MIND MELD: The Best Genre Crossovers
Despite what someone might initially think, genre boundaries are blurry, allowing storytellers to mix-and-match (intentionally or not) different genres, thus producing a story with an altogether new flavor.
We asked this year’s panelists this question:
Here’s what they said…
Favourite genre cross-overs…I’m very partial to forms that mix crime noire with horror, sci-fi or dark fantasy…Blade Runner (the film) is the obvious example of a crime – sci-fi crossover. A newer one is Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, a crime-dark fantasy crossover made of win, and Miéville’s The City & The City – which is kind of even more an expectation-breaker than usual.
I’m also a fan of things that are just plain weird – Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, a mix of science and magic and horror. Kelly Link’s mingling of fantasy, magical realism and some really creepy horror (e.g. ‘Some Zombie Contingency Plans’) is always a winner. I’m also a fan of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective series as it mixes ideas and legends drawn from the Apocrypha with a crime storyline and the books work really well.
My answer, after some thought, is Fantasy/Horror. This occurred to me while I worked on a magazine cover inspired by Mary Shelley with the movie, Frankenstein directed by James Whale playing in the background. There’s something magical when fantasy and horror meet. They can deepen the meaning of each other as well as subvert one another. Horror and Fantasy were, quite literally, separated at birth. In my own work, I’m not satisfied unless the whimsy is balanced with horror and vice versa. I think it’s something film directors like Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro and Terry Gilliam pull off really well. In books, Jeff Vandermeer and Neil Gaiman are perfect examples. An effective combination of these two genres may involve blurring lines rather than combining two distinct genres. In the early days of Weird Tales in the 1930’s, there was no strong distinction between fantasy and horror and most of those tales leaned much closer to the dark and creepy rather than the fantastical. A contributor to this movement, H.P. Lovecraft has really infected horror and fantasy right up to today. There’s lots of great discussion of this in Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The New Weird.
There are so many ways I could have gone for this, but I’ve been reading a lot of sf/ or fantasy/detective stories recently, which got me thinking about Alfred Bester and The Demolished Man.
This particular area of crossover is a particularly fertile one, and there have been some brilliant recent contributions, such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch and China Mieville’s The City & The City. But The Demolished Man is the first genre crossover I remember reading where the sci-fi parts of the story weren’t just pretty scenery to set your mystery in. You had to have them, or the whole story would just fall apart.
I loved Bester’s musings on how having telepaths around would change society, and I really loved trying to follow those crazy party conversations, which really gave a feel of a whole different way of communicating.
The mystery parts of the story were equally fun (that whole “Tenser said the tensor” chant really is a ridiculously effective mindworm), and everything else from pacing to characters worked for me the first time I read the book and continues to work for me today.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is the kind of cross-genre science fiction that not only lures readers to our part of the bookstore, but keeps them there. By inflicting the protagonist with “Chrono Displacement Disorder,” the author establishes the narrative framework for a first-rate romance, and touches on themes of love, longing, loneliness and the moderating and maturing effects of marriage. At the same time, the novel presents an internally consistent model for time travel as a genetic problem, delicately written so as to allow for such issues as sexual maturity, marital strife, and miscarriage to be explored without being tawdry or exploitative. The Time Traveler’s Wife brims with wonder and peril and romance, and boldly redraws the boundaries of science fiction the way only a debut novelist can.
Television, meanwhile, still reels from the loss of the single best work of cross-genre science fiction since Briso County, Jr. — that work being Firefly (later resurrected as the feature film Serenity). Joss Whedon has long established himself as a world-class storyteller. Here, he constructs a plausible future for humanity, a colorful Sino-Western hybrid expanded to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. Whedon’s creation gives equal importance to horses and spacecraft, and at its heart is a dimestore paperback with a Marlboro Man on the cover.
Though Star Trek is billed as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” Firefly actually lives and breathes the Old West through its vernacular, temperament and gunslinging. No replicators here, life is hard on the fringes, and on Firefly, the outlaws are often the most lawful citizens of the frontier.
