre in exactly the sense that Stross discusses: to help consumers find books that may appeal to them. The conventions of a genre and the intertextual dialog within and across genres is irrelevant to their needs: such an understanding will rarely help them sell a book. But having the ability to identify the characteristics endemic to a particular genre will tell the bookseller where to shelve the book, and give them a sense of what it may be similar to. For this particular group of actors, Stross is correct: ebooks are starting and will continue to disrupt both the process by which consumers find books that will appeal to them, and the reliance on physical genre markers (which brick and mortar stores need). But this is not to say that genre distinctions will become irrelevant. More fragmented, as Stross suggests, possibly. The list of “usual suspects” might change. Tag clouds might replace menu systems. And yes, “science fiction” may become a sub-genre of literary fiction. But writers will still write, and they will still write in dialog with one another, and they will still rely on conventions and characteristics in creative ways…thus perpetuating the existence of genre itself.

At one level, all writers are fervent consumers of the written word. They are passionate and vocal members of a self-defined community centered around the object of their appreciation: the genre of writing they enjoy and produce. But because writers are engaged in the production of art, they are by necessity forced to a greater awareness of the characteristics that constitute their chosen genre. And that awareness seeps into the writing, and manifests itself in the intertextuality many genres are known for. When we write, our oblique references and thematic responses to, and structural divergences from earlier writing within and outside of genre represents a dialog across years and bookshelves. Intertextuality is not limited to speculative fiction, though sometimes it seems like we think it is. All genres are intertextual, whether it is mainstream southern gothic or paranormal romance, and it is the writers’ role to direct the progression of their genres’ evolution. By choosing which characteristics to reject, which to adopt, and which to tweak writers are steering the ship of genre. Of course, provided that publishers print what they write.

I suspect that publishers have the most complicated relationship with genre, because they exist at the nexus of all other actors. In one sense, a publisher can be thought of as a collection of more specialized actors: senior management, editorial, design, sales, marketing/publicity, etc. Just as booksellers use genre to facilitate a consumers’ purchase of a book, publishers use genre to optimize their unit sales. Across all of the specialists within a publishing house, everyone must have an awareness of consumers’ approach to genre for the simple reason that the publisher is always chasing consumer taste, desperate to get ahead of it.

Consider how senior management responds to new trends through their imprint portfolio and list management strategy: is leprechaun fiction the hot new sub-genre? That makes it time to either buy an imprint that understands that sub-genre, or to expand the list into that arena. Which falls to editorial, who rely on their sense of genre to identify and position titles within their lists, as well as to provide a vocabulary for interacting with their writers. Editors work with writers to “make the best possible book” – but what that really means is that editors use an in-depth knowledge of narrative conventions (spanning all genres or particular to a particular one) to coax writers into optimizing their work such that value (the subjective assessment of quality simplistically represented through sales) can be maximized. Editors’ familiarity with genre conventions, with the bones of storytelling and structure, facilitate this discussion and help them to select the best (read: most likely to sell or earn critical acclaim) titles. Designers must use their awareness of how booksellers utilize genre to make choices about book specs and cover art. And marketing, sales, and publicity must all understand the relationship that consumers, critics, and booksellers all have with genre so as to engage with each group of stakeholders when and where appropriate. If the publisher or some department thereof does not understand the genre, then performance (as measured by sales) will be weakened. From the publishers’ perspective, value is equivalent to sales. But that is not necessarily the case: a book may be immensely valuable, but have rather abysmal sales. And to a great extent it falls to critics (and consumers) to direct this consideration.

In this context, I mean critics in a broader fashion than that of people who write book reviews. Instead, I mean all those individuals who engage with writing in a critical, exploratory fashion and who – as a consequence and over generations – shape consumer opinion and understanding. This includes professional reviewers, book bloggers, vocal consumers, and university professors. Each of these uses genre to explore four different subjects:

Quality The readability, entertainment value, and philosophical worth of a work of art.
Intertextual Relationships The relationship of one work of art to other works (essentially the exploration of the genre itself).
Cultural Observation The relationship between one work of art and our society or a subset thereof.
Writing Techniques The techniques through which a work of art achieves its effects.

