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Jay Lake
Date: 2008-02-01 16:45
Subject: [writing] About them there genres
Security: Public
Location:Omaha (for a little while longer)
Music:hotel noises
Tags:books, publishing, writing
So I was given this list of genres and sub-genres and asked to identify my short fiction corpus according to the parameters of the list. It was sort of whacky. Which led me to wonder what a relatively accurate list of genres and sub-genres in our field would look like. I fully realize this question is akin to sticking my hand in the blender to learn how sausage is made, but nonetheless, it's Friday night in Omaha and I have an hour or two before crashing out in this here hotel room.

So here's a crack. Hideously incomplete no doubt, but I encourage both serious commentary and a whale of a snarkfest. Not to mention suggested improvements.

(Note this post is being edited on a rolling basis in response to comments.)

Gothic Romance
  • Protogenre — Weiland, Manuscript Found in Saragossa

  • Promethean — Frankenstein

  • Tartarean — Dracula

  • Pre-Tolkien — Worm Ouroboros, Well at the World's End

  • Mid-Century — Gormenghast

  • Tolkein — The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings

  • Neo-Tolkein — Sword of Shannara

  • Post-Tolkein — A Game of Thrones

  • High — Tigana

  • Epic or Quest — The Dragonbone Chair

  • Dark — Pillars of the World

  • Romantic — Princess Bride

  • Humorous — Discworld

  • Urban — The Etched City

  • Literary — A Shadow in Summer

  • Contemporary — The Lovely Bones

  • Weird — Conan, Jirel of Joiry

  • Fetish — Slave Girl of Gor

  • Postapocalyptic — Hiero's Journey

  • Fairy Tale — Wizard of Oz, The Last Unicorn

  • Middle American — Something Wicked This Way Comes

  • Anthropomorphic — Watership Down, Redwall

  • Urban Faerie — War for the Oaks, Moonheart

  • Academic — Fool on the Hill, Tam Lin

Science Fiction
  • Early Modern — From the Earth to the Moon

  • Golden Age — The Skylark of Space

  • Silver Age — Foundation

  • New Wave — Lord of Light

  • First Wave Feminism — The Female Man

  • Humanist — The Left Hand of Darkness

  • Literary — Shadow of the Torturer

  • Cyberpunk — Neuromancer

  • Space Opera — The Mote in God's Eye

  • New [British] Space Opera — The Reality Dysfunction

  • New [American] Space Opera — Honor Harrington

  • New Weird — Perdido Street Station

  • Slipstream — The Physiognomy

  • Time Travel — The Time Traveler's Wife

  • Alternate History — The Guns of the South

  • Contemporary —

  • Outsider — Valis

  • Hard — The Star Dragon

  • Soft — The Martian Chronicles

  • Bio — The Helix and the Sword

  • Linguistic — Native Tongue

  • Epic — Dune

  • Transhumanist — Accelerando

  • Postapocalyptic — A Canticle for Leibowitz

  • Utopian — The Dispossessed, 1984

  • Prescriptive Political — Double Star, The Handmaid's TaleMilitaria — A Hymn Before Battle

  • Gedankenexperiment — The Machine Stops
Post A Comment | 22 Comments | | Flag | Link

Ross E. Lockhart
User: lossrockhart
Date: 2008-02-02 01:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Under the Fantasy heading, might I suggest "Weird fantasy," a subgenre which would not only cover much of Robert E. Howard's Conan tales, but would also include C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories?
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User: tim_pratt
Date: 2008-02-02 02:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey, now -- as a fantasist, I'm unhappy seeing Gor shoved into my over-genre! It's not fetish fantasy, it's fetish science fiction, thanks much -- set on a planet that orbits the sun in a position directly opposite the Earth, or some shit like that. (I had a girlfriend who ate those books up like candied crack.)
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Blue Tyson
User: bluetyson
Date: 2008-02-02 04:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah, BDSM Planetary Romance, if you like.
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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2008-02-02 03:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Soft SF: The Martian Chronicles
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Willis Couvillier
User: will_couvillier
Date: 2008-02-02 03:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A number of my genre definitions are posted on P&E still. I recently began working on Mystery -- now THAT is a pain!
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2008-02-02 04:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd like to suggest a few more categories —

Science Fiction:
* Utopian — The Dispossessed, 1984
* Prescriptive Political — Double Star, The Handmaid's Tale
* Military Hero (I'm quite surprised you didn't have this one) — virtually anything published by Baen... ;-)
* Technospeak — Bolo
* GedankenexperimentThe Machine Stops

* Postapocalyptic — Hiero's Journey

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User: leatherzebra
Date: 2008-02-02 04:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
For Dark Fantasy allow me to suggest Pillars of the World (and the rest of the trilogy) by Anne Bishop. Think the Middle Ages witch hunts, only where witches are the mortal descendants of the fae. Torture, rape, tyranny, hate, death and mutilation are all present and a very important part of the story.

