Genres and SF

Neal Stephenson recently gave a talk called The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture at Gresham College. It’s an interesting talk, and one of the things he talks about is how genres have evolved over time. Fifty years ago, there were a lot of fairly well delineated genres. He gives some examples like Romance, Westerns, and Crime. Westerns have basically disappeared. It’s still a genre, but anything produced in that genre happens in some exceptional way (I think the genre survives because it has a rich history; otherwise it would have disappeared completely). Romance has more or less merged with all the other genres. Sure, bookstores still have unabashed romance sections, but you don’t see much of those stories elsewhere in movies or television. Instead, you see romance merged in with just about every other genre. Most movies feature some romantic element these days. There are exceptions, of course, and there are sub-genres that are more romantic than not (i.e. romantic comedies), but for the most part romance on its own is pretty rare in movies. In a way, romance has become so ubiquitous that it ceases to be its own genre. Similarly, crime stories have become so commonplace that it’s barely retained itself as a grenre. This is especially the case in television, and I can guarantee that there are at least 3 or 4 separate episodes of Law & Order and/or CSI playing on television right now, as I write this entry. Stephenson goes into more detail for all of these genres, and it is quite interesting.

A while ago, I linked to an article that featured a bunch of SF authors attempting to define the science fiction genre. I didn’t talk much about my thoughts at the time, except to say that I favored a more broad definition than most of the authors, and part of the reason I did that was because of Neal Stephenson. He became famous for novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, obvious and unabashed science fiction, but his later works have curiously moved into more of a historical fiction. Crytponomicon takes place partially during WWII (with the other plotline being in the present day) and The Baroque Cycle takes place entirely in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both stories feature a lot of science and/or math, but they aren’t your steriotypical SF. There’s nothing futuristic about them, they don’t take place in space, they don’t feature aliens (well, we don’t exactly know what Enoch Root is, so perhaps I’m wrong about that – then again, I don’t think I ever want his character to be explained). Basically, a lot of the more strict definitions of SF would exclude those books. As such, I’ve always been curious to see what Stephenson’s thoughts were, and perhaps unsprisingly, he seems to hold an extremely broad definition of what constitutes SF. He seems to embrace the notion of SF as meaning Science Fiction but also Speculative Fiction, which opens the doors to a lot of seemingly non science fictional things. For instance, he notes the way that science fiction and fantasy are often conflated, and he also seems to include anything influenced by comic books, video games or martial arts films as well. He also quotes Bruce Sterling’s hilarious definition of “thrillers” (which funnily enough, involves science fiction). Is his definition too broad? Perhaps, but I think it’s also a part of his larger point, which is that genres are kinda meshing together.

It’s an interesting talk, and Stephenson goes into a lot more than just genre talk here, including stuff about vegging out and geeking out (which is something he’s written about before) and the way most people seem to have become geeks in one way or another (geekhood no longer seems to be limited to computer enthusiasts).

2 thoughts on “Genres and SF”

  1. “In a way, romance has become so ubiquitous that it ceases to be its own genre. Similarly, crime stories have become so commonplace that it’s barely retained itself as a grenre.”

    Some of what you’re talking about- the blending and merging of various genres- seems to me to be part of the natural evolution of the media. As television and film matured, it only makes sense that they’d start to deal with more complicated stories and work at blending the various genres that existed. We can see the same thing happening with video games, too- where there was once a mere handful of clearly defined genres, there are now dozens of overlapping genres and more subgenres than I care to count. I suspect that we’d find the same thing happened with literature, too, if we looked back.

    I think that Romance is still a thriving genre, though. I don’t think that the fact that there are romantic subplots in most movies does anything to romance as a genre, because it’s clear that a romantic subplot doesn’t necessarily make a movie into a romance. That RDJ flirts with Pepper in Iron Man doesn’t mean that Iron Man is a romance- it’s very clearly an action movie. On the other hand, a movie like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Pride and Prejudice, Sleepless in Seatle, or The Notebook seem to be very clearly Romance Films, even if they have elements of other genres, too. When you start including Romantic Comedies into the mix, it seems pretty clear that there’s no shortage or Romance in film.

    I guess what I’m not clear on is how the popularity of a genre can cause that genre to cease being a genre. Crime dramas have always been popular, but they’re going through a period of intense popularity right now, it’s true. You say that because of their popularity, they’re barely a genre, but that doesn’t really make sense to me. It seems like it would be similar to suggesting that the popularity and ubiquitousness of superhero stories in comics has resulted in there not being a superhero genre.

    I feel like I must be missing some crucial element of what you’re talking about, because that seems very counterintuitive to me.

  2. I certainly agree that what we’re seeing is a natural evolution of the media. As you mention, it’s probably not anything new and has probably happened with most forms of storytelling. I think this might be another indication of the way the world is becoming more and more specialized – we’re seeing more and more genres and subgenres and crossgenres. It’s like blogs – the most successful ones tend to fill a niche, and the niches seem to be getting smaller and smaller. Gadgets is too large a niche these days, so you hav cell phone blogs, which is actually getting too large, so you’ve got smartphone blogs, etc… Don’t you have a pizza blog? Heh.

    There are clearly still Romance films, but I think the point is that romance has become almost ubiquitous. No, Iron Man wouldn’t be termed a romance… but there is something brewing there. Other movies feature romance more dominantly than their other elements. Romantic comedies spring to mind (which, as you note, is doing well as a genre these days). And there are exceptions, of course… You mention a couple (both of which are adaptations of romance novels, which I mentioned in my post are alive and well).

    In any case, when something becomes ubiquitous, it’s the things that are different about it that make it interesting. Genres become popular because of what they are, but when they become ubiquitous, they just become a part of the base. It’s like saying “Drama” is a genre. Sure, video stores will have a section marked “Drama” but really, how many movies are bereft of something so basic as drama? Romance has certainly not attained that level of ubiquity, but it has sorta faded into the background. We all like romance stories, which is why they’re mixed in with everything else. As for crime, that’s probably less of an example than romance.

    Any attempt to define genres definitively is probably futile. Still, it’s fun, and this post was just some musing on Stephenson’s talk. It wasn’t meant to put the nail in the coffin of various genres:P

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