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Defining Science Fiction

There has long been a battle, an attitude, a snobbery in the writing world where literary or mainstream fiction is real writing, and all that “genre” fiction is done by hacks and of little merit in the tales of the world. Anyone who writes in a genre knows this and has felt it. But what is a genre? It is the categorizing of a novel or story by some of its strongest elements.

No longer in favor but once very popular were westerns. They obviously took place in a time of the Wild West where cowboys and indians ran amok and pioneers struggled to survive while men maddened by gold-rush fever lived little better than animals. Romances are tales about love and obstacles to happiness, and almost always have the predictable ending of the man and woman (or man and man, woman and woman) finding each other. But the tales of how they get there are varied. Harlequin books has one of the most steady sell-throughs of any publisher. Publishing romances is a good business.

Erotica is obviously taking content into a more sensual or erotic tone. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, have elements integral to the story and were those elements removed the story wouldn’t hold up. Horror also fell into disfavor and is better known as dark fantasy these days. Still, there are blends of tales that aren’t all one thing. There are stories that are erotic and science fiction, western romances, literary fantasy, magic realism and politics (actually that one is a typical mix), and then there are literary, erotic, science fiction tales.

I wrote one story, “Hold Back the Night,” which I called my literary, lesbian, erotic vampire story. Vampire was never mentioned in the tale and it dealt with the wife burnings that happen in India. But labeling fiction is what we do; we the readers, we the writers and we the publishers. Publishers choose genres so that they can market to a specific demographic mindset. We’ll sell more of these books if we make it look like a cookbook or a romance and market to those people specifically interested in this. Publishers hate books that don’t fit in the neat categories.

Most of all they want to market books in mainstream, literary fiction because it is the largest readership and therefore the biggest sales. Writers of course would love the same. Readers can be a bit like sheept and think that if they only like a mystery book, they’ll never look in the romance section, but then there are thousands of books to look through so it can be difficult to find them. So, in mainstream, the more sales the more money, and the more awards available than in a specified category. A book that can’t fit into a category, or a story, may not be bought for a long time. I have a story that is not quite fantasy, and not quite mainstream and will circulate for a long time because it falls into the cracks.

But genres cause their own problems and as we see, narrow the readership. Many stories are not all of one shade. So Margaret Atwood, multi-award winner, always says she doesn’t write science fiction, yet some of her books extrapolate into a near future and ask what if. Seems pretty science fiction to me, many other writers, and readers. Yet she denies. Ursula Le Guin, multi-award winner writer of SF disagrees with Atwood’s view.

Le Guin gives an intriguing review of The Year of the Flood, which takes place after the events in Oryx and Crake. Both of these books are nearish future, with a crumbling of society, dystopian novels, because that’s what Atwood does best. But yet, she, like many of the literati, those who hold themselves above mere genre writers, says it’s not science fiction. And I must ask, what’s she afraid of, or is her viewpoint so narrow that in fact she only sees science fiction as squids in space?

Le Guin and Atwood are giants in their own rights, both award-winning authors whose stories span boundaries in some ways. Speculative fiction (an all-encompassing term for horror, fantasy, science fiction and really, literary fiction as well) doesn’t have to be shallow and it often looks at worlds and attitudes and how people change in regards to the pressures of life, species, invasion, change and technology–very valid commentary into our humanity, or inhumanity. So perhaps Atwood needs to accept that she has a narrow viewpoint of SF, get down from the pedestal and just accept that she writes it, sometimes. It’s not like it will hurt her rep, but the adamant head in the sand denial still doesn’t change that she writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it. Maybe she just hates the labels and codifying of writing.

I have not read The Year of the Flood, though I did read Oryx and Crake and where I felt it was a long setup for the story that wasn’t in the book, maybe Year is that story. And maybe not. For a very thought-provoking review by Ursula Le Guin of Atwood’s book, click on the link and be your own judge. And read the book, or read Le Guin’s books and see if the literary writer outweighs the SF writer. In the end, do you think Atwood writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it?

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood

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Writing: Demise & Panic

In the writing world, whether mainstream or speculative writing, survival depends on sales. For some literary magazines put out through universities, grants and other funding are often delegated to be able to pay the writers. But still a magazine of any style hopes to have a high viewer rate and sell subscriptions, guaranteed revenue for the future. In the case of a university funded magazine, the funding might be cut if the subscription numbers go down.

With individual or private magazines, they are sometimes owned by companies or individuals. In all cases they need to make money to survive unless a rich person is altruistically funnelling money into a labor of love and though they hope to sell out, don’t have to, to keep going.

With the recent panic in the economic rivers, we see various businesses tossing themselves on the banks, gasping for survival, their eyes goggling about and seeing little. In some cases the rivers are still flowing but a ripple has moved through, frightening everyone to make for land before the drought hits. Hmm, it makes me wonder. Is there a need to hunker down, to cut staff, to close offices or is it all anticipation of the worst, and that anticipation is what brings about the apocalypse?

Well, whatever the case, it’s hitting the speculative writing world as well. Realms of Fantasy has just announced that their April 2009 issue will be the last. http://sfscope.com/2009/01/realms-of-fantasy-closing.html I’ve always wondered how all the little paper magazines survived, and have suspected (but have no basis in fact) that sales were never great. The era of the great pulp magazine is truly gone, those sales were dependent on a relatively untried format and genre, the mass marketing of such and more successful when TV was infantile and the internet not even a spark in Daddy Gates’ eye.

