Archive for the ‘Subgenre Study’ Category

Have We Gone Too Far?

Have you ever had a scene that is in such bad shape that it just makes you want to flail incoherently?

Editing Notes

Yeah, me too.

But, in other news (I totally wrote “noises,” which I credit to my in-laws watching a football game in my general vicinity), we did fantasy conventions and subgenres at storycraft this week, which I was greatly looking forward to, since fantasy is my general cup of tea.

(For the curious, our list of conventions for fantasy includes: 1) includes some fantastical element–which can include setting in some cases where magic or something obviously fantastical is otherwise missing, and 2) isn’t some other genre, which, frankly, is a terrible definition but hey, it tends to be true.)

Unlike horror and scifi, however, we discovered that most of the lists of fantasy subgenres included something around 50 different subgenres. Which is a ridiculous amount of subgenres. An unnecessary amount of subgenres.

As one of the other writers noted when we got to “futuristic fantasy”–now they’re just being greedy.

On one hand, subgenres can be helpful. Fantasy is a large, broad, diverse genre–and someone who reads Tim Lebbon or George R. R. Martin may not like Robin McKinley, and vice versa. Subgenres can help a reader tell if they’re likely to enjoy a book.

But there does seem to be a limit to the usefulness. How deep do most readers–or writers–get when they’re looking at subgenre? Major subgenres like paranormal romance, dark fantasy, or urban fantasy are clear and imply certain themes and tone.

But the smaller or more obscure subgenres–do we need to go that far? Do we need to break everything down to the smallest common denominator and make yet another subgenre for it?

What do you think, Squiders? Is it worth it to break everything down as far as it can be broken down? Or is the whole thing ridiculous?

Is it Worth it to Know About Sub-genres?

If you’ve been around here for awhile, Squiders, you remember we spent about a year going through different science fiction and fantasy subgenres. As might be expected from going through such an activity, I sometimes find myself being really particular about subgenre.

Last week I was at a working group with several other speculative fiction writers, and I don’t quite remember how we got onto it, but we were talking about subgenre, and I’m afraid I probably got a little lecture-y (“this is space opera, and this is why”). I had this conversation with one of the other writers.

Other Writer> I know that if it has elves, it’s fantasy, and if it has spaceships, it’s science fiction.
Kit> What if it has elves on spaceships?
OW> I read those books, and they were crap.

But it was obvious that subgenre wasn’t a big concern for them, and it didn’t really matter to them that they couldn’t tell contemporary fantasy from urban fantasy, and it made me wonder if it was worthwhile that I could.

(Well, for a certain definition of “could.” If you were around for the Subgenre Studies, you’ll remember that a lot of this is open to personal interpretation and author intent.)

Knowing subgenre isn’t really useful as a marketing tool because most people don’t know what subgenres are or what subgenres they like. It doesn’t seem to be until someone has issues finding things they like that they delve into subgenre at all, and then mostly out of desperation. (And even so, a lot of people will still use a book as an example rather than a particular subgenre. “I’m looking for books like The Island” rather than “I’m looking for dark fantasy.”)

It doesn’t help for selling books because most people will stare at you when you tell them your latest novel is mythic fantasy.

Plus there’s a wide variety of books within subgenre, even. G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books are both high fantasy, but that doesn’t mean that people who read one are going to like the other.

From that standpoint, it seems like it’s not really worth it to know anything past the difference between scifi and fantasy (itself a bit fluid) and maybe major subgenres, like urban fantasy or steampunk. Maybe the rest of it all comes down to academics and there’s no real world application of knowing the difference between dystopian and apocalyptic fiction.

What do you think, Squiders? Is there a reason to be able to break down subgenres? Or is it all a waste of time?

Looking Again at Genre (A Rebuttal to Root Beer)

Early on in this blog’s life, I wrote a post about how genre is like root beer. Long story short, it seems like every story has some element that stuffs it into a genre, no matter what else is included in the story. (For example, if there’s aliens, no matter how small a part, it’s science fiction.)

