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Is it a Bird or is it a Fish?

So, over at Amazing Stories, there’s a piece titled When Science Fiction is not Science Fiction. It’s a personal view of some examples of books and series generally viewed as science fiction that could easily be considered as something else. It’s got a number of the Baen folks kind of hot and bothered because two of the examples (The Miller and Lee Liaden series, and the Bujold Vorkosigan series) are a) Baen books with a large and arguably devout following; and b) arguably romance. The other main example the author uses is the Wolfe Shadow of the Torturer series, which he regards as fantasy rather than way to buggery far future science fiction.

My view on the fuss and bother is basically “What the farouk?” I mean, really? How long is it since anyone has seen anything that’s pure any genre? Let’s face it, genre serves two main purposes: it’s a way for the marketing people to shelve similar stuff together (the primary purpose), and a way for people to identify members of their bookivore tribe – and this one happened more as an outgrowth of the marketing side. Without it people who liked romance would have found other ways to find other romance buffs, and western lovers would have connected with other western lovers by other means, and so on.

So, when Mister or Miss or Mrs or Miz Marketing Nerd looks at a book to decide where to shelve it, they look at two things. What’s it like, and will it turn people away. There are people who only ever read historical romances. They’d avoid SF romance so hard they’d leave a dust cloud in their wake. But the marketing nerds and nerdlets all know that if it looks remotely SFnal, the SF geeks will swallow it. They might bitch about it if it’s particularly bad SF with the romance or the whatever, but they’ll still read it. Or at least buy it then send it air mail out the nearest window. (How do I know this? I have read some really, really awful SF romance, usually marketed as “paranormal romance” but the only thing paranormal about it was the inverse ability of the author in question).

So when a book, or a series has really strong romance elements and a classic romance plot, along with a good SFnal setting and the usual SF geekery, is it romance? Or is it SF? Does it actually matter? (For my money, the answer is ‘no’. Amazon and other decent online stores have this thing called “tags” where you give it everything that’s relevant and don’t just try to pound the square peg into the round hole. As the actress said to the bishop… but that’s another story). It’s a lot easier to do that than to have the book sit in state alone on the shelf as the sole example of Science Fiction Fantasy Romance with Intelligent Goats. (What? What do you have against intelligent goats? They’re even friendly if you’re careful and bribe them with the right… oh, never mind.) Or Science Fiction Fantasy Western Thriller Romance. Or whatever.

Ultimately what matters is a book that’s good enough to keep enough people reading, with interesting and engaging enough characters that those readers will care what happens next. Who gives a flying farouk what the marketing geeks or the “I want my science fiction HARD, dammit!” geeks or anyone else wants to classify it? Arguably anything with a strong enough romance element is a romance. If you set it in the future and put exploding spaceships on the cover, not only do you make promises about the quality of the romance (did the spaceship explode for you, dear?), you tell the folks that haven’t got past the “Ew. Romance cooties” stage that there’s something in this book they can enjoy.

109 Comments
  1. Eeeh, that’s a tough one, because when you go into other media, say, Horribly bad Sci-Fi channel movies (is there any other kind?) you basically get horror movies with just the barest, homeopathic tincture of science fiction to them. They’re otherwise identical except the monster comes from a lab or space instead of hell.

    The bit about SF and Romance makes me think of an old adage. If you add a cup of wine to a barrel of sewage, you have a barrel of sewage. If you add a cup of sewage to a barrel of wine, you have a barrel of sewage.

    Alas, to some uneducated masses, SF is the sewage in that example – probably because they’ve seen one too many (and one IS too many) bad “SyFy” movies.

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      This would explain why certain folks insist their “masterworks” can’t possibly be science fiction because, look! no space squid! After all, can’t have that icky sci-fi stuff tainting their literary goodness, can we Ms Atwood?

      September 5, 2013
      • If it’s a winged anthropomorphic Godzilla-sized space squid, you’re talking about one of my favorite stories 🙂

        September 5, 2013
        • Kate Paulk #

          There’s nothing wrong with space squid. Or bug-eyed-monsters, for that matter.

          Diversity, right? You need your galaxy populated with everything imaginable and quite a few things that probably shouldn’t have been imagined.

          September 5, 2013
          • Space squid stories are at one with nature.

            Space nature.

            September 5, 2013
      • Look, it’s a space OCTOPUS I wrote about, not a squid. . . .