The first science fiction book I read was Asimov’s Mysteries, a collection of mystery/sf crossovers whose introduction made a sort of triumphalist case for sf as a genre that embraced all genres. Now I think this is sort of ridiculous. (Is the fact that you can write an sf love story proof that sf encloses romance, or is it proof that romance can enclose sf? Hey, who’s on top here?) But it means that I’ve never really thought in terms of pure undefiled genres.
Due to the same influence, no doubt, I have a reflexive feeling that mystery and sf are two tastes that taste great together. Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (not its sequels, so much) or Niven’s stories of Gil “the ARM” Hamilton are two examples I’ve reread a lot.
I confess to a complete lack of enthusiasm for the “classic-literature-with-extra-added-monsters” mash-up–except for John Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus” (which was stylistically note-perfect among its other virtues). Although maybe one could put Jo Walton’s brilliant Tooth and Claw (a Trollopian novel whose characters are dragons) in this category, or near it.
But my favorite crossover has to be the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series of graphic novels (not, of course, the relentlessly mediocre movie). Moore and O’Neill not only grab all these different characters and plonk them down in the same world, they give some thought to (and take every storytelling advantage from) that weird and multifarious world, like and unlike our own. The single best section, for me, is the first part of volume II, which is a tissue of references to Mars-fiction from different sub-genres but somehow completely original.
When a novel or a movie is marketed as horror, or as science fiction, or any other recognizable genre, you expect that it’ll do what it says on the tin. You know how a romantic comedy will end: if it’s being billed as a “date movie,” whatever else happens, the romance will resolve happily. But if a work is trying to appeal to kids AND adults, or men AND women, or people who like strongly-plotted genre fiction AND people who like deeply meaningful, atmospheric literary fiction, there’s a real possibility that the work is going to run into interference. Because most people know what they DON’T like — and they stay out of the children’s section of the bookstore or library, or the romance section, or the science-fiction section.
Here’s a few works that manage to do more than one thing at a time:
- White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages (Viking) is a sophisticated, award-winning historical novel about friendship and being different and the relationships between kids and parents; it’s about science and growing up and the morality of war. And while it isn’t directly a science fiction novel, it’s a novel ABOUT science fiction, steeped in science fiction’s concern for the future, and sprinkled with Easter egg references to pulp science fiction stories. It’s also accessible to nine-year-olds.
- Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia (Scholastic) is a short story collection and an art book and a fantasy book. It’s marketed for ages 12 and up, and the NY Times Book Review said (about Tan’s picture book The Arrival) that readers will be motivated to “seek out any future graphic novels from Shaun Tan, regardless of where they might be shelved.” (The subtext of this is that normal adults shouldn’t be dinking around in the children’s section, or wherever Tan is shelved, but that they can make an exception here.)
- Disney’s Wall-E was utterly brilliant until the people came along, and then it was still pretty darn good. It’s meant to appeal to all ages, with robots, show tunes, adventure, mystery, romance, some complicated emotional truths about loneliness and love, if-this-goes-on cultural commentary, and a happy, redemptive ending.
The secret, I think, to the successful crossover work is that it manages to appeal to multiple audiences WITHOUT the multiple conflicting genre markers chasing people away. When family and friends tell me they like my first novel — even though it’s got zombies — it’s a compliment and an unintentional ding at the same time: kind of like saying, “You look GREAT for your age.” There is a real joy, though, in surprising people with something they had already decided they didn’t like.
Oh, yes, let’s talk flavor! While contemplating my answer to this question, I recalled how very much I enjoy cream cheese. I also love walnuts. Separate, they’re both yummy, but mixed together with maple syrup and cinnamon and spread upon a toasty chewy bagel, OMG that is a breakfastgasm in the making.
That’s how I feel about hybrid genre stories. Done well, they create angles for stories that you can’t experience with a single-genre tale. While my need for hybrid genre stories is simply about variety, there’s nothing simple about it.
Four of my favorite ingredients are science fiction, horror, romance, and mystery. That seems like a lot to pack into one book, TV show, or movie, but authors and filmmakers have been doing it for so long, I practically didn’t know there was any other way.
