Dodging the Sci-Fi stigma

nogeeksThere is a certain aversion to fantasy and science fiction by those who aren’t outright fans of those genres.

And yet there are some sci fi authors among the best-selling writers in America — of any genre. And somehow, their books aren’t kept in the “science fiction” section near the back of the bookstore, but rather among the cool kids up front with “popular fiction”. What’s the difference?

Consider Stephen King: It is a giant spider demon from another planet in outer space. You can’t get anymore ‘sci-fi’ than that. King has also delved into wizards, vampires, ancient kingdoms with honor codes, and even dragons.

Dean Koontz is another. His work is filled with talking animals, magic powers, demons and other strange monsters.

You can’t find these two authors in science fiction with Asimov and Heinlein and Card and Sanderson.

But…uh…why?

Is it because they are SO successful, they now transcend genre? They are now somehow ‘better’ than science fiction?

Could it be the other way around: Their success is thanks in part to the fact they were never relegated to those back shelves at all? King is an impressive writer, but he can’t get me to turn pages nearly as fast as Orson Scott Card or Brandon Sanderson or Dan Simmons.

And I can’t think of any reason why Dan Simmons shouldn’t be more popular than Stephen King, given the quality of work and depth of story and strength of character I’ve seen in both of their writing, except this: Dan Simmons is “science fiction” (though he has won awards in every genre) and Stephen King “isn’t”.

To a sci-fi fan, aversion to science fiction is bizarre, especially given the number of ‘exceptions’ allowed by non-fans of sci fi. A look at Rotten Tomatoes’ top movies of all time reveals any number of movies are technically science fiction or fantasy by any definition.

#2: Toy Story Two: A movie beloved by all, I can’t think of a single person who didn’t like it; kid or adult. The premise is that toys are magically living beings which spring to life when their owner isn’t around.

#7: The Wizard of Oz. Come on, now; “WIZARD” is in the title.

#15: Toy Story (the original)

#18: King Kong

#20: Seven Samurai

#28: Aliens

#30: The Evil Dead

#36: The Adventures of Robin Hood

#39: The Bride of Frankenstein

#49: Mary Poppins

#60 & #61: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day

There are more, but the point is made.  Furthermore, while some of these are genre-classified as ‘science fiction’, you won’t find others of them (such as Mary Poppins or Toy Story) relegated to such a back aisle of the video store. (Although a story identical to Mary Poppins in every way except set in Middle Earth instead of London would be thus punished.)

The dogfight sequence at the end of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope is indistinguishable from World War II dogfights for one simple reason: Lucas used WWII footage and movies as templates for his storyboard, camera angles, cuts, and even dialog. Heck, he even named the imperial armies ‘Storm Troopers’ after Nazi Germany’s armies.

Plenty of people who “hate science fiction” loved The Matrix. Plenty of people who “hate fantasy” loved Braveheart.

Some have said that ‘horror’ or ‘thriller’ doesn’t fall under the science fiction umbrella. This argument certainly lends credence to Stephen King’s inclusion with the cool kids, but it doesn’t explain why Ann Rice is stuck in the fantasy section.

Some have said that if your story falls in modern times, then it isn’t fantasy or science fiction. Bullsh–evik. Do you mean to tell me that Terminator and Predator aren’t out-and-out science fiction? What about E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds?  Of course these are sci-fi. And every last one of them is set in the present day.

Furthermore, ‘horror’ isn’t even a genre, properly speaking; indeed, neither are science fiction and fantasy. If they were, where would steampunk fall: Into science fiction or fantasy? What about a story where wizards fight off a zombie invasion: Horror or Fantasy? What about I am Legend? Horror or science fiction?

No, together these three genres are considered speculative fiction, and they are nearly indistinguishable when you consider them together.

Vulcans/Elves
Romulans/Dark Elves
Klingons/Orcs (or by TNG, more like Dwarves)
Starfleet Federation/Council of Elrond

Stargates or portals to other dimensions? Advanced technology or magic spells? Nanotechnology or innate superpowers? Evolution or deification? These are the dilineations between science fiction and fantasy, and yet none of them are mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, the concepts of science fiction aren’t exclusive from those of ‘popular’ fiction either. A Sheriff from a western plays much the same role as a Jedi or a Starfleet Captain or a Captain of Gondor. Guns, phasers, and blasters serve identical purposes in action scenes.

Sometimes normal stories are classified as ‘science fiction’ for no discernable reason. Rotten Tomatoes lists The Truman Show as science fiction/fantasy even though there isn’t a single alien, space ship, sword, magic spell, or laser in the entire movie. Cube is similarly categorized.

So what’s the difference? If there’s space travel in a movie does it automatically carry the sci-fi stigma? What about Apollo 13? Deep Impact? Armageddon?

If a work is ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy”, is it now impossible for it to be a Romance or a Comedy? I doubt it.

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions. If I did, I’d make sure to always call my work “thriller” or “popular fiction” instead of “science fiction” when trying to promote my work to anti-geeks. I’d sell my romantic science fiction stories as “Romance”, the humorous ones as “Comedy”, the character-driven stories as “Drama”, and the action-based stories as “Action Thriller.” It’d be much nicer to be included on those shelves instead of stuck among the Trekkies.

But I’d be lying. Because science fiction is exploration of the imagination, asking the question, “what if?” and that’s what I write, no matter where or when it’s set.