        (Actually I did. You can read it in Warrior Wisewoman if you’re curious about the difference that an octopus makes 0:)

        September 6, 2013
  2. One wonders what the author of that piece would think of writers like Samuel Delany, George Alec Effinger, and Jo Clayton, who set out to deliberately blur the lines between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

    For my own part, I have given up on the designation Science Fiction, it seems to have ossified about the time Star Wars came out with a set of rules regarding which laws of physics you can safely ignore and which you must follow slavishly.

    I prefer the term Speculative Fiction, when that’s not available I say that I write Contemporary Fantasy. In my experience Fantasy readers are far more open minded about what they will accept than people who self-identify as Science Fiction fans.

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Oh, probably not much, and none of it flattering. I figure I write whatever decides to be written, and the marketing geeks can call it whatever they please so long as they put it where someone can buy it. The money looks the same whether it came from a romance reader, a western reader, a science fiction reader, or even a lit-fic reader.

      September 5, 2013
  3. My initial reaction to the essay was general amusement, for much the same reason. What, this guy can’t read cover blurbs? Then in the comments it became obvious that he’s never actually read Bujold. Oh, and the gratuitous drive-by slap at Card in the second(?) paragraph, makes it pretty obvious what he was really doing. Or, as someone on my FB thread said about this, Academic Trolling!

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      I don’t mind trolling of any flavor, so long as those who engage in it are prepared to take it as well as give it. So far most of them are wimps.

      September 5, 2013
  4. mobiuswolf #

    mmmmh troll soup
    (did the spaceship explode for you, dear?), LMAO
    I was gonna point out the amazon thing.
    The lines always did blur (of course) even among the hard liners. Sensible readers did what Amazon is doing for themselves as the traditional publishers never did have much of a clue.

    and some folks have too much time on their hands and too little sense

    September 5, 2013
    • mobiuswolf #

      I always shop by author.

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        Me too. I find new authors mostly by people I trust telling me I have to read something.

        September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Thank you 🙂 I like it when I make people laugh.
      I’d rather those with too much time and not enough sense were writing inflammatory articles on the Internets than some of the other destructive things they could be doing. Running for Senate, Congress or worse, comes to mind.

      September 5, 2013
  5. Here I thought from the title that you’d be talking about Winnie the Pooh. 😉

    I’ve recently started reading the Liad books, and think there’s a lot of fantasy elements in them (telepathic trees, etc.) And that’s a good thing. 😀

    But if they (or the Miles book, etc.,) are romances, then so are most of the Agatha Christie books, and nearly everything else I enjoy reading.

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Sorry to disappoint you! Winnie the Pooh would have been a much more amiable topic.

      Romance – or the desire to get some that underlies it – is one of the three major drivers of the human species (the “three fs” – food, fighting, and fornication). Hardly surprising it rears its head everywhere.

      September 5, 2013
      • Brian Jacques’ Redwall series is one of the few to focus heavily on two out of three of those, and not have one of them be “fornication.”

        September 5, 2013
        • Kate Paulk #

          It certainly is! I’ve read several of those, and I’d still be reading them if they didn’t all have damn near the same story – so much so that after a few I started getting bored because I knew what was going to happen.

          September 5, 2013
  6. Dan Lane #

    Mr. Cook is working at cross purposes with himself, it seems. At once he’s presenting himself as an authority with a PhD and 35 years of teaching lit. experience, and “only” having an opinion on the internet (and thus we must hate him). He spends the entire article defining what is and what is not sf and then weakly mentions but this is just his personal view. It doesn’t wash.

    The folks at Merriam Webster (and the other dictionaries no doubt) could probably tell him better. The definitions in the dictionary are of the language *as it is currently used.* Not what we as individuals might want it to mean, but what the words mean in general use by everybody. Mr. Cook has tacitly acknowledged he’s on the fringes here.

    Most folk use “science fiction” a bit like “fiction.” It’s a big tent. Lots of stuff can be described as “sci-fi,” but it’s a poor description if you just leave it at that. I agree with Miss Paulk, the Amazon tags are the way to go if you want a thumbnail idea of where the story fits- and what *really* counts is whether or not it is a good story.

    Dismissing Bujold as pulp and pure entertainment is somewhat confusing. This is fiction. Science fiction, specifically. Not an educational text, a field manual, or a scholarly reference screed. Fiction is entertainment first, educational second. The vast majority of people are able to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, and thus buy their fiction to please their own tastes. Thus Mr. Cook’s opinion *is* valid- for himself. He does not get to define what science fiction is for you, or for me. And, also as he as himself admitted, this is the internet- it ain’t like he can reach through the screen and give me a good shake to scramble my brains.

