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When a thing is not a thing


Over at Amazing Stories, Paul Cook decided to poke the anthill with a post titled When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction. He says a number of rather silly things about science fiction that isn’t really science fiction, but the silliest is this bit right here:

Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on. Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas.

So… Lois writes stories which appear to be military science fiction, but they are really secretly romance novels, although they used to be better-than-average military science fiction, with secret romance elements, which include deceitfully eloquent prose, and ICKY GIRL STUFF, just like Alexander Dumas (who is known for writing girl stuff).

There, did you follow all that?

Genre policing is my least favorite type of artistic criticism, especially when gender essentialism gets involved. Arguments about whether something is really science fiction (or whatever) are at best pointless, at worst downright offensive. Cook strays heavily into offensive territory here, with his petulance and misogyny and weird paranoia. Oh, poor baby, did somebody trick you into reading about human relationships by promising you exciting space battles instead? My, how you’ve suffered!

Tell me — is Star Wars really science fiction? By what measure? The science? Because there isn’t any. It’s science fiction because it’s set in space. That’s pretty much it. Also? The Empire Strikes Back is basically a romantic comedy, WITH SPACE BATTLES. Which is pretty awesome, sure, but it hardly makes the case that smooching and exciting space battles somehow don’t belong together.

Or maybe you think Star Wars is one of those things that isn’t really science fiction, because there’s no science in it. What about Star Trek? Is that science-y enough for you? Even though teleporters and warp drives don’t exist, and probably can’t exist? When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Mars, was that science fiction? Well, there’s no science to it — the more we study Mars, the more certain we become that it does NOT have a vigorous and diverse ecosystem including human-like life forms. He was just making stuff up. How about alternate history novels? Are those science fiction? Well, where’s the science to them? What about time travel stories, are those science fiction? Really? Do you seriously think back-and-forth time travel is scientifically plausible?

The point I’m getting at, is that almost any well-known science fiction story or trope could be said to be not really science fiction, by somebody who felt like making that claim. And the bulk of SF fandom is still not going to care. Star Wars fandom is not going to disappear from the halls of Norwescon just because a few pedantic nerds wail to the heavens that it’s really science fantasy, or whatever. The science fictional aspects of the most recent Star Trek movie were atrocious, even by Star Trek standards, but the point isn’t that it’s not really science fiction. The problem is that it’s not any good.

Regarding works of Lois, I might even know, sort of, a bit, what Mr. Cook is talking about — earlier books in the Vorkosigan saga were more likely to be swashbuckling military-ish space adventures, while later books more often have plots driven by romance or intrigue. But it’s still romance and intrigue set in a high-tech spacefaring culture, or rather, several different cultures which often clash in interesting ways. You might not like them as much as the earlier books, but it’s not because romance in space is inherently less science fictional than military battles in space. It’s just a different kind of story — set in space. Is that good enough for Star Wars? Why isn’t it good enough for the Vorkosigan books?

What I suspect — especially because of the unfortunate gender essentialism in the quote above — is that Mr. Cook is simply not thinking his own prejudices through. Space battles get an automatic pass as science fiction because, you know, they’re space battles. That’s what his inner fourteen-year-old boy wants to read about. Space romance, though? That’s automatically not really science fiction. Why not? Because romance is a less scientifically accurate proposition than laser cannons? I very much doubt it. No, it’s because his inner fourteen-year-old boy doesn’t want to read about that stuff.

Genre policing is one of those insidious gatekeeping activities, like fandom policing, that simply cannot end well, and if you catch yourself doing it, you need to sit down and engage in some deep soul searching. Why do you presume yourself to be the authority here? Why do you think the rest of us will cede that authority? Why do you expect your arrogance to go unremarked? Who died and made you keeper of the flame?

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