Some art that made me say, “cool!” and a few tweets led to some bigger thoughts on genre writing – which is a pretty normal thing, small ideas leading to larger ones, if you’ve done some writing or pretty much any art I can think of or serious thinking.
I found Travis Durden’s Star Wars Greek statuary through a tweet I saw a couple of hours ago (on the 27th — this post first appeared on my Patreon page (would you like to support a not-quite-starving writer? Please do! Because every penny helps tear down the budget worries that often occupy my mind when I’d rather be writing) in the wee hours of the 28th) (tweet posted below). Durden’s art is seriously neat stuff.
Which lead to this tweet:
And this one:
And finally this one:
After I graduated from kiddie books so many years ago, I cut my reading teeth on science fiction. I tried reading the paperbacks my father brought home from used bookstores and quickly learned to look for the short story collections and anthologies — I’d recently learned to read, it was hard enough to work through all the words I didn’t recognize without trying to figure out what was going on in a whole novel. But the shorter short stories, in those early years, I could wrap my mind around those. And remember (well, you might not have known, so I’m telling you) this was in the mid-70s, when certainly many authors in science fiction and elsewhere may have been experimental in their writing, but the mainstream in short science fiction stories was heavy with straightforward plots, traditional story arcs, and mysteries resolved with a single final twist. There’s plenty of that now, to be sure. But either there was more then or those are what I remember because they’re the stories I understood as a child.
That’s a long way to go to say that science fiction seemed huge to me, but it did. It seemed huge and very distinct because it was my entire fictional world then. Nursery rhymes and the little stories found in early reader books — if you’ve had or been around small children just learning to read much, you’ll recall them — hardly counted.
And science fiction is distinct, or at least distinctive. The definition has been endlessly debated over, but most of us who read much of it recognize it when we see it. The same goes for the other genres I mentioned in that last tweet. Horror is distinct enough that we notice the difference, for example, when we read a Stephen King horror story as opposed to a Stephen King something else. Legends have a pretty distinct definition. Magical realism blurs the lines — sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s science ficiton, sometimes it’s literary, sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.
That’s the genre that really makes the point, with its blurryness.
They’re all blurry, really. Think of Star Wars: get a SW fan who calls it science fiction and a SW fan who calls it science fantasy in the same room and watch the genre boundary argument fur fly.
We love to dicker over what story counts as which genre and who’s that writer whose work is called X but really it’s more Y don’t you think?
To say they’re all fiction is too simplistic. But there’s that in pointing out that genres are small things that cannot really contain a story, not the large and well-defined things we’re tempted to think of them as, that we often reflexively think of them as after a scholastic lifetime of being taught the boundaries of genre.
They’re all stories. They’re all about human beings and what human beings do and think and feel and wonder. All of them, even the genres where there is debate as to whether or not they’re fiction or nonfiction: mythology, legend, religion.
They’re stronger when they wander, stories are. When we get it into our minds that we can’t write in X event because we’re writing science fiction or that Y character doesn’t make sense because we’re reading fantasy, we weaken the stories that we might otherwise love, whether we’re reading them, writing them, or representing them in other forms of art. For centuries fiction and poetry have derived inspiration and imagery from religion and mythology and legend (assuming you divide stories that faith has grown up around into those rather than lumping them together). Star Wars is beloved science fiction in part because it incorporates elements of fantasy and legend and even, at least in the beginning, of the Western movie.
Try picking out a few of your favorite stories that have won wide acclaim or are considered enduring classics. Give them a read with this in mind, and look for where the genres blur. You don’t need a story that glaringly throws seventeen genres together; one that’s mostly in one but draws in bits of others is just fine — even better, in fact.
Much like the ancient advice that a single stick alone is weak but a bundle of those same sticks is strong together, I think you’ll find that stories that gather together elements of different genres are the strongest.
And I also think that it’s more than worth the effort to seek them out as a reader, and to try to create them as a writer.
In my last post, EAT SCIENCE FICTION (link opens in new tab), I discussed the role of food in fiction, especially science fiction. I focused on the social element of eating meals and the way food and smells of food can evoke memories and feelings in us and in our readers when we include food in our fiction.
There’s another important aspect of food in fiction, too. One that’s very important to the writer. Food is a good element to use to evoke and to flesh out characters and settings. Just as describing the warm kitchen-filling smell of a hot and gooey baked macaroni and cheese can evoke cozy feelings of family and friendship in your readers, it can also be the touch that nails down a character’s nurturing trait (who doesn’t feel cared for with a slab of baked macaroni and cheese set before them?) or makes the scene of a family get-together feel real.
Think about the role that food plays in real life settings. If we travel to Maine, we look for a lobster roll. In New Orleans, you have to try the jambalaya, the beignets, seek out an oyster po’boy. A trip to Chicago calls for a deep dish pizza, or at least a Chicago dog. If you traveled abroad, wouldn’t you seek out the local cuisines? Or maybe you’re someone who craves a reminder of home in a strange land, and in the middle of Beijing you’d seek out a handy McDonalds. Foods are part of places for us, and how we relate to them says something about us as people. Consider that last example, an American in Beijing. The McDonalds seeker might be prone to homesickness, might be timid in the face of the different, or might be stuck on notions of cultural superiority, thinking that an American burger must be better than whatever these different people think is good food.
Your story and dialogue (internal and external) sort out those differences in character traits. Food can be a good way to introduce or emphasize them. Same goes with settings. Maybe your story is set in Chicago. You name the city. Maybe the action touches on the Loop, Lake Michigan and Navy Pier, the river running through the middle of the city, the tall buildings, the traffic, the sprawling suburbs, the harsh consonants of the natives, the snowy winters. Great! All of that says Chicago. Fiction is about details, and the details can make the difference between a good story and a great, engaging story. If your Chesapeake Bay native bemoans the difficulty of finding fresh soft shell crab in Chicago, that can be a valuable detail that makes that character live for the reader. And if you’re writing SciFi, maybe your Earthling character misses cheesy, crusty deep dish pizza on a world full of carnivores. Maybe, like in Niven’s Ringworld books, your carnivores complain a bit about having to microwave their meat to make it blood-warm, instead of consuming it still living. Think of the way that the differences between klingons and Federation humans are outlined by a scene where the humans are offered klingon delicacies. We know they’re different—just look at those foreheads and costumes. But the food really drives the differences home, doesn’t it? As another example, I’m also reminded of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, in which noodles eaten with chopsticks become food shorthand for ‘look at all of the Japanese and Chinese influence going on around this place, huh?’ It’s hardly the only detail that says that, but it’s a good one, and it delivers its message well when it appears. Often, it also says ‘these guys are pretty poor, they end up eating cheap noodles a lot.’ Food is a complex thing; it can deliver multiple messages simultaneously.
I’m not saying there has to be food involved in a story to define your characters and settings; good stories have been written in which food makes no appearance at all, and more of them will appear in the future. I’m just saying, food is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox.
So, after several hundred years of eating whales and/or boiling them down for lamp oil followed by several decades of study, a few human scientists have decided that dolphins and whales are basically…
…well, basically people. Self-aware sentient beings. With whom we have no idea how to communicate effectively. And, here and there, we’re still eating.
It’s a hell of a first contact story, isn’t it? If ever someone was in need of a magic Star Trek translator, it’s us. Makes you think about how quick and easy it might be to communicate with any aliens we might run into in the future, if in fact we run into any at all.
It might be better for the aliens if they’re not there. They might be too delicious to talk to.