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.

Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie


When I wrote my post about history and horror, I hadn’t yet read V. H. Leslie’s unsettling Bodies of Water. But this book is a great example of how history and horror can collide to great effect.

Two Lives, One Story

Bodies of Water is the story of two women, Evelyn and Kirsten. They live in the same building but in different eras. For the Victorian Evelyn, Wakewater House is a hospital using water to treat women’s ailments. For 21st century Kirsten, it’s a new home, a near-empty building of converted flats in which damp is a constant problem.

Both women are struggling with the harsh events that life has thrown at them. Both become intrigued by the waters lapping at their lives. And both face strange and disturbing events.

The Specifics and Strangeness of History

I was drawn to this book after hearing the author talk about it at Fantasycon. She’d researched the way women were treated by doctors and the police in Victorian England, uncovering some fascinating and deeply troubling practices. It’s an issue that the book explores, an unfamiliar area of history that draws attention to the creeping, socially authorised nature of much abuse. Setting this alongside a modern story helps to draw attention to the dark, strange, and yet somehow too familiar elements of both settings.

The history accentuates the horror, while the horror brings out important themes in the history. Like much of the best historical writing, by implication it also says something about the modern world. The juxtaposition of parallel narratives makes that implication clearer.

A Book for a Specific Audience

This book isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It combines history, horror, and feminism to explore all three. Leslie’s understated approach means that it lacks the immediate intensity off some writers in all three fields. Like a spreading damp, it eases toward its potentially destructive conclusion. If you’re looking for something that’s thoughtfully, almost gently unsettling, and if you’re interested to see these genres intersect, then It’s well worth reading.

If nothing else, it’s a good lesson in combining genres.

Crime and Fantasy

Edge-Lit_LOGOIn fiction, fantasy opens up a world of endless possibilities, while crime narratives constrain story into a specific structure.

That was the main insight I gained from the crime and fantasy panel at Edge-Lit this year. As someone who doesn’t generally write crime, I hadn’t thought to compare the two genres before. This point particularly grabbed my attention. Like any generality, I’m sure there are ways in which it’s untrue, but there’s also a lot of truth to it. And it shows how different genres, when brought together, can create interesting contrasts as well as bringing different strengths to the mix.

Maybe there’ll be more crime in my fantasy in future. I certainly like to write with constraints.

High Fantasy, High Art – an Edge-Lit Panel

Judging the book by its author, I expect to be very entertained by this.
Judging the book by its author, I expect great things.

What happens when fantasy fiction and literary fiction meet?

I recently went to Edge-Lit, an annual fantasy, science fiction and horror convention in Derby. It was an excellent event, with interesting panels including….

High Fantasy, High Art: Is Fantasy Fiction Growing More Literary?

Even after attending just a few sf+f conventions, I’ve realised that the subjects of panels get repetitive. Certain issues remain relevant, people want to talk about them, and that’s fine. It means that for a regular con attendee, what makes a good panel isn’t the subject so much as the panelists.

This panel had great panelists. Marc Turner was the perfect chair, asking interesting and relevant questions and getting everyone involved, rather than using his position to keep voicing his own views. The other panelists – Cherry Potts, Edward Cox, Peter Newman and Jen Williams – were all charming and insightful. Newman was particularly excellent, meaning that his book The Vagrant went straight onto my to-read list. Everyone was entertaining and worth listening to – not always the case when writers talk.

So what were my take aways from this?

Attitudes Towards Genre

The panelists generally approached literary fiction from the same angle I do – discussing its flaws while recognising that everything is somebody’s cup of tea. As Peter Newman said, we’re all cheerleading from our own corner, supporting the literature that struck a chord with us early in life. I think that’s very valuable in understanding our own attitudes to fiction, and our limitations. Those early experiences can create attachments that close our minds to alternatives. That’s not always bad, as we find things we love, but it’s worth being aware of.

There was much discussion of the tendency for literary fiction, at its most extreme, to leave out entertainment in favour of literary style. Jen Williams said that, as  a former bookseller, she found that “the interesting stuff goes upstairs, in genre”.

It’s a reminder that geeky interests are pushed out to the periphery physically as well as in the discussion of literature. Games stores end up outside the centre of town, fantasy fiction on the top floor of Waterstones. And again, being aware of it can stop us letting that assumption colour our view of the world.

