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Subgenre of the Week: Social Science Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Social Science Fiction

Last week I talked about Sword & Sorcery.  This week we have something of an odd duck.  Social Science Fiction is not a regularly accepted genre, but perhaps it should be.  It lacks common conventions and tropes, and yet the focus on society, sociology, and anthropology makes the books within it distinct from others they may share some genre classifications with.

Definition:

Social Science Fiction is a genre of SF revolving around the exploration of alternate societies, anthropology, and sociology.  It’s a rather broad umbrella.

History

There’s no real history to this genre, since it’s not an established sub-genre, but rather a collection of disparate works that often appeal to the same group of people.

Much of it was published around the New Wave in the 60s and 70s.  For example, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote most of her Hainish series during that period.

Common Tropes and Conventions

There are none, really, except that focus on the social sciences and possible future societies.

Genre Crossover

Pretty much any genre.  Space Opera for The Hainish Cycle, Military SF for Starship Troopers.  Near-future SF and Dystopia.  (I argue that Dystopia is worth considering separately.)

Media

There have been adaptions of many shorts stories and some novels, such as Flowers for Algernon and Starship Troopers, but otherwise firmly in the realm of print.

Future Forecast

Hard to say considering it’s not a cohesive body of work.  It’s certainly likely that more will be published in the future, as near-future SF is still pretty popular.

Recommendations

1.  The Hainish Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin

2.  Earthseed series by Octavia E. Butler

3.  Canopus in Argos series by Doris Lessing

4.  Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

5.  Blindness by Jose Saramago

6.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

7.  Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

8. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

9. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

10.  Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Goodreads list of Social Science Fiction.

(A lot of stuff on the Goodreads list is actually Dystopian, which I distinguish from Social SF.)

Check in next time for a discussion of Epic Fantasy.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Sword and Sorcery

Sub-genre of the Week:

Last week I discussed Mundane SF.  This week I’m going to talk about Sword & Sorcery, a genre whose definition is notoriously hard to articulate.  I did consider calling the genre S&S/heroic fantasy, since the distinction between the two is so fine.  But perhaps that’s an issue to tackle in a later post.  Much later.

Definition:

Sword & Sorcery is a sub-genre of fantasy with adventurer heroes and less emphasis on magic systems than epic and high fantasy.  It most often features morally grey characters on quests for wealth and glory.

History

The name “Sword & Sorcery” originated in 1961, when a letter written to the fanzine Arma by Michael Moorcock demanded a name for the stories of Robert E. Howard.  Fritz Leiber replied in Ancalagon, suggesting S&S, and he described the genre further in Arma the same year.  The genre itself had origins in the 30s and grew until the 70’s where it arguably peaked.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Common tropes of S&S include grey morality, a me-first attitude among the protagonists, and while tales may be epic in scope, the protagonist s more concerned with the here-and-now and personal stakes than the fate of kingdoms.

Genre Crossover

Sword and Sorcery has a great deal of crossover with several fantasy and science fiction genres.  Sword and Planet, heroic fantasy, and epic fantasy share many of the same character traits with S&S hero(ine)s, and many of the plots are similar.

Media

Sword & Sorcery became popular in visual media ever since the release of Conan the Barbarian in 1982, which spawned many derivative films, such as Kull the Conqueror and others.  It was also extremely popular in the short fiction pulp magazines, with many anthologies and short-story collections as well.

Future Forecast

Popular authors like Joe Abercrombie have brought back novel-length S&S, and it looks to remain popular in the future, although it’s doubtful it will ever reach the popularity it had at its peak in the early half of the 20th century.

Recommendations

1.  Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber

2.  The Elric Saga series by Michael Moorcock

3.  Conan the Cimmerian series by Robert E. Howard

4.  Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore

5.  Kane series by Karl Edward Wagner

6.  Hyperborea by Clark Ashton Smith

7.  Imaro by Charles R. Saunders

8.  Red Sonja by David C. Smith

9.  The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie

10.  Morlock Ambrosius series by James Enge

Goodreads list of Sword and Sorcery

Many of the books on the goodreads list are really epic or high fantasy, so do keep that in mind.

Check in next time for a discussion of Social Science Fiction.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Mundane SF

Sub-genre of the Week: Mundane SF

Last week I discussed High Fantasy.  This week, I’ll be doing a bit of a 180 and investigating a new sub-genre of SF.  Not only is it lacking in the fantastic as found in High Fantasy and its SF counterpart: Space Opera, but it’s an artificially created genre, formed by a cabal of writers in response to the recent popularity of Spacer Opera in the mainstream.  And while it strives to be as realistic as possible and eschews some of the flashier trappings of speculative fiction, I still enjoy it, both for its strict adherence to its own rules, and for the creative space it opens up in genre literature.

