Picking at the bloated carcass of geek culture...occasionally!!!

Are you proud of this genre?

In Books on April 7, 2010 at 2:14 pm

“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” – Kurt Vonnegut

I find it funny how science fiction is treated in American mainstream society. When I say science fiction, I mean not only hard sci-fi, but fantasy, horror, space opera, etc. It is common for people to look down on sci-fi aficionados, yet it is really more popular than ever. People, and not geek people, but actual citizens love their Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, True Blood, Lord of the Rings and Lost. But this love rarely translates into an assessment of the genre’s quality or worth. To many science fiction is entertainment, pure and simple. Many wouldn’t consider Tron high art, but merely a simple and often childish diversion. There are many exceptions, such as the esteem that many hold Tolkien, but stories of robots, aliens, or wizards are not for the upper-crust or the media elite.

This is even more true in the world of literature. Reading books is often considered a higher, cerebral level of media experience, so it is even more cutthroat in terms of creating marginalized genres. You need not read a word to know you are in the horror, romance, or science fiction section of a bookstore. The garish cover designs demonstrate the level of esteem that a publisher holds for it audience. As an audience, however, we must show that cheesy illustration or quasi-futuristic typefaces work, because they keep giving it to us.

On the other hand, I feel like a lot of modern writers or publishers try too hard to be take seriously as literature. How a story about wizards and monstrous orc-like antagonists go out of their way to get Junot Diaz quotes (like Joe Abercrombie) or go for slick, non-traditional sci-fi cover designs (like China Mieville). I instinctively wonder: “Are these guys too good for their genre?” Why are they courting the approval of people whom snub their noses at them? Or do they just want their novels to look like grown-up books.

Does this like a work of steampunk fiction, with steam-powered cyborgs, anthropomorphic bird people, or giant moths that feed on psychic energy? You wouldn't think so.

So I wish science fiction was respected for the important and imaginative genre that it is. How it defines how we, as a society, understand the concept of a hero or how its mythologizes our past or how it defines the direction of our future. Yet sometimes I find its best examples try to say: “No, no. We’re not that crappy science fiction. We’re actually good!” I wonder if it lowers the esteem of genre fiction as a whole. Or does it, with its piles of worthless, derivative trash, deserve to be bashed? And what a surprise, I’m not sure.

  1. Have you read China Mieville? What do you think?

    Anyway… Geek Self-loathers are always lame. This was the crux of my problem with BSG. They get a little bit of mainstream press and suddenly they don’t have time for spacefighter dogfights or robot attacks, no, suddenly its all plodding and tedious and overly apparent metaphors.

    I’ve also found that it’s really an issue with zombie people. They all have to talk about zombies as analogies, as if Romero’s “zombies as consumers” metaphor was ever that deep or three dimensional to begin with (and still… oh so fresh and interesting to this day…) and yet, the Geek Self-loathers keep trotting it out, over and over, in order to justify their interest, like some hipster wad that has to mention how they had listened to a band earlier than most, somehow making their interest that much more special.

    I think it’s rooted in high school. They can’t just like something for fear of ridicule.

    I think the difference is best illustrated by the Documentaries: Trekkies and Trekkies 2.

    Trekkies is full of people, all odd in their own ways, who honestly love what they love and enjoy sharing their (admittedly odd) love with anyone who asks.

    Trekkies 2 is full of “ironic” and talentless hipster douchebags who use something geeky for their lame cover band as a gimmick in an attempt to hide their lack of ability. They believe that their “ironic” love of whatever geeky thing they’ve chosen protects them from nerd status.

    This is why I never even attempt to eplain the “deeper” meanings to my book (if there are any…), it’s just “Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead” and if that isn’t enough for you, than you’re the type of person that I don’t give a shit whether or not you ever read it.

    And most of those people? Come on, dude… who do they think they’re fooling anyway? If it walks like a nerd and smells like a nerd… It’s a nerd.

    • I like China Mieville’s work is pretty strong and original. I like it but I somehow get the impression that he thinks he’s pretty hot shit, but that might be an unfair assessment.

      And I agree, for the most part, about the geek self-loathing. I tend to like cool shit because it’s cool, but I get the idea of trying to understand what one likes about something. Being able to analyze what makes something great would be a helpful skill for people like McG to consider before working on the Terminator franchise. You can’t just trot out robots and guns and think: “Well this oughta keep them happy.”

