Guest Post: Speculative & Fiction: SF as Two Genres

30 May

Written by Leo Champion

Speculative & Fiction: SF as Two Genres

Sven Hassel writes the worst cozy mysteries. The first of his that I read for review, Wheels of Terror, absolutely failed to meet my expectations of a whodunnit among gentry in vicarage gardens; it contained an absolutely excessive amount of murder and not a single adorable kitten. However, a resolute reviewer, I gave him another chance with The Bloody Road to Death, hoping this second title would contain an adequate number of intrepid old ladies knitting.

I was bitterly disappointed. Hassel’s comfortable caper in rural England at an indeterminate time period was historically inaccurate, being set in Russia during the Battle of Stalingrad, and featured not a single obscure poison. Furthermore, Hassel depicts his amateur sleuths implausibly as ragged soldiers more interested in drinking than solving any of the murders they themselves commit. The Bloody Road to Death is also sorely lacking in depictions of sleepy basset hounds, and its lovably incompetent village constable acts terribly out of character by leading a Gestapo murder squad.

I am unsure whether Mr. Hassel is merely ignorant, or whether he is disrespecting the cozy genre by refusing to follow its conventions, meet its expectations, or deliver the type of story its readers expect. It is almost as though he thinks he is writing something else entirely.

We will now resume a post about speculative fiction, an area where two radically different types of story – written along entirely different criteria, with entirely different objectives, for entirely different reasons, for generally different audiences – are judged by the same criteria.

It’s time to acknowledge that speculative fiction isn’t one genre – it’s two distinct ones, and it has been since its birth in the late 19th century when both Jules Vern and HG Wells were inspired by Mary Shelley. Wells wrote scientifically-grounded speculation, stories about ideas in which his characters were primarily observers. Verne used ideas as a means and a setting for his characters to have adventures.

Wells would have won Hugos and Nebulas. Verne’s fans would have been Sad Puppies.

Every so-often, on the Baen’s Bar forums in the mid-00s, someone would grumble about how their favorite publishing house never got any respect in the awards scene. It was said by conservative-leaning Barflies that there was left-wing bias, maybe even a fannish conspiracy against Jim Baen for publishing Newt Gingrich. Maybe there was some of that, but Lois Bujold’s repeated Hugo Awards are proof it wasn’t all-arching. When a Baen author wrote the kind of Wells-style “literature of ideas” that Worldcon voters favor, the Worldcon voters would happily bestow gold rockets upon them.

The actual reason Baen titles may have gone unrepresented at awards was that the Hugo Awards have always been for Wells idea fiction, not for the Verne-style action stories (SF as the setting, not the subject) whose purpose isn’t social commentary or cultural discourse but raw entertainment. The finest orange at the show isn’t going to place well in the apple contest.

Eventually some of the Verne (or Burroughs, who defined ‘SF as a setting’) fans decided that their entertainment fiction was good entertainment, and deserved award recognition.

The Wells fans were appalled at the low quality of the action- and plot-driven excuses for literature (no subtexts or themes, no greater meaning and no cultural value – it’s almost as though the authors had something completely different in mind) being shoved into their literary awards. Well, yeah. The judges of fine wine contests don’t appreciate it when kegs of beer get nominations.

There is, of course, overlap between Wells and Burroughs fiction. Wells fiction, the literature of ideas, can include breakneck stories built around those concepts. And there’s got to be some speculative element in Burroughs fiction, even if it’s just giving Dirty Harry a storm bolter. Some authors do both really well – they illuminate and they entertain.

I always learn from reading a Neal Stephenson book. He introduces dizzying arrays of interlocking ideas that have changed my perspective on subjects.

I usually learn something about guns from reading a Correia book, but that’s not why I pick him up. It’s because I want a fast-paced adventure story to entertain me. Correia – or Christopher Nuttall, or any of Chris Kennedy’s crew, any more than Burroughs back in the day – does not promise any more than that, but if he’s done his job as he intends there’ll be plenty of the action I’m giving him my money for.