Definition:

Mundane SF is a sub-genre of science fiction characterized by a belief in the implausibility of FTL travel and alien contact.  It avoids alternate realities, and treats the future as solar-system-centric and focused on humanity and its future on earth.  It strives for a lack of escapism absent from almost any other speculative genre.  It could be considered a sub-genre of Hard SF.

History

Mundane SF was founded in 2002 by a group of writers including Geoff Ryman.  In 2007, it had grown enough for INterzone magazine to devote an issue to it, and it continues to grow as new writers adopt the ethos, and old writers come into the middle of their careers.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Mundane SF is characterized by a solar-system-focused future.  It lacks such common and unlikely tropes as FTL and universal translation.  It lacks tropes of extra-terrestrial life and alien encounters.

Genre Crossover

Mundane SF, by virtue of its limits, rarely crosses genre boundaries.  It could be argued to cross-over with Hard SF, assuming you view it as a separate genre.  It does also have some cross-over with near-future SF.

Media

As new as it is, there have been few examples of Mundane SF in non-print media.  It could be argued that the anime Planetes falls under the Mundane SF umbrella, but it could just as easily be bog-standard near-future SF.

Future Forecast

No doubt Mundane SF will continue to grow, albeit slowly, as SF writers become aware of it, and some few of its readers become writers.  I don’t see any omens of fantastic growth of a glutted market any time soon.

Recommendations
I’m afraid I can’t give you an recs for this one, as there aren’t really any 100% clearly Mundane SF novels.  The goodreads page is mostly books re-classified as Mundane SF that were written before the publishing the of Manifesto that sparked the movement.  Do check out Interzone #216 for some short story examples, though.

Goodreads list of Mundane SF

Next time: Sword and Sorcery

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: High Fantasy

Sub-genre of the Week: High Fantasy

Last week, I talked about Magical Realism.  This week’s sub-genre is the venerable and ever-popular high fantasy.  This is what most people imagine when they hear the word “fantasy”, and many, many writers and readers cut their teeth in the speculative fiction genre on this variant.  It’s old, but still enjoyable, and many of the older works in this genre are still wonderful reads today.

Definition:

High Fantasy is a medieval fantasy genre most often but not always set in pseudo-Europe.  It generally involves a larger-than-life hero on an epic quest, and a strong magical component.  It is distinguished from epic fantasy by the common focus of good vs. evil and the always heroic protagonist.  It is always set in a secondary fantasy world as opposed to taking place in the real world during historical times.

History

Most people would argue that high fantasy began with Tolkien in the early to mid fifties, although other early works such as Eric Rücker Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros is also often considered one of the first high fantasies.  It developed through various Tolkien-inspired series into the broad, diverse genre it is now in the 70s.

Common Tropes and Conventions

High Fantasy most often involves quest plots, Tolkien-esque non-human races such as elves and dwarves and orcs, hero protagonists.  There is also quite often heightened language and an overall heightened tone, reminiscent of mythology, from where it draws a great deal of its material.  The faux-medieval setting is also a very common convention.

Genre Crossover

High Fantasy most frequently crosses over with epic and heroic fantasy.  In fact, it could be argued that they aren’t really distinct genres at all.  So while I’ll make distinctions and argue that certain books are actually not in the genre it may first appear, plenty of people will disagree with me.  However, epic fantasy often has anti-heroes and a grittier tone.

Media

Besides novels, there are many high fantasy movies, anime, manga, and television shows.  The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the best well known movie franchise.

Future Forecast

High Fantasy always has and probably always will sell well.

Recommendations

1.  The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien

2.  The Earthsea Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin

3.  The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan

4.  The Belgariad series by David Eddings

5.  Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

6.  The Chronicles of the Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz

7.  The Kingkiller Chronicle series by Patrick Rothfuss

8.  The Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

9.  The Hythrun Chronicles series by Jennifer Fallon

10.  The Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander

Goodreads list of High Fantasy

Check in next time for a discussion of Mundane SF.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Magical Realism

Sub-genre of the Week: Magical Realism

Last week I talked about the New Weird.  This week, I’ll be addressing another fringe genre, Magical Realism.  I enjoy this genre because of its focus on character and the oddities in our everyday lives.

Definition:

Magical Realism is a sub-genre of either general or speculative fiction, depending on how you choose to see it.  It incorporates light fantastical elements which are both unexplainable and unexplained in the context of the story.  One of its major features is authorial reticence, the practice of with-holding information about those unexplainable events.

