The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part I
There are some people with the belief that a story is a story is a story and that what makes a good story in one genre applies equally well to all types of fiction. Those people are wrong.
Genres are defined, largely, by the contents of their tropes. Fantasy stories have magick and fantastic creatures, and typically fantastic settings when we aren’t talking about urban fantasy or paranormal fiction which seek to depict the fantastic lurking in the shadowy corners of the “real world.” Science fiction stories centre on advanced technology and science, giving us tales of adventure on far-flung planets, or aboard distant starships or space stations. The degree to which a genre story is good depends on how well the author has made use of that genre’s tropes to create an interesting, compelling tale.
Now some will find that a shallow definition of genre. But the western genre best demonstrates this concept, the fragility of its foundation on tropes. A western is a story set in the Western United States, in the 19th century, typically revolving around characters, objects and tropes you would expect to find there, cowboys, Native Americans, firearms, prostitutes, trains, horses, outlaws, plots focused on revenge, a tendency to resolve conflicts through showdowns, etc. You can easily remove any one of these elements and still have a western but remove too many of these tropes and your story is no longer a western.
You can have a Sherlock Holmes story set in Victorian times, involving firearms with a plot based on revenge and it be in no way a western. But should a murderous outlaw flee Oklahoma for China and a relentless ex-lawman bent on avenging his fallen family pursue him there, we still have a western.
I had an acquaintance once whom I used to tease by saying that horror wasn’t a genre; it’s a mood. It’s an emotion. If the primary cumulative emotional effect of the film is to generate fear, or more accurately trepidation, in the viewer, then it’s a horror film. You can have a horror film without any supernatural elements whatsoever. There doesn’t need to be a demon or a doorway to hell for you to be telling a horror tale. Alien is clearly a science fiction film. There are astronauts, suspended animation, alien life forms, starships, advanced technology of all kinds, an overarching corporation dominating Humanity, etc., etc., etc. But we think of Alien primarily as a horror film.
That overlap of tropes is important, especially in the Alien series. While I would define Alien as a quintessential horror film as well as being a film of science fiction, I would define it’s sequel, Aliens, as being more an SF film than a horror film. There’s still the isolation of the characters, the danger presented by the alien lifeforms, and the struggle for survival, but the primarily military cast and their ability to defend themselves to some degree with force gives the film more of a “bug hunt” film than a “lone monster is picking us off one by one film.”
And so we see that genre is defined equally by tropes and by emotion. Each genre has a dominant feel to it, a dominant emotion or emotions conveyed by the bulk of its works. Horror is about fear. Fantasy is about wonder and a nostalgia for an imagined past. Science fiction is about exploring the possibilities of the future as expressed through science and technology. Wonder is a key emotion to much of sf as well but we can have a high-tech dystopia where wonder is absent and still have a work of science fiction. Westerns aren’t just about the Old West; they’re about expressing those emotions we tie to our cumulative cultural understanding of this now mythic setting. A love story with a purely interpersonal conflict between two lovers set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a Western. Such a love story, moved to a starship, isn’t science fiction.
Let me take the time to simply say “backdrops don’t count.” If genre elements are visible in a piece but they have no relevance to the story or the plot, they don’t count. If the story is about Bob’s inability to trust again impeding his new relationship with Joan, then it’s a love story; it’s romance, and it doesn’t matter if it takes place on a space station. That’s not good science fiction. Now there are some allowances to be made for individual chapters and episodes but if in a short story, the whole story could be moved to a new setting and nothing serious would have changed in the plot or characters, that’s bad writing. Backdrops don’t count.
So this is the first part of my argument, the first part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy — that good writing in any particular genre depends upon using several of its dominant tropes to achieve one or more of that genre’s dominant emotions in a story where the plot depends upon those tropes. The film Brazil is a terrifying look at the future, a retro-style bureaucratic dystopia, and yet, it is a science fiction film, not a horror film. Technology and our focus on the future is what its fear is built upon and so we class it as sf.