    Being an educator for so long does tend to affect and shape one’s opinions. This is evident in “When Science Fiction is not Science Fiction.” If Mr. Cook wants to change *our* opinions on what is and what is not science fiction, he’s going to need a better argument. Purists are almost always a minority. Human beings, perverse beings that we are, tend towards more heterogeneous tastes. That’s somewhat evident in what sells. *grin*

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Indeed we do. And we mostly like things with fighting and romance, because we can enjoy those vicariously. The other “f” I mentioned upthread (food) is a bit harder to enjoy through a book – although it has a teensy bit to do with how well cookbooks sell.

      I personally would be flattered to be considered pulp and pure entertainment. It would mean I’m doing something right.

      September 5, 2013
      • Dan Lane #

        I dunno, I’ve read some fantastic and sci-fi wherein the glorious repasts described just flat made me *hungry.* It takes a certain knack to do that, though, I think. Describing gnawing on boot-leather hardtack adds a certain… flavor to the story, too. *chuckle*

        Here’s to juicy pulp and pure entertainment, ‘cuz that’s what (most) everyone wants! *grin*

        September 5, 2013
  7. I think he has a twisted view of genre definitions. And he fails to lay out how _he_ defines SF and how the examples he uses fail to fit the category.

    SF is all about setting. Spaceships, time travel, VR adventures. It’s about pushing the edge of current science and seeing what can go wrong.

    Romance is all about the relationship. The setting is of secondary importance.

    Now, any book that has actual human type characters in it is going to have common human interactions in it, and love, sex, and romance is going to happen. It happens in Westerns, Thrillers, Mysteries, Historicals, Christian . . . Okay, maybe not so much in Horror.

    Romance has been in SF from the start. E.E. Doc Smith had his heroes careening all over the galaxy over kidnapped girlfriends. The Stainless Steel Rat fell madly in love with the Bad Girl. And Ivan Vorpatril got married. Deal.

    September 5, 2013
    • Romance has been in SF from the start. E.E. Doc Smith had his heroes careening all over the galaxy over kidnapped girlfriends.

      … and he even had a romance-writer partner with him on The Skylark of Space, because at that point in his career he felt he was weak on handling romantic characterization and dialogue. There are also strong romance themes in every one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels.

      September 5, 2013
      • marycatelli #

        I’ve always thought that the Barsoom series was interesting longer than the Tarzan one because he needed the romance to give structure to his plots. After all, throwing random perils at your hero is not a structure. Tarzan, not being a Girl of The Week sort of guy, lost that structure.

        September 5, 2013
        • Kate Paulk #

          Well, yeah. With Tarzan, once Jane was there and part of the deal, there was no more romantic tension. Just no end of bad and often X rated jokes which I will not repeat here.

          September 5, 2013
        • Some of the Tarzan novels focused on villains kidnapping Jane (never a bright move, neither from what Tarzan would do or what Jane herself might do). Others focused on secondary characters in love. But the Barsoom series (after the first trilogy) was very multi-generational and not averse to introducing new heroes as John Carter’s kin or friends, and they usually got romances of their own, which might result in more kin. Had he kept on writing them as much as he did the Tarzan novels, Carter’s web of descendants would have become quite large.

          September 5, 2013
          • Almost as large as the Barsoomian evolutionary tree. I swear he must have run out of colors long before he was done…

            September 6, 2013
          • marycatelli #

            You can write a story about the hero’s kidnapped wife and thus give it structure. However, the tension is different, and Burroughs only really managed it in the second and third Barsoom book.

            September 6, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        Shows E.E. Doc Smith had the sense to recognize his weaknesses and the humility to ask for help with them. That seems to be somewhat lacking in those who would define SF today.

        September 5, 2013
    • I’ve never been able to “deal” with Ivan getting married. And here I thought I knew Ivan …

      September 5, 2013
      • Given the culture of which he was a part it was going to happen.

        September 5, 2013
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          And it’s a woman that he can “stand” and can “stand” him. The fact that Ivan’s mother likes her was a plus. [Smile]

          September 5, 2013
      • Look, he didn’t really get married. It was just a _ploy_ to get her away from the Bad Guys . . . And it was all Byerly’s fault, anyway . . . And I’d thought Lois couldn’t top the comedic humor of A Civil Campaign . . .

