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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

Disclaiming Science Fiction and Fantasy

I was at a talk with an agent who was regaling us about one of his authors whose book was about to come out. He said the phrase which makes my heart sink every time I hear it.

It's got sci-fi elements, but it's not science fiction.

Yeah, I get it. Genre is one of those difficult areas. My current work in process is a cyberpunk-eques, hard-boiled detective, mystery, sci-fi novel... don't box me into one!

Lord of the Rings has several romantic subplots but isn't a romance. 1984 is a social satire but also has sci-fi elements and a romantic subplot. And the last time I tried to put If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino into a genre, I pulled a brain muscle. A postmodernist, metafictional, commentary on literary pose and... just read it.

But if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and if the duck is a cyborg from the future, it's Science Fiction.

If it uses many of the tropes and plots associated with a genre, it's a pretty good bet that it's part of that genre. Time travel, space ships and extraterrestrial life are hallmarks of science fiction. Magic, dragons and elves are found in fantasy fiction.

I'm sensitive about this. But I wouldn't be as sensitive if an inordinate amount of this crap didn't get heaped onto the sci-fi and fantasy community.

Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro:

I’ve rather enjoyed my inadvertent trespassing into the fantasy genre, too, although I wasn’t even thinking about The Buried Giant as a fantasy – I just wanted to have ogres in there!

Including a heavily used trope of fantasy will, I'm afraid, put you in the fantasy genre. In the same way that including a scene where a character gets stalked and graphically killed by an axe-wielding, mask-wearing manic will likely make your readers assume you were trying to write horror, rather than the philosophical fiction you might have been going for.

Mr. Martin writes fantasy for grown-ups, with a blunt and bawdy earthiness that befits the son of a Bayonne, N.J., longshoreman. In a Fantasyland of Liars, Trust No One, and Keep Your Dragon Close

My issue with this one is no other genre needs this to be said. Romance for grown-ups. Literary Fiction for grown-ups. Crime/Mystery for grown-ups. Drama for grown-ups. Unless the implication is fantasy and science fiction alone appeal to and is beloved by all regardless of age. Making the clarification justified, myself mollified and in whole hardhearted agreement.

Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World:

I suppose the book does take place in the future, but not the ray-guns-and-silver-suits future. It's more like tomorrow if today was a really, really bad day.

I could perhaps list all the science fiction which doesn't include ray-guns and silver-suits. I won't. Instead, I'll point out the sub-genre Near-Future Science Fiction, Twilight Zone, Black Mirror and The Handmaiden's Tale - an example of a horrendously bad time which may come as early as tomorrow.

Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife:

I had never thought of it as science fiction, even though it has a science-fiction premise. That's the thing that's going to confuse people -- it's got this science-fiction title and everyone seems to be very anxious about whether it's science fiction or not. I think die-hard science-fiction fans might find it to have not enough action. There isn't some crazy amazing thing happening on every page."

Straight away, I object to the implication that sci-fi readers need a space battle or laser gunfight on every page to keep our attention. I'm a lover of complex worlds, futuristic technologies and societies, and how humanity lives in that world. I'm not five years old.

Also, Niffenegger here is showing the fear she and many other authors have that calling it sci-fi will immediately half its readership.

But at its core, it's a basic misunderstanding of science fiction and fantasy.

Also, it seems to be simply an urge to distance themselves from bad sci-fi. Not all science fiction is created equal! It would be like refusing to call Jane Eyre a romantic novel in case it's mixed up with one of the 720 Mills and Boons novels published every year. As I've mentioned before, 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale have all become accepted as modern literary classics, both of which are Science Fiction.

The fact remains that as critics can't or won't take our genre seriously, many authors won't want to admit to writing science fiction and fantasy.

Which is tragic. That prehistoric literary criticism stifles what authors can do. I assume the job of a critic is to promote talent and original works. So long as, of course, they're not doing anything new.

©Tom Gauld

This is why I've become increasingly invested in independent talent on the internet. Because I've never found any of them writing science fiction while denying they're writing science fiction.

This is no longer the age of pulp fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have become a serious genre and it's time for it to be recognized. I don't think we'll have too much longer to wait for that day. It just disappoints me it still needs to be said.

In the words of Becky Chambers, author of the Wayfarers novels,

I just wanna stand up on my soapbox and be like: ‘I write science fiction, dammit!’

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