More Skirmishes in the Genre Wars

Real sad puppy

Oh god, not another genre. When will it end?

I find the genre wars incredibly entertaining, mostly because they’re pointless, and the participants waste an amazing amount of time making their points when they could be writing good stories. The kerfuffle everyone in the scifi universe talks about these days concerns the definition of “science fiction.” Traditionalists, who call themselves the Sad Puppies, have a stereotyped, populist view of science fiction, defined as technology-driven dramas and masculine adventure stories. On the other side are the “inclusives,” as I like to call them, which have an expansive, sociological view of speculative storytelling. This scifi is more about societies than gizmos and evil aliens. Both sides, particularly the Puppy partisans, behave like a two-year-old having a meltdown in the supermarket’s cereal aisle.

Any close examination of genre shows its meaninglessness. I’ve completed another draft of my novel Carbon Run, and although I’ve pitched it as science fiction, my editor suggested I call it a dystopian thriller. I’m in the midst of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, widely regarded as a master science fiction writer. Though I’m in the early going, Kindred is closer to fantasy or possibly magical realism than scifi. Amazon, however, classifies it as African-American women’s fiction. I’ve just finished The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfield, described in its blurb as a “dystopian parody.” Amazon classifies it as dark humor.

I got interested in The Subprimes through a Google+ group that discusses fiction with nature themes. Some readers thought it belonged in a new sub-category of science fiction called “climate fiction,” because the weather in The Subprimes, which takes place in a near future, is showing all the symptoms of a climate gone wacko. In this debate, even the shorthand term “cli-fi” generates an emotional response that can only be compared to that moment when you smell baby shit for the first time. The term “cli-fi” has a particular “eww-ness” factor; some even think the first three letters refer to a new street synonym for a private part of the female body. They’ve obviously missed the term’s musicality.

Why do suggestions for new genres always suck? I crunch my face into something resembling a crushed newspaper whenever I hear one. My latest favorites are “dark pastoral,” “solarpunk,” and “robofi.” Dark pastoral is about nature so screwed up by people that the only way to fix nature is by getting rid of the people. Margaret Atwood and Karen Traviss are dark pastoral priestesses. Solarpunk—part of a separate trend to transform the word “punk” in a suffix, pioneered by “cyberpunk” and “steampunk”—is a scifi subgenre akin to climate fiction, but less dystopian. In other words, the climate goes to hell, but everybody will get along because we’ll have the technology to cope. Nobody famous is working in this sub-sub-sub-genre. Robofi is all about robots taking over human work, but it’s so new that nobody’s written any stories. That didn’t stop the publishing website Teleread to suggest the neologism.

Why do we waste so much time squabbling about genre? One, we can’t help ourselves; we’re born organizers. Adam himself named the animals at Yahweh’s behest, and we’ve been classifying and reclassifying the universe ever since. Two, booksellers can’t put every book on one big shelf and hope to get the sales volumes needed to turn a profit. Three, a pointless argument is great entertainment, akin to sports, or Donald Trump. So far, no one’s suggested peace talks to end the genre wars, so look for the skirmishing to continue. SadKitties, anyone?

What’s your favorite dumb new literary genre?

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