I don’t know what it is about genre distinctions that so fascinates writers and readers alike. We enjoy them perhaps for the same reason we obsess about character classes and skill trees and so on in games like Dungeons and Dragons and why so many of us obsess (wrongly) about “magic systems” (as if anything which supercedes and violates natural law should be systematic, ha)! We like complexity, perhaps too much, we like categories (heavens, so much trouble in fan culture of late is the result of trying to categorize fans and creators alike: for their immutable traits, for the beliefs, for their politics, and so on). Complex categories give the world a texture that we nerds find pleasing, for they bespeak a deep sense not merely of order, but of ordered chaos.
The best of both worlds.
Go to any science fiction convention or fan subreddit and you’re bound to find discussions of the delineations between epic fantasy and grimdark, science fiction and science fantasy, steampunk and cyberpunk and dieselpunk (all without anyone bringing up the fact that none of these have anything to do with the punk movement and basically never have). People discuss these things with the fervency of a sommelier informing the uninitiated that his wine contains “notes of shoe leather, woodsmoke, and moss” (as if this is meant to sound appetizing). Like the sommelier, the genre-aficionado succeeds more in alienating her audience than in inducting them into the ‘fandom.’
Like the would-be wine enthusiast or my mystified middle-aged co-workers bored by my explaining the distinctions between flavors of heavy metal music, fussing about genre has always been an exercise in navel gazing as far as I’m concerned. In selling books at trade shows to the more casual readers (or simply to my neighbors who discover that I write books professionally), I’ve found it always more reliable simply to say “I write science fiction”, or to ask “Well, do you like Game of Thrones and Star Wars?”, than it is to start rattling off labels like space opera or sword and sandal or Gothic cyberpunk fusion, because these terms are the technical jargon of a field most people know little about, and are thus barriers and not bridges to understanding. Readers want to know:
- Are there wizards?
- Are there spaceships?
- Are there wizards AND spaceships?
- At least does something blow up?
There are other questions, but these four are a good start.
Understand, I am not dismissing the importance of genre categories from the standpoint of literary theory or criticism. I am only saying that the importance we place on them as readers — and as writers in particular — is dramatically misplaced.
For readers, developing an opinion on genre is dangerous because it causes us to pre-judge books and stories on things other than their merit. Suppose you, like me, tend to dislike urban fantasy (for whatever reason). Ruling out the entire genre rules out books you might actually like (I have very much enjoyed the two or three Dresden Files books I’ve read, for instance, despite my putative dislike for the genre). Had my dislike for urban fantasy been stronger, I might never even have tried. To use an analogy, one shouldn’t say “I hate tomatoes” because one hates them on salads, because there are a million other things one can do with tomatoes: ketchup, for instance, to say nothing of the ten thousand styles of tomato sauce I can think of.
For writers, being obsessed with genre is far more dangerous, because it’s how we put ourselves in boxes. And here at last I talk about my own books:
New writer that I am, I have only the one series. The Sun Eater is *inhales technically* a science fiction space opera written in the style of an epic fantasy with elements of Gothic literature and sword-and-sandal. It is also a planetary romance (in the traditional sense of the word romance, not in the sense that it should have a shirtless man riding a white horse on the cover), a memoir, and a history. The first volume, Empire of Silence, is also in part a bildungsroman, part a first-contact story, and part a social comedy (if not a very funny one).
Are you still here? Did you fall asleep? (If, on the other hand, you’re one of the people who sat up straighter out of interest while reading this, you’re one of the weird ones, like me).
When I’m selling to people at a con, I say none of this. Do not serve people word salad. Like cilantro, it tastes funny to many people. Instead, I like to say,
“Empire of Silence is a science fiction adventure story set about 20,000 years in the future. It’s the story of Hadrian Marlowe, a young nobleman who rebels against his father and runs away from home only to find himself embroiled in the middle of a war between humankind and the Cielcin, the first alien species in all those thousands of years to ever pose a threat to our Empire. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all the Cielcin: this story is about why and how, and about all the things you don’t know.” If I’m in a hurry, or if I’m talking to someone in a Star Wars shirt, I might say. “It’s like Star Wars if Anakin becoming Darth Vader were his best option.”
Genres, rightly conceived (to my mind), are each like instruments in a band, or like styles of play. This newest book, Howling Dark, takes Hadrian and the Sun Eater series from a Frank Herbert styled mythic space opera into a darker, doomier, decidedly more Gothic place. There’s a good deal of cyberpunk influences in this one, echoes of the great Japanese cyberpunk stories like Akira, Alita, and Ghost in the Shell; as well as just a dash of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. These things change the music of the story a bit, like dropping a violin into a heavy metal song or hiring a full on gospel choir to accompany the standard guitars and drum kit.
I get that in the indie writing scene genre tags are everything. You need them to market on Amazon and to find the audience of people who obsessively read every scrap of, say, grimdark fantasy they can find. But when you sit down to write… forget it all. Make new music. Write your story. Figure out what to call it when you’re done. (Someone flagged my series as dystopian literature on I think it was Goodreads. I sure don’t think it is, even if the world can be unpleasant at times. But if that gets dystopia readers into the books, that’s fine by me).
If you’ll permit me one last analogy: Don’t be so eager to organize your house in order that you paint yourself into a corner.
And if you’re in the mood for a series that violates genre categories with glee while simultaneously playing to the old tropes in a way that I hope is both old and new at once… check out Empire of Silence and book two, Howling Dark, which is new this month from DAW in the US and Canada and from Gollancz in the rest of the English-speaking world.
Also on CR: Interview with Christopher Ruocchio (2018)