We Come in Peace: a defence of SF

Aussie Con4 got me thinking and inspired and thinking. The people who read SF (science fiction or speculative fiction) are the people who read it, but the people who don’t, don’t understand. Those who tuck into crime dramas look askance at fantasy dabblers, romance devotees dread science fiction aficionados and literature browsers snub all genre imbibers.

So some points to ponder.

1) Genre shouldn’t be an insult.  The walls between categories of fiction are artificial. They’re constructs and writers often ignore them or obey them as they like. These walls or laws or rules were recognised by critics, academics and marketers because categorisation is a way to understand the world, or a bunch of stuff in that world. And also way to package up a story and deliver it to an audience. Genre is therefore not a value appellation, despite whatever your lecturer or Exalted Critic thinks.

2) Readers want Drama, the effect of events and actions on characters and how those characters rise or fail to meet and exceed these challenges. The challenges are different, but the tensions, emotions, reactions, stressors and reliefs are the same. A character has five minutes to defuse a bomb and identify the killer, or five minutes to avert the space craft crashing into a moon of Jupiter and killing the crew, or five minutes to intervene and stop the wedding of the love of her life.  No one story is ‘better‘ than the other, all depict high stakes, pressure environments.  It’s a matter of Taste about which story appeals to you, Gentle Reader. And Taste is a personal value, not a Law for Everyone.

2) You’ve probably read genre fiction and not known it. Those pesky writers tricked you. Read Frankenstein? Then you’ve read a proto-SF book. Read Jane Eyre? Yes! Uh-oh that’s a template for historical romance with a touch of  Gothic nightmare. Edgar Allan Poe – well yes the horror story, but also crime and the detective drama, ditto Arthur Conan Doyle.  Shakespeare: romance, fantasy, dark fantasy, alt-history, spec-fic. Sorry. Studied Jorge Luis Borges? I did, and he’s a fantasy, alternative history, magic realism story-teller. And you thought fantasy was ‘just’ Tolkien. Wrong. Even more recent authors play with genre, Peter Carey (SF-magic realism-fantasy).

Also don’t think TV avoids mixing genre: what was Alias all about? Spy Thriller Alternative History with sci-fi elements, same with Lost (that JJ Abrams!). Twin Peaks started out Detective narrative and turned all Dark Fantasy. More recent programs proclaim their science-ficitioness, like Dr Who, but can be as Mystery of the Week as any detective drama – right down to The Doctor working with Agatha Christie. There’s also the epic tragic-romance take with the relationship between Rose and The Doctor.  Need I mention also Firefly? SF Space Western in the best of all possible ways. Frontier difficulties, unique languages plus, interplanetary voyages, plus crime, adventure and medical drama.

What about Movies? 300 – fantasy war film based very loosely on history. And you know that film everyone loved: Inception? Alternative history/spec-fic film. Gotcha.  Be proud, say it loud: I love genre.

3) SF is as valuable as any cultural artefact. SF stories say as much about the times (or more) in which they’re produced as about the future.

4) SF is as valid as any prose form. Isaac Asimov’s or Stephen King’s texts can offer opportunities for critics just as much as works of whatever is deemed High Literature this week.  That’s why people are doing PhDs investigating Star Trek or SF aesthetics. And SF writers love language just as much as Dostoevsky – just read On Writing. So SF writers can interesting things about their craft and methods, just like ‘regular’ authors.

A sample of the writers I had the pleasure of learning from at Aussie Con 4.

And others will come to mind as soon as I publish this…

One thought on “We Come in Peace: a defence of SF

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