Recently, I got hold of a copy of Year’s Best SF 17 from 2012. I’m about halfway through it. Judith Moffett’s The Middle Of Somewhere brought up some old thoughts from the venerable ‘genre wars’ — the eternal debate as to what constitutes a science fiction story, a speculative fiction story, fantasy, mainstream fiction, literary fiction, and… and… and…
Well, writers and readers are always debating about which story counts as what. The ones who aren’t are apt (but not bound) to declare, “ah, screw it. A story is a story, and genre is for marketing types, not writers and readers.”
I have a certain sympathy for the ‘a story is a story’ anti-genre-definition point of view. I’d hate to miss reading a good story because it didn’t fit into the ideas of what genre X should be, and I’d hate to miss writing one for the same reasons.
But why, you ask as you read this, am I telling you all this?
The Middle Of Somewhere is well-written. I enjoyed reading it; my experience of it was an ‘easy read,’ meaning it just sort of pulls you in and you keep reading until the story’s over, at which point you’re startled out of the book by the story’s end wishing there was more. It’s the story of a young technophile connected to social media at the hip growing closer to a mildly technophobic ornithology enthusiast elder whose rural Kentucky home is run over by a tornado.
It’s one of those stories that inhabits the DMZ between genres. I have absolutely no doubt that quite a few readers double-checked the cover to make sure “SF” was on it, because this particular story is not quite science fiction as it is often defined: “a story in which some element of scientific speculation is central to the story.” It’s not that. You can call it speculative fiction, a very broad category in which the qualification is ‘something in the story is different than it is here and now’. The tornado is chalked up to the influence of climate change. The elder character remarks on tornadoes having become more common and more violent. The younger character’s parents are climate change denialists, but she thinks there’s something to climate change, especially after the tornado.
That’s the speculative element, in total. The parts regarding climate change aren’t even central to the story, they’re inconsequential asides without which the story would be as strong and would make as much sense. The story might even be improved by removing those small digressions, without any effect on the plausibility of the story, because Kentucky has had no shortage of tornadoes in the past. The tornado in the story is an F3; Kentucky has had F3s and F4s before.
Obviously, the editors of the anthology didn’t feel that the slenderness of the speculative element was grounds to exclude it — because it was there.
I’m torn, myself. I’m glad it was there because otherwise I might have missed it. But I don’t think it’s a strong example of science fiction and therefore isn’t an example of one of the best science fiction stories of 2012. And I guarantee that there are plenty of science fiction fans who would say that it didn’t belong there, but perhaps belongs in a literary collection, or in a collection of Judith Moffett’s fiction, or in a speculative fiction collection about climate change, which is exactly where this story first appeared.
If I had been among the editors of Year’s Best SF 17, I think I’d have voted against including it. And then I think I’d have started asking, “who can we recommend this story to, so the readers don’t miss it?”
Because regardless of genre, it’s a damn good story.