Friday, 12 April 2013

Chinapunk, Genre Boundaries & Space Fantasy

I run a blog that mainly reviews Genre fiction. SFF, as I like to call it, speculative fiction. Thus I'm legally obliged, surely, to have a blog post about genre boundaries, particularly between Science Fiction and Fantasy and the blurring or lackof therewith.

This post comes about following a conversation of twitter with Gavin Pugh (Gavreads), Adam Whitehead (The Wertzone) and Jared Shurin (Pornokitsch), regarding science fiction versus fantasy sales in the UK. Using stats procured from somewhere, Adam made the point that fantasy to SF sales in the UK are about 3:1 and that there are only four million+ selling SF authors in the UK - Peter Hamilton, Neal Asher, Iain (M) Banks & Dan Abnett, to the multiple fantasy authors. This is clearly apparent in those that are easy to define. Rothfuss is clearly fantasy, and made The Times #1. PFH is clearly space opera, the Culture is clearly science fiction.

It is interesting to look at those million sellers subgenre - they are all space opera, which is, arguably, the closest science fiction, so far as it is classicly defined and perceived, get to fantasy - it is, essentially, epic fantasy - it tends to be kingdom on kingdom, epic in scale, just set in space, not on a foreign world. Space ships and advanced tech replace magic systems, and the good guys win. So far, so interesting.

It was Arthur C. Clarke who famously posited that 'any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic' - extrapolating, we get FTL = magic. I think its not particularly arguable that the biggest 'classic' of SF in the last 50 years, Dune, is essentially fantasy in space.

I'd argue, therefore, that Space Opera is barely distinguishable from fantasy. It is the classic fantastic story, of man-saves-the-world, with 'man' and 'world' interchangeable with 'civilisation' and 'universe'. The genre is blurred, even at this, the most extreme and obvious ends of SF and fantasy. It has spaceships, its set in space, it must be SF. Nuh uh. It's an epic fantasy, thrown into a vacuum - Space Fantasy if you will.

There must be a reason for the massive sales of epic fantasy and space opera. These are the most escapist of subgenres, the farthest from the real. To me, this is probably exactly why they sell so much, and almost certainly why fantasy outsells SF, and outpublishes it too - its more of an escape, less of a questioning of reality. Where science fiction gets most interesting to me is where it truly questions and plays with the real, with character, with technology, with ideas. The same with fantasy. Its just Tolkien derivatives are easier.

With regard the original conversation that sparked this, I brought up Mieville, who I'd hazard a guess at being a million seller over his 11 novels. Now, he's written one overtly SF novel, Embassytown, his take on the colonial space opera. But I argued that at least six of Mieville's novels are at least partially SF - Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, The City & The City, Kraken & Railsea, as well as Embassytown. Even the estblished Science Fiction awards say so  - he's won the Clarke thrice with pre-Embassytown books, and the BSFA once. If Liz Williams can qualify that books are 'too fantasy', to paraphrase, for the Clarke award, surely by nominating Mieville 6 times, they are tantamount to saying he is SF? I mean, alternate cities, Steampunk-esque robots, an Alien world full of railways, a machine council.. whats not to SF? But, simultaneously, Mieville is fantasy. He's non-human races in a pre-contemporary technology. He's nigh-on magic. He's beasts that live beneath the fabric of time and space. He's cults, the occult, giant rats, urban fantasy at its peak. He's the winner of a World Fantasy Award.
He is literary. He is uniquely himself. He writes SF and he writes Fantasy: he writes Chinapunk. (An excellently coined phrase, care of Tor editor Bella Pagan)

This is where genre fiction, at least more serious genre fiction, seems to be heading. It's starting to blur boundaries, to mix genres, to not write exclusively within the historical confines of the genres we love. Osama by Lavie Tidhar won a World Fantasy Award - to my mind, its SF mixed with pulp, mixed with boys own adventure - I didn't really see too much fantasy in what was essentially a wonderful parallel worlds story,  but it get recognised for its fantastic nature. It blurs boundaries. My favourite novel of last year, Communion Town by Sam Thompson  does 'litfic' and SF. Hell, it was even nominated for a Booker.

So I guess what I'm rambling about is the breakdown of genre. There will always be those 'easily' definable as SF and easily definable as Fantasy. But they are, at heart, the same stories told in different settings - ultimate escapism of the epic, be it GRRM or Larry Niven. But then there are those that don't fit neatly into genre conventions. They are the one's we ought to be looking at with a critical eye going, hmmmm, maybe the masses don't buy them, but we stalwarts sure as hell appreciate them. They are the descendants of Chinapunk, the city's sons (incidentally, as I make this obvious pun, Tom Pollock has written an excellent piece on genre boundaries recently - go read), the dwellers of the in between place where ideas are constantly forged and questioned, characters blur and meld, and human nature can truly be questioned.

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