      • Yes, true, there is the dangerous and extremely sucky opposite end of the spectrum from Geek Self Loathers… the “Fuck story, it’s just cool” crowd. I.E. The new Clash of the Titans.

  2. The answer of course, is that nothing is that simple. Sci-fi and fantasy are treated with contempt by some people. They are loved and respected by others. But when someone somehow associated with the literary mainstream (whatever that even is) shoots their mouth off about sci-fi it always seems to be perceived as a dangerous attack on our village. We must defend the village to the death! Don’t cross the fence after dark there are Atwoods out there! Stay in the village and marry your sister! Stay in the village FOREVER.

    But when someone like Junot Diaz (and this is a guy steeped in geek culture and with great respect for fantasy, as anyone who’d read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would know) expresses admiration for “a story about wizards and monstrous orc-like antagonists” it’s somehow seedy and treacherous? Please. If you want to break down these supposed barriers you need to reach out to and embrace those people who are willing to take your stuff seriously. You’ll soon find they’re everywhere. The others you just need to ignore. They have a right to their opinion but it’s up to you whether you care what it is. Look over the fence once in a while, you might find the great divide is mostly in your head.

    • Hey… it’s Joe Abercrombie. How random. I love your books.

    • The thing is, I kind of agree with the literary mainstream (again, whatever that is). I find the fantasy/sci-fi genres are full of work I find derivative, adolescent, or just plain poorly executed works that I do not enjoy. When the work is high quality, however, it’s my favorite genre. That’s why when I picked up The Blade Itself, it was nice to read an attractively designed, well-constructed book that matched the quality of the work. Or, when I read Best Served Cold, I was glad that Junot Diaz liked it because Oscar Wao was my favorite book from last year. I guess I want to know how much input you have in the marketing of your works in terms of reaching outside the usual sci-fi grognard community to find readers whom might not know how much they like good fantasy. Because the paperback copies of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire look like your standard fantasy novel in design and find them to be anything but standard. Then you look at a book by Gene Wolfe, with critical comparisons to Swift or Dickens on the back. There appears to be an effort by some writers to avoid the tropes of the genre, at least in their work’s presentation. As an outsider, I guess I wanted to know if that was an intentional push or merely a result of wanting to make a quality product?

      • Writers rarely have that much to do with the presentation and marketing, except insofar as the way you write might make you more or less suitable for marketing in a certain direction, of course. Generally a publisher will try and present a book in the manner in which they believe it will attract the most readers, which includes pitching it at an audience that they think will be suitable. So China Mieville would be aimed in a more literary direction than, say, David Gemmell, and it makes good sense that he should be. Sometimes there are accidents of commissioning that might cause a book that seems pretty genre to be aimed in a more literary direction (basically that it happens to be picked up by an editor on a literary list rather than an sf/f one). So non-tropey presentation is really more the choice of the editor and marketing team than of the author, on the whole, in fact if you look at the covers of a given imprint, you may well see that some imprints tend to stick to more traditional looks (Tor US, off the top of my head) while others are more experimental (Gollancz in the UK, for example).

      • Thanks for your thoughts. This small blog is basically a way of coercing a handful my friends to write about topics that interest me. I’m glad you stumbled upon it and I appreciate your insight. Keep up the good work.

  3. i sorta feel like sci fi to alot of people is like when you buy an album and then realize none of the other songs are like this one “hit” you heard on the radio.

    it will either spark more interest or they will discard it quickly and go back to watching/thinking “Surrogates” starring bruce willis is so original and not from a graphic novel which takes heavly from philip k dick stories..etc etc
    But i guess what do they really gain from that kinda knowledge? being the nerdiest guy in the room? or doesnt it end up just frustrate you more knowing the latest “original sci fi” is just ripped off from authors that never got proper respect or exposure? or does it make you question- maybe they had great ideas but just terrible execution? ignorance is bliss?

    i dont know where i am going with this…

  4. Wolfe might get the fancy shmancy comparisons on the back….butttttt it was totally the creepy painting of the masked and cloaked severian that made me pick up the book and think ” this looks creepy and lynchian…i’m gonna buy it”

    Interesting insight into how works are presented.
    I’d be curious how many turds get sold wrapped up in nice covers….or how many great stories are hiding out behind silly over-rendered fantasy art…

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