Genre gives the writer a narrative framework to shelter in, a structure, a place to start.
—Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon(1)
To what extent is Phillips right about the comfort zone of genre? How much does an established narrative framework help or hinder the writer of science fiction, fantasy or horror? Or does an established narrative framework even exist at all? In these days of slipstream and interstitial fiction, the last point could be convincingly argued.(2) But at the same time, the fact that these "new" forms within the realm of speculative fiction have become important enough to almost qualify as marketing categories and are defining themselves against or outside of established norms presupposes that those norms are both present and commonly understood.
In order to examine some of the questions pertaining to genre, comfort zones and the craft of story, we have taken our metaphor from lost-wax casting. This is the art of creating a sculpted piece in wax, packing it inside a ceramic or other durable mold, then pouring metal into it. The wax flashes and is gone with the heat, but the form remains.
In the same way, speculative fiction can be seen as a kind of lost-world casting—
The Narrative Structure(s) of Genre
Narrative structure is another area that, while not directly related to genre, is often indicative of genre. Slipstream and literary fiction use experimental and non-traditional narrative forms more often than science fiction does: nonlinearity (in a variety of forms), lack of traditional plot structure, breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, inclusion of non-prose forms in the work (see Always Coming Home), and so on.
This tells us something about what the narrative structure of genre is not—
One surprising result of the ghettoizing of speculative fiction, however, is that writers have enormous freedom within its walls. It's as if, having once confined us within our cage, the keepers of the zoo of literature don't much care what we do as long as we stay behind bars. (11)
In a way, this echoes Phillips' statement on the liberating effect of working in genre—
Of course, to a certain extent both Hartman and Card are right. While within the confines of our genre we do have a certain amount of freedom to play our own little genre-bending games, at the same time there are a number of traditional narrative structures in science fiction and fantasy which have been reused many times over the years—
But to what extent then is there even a narrative framework common to genre? Is it simply a matter that most stories are told in a fairly straightforward manner? Or are there any concrete indications that genre writers are encouraged to tell their story in a linear fashion and are discouraged from experimentation? We have come across writers' guidelines more than once in sff publishing which discourage the use of the present tense (still often seen as experimental, despite the fact that it is too ubiquitous now to really qualify as such). On the other hand, there are a number of guidelines these days which actively encourage experimentation.
A common way of regarding story structure that is often cited in our cozy ghetto is the "Seven Point Plot" from the late great Algis Budrys.(4) This fairly well-known way of putting together a story goes as follows:
(1) A character (2) in context (3) with a problem ... (4) ... attempt[s] to solve the problem ... and (5) encounters unexpected failure ... or increasingly near-attainment of the goal, and (6) victory or death. ... What is left for the end is (7) validation. (Budrys, n.p.)
This could be seen as a fairly traditional narrative structure. But not only does the Seven Point Plot say nothing about the way the story should be told, it is common to a number of genres including many examples of mainstream and literary fiction. What it quantifies are the plot points a narrative should contain to qualify as a story—
On the other hand, the ur-stories which lie behind speculative fiction genres and sub-genres have immediately recognizable narrative structures and conventions. The morally dualistic quest fantasy is far older than J.R.R. Tolkein's work, as Campbell's research makes clear, but Lord of the Rings with its pseudo-medieval society, its elves and orcs and wizards, is taken almost universally as the prototype for high fantasy. Likewise the technological puzzle story so emblematic of Golden Age science fiction, which is still to be found in the pages of the latest issue of Analog, with the scientist-hero, the troubling problem to hand, and the clever solution presented in the penultimate scene.
We see similar patterns of inspiration in signature stories of other sub-genres. Take for example the time travel paradox story (an influential early example of which was Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps"), the alternate history story (L. Sprague De Camp, Lest Darkness Fall), military SF (Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers), cyberpunk (William Gibson, Neuromancer) and so forth. Such subgenres serve as prototypes through their survival in the shared consciousness of both pros and fans in the field; not only do they provide a kind of shared vocabulary, they can and do offer the kind of basic structure or mold into which the writer can pour his or her own individual story.
The Propagation of Prototypes
We do not intend here to generalize principles from examination of type specimens. Within the context of the present discussion, these examples are instructive because they show how strongly readers, not to mention writers, editors and critics, can latch onto a prototypical piece and propagate its narrative forms and plot structures for decades. The most obvious example of this is the continuing iterations of post-Tolkein high fantasy which hew very closely to the mold of The Lord of the Rings—
It is probably this more than any kind of conscious decision in favor of a sheltering narrative framework that leads to the imitation of genre conventions. Alice B. Sheldon's early writing attempts were more mainstream and literary, but ultimately she turned to science fiction because she read it and loved it. Imitation is a large part of the craft of genre writing, but as the example of James Tiptree Jr. shows, so is reinvention. Not only are the molds re-used, they are reshaped.
It is a clichéd statement that genre is a conversation, but also very much true—
Both of those examples were published outside genre, but similar convention-bending works abound within the field. Vellum and Ink are an aggressive deconstruction of the traditional narrative forms of fantasy. The Merchant Princes series is science fiction cloaked in fantasy forms. A Song of Ice and Fire wears the trappings of fantasy and has a core fantasy plot, but hung upon a narrative structure borrowing from numerous genres from the complex, multi-layered architectonic novels of the nineteenth century, to historical nonfiction (The Guns of August) and tech thrillers (Red Storm Rising)—
In some of the above cases, these works stand out in substantial part by what they are not. The novels of A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, rely much less on magic than a more traditional fantasy series such as Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth. Martin's dense novels contain more examples of complex political intrigue than wizards and wands. Rather than our world, however, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is an imagined world, making the novel fantasy instead of historical fiction.
What these examples tell us is that within a fairly broad definition of genre, there is quite a bit of freedom to bend the rules and bring in new elements—
- See our IROSF article, "Is Slipstream Just a Fancy Word for Voice?"
- "Where Does Genre Come From?" Strange Horizons, December 3, 2001: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20011203/editorial.shtml.
- See for example Doctorow and Schroeder: 80-81.
- See for example Moriarty.
- See our IROSF article, "Is Slipstream Just a Fancy Word for Voice?"