Posts Tagged ‘genre definitions’

A friend recently published a smart review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.   You should go read it.  Her review and questions, along with my less-than-clear recollection of various aspects of the book, led me to revisit it this weekend, and what follows are some loosely-organized critical thoughts on the book.

Everything after this assumes the reader has read the book, which has a major plot element withheld in the beginning chapters.  This thing is probably better left unknown if you are reading it for the first time, so don’t read this if you are planning on picking it up.  Also, what follows will  not be a proper review with any attempt at synopsis or the like, so don’t expect that you’ll follow if you haven’t read it.


At the prompting of a friend, I read this Slate review of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I have yet to read the book, but in a brief note thanking my friend for the heads-up I couldn’t help but add:

“The Slate reviewer really should know better than to use “sci-fi” as a shorthand for “science fiction” if she wants people who read the genre to not dismiss her opinion offhand.”

Snarky? Nitpicky? Maybe. However, I doubt most regular readers of science fiction who have followed the genre for a while would not also notice the usage in the review, which implicates the  author as somewhat unaware of the genre’s history (and, as my response implies, therefore maybe not particularly qualified to review the book?).**   The term “sci-fi” is contentious for many people who write and read science fiction, and when they use it, it is often aimed at “low-brow,” space-opera stuff.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good summary of the history of the term in the article on Science Fiction:

As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech “B-movies” and with low-quality pulp science fiction.[39][40][41] By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction,[42] and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation “skiffy“. Peter Nicholls writes that “SF” (or “sf”) is “the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers”.[43]David Langford‘s monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section “As Others See Us” which offers numerous examples of “sci-fi” being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.[44] The abbreviation SF (or sf) is commonly used instead of “sci-fi”.

So, people within the science fiction “community” saw that “sci-fi” was being used in the mainstream to label and discuss the genre; simultaneously they noticed that the genre was seen as trashy, juvenile, escapist, et cetera by this same mainstream (at least in part because a bunch of it, like any other genre, actually was all of these things, which is not necessarily a bad thing). So the response to this, rather than anything more nuanced, was to distinguish between “science fiction” (or “SF”) and “Sci-Fi.”  The former is serious and important (or at least tries to be).  The latter looks something like this:

Note that one of the authors featured in this issue is also mentioned in the wikipedia entry cited above.


UKL on the problem of genre classification:

Writing about the death of J.G. Ballard for the New York Times (21 April 09), Bruce Weber spoke to Ballard’s American editor at Norton, Robert Weil. Mr Weil said of Ballard: “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that’s like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984.”

Every time I read this sentence it suggests more parallels:

“But that’s like calling Don Quixote a novel.”

“But that’s like calling The Lord of the Rings a fantasy.”

“But that’s like calling Utopia a utopia… “ – Ursula K. Le Guin


I figured I’d drop this here as an addendum to my prior post on dystopia.  Like the definition there, this is one my students and I co-wrote based on my lecture comments on genre characteristics and reading an excerpt from More’s Utopia (Book 2, obviously).  I wanted us to come up with a definition because those online and in lit. terms books were not particularly good (to put it kindly).  However, it could still use some revision.  Also, one of the most useful discussions of the problems of defining utopia is found in the introduction to Lyman Tower Sargent’s British and American Utopian Literature: 1516-1975.


Utopia: While the common usage of “utopia” as a perfect place derives from literary utopias, it is a mistake to think that utopias are always the author’s vision of a perfect world.  Some are; many aren’t.  The genre begins with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), and is originally a kind of fictional travel narrative.  Utopian fiction is probably best defined as works that present a realistic, alternate, and in many ways better society than our own through an account by an objective observer.  This observer describes the society’s political and social structures, usually after returning home from a visit to the utopia.  Because of this need for extensive description, utopian fiction is often more concerned with developing setting than with plot, sometimes leading to the characterization of it as boring or bland.  Because of the alleviation of some of our own societal ills in utopias, it is useful to think of them is as critiques of our own world’s shortcomings and, at times, even satire.


I don’t know, but I know it when I see it.  It looks like this:

from Wells’ adaptation of The Trial

Having spent too much time reading online material related to The Hunger Games, I’ve been both intrigued and disappointed at how how the media and the books’ fandom interpret and use the term “dystopia” (and its adjectivizations, of which “dystopic” makes me cringe).  As with the everyday use of “utopia,” the general understanding and usage of the term is often extremely vague and distanced from the actual genre of fiction it comes from.  This definition is a very literal one: dystopia=bad place, or the opposite of utopia (defined simply as “good place”).  Or, as one of the lousy online dictionaries defines it:


a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.
Compare utopia.


1865–70; dys-  + (u)topia

I’ll ignore the problematic question of origin/etymology in this definition for now.  The real issue here is illustrated by the fact that these definitions (the casual and the online dictionary) don’t fit classic dystopias that define and helped initiate the genre like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.  Sure, one could argue those lives led by the populaces of the World State or OneState are miserable, and that they are “bad” places, but this is a relatively subjective and very dubious judgment.  Are they characterized by human misery?  No.  There’s more complexity to it than that.