Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, And The Literary DMZ

BestSF17

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.

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About Tao23

I write about my science fiction and fantasy writing--and plenty of other things--at sabarton.com

Posted on March 9, 2015, in Review, Science Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed reading this post, and I think you are exactly right. “The Middle of Somewhere” really isn’t SF, and the climate-change element really is just an excuse to tell the story of how Jane and Kaylee relate to one another in a crisis, and change in consequence. It fit well enough into Welcome to the Greenhouse!, but the lack of solid SF underpinnings was more obvious in the Hartwell & Kramer Year’s Best. (H&K are very receptive to mainstream literary values. I figured that was why they chose it; but they do defend the story as SF in their intro, sensing I guess that some defense might be felt to be called for.)

    I’m interested in genre distinctions too btw. My four SF novels all deal with environmental themes in an entirely speculative way. This story, not so much.

    Thanks for the kind words.

    • And thank you so much for stopping by to weigh in! There’s nothing like hearing from the author herself. When I put my opinions out into the world, I always have to overcome a bit of nagging doubt to hit the ‘publish’ button. You’ve certainly laid that feeling to rest in this case.

  2. Your opinion was so smart this time, I expect you’re usually worth listening to!

    Note: I realized when I saw my comment posted that I had spelled Kathryn Cramer’s name wrong. It’s Kathryn with a K and Cramer with a C.

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