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.

In the Beginning… My Earliest Days on the Internet (Part Two)

When I first joined CompuServe UK, back in Christmas 1995, we were still in that antediluvial period when we had to pay by-the-hour for internet access, and it was a couple of years yet before Compuserve was to introduce monthly flat-rate payments (at the end of 1997), in response to an earlier similar move made by AOL. But, despite this, I quickly became an online junkie, with some pretty big quarterly phone bills to show for it. I learned very quickly (after the first phone bill, which was huge) that it would be very wise to start using an OLR (Off-Line Reader), a fantastic piece of software that automated the connection process with CompuServe, going online, downloading all my forum messages very quickly, and going offline as soon as that was done.

This helped cut my time online (and phone bills) down considerably from what they had been initially. I could now read and respond to all my forum messages offline, without running up huge bills, and all replies would be automatically uploaded and new messages downloaded the next time the OLR connected to CompuServe. I loved my OLR – actually, there were two – first I used NavCIS, then I moved on to OzWin, my favourite OLR, when NavCIS was discontinued. So much so that, even when CompuServe did away with the by-the-hour charges and introduced a monthly flat-rate of £19.99 in late 1997, I continued to use my OLR instead of the normal CompuServe online software (WinCIM), simply because it was a better piece of software, and much nicer to use.

By the end of the 1990’s, the state of the primitive web browsers had improved to a level where I started using them occasionally to venture out into the Web. But CompuServe remained my main base of operations for several years yet. AOL, CompuServe’s biggest rival, bought out the CIS branch of CompuServe in 1998, and CompuServe went into a slow and steady decline thereafter, with many members deserting it for other online enclaves or taking the big step of just booting up their web browsers (Mosaic and the earliest versions of Netscape were the most powerful at that time) and striking out into the web by themselves.

I hung on at CompuServe for a while yet, but, by 2002-2003, I followed the mass exodus out into the internet. By that time, I had another, cheaper ISP, which let me have browser-based internet access, and CompuServe had declined to such an extent that it was a mere shadow of its former self. I no longer saw any need to pay for two internet accounts, so I dropped CompuServe, ending an era which had encompassed my earliest, most happy days online.

Moving out into the wilds of the World Wide Web, I roamed all over the place for a couple of years like a crazy man, absorbing and downloading everything that I could. But once the novelty had worn off, I began to realize that I’d lost something very important, very special, that strong sense of belonging, of being a member of that classic, irreplaceable CompuServe community. In all the years since then, even with the advent of Facebook and other social media, I’ve never quite rediscovered the magical feeling that I felt during my first few years online with CompuServe, and I’ve never come across forums as active, exciting and fun to be a member of.

Those days will always remain my happiest times online, when I was part of that huge, close-knit, vibrant CIS community. I’ve always retained a deep affection for my first online home, and I still go back regularly to the CompuServe forums (what’s left of them) to visit my old buddies in SFLIT. CompuServe Classic, the original service, is now gone, but CompuServe 2000 still exists, and a few of the old forums still survive, and will continue to exist as long as there are enough people still using them to make it worthwhile.

The forums are now, of course, a pathetic shadow of their former glory, and most of the thousands of forums that existed back in the good old days are long gone, disappearing as the original membership left CompuServe in droves. But a few small groups of die-hards in SFLIT, BOOKS AND WRITER’S COMMUNITY and a handful of other forums have refused to give up, and are still fighting the good fight. So those forums continue to keep on keeping on, although the overall number of forums is now a tiny fraction of what once existed. This number continues to shrink ever further as forums fold, one-by-one, due to declining membership and post activity.

SFMEDIA folded into SFLIT quite a while back, and, most recently it was the COMICS & ANIMATION forum which folded into the BOOKS AND WRITER’S COMMUNITY. Those were two of my Top Three forums to hang out in, back in the day, when I used to check in on SFLIT, SFMEDIA and COMICS & ANIMATION daily, downloading hundreds of messages and posting regularly. So it really saddened me a lot to see those two forums disappear.

There are still some good old friends in SFLIT, and it’s always nice to go back for a decent conversation. Some things about CompuServe will never change, even if it has gone downhill, compared to the glory days of the Nineties. But I really, really miss the sheer excitement and fun I had during my earliest days on the classic CompuServe forums. It’s a great pity that we’ll never see the likes of those days again. 😦

In the Beginning… My Earliest Days on the Internet (Part One)

I’ve been online for a long time now, almost twenty years, in fact. My love affair with the internet started when I first came online on Christmas morning, December 1995, and has continued ever since. I can now barely remember what life was like before the internet, and it’s so much part of my daily existence nowadays that I simply couldn’t picture how my life would be without it.

Back in those days, the internet had been up and running for a while, but the World Wide Web was still in its infancy, and only a relatively few people were brave enough to venture out into the “wilds” of the Web, using nothing but one of the primitive web browsers available at the time. Besides, that early on in the Web’s existence, there weren’t really very many good websites out there anyway. So most of the fledgling web denizens tended to hang out in the safe online enclaves provided by the large commercial online services such as AOL, CompuServe and GEnie, which dominated the internet during its first couple of decades. And it was on CompuServe, otherwise known as CIS (CompuServe Information Service) that I was to spend my first few years on the internet.

In the heyday of CompuServe and AOL, every UK household used to get AOL and CompuServe CDs regularly in the mail. They bred like rabbits! I had dozens of them lying around the house, so many that I was never short of beer mats. 🙂 Early on Christmas morning, I unpacked my latest, most anticipated Christmas present, a shiny new US Robotics Sportster 28.8k modem, connected it to the computer, popped a CompuServe CD in the drive, and I was off and running. I was about to enter the online world for the very first time.

I was a huge Doctor Who, Babylon 5 and Star Trek fan at that time (I still am), so the very first thing I did after joining CompuServe was to become a member of the SFMEDIA forum, a busy, bustling community full of nice, friendly sci-fi geeks, who all just happened to love the same kind of television series and films that I did. After living my entire life in almost complete isolation from other sci-fi fans, I was now in geek heaven. I had literally thousands of like-minded geeks to converse with online every single day. I made my first posting in the Babylon 5 section of SFMEDIA at 4.55am on Christmas morning, and never looked back.

As I was also a big fan of written SF, I moved on to join the SFLIT forum a day or two later, and I liked that forum even better than SFMEDIA. Then, after a few weeks finding my feet in the two SF forums, and as I was also a comics fan, I joined the COMICS & ANIMATION forum, then the SCIENCE forum, the SPACE forum, the HISTORY forum, and quite a few others. But it was the SFMEDIA, SFLIT and COMICS & ANIMATION forums which always remained my main hang-outs, my central “base of operations”, so to speak. From 1995, up until about 2002, my entire online existence, both on CompuServe and elsewhere revolved around those three forums.

These were the days before everyone and their dog had their own webpage/website, when anyone who was anybody had a presence on CompuServe. Big companies like IBM, Microsoft, Lotus and Borland had their own communities there, and ran their online business from CompuServe. Many of the big SF authors and fandom figures hung out on SFLIT (Mike Resnick, Ray Feist, Catherine Asaro, David Gerrold, Jeff Carver, Gardner Dozois, Jon Stith, Dave Truesdale and many others come to mind), the likes of Joe Straczynski (yeah, JMS himself) hung out on SFMEDIA, and Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Steve Gerber and many other big comics writers and artists hung out on COMICS & ANIMATION.

Having notable media figures like this all in one place, interacting directly with fans and other members in the forums every single day, made CompuServe an absolutely incredible place to be back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

To Be Continued…