Well, obviously, not every genre distinction possible, because genre is a mutating beast that shifts and shapes and becomes something else again at a moment’s notice. But when it comes to the SFF genres and how they’re broken down into ever more minuscule sub-sub-sub genres, I thought I was across the commonly accepted terminology.
Apparently not. For there I was, scrolling through Facebook, when an article from a good half-decade ago was thrown up in my face which made the distinction between “Science Fiction” (i.e. good, intelligent, thoughtful, hard-science) and “Sci-Fi” (i.e. ostensibly crap, mass-market populist space opera bullshit based on dodgy science). Yeah, it’s that kind of article. Full of hierarchical dichotomies positing the author’s passions at the top and everything they’re not down the bottom.
Look, I only clicked because the person posting it said it was funny.*
I’ve not seen that particular distinction made between Science Fiction and Sci-Fi before, and considering the amount of reading I do on genre theory, I’d have expected to have come across it. If it really were a thing, I mean. Which it’s not. It was just one guy’s not-so-subtle argument that what he liked = good, and what he didn’t like = bad. He was wrong in just about every way, because mass-market or populist or space opera can be as high quality as any other type of fiction, and hard-science science fiction can be as dull and boring and awful as… well, any other type of fiction.
Human beings do like to categorise the things they love into boxes of ever diminishing size. I write Speculative Fiction myself and if that’s not an umbrella term for every fantastic and fantastical genre, up to and including the ones claiming Science with a capital Sci, then gothic-urban-bodyhorror-posthumanism is not the classic field of literature we all know it is.
It’s a patterns thing. We’re undoubtedly hard-wired for it because, I don’t know, primitive man needed to see patterns to escape tigers in the jungle or something. I’m sure the evolutionary biologists could tell me. That ain’t my field. But one thing writing and reading over the years has taught me, it’s human beings like to break the universe around them into ever smaller bits and fit those bits into easily classifiable categories and then argue about them with a passion that defies religion.
Believe me. I’m a librarian and information manager by training. I know about classification.
And the one thing I do know very well, after a long career in taxonomy creation and information organisation in any number of forms, is that such classifications and taxonomies are never, ever, neutral. They’re simply loaded-up with meaning and bias.
Anybody who studies genre knows this already, of course. Most casual readers of genre are pretty well aware of it too, at least the self-aware ones. And certainly librarians, information managers and anyone even vaguely acquainted with taxonomy creation is well aware of the human bias that comes with any classification system.
Just look at good old Dewey Decimal Classification, probably used by more libraries worldwide than any other system. Christianity and its related subjects get practically the entire class of ‘religion’ to itself, 200 right through to 289, while “all other religions” get clumped together under class 290-99. Meanwhile the parapsychology and the occult is shoved in under psychology, because yeah, it makes sense to shelf clairvoyance next to clinical psychology, sure.
But it made sense to Melvil Dewey, a man who reduced his own name to the most minimal letters possible, who was stringently Christian and who also, interestingly enough, had quite a thing for the ladies. In particular for harassing them. Not one of nature’s advocates for human equality and diversity, was our Melvil.
From the vitally important fight to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders back in 1973 to the less-important arguments floating around my social media feeds recently inspired by an article on Cyberpunk arguing modern incarnations of the genre just don’t match its former mainstream hold (hint: original cyberpunk was never a mainstream blast, it was always on the fringe and a niche genre.) Human beings likes to classify, and classifications have consequences. Sometimes big weighty consequences.
In the book industry, genre is a marketing category. It’s a shelf-location so booksellers can sell books and publishers can market them. Personally, I prefer the view of genre as a shifting context, suggesting different meanings depending on its historical and cultural point of reference. Genre is not fixed. And the meanings of genre, of the classifications placed on a work of fiction, are not immutable.
Something to remember next time you’re tempted to put those Sci-Fi books on a different shelf to the LitFic ones.
Anyway, enough from me. I’m off to go write some edgy post-cyberpunk urban decay, deal with literary themes and references, and full of ultra-violence and failing technology.
Or, as I like to think of it, a romance.
* It wasn’t.
** No, I’m not linking to the article. It’s a work I’m critical of. If someone asks me to critique their writing or other creative output, or if I’m writing a formal review, then I will give my full opinion, positive and negative, in appropriately considered terminology. But in all other cases I live by the simple rule: if you don’t have something nice to say, glue you’re damn lips shut, because no-one is going to be helped by you pulling apart someone else’s work entirely unasked. Seriously. Critique, feedback and constructive criticism is a very necessary thing for any creator, but there are ways and means, and anonymous hate for the purposes of jaded humour on the internet isn’t going to help anybody.