An Archaeology of Genres

It’s easy to forget how much our history shapes our culture. It leaves layers behind for us to uncover and understand, like a sort of cultural archaeology.

A few weeks ago, I heard a talk by A J Dalton on sub-genres in fantasy. He discussed how each one came from a historical context. Tolkien and conservative mid-20th-century Britain. The experimental sf+f of the 1970s. The conservative values running through 1980s epic fantasy. Right up to our culturally and morally fragmented present.

These sub-genres didn’t pass away with the eras that shaped them. They’re still here, part of the ground on which more recent styles build. Heroic fantasy leads to epic fantasy leads to grimdark, with other twists and turns along the way.

There’s a similar thing in computer programming. A friend told me that part of his job is exploring the old code hidden away in programs. If a piece of software or a database keeps being used, it will accumulate old code. Things that made sense once but might not now. Past best practice. Throwbacks to a simpler era, or one that needed odd workarounds.

I saw it myself while working in process improvement. Ways of working continued for decades. Some were good, some were bad, but to really understand any of them you had to understand where they came from.

Of course, I find the genre example most interesting. I mean come on, applying historical thinking to fantasy? That’s so much my bag I could fill it with shopping and carry it home. Understanding it will give me a deeper insight into the novels I read. I’ll be thinking about the eras that shaped them, the patterns they were part of, how their sub-genres sit in time as well as in style. Because to me, understanding what I’m reading can only enrich the experience.

If it also interests you, check out A J Dalton’s The Sub-Genres of Fantasy Literature, which covers much of the same ground as his talk.