On the Net

The Game's Afoot!

by James Patrick Kelly


I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about SF genres http://www.worldswithoutend.com/resources_sub-genres.asp. In part this is because I write genre fiction, and in part because I also write about genre. Like most contributors here, when I’m working on a story, I don’t necessarily worry about what genre it belongs in. At least, not at the start. Once I find my way deep into some science fiction universe, I will probably think twice about waving a magic wand to solve my protagonist’s problems. Similarly, in a fantasy, why do I need to invent a high-tech 3D printer when I can import the Elf Queen’s gold from faerie? Meanwhile, while I am commenting on various contemporary genres, as I am about to do, I might opine about which of my colleagues is a card-carrying cyberpunk http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/science_fiction/jenkins/jenkins_5.html or a steampunk http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/what-is-steampunk/ or an afrofuturist https://www.essence.com/entertainment/a-beginners-guide-afrofuturism/ and which is a clueless poseur. Of course, I realize that writers I assign to a particular genre might well be astonished to find themselves thus sorted. Complicating my relationship to genre is the sometimes pernicious influence of publishers, whose whimsical use of genre labels for marketing purposes ranges from aspirational to just plain wrongheaded!

Expectations are what make a genre. They create reading protocols and tropes https://www.tor.com/2010/01/18/sf-reading-protocols/, but may also promote formula writing and cliché. And the more often expectations are met, the more robust the definition of a particular genre becomes. In 2011 my friend Gary K. Wolfe published an insightful collection of essays called Evaporating Genres https://www.amazon.com/Evaporating-Genres-Essays-Fantastic-Literature/dp/0819569372, in which he “explores how the related genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror evolve, merge, and finally ‘evaporate’ into new and more dynamic forms.” In the decade since, the postmodern forces Gary identified have accelerated the mixing and morphing of genres. For good or ill, ranging from David Mitchell’s tour de force Cloud Atlas https://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/books/history-is-a-nightmare.html to Seth Grahame-Smith’s gory pastiche Pride and Prejudice and Zombies https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/dec/06/pride-prejudice-zombies-grahame-smith, my colleagues and I are busy ransacking our genre treasuries for characters and plots, tropes and settings to play with—or against—our expectations.

To any aspiring writers out there, here’s some not-entirely-serious-but-free advice about how to keep up with our evolving literary scene. Consider this dizzying list of Sub-Genre Descriptions https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/genredefinitions and imagine it as one of those all-you-can-eat buffets. As you plan your next writing project, help yourself to a heaping plate of sub-genres to create, for example, a Noir/Hard SF/Romantic Comedy or a Spicy/Dystopian/Courtroom Drama or a Wuxia/Comic/Police Procedural. Then aim it at the Young Adult market and watch those royalties roll in. Next thing you know, Netflix https://www.netflix.com will be contacting you about a series!

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origin story

Most of these genres did not exist before the twentieth century. Take for example our own beloved science fiction. Who invented it and when did it begin? There are persuasive arguments for Mary Shelley and her classic Frankenstein (1823) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/12/the-strange-and-twisted-life-of-frankenstein, Jules Verne and his scientific romances (especially those published in the 1870s) https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/jules-verne-father-of-science-fiction, and H. G. Wells and his early novels (1895-1901) https://www.reddit.com/r/scifi/comments/9t1ggt/h_g_wells_golden_years_18951901. Yet another legitimate claimant is the protean Edgar Allen Poe https://factordaily.com/edgar-allan-poe-science-fiction/. Verne, for example, credits him as “le créateur du roman merveilleux scientifique.” In his story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (1835) https://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/unphlle.htm, Poe beats Verne to the Moon by thirty years and Wells by sixty-five. But Poe’s achievements in SF are overshadowed by the rest of his amazing resume. While not the first horror writer, he is certainly an early master of that dread art. And Poe is also the father of detective fiction, at least according to Arthur Conan Doyle https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/edgar-allan-poe-invented-detective-story-180962914/, who wrote, “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

To some extent, many expectations that even now define the genres of SF, horror, and mystery fiction arise from a close reading of Poe. But how could Poe be an SF writer or a mystery writer or even a horror writer if those genres didn’t yet exist when he was publishing? When we place one of his tales in any of these genres, we do so without permission.

Poe didn’t write to our rules; he wrote for money. Then as now, earning a living as a poet and short story writer was a chancy proposition. Poe had to write fast to keep from starving, and he chased the popular taste because that’s what editors were buying, even when he believed that the stories he sold them were a waste of his talent. He was a quintessential magazine writer, prolific out of desperation. He once wrote https://www.eapoe.org/works/letters/p4410000.htm, “I perceived that the whole energetic, busy spirit of the age tended wholly to the Magazine literature—to the curt, the terse, the well-timed, and the readily diffused, in preference to the old forms of the verbose and ponderous & the inaccessible.”

Although the shadow of the old Gothic genre https://www.invaluable.com/blog/elements-of-gothic-literature/ darkens much of his work, when Poe sent his detective Auguste Dupin http://www.poemuseum.org/the-murders-in-the-rue-morgue out on a case, he did not invoke the supernatural in solving crime. Similarly, although Arthur Conan Doyle wrote many science fiction and fantasy stories http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/doyle_arthur_conan, when Sherlock Holmes tangled with the Hound of the Baskervilles http://gutenberg.org/files/2852/ or the Sussex Vampire http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100291h.html, he used his powers of ratiocination to provide mundane explanations for their existence. Even though these founders had the tools of speculative fiction at hand, they chose not to use them, thus defining the mystery genre. At least, for a time.

