Today, June 1 is “What is your favorite literary genre and why?”
Asking a literature teacher about genre is a tricky thing. Each genre has its praises, things in storytelling it does so uniquely from other genres, and its pitfalls, tropes it relies on for structure, that to enjoy most of a genre is all one can ask.
For me, that genre — which I love to read but have the worst trouble trying to write — is science fiction or fantasy. They are often lumped together in book stores, but I find there is a distinct difference, which I recently expounded upon on a Facebook group:
Science fiction is when the technology is integral to the society AND the plot (like if it works or doesn’t the plot actually hinges on those moments). Fantasy is when the plot, for all its fantastical elements, is still basically about a cultural or personal conflict. Space travel does not automatically make something science fiction. If the science however is crucial to the plot then it’s science fiction. Otherwise, it’s just fantasy set in space. Star Trek is about 50% each (look at the A and B plots of each episode). Star Wars on the other hand — entirely fantasy. The Force is a natural occurring power not science-based, midichlorians aside (just to make Anakin comparably a messianic figure). The science and technology — the big cruisers, the planet-killer weapons? These were just elements helping to tell a plot about a cultural war (thinly veiled religious war).
I’ve written in both science fiction and fantasy fiction but always with short pieces. To sustain a novel-length story? I couldn’t, not yet. I marvel at the writers who can do it well. The genres have the unique (there’s that praise) position of being able to hyper-focus an all-too-human issue, give it space (sometimes literally) to be fully explored, debated, challenged, and even sometimes, solved, at least in the paradigm of the fictional world.
Think of the Asimov’s Robots stories or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. N.K. Jemisin is a present-day mistress of the genres and even processes the queer experience within her stories.
For science fiction or fantasy readers, while the issues are hard, the fuller separation from reality and present day possible from a setting in another “world”, makes it possible to not feel as if you are “standing accused” (or conversely “standing by”) when something awful transpires. Giving the reader the point of view of the interloper, the victim, and the change agent/hero is to warmly, comfortably invite in the reader to become a student, looking at a multi-faceted issue without their natural defensive mechanisms to kick in.
Thus, perhaps, science fiction or fantasy can help us see parallels more clearly and advocate for change in our present-day world.
The biggest pitfall in science fiction or fantasy that will often make me want DNF (did not finish) is lack of original world-building. Yes, as a writer you want to parallel a situation or a society so that you can expose its ills. But if it is too clear what real society was the basis for your fictional one, you’re showing your hand too early. The theme will come off ham-handed.
This is easy to tell even in the first few pages because the details will look and sound like the mirrored culture and language too closely. In much of Western writing, authoritarian governments all seem to look like Nazi Germany or sound like the Cold War Soviet Union. All monarchies seem to resemble feudalism. While a student of history will note there are similarities among all monarchies or how rebellions happen, to rely too heavily on one historical country or incident is to shortcut your world-building. Don’t do it. Broaden your world-building and you’ll build a fuller story and invest your readers more as there are more details to relate to.
So, as I said above, I haven’t yet written a full-length science fiction or fantasy novel. My DNF reason is why: I don’t have the time right now to devote to the fullest of world-building. I have ideas, certainly, and even have started some, but until I feel like my world-building is complete, I can’t finish the story. I respect the genre has a lot of power to wield and I won’t do so irresponsibly.
If I do manage the world-building and actually have the time to do it all justice, then I will. And you’ll hear about it. Until then, I generally mine the contemporary world and contemporary relationships for my story conflicts.