        September 5, 2013
      • (Inserting gratuitous historical song of Caesar’s armies here)

        “Romans, hide your daughters,
        Romans, hide your sons….”

        September 5, 2013
        • Kate Paulk #

          Someone’s been twirling the spear with both hands again?

          September 5, 2013
    • Personally, I’ve felt Science Fiction has always been more of a genre modifier, than a specific genre like most other genres. I mean, it’s broad enough to have detective/mystery science fiction (Asimov), adventure science fiction (Heinlein), romance science fiction (paranormal?), military science fiction (half of Baen), social science fiction (Spinrad), etc… I suppose if all you think of as science fiction is “hard” science fiction, you might be closer, but not by much.

      Seriously, I had a short story recently hit the top 5 on Amazon in Westerns AND Science Fiction Shorts/anthologies at the same time. And you could read it and make an easy argument for either classification. It’s a traditional western. Set in the near future. With some slightly advanced technology. Accurate to the science and the technology. A prequel for an obviously libertarian/political/detective/adventure/military/science fiction series. Obviously, something is wrong there if this guy is right.

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        I’d say he’s right in that there are plenty of books in the SF shelves that could just as easily be shelved in something else. He’s wrong in that this doesn’t mean they’re not SF. It just means they’re using multiple elements and tropes. (must control fingers. Nearly wrote “tripes” there which is vivid but does not give quite the right impression).

        Your success with that story tells me that Amazon’s tagging system is doing something right. You had a story that would appeal to Western fans and to SF fans. Obviously it appealed to both.

        September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Pretty much, yes. Love and romance has been big in just about everything for just about forever. There’s no reason why it can’t happen in an SF setting, or a fantasy, or… Yeah.

      September 5, 2013
    • zyz #

      “I think he has a twisted view of genre definitions”

      I think he is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The genres are simply a filter we use to short-cut weighing whether a book is likely to be entertaining to read, or as some say ‘speak to us’. They are totally arbitrary artifacts of the old publishing / bookselling model. The reality of todays books-for-sale is much richer and refuses to be simply sorted into X or Y mutually exclusive boxes. Still I guess that’s the learning you get with a PhD and 30 years teaching.

      My local bookstore has a shelf labelled “SF /Fantasy” that seems to be a better solution than “How dare you write that book of yours !”.

      September 6, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        I’d agree with you on that. The PhD is all about narrower and narrower classification these days. So is academia generally from what I’ve heard. Meanwhile the real movement is happening with the cross fertilization and the generalists.

        September 6, 2013
  8. There is a line in the Princess Bride — “I don’t think it means what you think it means.” — this fellow seems to have that problem. If he really is a lit teacher, he is falling into the classic trap — looking for “literature” with “meaning”. Obviously, a cracking good story is deficient without layers of symbolism. Codswallop! A good story is a good story, and *those* are the sort I buy,

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Indeed. The only real meaning in literature is the one the reader puts there. Sometimes it’s one the author manages to suggest with clever layering (I bet this guy doesn’t get Pratchett, either), sometimes its something that makes the author look at you funny and go “huh?”.

      That’s the reason the classics are classics – they’re not the critically acclaimed works of their time. They’re the popular entertainment that had something which kept appealing to people long after they stopped being topical. Predicting what, if any, of today’s crop will become classics is a mug’s game.

      September 5, 2013
  9. TXRed #

    My initial thought, upon reading the first two paragraphs, was “What about McCaffrey’s dragons?” Dragons and bards and castles are fantasy. Except . . . there’s a great deal of hard sci-fi hidden behind the telepathy and neo-Medieval setting. And I didn’t even catch the romance aspect in “DragonFlight” until the third or fourth time I read it (I was slow picking up cues when I was a teenager, OK?). What about Norton’s “Witchworld?” You could spend semesters picking just those examples apart.

    September 5, 2013
    • marycatelli #

      Oh, yes. In the first book there are clues enough to tell you that they were colonists. Also, their astronomical knowledge always seemed SFnal to me.

      September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Oh, my first few McCaffrey dragon books were the ones that were relatively non-romance – the musician ones. And I adored the way she hid the SF in the fantasy trappings, even when I started to get a bit tired of all! the! exclamations!

