Genre Schmenre

So, I’m about 200 pages into Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, which is more than 550 pages long, and I’m thinking, didn’t this win some SF award? A quick look reminds me that it was nominated for both the Kitchies (presented annually for works of speculative fiction) and the Clarke Award (best science fiction novel), winning the former.

Serenity ship  Source: CC-BY-SA-2.5.

The plot so far appears to be a bit of an adventure romp, almost an Indiana Jones meets James Bond. The cover alludes to a 1950s doomsday machine. So is this a version of steampunk? Fantasy? A deliberate attempt to subvert genres altogether. Harkaway’s debut book, The Gone Away World, was ostensibly science fiction, but also had fantastical elements to it.

Does it actually matter? The story is picking up and the characters are intriguing. Clearly, it’s not set in our universe, or is it?


Anyway, it’s a day later and I’m now a further 50 pages in (ok, I’m a slow reader!) and there are still no specific science fiction or fantasy elements (although I’m sure they’re to come), but the feel and tone is one of an else that is somewhere. And this got me thinking about genre. I’ve waffled on in the past about how I am firm believer in story is king. Regardless of all other considerations, it is the story (closely followed by the characters – they make us care about the story) that is the most important element of a novel. It should go without saying. I’m not talking about the plot, but the narrative. I can forgive, easily, plot holes or MacGuffins if it moves the story forward. Providing it has internal consistency. However, some people in the wider world suggest other considerations are as important. These factors might include the book’s genre, its level of intelligence, the gender or political persuasion of the author, even where it was published and therefore if it’s eligible for this award or that one. I actually just shuddered.

Anyway, back to Angelmaker. I almost gave up about 80 pages as I didn’t know what the hell I was reading. Now, however, that I’m settled into the plot and Angelmakercharacters and writing style, I’m enjoying it. I wouldn’t say it’s my usual bag. I tend to read a selection of near future, urban fantasy, horror and oh well, check my Goodreads list if you’re interested. Or at least I think I do… The point being, this made me think about genre, and what the hell does it matter anyway? This is a list of genres cobbled together with our friends over at Wikipedia:

  • Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction
  • Biopunk
  • Christian science fiction
  • Cyberpunk
  • Dying Earth science fiction
  • Dystopian
  • Feminist science fiction
  • Gay/lesbian science fiction
  • Hard science fiction
  • Libertarian science fiction
  • Military science fiction
  • Mundane SF
  • Pulp science fiction
  • Science fantasy
  • Social science fiction
  • Soft science fiction
  • Space colonization
  • Space opera
  • Space western
  • Spy-fi
  • Steampunk
  • Superheroes
  • Sword and planet
  • Time travel

[And who the hell would deliberately choose something called mundane science fiction anyway]

And then there are all the related words and genres: speculative, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, comic, fairytale, gothic, sword and sorcery, weird, heroic, folklore, Bangsian, epic, ghost, monster, neo-noir, slipstream, utopian, and many, many more.

And then I thought I’d list twenty five of my favourite books and try to put them in genres:

  Main genre Sub-genres
1984 SF Dystopian future
American Gods Fantasy Mythic
Blood Music SF Hard SF, dystopian
Brave New World SF Dystopian future
Childhood’s End SF Alien contact
Frankenstein Gothic Mad scientist
His Dark Materials Fantasy Mythic, satire
Lonely Werewolf Girl Horror Comic, werewolf
Lord of the Rings Fantasy Epic
Naked Lunch Surreal Weird
Neuromancer SF Cyberpunk
Never Let Me Go SF Dystopian
Neverwhere Fantasy Urban fantasy
Rendezvous with Rama SF Alien contact
Snow Crash SF Cyberpunk
The Chrysalids SF Alien invasion
The Day of the Triffids SF Post-apocalyptic
The Eyre Affair Fantasy Comic, alternative history
The Haunting Of Hill House Horror Ghost
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy SF Comic
The Midwich Cuckoos SF Alien invasion
The Princess Bride Fantasy Comic
The Sparrow SF Alien contact
The Stand Horror Post apocalyptic
Vurt SF Cyberpunk, weird


I want to look a couple of those novels to prove that genre labelling is pointless. Here are some pairs: The Stand and The Day of the Triffids; The Princess Bride and Lonely Werewolf Girl; American Gods and Lord of the Rings; Never Let Me Go and Blood Music; The Eyre Affair and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy; Neverwhere and His Dark Materials. Each book in these pairs is utterly different, with the exception of the labelling someone somewhere has chosen to give them.

Let’s look at one couple in particular: Never Let Me Go and Blood Music.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is, at first glance, a literary tale. It’s certainly written like one. It is an intense character study following the lives of Ruth, Tommy and Kathy, as they develop their perceptions of the world they live in and their relationships from childhood onwards. The tone is quite unsettling, however, as we soon learn that our protagonists are more, or should that be less, than they seem. Ishiguro writes a very bleak dystopia, which reminds me a lot of what life was like in the late 1970s, especially the way the countryside and seaside town in Norfolk are depicted; it feels run-down, unemployed, poor. But I know that presently, this world can’t exist. It has been called pop sci-fi by literary snobs, coming of age and horror, by others. It features the science fiction trope of clones bred for their organs and the dystopic effect that has on society, creating a social divide. It speaks to the reader about life today and what could be.

Blood Music by Greg Bear. Proper science fiction, you might say. Set in the future of tomorrow, it features a biotechnologist called Vergil. He creates simple biological computers based on his own lymphocytes. For plot purposes, they are injected into his body where they reproduce and evolve. Based on the idea of nanotechnology and grey goo, the plot follows the assimilation and destruction of the human species and eventually a non-physical existence. Blood Music feels like a different world with different rules. It has been said that Bear’s favourite theme is ‘reality as a function of observers’ – in this case the new life forms (the observers) destroy our reality.

Both these stories are about our relationship with science, and specifically, biomedical science. However, they are both very different in terms of narrative style, characterisation, plot delivery and tone. They might not even sit in the same section in a bookshop. So what are they? Science fiction? Yes. Dystopia. Yes. Apocalyptic? Hard science fiction? (Whatever the hell that is anyway – is it hard to understand?) Only Blood Music. Coming of age? Only Never Let Me Go. So, in my humble, and non-fact, opinion, they are both simply not real. They cannot occur in the world I know.

When looking through my other favourite books, such as Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Hyperion, early Robert Rankin books, Starship Troopers, Fahrenheit 451, most of Philip K Dicks later novels, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, War of the Worlds, On the Beach, Ammonite, Under the Skin, Spares, House of Leaves, A Madness of Angels, Replay, Let the Right One In, Fight Club, The Prestige, The Radleys, Perdido Street Station, Anno Dracula, Feed, Zoo City and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I realise that there’s not a defined genre that I like, other that the concept of these stories are not real; they cannot exist in the world I know. They are in some imagined future or past, or a re-written world of today. I cannot experience any of the events that are depicted in these books (unless of course, aliens turn up tomorrow, or it turns our vampires are really real). So I propose a new genre: unreal. That should cover pretty much everything.


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