For example, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a complex series, but what struck me the most was the way he integrated the romance with the other genre elements (especially steampunk). Aside from its subplot status, this romance is one of the edgiest I’ve read. The way the relationship develops between Miss Murray and Quatermain through the dialogue is mesmerizing. And he writes the sexxoring hotter than many traditional romance authors. Who Moore chose to fall in love was key, because he didn’t put any restrictions on things like age or appearance.
That last observation made me wonder: Is it the absence of or relaxing of typical genre restrictions that make hybrid stories so interesting? A romance between someone like Quatermain and Miss Murray would probably never happen in a traditional romance (at least those published by mainstream print publishers), but in a steampunk action adventure tale, the sky’s the limit.
Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing are “it” when it comes to mixing horror and SF. I love horror, but there are times I find alien-based horror so much more terrifying than ghosts in the attic. I mean, demons are pretty badass, but Lovecraftian monstrosities know no bound. Does the addition of SF grant horror tales greater latitude, perhaps?
While I read Frederik Pohl’s Gateway and Alastair Reynold’s Century Rain decades apart, both reinforced how much I enjoy mystery with SF, especially if there’s room for a wee bit o’ romance. Same goes for The Outback Stars trilogy by Sandra McDonald, which was heavier on the romance but also included military SF and Aboriginal mythology. But the real mystery is why I can’t bring myself to try a traditional mystery story. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by too many good hybrid genre recipes.
Like The X-Files. In that show, the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully competed just as strongly for my attention as the Roswell-flavored science fictional elements and horror/suspense content. Speaking of The X-Files, George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge felt like a steampunk X-Files to me, but in a good way. The steampunk elements lend a fresh flavor to the mysteries, horror elements, and relationship dynamics I enjoyed so much in its predecessor.
It all comes down to this: I’m a genre crossover glutton and proud of it!
I think Psycho is probably the most shocking genre crossover of all time. It starts as a heist movie, we’re invited to root for the beautiful heroine/antiheroine who is in moral turmoil; and then – well, you know what happens next. We’ve all seen the movie; and anyone who hasn’t will still know about the shower scene. But imagine, or remember, watching that film not realising it’s a horror movie.
For me genre crossovers are as exhilarating and necessary as blood is to vampires. Think of Blade Runner, where noir detective story merges with cyborg menace. Or Joss Whedon’s Serenity, a cowboy series set in space with pirates. (Star Trek started this tradition of course – Rodenberry pitched it as Wagon Train in the stars.)
In Tarantino’s Kill Bill, genres are mashed, smashed, and encouraged to fornicate in order to form whole new subgenres – it’s a blend of action movie, anime, horror, graphic novel, cheesy samurai movie and Chinese shadow puppetry (i.e. the scene where Uma Thurman fights the bad guys/girls behind a screen in silhouette.)
And I’ve recently been watching the extraordinary and shocking Japanese anime series Elfen Lied. It’s full of animated nudity and astonishingly nasty violence, blended with an cutesy anime tradition of sweet little girls who love their papa, blended with hi tech action gunplay, with dollops of morally dodgy but hilarious scenes which draw upon the ecchi tradition of anime (basically, soft porn.) And all these outrageous elements are framed by an animated title sequence in the style of Gustav Klimt, with a haunting Latin madrigal playing on the soundtrack, gorgeous illustrations of the characters in richly coloured robes, and a final full frontal nude of the story’s heroine. It’s like seeing a Renaissance altarpiece illustrated with images of the X-Men in combat.
As far as novels are concerned; for me Neil Gaiman’s amazing American Gods is the king of the genre crossover. It’s The Sting meets The Mighty Thor with a noir hero and a Christian allegorical finale. And Peter F. Hamilton’s The Dreaming Void trilogy brilliantly smashes a hole in the wall that divides science fiction from fantasy; he gleefully uses tropes from both traditions to tell his far future epic tale.
I assume when you say ‘genre crossovers’ that you mean things like ‘Vampires in Space’ or ‘Dragons in Manhattan’ or some such – which can really be fun. Or ridiculously silly. I’m gonna talk about some TV shows that’ve had genre crossovers I’ve enjoyed.
