Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why Genre?

It's something of a given that science fiction and fantasy are part of life for readers of this blog, but I'd like to hear why - why does this genre attract us? What is it about science fiction, fantasy, or whichever subset of it you read and/or write that draws you?

In my case, the answer goes back a long way. I literally don't remember not being able to read, and at school the stuff deemed "appropriate" for my grade level was so simple and boring I'd be through it in no time flat and looking for something else to read. My school library cards would fill up and get added to - and I'd borrow so many books so often I didn't write the titles on the card - I devised my own flavor of shorthand. I knew what it meant, even if no-one else did.

The other thing that happened was I read in phases. For a while I sought out every "girl and horse" book I could find. Then every mystery. Then every... well, you get the picture. I'd devour the things. I was probably the only kid in any of the schools I attended that was in the school library every day to return the pitiful allowance of books we had (two, I think) and borrow more.

I was towards the end of primary school (grade 5 or 6, I think) and running out of historicals that they'd let me borrow (Yes, I read out libraries. And the community library fared no better than the school one) when I got hooked on Doctor Who. Naturally, since I adored the TV series - Tom Baker was the Doctor then - I was delighted to find novelizations of the episodes in the school and the local library. Then when I'd devoured every Doctor Who novelization I could find, I started looking for other books like that.

Little fizzy neurons went BOOM! I'd discovered a whole new universe that could never be completely explored, never run out of places to go, and where you could do anything so long as you justified it well enough to make the story work.

So... already geeky not-quite-teenage girl with zero social interaction dives into science fiction - and fantasy a little later - with all the finesse of a beached whale. Since I'd been telling myself stories from the start, and they generally weren't quite in the normal world, more writing happened. Reams of it, handwritten on any form of paper I could get my hands on. I was always short of notepaper in school because I was too busy using it to write stories.

Then my parents worked out I was serious, and bought me a second-hand manual typewriter. It was a piece of junk, but it worked. I'm not sure how many ribbons I wore out, but it was a lot. I'd rewind them for second and third runs, until the ink got so faded I had to replace them. I started with hunt and peck, and literally did so much typing that I eventually got to the point of touch typing, even though I've got a lousy technique. No, you don't want to read any of it. It sucked.

I never lost that sense of awe and wonder when it comes to all the places you can take science fiction and fantasy. Vampires and elves? No worries. Immortality? Easy. Where else can you play with ideas like what life would look like if no-one ever died?

I'll admit I've gotten more than a little jaded when it comes to reading - so much of what's on the shelves is a rehash of the same old tropes without much, if any, originality. It's sad, especially when it doesn't take much to make something seem fresh. J. K. Rowling did it by combining two well-worn tropes in a way that's very rarely done. She took the British boarding school mystery and the classic coming of age/defeating the Dark Lord story and put them together - and used the structure of the boarding school story with the trappings of the fantasy story (Caveat here - I'd be prepared to bet that Rowling didn't do this deliberately. More likely she loved both kinds of books and the synergy just happened. Writing works like that). Then there's Pratchett, who's his own class, his own school, and quite possibly his own universe of awesome. And of course, my fellow Mad Geniuses.

If I had to take a guess, I'd say the common factor is that everyone in that list - and the other writers I still enjoy - love what they're doing and (probably most important) aren't afraid to look at their worlds and characters as if no-one had ever heard of genre, then turn around and and flip the genre tropes sideways, backwards, and any other direction that takes their fancy.

So what about you? What keeps you reading science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, or whatever other genres you read? What drives you to write in those genres if you write?

Alternatively, you can tell me I'm a nosy bitch and to sod off - but I'd rather you didn't do that.


MataPam said...

That sound familiar. Reading everything in the school library. Girls and horses, boys and dogs, led to Jack London and adventures and something called "Star Ragers" caught my eye, and Andre Norton became the next addiction. And Heinlein and Verne and Wells, then E.E. Doc Smith . . .
and I never stopped.

I don't remember quite how I started reading mysteries. I never took to Agatha Christie, but Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josophine Tey. And American mysteries. Rex Stout, Micky Spillien, Dashiel Hammet.

Dick Francis was probably the first modern mystery writer I followed.. . . then this trend started showing up. Every book, no matter the author, had to end with a downer, frequently a pointless death. Blech. I still approach British mysteries with caution.

Fanatasies . . . I edged into them with Norton. And Pern, but those weren't really. I didn't read LotR until they somehow became my children's favored bed time stories. I've since read a bunch, but it tends to be because I like the author's non-fantasy books. I overdosed on slush fantasies, silly fluff and all too predictable quests. I tend to avoid the genre ::ahem:: and always have scientific hand waving when I write them myself.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


'reading madly' sounds familiar.

Looking for the sense of wonder moment in books and finding it in fantasy and SF, but that was before I knew there was such a thing as genre.

Anonymous said...

I love fantasy with the passion of an anime fireball (scifi is the less handsome brother to me, but still good for a fling every so often).

In fantasy, anything can happen. As a writer it gives me the godlike power I crave. And I love the frequently-occurring theme of good versus evil.

My love of fantasy dates back to the first days of my life, when my Mum read the Narnia series in hospital. In fact, I'm seeing "Dawn Treader" in a couple of hours. It's only recently that those books have been outclassed in my mind (by Garth Nix's "Sabriel" trilogy, Philip Reeve's "Larklight" trilogy, Sandy Fussell's "Samurai Kids" series, and Pamela Freeman's adult trilogy)

Louise Curtis (who will be reviewing "Dawn Treader" on her blog later today)

Chris L said...

I don't know if I ever 'got into' sf/f, it's just that I was always in it, right from the start.

