Should we hide the “science fiction” label?


Science fiction, as a genre, has always had a “no respect” aspect to it… well, maybe not forever, but certainly all the way back to the early 20th century, when it was popularly used to entertain youngsters and fill low-budget preview space before movies.

It’s an odd realization, considering the fact that science fiction has also been a noticeable part of a number of entertainment genres, and has not always been considered an element undeserving of respect or denigrating to the story.  Take The Boys From Brazil, for instance: A thrilling drama that would not exist if not for its SF elements, but which is still considered an excellent story.

The trouble with the SF label may be the fact that it is too broad, encompassing everything from aliens, faster-than-light travel and parallel dimensions to the latest gadget-pen in James Bond’s pocket.  As a result, it has been used as the primary identifier for a number of stories that could have been identified more accurately by labels such as thriller, drama, comedy, mystery… and possibly causing the same confusion that would result if you’d taken stories from each of those genres and labeled them “Western” because someone in the story had worn blue jeans.

This confusion has resulted in some books, motion pictures and television shows avoiding the use of the science fiction label.  There is anecdotal evidence, at least, that using the science fiction label on media has resulted in significant parts of the public reactively avoiding the media without further investigation.  In the same way that much of the public seems to have a dislike of (or outright hostility to) most or all science, they have extended that dislike to science fiction, and shun it out of hand.  Marketers have reacted to this by simply leaving out references to SF in their promotions wherever feasible.

In a few cases, stories that were clearly science fiction, and became best-sellers over time, lost their SF labels somehow, and became known by their major genre… 1984, for instance, evolving from the science fiction label to that of drama.  But more recently, television shows like Lost and movies like The Hunger Games were marketed as drama, with little or no mention of their obvious science fiction elements.  The success of some of these programs has suggested that minimizing the science fiction label might be preferable in order to gain an audience.

Maybe it is time, then, to cease using “science fiction” as a genre type, and use a more descriptive sub-genre to accompany the overarching genre types of drama, comedy, mystery, romance, etc.  Examining the various story types described by SF leads us to a likely series of sub-genre descriptors, such as: Future, describing any story that takes place beyond present day; Space, a story that takes place beyond Earth; Tech, a story that uses fictional technology; and Alternate, a story with a setting that is like ours, but significantly different (the “parallel universe” scenario).  There may be other sub-genre possibilities, but this set would cover most usage.

For instance, a TV program like Eureka would be considered Adventure.  Another example, Battlestar Galactica, would be Drama; Gattaca would be Drama; Mission: Impossible would be Adventure; Spaceballs would be Comedy; etc.  In each of these cases, the media would be recognized as its primary genre for representation to the public, then narrowed down to its sub-genre for additional detailing: Eureka would be considered (Tech) Adventure (the sub-genre, Tech, modifying the main genre, Adventure); Battlestar Galactica, would be (Space) Drama; Gattaca would be (Future) Drama; Mission: Impossible would be (Tech) Adventure; Spaceballs would be (Space) Comedy; etc.

This new labeling convention would further serve to remove much of the separation between what is perceived as science fiction, and everything else, which would help to erode much of the stigma that separation has caused over the years; instead of being that off-the-wall weird stuff over there somewhere, frequented by oddballs and nerds, SF would be a more integrated part of media in general, enjoyed by anybody.

As in so many other things marketing-related, this constitutes a difference that is no difference; the media itself will not change.  But if changing our perception of it makes it more palatable to a larger audience, the effort will have been worth it.


2 thoughts on “Should we hide the “science fiction” label?

  1. Donn

    “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled “Science Fiction” ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

    – Kurt Vonnegut, The New York Times Book Review, 5 September 1965; reprinted in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974)

    Harlan Ellison prefers the term Speculative Fiction, for the same reason’s Vonnegut espoused.

    William Gibson, along with others, invented the subcategory “Cyberpunk”, but Gibson has drawn back his novels future timelines so much that they are now categorized as “contemporary” , but still unmistakably SF (and here speculative fiction really does seem to have a meaning) I think your novel Chasing The Light fits nicely here.

    I remember that you, Steven used to categorize your novels with symbols; a “ray gun” signified “Adventure SF” and something like a “space ship” designated “Hard SF” and so on*.

    As an SF reader, I am ambivalent. I want the authors to succeed and reap well earned rewards, but then I personally don’t really care what they are called. as long as they get written.

    As an author I know your interest is much deeper.

    I do think, that as what was once science fiction, becomes science fact, the compartmentalizing loses meaning.

    After all, fiction is “fiction”. And it is all speculative.


    *I don’t accurately remember the symbols or their meanings now, but I do remember them!


  2. Donn, I think Vonnegut’s quote sums it up nicely: Critics, as well as the public, seem to be predisposed to p!$$ on SF, lumping it all into the same pile as bad comics, pulpy novels, B movies and kids’ TV shows. If that’s the case, then, we might as well abandon the label that’s stuck in so many peoples’ craws and use labels they can understand and accept.

    I remember the icons… I still have them stashed away with the old website designs, but ultimately I thought they were a bit cartoony, so they probably didn’t do me any favors! Still, they were the slightly-less-mature precursor to this discussion. And I’ll probably use them as a guide to re-labeling my old and new books.

    Unfortunately, some book selling sites might not make it as easy to relabel content, so it could be a while before any real progress is made in that area.


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