I’m associated with both sides. As a small publisher, I have authors who write beautifully-phrased works of meaning and substance. I also have authors who write exploding spaceships for the sake of pure entertainment. (No, I don’t cross-promote those guys. I haven’t even introduced them to one another. They have nothing in common and wouldn’t get along.)

Both have their merits as themselves… but compared to each others’ standards, they’re abysmal. Some readers prefer one type, some prefer the other, some prefer both, for many of us it depends on the day and the mood. Either way, the best Hugo-worthy foie gras in the world is a one-star disappointment when you ordered, and were expecting, a burger and fries.

Of course the fans of the ideas-driven literary Wells fiction were going to object when ideas-incidental, literarily meritless popcorn books started being pushed for awards.

Of course the fans of the action-driven entertainment-for-its-own-sake Burroughs fiction wanted their books to get recognized as the great entertainment they are.

Until about a decade ago, Wells and Burroughs fiction did uncomfortably share a home – they had the same publishers. The rise of Kindle Direct Publishing (best thing to happen to the book industry since Steve Gutenberg) has allowed indie authors (and small presses like mine) to mushroom, writing and publishing whatever we like.

Burroughs fiction is now overwhelmingly indie – KDP, Kindle Unlimited, $2.99 to $4.99 for a novel that took the author six weeks to write. Wells fiction literati who scoff at this are completely missing the point. Of course it’s terrible by the standards of the Wells fan, it wasn’t written with those standards in mind. It’s never going to win a Hugo and maybe it shouldn’t. Good luck in Atlanta, though!

Wells fiction hasn’t gone anywhere – large houses (and more than a few small new ones dedicated to literary and conceptual work, indie isn’t all Burroughs) have long pipelines of painstakingly-written and carefully-edited masterworks all hoping for a golden rocket.

Some authors write one kind or the other (me, because I live in an expensive city and have this strange obsession with paying the rent, I’m entirely on the pulp side. I’m also fonder of eating than I am of laboring endlessly over breathless prose). Some vary between both. Some people have even managed to successfully write both simultaneously.

But never mistake the idea-driven, literary, Wells-fiction and the entertainment-driven pulpy Burroughs fiction for each other. You’ll be disappointed every time.

11 Responses to “Guest Post: Speculative & Fiction: SF as Two Genres”

  1. Joseph Costa May 30, 2019 at 6:26 pm #

    Hello Leo Champion. I presume you are helping Christopher Nuttal with some of his tasks. It would help if you just introduce yourself and also provide information on how Christopher is fareing these days. Otherwise, who are you and why are you posting under Chrishanger???? Joe Costa I am an avid reader of many of Christopher’s books.

    Sent from my iPhone


    • chrishanger May 30, 2019 at 7:15 pm #

      Leo’s a friend of mine.


      Sent from my iPad

    • Leo Champion May 31, 2019 at 3:50 am #

      Hi Joseph, nice to meet you. I’m an indie author with nine books of my own out, as well as a collaboration (Thunder&Lightning) with Christopher. More of both are on the way!

      I also run a small publishing outfit, Henchman Press.

  2. Dani May 30, 2019 at 10:26 pm #

    The two types of books sound more to me like the distinction between “good good” books “good bad” books than like a distinction between two genres. I write as someone who reads five “good bad” books for every “good good” book. And that’s knowingly; it doesn’t come as a disappointing surprise that “Vampire Sex Kittens with Big Guns” doesn’t have much profound, subtle social commentary. It particularly doesn’t come as a surprise if it’s “Vampire Sex Kittens vol.5” – so I and others are reading these books because they’re fun.

    No, I wouldn’t vote give those books some sort of best-novel award. But that’s not because they’re the wrong type of best novel. There’s a difference between “best novel” and “novel I most enjoyed reading”. (Peter Schickele writes, about music, “If it sounds good, it is good.” That doesn’t quite work for fiction.) Amazon has taken to playing that game: You see ebooks with tags like “#1 best seller in the Pianist-with-Two-Lovers-and-a-Beagle category”.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 30, 2019 at 10:54 pm #

      There’s a difference between “best novel” and “novel I most enjoyed reading”.

