Meta-labels and Sub-genres – loving sf/f in all its forms
Go read it, because she says what I wanted to say, only better!
I went through a long phase where I preferred science fiction over fantasy with a bit of self-delusion along the lines that somehow fantasy was “just making any old thing up” while science fiction required an understanding of science! Likewise, I often expounded the notion that hard sci fi was superior to all others because you were constructing your what-if scenarios inside even more demanding parameters. Somehow I was able to express those beliefs at the same time that I would read and re-read any Andre Norton book I could get my hands on because I always loved them. I’m not sure why it took so long for me to recognize the cognitive dissonance between the kinds of stories that moved me most, and the sorts of stories which didn’t but which I claimed were superior.
Some of it is pure stubbornness: you express an opinion at one point, and then you feel obligated to keep justifying your original statement. But when I finally started to recognize this particular contradiction, that didn’t seem a sufficient explanation. Until I had an epiphany.
The epiphany came from an unusual source. I was watching a recording of a question-and-answer session that sex advice columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage was having after giving a talk at a university. A young woman had a question about why guys her age would be friendly and sometimes flirty with her and other woman she knew who weren’t “model thin,” but always distancing themselves before things got beyond friendship. Yet she found older men pursuing her. She feared that the older men were desperate because of some other flaw she hadn’t uncovered, and that younger guys were merely shallow.
Dan pointed out a couple of things. One was that every week since he’d become an advice columnist he received at least a couple of letters from straight guys who confessed that they were really attracted to bigger women, but terrified to admit it because they thought it meant something was wrong with them. In an aside, he said that he got similar messages from some gay guys about their attraction to big guys. He said the thing nearly all the letters had in common was that the letter writer was either in their teens or their twenties. At that age, Dan said, guys are still very focused on winning the approval of other guys. So they are much more concerned with appearing to be interested in the things they think others expect them to be interested in.
His conclusion was that a lot of the guys she thought were sending mixed signals were doing just that. They were genuinely attracted to her, but when they recognized what was happening, they bailed because they thought they weren’t supposed to be attracted to that kind of body. So his advice was to go ahead and take men who did express interest at their word, and if they didn’t otherwise set of alarm bells, there was nothing wrong with dating them. But also, she would find when she got a bit older, that there were plenty of guys who always had found her attractive, they just had to grow up enough to stop worrying about the approval of their friends.
I realized that I had started espousing those opinions about sci fi vs fantasty, and hard sci fi vs so-called soft science sci fi, and very cerebral sci fi vs action/adventure sci fi when I was in my teens, and I hardened those opinions in my early twenties. At the time it seemed that the fans I most admired all held that opinion. And the way that libraries often classified various books seemed to reinforce that. All of the “soft” sci fi and fantasy was filed in the young adult section or the children’s section of libraries that divided things up that way. Only the hard sci fi and certain kinds of action/adventure sci fi was over in the adult sections. Clearly fantasy and so forth was for less mature, and therefore less sophisticated, readers.
“If you’re going to break a rule, break it good and hard. My personal motto!”
—Aliette de Bodard
Especially since science fiction is supposed to be not just exploring limits, but pushing beyond frontiers into the unknown, we shouldn’t look down on things that vary from the familiar. That’s the whole point, right? It’s timid to worry about whether a story is supposed to go this way, or whether we’re supposed to like a particular kind of story, et cetera.
Isn’t science fiction and fantasy supposed to be about boldly going where no one has gone before?