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Genre SF

Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Theme.

By this term, used widely in this encyclopedia, we mean sf that is either labelled science fiction or is instantly recognized by its readership as belonging to that category – or (usually) both. The implication is that any author of genre sf is conscious of working within a genre with certain habits of thought, certain "conventions" – some might even say "rules" – of storytelling. These conventions are embedded primarily in a set of texts which are generally agreed to contain them. This might seem to be a circular definition, as though one were saying that genre sf is a set of conventions located in genre-sf stories; but it is in fact a spiral. A text published in 1930 may describe something – say a form of Matter Transmission – so well that in 1935 the description has become recognized as a model or convention; and in 1940 a second text may be published which shows its agreement with the convention by repeating it, with variations which themselves enrich it. Partly this spiral is created by sf readers, and partly it governs the expectations of those who so define themselves, and who establish their sense of the true nature of genre sf from many sources: from the spiral of books and stories certainly, but also from film, television and personal interactions (see Fandom; Conventions), and finally from an abiding sense shared by most members of the sf "community" that genre sf is an intrinsic part of US history and literature. In its narrowest sense, then, a genre-sf tale will be a story written after 1926, published (or theoretically publishable) in a US SF Magazine or specialist sf press (see Publishing; Small Presses and Limited Editions), and conspicuous for its signals that it is honouring the compact between writers and readers to respect the protocols embedded in the texts which make up the canon. (The term "protocols" has been used in this way by several scholars of sf, notably Samuel R Delany and Mark Rose.)

To work variations on these protocols is clever (and indeed required); but to abandon them is to leave home. For many years, leaving home in this fashion (as, for instance, Kurt Vonnegut Jr was deemed to have done) was considered a form of treason; for some writers and readers, this attitude remains. Similarly, works of fiction which use sf themes in seeming ignorance or contempt of the protocols – often works from so-called Mainstream Writers of SF – frequently go unread by those immersed in genre sf; and, if they are read, tend to be treated as invasive and alien ... and incompetent. This snobbery (which reverses that very frequently expressed about genre sf by the mainstream) is perhaps unfortunate as a general rule, though in many particular instances it is fully justified.

Though this encyclopedia focuses primarily on genre sf, and though genre sf is central to our sense of the nature of sf as a whole, we also conceive non-genre sf as an essential part of the picture. This encyclopedia therefore includes much of it; other works, such as The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1988) edited by James E Gunn, have been unwilling to trespass far in this direction, and have proved in practice (and occasionally by precept) unwilling to accord genuine sf status to work written outside the protocols and outside North America. The question as to whether or not international non-genre-based sf is true sf has, moreover, become inflamed and politicized; and to discuss non-genre sf in an encyclopedia of sf has at times been regarded by some critics, especially in the USA, as a radical ideological decision. The editors of this volume are content to pay as much attention to these views as they warrant, and agree that if it is ideological to regard, say, Murray Constantine (see Katharine Burdekin) and George R Stewart (non-genre sf) as being just as important to the History of SF as, for example, Arthur Leo Zagat and Miles J Breuer (genre sf), then this is indeed an ideological encyclopedia.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s literary academics have very often talked about genre. By "genre" they almost invariably refer, as Gary K Wolfe puts it in Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy (1986), to "a group of literary works with common defining characteristics" and "major formal, technical or even thematic elements that unite groups of works". This academic approach, which rightly tends to draw very heavily upon genre sf for examples, is likely to generate formal Definitions of SF which fairly closely resemble the sets of protocols for writing genre sf. It is almost certainly right that this is so. But it seems no partially satisfactory definition of sf (there is no fully satisfactory definition of sf) has yet been written so as to include only genre sf. Some critics – like, famously, Darko Suvin – have attempted to define the genre of sf in terms which would in fact logically exclude most genre sf from serious consideration. The point we would make here is this: when we use the term "genre sf" in this encyclopedia, we are not making a short-cut definition of the genre of sf; we are referring to those sf works which honour the contract.

This topic is raised, directly and by implication, at many points in this volume, including the entries mentioned above, and in the article on Pulp magazines. [PN/JC]

see also: Fantastika.

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