      September 5, 2013
      • Robin Munn #

        I loved the Dragonsinger books as a kid. I still quite like them, along with the Dragonflight trilogy, though I do get a bit tired of Marty Stu Robinton. That’s McCaffrey’s biggest weakness, I’ve found — Mary Sues galore. But the books that focus on Menolly are lots of fun.

        September 5, 2013
  10. IMO “science fiction fantasy” is just one of the axes along which a work of speculative fiction can fall. The other main one is “wonderhorror,” but different degrees of sexuality in the story and the approach to the sexuality (romantic vs. cynical) could also apply. I agree with you that it’s silly to assume that a book can be of one and only one genre, and I think it’s a legacy of marketing to brick-and-shelf bookstores (because in a physical rather than virtual bookstore, of course the book can only be in one place at one time).

    September 5, 2013
    • marycatelli #

      And what do you do when you have a SF novel with wiring diagrams, for which the author solved numerous equations, and then throw in a bona-fide miracle (and they, given their advanced science, can verify its miraclous nature much better than we can?)? Or a ghost?

      Mixing overtly fantastic tropes and hard-as-diamond science tropes is possible, if hard to pull off easily.

      September 5, 2013
      • That might be termed “hard fantasy” or even “science fantasy.” A lot of Turtledove’s fantasy magic works like that, especially in his Darkness series where the magic is basically an alternate technological system.

        September 5, 2013
        • marycatelli #

          I was thinking of a base-SF world with added magic. Throwing the Holy Grail on the starship, if you will.

          September 5, 2013
          • Hmm … what about David Weber’s “Fury” stories? Greek vengeance spirit teams up with space opera military sf heroine to hunt pirates!

            September 5, 2013
          • I’ve been tinkering with a story idea on the line of The Norse Gods are real and Thor comes for a visit (Urban Fantasy, not “superhero”). Only I got into fiddling with the back-story for it and went really far back, as in “The First Three Minutes” back and realized that I was moving from “Urban Fantasy” to “Really Hard Science Fiction” enough so that I actually think my worldbuilding might well be saleable to a certain audience.

            September 5, 2013
            • Sounds like fun!

              September 5, 2013
            • Lucky you. Building plausible mad science is torture for the logic centers of the brain.

              September 6, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      There are probably as many axes as there are ways to describe a book. You’ve also got action vs contemplation (“pulp” vs “literary”), and a ton of others (some of my mental classifications are not fit for impolite society much less the polite kind).

      When you have to put it somewhere it makes sense to put it in the bucket that it’s got the most of. For some reason bookstores are loath to shelve books in two or more locations. It irks me to have to wade through oodles of sparkly vampires to find the latest Pratchett YA. Damn it there should be a Terry Pratchett section! (Yes, I’m joking. Mostly)

      September 5, 2013
      • marycatelli #

        They sell better together. Even all books by an author sell better together.

        September 5, 2013
  11. http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/shimmer-floor-wax/n8625/

    It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping.

    The definitions aren’t exclusionary, but inclusive and it’s entirely possible for something to be both Romance and Science Fiction (Catharine Asaro and Lois McMaster Bujold have both made careers out of that) or Mystery and SF, or Coming of Age Story and SF (Heinlein is the archetype here) or….

    September 5, 2013
    • Stories without subplots are either really short or really boring. It’s the subplots that often jump the rail into other genres.

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        Jump the rail? Some of them broke the rails and ran galloping off into cross-genre heaven – and are much much better for it.

        September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Precisely.

      September 5, 2013
  12. People still read Amazing? I thought that went busto (for the 4th or 5th time) decades ago.

    September 5, 2013
    • It was recently revived as a webzine.

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        And apparently remains “Amazing”, although this is not necessarily a compliment.

        September 5, 2013
  13. My writing is very deliberately cross-genre, and we DO rely on tags to help genre readers find them. And I have to agree with the commenter who said that realistic characters (and I try to write those) will have romance and sex…and eating and sleeping and emotional upsets and digestive upsets and on and on. So let’s all grow up, ditch the juvenile “romance has cooties” idea, and get on with it, shall we?

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Yes! If you’re worried about romance cooties, you’ve got more problems than SF can solve.

      Come to think of it, I’ve already got more problems than SF can solve and I don’t have fears of romance cooties. Never mind.