History

The term “Magical Realism” first appeared in reference to literature in 1955, it was applied to a strain of German art by critic Franz Roh in 1925.  However, literary magical realism originated in Latin America and reached its peak in late 40s and early 50s.  However, books have continued to come out, especially in non-Latin American countries at a steady rate.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Magical Realism tends to lack tropes and conventions, as such.  However, light fantastic elements, strong internal conflicts, and a presentation of the fantastic as no more surprising than the everyday are common among most stories in the genre.  A sense of the unexplainable and the possibility of meta-fictional elements are also commonly present.

Genre Crossover

Magical Realism has some cross-over with many genres.  Slipstream, New Weird, and the literary end of Urban Fantasy all share many features, such as the subtle presentation of the fantastic elements, an emphasis on layers of the story beyond just the plot, and an attention to description.

Media

Most Magical Realism is in novel or short story form, excepting movie adaptions.

Future Forecast

Magical Realism has been doing well, and authors from countries all over the world have been throwing their hat in the ring, and in many languages, as well.  As more books are written in more countries and languages, both the visibility and perceptions of the genre will no doubt bring even greater popularity.

Recommendations

1.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

2.  The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

3.  Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

4.  Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

5.  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

6.  Green Angel by Alice Hoffman

7.  Chocolat by Joanne Harris

8.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

9.  The Enchantress of Florence by Salmon Rushdie

10.  Skellig by David Almond

Goodreads list of Magical Realism

Next week: High Fantasy

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Speculative Fiction and Genres

In keeping with my Sub-genre of the Week feature every Saturday, I thought I’d write a little about the theory of genres.  First, some definitions:

There are two perspectives from which we can approach the concept of a genre:

1. A genre is a collection of tropes and conventions shared by a group of similar stories in conversation with each other.

2, A genre is a collection of stories that all appeal to the same set of readers.

The first is a literary genre, and a theoretical definition.  The second is a marketing genre and a pragmatic definition.  A lot of the confusion about genre comes from people not specifying which definition/perspective they are using when they use the word genre.  You can also approach it from a user perspective.  The first definition is most useful for readers, literary critics, and authors wishing to write in a specific genre.  The second is most useful to writers, agents, and publishers looking to market the book to readers.  Publishers are willing to bend genre or play to crossover if it might get them more sales.  In that way, the second definition leads to a much more fluid conception of genre.  It’s very important when discussing genre to keep in mind that both definitions are legitimate and have their uses in the right context.  I occasionally see people throwing trash talk at someone coming from a perspective different than the one they want to use, and that doesn’t do anything useful for the discussion.

However, the definition in question can cause some serious disagreement between the two perspectives about what a specific genre even refers to.  Case in point: Urban Fantasy.  From the theoretical perspective, Urban Fantasy is an Earth-based fantasy novel set in the modern era with fantasy elements where the city the story is set in plays a large role in the story and can even function as a character, and the story contains themes stemming from societal issues arising in an urban environment.  But under the pragmatic perspective, “UF” generally refers to a set of books where a damaged yet kick-ass protagonist functions as a sort of crime-solver in a modern city involving creatures from mythology and folklore.  And even then we have novels like Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where we apply Young Adult tropes of a child discovering the truth about their origins/past.  Does that fall under Urban Fantasy?  Sometimes.  Certainly Clare’s novel appeals to many of the same readers as more traditional Urban Fantasy.  So under the pragmatic definition, City of Bones is UF, even if it doesn’t meet all the marks of theoretical UF.

Another major point: A genre is a collection of tropes and conventions that covers all the possible tropes in the genre.  But a book doesn’t have to have all of those tropes to be of that genre.  Whatever genre a book’s tropes overlap with the most, is generally considered its default genre.

Since this is a Speculative Linguistics Blog, let me make a linguistic analogy.  Each of the major genres–Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Western–functions as a mid-level language family such as the Romance Languages, Germanic, or Slavic.  A sub-genre is like a dialect–it incorporates a smaller, more specific set of attributes common in the larger language family.  We call these attributes tropes and conventions in literary analysis.  A specific book is analogous to an idiolect–the personal set of linguistic markers describing the language of a single individual.  Just like genres, books are a collection of tropes and conventions that come together to make up a story.

But just like a human being can include markers not present in their own native language or dialect, or even language family, a book can include tropes and conventions not common to its perceived genre.  Because most writers don’t consciously write to a formula.  They use the language they learned as a kid, or in the case of books, the tropes and conventions they encountered in their reading.  And this is what makes labeling a book by a specific genre complicated.

