Edge of the Universe

Ryan Skardal introduces Edge of the Universe, a new column that will run on occasional Fridays.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsJustin Cronin’s The Passage was one of the most popular novels of 2010. In fact, The Passage may well be a tour de force of genre fiction, if for no other reason than it seems to bring so many genres together with its cowboys, vampires, post-apocalyptic society, and even a mystical nun. Yet, The Passage was often marketed, reviewed, and sold as “literary” fiction.

Has the gap between the mainstream and genre fiction been bridged?

Certainly, genre used to be a powerful concept when all the genres were kept separate from the “mainstream,” and from each other. When my father was a kid, he shopped in the science fiction section, but, by the time I was buying books, science fiction and fantasy were already sharing shelves – and even stories, as readers of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun will report. It seems that the walls that separate one genre from another are being torn down, not to mention the walls that separate the “literary mainstream” from “genre fiction.”

Still, regardless of how books are shelved, there does seem to be a movement to keep creating more genres, or subgenres, including “steampunk,” “weird fiction,” and “paranormal romance.” On the other hand, some authors balk at these categories and prefer to place their work beneath the wider umbrella of “speculative fiction.”

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsUnderstandably, many authors, readers, reviewers, and bloggers take the question of genre quite seriously, but I’m more inclined to enjoy the discussion of genre than to want to debate it in detail. When China Miéville was asked how he felt about being labeled “new weird,” he responded that

“If someone comes up with a cool name for a movement and makes a vaguely plausible and more to the point performative, entertaining claim as to why it matters, why it’s a movement, why not? I mean, manifestos are fun.”

It is fun to discuss genre, literary movements, and manifestos – even if I’m not particularly concerned over how one differs from another. For the purposes of this column, let’s agree that there is a literary universe that occasionally overlaps the SFF universe that cannot (and should not) be ignored.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsTwo universes or more, some authors travel between the mainstream and SFF more easily than others do. Unfortunately, our perception of some of these intergalactic authors often fails to keep pace with their versatility. Stephen King, who has won lifetime achievement awards for his work, will probably never win a Pulitzer. Margaret Atwood, who has written several excellent SF novels and who has won the Arthur C. Clarke award, will probably never see those works shelved next to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In fact, we don’t have a page for Margaret Atwood here at Fantasy Literature, and perhaps that’s just as well. Atwood’s career has a well-established place in the “literary fiction” universe, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to read and review her books. Thus, I’m starting a new column called “The Edge of the Universe,” in which I will review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their work. However you want to label them, I hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with me.

Editor’s note: We now have a page for Margaret Atwood.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  1. I agree with you about the blurred lines. I feel lots of books shelved in the scifi/fantasy sections are actually romances with fantasy or paranormal elements.

  2. Sometimes its simply marketing that decides what genre a book belongs in. Great column Ryan. I look forward to seeing some books I recognize but might have never given a second glance to. I’ve got a few to share also.

  3. Thanks so much for thinking of this column! I’ve always wondered why Margaret Atwood’s work was not considered Sci Fi/Fantasy. Clearly The Road by Cormack McCarthy is also another such example. One could even venture to say that Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest also fit nicely in this category. I think this column will introduce us to many diverse reading opportunities. It’s unfair that so many people believe that literary fiction is “better” than genre fiction. This column will prove it is not all as it seems and I can’t wait to see more.

  4. @Susan. Neal Stephenson once argued that romance has become such a ubiquitous part of story telling that it should no longer be considered a genre. However, I am inclined to agree with your point that sometimes we mask our desire for romance with dragons and sword fighting. Perhaps the best illustration of this tendency is in The Princess Bride?

    @Justin. I think you’re right to suggest that marketing and sales play a huge role in genre. The cynical side of me worries that it’s all just “if you can identify a movement, you can create buzz and market it.” However, the fan in me does enjoy talking about books that blur the edges of genres, which I suppose is why I read so many China Mieville books.

  5. @IsabeLeeta. I’m glad that you liked it! I actually have The Road on my list of books to include on the column. As for Atwood, I think she’s quite aware of the conflict between the literary and the speculative. In fact, I think it was in an interview with her that I first heard someone refer to SFF as “speculative fiction.” I hadn’t thought of The Tempest, but you’re right to suggest that it would fit nicely into this column. I’m trying to recall who pointed this out — I think it was Gene Wolfe, but don’t quote me — but he said that the tradition for “fantasy” goes back further than mainstream, or “literary,” fiction.

  6. People were telling stories about monsters and gods since we could paint on walls.

  7. I’m excited about your new column, Ryan. Great name too.

    I think its kinda fun to classify books into genres and then sub-genres. Plus it makes it easier to find that certain book a reader just happens to be in the mood for at any given time.

    I also like authors who switch genres from time to time. It only makes for better story-telling.

  8. Thanks Greg. I think you’re right to point out the benefits of genre and genre hopping.

  9. I look forward to reading the column. Glad to see this topic!

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