Science fiction has its well-established sub-genres, like dystopian, cyberpunk, steampunk…. and everyone in the publishing business will tend to write in or work towards one of those categories as their main milieu in any given story.
But following on from the discussion following my previous blog, I would like to propose and discuss an alternative sub-genre breakdown. I’m in no way suggesting that the new sub-genre breakdown should replace what the publishing industry work to – for one thing it would take a lot of time and investment to do that – something that no financial business would undertake in these straightened times unless there was a clear benefit to the profit margins. No, the reason for examining a different breakdown is to get insights into the science fiction genre.
So let’s start with the breakdown I’m proposing, which is:
1) Adventure (anything from comic strip to the really serious hard science fiction exploration)
2) Social consequences of technology/science development
3) New invention description and uses
4) Explaining how current science works (usually put into children’s or YA slot)
I’m not in any way pretending this categorisation will cover every science fiction story, but it does cover a lot of them. Nor am I pretending that all stories will fall uniquely into one category.
Adventure: This has a long tradition that can be traced back through Jules Verne to the ancient Greek legends like Jason and the Argonauts. It’s all about exploring new places, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Most, if not all of the novels I have beta-read fall into this category. These days there seem to be very few novels that are not adventure. It’s as if the readership are like a pack of lemmings hurtling themselves off the cliff into escapism. Even the dystopias are a form of adventure. So has science fiction become the literature of escapism from reality?
Social Consequences: This really was started by Mary Shelley with Frankenstein, which she based on the then recently discovered science phenomenon, galvanism – the ability to make a dead frog’s leg twitch when electricity was applied to it. H G Wells, continued in this vein, and in many ways this is a very British sub-genre of science fiction. Think New Wave that was started in the UK in the sixties and seventies. There are a few novels still published today – like Light by Adam Roberts – but they are few and far between. Why should this be the case? Is it because this sub-gnere is exhausted? Could it be that there is so much doom and gloom about own future that there is no point about writing about the social consequences in the longer term, because we won’t exist? Are we that frightened of our own future?
New Invention: These tend to end up in short stories, and these are an even rarer beast than the social consequences stories. There used to be a whole set of of these stories in the Golden Age of science fiction – think Asimov and the laws of robotics or psychohistory, or Heinlein with the rocket that could land on its tail, or Arthur C Clarke’s Rama. Where are the stories about science fiction inventions now? Is it because science fiction has exhausted all the easy-to-explain inventions, that we are left only with those that are need such a long explanation that the reader is likely to dose off before they get to the end of the story? Or has science taken such a battering that people have lost trust in science? Well we’ll see… I’ve got a short story on offer somewhere with an interesting invention… it’ll be interesting to see if it is accepted.
Explaining How Science Works: This used to be what the so-called juveniles were written for in the 1950s. Where are the new stories of today? Or is this another casualty of the anti-science factions? I would say almost non-existant. However, there is a but to this one. There are now moves by at least one large firm to get their scientists to write science fiction about the inventions they are working – to see which inventions catch the imagination of people and are therefore likely to sell. In other words they are trying to get their employees to become more like Steve Jobs in choosing which products to go with! These stories are not written for public consumption, but the the firm’s investment strategists!
The interesting thing about this sub-genre division, it shows up clearly where the publishers are looking for stories… go forth with your writing implements and compose a swashbuckling yarn!