I recently stayed with Maureen Kincaid Speller and Paul Kincaid, two wonderful people whose book collections would make almost any sf fan drool. One of the brief discussions we had before I headed off for my final days in London concerned the often pointless debates about what science fiction “is.” Paul suggested that thinking of sf as a “genre” in the narrative sense is not accurate to the use of “genre.” Unlike romance or crime, there is nothing unique to the narrative practice of sf that can be separated from everything else. This might explain, for example, why there has been so much discussion about the nature of sf as a cross-pollinating genre – crossovers being so regular an occurrence that one would be hard pressed to find an sf text which does not cross over into other generic forms.
Paul’s observation, it seems to me, is spot on. Even if I might define sf by such vague features as future time and extrapolation, these are merely functional terms to explain sf to someone who does not know what it is; outside of that narrow space, these definitions are practically useless, as the academic world has yet to define sf in any concrete, generally accepted sense – as opposed to other fields, such as biology, whose name defines itself (the study of life). Likewise, no two people can agree on what sf “is,” with academics and non-academics alike debating the wide range of critical definitions, from Darko Suvin to Carl Freedman to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
During this conversation, I suggested that it might be more fruitful to think of sf as a supergenre rather than a straight genre, as doing so would allow us to apply the crossover potential of sf to a different set of parameters: namely, the interaction of subgenres or genres with the supergenres to which they belong. The supergenres would include realism, science fiction, and anti-realism, with the traditional genres of crime, romance, historicals, fantasy, and so on underneath. These supergenres would not necessarily define the genres beneath them, but they would suggest a relationship between genres that moves beyond narrative practice, but never quite leaves it behind. A fantasy novel might be as much historical as it is anti-realist; the former is a narrative practice, while the latter is a conceptual “game.”
In this respect, sf would be defined by its most basic roots – its conceptual concerns, not its narrative ones. Futurity, extrapolation, and social or hard science, to give a rough sketch. Of course, sf can interact with the other supergenres, producing sf-nal works which are more realistic than not (or the other way around); this seems a supergeneric necessity, as to define “realism” as anything other than “literature which attempts to represent the world as it is” would not allow for the widest range of possibilities, which I submit a supergenre requires in order to be defined as such. A terminological shift from “as it is” to “as it could or might be” is fairly negligible in the long run. Thus, an sf text can adhere to the rigors of science in its imagining of a possible real future, and a realist text can do the same in reverse order; whichever conceptual mode is dominant would determine the supergenre to which that text most aptly belongs, but the divisions would never be hard so as to discount the cross-supergeneric influences. One might think of a typical Asimov or Bacigalupi novel as more sf-nal than realist and a Jane Rogers novel as more realist than sf-nal. Naturally, this could make things rather messy. In a similar fashion, one might think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as both anti-realist and realist at once, which might suggest a contradiction if not for the fact that the rigor with which Tolkien wrote LOTR would seem to subvert the anti-realist tendencies of fantasy, if only minutely. I’d suggest that LOTR is dominated by its anti-realist practices simply by being more tied to myth and folklore than to the Realist tradition (in the literary sense, not the supergeneric sense). In that respect, one would place myth, fairy tales, and folklore firmly under the anti-realist banner.
Defining genre this way would also kill the endless discussions about how to classify texts which seem to borrow narrative traditions from all over the place. A romantic comedy featuring a detective could be shoved into three separate genres (or subgenres), neither marring the value of the other in relation to the text. Whether dominance should determine classification at this point is up to debate, though I suspect out of a need to keep conversations about texts relatively smooth and unencumbered one would need to focus on the dominant trait rather than apply a text’s multiplicities. Outside of conversation, an acronymic practice might make things easier.
These are all preliminary thoughts – ones which I’m expounding upon while on my train to London Victoria. I do think they are worthwhile ones, though. Expect more on this in the future.
And on that note: I leave the comments to you lot.
: Obviously, this concept is only useful outside of the marketing apparatus.
: If one is clever, the acronyms could be turned into clever words. A romantic comedy set in 18th century France would become a HRC, or “horic.”