Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Full Steam Ahead

If you don’t understand how I classify genres, you’ll never understand my subgenre divisions.

Take fantasy for example; lots of lists on what fantasy include such nonsensical ideas as “Fantasy contains magic, except when it doesn’t,” or “fantasy is set in other worlds, except when it isn’t,” or my favourite phrase that says nothing but convincingly gives the idea it says something… “Fantasy is what couldn’t be, science fiction is what could be.” Really? Time travel, FTL, hyperspace, Star Wars? These are things that could exist?

For what it’s worth, I’ve always considered Star Wars to be fantasy, sort of set in space.
Horror is the only genre which comes close to being defined in the way I define all genres. Horror is the genre of books that the reader feels and is horrified by. They evoke terror. They scare us.
And that, there, is the key to defining genre. It is the readers expectations and emotions that shape a novel. A novel is what the person who reads it classes it as being. Horror novels are scary, and include books by Shaun Hutson and James Herbert, my two favourite horror novelists. Books like the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher or Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld are not horrors. I’e heard them called paranormal romances, and don’t personally like the term, but there doesn’t seem to be a better one. Perhaps the Dresden Files, which deals with a Wizard living in Chicago, should be fantasy.

Mystery novels have mysteries in them, but so do many other types of books. But what puts a book in this genre is, once more, the feeling it evokes in the reader. Whether reading about Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Glen Cook’s Garret, or the ever-popular Sherlock Holmes, the reader races the detective (and the author) to the finish line, desperate to solve the mystery before the answer is revealed.

Historicals bring up nostalgia, romance makes us believe in the power of love, etc.
And fantasy, and science fiction?

These genres invoke a sense of wonder, they command the utmost suspension of disbelief, and they give the most back in return. In science fiction we go in not knowing what will come, but whatever it is it will amaze us, astound us, and will show us what man is capable of. Whether he is travelling to distant stars, travelling in time, building robots, terraforming other planets, battling alien invaders, cloning himself or (in the superhero subgenre) merely saving the world… again.

In fantasy we go in with high expectations and an open mind, prepared to be astonished and not knowing how… will there be Gods maskerading as men? Will we meet fairies, elves and centaurs? Is there magic, dark lords, and sword fights? Fantasy is the opposite of science fiction in that the wonder isn’t always human made. Magic always existed, we didn’t create it, same with elves and so on.

Science fiction looks forward, to a future where anything can happen because we can make it happen. Fantasy harkens back to a past where anything that did happen had no explanation, and so we believed in magic, and elves, and Gods. Fantasy lets us see what we’ve lost, science fiction what we stand to gain in return.

I’ll go into sub-genres next.

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