The latter three subjects all require a fluency with genre characteristics to be successful. One cannot comment meaningfully on the intertextual relationship between John le Carré and Ian Fleming without being familiar with spy fiction. One cannot meaningfully explore SF fandom without knowing its community. And one cannot explore the structure and content of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland without knowing both epic fantasy and travel guide conventions. But it is the first critical subject – that of assessing quality – that is most problematic.

Critics are consumers first: they have their own tastes and their own predilections just as any other consumer. They are part of a community of readers and fans, whether they self-identify as such or not. Their tastes and membership of a particular community centered around one or more genres shapes their perception of quality: I know what I like, and I like what I know. The broader a critic’s familiarity with multiple genres, the deeper and more insightful the criticism they can provide. But the critics most (educated) consumers interact with are university professors, who are often woefully narrow in their tastes: whereas professional reviewers and bloggers tend to read widely, the modern academic world puts a premium on specialization. And when these critics’ critical assessments of quality run up against a consumer’s or another critic’s tastes, conflict is produced. When this happens repeatedly, we get into a conflict of community that gives us a ghettoisation of a particular genre. And so the cycle continues.

Quo vadis, genre?

So is Stross right that ebooks will doom genre? I don’t think so. As I’ve outlined above, ebooks will mostly affect two actors in the space that defines genre: booksellers and publishers. Consumers, writers, and critics (and for that matter editors and to a lesser extent designers) will continue to spot patterns in what they read and write, and they will continue to make future decisions/purchases based on the patterns they have identified. Until and unless our neural wiring gets completely redesigned, that is not going to change. At least, I hope it won’t.

The concept of genre is, I think, quite safe. But the particular genre labels and the relationships between those labels is likely to change. For one thing, as Stross points out, it will become more fragmented. But that fragmentation is the fate of every genre, as it fissions into sub-genre after sub-genre, until eventually a sub-genre eclipses in relevance the genre that spawned it. After all, that is exactly what happened with mainstream literary postmodern texts and the modernist fiction that preceded them. We will just have to work that much harder to stay abreast of changing genre labels and conventions. But this is nothing new (see my earlier rant about ignorance of contemporary YA SF).

But just because ebooks won’t wipe the concept of genre from the planet, the world of literature will nevertheless be changed by them. The internet is lousy with insight into how ebooks will affect publishers, and booksellers, and consumers, and writers. But I have seen no real discussion of how ebooks will affect literary criticism. I’d love to know what you folks think about that: I have only just started to think about this dimension of ebooks, and as it stands I don’t have any real opinions yet. What implications do ebooks have for literary criticism?

Explorations of Religion in Science Fiction…but what about Fantasy?


In the real world, organized religion is messy. It has inspired wars and peace treaties, marriages and shunnings, art and book burnings. It is incredibly varied, both between areas where different organized religions predominate and within each area as well. There is no aspect of human history – anywhere on the planet – where organized religion has not influenced and been influenced. It is only natural that our species’ fascination with the divine and its concomitant expression in the organized structures of society would figure prominently in our fiction. And when we look at speculative fiction, some of the greatest works explicitly deal with it (A Case of Conscience, The Sparrow, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.) and yet I find that they are almost always science fictional, as opposed to fantasy. Which leads me to wonder why?

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford and David Langford point out that science fiction’s roots lie in sixteenth and seventeenth century organized religion. And while fewer SF titles today deal explicitly with religion, it remains a theme that we return to time and time again. Here’s a brief overview of the ways in which science fiction explores religion:

Faith versus Reason One of religion’s functions is to provide an explanation for the reality we live in, and when scientific discovery expands the boundaries of that reality, organized religions have to either incorporate it into their faith or reject it. Naturally, science fiction – which pushes the boundaries of science – can mine this vein for rich conflict.

Syncretic Science Fiction By couching the descriptions and events of a story in scientific terms, some authors are able to construct a metaphor which achieves a syncretic unity between religion/faith and science.