For Romantic Fantasy why not The Princess Bride by William Goldman? If you agree with my husband and want to call it action-fantasy instead then I suggest Beauty by Robin McKinley, which is a lush, romantic retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

Soft Science Fiction? JD Robb's In Death series. The emphasis is heavily on the mystery and the romance, but the setting is in a future world, which adds complications but doesn't dominate it. I've only managed to read one and there were neat weapons, robotic pets, and very interesting black market (where things like meat are rare), etc.
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russ: polska walczy
User: goulo
Date: 2008-02-02 08:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:polska walczy
I am happy to see the Saragossa Manuscript show up in this list! I enjoyed the movie (from the 1960s) a lot a few years ago at Alamo Drafthouse, then unexpectedly found the book in an English language bookstore in Warsaw last year and read it - it seems there is uncertainty about who the original author actually was, but probably he was Polish.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-02-02 10:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Unless recent scholarship shows differently, the author is generally considered to be Jan Count Potocki, a Polish nobleman who served with Napoleon's forces, and wrote the original mss in French, from which it was translated into Polish (by whom I am not sure). The French original was lost, and the book was retranslated back into French from the Polish text. Then half the French original was found in the mid twentieth-century, and the Polish text was again retranslated based on textual analysis of the surviving original.

The history of the book is almost as weird as the book itself.
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Marguerite Croft
User: albionidaho
Date: 2008-02-02 15:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As is the author's history.
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User: djonn
Date: 2008-02-02 10:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have some serious issues with the fantasy subgenre listings, which strike me as wildly incomplete and -- in some places -- severely misleading. Here's an attempt at further subdivision (also incomplete):

Period Fantasy
Neo-Tolkien — Sword of Shannara; The Fionavar Tapestry
Post-Tolkien — Memory, Sorrow & Thorn
Arthurian — Once & Future King; Mists of Avalon
Medieval — Chronicles of the Deryni
Mythic — Grendel; Bridge of Birds
Heroic (Sword & Sorcery) — Conan the Barbarian
Epic — Wheel of Time; Riftwar/Midkemia
Dynastic — Game of Thrones
?? — Arrows of the Queen/Heralds of Valdemar

Based on what Tad Williams himself has said about his Memory, Sorrow & Thorn sequence, it's clearly intended as a response to and commentary on Tolkien, so it belongs in "post-Tolkien"; I classify Game of Thrones as "dynastic", characteristic of that cluster of fantasy cycles concerned with generational and political intrigues among rival kings/families/rulers. (There's arguably overlap between that class and "medieval", but I'd contend that whereas many dynastic fantasies have medieval or quasi-medieval settings, not all medieval fantasies are necessarily dynastic.)

I think most of the other tags are fairly self-explanatory. I'm still thinking about the label for Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" novels, which strike me as the prototype/template for the particular class of fantasy they represent.

There are holes in this taxonomy. There ought to be something under "historical" (as distinguished from "medieval"), and it's eluding me just now. There's a distinct substrata of Elizabethan and Renaissance-flavored fantasy that doesn't necessarily fit into the above categories. Also, Donaldson's Thomas Covenant cycle seems as if it should fit here someplace, but I'm not sure where.

Early Modern Fantasy:
Fairy Tale -- Wizard of Oz; The Last Unicorn
"American" — Something Wicked This Way Comes
Anthropomorphic — Watership Down; Redwall

I don't think you can do a modern taxonomy without acknowledging Bradbury and Beagle as two of the foundational authors, nor can one omit Baum.

Contemporary Fantasy:
Urban Faerie — War for the Oaks; Moonheart
Academic — Fool on the Hill; Tam Lin (Pamela Dean)

I want to think some more about the rest of the tags here. The ground underneath "dark fantasy" is awfully slippery; nowadays, it bleeds over into "paranormal romance", and there's the question of when and how "dark fantasy" split from what we used to call "occult suspense" and where one draws the line between "occult suspense" and horror. And there are vampire novels all over the landscape, with enormous variations in tone, thematic content, and plot dynamic.
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User: hkneale
Date: 2008-02-02 10:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:John Thornton
I'm too tired to be truly snarky and too lazy to really engage in a good intellectual discussion, but if you end up inspiring me to write an article for IROSF, I'll be sure to forget to thank you.