      September 5, 2013
  14. Eamon #

    I get the feeling the author was taking advantage of the nature of genre classifications and fan bases for, as Cedar Sanderson’s FB acquaintance said, Academic Trolling. I don’t doubt he feels this way, but his argument is crafted is such a way to draw responses, inevitably. And there’s not much meat to it. The fun(ny) part: His “I’m being attacked from all sides for having an opinion on the internet!” bit. Hm. You’re writing opinion on the internet and you didn’t think there’d be people out there with contrasting passionate opinions? I guess he thought couching critique as opinion was a defense. But everybody already knows critique is opinion so he sounds pre-emptively defensive and silly.

    More significant to his core critique regarding valid science fiction, the choices he lists in the comments, and even his reference to Faulkner’s “A Farewell To Arms,” are fairly bleak, dystopian visions of life. I’ve had times in my life where I read this type of fiction, so I’m not panning it as bad. But if that was the only acceptable ‘great lit’ in SF? That’d put me off my breakfast.

    Oh, and…if we need a Faulkner in modern SF to grant us literary validity? Count me in for the pulp.

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      You can write bleak, dystopian visions and still have Human Wave. At least I hope so, because I’ve got a streak of bleak and dark several miles wide. The deal there is accepting that yes, people will inevitably do horrible, evil things and screw things up – but they will also do wonderful, miraculous things. Sometimes the same people. It’s part of being human,

      I wish he hadn’t blocked comments. It’s sad. Too many people write this stuff to be “challenging” or (gag me!) “speak truth to power”, and then refuse to have a conversation. Dude, if you’re going to challenge, you have to back it up. It ain’t a challenge if all you get in response is a chorus of “hear hear” (or even “rhubarbum, rhubarbum”).

      September 5, 2013
      • Dan Lane #

        Of course you can do bleak and dystopian! At least I’m pretty sure you can. Well, as long as your moral current is not *all* chaotic stupid grey goo lacking in any hope or real (not “social”) justice whatsoever. Because if all that’s right out, I can’t get my zombie fix or my post-apocalyptic fix unless I dream it all up myself.

        And, well, great heroes *need* great challenges to face. This is part of what makes them great. Denying them their greatest challenges makes them, and the story smaller. As a wise man once said here recently, we need giants walking the reading landscape once more and not just for the kids I think. Part of why I love sci-fi is that it can show that while Man may seem insignificant measured against the stars and vastness of space, the very fact that we are there makes us mighty, and against such challenges as the future may bring there will always be stories.

        As for pulp, I just wonder if he’s jealous of the fact that it has such wide appeal… *chuckle*

        September 5, 2013
        • Eamon #

          Agreed to you both. I’ve got the bleak and dark in my mind, as well, and I’ve seen some stories that did it justice. But as I’m sure everyone here has seen, there’s some bleak out there that redefines hopelessness. Hope is a human trait and humanity is irredeemable, so give up now. As for dark, you’d have to have some light to see the contrast and it ain’t there.

          I’ve even read some that never let up on the dystopia that were adequately thought provoking (very few, but still). I just don’t buy his vision of worthy SF/F needing to follow those steps, and I much prefer those wherein the characters find the path out.

          As Mr. Lane says, the contrast between the vast universe and our tiny selves can be used to show how great we can be. Gimme more of that.

          September 5, 2013
      • Eamon #

        Oh, yeah, and the ‘challenging,’ ‘truth to power’ but no conversation stuff? Right there with ya. I was left chuckling at the ‘you hate me because I have an opinion’ response. You’re a professor and you’ve never seen a counter-critique??

        September 5, 2013
    • marycatelli #

      The Ivory Tower is just another ghetto.

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        One with nice surroundings and pleasant company – by their standards – and an unbreakable bubble to shield the inmates from that nasty icky “real world”

        September 6, 2013
  15. These sorts of genre arguments are usually the fruit of someone’s being afraid to say “bad”. One notes that the tone of classifying it as “romance” is always dismissive — that a lack of “tension” disqualifies a work from science fiction — but he hasn’t got the gumption to say that they are bad, because he would really be ripped to shreds for that, even though he means it.

    September 5, 2013
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      Part of the “fun and games” of calling a book or story “bad” is that most of the times they really mean is “I didn’t enjoy it”.

      There are plenty of books/stories out there that I didn’t enjoy but other people did enjoy.

      I’ve tried to read Harlequin Romances and dislike them. I have enjoyed some of the Georgette Heyer Romances that I’ve read.

      Still, for Romance, I prefer it to be a sub-plot within the main plot of the story. Of course, this is a Your Mileage May Vary matter.

