“Not science fiction enough”

I’ve mentioned before that I have recently submitted a story to Critters.org, an online critique group.  You might have caught my live-tweets of all twenty critiques I received for my short story.  If you didn’t, you can click here to read them.

One thing that I found interesting was a fairly consistent comment that my story wasn’t “Sci fi” at all, or that it wasn’t “fantastical” enough.




It is easy to dismiss these readers as people who just didn’t get it.  I don’t think that’s a safe thing to do.   What I’d like to know is what qualifies a story to be “genre” enough to be considered “genre.”    I want to start a conversation – here, or somewhere – about what makes a science fiction story science fiction.

I maintain that if it steps outside of things that could or do happen in our real lives with our real science and the things that exist, that it’s science fiction. If it asks “what if?” It is speculative fiction, regardless of what subgenre heading it might appear under.

I was actually offended when the critique writers said it wasn’t genre. But I wonder about reader expectations and assumptions.  Is that why “Time Traveler’s Wife” is shelved in the literary section, and not Sci fi? Because readers expect certain things?  I’m not sure. I alwas assumed that was to sell more books.

Let’s talk about genre people. Who determines it? Does it really exist? Further – does it matter at all?

5 thoughts on ““Not science fiction enough”

  1. I know the romance genre must have the Happily Ever After (or at least For Now); scifi has some element of science to it that conforms to believability, while fantasy goes outside the realm of reality in a completely unbelievable way with magic, apocryphal or talking animals, etc. I would say if aliens are involved… it’s scifi, myself, but then… I tend to bend genres.
    ReadWriteWeb has an interesting summary of genres at http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson270/genre_sheet.pdf.

  2. I think most writing can fall into multiple categories. My book is urban fantasy, but it has elements of action, adventure, romance, horror, and even sci fi. Having to pick which category is the “main” one isn’t always easy. For example, most people probably wouldn’t consider the X-Men to be urban fantasy, but how much difference is there really between mutants with powers in those stories versus wizards with magic in my story? Not much, except that the X-Men talk about mutated genes and I talk about mana and the power of belief.

    Genres even have subcategories. Fantasy can be urban fantasy if it’s in a modern setting, high fantasy if it’s in a magical world ala Lord of the Rings, portal fantasy like Narnia, etc etc. Sci fi should be viewed the same way. Star Trek is very sci fi, with a big focus on technology. Star Wars is much less sci fi and more of an action adventure story that just happens to take place in space. Or compare a highly technical sci fi alien movie like Independence Day to, say, E.T.. Is E.T. not “sci fi enough” despite having an alien as the main focus?

    Genre categories are like a venn diagram. Your story will fall in more than one of the overlapping circles.

  3. I took a course in college called Reading and Writing the Fantastic, where we spent the entire first week trying to decide what “genre” was. It was one of the most interesting discussions I engaged in in college, as my professor brought up example after example of fictions that we would have studied in other classes and pointed out the “fantastic” elements, then asked us to tell her why it belonged in literary circles instead of genre shelves.

    In the end, I walked away with the feeling that genre was created more for marketing purposes than for writers or readers. As cantrelljason pointed out, books are more likely to fit into five or ten genres than to fit into just one.

    That being said, I often found that when someone commented on how something didn’t fit into the genre in the critique, it was less about the genre, and more about them feeling like their toes hadn’t quite left Reality. It could be that they are trying to voice that the writing could be made more immersive, not that they want to be able to sort it more clearly.

  4. All those things apprenticenevermaster said! And thanks, Alicia, for starting this discussion. I think that genre is useful as a way of talking about literature, but I wonder sometimes if it’s really just a big ol’ marketing ploy. I run up against this all the time as a writer of YA fantasy. Why is it YA? It’s not because of the content (lots of people die horrible graphic deaths in The Hunger Games), it’s not because of the target audience (lots of middle-aged women read Twilight), so what is it? It seems to boil down to the age of the main characters, which is odd, since there’s a lot of Great Literature about child characters that’s not written expressly for children. So this whole genre thing is weird and vexing, and I say that if you’ve got aliens, you’re sci-fi, even if those aliens look like fluffy unicorns and do not try to eat Sigourney Weaver.

  5. Reblogged this on Sleepy Book Dragon and commented:
    Genre can be a tricky thing to deal with. What’s classed as one genre for one person is classed as another genre by someone else.
    I have mentioned before that I use to work voluntary in my local library and I often saw this conflict when we had books come in on rotation (the sending of books to another library to provide new reading material for customers and to freshen up shelves). I would sometimes run a book through the computer system and see that the same book was classed as 2, 3 or even 4 different genres so shelved in different places.
    At the same time, I think as writers we can’t entirely constrain ourselves to the codes and conventions of a certain genre. It would be fairly limiting and make the writing of the story not as fun as we first imagined it. Or maybe that’s just me.

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