Is Science Fiction Genre Fiction?

I’d like to take the next few posts in this column to ruminate on what speculative fiction–specifically science fiction–really is. What is its place in our culture? Who is the core audience for it? How do fans interact with it on an individual and communal level? How is it expanding and changing as our societies expand and change?

Today, I’d like to dig into one of the main criticisms of science fiction: the reason that historically, it has been dismissed and considered an embarrassment for cultured adults to read. Science fiction is often shelved as “genre fiction”, a category which has been seen as derogatory by those who pit it against the more pretentious sounding “literary fiction.” Other examples of genre fiction include westerns, mysteries, romance, fantasy, and horror. A “genre” is defined as a set of tropes that are understood by and accessible to readers of the genre.

It is true that there are certain tropes and ideas that carry through science fiction. Artificial intelligence, alien lifeforms, space travel, superweapons, apocalypse, and time travel are just a few examples. However, they can take a lot of different forms, and spawn a myriad of plots, characters, and outcomes. How Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy treats space travel is wildly different from how Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama treats it. Ray Bradbury’s Mars is not even close to the same world as C.S. Lewis’ Mars.

Does that mean science fiction isn’t a genre? I don’t think so. There are obviously common ideas and predictable themes throughout the body of literature that we can roughly describe as “science fiction.” Does that make every science fiction story necessarily lesser than every “literary fiction” story? Hardly.

You see, we are living in a time where the distinction between “high art” and “popular art” is almost non-existent. Few in the young generation would be afraid to list the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as an important moment in music history, alongside the completion of Beethoven’s “9th symphony.” A graphic novel, like Persepolis, is no less a work of literature than Crime and Punishment. Beauty is beauty, wherever it may be found. Cultural importance is cultural importance. Meaning is meaning.

And there is a great deal of cultural importance to be found in science fiction in this day and age.