Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

100 Aspects of Genre: Learning from the Dead and the Dying

by Daniel Abraham

I did say before that this was, intellectually speaking, a work in progress.

In thinking about genre, the thing I struggle with the most is that it doesn’t exist.  Genre can’t exist within any given project or any given author.  To the degree that it’s anything at all, it’s a relationship between individual projects, individual authors, and individual books.  When I say China Mieville is New Weird rather than Urban Fantasy, I’m not actually saying anything about Perdido Street Station or The City & the City as books.  I’m talking about a taxonomy that exists entirely in my head (and the heads of the fine marketing folks at the publishers and bookstores who want to make sure I’m happy with my purchase).

What we really have is a huge count of individual books, all different from each other, but with some sharing certain characteristics.  Most of these books fall into the marketplace like a stone in the ocean, barely leaving a ripple.  A few bec0me massive cultural phenomena — often for no obvious reason.  But then there’s this bit in between.  When we look at the patterns of what achieves commercial success, we see pools of books that seem related.  These authors are working on similar projects, and the percentages of successful books with similar characteristics is high.  So, for instance, books with a female protagonist, a plot that revolves around heterosexual romance , a resolution that relies on the successful love relationship being formed between the protagonist and the object of her desire, and with a theme or moral that argues that romantic love will conquer all obstacles appear more likely to find commercial success than some other books with different characteristics.

Those sets of “winning” attributes begin to define a genre.  Romance for that, but we could build a different set of attributes for fantasy or mystery or whatever.


Evolution is often misunderstood as a continual process of refinement toward excellence.  It isn’t.  It is a desperate, generational struggle to adapt to a changing environment.  An organism that was the top predator at a pH of 6.8 may be free biomass for other organisms to eat and use at a pH of 6.  The relationship between organisms and their environment (and so also with other organisms) is in constant flux, and a winning strategy in the Pleistocene may or may not be a winning strategy now.  Species flourish, and become extinct.  Ecological niches open, and they also close.

And so it is with genres.

I think that the successful genres of a particular period are reflections of the needs and thoughts and social struggles of that time.  When you see a bunch of similar projects meeting with success, you’ve found a place in the social landscape where a particular story (or moral or scenario) speaks to readers.  You’ve found a place where the things that stories offer are most needed.

And since the thing that stories most often offer is comfort, you’ve found someplace rich with anxiety and uncertainty.  (That’s what I meant when I said to Melinda Snodgrass that genre is where fears pool.)

But what we’re anxious about changes over time, and it doesn’t always change back.  If I’m right, then I’d expect to see new genres being born as books struggle to address the landscape of the time.  And also dead genres whose stories spoke to a moment that has in some way passed.  And that’s exactly what I see.

The problem I’m sitting with right now is that I have some sense of what function present genres have.  Urban Fantasy seems to me to revolve around the uncomfortable relationship between gender and power.  Romance seems to take its power from our (very legitimate) fears about romantic and sexual isolation.  Mystery — did you ever notice that the detective story didn’t really exist before urban anonymity? — is about the maintenance of moral order.  But these are all things I’ve read since becoming an adult.

When I turn to the dead genres — True Confessions, Western, Nurse novels — I can sometimes see glimmers of what was going on there, but I just don’t have the cultural background that would give them power. I have theories, of course.  Westerns (or the one’s I’ve read, which are mostly Elmore Leonard) seem to be about masculine stoicism.  No matter how broken or compromised a man’s emotional life is, he still does what needs to be done.  Why would that have been an especially powerful message in the 1950s and 60s when Westerns were at their most popular?  No idea.

True Confession?  Well, voyeurism certainly hasn’t changed, but the literature of it has moved on.  My guess is that it got edged out by a better predator.  Something — tabloid media, for instance — found a better way to address those cultural needs, and the market for true confession stories dried up like Playboy subscriptions in the age of free Internet porn.

Nurse novels?  No clue what that was about, but Sage thinks they may have died off when oral contraceptives came on the scene.  Someone else’ll have to put that together for me.

But the test of a theory is predictive ability.  So let’s turn to the reputed hospice care genre of our present age:  the constantly dying and never dead science fiction.