      And what are the objective standards that everybody can agree on for the difference? 😉

      Sorry but I don’t believe that there is an objective standard for “Best Novel” as everybody has subjective reasons for saying “this is a Great Novel”.

      Yes, there are books/stories that I’ve disliked but thought were “well written” but even there “well written” is a subjective appraisal not something objective.

      For that matter “well written novel” isn’t necessarily “best novel” as there isn’t IMO objective standards for “Best Novel”.

      Leo is giving two different “genres” for SF but not IMO “making a judgment on what’s best”.

      Mind you, I’d say that there are more than two different “genres” for “Speculative Fiction” but even there it can be a matter of opinion not objective fact.

    • Stuart the Viking May 31, 2019 at 1:23 pm #

      I’d love to see it turned on it’s head. Something with a name like “Vampire Sex Kittens with Big Guns” could have a literary message, it could happen. And would be FREAKIN AWESOME!

      (Though as you might gather with my use of the term “FREAKIN AWESOME!”, I’m pretty solidly in the “entertainment” camp.)

  3. MishaBurnett June 1, 2019 at 1:13 am #

    I think there are more than two genres. I’ve noticed another schism along a somewhat different fracture line.

  4. Andrew Clayborne Jones June 1, 2019 at 4:27 am #

    Seems to me a lot of adventure stories are concerned with different sorts of issues. I’ll agree that stories about duty, courage, and honor aren’t going to get awards, unless they’re part of some other social issue. You’re not going to see awards given out for a story about the need and obligation to confront physical risk. You could write stories about faith in the face of perverse religion, the price of secrecy, the balance between a monumental cause and our conventional ideas of right and wrong, but I don’t think Safehold is going to be in the running.

    No…it’s not about idea books vs. plot books. It’s that certain ideas, mostly the conventional virtues, don’t attract the eye of award givers, and books that illustrate those ideas through plot and action aren’t appealing to them either. It may be simple neophilia, but it does neglect stories about those sorts of ideas.

    • Pyo June 6, 2019 at 11:02 am #

      I’m not convinced.

      Obviously there’s different type of fiction that appeals to different kind of people, and like you can produce an Oscar-bait movie you can write an award-bait novel …

      But if I read Ancillary Justice, as an amateur, I’m impressed. With the prose. And the content. And the setting. I’d have a hard time coming up with any major problems I’d want edited. So I can instinctively understand why this should win an award (I actually don’t know if it did, but I’d be surprised if it hadn’t at least won some).

      Meanwhile if I pick a Honor novel (which to me is still the quintessential Baen novel) I’ll probably kinda like it, but I certainly won’t be impressed by the prose using repetitive phrases (“speak quietly” “said softly”). Later on, the entire plot structure itself gets repetitive. And let’s not talk about pacing and info dumps (for example good old Basilik Station has this “chase scene” at the end which then gets interrupted by a multi-paragraph dump on warp limits).
      And none of these problems have anything to do with the type of novel you write, or the some sort of political agenda. You can write Honor in a different style without changing what it is.

      It’s also perfectly possibly to blur lines. Look at Cas Russel – math-powered super-genius power going around killing goons by the dozens. Also dealing with nuanced character development, ethic discussions, etc. It’s not like you can’t do both.

  5. moderateGuy June 9, 2019 at 11:39 pm #

    Good Lord, I hope the notion does not gain traction. I don’t read books that win awards for the same reason I don’t watch movies that win Oscars, or Cannes awards. They are pretentious nonsense, full of sanctimonious garbage and literary snobbery attempting to mask story-telling incompetence and dearth of imagination.

  6. Stafford1069 June 28, 2019 at 1:42 pm #

    Based on this review – I’ve decided not to expand my genteel-village-murder-mystery library with Sven Hassell’s oeuvre.

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