Time Traveler vs Facts of Faith By taking certain articles of faith at face value, science fiction authors can explore the events and implications of the underlying tenets of (a usually Christian) faith.

Religion as Sociological Construct The role that religion – and in particular, organized religion – plays within society is another dimension that science fiction often explores.

The Identity of God An exploration of the borders between humanity and God, as well as an exploration of the more metaphysical/spiritual aspects of faith.

But is a similar table even possible for fantasy? I wracked my brain to come up with one, and simply couldn’t do it. Instead, when I trolled through my library looking for interesting secondary-world fantasies that explore religion, I almost always found:

  • A thinly-disguised version of the late medieval or early Renaissance Catholic Church.
  • A Corrupt Church riven by internal power struggles more tied to politics than faith.
  • A Church which usually bans the practice of magic, and hunts and kills magic practitioners.
  • A Church which dominates militarily and sociologically its sphere of influence…with relatively little diversity in its practitioners or its practice.
  • A Church which is opposed by some (usually implicitly pagan or animistic) external (read: savage) religion.

In the cases of some books, Christian religious scripture is literally appropriated to serve the purposes of the story. And while I don’t have a problem with this per se, the sheer frequency with which I see it makes me scratch my head. Shouldn’t secondary world fantasy be able to support and explore the more complex dimensions of religion? Must it always boil down to the (I think false) dichotomy of dogma versus magic?

To some extent, science fiction has an easier time of it because it can assume some reader familiarity with most major religions. As a result, there is less risk of bogging the story down with the world-building that a realistically complicated imagined religion demands. Is this weight of world-building the only reason why religion is so superficially addressed through fantasy? Or have I just missed the really interesting fantasy books that explore religion the way science fiction does?

The only examples that I can think of that do a good job with it are Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion, David Eddings’ Belgariad series (though this is somewhat debatable), Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Surely there are others? Am I just missing them?

The Aesthetics, Structure, and Themes of Noir Speculative Fiction


Last week on Twitter, I got into an interesting discussion on whether noir fiction is inimical to science fiction. The original conversation got fairly involved, and while we reached few conclusions (substantive discussions in 140 chars are tough!) the conversation made me wonder: is there something about the aesthetics, tropes, and themes of noir that make it oil to speculative fiction’s water?

The Components of Noir Fiction

In thinking it through, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we think of as “noir” is like any other genre: a broad spectrum of storytelling methods that at their basic root share some combination of the following traits (there may be more, but this is the list I came up with over lunch):

Stylistic / Tonal

  • Sparse prose lacking in emotional qualifiers (e.g. Dashiell Hammett).
  • Heavy use of juxtaposed similes rather than metaphor (e.g. Raymond Chandler).
  • Focus on realistic characters, plot, and and mimetic description (all).
  • Characters mired in a particular setting, situation, or themselves (all).
  • Sensory and simile-laden descriptions of atmospheric settings (all).
  • Hyper-localized (usually to a particular city) scope and setting (all).
  • Frank / mimetic treatment of violence and sex (all).

Structural Tropes

  • Innocent protagonist is wrongly accused of a crime.
  • The protagonist’s action is incited by competing interests who want the same thing.
  • The protagonist is betrayed by someone (typically a lover) he had trusted.
  • The love interest in need of saving turns out to be just as bad as the bad guys.
  • The femme fatale who excites self-loathing, pity, anger, and distrust.
  • The detective with a violent past.
  • Taciturn, bitter, damaged heroes.

Thematic

  • Moral protagonist at the whims of an amoral world.
  • Moral trajectory (clawing upwards or sliding downwards) of the flawed hero.
  • Unimportance of individual lives/crimes to the broader world.
  • The supposed futility of moral action.
  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.

Can all of these traits – or any of these traits – work in speculative fiction? Are there some that cause the narrative to break if combined with aspects of speculative storytelling?