While I was wondering how to classify my stories which take place in present-day America, I wondered where Dean Koontz and Stephen King were first published. I looked up their bibliogrophies and checked their earliest published short stories.

As I said, you can’t find them in the ‘science fiction’ section. They’re too cool to be included with the real freaks and geeks who worship dragons and space and go to conventions.

But they were originally published in magazines of science fiction. Go figure. I guess the marketing companies think they’ve returned to planet earth. They were just allowed to bring their imaginations with them.

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  • Mr. Snuggles

    Yeah, as I started reading your angry diatribe (hehe), I was getting ready to comment with the “thriller” excuse. But then you anticipated that. I haven’t thought about it much, but there is a stigma out there. Trekkies and people that get too obsessed with certain other sci-fi works cause a lot of the trouble, and make a lot of us normal (ha) folks shy away from it all.

    I loved Braveheat, but pretty much everything else you mentioned that should be considered sci-fi, I either haven’t seen/read or didn’t like. Ultimately, categorizing artwork is always going to cause trouble, but it has to be done if bookstores want their customers to find their way around easily. But I agree, “sci-fi” stuff could probably be divided up within drama, thriller, horror, comedy, etc.

  • Jason R. Peters

    @Mr. Snuggles

    “angry diatribe” Mwahahahahaha!

    It isn’t even as though I have an answer for the ‘thriller’ question either. Why IS Dean Koontz “popular fiction” and Ann Rice “fantasy”?

    In point of fact, science fiction IS divided into sub genres which serve as primary genres for non sci-fi work. I know from reading that Asimov is more of an anthropological theorist whereas Heinlein is a pretty blatant ethicist and modern social commentator, that Card creates suspense via moral dilemma, and Sanderson will include a major romantic subplot. None of this is obvious browsing the science fiction aisle, though, which is one reason us freaks and geeks have to get new writers by recommendation alone.

    It remains a curious division:
    A dogfight in planes = really cool.
    The exact same dogfight in space = sucks?

    Braveheart = really good.
    Exact same story + 1 prophecy = horrible story you would never like?

    Also, where does work like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series fall? King neatly dodges the sci-fi label, and The Dark Tower opens with a gunslinger chasing a man in black across a desert; hardly cause for a sci-fi convention. It’s a dark western in an unknown land. The next major character introduced is a heroine addict from New York…which I must confess is a little weirder and scarier than any dark wizard could hope to be.

  • Mr. Snuggles

    @Jason R. Peters

    I think I have liked a lot more “fantasy” than “sci-fi” in my life. And I am going by what wikipedia says under “science fiction” in terms of distinguishing between the two. It’s not, as you argue, always clear cut.

    I saw the promos for 300, downloaded it as soon as it was available, heard a bunch of conversations about it, read about it, and I don’t think the terms “sci-fi” OR “fantasy” were ever uttered about it. I wonder if that would have changed my views about it, made it somehow seem “dorky”. I don’t know.

    Also, the wikipedia entry gives the old porn line, “You know it when you see it, even if you can’t define it”. I guess that has a little truth to it.

  • Mr. Snuggles

    Oh, speaking of 300. You do see the definitions of genres and art forms having an impact in marketing. Doesn’t “based on a Graphic Novel” sound a lot tougher and appealing to bloodthirsty young males than “based on a comic book”?

  • Aybrams

    I very much agree with the perceptions you are describing about sci-fi/fantasy as a genre, and I agree with your argument that many things that should fit the “genre” escape it and go on to fame and fortune (so to speak). The fault I find is trying to use “logical” descriptions of genre to fit what is, in my opinion, an aggregate perceptual issue.

    By the early 1970s, American culture (not sure if the Brits followed us in this, they have always been more keen for sci-fi than we) had decided that they did not really like hard science or the science fiction that had become associated with it (see my comments on your Facebook page). After that, purely social mechanics(and, I would argue, the neuropsychological mechanisms that underlie them) took over. Whatever else can be said about humanity’s amazing ability to segregate items of interest into meaningful categories – no one will claim that it involves strict logic. In effect, sci-fi/fantasy (and frankly, I have no idea how those two genres ever got put together) had become the picked on kid in school. Anyone who has been raised by our particular specis of social ape knows the phenomenon – we’ve all seen it, maybe even been it’s focus. As anyone who has ever turned a critical eye to that phenomenon, there is very little that is “fair” or logical about it, once it has been established.

    So, these authors and movie-makers who clearly should be classified as ‘geeks’ are simply the equivalent of the rare geek who was born good looking, or the one who was a geek, but also on the football team. The answer isn’t to be found in logic – it’s to be found in the subtle, often undescribable (maybe even ineffable) social cues that become associated with them.

    In essence, the reality is that people DO judge the book by it’s cover. 🙂

  • Mr. Snuggles

    Umm…I don’t have a facebook page…Who are you referring to? If I do have a facebook page that I am unaware of, please give me a link.

  • Mr. Snuggles

    Wow…Sorry Aybrams. I assumed you were Jason, and didn’t look at the name. Freaked me out a little. Did someone create a fake Facebook for me? LOL. Sorry again.

  • Aybrams

    LOL. No problem. 🙂

  • Jason R. Peters

    …nerds…

  • Aybrams

    Kettle? Is that you? It’s me, Pot…..

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