So there I was, dear hypothetical reader, browsing the wares in a local branch of Popular Music Chain, and I ventured into the basement to look at the DVDs. No, not those kinds of DVDs, mind out of the gutter, please. Anyway, it seems a recent change to the layout of the store has seen a new section added off to one side, hidden at the side of the counter behind the blu-rays. This section is exclusively for Science Fiction films, ostensibly at least. This sort of thing is incredibly common, walk into any branch of Popular Bookshop Chain (and indeed many independents) and you’ll see something similar, Science Fiction and it’s stable mate Fantasy are often deliberately separated from everyday Fiction based on entirely arbitrary distinctions. There has always been this bizarre attitude that scifi, and often only specific kinds at that, is somehow “less worthy” of being considered alongside other works of fiction, that it is somehow a lesser work of creative endeavour. This, folks, is the Science Fiction Ghetto.
The phrase Science Fiction is simply a genre label, and a rather vague one at that. No, really, go and look at the scope it covers, at one end we’ve got the incredibly deep and well though out works of Arthur C. Clarke and company who make a genuine attempt to extrapolate the future of society and at the extreme other we have the kind of bat-shit loco stuff B Movies and pulp fiction concern themselves with, and every possible variation in between. There is little consensus on what the genre represents if you ask me. Anyway, in general genres are, if you ask me, an entirely useless constructs beyond where to place something on a shelf. Yet still, this particular construct is seen as somehow a measure of worth, that some genres are intrinsically worth more than others, despite the more rational way around it is to simply throw your hands up, say “who cares?” and see the worth in any work of fiction is an entirely subjective concept based on personal taste. But the former is far more fascinating to behold if you ask me.
Both the genre and ghettoisation therein of science fiction is very erratically applied if you look at it. Seriously, next time your in a book store look at what gets put where. Some things with “traditional” science fiction elements get classed as just straight fiction, especially if the writer is considered a “great” (Orwell’s 1984 and most of HG Well’s works for instance) and then some works that feature very few are assigned the scifi label for no discernible reason (A current trend seems to be that a lot of horror stuff is being dumped in scifi’s area these days). The assignment seems to be completely arbitrary and one that seems common across a vast majority of fictional mediums.
Much like the rather slapdash way something is described as “classic” (yet another topic I might come back to in the future), the division seems to be some kind of awkward consensus based upon an uninformed opinion formed long ago. My guess would be back in the age of pulp fiction novellas being churned out en-masse, and apart from trashy romance, trashy science fiction was the ones that are remembered today. While I personally find some trashy works of fiction (mostly films) wholly entertaining, obviously the damage was done to the collective consciousness and the vaguely defined genre continues to suffer the blowback to this very day.
Interestingly, the one medium that the ghetto doesn’t particularly exist, at least not in the same way, is video games. SciFi video games exist, certainly, and are often even labeled as such, yet this isn’t seen as quite the same problematic label as in other works of fiction. In fact pretty much the opposite, a large amount of the “masterworks,” so to speak, of video gaming are science fiction. Part of this may be down to the generational difference in the medium’s core demographic, since the kind of people who both produce and talk about gaming tend to be under middle age right now (though not exclusively), and the relative youth of it as a method of expression, video games have been around 40-50 years at the utmost maximum, compare to a century for film and millennia for written word and theatre. But perhaps the biggest reason I can see is the difference in definition of genre. Within gaming, genre tends to more refer to the gameplay style rather than content, like first person shooter and real time strategy. While some ghettoisation of genres do still happen, the fact that format, for lack of a better word, is seen as more of an indication of what a game is like than content is interesting when compared to other mediums.
By snubbing an entire genre based on small reference pools, many are missing out on a substantial element of our culture. Many writers use the futuristic and fantastical worlds as analogies for current day problems, addressing them in manners which would be difficult or even inappropriate to do with contemporary-based fiction. Through speculative tropes, authors can even attempt to predict and pose questions as to our collective future. Both serious and less so examples from the genre also offer very specific kinds of escapism unique to that area, and there are those who’ll never experience it due to misplaced snobbery is rather depressing if you ask me.
Dismissing a piece of fiction simply because of the company it keeps on the hypothetical shelf is, in my opinion, an incredibly stupid decision. Just because some marketing bod at Popular Music Chain decided that the SciFi DVDs are to go Over There doesn’t mean they don’t compare to the others. That’s a deeply subjective opinion you’d have to figure out for yourself. If you’re not usually one for science fiction, or any genre for that matter, but can’t put a finger on why, try picking an example of it up and seeing what your missing. Sometimes the result will surprise you!
Until Next Time, folks
—Champion of subjectivity