I’m starting to rethink this a bit.

I’m currently reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. (Yes, I know I’m a few years behind on this. It’s what I do.) If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is an extremely long, very well researched story, essentially about Dracula and what he’s doing in the modern (if by modern, you mean the 1970s, and I do) day. It’s told mostly from the viewpoint of a teenager, though there are stories within stories – her father’s, and her father’s advisor.

It has vampires. Should it should be fantasy, right? Or at least paranormal, according to the root beer theory.

But I don’t think it is – and neither, apparently, do the people who have reviewed it on Amazon. The top tags for the book are: historical fiction, vampire, mystery. (Both “adventure” and “literature” show up before either fantasy or paranormal do.)

Between examples like this, which could, I suppose, be called “literary fantasy” or “fantastic literature,” if I felt like making up subgenres, and the work I did on the Subgenre Studies last year, I’m beginning to change my opinion. Maybe there doesn’t have to be a root beer in a story. Maybe the author’s intent, and the themes and style of the story, are what determine genre, and not what’s in it.

What do you think, Squiders?

Subgenre Study: Mythic Fantasy

Ah, mythic fantasy, where Gods walk the Earth (or…not-Earth), where heroes are born, and where magic imbues the world around us.

A simplistic definition is that mythic fantasy is fantasy that weaves mythology into the world.  Usually each story focuses on a single culture’s mythology, but nothing is ever a hard, fast rule in speculative fiction.  Mythic fantasy can be an updated retelling of a myth to a completely new story where elements of a myth or mythology are present.

Mythic fantasy incorporates all mythologies, from Native American (ala Neil Gaiman or Charles de Lint) to Celtic to Arthurian to Japanese to Norse to a mythology that the author has completely made up.  Mythology is sometimes like porn – you know it when you see it.

While elements of mythic fantasy depend directly on the mythology involved, there does tend to be common elements in the subgenre.  Usually there are prophecies, and if not walking, talking, meddling gods, some sort of higher power.  Legends tend to be, at least in part, true.  Often a Hero’s Journey is involved in some manner.

Mythic fantasy can be mixed with other fantasy subgenres, such as epic or urban fantasy.  (Actually, I am terribly fond of urban mythic fantasy.  I like how ancient themes can mix with the modern world.)

How do you feel about mythic fantasy, Squiders?  Any mythologies that make you tingly?  Any recommendations?  (My friend just loaned me Guy Gavriel Kay’s entire Fionavar Tapestry.  I am excited.)


Subgenre Study: Comedic Fantasy

Like we talked about a few weeks ago, comedic fantasy is a subgenre that can be combined with other subgenres.  It defines the tone, not the setting, location, etc.  You can have comedic epic fantasy, comedic urban fantasy, or even comedic fantasy romance.

The biggest defining trait of comedic fantasy is that its intent is to be funny.  It may be a direct parody of a well-known fantasy book or may be an original word that’s meant to make you laugh as much as to tell a story.

Examples of well-known (and loved) comedic fantasy includes Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, Terry Pratchett’s Discword books, and Robert Asprin’s MythAdventures series.  You can also find examples in visual media, such as the webcomic the Order of the Stick, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and even the TV show I Dream of Jeannie.

Again, intent is important here.  Many books/movies/etc. will have funny moments without being comedic fantasy.  If the creator’s intent is to be funny at a good majority of times, then it counts.  Otherwise, not so much.  I guess someone could be unintentionally hilarious, but that’s a whole other problem.

How do you feel about Comedic Fantasy?  Does it tickle your funny bone, or do you prefer more serious tomes?  Any recommendations?

Subgenre Study: Quest Fantasy

I would argue that this is not a subgenre, but apparently in some circles it is considered one, so here we are.  I would say that the Quest is a plot point, not a subgenre, but I suppose it is one of the most common plots in fantasy, and you could lump all quest stories together.

(By the way, I apologize for how late this post is.  I blame this excellent book I am reading.)

