Is SF a genre?

Have you ever considered that science fiction may not be a genre?

People are always looking for ways to categorise art, and to group together things they like and things they don’t. It’s quite natural for people to lump together all the books with common elements.

I don’t want to try to offer a definition of sci-fi, but in common use, “sci-fi” is applied to books with speculative technology like nanotech, spacecraft, AI, or faster-than-light travel, or alien worlds or characters.

Problem is, that doesn’t really define what the story is about; is it a slasher movie, like Alien; a horror, like Event Horizon; a fairy tale, like Star Wars; or a kung-fu move, like The Matrix?

What I’m really wondering is, if someone says they like Science Fiction, what the hell do they mean? Have they told you anything about their tastes?

The two posts which inspired me;
– “What Do You Hate Most About Short Science Fiction
Hub Magazine’s post that alerted me to it.


2 responses to “Is SF a genre?”

  1. I think I’d say that yes, SF (the term “sci fi” is deprecated amongst much of SF fandom, it turns out) is a genre, but certainly not a consistently defined one.

    Some people have a very narrow definition of what constitutes SF (Margaret Atwood famously and derisively pigeonholed it as “talking squids in outer space”) while others (and I’d put myself in this category) use it as a blanket term to include the whole spectrum from traditional science fiction (Asimov, Heinlein, etc) and physicsy hard SF (eg Alastair Reynolds) through to epic fantasy (Tolkien etc) taking in alternate history (eg Keith Roberts’ ‘Pavane’), near-future speculation (eg Charles Stross’ ‘Accelerando’), post-apocalyptic social comment (eg Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’), gothic fantasy (Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy) and pretty much anything else that contains fantastic or speculative elements.

    There is something of a snobbishness against ‘genre fiction’ in general, and SF in particular, amongst some parts of the ‘literary establishment’. A while back Mark Lawson interviewed Iain Banks on BBC2 and it was clear that Lawson regarded Banks’ SF novels as less worthy of discussion than his ‘mainstream’ fiction (although personally I regard much of that as SF – ‘A Song of Stone’ and ‘Walking on Glass’ in particular). Banks, to his credit, was having none of this, and made numerous comments about how he regards his SF output as equally valid, and how SF fans (of which he himself is one) are a much maligned breed, being in general interesting, intelligent and openminded people.

    Another friend of mine commented a while back that pretty much everything you’d want to read, including most of the classics, is genre fiction: if you throw away romantic fiction then you lose Jane Austen and the Brontes; discard contemporary and historical fiction and you lose Dickens and Hardy, not to mention pretty much anything that’s won the Booker Prize; detective and mystery fiction includes Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and so on. All you’ll be left with is the kind of impenetrable, dry, post-modern nonsense that nobody in their right mind is going to want to read.

  2. I half-agree with you on the idea of snobbishness; while there are people who are dismissive (my English teacher at school, for example, pretty much told us he’d mark us down for choosing SF for our lit crit) I think that SF is actually widely popular; lots of popular shows and movies suggest that the mainstream isn’t afraid of SF in the least. The success of shows like Lost, Heros and Dr Who suggest to me that people are quite happy to accept sci-fi settings.

    I suppose what I’m really trying to get to is this; imagine you have three films. One is a sci-fi adventure with space pirates. The second is a historical adventure with carribean pirates. The third is a sci-fi movie about a distopian society that breeds genetic supermen.

    I suspect that people who like the first (sci-pi?) are more likely to enjoy the historical pirate film over the distopian. That, I suppose, the ‘SF’ label is wildly over-applied, and tends to discribe not just a literature of technological change, but anything with sci-fi tropes. Just as a monkey with a parasol is not a gentlewoman, a film with a space-ship isn’t sci-fi.

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