The Genre Pit

Most science fiction is fantasy.  Pure fantastic nonsense.  Maybe our heroes ride around in space ships or fight mutants or have amazing psychic powers, but almost all of this stuff is no more realistic or believable than elves, dragons, and magic.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard of Skyline, for instance, is that the premise of aliens stealing human brains to plug into monsters isn’t very realistic.  Or that there’s no great explanation for why our hero’s brain should be special.  Or that human brains don’t glow.  To this, I can only say, “What part of aliens invade via magical hypno-lights and giant lurching abominations says this movie is striving to be realistic?”  Don’t misquote me.  Skyline is a flawed movie, but it’s flaws are not that it isn’t science fictiony enough.  Skyline is pure fantasy, and I have no problem with that.

The problem is found in our language.  Science Fiction used to be a specific brand of fiction, distinct from fantasy.  But this distinction is mostly gone now.  It doesn’t exist in a easily recognized way.  I usually say I write Fantasy, which I prefer as a label because it just comes out and says, “This isn’t reality.  This isn’t even pretending to be reality.”  Even my novel, The Automatic Detective, is a fantasy novel.  There’s no hard science at work there, and it’s a completely imaginary world where somehow we can have flying cars and robots, but not cell phones and personal computers.  I know nothing about robotics or artificial intelligence.  I know that a mutagenic agent cannot transform human beings into strange beings overnight, and that even if it did, it would most likely be hideous deformities that resulted in death or misery.  And none of that matters because the robots, mutants, and flying cars are all flights of fancy.  They’re in the book because I like them and they fit with the fantastic setting.  But, make no mistake, they are fantasy.

Perhaps one day we’ll have robots walking our streets and flying cars, but I didn’t put those things in the book because I thought they were going to happen.  I put them in there because I love those things.  Also, the story actually takes place in an unspecified yesteryear (a quasi-defined moment in time ranging from 1920-1950), which means, of course, that it never actually existed.

And, if we get really down to it, all fiction is fantasy.  Maybe some genres are more grounded than others, but every story is, at its core, a manufactured experience, a lie that we willingly embrace.  Even the most high-minded Oscar-winning sob story is bald manipulation.  Heck, even most “true stories” are touched up and polished with a bit of fantasy to make them more appealing.

Maybe that’s the problem.  We all have our personal lines of what we will and won’t accept, and instead of realizing how arbitrary they are, we assume they’re logical and infallible.  It’s like superhero fans who prefer Batman to Superman because they find one more believable than the other.  Though when you break it down, neither is even remotely feasible.  It’s the paradox of psychic powers, which haven’t been proven to exist and which certainly have no basis in modern scientific understanding, but are still somehow more “believable” than sorcery.

To me, it’s all unbelievable.  Detective fiction, tearjerkers, action-adventure, space opera, slice of life, romance, horror, you name it.  It’s all a story created by humans for humans.  If it’s good enough, I’ll overlook anything.  If it doesn’t grab me, then I’ll always be able to find something I don’t like about it.

The point isn’t to convince anyone to change their mind about those stories they love or hate.  It’s to just acknowledge that fiction is fantasy, whether it has cops and robbers, robots and mutants, or vampires and elves.  Maybe the things I write are more obviously fantastic, but they still work on the same basic principles as all fiction: characters, intrigue, peril, mystery, slime monsters, all the usual stuff.  If it succeeds, it succeeds because the reader is happy they read it.  And it it fails, it’s because the reader didn’t.  The illusion of genre (regardless of our appreciation or lack of it for slime monsters) shouldn’t get in our way if we can help it.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Rippley
    Posted December 16, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    The concept of “genre” is a fantasy, is true. Many universities no long teach genre studies, because, exactly as you say, there is a mixture of every genre in each book. Fantasy is the prime example of this genre paradox.

    But your opinion on the nature of fictional artifacts as it pertains to reality is yours alone. Sure, there may not be an actual time machine conceived in fiction and brought to reality via a physicist or mad scientist, because we now understand such an artifact is impossible (paradoxical); yet, time travel, at one point in time, was conceived as possible. And H.G. Wells fully believed in it as he painted his story of the grim conflicting future.

    Our inability to travel through time is irrelevant. Time travel is the hypothetical goal that inspires a real person to try to understand physics and history and economy and engineering and the rest, so as to make a better world. Is the world better? To this I say, our present is better than our past, even if it is corrupt. No design is perfect. Everything falls apart. Yet we strive for better.

    “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamer of dreams.” Willy Wonka

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 16, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      You miss my point, Rippley. I’m not saying that we don’t consider some things more plausible than others. I’m saying that this perception is usually a mistake. At best, it’s just a shot in the dark. At worst, it’s foolish misconception.

      We might, for instance, find artificial intelligence more plausible than magic in our modern world, but until we actually have it, it’s merely a possibility. I doubt we’ll discover magic is real, and I do believe artificial intelligence is at least possible, but until we actually invent AI, it’s fantasy.

      You make my point for me, in fact. H.G. Wells wrote things he believed might be possible. But many of them weren’t. His attempts at believability were wrong more often than not. Instead of thinking of it from his perspective, let’s imagine ourselves in his position. Maybe the biggest mistake we make as humans is believing ourselves all that different from the people of the past.

  2. Rippley
    Posted December 16, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.” –Maya Angelou

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