Which is just fine with me! Like many of you, I regularly rotate mysteries into my pleasure reading queue. My taste runs to the noir detectives, but I’m always up for a police procedural. I’ve got Raymond Chandler http://www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/chandler.html, Louise Penny http://louisepenny.com, Ross Macdonald https://crimereads.com/ross-macdonald-revival/, Michael Connelly https://www.michaelconnelly.com, and Elizabeth Hand https://www.elizabethhand.com, to name just five faves, on audio here on my iPhone. I’m a big fan of Tartan noir https://murder-mayhem.com/tartan-noir-books and Sherlock Holmes is, as always, comfort listening, especially when read by Stephen Fry https://www.amazon.com/Sherlock-Holmes-audiobook/dp/B06VWQTBZ9.

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fantastic mystery

The mystery and speculative fiction genres share not only origin stories, but business models as well. They were the premier genres during the pulp magazine era of the first half of the twentieth century. The pulps, which peaked in the decades between 1920 and 1940, were named for the wood pulp paper on which the stories were printed. They were cheap, ubiquitous and diverse in subject matter, an entertainment mainstay of your great-grandparents. Alas, for the most part their time has come and gone. You will look in vain for magazines solely dedicated to fiction about aviation or combat or gangsters or railroads or spicy misadventure or the Wild West on current newsstands—if you can even find a newsstand. SF and mystery magazines alone have endured, as evidenced by ’Mov’s, as well as our sister magazines, Analog https://www.analogsf.com, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine https://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com. And while there are clear differences between the genres, they share thematic concerns. Both often rely on sorting complex and confusing data to arrive at a course of action. The cop collects clues and the astronaut explores the new planet. The detective assesses recalcitrant witnesses and the scientist studies mysterious aliens. Discoveries lead to purposeful action, even if finding truth remains aspirational.

But despite these similarities, and even though scores of talented writers were writing both SF and mystery, it took years before SF detectives made an appearance. Some on the mystery side argued that since readers expect to guess along with their detectives, and even second guess them, the possibility of SF’s instant-win technological inventions or arcane details of worldbuilding would frustrate hardcore mystery readers. Or, as Isaac Asimov wrote in his introduction to his Asimov’s Mysteries, now sadly out of print, “Back in the late forties, this was finally explained to me. I was told that ‘by its very nature’ science fiction would not play fair with the reader . . . the detective could say ‘But as you know, Watson, ever since 2175, when all Spaniards learned to speak French, Spanish has been a dead language. How came Juan Lopez, then, to speak those significant words in Spanish?’ Or he could have his detective whip out an odd device and say ‘As you know, Watson, my pocket-frannistan is perfectly capable of finding the missing jewel in a trice.’”

But the SF detectives did arrive at last, and continue their investigations to this day. Mark Cole offers a fine history of the advent of the early science fiction detectives in Why Science Fiction Detective Stories Aren’t Impossible http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/cole_01_18/. He makes the point that Asimov’s classic robot detective novel The Caves of Steel (1954) was preceded by Alfred Bester’s influential novel (well, it influenced me, at least!), The Demolished Man (1953), a police procedural with telepathy. The years since have seen an abundance of SF-mystery mashups, as documented by sites like the Top 25 Best Science Fiction Mystery Books http://bestsciencefictionbooks.com/best-science-fiction-mystery-books, 23 Best Science Fiction Mystery Books http://best-sci-fi-books.com/23-best-science-fiction-mystery-books/, and 10 Fiendishly Clever Sci-Fi Locked Room Mysteries https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/sci-fi-fantasy/10-fiendishly-clever-sci-fi-locked-room-mysteries/. I was amused by another list, 10 Great Science Fiction Mysteries You May Never Have Heard Of https://strandmag.com/10-great-science-fiction-mysteries-you-may-never-have-heard-of/, because I’d heard of all of them! Then I realized that the list was created for the excellent mystery quarterly The Strand Magazine https://strandmag.com, and its intended audience was readers with only a glancing acquaintance with SF. It’s instructive, as Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, to look back and forth between websites aimed primarily at SF readers versus those for mystery fans. For example, the SF-oriented Detective Science Fiction http://bestsciencefictionbooks.com/detective-science-fiction.php attempts to rate the levels of real science, grand ideas, characterization, plot complexity, and violence in the hybrid genre. Whereas the mystery site Tips For Writing Speculative Detective Fiction https://crimereads.com/speculative-fiction-crime-tips/ addresses a different concern: “But there’s one combination, the sci-fi/fantasy mystery, that poses challenges other combinations don’t: How do you deviate from reality in enjoyable ways that don’t also break your mystery in half?”

Good question! Want some answers?

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There are fifty-something titles listed in the sites mentioned above. However, I can’t say I’ve read all of them, and some I have read were pleasant but not necessarily great. So let me recommend some recent novels that really succeed both as mystery and SF, IMHO: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair (2001), Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002), William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), China Mieville’s The City and the City (2009), Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes (2017), and Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017).

The game is still afoot, dear reader. Even in space!


Copyright © 2021 James Patrick Kelly

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