The Quest!  A fantasy staple.  Often, our Hero is just a normal person, minding their own business, when something happens that propels him/hero out on a journey, where there are puzzles to be solved, monsters to be slain, and, usually, love to be found and some evil to defeat.  It is also often associated with the Hero’s Journey, though perhaps in a more literal way than some.

Quests tend to be literal journeys, requiring their protagonists to trump about the countryside in order to succeed in their goals.  A lot of classical literature that has survived also tends to be quest-related, such as the Odyssey, or even the Bible’s Exodus.

Some well-known quest stories include The Lord of the Rings, the Percy Jackson series, the original Shannara trilogy, and Watership Down.

What’s your feeling on quest stories, Squiders?  Rambling stories where it takes too long to get to the point, or excellent tales where the characters grow and learn more about their world?  Any recommendations?

Subgenre Study: Historical Fantasy

Hello?  Hello?  Hey, is this thing on?  If you have managed to stumble here on this, the most commercial of days, I hope that if you ventured outside into the consumerism that you met nice, friendly people full of holiday cheer but somehow I doubt that.  And if you stayed home, I hope you drank lots of cocoa and watched silly television specials.

Anyway, this week on Subgenre Study we will be looking at Historical Fantasy.  Now, overall, fantasy tends to break up into subgenres in three ways: 1) Location, 2) Time period, and 3) Theme.  Thus something can be both High Fantasy and Off-world Fantasy.  Historical fantasy falls into number 2, for obvious reasons.

Most fantasy takes place in worlds that tend to be vaguely medieval, but true historical fantasy often tries to stay truer to a specific time period, often incorporating real events or people into the narrative, or at least making sure that social conventions of the time period are accurately portrayed.  Historical fantasy can try to keep with real history (where fantastical elements are known only to the people in the story and not society at large), create an alternative history where the author is free to change key events without worrying about the space/time continuum, or like some high fantasy, much of the story takes place in a secondary world ala Narnia where the real world is unaffected.

Some steampunk would fall under the general umbrella of Historical Fantasy.

Historical fantasy actually has subgenres of the subgenre, the most common of which are:

  • Celtic Fantasy (usually taking place in medieval or ancient Ireland, Wales, or Scotland – and may sometimes cross over with Arthurian fantasy)
  • Medieval Fantasy (taking place in a medieval time period, obviously, and the source of main fantasy tropes)
  • Classic Fantasy (taking place in antiquity, usually involving Greeks or Romans)
  • Wuxia (usually involving Chinese or other Asian mythology that involves martial arts and a code of honor)
  • Prehistoric Fantasy (taking place in prehistory or before the rise of civilization)

How do you feel about historical fantasy, Squiders?  It’s really hit or miss for me, and mostly depends on how strong the fantasy elements are – historical fiction is my least favorite genre, so if historical fantasy reads too close I usually can’t stomach it (though there are always exceptions).  Any recommendations for the class?

Sungenre Study: Arthurian Fantasy

Arthurian Fantasy can be considered a subgenre of the subgenre of Mythic Fantasy (how’s that for getting somewhat meta?).  Mythic Fantasy (which we have yet to get to), involves weaving mythological elements into a story’s world or plot.  Arthurian Fantasy takes the King Arthur legend and incorporates it.

The King Arthur legend can be considered fantasy by itself.  It involves wizards (Merlin), sorceresses, enchanted swords, and a host of other things that are generally considered to be fantasy elements.  (Merlin ages backwards, in a lot of versions, which is kind of awesome but would be a bit awkward, when you look like you’re six and really, like, 500.)

Arthurian fantasy can be a straight retelling of the legends, can be from a minor character’s point of view, or can change some aspects to fit the author’s fancy.  It can add new characters in that never existed in the original story, or it can even involve Arthur’s resurrection.  (Arthur is one of many mythic figures from around the world that are supposed to come again when their country is in need.  I saw the statue of another, Holger Danske, in Denmark.)  An excellent example of the latter is Peter David’s Knight Life, where Arthur returns and runs for mayor of New York City.