I grew up when science fiction was already on the cusp between serious work and solemn.  I grew up on Star Trek.  Which is to say the first great pulp flourishing was behind me, and the New Wave was over my seven-year-old head.  The theory that I’ve been given by them as knows better is this:  science fiction first became a genre in the 1930s — after the first great war, before the second, during the Depression — and fed off the fear that things would never change.  That this, to riff on the movie, was as good as it gets.

It fed an optimism, and a view of the future that’s gone now in part because our relationship to change is different.  I would suggest that in the 1930s, our anxiety about the troubles and issues of the day landed on the surprising power and novelty of the industrial revolution and drove a literature in which novelty and change knew no limits.  And boy howdy (as Uncle Elmore might say), did that work well.  Apart from the exploration of space, the window dressing of science fiction is where we now live.  Stories about raising clones for spare parts are now literary.

But with that, the fears that the world wouldn’t change have faded, replaced by the sense that the world is changing too much.  Is out of control.  And with that, we’ve seen science fiction begin to fracture into:

1) hard science fiction — the true heir of the 1930s scientifiction of Hugo Gernsback,

2) dystopian science fiction — the new flourishing of what were once just cautionary tales,  now growing into the role of cathartic horror, and

3) nostalgic science fiction — revisiting the literature of our (by which I mean my generation and older) childhood.  The futures of Larry Niven and Gene Roddenberry remade without any attempt to connect them to our present situation.

So, after wandering the wilderness for something more like 40 days than years, maybe I’ve happened upon a thesis of sorts.

If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.

Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.

If it doesn’t, I’m wrong.  Right?

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23 Responses »

  1. I wonder if this may also help explain the recent upswing in popularity of steampunk — an aesthetic that’s been around for a very long time, but currently feeds a need. It expresses love of classic adventure SF, nostalgia for the future we (as a culture) thought we were going to get and didn’t, and a disassociation between science fiction and present situations.

    • Yeah. I can totally see that. The Expanse books are Daniel and I writing about the future that sci fi told us we would have, and Economics closed the door on.

      Go to hell, economics. Just go to hell. I want big space ships, dammit.

  2. The Westerns of the fifties serve the same function as epic fantasy now. It is nostalgia for a period that never actually existed. A time when men could settle their differences in a short burst of violence. Consider that the men reading this genre had just returned from the bloodiest war in history to find that they were now factory workers reporting to the guys who’d been 4F during the war.

    The idea of the open range of endless possibilities, where a man stakes a claim on the land through his own hard work, and defends it fiercely, was speaking to the fear that a cubicle, a tiny house, and a boss who treats you like shit is what they’d come home to.

    • Having studied some of the literature of midcentury masculinity (James Gilbert’s Man in the Middle is a great book about that era’s masculine anxieties), I gotta say that sounds about right. It occurs to me that vigilanteism movies worked the same way for the post-Vietnam War generation.

  3. There’s some merit to what you’re saying, but I don’t know if I agree completely. I think that there’s another type of science fiction, or another reason for reading science fiction, that you neglect to mention: the science fiction that, together with fantasy, provides an alternative to the awkwardness of adolescence.

    • Yeah, I think that’s more audience than genre. Most people who read read at least to some degree as escapism. Which particular thing you are reading and which particular thing you are trying to escape are probably always linked at least a little bit. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I can’t think of any right now.

  4. Great post, Daniel. I think there’s a lot of people who think of genre in monolithic terms, and are having trouble coming to grips with changes in today’s genres – the most obvious struggle lately being, science fiction.

    Maybe it’s just one of those generational things, though; and when I’m an old man, maybe I’ll hate all the kids with their futuristic optimism – while holding vainly to my vision of a broke-down, flooded-out futureworld where robots eat your face for breakfast and have sex with your belly button for dinner.


  5. There’s an argument that SF isn’t a genre. Rather, it’s a mode. It sort of fits with your observations of the changes in genre types. We don’t see the optimism, but SF is still there, and we can see how the SF mode has been used to tell stories which fit with the genre of the Western.

    There are some very successful SF series–spaceships and huge battles–which look to deal with the fear of malicious, greedy, politicians, and assert that Good will eventually win. The bad guys carry the seeds of their own destruction.

    • Yeah, I don’t really understand what a “mode” is, though. The closest I can figure is that means the window dressing? I could have misunderstood entirely.

