We now return you to the regular November programming! Today I have another awesome guest on the blog, with an equally awesome guest post discussing the definition(s) of science fiction!
Aliette de Bodard is a Franco-Vietnamese writer of fantasy and science fiction, and is the winner of two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award and Writers of the Future. You can find out more about Aliette and her books at aliettedebodard.com.
Science-fiction, fantasy, and all the things in between
I didn’t become familiar with science fiction and fantasy as a genre until I left France.
It’s not that I didn’t read any: my early years were replete with books by Patricia McKillip, Ursula K Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and other great writers. Rather, the fault lies in a quirk of my local library, which grouped everything under “General Fiction”, which meant that works by Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas were thrown haphazardly with books by Roger Zelazny and Tanith Lee. This, combined with the French tendency for beautiful abstract covers and no backcover copy whatsoever on books, led to often very surprising results when checking things out of said library.
When we moved to London, the borough libraries had adopted a more fractured system with a genre classification–I embraced this enthusiastically, as it meant I could be reasonably certain of what I was getting when checking a random book out of the library.
All of this is to say that I’m not unsympathetic to genre and subgenre classification. It is certainly very handy to know what exactly I, as a reader, am getting (whether this is noted through actual separate shelves or cover art). It’s good to know, when I’m in the mood for a noir thriller, that I’m not going to be getting a sweeping saga of several generations striving to build a cathedral, or a romantic story of soulmates trying to connect across the gulf that separates them. And, within SFF, a fantasy book is certainly different enough in tone and focus from a science fiction book that I want to know what I’m getting, if it’s a soldiers-with-swords-and-dragons kind of book, or a spaceship-with-aliens one.
As a writer, it’s also good to know about genres and subgenres, because they set up expectations. People expect a sweeping epic fantasy to have battles, high-level politics and multiple POV characters: you can write one that doesn’t follow these tropes (there have been many), but you have to be aware that you will be fighting against the reader’s image of what a book like this should be–and that, therefore, you will have to work twice as hard to make your proposed plot point or ending feel natural to the reader (because expectations, in turn, define what we unconsciously consider satisfying or unsatisfying). Similarly, changing or merging genres within a novel comes laden with all sorts of expectations: again, it doesn’t mean the writer has to fulfil them to the letter, but I’ve found it’s useful to gauge reader reaction, and how much work I will have to do to get my point across.
But. You knew there was going to be a “but”, right?
I used to be quite rigid about genre separation: in particular, though I read both fantasy and science fiction, I wasn’t very keen on “merging” them together. In recent years, I’ve found myself being more and more elastic with my definition of genre, and in particular with my definition of “science fiction”.
Partly, it’s because expectations are such a double-edged sword: they are a helpful guide, but like any guide, they can become a cage. It’s very easy–and a very slippery slope–to go from “readers expect this” to “I shouldn’t deviate from this”. Much as I like being aware of what is done and why, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the (over)splitting into genres and subgenres: I found that tropes, used too many times and without the infusion of freshness from an outside source, calcified into books that were…. ok, but not good, or not great. Books that I read to pass the time (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), but that I felt were missing something. Part of the reason why I read is to find new things, new ideas; and I wasn’t finding that in books that adhered too rigidly to expectations. Ie, a little rulebreaking from time to time never hurt anyone! (also, if you’re going to break a rule, break it good and hard. My personal motto *grin*)
The second thing that made me uncomfortable was becoming aware of the way “science fiction” was used to elevate certain works, and dismiss others altogether. Some works would be labelled as “not really science fiction” (there’s a variant which is “not really hard science fiction”)–and an amazing number of these would be works by marginalised people: by women, by people of colour, by queer folks, etc. It’s, of course, classic Joanna Russ: “this isn’t really science fiction” is used to disparage works, to make them not really worthy of being read, of being analysed by critics, of being nominated for awards like the Hugos, Nebulas, etc. There has long been a stigma, in certain areas of the field, of fantasy being somehow inferior to science fiction (a belief I don’t personally subscribe to): labelling works as “not science fiction” is a handy way to get them taken less seriously.
And, particularly, this is a problem when dealing from works that come from outside the Western Anglophone sphere. I’ve blogged before about the dominance of the US/UK in SFF (and, by a “halo” effect due to relative proximity of culture and language, of other Western Anglophone countries like Can/Aus/NZ/etc.). This is a problem because voices that come from outside this tradition may well have a slightly or largely different idea of what constitutes genre (or, like some countries, not have a clear-cut separation between SFF and other genres, a “general fiction” category like my library used to have).  The issue is that, when a reader is continuously immersed in the Western Anglophone tradition, anything that comes from outside of it–calling on different tropes, different cultural perceptions, different ideas of what constitutes a satisfying story–is going to seem “weird”. Out of place. Unfulfilling (remember the bit about expectations? Watch something like Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and compare and contrast it with Avengers 2. Both deal with people with extraordinary powers, but they are singularly different movies).
You’re going to ask me why we need to deal with these works at all–why we can’t stick with “proper”, “hard”, Golden Age Science Fiction as it was historically done. Well, first off, because it’s rather impolite and hurtful to exclude people (to say the least!). But the second thing… It’s because genres, for me, are a living thing. And any living thing must breathe and grow and take in new things, new modes of thoughts–or else ossify and decline. Change is an integral part of life; and I want my science fiction (and fantasy!) to be healthy and strong and wonderfully vibrant–and always looking outwards.
And that’s why I’ve come full circle: why I would rather be slack in my criteria of what is science fiction, of what is fantasy–because I would rather be inclusive, because I would rather encourage us to innovate, to seek out things from outside our frames of reference. Because SFF needs to be open-minded and original and invested in all kinds of possible or barely possible things, in all kinds of thought experiments that illuminate yesterday, today and tomorrow–lest we shrivel and fade away.
 I’m not advocating for cultural essentialism, by the way–it’s not that every single story written by, say, a Vietnamese, has to be quintessentially representative of Vietnamese culture. But it’s equally inaccurate to think that one’s upbringing, one’s daily life–the values that are instilled into us as children and reinforced as adults, the media we consume, etc.–have no effect whatsoever on the fiction we produce. Rather, they are the wellspring of it; and if your frame of reference is different from mine, then of course we’re going to produce different stories. A writer’s background is part and parcel of the foundation of their works: diverse people lead to diverse points of view, and diverse fiction with wonderful and unexpected things (like Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, Sergei and Marina Dyachenko’s The Scar, etc.)
Many thanks to Aliette for taking the time to write this post! If you’ve got thoughts about Aliette’s thoughts, feel free to comment below.