The Short Review

shining the spotlight on short story collections

Genre in fiction 1: Mundane Sci Fi?

As editor of the Short Review, one of my tasks is to assign each collection that we review to one or more categories on the Find Something to Read by Category page. I decided from the outset that books could appear under more than one category heading, because it didn’t seem to make sense to confine them to only one: Horror, say, or Mystery. There are funny gritty stories, quirky horror, magical realist crime stories, anthologies that contain a whole wealth of different types of writing.

Recently this has led me to think about “genre” fiction: what is it and why do we need this distinction? I am new to science fiction – having been a fan of Star Trek as a kid – but reading two books for review, the Logorrhea anthology and Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space, have opened my eyes to what the genre is and what it isn’t. It isn’t necessarily aliens, starships and space wars. It is often highly imaginative, magical and what some would call “literary fiction” (another genre… more on this in a later blog post.)

On this topic, I was delighted to read this in today’s Guardian Books Blog:

OK, I admit it, sci-fi is boring. After endless Star Trek re-runs, innumerable badly scripted Hollywood movies and a thousand video games with pixel-deep narrative, the once wondrous ideas of sci-fi have become yawn-inducing. Fortunately for me, beyond the world of tedious mass media sci-fi, lies the exciting world of literary science fiction or “SF” constantly producing new ideas to satisfy my hunger for wonder. Now a radical sect of SF writers and critics claim that SF needs to abandon all those wondrous ideas, and concentrate instead on the everyday and the mundane. All hail the Mundane Revolution!

This “radical sect” has a blog: Mundane-SF, which has actually been in operation since 2004 (the website it initially pointed readers to seems to have disappeared). The blog is comprised, in great part, of reviews of what it calls “mundane science fiction”, science fiction which, in the words of Guardian blog writer Damien G Walter, eschews

powerful myths like faster-than-light travel and alien civilisations, myths that have been much overused and have no basis in scientific fact … in favour of scientific realities like biotechnology or environmental change.

This is pertinent to the world of the short story because, says Walters,

Where literary fiction has long since abandoned the short form in favor of the fertile intellectual territory of Waterstones 3 for 2 tables, SF has continued to value short fiction as the arena where the genre innovates and evolves.

Readers will now have a chance to judge Mundane Sci Fi for themselves: the latest issue of British sci fi magazine Interzone, due in shops on May 8th, is the first Mundane SF special issue. But the most important point, for me as a reader looking simply for great short stories, is Walters’ summing up of these stories:

The effects of climate change and the potential wonders and horrors of bio-technology loom large, as does the impact of the internet on politics, society and the individual. But very real, very human emotion lies at the heart of these stories, conveyed with a sense of literary style that puts most literary fiction to shame….A wave of technology promises (or perhaps threatens) to effect such enormous change that the next 20 years will make the last 100 look positively sedate in comparison. Mundane SF is the literature exploring how those changes will change our lives, and for all of us living through them it should be essential reading.

The point is – these are not just “science fiction” stories for fans of the “genre” – these are great pieces of writing for anyone who loves short stories. Why should SF fans be the only ones to enjoy them? Step outside your “genre” box, readers, and get stuck in to some great stories. The Fix’s review of the Mundane SF special issue is here.

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2008 by in genre, short stories.
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