Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Genre and Subgenre

Sometimes I like to try to classify my writing. Perhaps this isn't seemly. But I find that it helps me figure out what I'm trying to do, what I like and what I don't like, what I want to cleave to and what I want to break away from.

So. I've often expressed dissatisfaction with the fantasy/sci-fi dichotomy. It's useful and necessary, I know, but these are basically commercial categories. They do reflect a real division in the literature, but the boundaries don't everywhere coincide. The same holds true to a lesser degree for all the various subgenres. My main problem, I think, is that the classification concerns material elements only. If you have an elf, it's a high fantasy, or maybe an epic fantasy. Unless he hangs out in coffee shops and tattoo parlors, in which case it's an urban fantasy. But I don't read books because of the matter. I read them because of the form. Reading Tolkien was a life-changing experience. Terry Brooks never appealed to me. What was the difference? Certainly not the matter!

Take Perelandra. The pedants usually classify it as a fantasy because it has angels and concerns original sin. But they're wrong; from their point of view, it's science fiction. C. S. Lewis happened to believe in angels and sin, and wrote compelling speculative fiction about them. If we accept the characterization that sci-fi makes the improbable possible while fantasy makes the impossible probable, then Perelandra falls into the first category. How many science fiction writers, I wonder, believe in the immateriality of the human soul? Do we classify all their works as fantasy because of they contain elements of the supernatural? But this underscores the problem. The classification of a story shouldn't change when we uncover some new datum in the author's biography. So, if the pedants were consistent, they would call Perelandra science fiction, but I would still call it a fantasy, not because of its supernatural elements, but because of its structure and aims.

Everyone's heard the canard about how advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to primitive peoples. What this ignores is that magic is technology. There's no difference. Let me repeat. There is no difference between magic and technology, except in the eyes of conceited modern observers. Just because I've rejected some hypothesis in my systematic attempts to control my environment doesn't somehow render the  hypothesis a member of a different category from the ones I accept. A savage practicing homeopathic magic or whatever it is they do nowadays is merely exhibiting a certain belief regarding cause-and-effect. A medical professional does the same. The latter presumably has better results. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind. A belief in a supernatural world subject to testable and consistent rules and limitations is no less "scientific" than phlogiston theory or M-theory, whatever we may think of the truth of the thesis.

So, when people go on about how a fantasy needs to have a well-defined magic system that's adhered to consistently, they're not talking about fantasy at all. They're talking about science fiction, or, at any rate, technology fiction. Galadriel the queen of Lothlórien gently mocks Samwise for wanting to see "elf magic," confessing that she isn't entirely certain what is meant by the word. Thus does she smile at dragon dice, Magic cards, and other systems. Did Merlinus Ambrosius adhere to a magic system? No. He simply went places, and things happened. Do you get the feeling that the plot is contrived or arbitrary because of that? No. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, et al., knew what it was to write a romance. It's these systems that allow for contrived, unreal plots. In the end it's no different from Scotty saving the day by rerouting the secondary reactor drive through the main power converters. You know. Just difficult enough to add the right amount of tension.

Anyway, my writing is in the same boat as Perelandra. The pedants would call it fantasy because of various material elements. But really, from their point of view, they should call it science fiction. It is fantasy, just not for the reasons they cite. Its "macrobial" agents are rigorously conceived. It has not an iota of magic, though it might seem otherwise to primitive readers. But it's supposed to hit the fantasy spot. And what is that? I admit that I'm not certain. It's something I've struggled with. Speaking broadly, we might say that fantasy has an ecological, holistic outlook. It integrates. Science fiction is about doing; fantasy is about being.

So let's call my writing fantasy, despite the fact that it features space elevators, prehistoric biota, topological puzzles, etc. What subgenre shall we place it in? There's a jumble of tags to choose from, but they can't be regarded as concrete, mutually exclusive genuses, so we'll just have to pick what seems most appropriate. Let's see, let's see. Much of my fiction features warriors who wear sandals, carry swords, and battle dread Elder Gods and beasts from the Outside, but it isn't sword and sorcery, which is lusty, amoral, action-oriented, and narrow in scope, lacking the ecological sensibility I spoke of before. It displays a global consciousness and is centered around a battle for the soul of the world between forces of order and chaos (as I conceive of them), but isn't high fantasy or epic fantasy, as these connote a nostalgic restriction of technology and a certain elevation of manners alien to my mind. A lot of the action takes place in cities (or, rather, a City) powered by steam engines and decorated with Art Nouveau motifs, but it most certainly is not steampunk, which I leave to those who like such things. It isn't dark fantasy because it's not, well, dark (not that most things marketed as such really are), and it isn't urban fantasy because it isn't contemporary and sparkly.

No, none of these tags really apply. What remains left to us is, I think, the category we're looking for: sword and planet, occasionally (but not interchangeably) referred to as planetary romance. Think of the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. They couple high technology (mechanical fliers, radium pistols, air plants) with Bronze Age culture. There's a certain focus on action, but an ecological awareness runs right through them as well. A Princess of Mars, with its towering green warriors, haughty oviparous princesses, thoats and zitidars, gladiator pits, fleets of airships, long-range rifles, and age-empty ruined cities, is the epitome of the sword-and-planet subgenre. Planetary romance, on the other hand, is exemplified more by novels like Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness. My own novel and assorted stories are definitely closer to Barsoom than Arrakis. They take place in a counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes inhabited by paleozoic biota and antediluvian races.

Sword-and-planet novels are a threatened breed these days. Edgar Rice Burroughs was the great forerunner, but his descendants have been sadly lacking. The sixties and seventies saw a glut of nostalgiac homages and pastiches, like those awful Green Star books of Lin Carter that you're always seeing in used bookstores, and the Gor books of John Norman, which I haven't read for obvious reasons. I'm always looking for Leigh Brackett's Mars books but they must be good since no one wants to sell their used copies.

