Is Genre Defined by Content or Worldview?
Some thoughts on Ted Chiang, science fiction, Star Wars, and philosophies of genre.
This semester I taught a course on different speculative fiction forms from fabulism and horror to surrealism and science fiction. Part of the class was trying to tease out the differences between these genres and styles. What makes a magical realism world different than a high fantasy one? What modes does surrealism employ vs. science fiction? Etc. We weren’t doing this to judge the relative qualities of the genres, but to tease out different modes of writing unreal fiction and thus expand our toolboxes as writers.
Because of this class, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we define genres. Normally we define genres by what we might call contents. I don’t meant this in the icky corporate way that art has become “content.” I mean that we label a story based on the tropes, characters, and settings that appear in the work. If a story has aliens and spaceships, it’s science fiction. If it has vampires and haunted houses, it’s horror. A detective character and a mystery? Detective fiction. A desert setting and gunslingers? A Western. So on and so forth.
This isn’t a bad way to think about genre, of course. But it’s at the very least an incomplete one. Focusing on the surface level content that one might glean from a Wikipedia summary doesn’t tell you anything about the mode or style of a story. And so it leads to people arguing that a story that’s clearly written in one tradition “is actually” something else if it includes an element or two from another. Does a story firmly in a magical realist tradition become science fiction, say, just because there’s a mention of a robot?
A great example of this question came up in my class when we read the incomparable Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. If you read this newsletter, I imagine you already know Ted Chiang. But for those who don’t, he’s one of the greatest and most acclaimed living science fiction writers. (Here’s a New Yorker profile from a few years ago.) He’s published only two story collections, yet those stories are each brilliant gems and have garnered him an armload of Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards.
On of the strange and wondrous things about Chiang’s short stories is that although his work is typically labeled “science fiction,” many of the stories don’t seem like science fiction at all on the surface. Take the first story in Stories of Your Life, one of my personal favorites, “Tower of Babylon.” The story imagines the building of the Tower of Babel and takes the assumption that certain ancient or mythological beliefs—such as that heaven is a physical place that a tower could reach—as true. Several other stories follow a similar alternate reality paths. “Seventy-Two Letters” involves golems and Victorian understandings of science. “Hell Is the Absence of God” takes elements of Christian beliefs as true and imagines the results. To be clear, many of Chiang’s stories are set firmly in worlds with our understanding of science and reality at play. But Chiang employs this alternate reality science fiction many times.
From a surface-level content reading of genre, these stories would be “fantasy.” They all take place in worlds in which reality works in ways we know (or believe we know) it doesn’t. And yet in many ways they feel a lot more like science fiction than they do fantasy in the traditional sense. Why is this? How can stories about magic spells and golems or towers reaching heaven feel like science fiction?
In my class, I ask my students to each present one of our readings, and the student who presented Chiang’s work passed out a handout that included the following interview quote:
I think one of the distinctions between science fiction and horror is that science fiction assumes a mechanistic universe – a universe that is essentially impersonal – and it doesn’t regard that as a bad thing. Because part of the modern scientific worldview is that the universe is mechanistic, and if you think of science as a good thing, then you’re probably okay with that way of understanding the universe.
I feel that horror has a subtext that the universe is either actively malign or antithetical to humanity. There is either some underlying malice, or some fundamental incompatibility between humanity and the broader universe. So a confrontation with the ultimate reality or profound truth is terrible as a result.
This is a really interesting idea to me and I’ve been thinking about it in the months sense. What if we didn’t think about genre as just content, but also a question of the story’s worldview?
In a story like “Tower of Babylon,” the reality of the world is not our reality and yet the worldview of the story is science fictional. Chiang investigates the world as if the alternative science was true and then logically plays through how it would work out. He imagines the physical manpower and tools required to build the tower. There’s a focus on the physics of the world and scientific explanations of events and sights. In short, it reads like “hard science fiction” set in an alternate reality far more than it reads like a book you’d find on the fantasy shelf of a bookstore.
In the author’s note in the back, Ted Chiang refers approvingly to a critic calling the story “Babylonian science fiction” and says: “No deity makes an appearance in the story; everything that happens can be understood in purely mechanistic terms. It's in that sense that—despite the obvious difference in cosmology—the universe in the story resembles our own."