Of course, if you’re running a magazine in the US and you sell to 10% of the people, that’s still a respectable number, compared to 10% of Canada’s population (one reason why a writer always wants to sell in the US first). So in some ways the speculative/SF/fantasy markets are hurting as well. Fantasy and Science Fiction has also announced that they’re going quarterly from monthly.

For us little writers it does mean that pickings will be slimmer, especially for the still generic brand writer. Alas. What to do? Well, as I have seen over the years, magazines come and go, publishers consolidate, shrink and grow. Everything is in a constant flux and publishing is an incestuous business with houses often changing hands, being swapped for a better fit. So it goes. I’ll just continue to write and submit.

I’ve also finally fired myself up and started writing on my novel again. Not hugely productive but productive nonetheless. The only way I can keep myself from being distracted is going off to cafes and restaurants and spending some money to sit there and write on my laptop. Luckily I work well with ambient noise. If I’m at home I fritter away the time on all sorts of things, never quite getting to that novel.

I started again two weeks ago and have about 8,000 words. To make it feel like I’m actually accomplishing something I’m writing through one viewpoint character’s chapters  before going back to do the other two. It means I’ll have to smooth over the chapter transitions but then this is first draft. I’m not worrying too much about perfection at this point, but just writing and getting the story down. It feels good to be moving ahead. I’m into the second chapter of one of my antagonists.

By the time I finish the book and am looking at marketing it to publishers, maybe things will be more stable. Maybe they’ll want a book that takes place on another planet that deals with economic, political and religious downfall. It might echo this world, but if it does, it’s not intentional. In the meantime I will watch the markets and continue to submit. Really, every few years there is a culling and if one can just find another stream, we’ll survive (So I used all sorts of metaphors here. What the heck, I’m not being paid for this.)

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Genre vs Literary Works

Now that movie technology has advanced, movie makers create worlds with all manner of special effects. There are a great number of fantastical, science fictional works. There is the whole gamut of superhero movies from the various comic books. And then there are movies based on books. Back in the sixties, science fiction movies went way out on a limb when 2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed. And then there was Bladerunner, based off of P.K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (an awesome title by the way). There were many others, which ran the range of B and lower–the Godzillas and Blob and other somewhat campy horror flicks.

And then came Star Wars, an epic story with star spanning special effects. Full steam ahead and there are many movies now out at the same time. For example, right now we have Hell Boy II, Dark Knight, Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Mummy III, to name a few. So, a lot of these are good fun and not particularly deep. Hollywood does love to turn speculative fiction into only eye and mind candy. When you look at the evolution of speculative (SF, fantasy, horror) novels, we’ve gone from bug-eyed aliens to very complex stories and worlds that look at the human condition, ethical and moral tales and what-ifs of future technologies.

On top of covering a host of possibilities with humanity, an author has to often create a viable, believable world that works. It must still follow rules and must be shown enough to paint dimensions so the reader can see it. This is of course, much easier in a movie, and yes a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even five thousand. Good speculative writing is not for the faint of heart, nor for the undisciplined and uneducated.

All of these skills that one must learn for speculative writing apply for any type of writing. Know your market, which means read, read, read. Then write, write, write and learn and perfect. This never stops, ever. I tend to lump all the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and even the myths of long ago under the umbrella term of speculative. In reality, anything that is not considered a history or telling of true life events, is in fact speculative.

Now the truly interesting thing is that a speculative writer can write science fiction and it will be looked down the long narrow noses of literary academics and called “genre” (said with nose in the air, as if smelling bad, and with an English accent). But a literary writer can write something that is speculative fiction and it will be praised and lauded and given awards. Case in point; Margaret Atwood has written two speculative novels (at least that I’ve read): Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. They are sometimes claimed to not be speculative, or speculative but not science fiction, getting to the fine hair splitting of genre names. But she takes those technologies and does a what-if into the future. That is indeed speculative and even science fiction.

When I was slowly progressing toward a degree in Creative Writing at UBC, one had to specialize in three areas: I chose short fiction, children’s fiction and poetry. In my kiddy lit class, the instructor didn’t like it when we wrote anything to do with fantastical worlds. She said they didn’t sell that well. Well, Ms Alderson, are you eating your hat after the fame of Harry Potter? This attitude was reflected throughout the department. However, George McWhirter who was the department head, and the only person worth his weight in gold, understood that writing well came first and what you wrote came second. He was not of the opinion expressed in The Boston Globe: “[T]he genre of the comic book is an anemic vein for novelists to mine, lest they squander their brilliance.” Ow.

A champion for blending or removing the snobbery borders between genres (or lowbrow and highbrow as some put it) is Michael Chabon. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. For his most recent book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union he was award the Nebula and the Campbell Awards. He was purported as saying the SF related Nebula meant more to him than getting the Pulitzer.

Perhaps with such writers as champions, we’ll see “genre” fiction being treated as writing and not drivel, where the best of all writing will rise to the top and more “genre” works will be nominated for awards. I’m not holding my breath…yet.

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