      Oh, minor bit of humor. Dorothy Sayers was talking with some other mystery writers about the “intrusion” of romance in mystery stories. But one of them had the thought that for the characters it would be the intrusion of the mystery into their romance. So Dorothy Sayers “just had” to interrupt Lord Peter & Harriet’s Honeymoon with a mystery (in _Busman’s Honeymoon_). [Wink]

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        It’s very much a personal preference how much romance someone likes and where they like it (as the actress… oh never mind).

        Part of recognizing that something you don’t like might actually be well written is the humility to recognize that you just might, on very rare occasions, be wrong.

        Even my husband has been known to be wrong, once or twice, and he will assure you that he’s perfect in every way (it doesn’t hurt that I agree with him).

        September 5, 2013
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          Harlan Ellison is my “favorite” example of an author that I don’t like to read but that I acknowledge is a good writer. He does a good job creating his stories but they are stories that I don’t like to read. IE depressing and cynical.

          Oh, I’ve seen but not read/purchased the book that Sarah and Amanda think is really really bad. I’m taking their word for it. [Wink]

          September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      As Paul said, there’s also a difference between “I don’t like it” and “Bad”. There are quite a few legitimately awful books out there (get Sarah or Amanda drunk some time and ask them about the guy with the seriously dangerous genitalia), as well as books that simply don’t hit someone’s buttons.

      Of course, not a lot of people know how to evaluate anything so it’s hardly surprising they think that “I like it” means good and “I don’t like it” means bad.

      September 5, 2013
      • marycatelli #

        Yeah, but the people who classify stuff as Not SF mean that it’s bad, not that they don’t like it. They may have let their dislike blind them to its virtues, but that’s what they mean.

        September 5, 2013
  16. Ben Hartley #

    Someone once observed that to most critics, Science Fiction is whatever he or she decided it was at about age thirteen. Another opined that Science Fiction was what he pointed at while saying “science fiction.” And Mr. Cook is just as entitled to any rational (or irrational) definition he desires.

    Frankly, m’dear, I don’t give a damn. I *like* the Liaden stories, but find Lois Bujold a bore. I’ll spring for a new David Drake, but Burroughs is bloody awful. There.

    I believe it was Heinlein who said that unless one told a good story, readers would stay away in droves. So, writers: tell me a story that grabs my attention. I’m one of the readers — you know, the guy who pays out solid coin for your product. I don’t pretend to know how to write the stuff, and really don’t care how it’s characterized or categorized, prestigious professors be damned.

    Ben Hartley

    September 5, 2013
    • but Burroughs is bloody awful.

      Which “Burroughs?” Edgar Rice or William S?

      September 5, 2013
      • I’d stand up to fight for the honor of either.

        September 5, 2013
        • I disagree with your taste in literature, but I will defend your right to have different tastes than mine.

          Especially since that means more copies for me!

          September 5, 2013
          • My current series of books actually had its genesis in a drunken conversation in which William S and Edger Rice Burroughs were confused–I took the idea of a protagonist like John Carter in the world of Nova Express.

            September 5, 2013
          • Kate Paulk #

            Oh, yes. Besides, it would be bloody boring if everyone had the same tastes.

            September 5, 2013
            • Think what a Haggis shortage there would be…..

              September 7, 2013
              • Kate Paulk #

                I thought wild haggises were protected?

                September 8, 2013
      • Ben Hartley #

        Edgar Rice. Who is William S.?

        September 6, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      And there you have it. The unit of measurement that gets someone to part with their money to buy a book is “a good story” by whatever means that person considers valid.

      “A good story” for most people has the kinds of things that the literati despise, and doesn’t give a damn where it lives in the shelves – although it does prefer to go somewhere that people will pick it up and riffle through its pages and love it and squeeze it and…

      September 5, 2013
  17. peggey #

    So…am I the only one who judges a book’s readability by its first 2 pages?? OOOHHHH!! SHiny thought!! What if all that required reading in school is why kids have such a hard time with writing “genre” per se these days?? *I* was never taught “genre” in school–I was taught “these are good books, well written, with real characters.” And, since we’re taught to be interested in *everything* these days…hmmmm…a concept…

    /goes off to chew on pretty new idea until the flavor wears off/

    September 5, 2013
    • I got taught all that symbolism stuff in school, but I pretty much saw it for what it was — English Lit teachers, and some reviewers/analysts, coming up with make-work. I learned to write by acting in theatre, I think. Because I create my characters the same way I did in a play, and I make a point of trying to make them realistic. Hence the cross-genre stuff, and the romance and real-life stuff. Heck, in my first book I have the two buddies realize what an uninterrupted diet of C-rations/MREs is going to do to bowel function…and follow up in the denoument…

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        Oh, yeah. I remember my 10th grade class – highly intelligent girls aged 14-15 – stunning our English teacher when the silly woman asked us why the author wrote that book, and easily half of us figured the author wrote it for the money.

