Posts Tagged ‘subgenre’

The Fluidity of Genre

We’ve been going through genre conventions at my storycraft meetings, Squiders. We were supposed to do all three speculative fiction genres at a single meeting–horror, science fiction, and fantasy–but we started with horror and two hours later were still happily on horror, so we’ve broken it up. We did horror, and last night we did science fiction, and in two weeks we’ll do fantasy, and I had a request from one member to do a discussion on cross-genre, specifically spec fic romance, so we might as well just roll right into that one too.

The meetings have a very loose structure. We spend the first hour trying to agree on genre conventions, then we read through the Wikipedia article on said genre and fight with it (and also read the history part, and so last night I learned that “scifi” was originally–and potentially still?–a term for low brow, low quality pulpy sort of media, and “science fiction” is/was for serious, worthwhile media. Which seems on level with the Trekker/Trekkie semantics, but hey, whatever, we all like to feel superior somehow). And then we go through various lists of subgenres and fight with those too.

A subgenre, for those who may not be familiar with the term, is essentially a further breaking down of a genre. If you know you’re specifically looking for dragons and elves, it helps to know what subgenre you’re looking for, especially with the dawn of online retailers like Amazon who get a bit ridiculous in their breakdown. Several years ago I did a science fiction/fantasy breakdown of several subgenres, which you can see here (though I realize that I never did do a final update to the master list. One more thing to do).

For horror, we had a decent list of conventions (and I should point out that this is specifically for speculative horror):

  • Often no final resolution, leaves the reader in a state of unease
  • Protagonist is often shaken to core
  • Plays on fear
  • Incorporates elements of the unknown
  • Tends to twist common things into something terrifying
  • Often includes a betrayal of safety
  • Often includes themes of isolation

For science fiction, we all agreed on exactly one convention:

  • Has a connection to modern humanity

We couldn’t even agree that science fiction had to be about technology, especially since a lot of recent fantasy has become very technological in scope. So the best we ended up with, especially to separate science fiction from fantasy, is that there had to be a connection to now. Some thread of “us,” no matter how far in the future or jumping through the dimensions. Some way that “we” directly become “them.” In a fantasy world, you can have humans without having those humans have any connection to the real world or history or anything of that ilk.

That’s not to say that fantasy can’t have a connection to modern humanity, just that that was the one thread we could agree upon that defined science fiction. And even that is probably too limiting, because there are probably science fiction stories out there without a human being in sight.

At least we’re not the only ones confused. Wikipedia included one author repeating the general definition of pornography, i.e., I know it when I see it.

Even the lists of subgenres seem a bit confused. You have things like “cyberpunk,” which has clear themes and tones that are fairly universal throughout the subgenre, but also things like “time travel,” which sticks something like Doctor Who or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court into the same category as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Outlander, The Time Machine, or Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear. With a cyberpunk book, you generally know what you’re getting; a time travel book could fall anywhere in the fiction spectrum.

We’ve got a going challenge to try and organize the scifi books we own into seven subgenres, and then we’re going to share our subgenres at the next meeting and see what we come up with.

I almost feel like subgenres exist so we can try and get a handle on what a story is, but it may all be a lost cause.

What do you think, Squiders? Agree with the conventions we came up with? What conventions do you use to separate the major specfic genres? Do you agree with my cohort’s postulation that the speculative fiction genres are converging again into a single genre ala the 1800s, or is it more of a convergent evolution sort of thing?

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?

The Differences Between Urban and Contemporary Fantasy

As we touched on just barely during the Subgenre Study, while many people consider urban and contemporary fantasy to be synonymous, they’re not actually.


  • Story 1 takes place in modern times in a major city. The story is both urban and contemporary fantasy.
  • Story 2 takes place in London in the 1800s. The story is urban but not contemporary fantasy.
  • Story 3 takes place on an isolated farm in modern times. The story is contemporary but not urban fantasy. (My story, To the Waters and the Wild, featured in The Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol I, is this.)

The reason the two are synonymous to most people is because, in most cases, stories fall into category 1 above. And you can argue that most modern settings–even small towns–can be interpreted as “urban” because the growing omnipresence of technology, even in more remote areas, changes the feel of the location.

I’ve read a lot of category 1 and a few things in category 3, but I may be reading my first category 2 now. It’s Libby Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty.

