Wednesday, 26 January 2011

We Like Labels

I was very idly following a conversation on Twitter about urban fantasy, and noticed that people were using a variety of labels to classify one particular author. It just got me pondering that we speculative fiction fans do love our labels. And hate them too. I've seen many a discussion saying labels are stupid, we should embrace the fantastic in its entirety. Some people who read SFF live by labels and only read books in a certain classification. It all seems so arbitrary.

Just off the top of my head, I came up with the following list to describe SFF literature:

- urban fantasy

- paranormal romance

- epic fantasy

- high fantasy

- new weird

- noir romance

- space opera

- military science fiction

- historical fantasy

- cyberpunk

- steampunk

- hard science fiction

- dark fantasy

- sword and sorcery

- low fantasy

- dying earth

- rural fantasy

Which have I missed?!

I had a little look around - a very brief look, I grant you - and I could not see another area that loved labels so damn much? Why is this? Because the field of speculative fiction covers so much? Or because we like to create our little tribes? "I like New Weird; I don't read Sword and Sorcery" etc.

Personally, I read speculative fiction. How about you?

Your thoughts would be welcome!


  1. Someone once suggested that "fantasy/science fiction" was not so much a genre anymore as it was a category, not unlike "fiction" and "non-fiction." I can see his reasoning with that.

    I've also heard the idea that if the world is in peril, it's epic fantasy. If the hero is in peril, it's sword and sorcery. I can see the logic in that, too. But I don't agree with it.

    That may have been true back in the day when it was largely down to Tolkien and Howard (and any other authors I missed that someone will undoubtedly remind me of), but fantasy has sort of really grown past then. Every fantasy has distinct elements: romance, mystery, horror, all the sorts of things you would expect to find in their own genre.

    Hell, you can't really expect ANYTHING from a book labeled "fantasy" these days. But we seem to have taken this information and run the wrong way with it, trying to create a label for everything to the point where book labels are longer than book descriptions. Imagine a pitch like this...

    "It's sort of an urban fantasy noir with elements of the epic and S&S genre, but with a stronger leaning toward steampunk and all with a little smidgen of influence from Harrison and Mieville."

    Because I guarantee you it's been used before.

    Read the back of the damn book. Browse the fucking pages.

  2. I find it really difficult to find books in libraries/book shops because of these ever-increasing labels peole seem obsessed with putting on them.

    As a rule I don't like 'high-fantasy' which i associate with aithors like Feist and Gemmell - but i couldn't actually tell you what that meant as a genre.

  3. I don't have a big problem with most SFF sub-genres. But I do think Paranormal Romance is a romance sub-genre. And also that the usurpation of Urban Fantasy by tramp-stamped sluts is a crime.

  4. It's driven by marketing. The observation was made that SF/F buyers are lazy, and tend to look for books that are just like other books they have enjoyed. So the marketing guys try to figure out which books work and encourage publishers to commission other books just like them, to exploit this tendency.

    Subgenres and labels are just a convenient way to work those figures. More subgenres means they can be more precise about what does and doesn't sell, so in the marketing guys' eyes it is a good thing.

    Honestly, a lot of the readers would probably prefer lots of new, interesting things, and I'm damn sure a lot of publishers would prefer the same, but the marketers are actually right. Books that are just like other books succeed. We're businesses, in the end, so we have to listen to them.

    It's all about sneaking the cool ones in among the others and hoping they get picked up by the right people...

  5. The whole label thing annoys me, mainly because it's so effective at making me more/less likely to read a book. Nowadays I'd jump at the chance to read a steampunk or a post apocalyptic novel, but I steer clear of paranormal romance. I think having "fantasy" and "science fiction" are enough of a distinction for spec. fic. readers. I often use the term 'urban fantasy' or 'contemporary fantasy' for novels that blend sci fi and fantasy together. I say down with labels!!

  6. You missed alternative history I think :P

    Speculative fiction is good enough for me. If it is obvious what the author is aiming for I will be more specific but I don't really think such definitions are all that valuable.

  7. New Weird... I'm not even sure what that's supposed to be! I guess I'm a little behind the times. :p

    Personally, I'll read all flavours of SFF, with an emphasis on fantasy, though I do prefer if my paranormal romance has the romance as a subplot rather than the driving force behind the plot. Romance has never really been my thing. It doesn't matter what one calls it, though; so long as the premise is interesting and the story's good, I'll read it!

  8. I always find it interesting how a bunch of different terms emerged from William Gibson's word "Cyberpunk"...Steampunk, Biopunk....ect.

    I wonder if the folk that write the so-called "new weird" (China Meiville, Steph Swainston, Michael Swanwick) ...feel about the label...or do they just think they write fantasy and sci-fi?

    That said, I usually tell people I read fantasy and sci-fi....and I think the only one I mention that doesn't fit in that context is probably Historical Fiction....and I also like thrillers.

    Mostly though I am generic....until I am writing a review, that's when I start to mention sub-genre's...

    ...but you are indeed right...we do like our labels. :D

  9. I never really realized how many labels were under SFF. Personally I prefer just SFF. I don't see the need to separate it into so many different labels. If you are truly a SFF fan, you like all SFF. And just as life has too many issues to count, so do the characters in our novels.

  10. I have to say, I find New Weird a useful term because, unlike the others, it doesn't describe a (sub) genre but rather an intention: to do something interesting beyond the confines of conventional genre Fantasy or Sci-Fi, something that is at the same time both and neither and is all about discarding convention and breaking boundaries.

    (Yep, I'm somewhat of a devotee)

  11. @Alex C
    If you like New Weird, you should try to get hold of "The Tale of the Eternal Champion"-Omnibus editions of Michael Moorcock's work...
    I somewhat like what is called New Weird, but find it neither "New" nor particularly "Weird".

  12. @Weirdmage: Actually, I've read many of those stories already - I'm a huge fan of Michael Moorcock. Jherek Carnelian and Von Bek are probably my favourite incarnations of the Eternal Champion but Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon are a lot of fun as well. I've got a lot of time for the classics but not so much for new Fantasy.

  13. @Alex C
    Von Bek is my absolute favourite.
    I haven't read all the Eternal Champion books, and it looks like the omnibuses are getting hard to get hold of :-/