On the sci-fi/fantasy genre

I will make a confession. I have been an SF fan ever since I can remember. It’s shocking, I know, but it’s a fault that people have learned to overlook in me 😉

I have been thinking lately about my status as an SF fan and the general reaction to that statement. This isn’t about me being a geek (I’ve already discussed that one in March), it’s about the nature of the genre and the things that people who have never read or watched any SF don’t know.

Firstly, there is the little matter of what is SF? It’s a tough question that people within the genre are still arguing over and trying to define.

A few decades ago it was quite simple. There was science fiction, which was science based and usually involved space ships. There was fantasy, which was usually swords and sorcery set in a vaguely medieval world. That was it. The two together were science-fiction-and-fantasy. It is much harder to stick to that kind of classification today because of the sheer inventiveness of authors.

As an example, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books are, on the face of it, fantasy. There are dragons and the world is vaguely medieval. If you read a few of her books, though, you start to realise that it is not that simple. The Pern books cross-over between sci-fi and fantasy. The origins of her Pern world are very firmly sci-fi. The dragons are were created through genetic technology and the people of the world are colonists fleeing from intergalactic wars.

A more extreme example is Neil Gaiman. His books are definitely not sci-fi. No way, no how. At the same time, his books don’t fit into the traditional fantasy genre either. He doesn’t write horror, his books don’t quite fit into the current “urban fantasy” or “magical realism” thing that people are talking about.

This is where a lot of people, including myself, start talking about speculative fiction (SF). It’s a very broad classification but it works. SF includes horror because a lot of horror has a supernatural angle and all the unclassifiable stuff that is definitely not contemporary literature but doesn’t comfortably fit with traditional sci-fi/fantasy. It works for me as a definition because there is no cut-off. If it includes an element that wouldn’t happen in the world we currently know, it’s SF. After all, where do you put the line between dark fantasy and horror? And where do books like Wizard of the Pigeons, Neverwhere and Temeraire fit within the traditional classifications?

Now we come to the part that I really wanted to talk about: the reaction of people when I say that I read SF. It’s a reaction that I hear so often I can almost predict it:

“Don’t you read anything outside that?”


I do read outside the SF genre. I read anything I can get my hands on, although I rarely touch contemporary literature because it doesn’t (yet) interest me. The reason that I find that question a little trying, even a little offensive, is because it implies that I read a very tiny subset of fiction. That I read the same thing over and over by different authors. I’m not imagining it: I’ve had people say almost exactly that to me. They imply that I don’t read anything ‘serious’, that my fiction tastes are frivolous and a way of hiding from the real world.

I will cheerfully admit that I read my fair share of trivial, frivolous SF. The stuff that you read for fun, to enjoy and escape and to feel better and I see nothing to be ashamed of there. That isn’t all I read, though, and the idea that SF is never serious or is a limited genre makes me laugh.

The beauty of SF is that people can write anything. Romance, adventure, thoughtful discussion, epics, humour, mystery, thriller: SF can incorporate any of those and more and usually does. There is no such thing as a taboo area in SF or limits; if the human mind can imagine it then it will appear somewhere in SF.

That lack of taboo and lack of limits means that SF can tackle ideas and areas that cannot be written about in more mainstream fiction. People were writing critiques of the Vietnam War through SF at a time when that was strictly verboten in American literature. A great deal of SF is allegorical, whether intentional or not, and gets into the hands of readers (and therefore into their minds) because of that dismissive attitude to SF.

One of the more interesting series that I have recently read, the Tamir Triad, examines the nature of gender and gender identity in a way that I still cannot imagine getting onto mainstream bookshelves. If it wasn’t fantasy, that series of books would be shoved away into the little corner marked “Gay Interest” and only a few bookshops in the country would stock it. It is fantasy, though, it has fantasy bookcovers and titles like “The Bone Doll’s Twin” so it gets widely stocked and popped into the sci-fi/fantasy stacks without a thought.

I know that I will never convince non-SF readers to give it a go if they have absolutely no interest in the subject matter, but then you will never convince me to read chic-lit and I am quite comfortable with that. I do wish that I could make people see that SF isn’t the limited, trivial genre that it is so often portrayed to be. It is the ultimate limitless genre where any kind of story can be told, with any kind of character and the only thing that one needs is the ability to suspend disbelief for a few minutes and see beyond the popular image to the amazing variety that lies beneath.

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