Noir Stylings in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Noir is often called a style, rather than a genre, precisely because of its stable set of stylistic tendencies. It’s easy to spot a noir sentence: “The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel” (Raymond Chandler from The Big Sleep). Noir owes much of its stylistic roots to the 1930’s obsession with mimetic fiction. Yes, the stories are lurid and over-the-top. But that doesn’t change the fact that classic noir writers eschewed metaphor in favor of journalistic storytelling or colloquial simile. At the level of world choice and sentence construction, this aesthetic stands in sharp contrast to the way much speculative fiction is written.

Whether we’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, we are working with realized metaphors. Sure, sometimes a sword is just a sword. But Bilbo’s Sting is much more than a sword. Colonies mining selenium three in the asteroid belt? That’s an aspirational metaphor, a conceit, that the author asks us to accept for the sake of the story. While all fiction is – at some level – a metaphor, speculative fiction brings that metaphor forward: the very world in which it operates is meant to function according to different rules. For all we know, the physics and morality of that fictional universe are very different from our own. And it is the author’s job to engage us in that strange world.

The most common technique for establishing this world-building is to use an extended metaphor: to treat the unreal as if it were real. If the characters accept it, then so too will the reader. However, there is an inverse relationship between the familiarity of the story’s world and the work that the prose must do to communicate that world. Speculative fiction uses simile and metaphor to make the unfamiliar world understandable. Sparse descriptive prose works for the traditional noir story because it is – by definition – set in a world familiar to its readers. But in speculative fiction, layering simile upon simile and metaphor risks turning the story into a stylistic house of cards. Executed poorly, the story collapses under its own stylistic pretensions.

Applying a noir style to speculative fiction is an exercise in careful and precise balancing. On the one hand, we need to employ metaphor and simile to communicate our world-building. Yet on the other hand, we need to use sparse and carefully selected simile to give the story its emblematic noir feel. I suspect that achieving noir style is more difficult in fantasy than it is in science fiction.

Beneath its core speculative conceit, much science fiction aspires to a mimetic presentation of plausible action. As such, science fictional prose generally tends to rely less heavily on metaphor (besides its central world-building) than fantastical prose. Which is probably why I can think of many more science fiction novels which employ noir style than fantasies (George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran novels, William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, Richard Paul Russo’s Lt. Frank Carlucci novels, and A. Lee Martinez’ The Automatic Detective all come instantly to mind). Because fantastic prose relies more heavily on metaphor, it approaches noir more through its reliance on the classic tropes than through the style of its prose.

Tropes and Structure as a Window into Noir

We all know the noir hero when we see him: he’s wearing a trench coat beneath a streetlamp in the pouring rain, the smoke from a cigarette curling around the brim of his drenched fedora. You can see the weight of his history in his eyes. And while this kind of description is cliché, it is no less accurate for all that.

Noir and speculative fiction both share their roots in the pulps, and thus derive many of their stock characters from the same sources. It is hard not to see the connections between the tough-but-sensitive private eye, the cowboy with a past, or the scruffy space pirate. Noir structural tropes play well into the traditional independent ethos of much speculative fiction, which is probably one of the reasons why they so often get co-opted. And when the noir writing style won’t really work (as in much fantasy) then this puts that much weight onto the tropes and themes.

Consider for a moment Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The basic premise behind them (the only wizard in the phone book) is straight out of hard-boiled crime fiction. In fact, much urban fantasy relies on the structure of the classic noir story to shape its plot. Of course, such urban fantasy tends to straddle a spectrum of storytelling: for every horror-tinged Southern Gothic (like Southern Gods by John Horner Jacobs – see my review here) you have a PI tale (Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, Glen Cook’s Garrett PI, etc. ) or a criminal-as-good-guy (Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces).

However, it takes more than just using plot structures or character tropes intrinsic to the genre to make a speculative fiction story noir. Those that do it well (like the ones I just mentioned) start with other noir devices. For example, Butcher and Connolly both tend to employ fairly sparse, descriptive prose. Connolly and Jacobs both have frank, bare-knuckled approaches to violence. Hamilton is just as frank when it comes to sex, itself an “innovation” often laid at the feet of noir. Their books also tend to oscillate around themes familiar to readers of noir.

