None of the common terms for genre are particularly common until science fiction starts to take off in the early 1940s – it sees healthy growth right up until 1960, and then – WHAM – it explodes! Is it a coincidence that this explosion of awareness of “science fiction” as a category coincides with the era in which publishing was consolidating, bookstore franchises were growing, and the value of systematizing the way books were marketed was understood, the approach applied? It’s certainly not a coincidence that it coincides with Donald Wollheim’s masterful application of new printing options to both revitalize old, beloved classics and discover a bevy of amazing new authors while editor for Avon and Ace, and later with his own imprint at DAW.
It’s notable as well that this era saw a huge growth in the big publishers, and the consolidation of the industry into just a few big houses: the industrialization of the industry is what drove the classification, and at the same time it set up standards and definitions that – while they shifted over time – nevertheless restricted what could qualify as “science fiction”, and since the commercial big-business publishing model implicitly involves gatekeepers the result was that now instead of the readers inventing terms to describe and sort what they were reading, the publishers – and the book-stores – were sorting things for them and telling them what was science fiction and what was not.
This is why I am coming to think there is no such thing as science fiction – not really. Oh, there are stories that draw on science – some lightly, just hinting at technologies like a magician hints at mystic powers, some relying heavily on hard-core science and engineering to make the plot even make sense. There is a science fiction out there in the pages, but the term science fiction as we’ve come to understand it is a marketing category, not a literary genre. That’s why when you ask 10 people to define science fiction you get at least 11 answers. That’s why when you come upon old stories from the pulp era and beyond that are clearly scientific your mind sometimes stumbles on the term.
I believe in what Gernsback quaintly termed “extravagant fiction”, I believe in “scientific romances”, and in “the fairy tales of science” – but science fiction?
It exists well enough, but it’s been taken over by box store librarians and the sorting algorithms of a certain online retailer. To be “science fiction” is to meet rules laid down by Campbell’s era regarding technology and rockets and hard, cold facts. But it bears remembering that – unlike other genres – “science fiction” as it is understood today is really defined in negative terms: ie a story is not science fiction if it contains X. There are obviously positive criteria as well, but many of them are common to other genres – the real dividing line is The Guardians of Not. Their demands have possessed the gatekeepers in the publishing industry so that only things that meet these specifications have much chance of getting through as “science fiction” these days.
But maybe the new era has just the right capabilities to reverse the ghettoization trend – if we have the will to apply them. You see, the big mistake is in thinking of genre as a set of boxes in which to file books. This thinking comes from the limited shelf-space of a brick and mortar store and the demands of marketing.
The truth is that we were right the first time around: genres aren’t boxes – they’re tags.
There’s nothing stopping a story from being science fiction, and fantasy, and a gumshoe detective story, and an action adventure story at the same time.Whether you're a sci-fi history buff or just a casual reader, the rest of the article is well worth your time.
There are several important points to mull over here, but one that stands out for me is something that guys like Larry Correia have been saying for years: genres are largely arbitrary categories used to help retailers market books. They're not nearly as good at helping particular books find their audience and vice versa.
My genre-bending SFF novels would definitely benefit from a system that let me apply genre tags to each book, along with the percentages of each genre that a given book contains. Readers would also have an easier time finding books that they want to read under such a system.
Amazon is smart enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see them testing something along these lines someday.