      I also think that there’s a lot of variation between books and within categories. Science fiction stories that are Westerns, Romances that are mysteries. Cross pollination happens all the time, and is part of the variability that lets things like, ferinstance, Urban Fantasy arise. And Lord, I wouldn’t ever want to make a blanket “It’s all like *this*” statement if I had to defend it to the death afterward. 😉

  6. Nurse novels? No clue what that was about, but Sage thinks they may have died off when oral contraceptives came on the scene. Someone else’ll have to put that together for me.

    I asked a nurse who was young in the 1950s (and whose collection of Cherry Ames novels I have read). I asked if it was just that we have a wider range of jobs, when birth control was reliable. She said:

    “I think you are correct. But also, nursing in WWII really was exciting and adventurous, and for the first time it became a really respected and respectable job. A first taste of *freedom* for most women happened in WWII. After the men came back, we were all shoved into the background again. sigh”

    As I recall, early nurse novels had adventures (even after marriage), and later ones were about the MRS degree. If true, that’s a weird rearguard action against the Pill, but it still makes sense; by the 1970s, women going into nursing might have been slightly more socially conventional.

    • And of course, the “nurse novel” still exists in other countries, though it’s no longer referred to by that name.

      In the UK, Mills & Boon has a whole line called Medical Romance which are essentially updated nurse novels. It’s a popular line and publishes seven books a month. Medical romances also seem to be popular in Australia, since a lot of the Mills & Boon medical romances are reprints of Australian books. Harlequin also repackages the Mills & Boon Medical Romances under their own name for the North American market, but they are not nearly as popular there as in the UK and Australia.

      Since oral contraceptives have been available in all those countries for almost fifty years, there has to be some other dynamic at work there. One common factor about the countries where medical romances sell such as the UK and Australia is that both countries have universal health insurance. The US doesn’t have it yet.

      Another interesting point is that Germany has medical romances, but they hardly ever have nurses as protagonists. German medical romances feature romances between two doctors, between a doctor and a medical student or between a doctor and a patient, but very rarely between a doctor and a nurse. And this dynamic was firmly in place at least as far back as the early 1970s. So what’s the deal here? One suspicion I have is that medical doctor is a very high status profession in Germany, whereas nursing is universally agreed to be a very important profession, but nurses are also overworked and underpaid. In short, being a nurse is not a desirable job and romantic heroes and heroines are all about desire

  7. Dan,

    This is intelligent and thoughtful, but it ignores most of what other intelligent and thoughtful people have said about genre over the last forty years, and that is a severe difficulty, leading to some wheel-reinvention and loose terminology. Most experienced commentators, for instance, distinguish between the term “category” and in “category fiction”, which refers to a transaction involving an author, a text, and an established marketing system, and “genre,” which is a term of art referring to a transaction between an author, a text, and an established audience of readers. A lot follows from that, and I’d suggest starting with Delany’s discussion in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. As to that mention of mode: horror, and humor, are direct transactions between a text and a reader that can occur in any form or genre of literature. Even when it is not funny, you can tell it was intended to be.


    • And who the he’ll are you to tell *me* what to read?

      Oh. Right. You’re David Hartwell.

      (Daniel toddles off to find a copy of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.)

      • Truly I meant no insult to the writer of a thoughtful discourse on a subject I am interested in. I should have taken more time in my comment to sound more pleasant and helpful, which is honestly what I intended. Must have had something to do with arriving home an hour earlier driving from Columbus, and being partly fried. What I want is for the discourse to continue.

        • Oh, no. No offense taken at all. You’re absolutely right that I’m flailing around trying to make sense of things that a lot of people have been working out since long before I came on the scene. The truth is I find a lot of literary criticism — even very good (maybe *especially* very good) stuff — opaque. I comfort myself by saying that maybe reinventing the wheel will make for an interesting new wheel this time, but that’s mostly self-talk. I also respect the folks who have been at this longer and frankly know better than I do. If you say Jewel Hinged Jaw is a good place to start, I’m for it.

          And, in fact, it’d probably be a good idea to put together a reading list — not of the heavy lifting stuff but of the popularized, accessible theory written for the white belt. If you had any other suggestions, I’m always open for a new excuse to buy more books. 😉


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