The tyranny of genre

I was speaking, via email, to a literary colleague the other day, and the subject of speculative fiction came up in regards to a publishing company that was looking for speculative fiction to publish on its website. “Send us your fictional speculations,” said publishing company declared. Said colleague quickly and easily explained what speculative fiction is, but I informed him I was well aware. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for fantasy and sci fi, but with room for alternative history, horror, and a variety of other literary weaklings.

I hope this post has a provocative enough title, by the way.

I have a problem with the term “speculative fiction.” I find it damaging and demeaning because the underlying message–even when it’s employed with the best of all possible intentions–is that some genres are so un-seriously considered that you’re doing them a service by changing their name. You can’t have a serious horror film or fantasy novel when those genres are dominated, in the public subconscious, by hockey-puck faced slashers and dragons, dungeons and bare-breasted barbarians (respectively). Enter speculative fiction, a critical sink plug to save things from going down the drain: horror that you can’t call “psychological thriller” but you still like, or fantasy that you can’t call “magical realism” but you still like…

Perhaps no genre has been battered around quite like science fiction. Critically acclaimed works of sci fi have been labeled as something else to avoid the sci fi ghetto. “2001: A Space Odyssey” isn’t really sci fi–it’s post-modern philosophy. George Orwell’s “1984” isn’t really sci fi–it’s political satire. Sometimes even another class of speculative fiction is safer. Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” isn’t really sci fi–it’s fantasy. In fact, even ole Ray himself was guilty of this line of thinking, calling his works fantasy or fairy tales for adults rather than sci fi. (I should note that I put Bradbury in a class of his own, and if I hadn’t heard the man say those words with my own ears, I wouldn’t even mention it.)

It’s not that I have some problem with getting an umbrella term on science fiction and fantasy; I just wonder what’s wrong with the term “science fiction and fantasy.” I’m thoroughly against hiding genres behind a term like “speculative fiction” on a matter of principle. Sci fi and fantasy shouldn’t have to hide behind any terms. They’re not Nazis on the run in post-War Europe. The most glaring problem I have is somewhat semantic. Tell me, what fiction isn’t speculative? In fact, doesn’t all fiction require some level of speculation? In fact in fact, if you’re basing something on fact instead speculation, isn’t that called non-fiction?

If you must have an umbrella term for sci fi, fantasy, horror and thriller, I propose “mystery-science.” First off, it doesn’t dump the old terminology like it’s music you listened to when you were 13. I think it also captures the ungainly width of the umbrella: anything that Edgar Allan Poe could have conceivably written–and the man did write things that can be called sci fi and fantasy, as well as the garden variety horror and thriller–could be covered by as loose a term as mystery-science. But more importantly, it’s shamelessly stolen from one of my favorite (dare I say formative) TV shows, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which showed cheesy sci fi, fantasy, horror and thriller movies, and thoroughly mocked them with puppets. And ultimately, that’s the point.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” was perfectly willing to admit that the genres it showcased were capable of producing some prime crap–it based its whole premise on that. But “MST3K” wasn’t afraid of that crap. Crap can be fun. And it’s only by acknowledging crap that you can move on to the probing, literate sides of a genre. Changing a name can’t do that. Changing a name is a playground dodging tactic. If critics started calling Alfred Hitchcock “Fred Fillerman,” it wouldn’t help them forget “Jamaica Inn” any more than it would help them appreciate “Vertigo.”

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