First book I ever read cover to cover was Enid Blyton's Wishing Chair and my reading pattern just followed on from there. I remember Dad buying the Hobbit for me in an airport and that was the snare the trapped me for life.

The Hitchhiker's Guide and Red Dwarf drew me toward the funny side of sf, and that's what I like to write at the moment.

It amazes me that people bother to read anything else. While I was doing book reviews I bored myself stupid with popular crime/fiction and semi-biographies until the reviews became a bit snappish.

Had to give that up and get back to what I was really interested in or I would have gone completely bonkers.

Chris McMahon said...

I can't understand how people can't love it. The variability in the setting, the ability to weave in new concepts that extend so far beyond where we are - the adventure!

Who doesn't want to be on a heroic quest? Or step out into the bright Martian morning? I think I'm going to cry.

Brendan said...

The first book I remember reading was Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Bringamen. That was in grade three and I was still trying to educate my brain into dealing with a mild case of dyslexia. It took me forever but when I finished I was blown away. Such a small book but it packed such a punch. When X sacrifices himself for Susan and Colin and seeing the sorrow of Cadellin as he faced his brother-knowing he nay have to destroy him; these were unprecedented moments in my reading history.

Then there was The Dark is Rising. I was quite the reader by then but Susan Cooper grabbed me and didn't let go. I remember staying up all night with a stolen box of saladas because I had to finish the book.

Other authors I discovered a special joy with were Andre Norton who got me into SF with Plague Ship, Rosemary Sutcliff, Lewis, Tolkien, John Wyndam(the Crysilids) and Anne McCaffery.

I did eventually branch out into other genres with Agatha Christie, Len Deighton, John Le Carre and others but it was the wonder and the difference that fantasy and SF offered that caught my imagination early and keep me coming back.

Kate said...


I vaguely recall the history binge starting with the Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House" books, although I caught a fair few things that would be considered slipstreamish along the way. I wasn't a discriminating reader - the challenge was to keep me away from books. I'd choose whatever the current phase was, but if there was nothing else around, I'd read just about anything. Even the worst category romance.

I think the very first book I couldn't wade through was Finnegan's Wake.

Kate said...


Absolutely. It wasn't until I worked out that the library had an actual separate section for the kind of books I liked most - and what's more, so did the bookstores that I really went crazy.

I was so disappointed when the local library went back to shelving all the fiction together and you had either a little spaceship or a little dragon sticker on the spine to tell you it was SF or Fantasy. Half the time they got the little stickers wrong anyway.

Brendan said...

Oops, I forgot to go and find the name of X before posting. He was of course the dwarf Durathror, friend of the lios alfar and owner of the feathered cloak that allowed him to float and glide(since he was too heavy to fly)

Kate said...


Excuse me while I turn utterly green with envy. And salivate while I wait to find out whether Dawn Treader is as good as Prince Caspian (which in my opinion was better than The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe). I loved those books as a kid, and the movies are wonderfully true to the spirit of the books. At least so far...

Kate said...

Chris L,

I look at things funny, I guess, because I never connected The Wishing Chair (and The Faraway Tree and the various other Blyton fantasies) with genre. They were books I liked.

Personally, I think one of the big draws of SF and F is the sense of there being more out there.

Kate said...


I admire your persistence in pushing past dyslexia - and what a wonderful and powerful way to hook yourself on books.

In some ways I'm missing something there, because I have no memory of discovering the joys of the written word. It was always there for me, and I read everything. Including the jokes printed on the toilet paper in the spare loo.

There is a reason I do not keep reading material in my bathroom. It has to do with not wishing to meld with the seat because I've spent hours sitting there reading.

Jim McCoy said...

The fact that I am a SF fan is my father's fault. I was started on the original Star Trek series literally before I could walk. I originally got into SF as kind of an offshoot of that, reading things that were similar. I don't remember a lot of the early authors that I read, but eventual I ended up with a copy of Citizen of the Galaxy in my hands and forget about it.

Fantasy happened almost by accident. I had picked up a copy of The Hobbit after seeing the old animated feature and then I read LOTR, but what really got me hooked was when one of my friends saw me reading Tolkien and handed me a copy of Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman and I was introduced to the Dragonlance saga. From there I got into Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, and then the other Weis/Hickman book and the rest is just history.

Dave Freer said...

My mother made me a SF reader (and if you'll give her the the wool, she'll make you one too *) Personally I blame it on the Americans. Firstly, They're good at being blamed, they're used to it and don't go all whiney when 2/3 of the world says everything from the price of yak snot to how the Morbudjians are butchering the Gompistigians in New Arbuthia or the Tsunami deaths in Indonesia, is all their fault, and secondly, because this time it actually really is their fault. Yes, the American military (in WW2) who left behind pulp sf for my Mother (who was serving as Naval Gunner in Simonstown and then Robben Island) to become infected with sf, so I grew up into it, never having to discover it, because it was there.

Kate, I did most of my physical excercise at school at long break, running to the library. You see I was really quick on the uptake and a nasty brat and figured I could read a whole book in 35 minutes. Then short break I would take out my ration, and mark out my victim book for next long break tomorrow.
*only if you believe in Ouija knitting, sadly.

Anonymous said...


Go see "Dawn Treader" if you can (subtle Christmas hints to relatives may help). You'll like it. Sadly, not as good as "Prince Caspian" (which I agree is the best) but it has plenty of awesomeness, and it's great to see Edmund and Lucy a little bit older (and better developed as both characters and actors). My review's up now on my blog.

Louise Curtis

Synova said...

I like genre fiction where the world is "made up" because of the way the world itself can be tailored to the ideas to be explored. Also, if it's not the *real* world, there is no need to explain why it doesn't all go back to being the way it was before.