Yes, I find the writing of sword-and-planet novels a high and lonely art. I don't mean to imply that my work can be pigeonholed, though. My hope is that it embodies a certain literary flair. The models I adulate (and fall far short of) include Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Flannery O'Connor, and Willa Cather. But I'm also inspired by the great exemplars of pre-Tolkien fantasy, from "high" British works like The Well at the World's End, The Night-Land, the short stories of Lord Dunsany, and The Worm Ouroboros, to the "low" works of American pulp writers like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and C. L. Moore.

There, that helps. Now back to work on the sequel of that novel I'm still trying to sell…


  1. Well written, sir! You've pointed out that the arbiters of literary fashion wear no clothes.

    I wrote my own treatment of Clarke's Third Law on my old blog. Our views seem quite complementary. http://soulsagabooks.blogspot.com/2013/06/faustian-bargaining.html

    Your post also brought to mind Sanderson's Law: "An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic." I'm interested to know your opinion of this guideline.

    Your novel sounds refreshingly...well, novel. I'm glad that pre-Tolkien fantasy still has champions today. I've read less from that era than I'd like, but I intend to fix my oversight.

    I wish you success in selling your book. Genre bending is frowned upon these days, sad to say. Keep trying! My own work also defies easy classification, though it leans closer to Arrakis than Barsoom.

    Best of luck drafting your sequel.

  2. I read your post and, for the record, agree with it, especially concerning the traditional understanding of magic vs. what we see in a lot of genre fiction.

    As I've looked around on the Internet, I've find that agents and publishers often say things like, don't send us your fantasy unless it has a rigorous, consistent magic system. I have nothing against writers and readers who like such things but to me it's extraneous to fantasy; not necessarily inimical, you understand, but not particularly important either. I've read Mr. Sanderson's essay on the topic, and, tentatively, I would disagree with him, and also with Orson Scott Card, whose book (cited in the essay) I've read and profited from in other ways. It's true that consistency is crucial to secondary world-building. But I would say that the extent to which a work is a fantasy is inversely proportional to the importance of a magic "system" as a formal element. You can have a fine fantasy with such a system; I happen to think Hart's Hope (Card) is a powerful example. It can even play a major role in a material sense. It's just not what makes a fantasy a fantasy, and, as a matter of personal taste, I prefer fantasies that use such "magic" rather sparingly. Because it can become a truss, allowing the author to write commercial fiction with fantastic elements but lacking the more elusive keynotes of true fantasy. Though not necessarily, of course.

    What a lot of people call fantasy is really to me a kind of science fiction (or action thriller), and the fact that Mr. Sanderson applies his rule to sci-fi as well as fantasy underscores this. I don't think that "hard vs. soft" applies to fantasy as it does to sci-fi; imposing this spectrum really makes fantasy into a kind of sci-fi. He says that fantasy has come a long way since the sixties but I'm not so sure about that. Certainly it has a clearer set of rules and reader expectations, but that just makes it kind of boring to me. Like Tolkien, I'm personally much more interested in grace and providence, and those are trickier things to nail down. Sanderson calls Tolkien's magic vague and mysterious; mysterious it may be, in the sense of the traditional meaning of "mystery," but it certainly isn't vague.

    Well anyway I don't want to dogmatize but that pretty well describes my personal preferences. Thanks for you wishes; same to you.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to give my questions such thorough and well thought-out answers. You and Mr. Wright are lending credence to my intuition that the dominant view of genre fiction has misinterpreted some basic aspect of fantasy.

    Another commenter on Mr. Wright's blog told me that currently popular genre writers excel at telling stories about who we are and where we come from. They falter when it comes to telling us what we are in relation to the Great What-Is. You seem to give much the same assessment.

  4. I loved the early Gor books because Tarl Cabot retained his "earthly everyman" quality. In that brutal world, he regularly won the love of women and men by being kind! Then, the ugly weirdness that lurked within, like a ringworm inn the heart, flowered into hideous life (particularly with Hunters of Gor, the first Gor book published by DAW rather than Ballantine). The sheer sick-making quality of reading that book, and realizing that its author had utterly squandered precisely the appeal of the hero--that he was Gor's greatest swordsman AND a sweet innocent guy from Earth--stays with me to this day. All of the ugliness and sickness--to say nothing of the sheer unreadableness, the self-parodying style taken to the point of near word salad--kept under control in the first five or six books, metastasized and destroyed a truly great planetary romance series. I've never met a devoted reader of the later books (Thank God!) but if I did, I'd say to him that he loves something shriveled, sick, warped, confined, crippled and small. And above all, mechanical. The later Gor books are to the early as perversion is to romance.

    1. Like I said, I haven't read them, so I'm not qualified to condemn them. I recently passed up a chance to buy a big stack for $1, as I don't really want them on my shelf. It's slightly bizarre (or perhaps not?) that he's a philosophy professor with a Princeton doctorate; this alone, and the fact that the books supposedly contain philosophical ruminations, have made me want to look into the first few, but I'm not sure that I ever shall.

  5. These musings about sci-fi/fantasy genres pricked my interest, so I wrote a fairly lengthy response, which you in turn might find interesting. Apologies if the tone is abrasive at times; as W.H. Auden said, "the critical opinions of a writer should always be taken with a large grain of salt. For the most part, they are manifestations of his debate with himself as to what he should do next and what he should avoid."


    1. I like that quote, which very well describes what I'm about here, and will take a look at your response; thank you for taking the time to think about my musings.