Let’s go back to Chiang’s quote about the difference between horror and science fiction as the worldview of the story. There are lots of films and books that are crossovers between science fiction and horror, but they tend to feel like one or the other based on their worldviews. A movie like Alien, for example, involves aliens and spaceships and all that classic science fiction stuff. But the overall orientation of the movie is horror. This is a malign, dark universe in which the humans are under constant threat.
The story’s worldview is, I think, is a combination of many factors: mood, dialogue, style, etc. When I say Alien has a malign universe I don’t mean that a character says the universe hates humans or anything. I mean that the “vibe” of the film is one of malignancy.
I hope Chiang won’t mind me extending his thought in a purely speculative manner and say that if science fiction imagines a neutral, mechanistic universe and horror a malign one then fantasy posits a benign or heroic one. There are many horrors in works of fantasy of course, but the general worldview is one of order being restored. The dark lord will be killed. The rightful king will retake the throne. The forces of good may be battered, but will survive.
This worldview of fantasy—or at least traditional Western fantasy—is why the genre is often called conservative in contrast with science fiction. Forces of change are typically forces that must be destroyed, while science fiction posits change as if not desirable than at least inevitable. Few science fiction stories end with the new technology being “defeated” and the old order restored. (I would also argue this worldview question is a major part of what separates fantasy of the Tolkien sort from fairy tales and magical realism, but that’s probably a topic for another newsletter.)
When I was in high school, a classic geek debate was “Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy?” (Nowadays it might sadly be “Is Star Wars redeemable from it’s reactionary fan base?” but let’s put all the nasty fights about the new movies aside here.) The argument about Star Wars—the original trilogy—was typically an argument about what I’ve been calling content. “It’s science fiction! It’s got spaceships and androids and aliens!” “No, it’s fantasy! It’s got magic swords and a dark lord!” But I think even if George Lucas went and digitally edited the lightsabers and force powers out of the films, it would still be at it’s core an epic fantasy film. At least in a certain sense.
The template of Star Wars is the hero’s journey and it is a ultimately a fellowship going on a grand adventure to defeat an evil force and restore order. Lord of the Rings in space, perhaps. Certainly the Star Wars films aren’t interested in logically exploring how different technologies would impact humanity, if we consider that the essential science fiction orientation. It is the forces of good fighting the forces of evil and winning. The universe of the original trilogy has horrors and death, but its overall orientation is one of adventure, imagination, and epic struggles that you know will turn out a-ok. It is a benign and heroic universe.
If fantasy has this benign and heroic worldview, then what about the popularity of “grimdark”? Well, grimdark exists exactly because it is an inversion of the classic fantasy worldview. That’s kind of the whole point. (That said, most of what gets called “grimdark” still ultimately settles on a kind of benign and heroic universe. E.g., A Song of Ice and Fire is almost certain to end in a way similar to it’s TV adaptation in which the forces of good ultimately defeat the undead horrors looking to wipe out all life and order of a sort is restored, even if in a “bittersweet” way.)
I think we could tease out story worldviews at different levels if we looked at different subgenres. It might not always be about the universe. Sometimes it is about society or the individual character. For example, I often think about my novel The Body Scout as a “cyberpunk” book—and many critics did too—despite the fact that there’s very little “cyber” in it. Most cyberpunk books are about computers, the internet, and virtual reality. My novel is focused entirely on body modification and gene editing. Yet my book has, I think, a cyberpunk worldview: that somewhat cynical and noirish view that technology may be neutral but society is not. That new technologies are inevitably corrupted by corporations and used by systems of power. If you are someone who thinks that, no, cyberpunk is just about content and tropes then you may think my book isn’t cyberpunk but Ernest Cline’s whimsical corporate IP reference fests like Ready Player One are. To each their own.
Although my class, and this newsletter, focuses on speculative fiction we could probably extend the thought to other non-speculative genres. Romance with it’s HEA framework. Noir with it’s cynical take on modern society. Etc. And I hope it goes without saying that genres can always be combined and reconfigured in infinite ways.
Anyway, these are some idle thoughts about ways we can complicate our understanding of genre. Obviously the settings, characters, tropes, and speculative elements all are a major part of how genre operates. I’m not dismissing them in the least. But the story’s worldview is a useful one too. It adds another shade of complexity to our understanding of genre, and maybe another tool to use when constructing our own stories.
As always, If you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”