SF Labels and Categories – Useful, or a Waste of Space?

SF fans just love to categorize and pidgeon-hole their fiction, to label it so that it fits neatly into certain little boxes with other fiction of exactly the same kind. I’m referring primarily to all those little categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, and so on, that we invent to identify and promote the various kinds of SF&F that we read.

We’ve got Hard SF, Soft/Social SF, Space Opera, New Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Military SF, Alternate History, Parallel/Alternate Universe SF, Time Travel/Temporal Paradox SF, Superhuman SF, Utopian/Dystopian SF, Apocalyptic SF, Alien Invasion SF, Space Westerns, Anthropological SF, Comic SF, Feminist SF, Scientific Romances, Slipstream, Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Magical Realism, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Mainstream/High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Superhero Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy… the list of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres goes on and on and on endlessly, and there are new ones popping up all the time.

Let’s take the Hard SF sub-genre, for example, which is based on a worldview projected ahead from theories of real, existing science (usually physics, or one of the other hard sciences), creating a future reality that may be possible, with none of the unrealistic, fantastic elements seen in other types of SF. I think that the classic definition of Hard SF was that the writer was allowed ONE element as a “maguffin”, a plot device that doesn’t have to be extrapolated from real science (something like a time machine, or FTL, both of which are, some would say, actually as much fantasy as fairies, elves or vampires, with absolutely no basis in real science), but the rest has to be true extrapolation from currently understood science.

However, in practice, most Hard SF novels contain more than one non-Hard SF element, and the category seems to have been slightly “watered down” in recent years, to allow a few “maguffins” in each story, rather than only one, just as long as the overall science and extrapolation in the story is “real”. There also seems to be a widening trend towards expansion within the modern Hard SF sub-genre itself, a trend which promotes including everything from ultra-hard, to generic SF, with a few Hard SF elements in among the non-hard stuff. There’s even a relatively new sub-genre within Hard SF known as New Space Opera, which fuses the best elements of Hard SF and Space Opera, two sub-genres so far apart on the SF spectrum (pretty much at opposite ends, actually) that classic Hard SF and Space Opera fans of days gone by would never have believed that they could ever mix.

If we were to truly apply the “only one maguffin allowed” rule of classic Hard SF rigidly, many of the great SF stories of the past fifty years or more would really have to be re-classified as generic SF, or some other sub-genre, rather than Hard SF. Even the mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the benchmarks of classic Hard SF cinema, has at least TWO non-Hard SF elements (if not more) – alien visitation in the past by near-godlike beings, who manipulated and altered the man-apes to enable them to survive and evolve into modern humans (more Erich von Daniken than Hard SF), and a stargate to allow FTL travel (pure fantasy according to current scientific theory).

As far as I’m concerned, labels and categories are merely guidelines, useful pointers so that fans of certain sub-types of SF can search out and find the shades of SF that they are most attracted to, from among the huge spectrum of assorted sub-genres. SF fans should never lose sight of the fact that the Real Deal is the story itself, and how good it is. The labelling is only to help them find and classify it, and is quite unimportant outside of that purpose.

But sometimes we can get a little bit too caught up with labels, and unfortunately there are some really obsessive fans out there, a small percentage of the Faithful Adherents in each sub-genre, who tend to go way, way overboard in their compulsion to keep their little corners of the SF meta-genre pure and untainted by anything from “outside”, anything that doesn’t fit their limited and restricted worldview. A symptom of this is their extreme obsession with labels and categories, and excluding anything from those categories that they believe doesn’t belong, even on the flimsiest of rationalizations.

I’ll give an example. I was witness to an online discussion a few months ago (can’t recall exactly where) about SF author Peter Watts and his excellent novel Blindsight. Now Watts is usually categorized as a Hard SF author, and a good one, too. And Blindsight is a pretty good Hard SF novel. But a few so-called fans were slating it for daring to commit a “cardinal sin” – there were vampires in the story. And vampires are Horror, not SF (never mind Hard SF), right? You can’t possibly have vampires in a Hard SF story, right?

This is all totally ignoring the fact that Watts had given his vampires a “scientific rationale” for existing. Sure, not exactly Hard SF, but they certainly weren’t the fantastical, supernatural vampires of horror legend, either. But you’d have thought that Watts had murdered someone, the way these obsessive fans were having a go at him about it. One second they were praising him for writing such an enjoyable novel, and next they were tearing into him for having the temerity to have vampires in a Hard SF novel.

I found myself rolling my eyes in disgust and disbelief at these sad, anal-retentive idiots. I mean come on, Get a Freakin’ Life. WHO CARES? It’s a great novel, and that’s all that matters. And in defense of Blindsight, if we were to consider the vampires as the single, permissible, non-“hard” extrapolated item or plot device, then the rest of the novel could definitely be considered true Hard SF. I certainly consider it Hard SF. Even by the classic Hard SF definition, it still fits the label.

But, to be honest, at the end of the day, I really couldn’t give a hoot what label is stuck on Blindsight or any other book, just as long as the book is good. I don’t really care if Blindsight is labelled as pure, undiluted Hard SF or not, or merely “mostly” Hard SF, or even “Hard SF/Horror”. I really, really don’t give a damn. I just prefer to enjoy it for what it really is, a cracking good read.

So yes, I consider labels and categories to be useful, a good thing, but they are not the be-all and end-all, and are important only as a useful way to locate, indentify and classify certain types of story. That’s all they are for, and they are not important in themselves. And they should never be held so self-important or inflexible that they “lock out” any story from that genre, just because it contains a few things that don’t fit the overall category. If the general essence of a story places it in a certain category, say Hard SF, then it doesn’t matter if there are a few elements in it that aren’t “hard”, just as long as most of them are.