How do you convey genre in sci-fi?

I learned a lot from Jeff Gerke’s The First 50 pages. But I’ve got a quibble, and one I’d love to discuss with my fellow writers.

Help your reader out. Just trot out a half-goblin in chainmail armor and a shield if this is a fantasy.  Have someone make an arrest if this is a police story.  Send in the clones. Part of your job in the first fifty pages is to orient your reader into what kind of story this is going to be.

While I took to heart his advice about establishing genre, era and setting in my opening scenes, I really struggled with the introduction of my near-future dystopia as a science fiction milieu.   Space-settings and alien landscapes make this work easier for classic Science Fiction. But how does one go about setting the scene for a sci fi that is set in our world, and nearly our time?

My approach was to show the decay, to scan the camera across what is different, what has changed.   I struggle with conveying the same information in the Uncounted storyline. It’s different, but oh-so-subtly so.

Let’s talk about it – how do you establish sci-fi genre in the opening scenes?


5 thoughts on “How do you convey genre in sci-fi?

  1. Since I write fantasy, I like to always start the novel with a dragon eating girls in chain mail bikinis. Seriously, though, this is a great question. Because I am ornery, the first thing I think is, “Why should I have to establish genre? Is genre more important than plot or character or good writing?” I think your approach of scanning the decay is a good one because it’s subtler than many. Parable of the Sower is like this–alien robots don’t drop from the sky with laser guns. Instead, Butler builds a sense of a not-quite-right world. I wonder what would happen to all the stereotypes about sci-fi, and to our notions of genre in general–if we refused to fly the genre flag early on. Some of those sci-fi haters might accidentally read it. 🙂 I don’t know if this makes sense. I just dragged my introverted self home from a cocktail party. The horror.

    • I think it’s an interesting point – that’s why I raised it. I don’t think Fantasy should have to trot out a goblin in chain mail (or a chain mail bikini).

      I think the book should be able to be what it is, but the other side of the argument is setting readers’ expectations for what they are getting. To help clarify what they are seeing in the scenes they read, and get a sense of what kind of book this is. It never occurred to me how heavily we rely upon cover art for that information….

  2. I’m working on an urban fantasy novel right now, and I’ve got a similar issue with introducing the magic. Normally, one might expect that the magic should be introduced in some way in the first chapter. Except there’s an issue… in my world, magic doesn’t EXIST yet in the first chapter. It’s returning to the world for the first time in centuries, so there IS no magic to show until the point in the story where it appears.

    So I address it with a prologue (I hear many people protest against the use of prologues, but I feel mine is necessary). The prologue is actually a dream. A dream of a world of magic. It’s also foreshadowing what will come to this world. It gives the taste of fantasy and sets the stage for a lot of what is to come (and the dream actually has a very real, direct influence on one of the character’s lives).

    • You might be interested in the book I quote – first 50 pages. It sounds like you’re doing it right. You have to establish what normal is before you can break it 🙂

      • Oh yes, I know all about “establishing what normal is before you can break it.” I actually wrote a short blog series about this subject. I make a deliberate effort in the early parts of my novel to show this is a world where magic doesn’t exist, BUT while dropping hints and foreshadowing that (hopefully) make the manifestation of magic make a lot of sense once it arrives.

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