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September, 2006 : Essay:

To Name a Few

Names have always fascinated me. Growing up, I was often asked whether by any other name I would smell as sweet. (There is no such thing as a name that can't be made fun of or turned into an endless cliche.) Some labels I was born with: Jewish, white, female. I grew into others: short, introverted, bisexual. Later, I reached the age where I chose labels for myself: geeky, artsy, weird. I learned the power of names, of being included in some groups and shut out from others simply because of a word that someone had once chosen to apply to me. As my life and perspective changed, I found new labels that I wanted to grow into — friendly, thoughtful, kind — and shed outdated ones like outgrown skins.

In college, I studied linguistics and came at names from another angle. I realized why cobbled-together names in fantasy and science fiction novels had always made me grit my teeth. I bought dictionaries of Elvish and Klingon, and incidentally acquired the label "fan." I started to question terms like "fantasy" and "science fiction" and seek out the works that fell between the cracks and outside the pale. Elsewhere, I watched "gay" become "gay and lesbian" become "GLBT," dropped "bisexual" in favor of the more inclusive "queer," and read up on the intersexed and transsexual and genderqueer. The history of queer culture, like the history of fannish culture, is in many ways a story of labels discarded and transcended and endlessly debated and all so tremendously powerful.

I attended my first Readercon this year, and that's where all these thoughts came together. In a spirited panel on the nomenclature and taxonomy of fantastic fiction, we got onto the perennial favorite topic of authorial intent. Someone asked about writers who claim they're writing science fiction when clearly their works fall under the fantasy umbrella — a venerable tradition beginning with ray guns that differed from magic wands and time machines that differed from time-travel spells only by name, and continued by genre-crossers (like Orson Scott Card and Joe Haldeman), who write enough hard SF to be marketed and labeled and given awards as SF authors even when they handwave the science or veer into the realm of the blatantly fantastic — and suddenly I said, "Oh! Like women who say 'I'm a lesbian, but sometimes I sleep with men'!"

Whether we like it or not, there is an emotional weight to the terms we toss around so casually. I've seen a carefully constructed chart of fannish hierarchy, but I think it really ought to just be a circle, like the Lost Boys and the pirates and the Indians all stalking one another. It's nearly impossible to avoid the trap of thinking that whatever we do is cool and whatever they do is, at best, less cool. Marketing does a great deal to encourage the drawing of lines, but must we so avidly buy into what we ourselves are selling?

Most fantasy writers are only recently and reluctantly admitting to including romance genre elements in their work, although the Romantic Times has been giving fantasy novel awards for over a decade; Piers Anthony and Laurell K. Hamilton have no problem filling one book after another with fantastical sex, but only relative newcomers like Elizabeth Hayden and Anne Bishop have been willing to both overtly pay homage to and subvert the genre conventions of romance within a fantasy setting.

Most writers who publish both fantasy and science fiction call themselves science fiction writers — Card and Haldeman are the two I mentioned above, but there are many more — and it's considered polite to join them in doing so, a courtesy extended even to old-timers like H.G. Wells who took plenty of liberties with their science. Most romance writers would rather be linked with fantasy than with science fiction, to the point where romance with spaceships and aliens and genetic manipulation, like those written by Tor author Susan Kearney, is called "paranormal." There are certainly proud cross-genre exceptions (in one of Sharon Shinn's Samaria books, which start out reading like fantasy and then take a sharp turn into SF, a character is seen reading a romance novel based on the story told in an earlier book in the series), but their exceptional nature serves to demonstrate the general rule. We have our subcultures and our sub-subcultures and our cliques and our circles and our fan interest groups. We bond over our similarities. It's what people do. Unfortunately, we also tend to scorn the different and unfamiliar.

The lesbian who sleeps with men is often derided. She — a thoroughly overgeneralized "she," no doubt long-haired and femme and coy and probably white and a conflicted ex-Catholic — is shunned by lesbians for going over to the enemy, snubbed by gays as a politically unsavvy fencesitter, disdained by bisexuals for being unwilling to declare herself one of their number, feared by straight men as a love-'em-and-leave-'em risk or stereotyped as a fantasy object, and despised by straight women who see her as the worst sort of threat to both their relationships. I joined in this general mock-fest for a time until someone finally asked me why I thought anyone would voluntarily take on such a label. It brought me up short. I thought of sexuality as being involuntary. I didn't think of those labels as something one chooses. If you sleep with both men and women, you're bisexual! It's what you are, it's who you are, and there's no point to denying it. Well, perhaps that's so, my friend said, but what about community?

Community isn't just a group of people who share some sort of attribute. My pale skin doesn't mean I have a community in Amsterdam or Belgium or even my parents' ancestral lands of England and Poland. Sometimes, communities that begin with a particular commonality grow into something much larger. Science fiction fandom is a vast community with a wide variety of members. If you know people who have gone to a convention and skipped every single item of programming because they were too busy hanging out with their friends, you've seen the distinction between fandom — in the sense of immersing yourself in the genre — and fandom in the sense of immersing yourself in the company of other fans.

Lesbians who sleep with men differ from bisexuals because they explicitly claim membership in the lesbian community rather than the bisexual community. It's an important distinction and a legitimate one. SF-authors-who-write-fantasy would still rather be on the science panels at conventions and seek out the group of SF authors in the bar when they're done; that's the difference between them and authors-who-write-both-fantasy-and-SF. They aren't lying or in denial or trying to sneak in where they don't belong. They're finding that these labels are not simply about what we do, but also about who we choose to spend our time with and which communities we're helping to build.