However, there are plenty of times when fantasy stories tack on the structures and tropes of noir as mere window dressing. For example, in Ellen Datlow’s enjoyable anthology Supernatural Noir (see my review here) there were a couple of stories which failed to go beyond the most superficial employment of noir tropes. And as a result, for me at least, they neither worked as noir, nor as good fiction.

The Thematic Dimensions of Noir and Speculative Fiction

In our Twitter discussion, Kip Manley raised the argument that science fiction, fantasy, horror, and noir can all be characterized by their relationship to modernity. And while I agree with that statement on its basic tenet, I think that the thematic exploration of all four genres can go much deeper. In particular, noir has always been much more concerned with the individual than with a broader generality. This was not always true of science fiction.

People often call science fiction the “literature of ideas”, and it is often criticized for prioritizing concept and technology over characterization. And for a long time, this criticism was pretty accurate. In our time, this type of idea-focused science fiction tends to reside in the “hard science fiction” sub-genre written by Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Ben Bova, and Gregory Benford. Fiction which places its thematic focus on the ideas (technological or sociological) is to a great degree inimical to noir. And that’s because noir‘s central thematic concern has always been the individual, who typically gets lost in hard SF.

And yet. Noir themes show up frequently in “less hard” science fiction, be it in space opera (Alastair Reynolds comes to mind), cyberpunk (William Gibson, George Alec Effinger) or near-future science fiction (Ian McDonald, Lauren Beukes). Alone, themes focusing on the individual and their struggle in an amoral universe are not enough to make a work of speculative fiction “noir“. Too much fiction – let alone speculative fiction – focuses on the individual. But where those themes appear with other nods in the direction of noir, whether in structure or style, then I think it is safe to call a work of speculative fiction noir or at least noir-inspired.

But what about fantasy? Just as hard science fiction is made inimical to noir through its central concerns, so too are certain branches of fantasy. For example, epic fantasy – by its epic scope – breaks noir‘s reliance on hyper-localized concerns. Even if, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels or N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (see my review of the second book here), an epic fantasy’s themes focus on the individual, by elevating that individual above the concerns of the everyman, an inherent trait of noir gets broken. Yet in plenty of other fantasy (and especially in urban fantasy), the hero’s everyman status is maintained and the story can safely be called noir.

How to Write Noir Speculative Fiction

In other words, I believe that there is no inherent reason why noir cannot be melded with speculative fiction, either in science fiction or in fantasy. The genres are not, as some would believe, mutually incompatible. However, it takes more effort on the writer’s part to take a piece of speculative fiction and give it a noir sensibility. If noir is composed of a combination of certain stylistic, structural, and thematic devices then the use of any one of those devices isn’t enough to give speculative fiction a sheen of noir. To really meld the genres, the writing needs to combine multiple dimensions of noir: style and tropes, or style and themes, or themes and tropes. Which is why doing that kind of noir mash-up well is so bloody difficult.

And because I love me some lists, here are a bunch of excellent speculative fiction books that I consider to be rather noirish:

Science Fiction Fantasy

REVIEW: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre by Tzvetan Todorov


Title: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Author: Tzvetan Todorov
Pub Date: 1970 (French)
1975 (English)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A relevant exploration of a narrow sub-genre within fantasy, applicable beyond its borders.

Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year’s: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov’s classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Of course, I’d read about Todorov many times before. I’d even read a couple essays he’d written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.

The book’s title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun “Fantastic” it is a short leap to the modern genre of “fantasy” – and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrup Frye or a Wayne Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the “uncanny”) and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the “marvelous”).

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

To put it another way, Todorov’s uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It’s like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov’s “marvelous” stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov’s “fantastic” genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.

This is a much narrower definition of “the fantastic” than “fantasy” would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov’s “marvelous” camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.

The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov’s painstakingly detailed definition of “hesitation” or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let’s face it: there are few Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.

Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.

In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed “classic” texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the “respectable” light of academia.

In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov’s work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.

All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.

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