First up – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You have Vampires, Demons, Witches and Magic – all the elements of a decent fantasy/horrorish story, right? Only thing missing?
Joss Whedon isn’t one to be placed in a box, so when he decided to bring his vision of Buffy (the movie got away from him) to the small screen, he wanted to be able to bring anything and everything to Sunnydale (which was the reason for the Hellmouth, actually). Including robots.
The first season of Buffy was not my favorite, but there were a couple of stand-out episodes that made you think, “Huh – they’re going to do some strange and fantastic things. If they get a second season.” One of these episodes was the first taste of Vampire/Demon tale meets Scifi when a demon bound inside of a book for centuries is released into the Internet when the pages are scanned by Willow for a school project. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Demon takes to his old ways of manipulating people and manages to get some sciencey types to build him a new body – a robotic one. The Scoobies attempt to stop said demon and a binding spell fails to put him back in the book and instead traps him in his new robot body where he can be ‘slain’.
This was not the last time Scifi and Buffy crossed paths. The entire fourth season revolved around a secret government organization operating under the local college, trapping demons, testing them, implanting them with neural microchips to modify their behavior. Their ultimate goal was to build a ‘super soldier’ (shades of Captain America?) essentially built from the ‘best parts’ of different demons and humans, spliced together ala Frankenstein (Okay, so, not Captain America). In the end, magic proves stronger than science, creating a ‘super Buffy’ who is able to shut down the program and save the day.
Sprinkled along the shows seven seasons were other bits of Scifi fun; Warren, robot creating genius who builds himself the ‘perfect girlfriend’, then builds Spike a ‘BuffyBot’ for… uh… well… you know… You know, right? I don’t want to have to explain this. I think this site is probably PG13…
Freeze rays, jet packs, invisibility rays and cerebral dampeners were part of The Trio’s arsenal of Scifi weapons for the sixth season (as well as tons of references from genre movies, comics, tv shows – you name it, it came out of the Trio’s mouth. I especially liked Spike threatening to do bodily harm to a mint condition Boba Fett unless he got what he wanted from Warren. Plus there was the whole ‘Godzilla’ reference. Slayer in training: “Godzilla wasn’t so tough. I mean, if Matthew Broderick could kill him…” Andrew: “Xander!” Xander: “Matthew Broderick did NOT kill Godzilla. He killed a big, dumb LIZARD that was NOT the real Godzilla…”)
I don’t think you can call the 80’s series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, anything other than campy. Or a classic. Or a campy classic. Classic campy?
Anyway, when you have a show full of people running around in shimmering, skin tight spandex (I flashed to Erin Gray. Did you flash to Erin Gray?), you need to mix things up once in a while. Why not add a Vampire, right?
In this case – a Vorvon. Buck and Wilma investigate a derelict ship and don’t realize that they’ve released an alien that feeds on the living soul of other beings until it starts eating people and sets its sights on Wilma for its next meal.
Being young at the time, this episode scared the living hell out of me. Watching it now? Not so much.
Luckily, Buck saved the day in the end and sent the Vampire/Vorvon into a star to kill it. Overkill? Just as smidge.
Now, before you go putting on your browncoat, I’m talking about the OTHER short lived western themed scifi show cancelled by FOX – The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
Set in the 1890’s and starring the fantastic Bruce Campbell, this show was not only a western, it also had your scifi and your steampunk elements – triple threat! It reminded me of the original Wild, Wild West (Robert Conrad version, not that crap movie they made). As soon as this show came on, I knew it would never last because I really, truly liked it – always the first nail in the coffin.
The Orb was a central element of this show; the big bad, John Bly, really wanted it. Our hero, Brisco County Jr., didn’t want him to have it. Conflict ensues. It was from the future, had the ability to heal wounds, grant strength and even kill.
You also had an inventor named Professor Wickwire dreaming up crazy stuff like the Amazing Rocket Car and the Inner Space suit.