So many of these arguments over labels and genres come down to wanting to make sure that the right people are included in the "cool" group; if you find yourself writing in a genre that you've traditionally disdained, just redefine the genre you like to include your work and the genre you dislike to exclude it! Some acid comments were made at that Readercon panel to the effect that most new subgenres are just a way of saying either "me and my friends" or "me and the people who I want to be my friends." In the end, though, all communities and all labels come down to defining the group where you feel you belong or want to belong. It's putting "us" and "them" on either side of the dividing line that's the problem, not the concept of the line itself (though most sharp dividing lines are artificial and fallacious) or of wanting that feeling of belonging.

In the end, very few people write solely in one genre, whether because of wide-ranging interests or just to pay the rent, and I think it's high time we recognized and accepted that. (The 1993 Janus Report 1 claimed that 22 percent of men and 17 percent of women surveyed had had at least one homosexual experience. I'm willing to bet that the percentage of science fiction authors who've tried their hands at writing fantasy is higher.) Fans may want to be careful of dismissing an author's entire oeuvre because it's dominated by a genre they dislike. If you can't stand spaceships, give Orson Scott Card's The Changed Man collection a try; if you can't stand magic, pick up Andre Norton's Star Beast. These authors should be applauded for the wide range of their talent and their willingness to try something new, not erroneously pigeonholed based on their bestsellers.

On the flip side, there's no need to see insult or denial in every choice of one primary categorization over another. These labels we slap on ourselves are never as flat as their paper namesakes; they have many contexts and many meanings. If slipstream left you feeling just too strange and you want to seek refuge in the familiar tropes of hard SF — or if you write Star Trek fanfic at night but simply feel more comfortable hanging out with Tolkien fans during the day — then follow your heart and find your own places on the numerous genre spectra. What an author writes is not the same as who an author is, the target friends to whom we market ourselves may differ from the target audiences to whom we market our work, and fantastic and speculative fiction, by any name(s), still smell just as sweet.


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  • The Janus Report is huge and thus is not online, but here are two sites that cite the statistic mentioned above:

  • Copyright © 2006, Rose Fox. All Rights Reserved.

    About Rose Fox

    Rose Fox is the result of a genetic experiment to create the perfect writer. Having escaped from the laboratory, she now roams the streets of New York, looking for inspiration in gutters and rainbows.


    Sep 27, 17:32 by IROSF
    A thread to discuss Rose Fox' essay.

    The article can be found here.
    Nov 2, 14:39 by Joe Prisco
    This article doesn't seem to have tripped the 'discuss' lever for many readers ;-) The comparison with sexuality may have 'queered' the discussion for some, but there's no questioning that the need to label & categorize very much determines how we think of ourselves and what we therefore permit for ourselves -- and often others.

    It's an all-too-human perversity that those who praise fantasy & sci-fi for its limitless possibilities can then turn around and place boundaries upon their beloved genre[s], defining its limitlessness by what is excluded. Even the supposedly futuristic sci-fi genre can travel back in time, blurring into historical fiction.

    I appreciate Ms Fox's article for focusing on the 'tribal' aspect of our labelmaking: we name so that we may say what we wish to attach to ourselves, and what we wish to avoid. After all, what originally defined "science fiction" but that which appeared in magazines that called themselves science fiction magazines, and what was it but that which was read (and written) by its fans?

    Since then, the fans have changed (several times), but the community has prevailed. We still think of fantasy or sf in terms of the authors we associate with the genre -- even when they rarely write for the genre (Harlan Ellison comes readaily to mind).

    This shows the tribal nature of the label, and thus the powerful comparison to labels of sexual identity. There was no such thing as being gay or lesbian until modern times -- not because sexual interests were previously simpler, but because there were no self-identified 'tribes' organized under these labels. Now (like sf & fantasy) there are, and it is very much about which group you wish to drink with at the bar. Like sci-fi, they are currently less socially outcast than they were fifty years ago (fantasy seems to have had an easier time of it, but that's a different essay).

    This all very heartening to those seeking new identity, and desiring to join these 'alternate' tribes, though the mainstream is necessarily resistant -- until they smell the money ;-)
    Nov 18, 00:03 by Abby Goldsmith
    I'm writing a series that's tough to label. At first I wanted to call it Fantasy, because it's got heroes, magic, and a quest. Then I was told that it must be Science Fiction, because it has space travel, aliens, and advanced technology. Other people told me that it couldn't be SF, because it focuses more on the characters than the science ideas; they said it has to be Space Opera. Still others claimed that it's a blend called Science Fantasy.

    You know what? I don't like any of the above labels. They all have certain stereotypes associated with them. When people think of Fantasy with magic, they think of mages wearing capes who cast spells. My story isn't like that. When people think of SF with space travel, they picture a military or naval-tyle star fleet. Again, my story isn't like that. I don't want people dismissing my books because they have preconceived ideas about the genre.

    This is why I want to invent a new label for a tiny industry that's already glutted with labels. Techno-Fantasy. What do you think of that? I figure we can squeeze Tad Williams Otherland series in there, and maybe Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.

    I think those label associations are the reason why Margaret Atwood refuses to be known as a science fiction writer, although her books involve bioengineering gone awry and crazy future scenarios.

    And they're the reason why some avid readers avoid Stephen King, because they think he only writes blood-and-guts horror.

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