        I think that class broke that teacher… We broke several other teachers that year, too. Grouping the smartest girls in the grade into a single class of 35 was possibly not the best idea that school had – at least when they failed to assign their best teachers to said class.

        September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      I don’t think you are. My method always used to be pick up the book. Look at the blurb to see if it’s likely to actively turn me off. Open the book and start reading. If I went “meh” and put it back, obviously a no-go. If I emerged sometime later realizing I was late for something, that book never went back on the shelf.

      September 5, 2013
  18. The guilty secret of rough-tough Western readers is that Louis L’Amour wrote romance novels. He just bracketed a love story with gunplay.

    Distinctive character rides into town. He meets a girl with whom he shares attraction. He meets a guy with whom he shares distaste. He is forced into a violent confrontation with a minor bad character. She witnesses this and it alienates her affections. He perseveres and rescues her from the evil plot of that fellow he didn’t like in the first scene. They live happily ever after.

    Significantly, he SOLD and he’d be selling today if he were alive. If Baen editors are smart enough to realize they can sell novels where the gunplay is replaced with rocket ships, more power to them.

    September 5, 2013
    • If Baen editors are smart enough to realize they can sell novels where the gunplay is replaced with rocket ships, more power to them.

      Especially given that a romance theme, or even writing to a formula, does not mean that one cannot tackle serious science-fictional themes. The pulps of the Interwar Era and Golden Age were formula hackwork, and some of them are among the greatest science-fiction stories ever written.

      My blogzine (click on Jordan S. Bassior up top here) is full of them.

      September 5, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        Exactly. Often you only need one outstanding element to make the whole stand out from the crowd. Some of the Golden Age stories are horribly written, but the characters and the story are more than enough to make the stodgy prose fade into the background. (my opinion only. In case you hadn’t guessed, I”m a teensy bit opinionated).

        September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Yep. The rocket ships appeal to the rocket ship lovers, the romance aspects appeal to everyone except that smallish group that cringes back going “Ew! Girl cooties!”, and Baen makes money. What’s not to like?

      September 5, 2013
  19. Robin Munn #

    Shorter version of Paul Cook’s article:

    Credit to Dorothy Grant over at Sarah’s place for giving me the idea.

    September 5, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      Indeed! “Is this a kissing book?”

      September 5, 2013
  20. Synova #

    A Civil Campaign is structurally a romance. Shards of Honor is darn close and I’d count it one as well, but _ACC_ is deliberately structured differently than the others and Bujold deliberately touches all the romance genre buttons in all the right order (sans sex). I read Vorpatril’s Alliance but only once so far so I don’t recall what narrative structure she used for that. The other Vorkosigan books? Not so much. How can a novel be a romance if the hero doesn’t even “get the girl?” (Romance in the sense of Arthur and the Round Table isn’t what we’re talking about here.)

    September 5, 2013
    • Dan Lane #

      Might be romance in the sense of Don Quixote… *grin*

      September 5, 2013
    • marycatelli #

      There is a persistent rumor that Shards started out as Star Trek fanfic about a red-haired Federation officer and a Klingon who were stranded together on this planet.

      September 6, 2013
      • Kate Paulk #

        It could be worse… There is a fanfic of Honor Harrington that was actually submitted to Baen and was very occasionally mentioned in hushed voices choked with laughter. I’m given to understand that those who have a copy treasure it for its very awfulness – and utter genre inappropriateness. Just the words “Honor Bound” are likely to get you an “interesting” reaction on the Bar.

        September 6, 2013
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          Submitted to Baen? I haven’t heard about that. I have heard that the writer sent a copy to David Weber (who was amused).

          September 6, 2013
  21. Clyde Wisham #

    “Or Science Fiction Fantasy Western Thriller Romance.”
    Kate, perhaps you mean something like this?
    http://www.amazon.com/Six-Shot-C-K-Crigger/dp/1592798365/

    September 6, 2013
    • Kate Paulk #

      That’s one example, yes.

      September 6, 2013

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