Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Two Kinds of Science Fiction

I just found out that there's actually two kinds of science fiction: fiction in the genre, and fiction outside it. The latter is called, somewhat disparagingly by fans, "mundane"; the most popular writer of "mundane" SF is, of course, Michael Crichton. Some mainstream or even literary fiction is all but indistinguishable from science fiction; one famous example is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which is set partly on an alien world in some sort of trans-time. William Gibson's current "Blue Ant" cycle belongs to this category. Meanwhile, there is some genre SF that could fit just fine in the mainstream. For example, I've noticed that Philip K. Dick's proletarian-realist novels (the literary fiction he longed to be known for, such as In Milton Lumky Territory) are sold in the SF/fantasy section of the bookstore simply because he is an SF God. Some novels are (or were) on the borderline: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star were both nominated for the Nebula Award; Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon tends to be put in the SF/fantasy section with Snow Crash and the Baroque Quartet, but rests right on the boundary between "genre" and "mundane" and is intended to be there.

But what does this say about my point? The boundary between science fiction and the mainstream genres (including literary fiction) is fuzzier than the publishing industry's rigid genre divisions would make you think. This reinforces my argument that science fiction is not so much a genre as a method of storytelling which can apply to any genre. I distinguish the science fiction method from science fiction the genre (i.e., the realistic branch of fantasy, usually in the form of science-based speculative fiction). Some genre SF authors, starting with Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick in the 1950s and including their British "New Wave" acolytes in the '60s and '70s, have downplayed or even omitted the SF method and have been criticized for it, not least by some of their fellow authors. Conversely, certain stories in other genres, especially mystery, have long used the SF method or something closely related to it; this, in fact, began with H.G. Wells' contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories, and the latest wave of high-tech CSI/criminology TV series descends directly from those. The method can be used in other genres besides mystery (I'm currently using it in writing my trilogy of political thrillers), and has even been used in fantasy.

The science fiction method and the genre it originated in (if you count Wells among the genre's founders) are different enough that the method can be used outside the genre, while some genre stories (such as those by J.G. Ballard) manage to weaken or even avoid the method. The result is that some science fiction (the "mundane" stuff such as Crichton's) manages to avoid the genre classification, while some non-SF stories (Dick's proletarian-realist novels, or various stories that would otherwise be called fantasy, mystery, or horror) get classed in the genre.

But this division has managed to create two warring camps: the die-hard SF fans who defend the genre against "mainstream" incursions, and the mainstream (or mainstream-aspiring) people who use the method but consider the SF genre and its fandom as a ghetto cursed with a "circle the wagons" ghetto mentality. Some genre SF writers have actually complained about that ghetto mentality when it gets extreme (as when fans actually assault certain writers at conventions). The SF ghetto mentality and the literary elite's snobbish contempt have tended to reinforce each other in a vicious circle — though if the reports of literary fiction's impending death are indeed true (and enough large publishers and booksellers go under or undergo upheavals), there will probably soon be a void at the top that must be filled. A new mainstream will emerge where the genres intersect. Still, the elite-enforced division between mainstream and genre fiction guarantees needless conflict.

There are two kinds of science fiction because of the rigid boundaries the industry has imposed on fiction in order to keep a literary elite in power. But since people find that literary elite's output less interesting all the time, as evidenced by their shrinking sales, the elite will have to draw more on the genres and their storytelling methods if they simply want to survive. The collapse of literary fiction is likely to blur the boundary more and more.

Another factor that may bring the "genre" and "mundane" sectors closer together is the Internet. There are two fiction genres that dominate the Internet (in part under the heavy influence of Japanese manga and anime), and they are fantasy and science fiction. Do I see fantasy invading the mainstream? Oh yes. But that's not the genre I come from. Besides, I don't think fantasy has anything resembling the close connection science fiction has always had with the real world due to the central role played in it by science and technology. There has long been a fuzzy line between the "genre" and "mundane" worlds, even if it has seemed at times as impenetrable as the Berlin Wall. Of course, there are SF/fantasy hybrids too (I think of the Shadowrun RPG), and some of the manga and anime I follow don't bother to distinguish science fiction from fantasy.

With the troubles the publishing industry's been having during the current recession (or depression?), the collapse of the literary fiction that monopolized the mainstream during the 20th century, and the rise of the Internet, I see the line between "genre" and "mundane" science fiction growing ever fuzzier. We may find ourselves in a completely different publishing world by the time we come out the other side of the depression. By then, the line separating the two kinds of science fiction may be erased altogether. Is that too wild a speculation? Maybe. But then, it's the science fiction author's job to speculate...

Back to Spanner’s World...

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