Monday, 4 April 2011

Speculations on Genre (ha ha)

As I said yesterday, I'm spending this week doing research for a 'common sense test' of my self-publishing plans. Of course, I don't have much more than the current half-hour free today to do anything on this front, which rather prevents me coming up with anything substantial.

So, I thought I'd cover one area I need to sort out in order to do effective research which I haven't really confronted yet, which is figuring out what genre I'm writing in - how am I going to position my books, and what will they therefore be competing with. I have a few different labels to play around with. I like the idea of branding my work as 'conceptual fiction' (that is, fiction whose main interest is investigating some particular concept or other), but I don't think that's a label in widespread use, so there's no guaranteeing anyone would understand what it means.

'Philosophical fiction', another label which is entirely semantically appropriate, is wrong for different reasons; primarily because I'd imagine that when most people think of 'philosophical fiction', they think specifically of Sartre's 'Nausea', or possibly something by Camus. That's a far cry from the sort of novels I'm writing, though my intention in writing it is, I think, similar to the intention by which Sartre wrote 'Nausea'.

Initially, I was considering branding myself a 'hard sci-fi' author, and stressing that the 'hard' part was more philosophical/metaphysical than laboratory-scientific. I'd be aligning myself with the likes of Isaac Asimov (particularly the Robot stories) as against someone like Greg Egan. However, I think 'hard sci-fi' is more closely associated with the Greg Egan end of the spectrum these days; much more novels which you have to understand a lot of physics to get to grips with the story.

Of course, that means it would now be a little bit misleading to call 'I, Robot' hard sci-fi. A more common label, I'd guess, would be 'speculative fiction', which I think is the best label I'm going to be able to come up with. The compass of speculative fiction includes Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Ursula LeGuin (I'm reading 'The Left Hand of Darkness' at the moment, with growing fascination), and while I don't quite have the arrogance to put myself on their level, I think I'm doing, or trying to do, the same sorts of things.

I'll expand a bit what I mean. 'The Death of John Collins', as I've said, grew out of a piece of MA coursework on the nature of time. I started with physicist Itzhak Bars' theory of two-dimensional time and looked at how the linearity (one-dimensionality) of time as we experience it could arise in that context. Then I came up with a story which explored that vision of the world. In the novel, the story comes first, but I tried to systematically realise the logical consequences, from a human as well as a metaphysical standpoint, of this theory of time.

'Bad Romance' is also in a sense speculative - what it speculates on is just how far you can go with pretending to be someone you aren't in public (particularly in the media and online) without actually creating a person. It pushes the classic speculative fiction question of identity and draws much of what is distinctive about its story out of these two areas. Most importantly, while the story (which, again, is king) is a romance, I tried to write a book of speculative fiction whose story is a romance, rather than a romance which speculates on public life; I tried to write in a style which reflects the history of speculative fiction and my history as a reader of it (I've certainly never been an avid reader of romances). I don't think 'Bad Romance' would sit any more easily on a 'romance' bookshelf than on a 'speculative fiction' one.

I've always quite liked the old label sometimes applied to Ayn Rand's novels, the 'novel of ideas'. In a sense, it's a much broader label than those I've considered here, but it's also possibly the most appropriate, partly because it's so broad. Equally, it's clumsy to use in marketing language and a little bit anachronistic, so I think I'll stick with 'speculative fiction' for now.

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