The television series Angel, despite having a main character who is a vampire and a host of other horror tropes, such as demons and magick, is more of an urban fantasy than a horror series. Demons, for example, in the series, are much more like aliens than implacable forces of evil. Joss Whedon uses the trope of demons as a cypher for those individuals who don’t fit into society. They look strange to our eyes. They have strange manners and customs, but ultimately, Angel portrays rank-and-file demons just as people trying to get along like the rest of us, with no greater propensity for evil than any human. They may have strange powers but they aren’t defined by them. As people, they have goals and lives and many of them simply wish to be left alone. This isn’t a horror series, it’s an urban fantasy that uses a lot of modified horror tropes.
I have a friend who postulates a theory that technologies need not be detailed in stories of science fiction. His theory is that we don’t go on about the details of cellphones or laptops or cars; we simply use them. We don’t say, “And now, I’ll get to the docks using my mechanised horseless carriage which uses tiny detonations of atomised incendiary fluid to drive pistons whose motion is transferred via gears to the wheels.” Although, such a statement might actually be fitting for a steampunk story. No. In the modern setting, the user and the reader are both acquainted with the technology in question and so there is no need for such detail.
I disagree with this theory because science fiction is all about new technologies and developments of science and these are technologies we as readers and viewers aren’t intimate with. We need the author to go on about his fictional technologies in detail because we need to know the rules of his universe for the story to make sense. We also need that detail because that’s a large part of what the audience is here for — to read about mile-long starships being flung by fusion power through hyperspace from world to world. While the character may be jaded and uninterested in the details of his craft’s propulsion, we should feel quite cheated as readers if all we ever get of the starship’s technology from the author is “and Bob went to Proxima Centauri.”
It’s necessary to develop these world-building technological details in science fiction, at least a little, in order to prepare the way for their use as plot elements. Space Battleship Yamato has a scene I remember about their space warping technology. Space Battleship Yamato, known in the States as Star Blazers, had two different FTL systems, one, the wave motion engine, an FTL drive that allowed the ship to “fly” through space at superluminal speeds, and space warping, where large distances were traversed instantaneously. In one scene, the ship and crew get into trouble and Wildstar (known as Kodai in Space Battleship Yamato) asks, “Why don’t we space warp?” I remember this scene particularly because I had asked the question out loud word for word a few seconds before Wildstar did. Sandor, the ship’s science officer, responds “Think you’re a cowboy, Wildstar?” He then proceeds to explain that space warping requires the synchronization of the ship with certain ambient waves traversing space (be they gravitic or tachyon in nature, I don’t recall) and that this is a delicate matter requiring precise calculation and it can’t be done in a hurried rush. Thus we get useful world-building which reinforces the general mood that we are dealing with realistic-sounding technologies in a realistic future. (“Realistic” as a word has limited utility when talking about Space Battleship Yamato. It is a series about a space-going WWII battleship after all.) We also get the plot utility of an explanation of why this plot element that can be used to help explain how our heroes are going to cover 180,000 light years of distance in just one Earth year can’t be used to get them out of every fight. And that’s incredibly important.
The point I’m raising is that we can remove one or more of the key tropes of science fiction from any particular sf story but if we remove too many of them or we fail to include one of its dominant emotions, wonder/hope for the future, fear/trepidation of what may occur in the future, we no longer have good sf, but something other. Remove too much technical detail and we get science fantasy rather than science fiction. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if you’re trying to write science fiction. If you’re trying to write fantasy, then you should write fantasy. Scientific or even “realistic” definitions of magick usually fall flat on their face. We need to know the rules that magick generally follows but Lucas’ attempt to explain the Force with midichlorians was contrived, unnecessary and silly. Again, there is no list of mandatory tropes and explanations we need for any particular genre, just enough presence of its dominant tropes being utilized to generate one or more of its dominant moods. And Star Wars is far more about action and adventure than it is about serious science or technological detail.
* * *
Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black