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Does the ‘SciFi’ Label Still Apply?

There’s an interesting article up at The Guardian book blog today that asks: Are we now post sci-fi?

Sci-fi has made many predictions about the future, but did any of them forecast that in the early years of the 21st century everyone would be watching…sci-fi? Our TV screens are filled with Dr Who, Lost and now FlashForward. Each summer brings more blockbusters in the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek vein, and a flood of superhero franchises. In comics and video games, sci-fi is the norm. It’s not just part of mainstream culture, it is arguably the dominant cultural expression of the early 21st century.

The walls that defined speculative fiction as a genre are quickly tumbling down. They are being demolished from within by writers such as China Miéville and Jon Courtney Grimwood, and scaled from the outside by the likes of Michael Chabon and Lev Grossman. And they are being ignored altogether by a growing number of writers with the ambition to create great fiction, and the vision to draw equally on genre and literary tradition to achieve that goal. The post-sci-fi era is an exciting one to be reading in.

It’s the age-old genre-boundary question. So the question is: Does the ‘SciFi’ Label Still Apply?

(And no, I’m not using the definition of “Sci-Fi” meant to be an insult. For the purposes of this post, “Sci-Fi” means science fiction in all its incarnations.)

My 2 cents after the jump:

Does the ‘SciFi’ Label Still Apply? Yes. Genre labels are convenient handles we put on things when we are looking for a certain type of entertainment. That does not change when those lines become blurry, it just adds the number of handles you can put on a particular work. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a wonderful piece of mainstream fiction. It’s also post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi. Each label draws the attention of different types of readers who can find common ground. Why remove one label just because it appeals to the masses?

What’s your 2 pennies?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on Does the ‘SciFi’ Label Still Apply?

  1. Our world is saturated with science fiction – to the point where it’s a meaningless label.  Almost every new animated movie for kids have some kind of SciFi angle.  Lots of mainstream books are published with science fictional elements and they aren’t shelved in the SF section, and nobody complains.  Except for filing books at the bookstore, why make genre distinctions?  Personally, I’d be happy with all fiction being shelved and reviewed together so the best of all books compete for the top attention.  I’m sure I’d still find plenty of SF to read, and I’d discover books from other genres to try.


  2. I think you nailed it, John. The more tags we use to label a book, the easier it is to find what you want. If I could search for “hard sci-fi” “literature” and get back The Handmaid’s Tale and Kalki, I’d be a happy man. We should be opening the metadata floodgates and tagging everything copiously. Putting all books in one big category with no tags at all is a nightmare scenario.

  3. Yes, it applies, but it means it’s a type of story, not a type of writing style. There never was a wall except in people’s minds about different sorts of publishers. As more and more people reject the idea of a wall, the media is slowly wising up and the Guardian proposes that the imaginary wall has now fallen because category SF authors are now “good” and sci-fi t.v. shows are now “good.” We wised up, you see, never mind that we had countless great writers in the past. Which is fine with me if that is how they want to spin it, as long as they spin it in that direction. It’s not a post-sci fi world, it’s just the regular world, where readers aren’t labeled by what they read and seen as separate audiences.

  4. As long as there are tales to tell of talking squid in outer space there will be Sci-Fi. Margaret Attwood told me so, and she clearly knows better than anyone what’s what with Sci-Fi.

    Of more concern though is the future of SF. When respectable physicists start speculating that the reason for the cancellation of the SSC years ago, and now the problems with the LHC, may be the future universe preventing us (it’s past) from creating Higgs bosons, thereby avoiding an unspecified universal disaster that would prevent the future from coming into existence, you have to wonder if SF writers shouldn’t give up while they’re ahead.

  5. It’s true enough that the label remains a useful one to describe and embrace a certain set of literary conventions, tropes, and sub-genres that extend from those conventions and tropes. As you indicate, a novel like The Road remains sf even if it is packaged as “literary” fiction–or for that matter even if it actually is literary fiction. (On the other hand science fiction as a literary and publishing ghetto looks like vanishing, and may it rest in peace forever.)

    Sf literature will remain as long as any set of readers crave the crunchy mind-candy and brainfood of the fantastic. But ultimately who needs the label? In a general sense what is sf today becomes fact or fantasy tomorrow; so in a peculiar way the genre itself is amorphous in nature and reaches beyond the label.

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