Science fiction is not a good term for pointing to the things I like about science fiction books. I know too many people who claim to love science fiction, but we don’t share the same favorite movies and books. Why is that? Well, because the term science fiction is not a very good term for pointing at a specific type of stories. It’s a collective term for a whole spectrum of fantastic tales. I’m now thinking we need a new way of describing the stories we love that go beyond genre labels.
I’m not even sure the standard genres labels, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, historical, thriller, etc. are all that useful for readers. They’re a rough categorization for book publishers and bookstores, but not very precise for reading moods. I think readers like particular flavors featured in fiction, rather than their genre classification.
Take witty romantic comedies. Does it really matter where the witty romance takes place, in the old west, in Regency England, in outer space, as part of a murder mystery in 1939 New York City, if that’s the kind of story you’re in the mood to read? If you’re in the mood to shoot a lot of bad guys, does it matter if it’s Al Qaeda terrorists you blow away, or aliens from Betelgeuse or Nazis in WWII?
I believe readers who love Military SF would probably enjoy just as much, high-tech, squad level combat stories set in other times and places. Combat stories with band of brothers camaraderie is the flavor readers crave. Or a grunt working up the ranks is another flavor people love. Honor Harrington stories are appealing in the same way many people love stories about Horatio Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin stories. I think they reflect a flavor of fiction rather than a genre. Although some readers might find they love stories about very tall women, and thus the connection to other sea stories wouldn’t matter.
Growing up I loved “sense of wonder” stories. I thought the label meant specific kinds of science fiction, but I don’t now. Now I know there are several buttons to push to turn on my sense of wonder. When I was a kid and read books like After Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, it pushed my sense of wonder button in a big way. When the humans were exploring the ancient city of Bronson Beta, that pegged my sense of wonder meter. Any science fiction book that has explorers walking around in long dead civilizations pushes my sense of wonder button. But when I read regular fiction and nonfiction books about explorers poking around in long dead human civilizations of Earth, it pushes the same button.
Another type of story that sets off my sense of wonder button are those that remember humans after they became extinct, like the connecting pieces to City by Clifford Simak, or the later chapters of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. But watching documentaries about life after people sets off the same flavor. Theoretically I should be able to seek out all the stories, whether science fiction, or nonfiction, and find the flavor I desire to experience. The same powerful sense of wonder flavor came in the 1920 poem “There Will Come Soft Rains.” The World Without Us is evoked by a very specific idea. It shows up every now and then in science fiction, but elsewhere too.
Another flavor I realized I loved as a kid that I completely associated with Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels, is the young adult science fiction novel. I found the same flavor in many Winston Science Fiction novels and books by Andre Norton. But over the years I realized that any story about a teen without parents struggling to make it in a new environment does the trick. Part of the enticing flavor is the kid must be on their own, or their parents must be mostly tuned out. National Velvet by Enid Bagnold works because Velvet Brown is learning to do something behind her parent’s back, and something girls, especially young girls in the 1920s, didn’t do, which was jockey a horse in a national race.
What I point to when I use the term science fiction, are those books which extrapolate on current trends to speculate about possible futures. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Stand on Zanzibar, and The Windup Girl are examples of what I mean. But there are many kinds of science fiction that I read that don’t fit that flavor. Space opera is one. PKD type stories are another. In fact, Philip K. Dick wrote a flavor of story I really crave that’s not science fiction at all, and those where his stories about the 1950s. I really love Confessions of a Crap Artist, and would read more like it if I could find them.
I often meet people who love Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga series. That’s the flavor they think of when they crave science fiction, but most science fiction stories are not like her books about Miles and Cordelia. Her books are a mixture of romance, military, thriller and mystery set in an aristocratic galactic empire. Her books have so many other flavors that I don’t think of them as science fiction at all, at least by my definition. But that’s my point. Fans of Bujold seek a certain flavor or flavors in their fiction that can’t be described by the generic term science fiction. I find her books very pleasant, but none of their flavors actually make me think of science fiction.
To me, when a group of people all claim to love science fiction, I no longer think they love the same thing, even though they are all using the same phrase, science fiction. In reality, they could all hate each other’s favorite books and movies. We have to accept the term science fiction because it’s so widely used, but I think impossible to universally define. Now when I talk to friends about books, or read reviews, I’m going to see if I can find out the flavors of the stories, because I know I love certain flavors of fiction and crave them.
JWH – 11/15/13