There can be very little magic or a lot.  People can be evil or not, depending on how the story is told.  There’s a lot of variety here for the same basic story that’s been around since at least the 9th century.

One might wonder what’s so endearing about it.  Is it Excalibur?  The love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot? Merlin’s wisdom?  The quest for the Grail?  (Admittedly a later addition to the story.)  Arthur’s half-sister Morgan le Fay?  Whatever it is, people keep coming back for more.

Some of the best known 20th-century Arthurian books include T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, TA Barron’s Lost Years of Merlin series (YA), and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence (also YA).

Does Arthurian fantasy float your boat, Squiders?  Sick of it?  What’s your very favorite interpretation, in whatever media?  (I’ve always been rather partial to Disney’s The Sword in the Stone – I just wish they had done the rest of the story at some point.)

Subgenre Study: Dying Earth

The Dying Earth subgenre is very similar to the apocalyptic fiction subgenre we explored earlier.  The key difference between the two is that apocalyptic fiction tends to deal with some major catastrophe that is threatening all life, whereas in Dying Earth things have more or less just faded over time until nothing is left and the planet is dying.  It’s a sudden process vs. a gradual one.  It’s a literal exploration of entropy, or the idea that all systems will eventually tend to go towards a more disordered state (though that is not actually what the Second Law of Thermodynamics says, but that is a discussion to have somewhere else).

While it is typically a subgenre of science fiction, it can have fantasy elements, or even feature a fantasy society that has replaced our current technological one.

Perhaps the best known of this subgenre is H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, where a man travels far into the future only to find civilization has collapsed and humankind has changed so much it is hardly recognizable.

Dying Earth books often feature lone survivors searching the world for a better place.  Whether they find it or not depends.  Often resources are scarce and the world as we know it has changed dramatically, from the oceans rising, to tectonic activity, to changes in our solar system (such as the loss of the moon or the sun).

The Dying Earth subgenre is one of the oldest in modern science fiction, with examples dating back to the early 19th century.

While the subgenre usually deals with the end of our planet (hence the name) it can also deal with the end of the universe or the end of time.  The important, defining aspect is that this end is the cumulation of a long process of events, often over centuries or millennia, instead of something sudden.

Anything to recommend in this subgenre, Squiders?  Do you find it depressing or fascinating?

Subgenre Study: Time Travel

Squiders, I am bringing this to you even though I have overdosed on candy and may die.  That’s how dedicated I am.

Time Travel is generally considered a subgenre of science fiction, but there’s been some controversy lately.  You see, Einsteinian physics state that time travel is impossible.  No can do.  You’d have to destroy the universe to do it, and that’s just not worth it in a lot of people’s eyes.  (Those fools!)  As such, some people are now clamoring that Time Travel be considered fantasy, since it’s not scientifically plausible.

Those people are tools, by the way. As we discussed in Hard Science Fiction, not all science fiction has to be scientifically applicable.  (You know what else is theoretically impossible with current physics? Faster Than Light travel, the backbone of Scifi series all over the place.)  Intent and feel, as always, are important when determining genre.

So, Time Travel, a common trope that science fiction writers love to exploit over and over and over…whether you can slingshot around the sun to rescue some whales, fly through time and space in a police box, or whether your genes determine that you can puncture the fabric of space-time.  (I’ve read a couple of books now where people are genetically predisposed towards time travel.  It’s like the best of scifi’s two favorite tropes, time travel and genetic modification.)

Time travel can involve people from the past going into the future, people from the future going into the past, or people from the present going whichever way they want.  They can bounce around in their own lives or visit the span of human history.  They can influence events or merely watch.  They can go by machine, ship, genetics, or their own minds.

Often time travel is mixed with alternate history and alternate universes.  (All of which are awesome.)

And for those of you that are sad that science says it’s impossible, well…Einsteinian Physics has some problems, and some of the new physics show that it might be possible.  (New Physics also like multiple universes.  New Physics is awesome.)

What are your favorite time travel tales, Squiders?  I highly recommend the rather excellent The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger if you haven’t read it.