Because of what I described above, a book can have over-lapping genres.  Much like a partial fingerprint, it will have a collection of tropes and conventions that matches part of one genre, but its collection of features can also partially match another genre.  And certain genres are more prone to have overlap with certain other genres.  High and Epic fantasy, for example, commonly have a quite large overlap.  And as I said before, a book doesn’t have to have every trope in a genre to qualify.

There are a few distinctive tropes present in most genre that by their presence alone can qualify it as one genre over another.  Black-and-white morality/inherent good vs. evil almost always signals high fantasy over epic or heroic fantasy.  But what happens when a book lacks distinguishing features from any genre and its collections overlaps multiple genre proto-types?  Then we have a mess.

The pragmatic definition can get around this by just labeling it whatever genre they think will pull in the most readers.  Epic fantasy is hot right now, so a marketing department might eschew high fantasy as an option and market an indeterminate books as epic to follow the trend.  But the theoretical definition can’t do that.  And so we have a situation where genre becomes ever more narrowly defined trying to make it possible to pigeon-hole every single book into an indisputable primary genre.

And here we come across another trait of books:  They can have primary and secondary genre.  A Science Fiction Romance is a book with science fiction elements whose primary genre is Romance.  Such books are often treated as having the sub-genre “science fiction” under the Romance super-genre, under the principle that it will appeal to Romance readers but not Science Fiction readers.  Under the pragmatic definition of genre, this is true.  Under the theoretical definition it’s true in a different way.

An example of this phenomenon occurs in the sub-genre scope.  Much like Romance is always the primary genre in a book with two genres, steampunk is always the primary sub-genre in a book with two sub-genres.  A book might qualify as Epic Fantasy under most of the requirements, but if it has steampunk elements, it will always be steampunk and not science fiction.

This primary-genre phenomenon highlights another confusing aspect of genre.  Even though genre is merely a collection of tropes, you can apply some or all of those tropes to a story, and not have it be truly in that genre.  The term “trappings” is often thrown about in genre discussions, referring to using the tropes of a genre in a story that is not really of that genre.  The final discriminator in whether something is truly of a genre or not is good faith.  If a book has the mechanical tropes of a genre but has not used them in good faith, but merely as window-dressing for a story that really belongs to another genre, such as often happens with Romance, then that story is not the genre of those “trappings”.

The way that you can tell if a genre is just intended as window-dressing is if the story tropes do not match up with the thematic tropes.  Each genre includes among its tropes a sub-set of tropes related to the themes of the genre.  Romance story-lines are not a thematic trope of science fiction, and so a book with a romance story-line cannot be science fiction.

 

These are a sub-set of the underpinnings of the genre classification system.  It is not exhaustive, but I do think it addresses most of the major issues surrounding genre classification.  That said, if I missed anything, I would love to hear about it.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2013 in genre

 

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The New Craze: New Adult, Genre or Age Category

In 2009, St. Martin’s Press put out the call for “fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.”  Two years later, when I was pushing college age fiction and hearing nothing but stories of rejection and how there wasn’t a market, New Adult was still not a solid genre or age category.  And now, two years after that, it’s exploding.  “New Adult” is rocketing up the best-seller lists in the wake of 50 Shades of Gray and other books.  But there’s something different than how I pictured it way back in 2009.  Something that was becoming clear in 2011, even as people said it could never sell.  What’s selling now as “New Adult” isn’t an age category, with characters from 18-26; it’s a genre of general fiction focusing in romance and sexuality among upper age college kids and high school graduates gone into the workforce.

New Adult is often compared to its analogous age category “Young Adult”, but for the moment at least, that analogy is flawed.  YA has books is every genre of fiction, but so far, NA is mostly in the Romance and Erotica categories.  In fact, USAToday and ABCNews have gone as far as to call it smut.  And truth be told, it’s being positioned by publishers as an edgier version of YA romance, with the vast majority of titles following the YA contemp romance formula.  Except, you know, in college.  The race is lead by Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster, which follows close behind 50 Shades, and is itself followed up by titles such as Colleen Hoover’s Slammed, and Wait For You by J. Linn, whose real name is Jennifer L. Armentrout.

To me, that set of tropes and conventions with all similar stories signals a genre (a sub-genre of Romance, in this case) rather than an age category designed for marketing purposes.  And there’s nothing wrong with a new sub-genre, but when I first heard about New Adult back in 2009 and 2010, I was really hoping for an age category that gave stories with college age protags a chance to sell.

But maybe I’m wrong?  Is there mystery and spec fic and all the rest out there?  Anyone got any recs for me?

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2013 in genre, New Adult

 

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