Dark and Romantic Fantasy are relatively new-ish subgenres, so it's understandable if you haven't gotten around to reading anything in them yet. But I am interested in (eventually) hearing what novels you would mention as examples.

And then...

I find it interesting that a significant number of us feel the need to divide SF & F into subgenres. I think this came about because someone came up with a new and fresh idea, executed it quite marvellously, and a few others decide they'd give the formula a crack as well.

I think the fact that we keep coming up with more subgenres is a good indication that someone, somewhere, is cranking out "new and fresh". Who'd a thunk?

Actually, I hate the term "fresh". I see it sometimes in writer's guidelines when an editor requests "a fresh voice" or a "fresh take" or some other lame old cop-out because they can't put down exactly what they're looking for. How many authors do you know are able to judge whether or not their voice is "fresh"?
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User: autopope
Date: 2008-02-02 11:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Broadly good, but picking "The Reality Dysfunction" as representative of the New [British] Space Opera really made me wince; I'd have to point to "Consider Phlebas", "The Player of Games" or "Use of Weapons" by Iain Banks as being much closer to the motherlode, and if you want to drop the [British] you ought to consider "Schismatrix" by Bruce Sterling (from whose cast-offs Al Reynolds mined the first few books of his career).

You might want to add an extra category: "New [American] Space Opera": for which the archetype has to be "On Basilisk Station" by David Weber.

And, optionally, "New [British] Space Opera - Political": either "Chasm City" by Al Reynolds or "Newton's Wake" by Ken MacLeod.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2008-02-02 11:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Since you encourage serious AND snarky comments, you'll get both :))

1. I would seriously recommend Clive Barker's Imajica as a paragon of dark fantasy and not just because I'm reading it now. As for romantic fantasy, I recon Princess Bride is a good idea, Stardust is another one.

2. The Left Hand of Darkness a humanist scifi? Gimme a break, that's more like polit sci-fi, where is Clarke in there? And Hamilton as a prime representative of new British space opera instead of Al Reynolds? Puhlease!

Ahh, feels good :))

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Jess Nevins
User: ratmmjess
Date: 2008-02-02 13:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting choices for Gothic Romance, although I'm not quite sure how you're defining "Promethean" and "Tartarean." But Melmoth the Wanderer's gotta be on that list, somehow--it was the high point and the dernier cri of the Gothic genre, and has nearly every major Gothic trope in it.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2008-02-02 14:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd add Secret History to fantasy, things like Tim Powers' Last Call and Declare.
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Marguerite Croft
User: albionidaho
Date: 2008-02-02 15:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As for "Contemporary SF", might I suggest something by Connie Willis, e.g. Bellwether, Lincoln's Dreams, or Passage.
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User: onefishonly
Date: 2008-02-02 17:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Would Pattern Recognition be "Contemporary SF"? Or even something like Infinite Jest. Heck, where would Infinite Jest fit (even though it's not exactly genre-in-feel)? Literary-Satirical? Which does remind me, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is clearly the standard bearer for Humorous or Satirical SF.
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Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2008-02-02 18:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not sure about this. I love the idea, certainly, because I'm into categories and classifications and other nerdy things, but there is something misleading here. I'm not sure if I can spell it out entirely, but I think what might be more helpful is a collection of tropes. As I think of them, (because I think I got this from you, Jay), tropes are the vocabulary of genre, not the "worn out cliches" some people think of them as, although I admit, if I workshop one more Adam and Eve story I will beat the writer to death with the collected works of Isaac Asimov.
Of course, each of these subgenres would have their own tropes, and I'm sure most tropes will fit under several subgenres, so would that make a subgenre a collection of tropes?
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User: ozarque
Date: 2008-02-04 14:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I guess I'm just not picky enough; I think that's a way cool taxonomy. Now, if you'd like to turn your hand to the proposed taxonomy of tropes.... We could use one of those.
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Passionately decaying organic matter
User: miintikwa
Date: 2008-02-05 20:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Contemporary science fiction: The Android's Dream
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Jonathan Wood
User: thexmedic
Date: 2008-02-06 21:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I was surprised that you listed Etched City as urban fantasy. I always associate de Lint and his ilk with that particular sub-genre. Etched City, I would have thought would fall more into the New Weird subgenre, which was also missing (which also surprised me considering you're featured in the New Weird antho).

Now whether New Weird is a subgenre, or a subsusbgenre of Urban fantasy I leave for others braver than I to debate.
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