Genres, Categories, Conversations and Signifers

A genre is a conversation that moves in fits and starts, breaks and discontinuities. There isn’t an isolated set of criteria or even a status family resemblance that we can recognise as a genre. There are two canons, personal and public, and how books are written and how they are read depends precisely on this interplay of canons.

The public canon of science fiction contains Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Ballard, Aldiss, Dick, Moorcock, Gibson and so on, stabilized over the years by word of mouth, fans, fannish institutions and right now, the post-subculturization of modern Internet hyperculture, with works decomposed into mobile signifiers abstracted out from their origin - but this is a newer development in post-genre I will discuss later. And my personal canon had Asimov and Dick and Gibson, but it also contains a host of less prominent authors and media, both in and out of the genre, that determine to some extent how I read, how I think about how I have read, and how I write.

There’s a curious feature when you read more “literary” or academic introductions or reference works on some suitable ‘classic’ selected works of science fiction. There is almost always the presence of the Standard Narrative that can be adapted as one wishes. “Science fiction was a pulp genre, full of childish fantasy, bug-eyed men and aliens stealing away beautiful women, until [my preferred author came along].” Where the turning point is, is up to the author, whether it be the Golden Age or the profound singularity of Philip K. Dick, the New Wave or cyberpunk or the New Thing of Mainstream Writers Slumming In Speculative Fiction.

The general trend is intensified when it comes to the assessments of the more (comparatively) marginal, or recognised-as-avant-garde figures of science fiction, those who are said to have effected a complete break from it, like Barry Malzberg, Thomas Disch, or Philip K. Dick. You get the impression that these are the sole gems to be found in the trash-heap corpus of science fiction, having left science fiction completely behind (though, curiously, still publishing in the magazines and imprints of science-fiction editors, and still being nominated for awards in the science-fictional area). It is a position that identifies these writers with the terms of abuse from the more close-minded science fiction fans who (wrongly) marginalised them. The argument is the same. “You’re not writing science fiction, it all has been published here by total accident. It has to be something else!”

Yes, I do agree that at times they have been marginalised, wrongly. Even Dick, sometimes tarnished as not being a writer of “hard”, or “serious” science fiction. They do deserve more recognition from the field than they did. But to totally divorce them from science fiction is almost a double exclusion or a double betrayal. To see Malzberg or Dick as straightforward figures of anti-SF … obviously, you haven’t read Malzberg’s almost touching tributes to John W. Campbell (the figure of stodgy science fiction if there ever was one), or on Dick’s own inspiration in the work of van Vogt.

A genre is a conversation. There is a back and forth between readers and writers, as works enter or leave the public canon of the genre, and as people accumulate private canons as they read. So when a certain piece of the genre is taken out of the conversation and held up by people from outside as a model, an Ur-text… To use an example from an adjacent genre, you see those who hold up Watchmen as a model for the superhero genre. Watchmen is brilliant, Watchmen is fantastic, it is part of the superhero canon if there is one, no doubt about that. But to see it as sui generis, one that effects a fundamental break, a cut with the superhero genre (“Now they’ve grown up!”) is wrong, as genres are always comprised of these breaks. A work that ‘transcends’ a genre is still rooted in it (though it could retroactively form a new genre, like how the scientific romances of Wells and Verne have been retroactively re-recognized as science fiction. But regardless of that, Wells and Verne are still writers of scientific romances.) Usually, the genre that is being transcended is also never quite still and is quite able to re-integrate the cut back into itself.

This we can say is the generic mode of science fiction, but we can move on to the transition to a more categorical framework, paralleling the shift from subcultures to atomisation. Science fiction is less a genre, a continuing conversation stretching from the late 19th century or the early 20th century, whichever you pick, but is now more of a set of images, tropes, and signifiers. These are marketing symbols that can be endlessly iterated and recombined, now that they have been boiled down.

The distinction between genre and category isn’t so absolute. It is a continuum, and regardless of all that, there are odd fish that don’t quite fit, like Bruce Sterling’s original definition of slipstream. Be it as it may, there is still some sort of shift that has happened. Cyberpunk, for example, is less the literary avant-garde revolt that it was in the 1980s, but an “aesthetic”, a collection of signifiers like “rain”, “oppressive corporations”, “hackers”, “transhumanism”, all of which are tropes that can be reflected through other frames (see the -punk suffix, for one, which seems rather disconnected from what it originally meant.) This is the death of genre (to be dramatic about it), the death of genre as it used to be. The current mode is closer to a framework in which works are addressed to abstract systems of categorisation, targeted through algorithmic marketing and recommendation websites, directed at the modern consumer to navigate. At its limit, the work is taken to be nothing more than a collection of tropes and signifiers, taken prescriptively, not descriptively.

It is not that all generic components have been eliminated, nor is it that there have never been commercial or “categorical” features in science fiction, or other genres. If anything, the two are almost coupled together in a dialectical fashion. It is not that there are no benefits to this mass democratization, or that there have been no powerful surges of creativity after this deterritorialization of genre. In any case, turning the clock back is impossible. But if there is one thing that we can do, it is to interrogate our own private canons, to be critical of the excesses of the marketization and commercialization of such literary-marketing categories, and look toward a future that is ‘after’ atomization, a culture that is more fulfilling, a culture that is beyond genre and category.

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