This show had everything you could want – humor, gun fights, time travel, wacky gadgets and, of course, BRUCE CAMPBELL! (he’s 80% why I watch Burn Notice these days) – it was a great show and like all great shows, didn’t last very long. Though it did last longer than Firefly, sadly.
That’s my two cents.
There are few things that make me happier than bending the rules. That’s probably why I am so in love with art that makes me question the category in which it’s presented. In fact my answer to your question probably bends the rules you had in mind, because some of the works that I receive as interstitial or genre-bending may fit quite neatly within others’ categories.
Possibly my favorite subtype is the SFF book that taps into capital-L Literary stories and frameworks and reimagines them. When these are done right, they’re magical to me. Hyperion by Dan Simmons is one such book: shot through with deliberate echoes of John Keats, it includes not only references to and quotes from Keats’s unfinished poem of the same name but “cybrids”, AI/human hybrids that manifest the characteristics of or might even be the poet himself. Is this a literary homage? Is this Science Fiction? Why, yes-and that’s not all, because Simmons also incorporates an unconquerable monster and the motif of the quest into the novel, giving the whole thing a sense that will make fantasy readers wonder why the book is supposed to be SF. Until they realize that every fantastic occurrence has a scientific explanation behind it. Unquestionably a science fiction novel, it nevertheless brings together my other great literary loves into one fantastic work that surpasses ordinary expectations.
Another novel in this same vein is To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Here time travel technology allows a SF novel to incorporate Victorian influences and characters-but don’t mistake this for a time-travel romance, in which the displacement of the hero(ine) is just the device that allows the story to function. Here, as in all of Willis’s works that deal in time travel, it is top-flight SF that is the story’s purpose and great delight.
Presently my favorite genre-bending work, bar none, is Edward Morris’s There Was a Crooked Man series. I’m publishing it, so that will doubtless seem a shameless plug, but in that series Morris is combining science fiction and alternate history with a literary sensibility of language and structure–in a way that feels like dark fantasy or horror. What are these books? They’re difficult to pin down, but what I love most about them is the way they pull in elements from all over the map and recombine them into something that can only usefully be described as “interstitial”.
I could go on about this indefinitely-and this weekend I polled a group of very knowledgeable fans at an event and got a number of suggestions that I will be adding to my reading list. You can see some of their picks on my personal blog. (link: http://barbarafriendish.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/genre-bending-works-favorites-and-recommendations/) And readers and writers who are as fascinated as I by works that tread the grey areas between genres may want to check out The Interstitial Arts Foundation (http://www.iaf.org), which is all about work that crosses boundaries.
- Perdido Street Station by China Miéville: I read Perdido at a time when I was branching out with my own writing, and was feeling rather constrained by current genre classifications. Of course, those feelings quickly dissipated after reading Perdido. This book literally blew my mind wide open with possibility. Miéville described Perdido as “basically a secondary world fantasy with Victorian era technology”, so there you have your fantasy/steampunk cross-genre mash-up.
- Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: This book is another of my all-time favourites. It sits right alongside Perdido Street Station for crossgenre goodness, with parallel narratives split between a dystopian near-future à la the film Brazil (which, coincidentally, released the same year–1985–as Hard-Boiled) and a quasi-Wonderland-like fantasy world populated by people stripped of their shadows. This is one of the most lyrical and surreal books I’ve read.
- Dark City: This science fiction film is so rich with noir it cannot be overlooked as a crossgenre masterpiece. Directed by Alex Proyas (of The Crow fame), and written by Alex Proyas, David S. Goyer, and Lem Dobbs, one cannot go wrong. Add in Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Rufus Sewell, and Jennifer Connelly and you’ve got a surefire classic. This one gets a yearly viewing in my house.
- Ergo Proxy: This anime merges three of my favourite sub-genres together into one twisted trip: steampunk, cyberpunk and gothic noir. If you haven’t seen an episode–and there are, sadly, only 23–then check it out, you’ll be in for a visual treat. This anime has it all: self-aware androids, viruses, domed cities, mysterious immortals, shady governments, and kick-ass girls with kick-ass guns. Highly recommended.
Filed under: Mind Meld
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!