It’s not that I haven’t read fantasy before that takes place in a historical setting and a city. But, as we talked about a lot throughout the Subgenre Studies, intent has a lot to do with perceived subgenre. For example, something like the Temeraire series could technically be considered urban fantasy in places, but it reads more like historical fantasy. And books like The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters could probably be considered urban fantasy as well, but it reads more steampunk. (Which, if one wants to get really into it, probably could be a subgenre of the urban fantasy subgenre. But then you get a little too “Yo I heard you like subgenres so I put subgenres in your subgenres” for me.)

This feels exactly like any YA urban fantasy you’d pick up anywhere. It’s first person present tense. It follows all the main urban fantasy tropes. The only difference is that it takes place in the late 1800s and there are occasional mentions of bodices. So, yes, it may be the first true case of an urban, but not contemporary, fantasy I’ve ever read.

What do you think, Squiders? Do you have examples of urban, but not contemporary, stories that you’ve read?

Where Has All the Hard Science Fiction Gone?

So, I recently finished reading Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan, a hard science fiction novel from 1985. We talked about some of the things that were a little bit jarring a few weeks ago in the Old Science Fiction post (to that, I add: an apparent lack of the understanding of plate tectonics), but overall I enjoyed the book and found the science to be mostly solid, even if the characters didn’t figure out what must have happened for things to make sense scientifically until about 100 pages after I did.

That got me to thinking. In general, I like hard science fiction–it must appeal to the engineer in me or something–but all the examples I could think of that I’ve read are older books. Rendezvous with Rama was published in 1973. Ringworld is from 1970. Contact is also 1985, and The Andromeda Strain is from 1969.

Even looking at the Wikipedia and Goodreads lists of hard science fiction shows that there’s been very little of the subgenre put out in the last ten years (and Goodreads’ list is a bit suspect. I am pretty sure Ender’s Game is not hard science fiction).

Why do you think that is, Squiders? Is it because hard science fiction, being fairly dry, just doesn’t ever attract that many readers, meaning a limited number is published at any point of time? Maybe it’s not any slower than before, but there’s just not a lot of it in general. Or is it a representation of some changing tastes in readers and/or writers, where people don’t want to think about science unless it’s accompanied by  explosions and starship chases?

I don’t honestly know, my friends. I welcome any thoughts you have on the matter, and if you do have any good, recent hard science fiction recommendations, please share.

Trek vs. Wars and Why It Is Silly

Among nerd circles, you run into rivalries between various fandoms or ships or theories. One of the most persistent is the Star Trek versus Star Wars one.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I hung out in a Trek-related community in middle and high school, and we would occasionally go over to the Star Wars chat rooms to troll the people there. But in my defense, it wasn’t because I disliked Star Wars, it was because the people there got hilariously upset by the whole thing, and it’s really hard to escape being a teenager without trolling somebody.)

I’ve always liked both. Trek more, certainly, but I enjoy Star Wars, have seen all the movies, read most of the “required” extended universe books, and can tell you the difference between a clone and a storm trooper. If I was forced to choose sides, I’d pick Trek, but I’m here to tell you that the whole thing is silly and we should let it go.

When it comes down to it, the main reason that the Trek vs. Wars thing is ridiculous is that they’re not even the same subgenre of science fiction.

It’s like comparing apples and oranges. What do the two series have in common? They both take place in space. The end.

Star Wars is space opera. It contains the classic hero journey. Its technology is more fantasy than technobabble. It has a clear main character with other characters in supporting roles. Ignoring the Clone Wars animated series (which I will for the sake of this argument, because I find most people who strongly subscribe to the whole Trek vs. Wars thing are older fans who have probably never watched it), the series is mainly represented by movies.

Star Trek is a mix of scifi genres, none of which is space opera. And it depends on the series. (DS9, for example, falls under military science fiction in the latter half, but I wouldn’t say most of the series do.) People have written books on the physics, the engineering, the biology of Star Trek–science is an important aspect to the overall franchise. It is always a composite cast, with most characters being of equal importance in terms of story-telling. It’s mainly delivered through television shows, which I think we can all agree are quite different than movies.

I think a lot of this stems from earlier, when the two were really the only big scifi series in town. But now we’ve got Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly, Stargate, Battlestar Galatica…many of which have more in common with one or the other than they have in common with each other.

But I still run into people who feel like if they like one, they can’t like the other, which is just silly. I had a friend the other day who’s recently started watching DS9 tell me that she felt guilty about enjoying it (or even watching it) because she’d always been a Star Wars girl.

How many other people haven’t given something they could really like a chance because of some silly line drawn in the sand long ago?

Let it go, friends, let it go, and enjoy all the good science fiction you can.

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.)