Perhaps the telling insight came from Cherry Potts. As she pointed out, the phrase “literary fiction” assumes that everything else isn’t literary, implicitly putting down everything from fantasy to romance.

Addressing the Big Issues

Marc Turner raised the question of whether fantasy is a good medium for exploring social and political issues. Like me, and I’m sure anyone reading this blog, the panelists agreed that it is, giving plenty of examples to show that it was as good for this as any genre.

Then came the point I really liked, again from Peter Newman. He argued that using fantasy is often better than talking about issues in the real world. It can be hard to hear someone’s viewpoint if they’re disagreeing with you on real world things you care about. By placing the ideas into a fantasy world, we can make it easier for people to take them in. Fantasy becomes a way of opening minds.

How’s that for a defence of the genre?

Write What You Know?

Finally a comment from Edward Cox, which I thought was useful even outside of this topic. He suggested that the old concept of “write what you know” might now be obsolete. The internet makes research so much easier that anyone can get to know about anything.

“Write what you know” is certainly an awkward concept, and one that can be more restrictive than useful if applied badly. I’m still mulling it over, but I think I might agree with Cox on this.

Far more was discussed in the panel than what I’ve covered above. If you ever have a chance to see any of these panelists talk then I heartily recommend it. And if you can make it Derby, there’ll be another Edge-Lit event just before Christmas. It’ll be well worth your time.

Another sort of fantasy – more musings on Shades of Milk & Honey

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fantasy novel must feature an action sequence. Except that, as Austen readers will know, a universally acknowledged truth has about as much value as Mr Wickham’s honour, which is to say even less than his pocket-book after a night out in Bath. (For anyone who’s somehow missed out on Pride and Prejudice in its many incarnations, Wickham’s a cad and a bounder, and you can probably work out the rest. Guess I should have said spoilers, but I think 200 years is about the point at which I don’t need to say that, right?)

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action sequence. I grew up watching westerns and war films. I can recite the action sequences from Star Wars almost as well as the lines from the script. When I was nine I drew a whole series of illustrations showing the Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit, and I believe that by restricting myself to a red felt tip pen I truly evoked the bloodthirsty horrors of war. Or was too lazy to go find another colour – these things happen.

But much as I love a bit of action and excitement, I want other things from culture as well. I want The Great Gatsby and Lost in Translation. I want Miles Davis as well as Metallica. And this principle applies to my fantasy and science fiction.

The modern fantasy genre has emerged out of a tradition of mythological adventure and pulp story telling, and those both brought with them a lot of sword swinging and chasing around the place. But that’s the thing about emerging from a tradition – you get to do something more. That’s part of what I’m really enjoying about reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. It takes magic and uses it to tell a story about love, art and social conventions, not about full-blooded adventures full of daring do.

Unless something changes in the last hundred pages. At time of writing I haven’t finished the book yet, and maybe there’s a surprise car chase featuring a Jason Statham-style character before the end. But I doubt it.

Some people might say ‘no action? that doesn’t sound very exciting.’ To which I say ‘action all the time? sounds dull too.’ I crave variety, and having a fantasy story that uses magic to explore art and 19th century social conventions adds variety, adds excitement, adds wonder.

Some fantasy claims to break with tradition because it doesn’t have orcs and elves, or because the hero’s not very nice, or because it’s got gunpowder. And every story to some extent uses and to some extent breaks from tradition. But Shades of Milk & Honey is a far greater and more interesting break from the fantasy tradition than almost anything I’ve read, because it doesn’t just change the details, it changes the fundamentals of what drives a fantasy plot and how conflict is enacted in it.

I’m not saying I want all fantasy to be like this. I like my orcs and thinly disguised orc substitutes. I like seeing Sean Bean die over and over again. But please, let there be more fantasy out there like Shades of Milk & Honey, as well as more that’s nothing like it but nothing like Tolkien either. Let there be real variety. Let there be fantasy slacker stories, and fantasy medical dramas, and fantasies in which cops and criminals embody the social problems facing modern society. Because we all want to see a fantasy version of The Wire right? What, no? You think that’s a terrible idea? Damn, there goes my pitch letter to HBO.

So, after all of this you probably think that I’m going to recommend that you read Shades of Milk & Honey, right?

Wrong. By now you know enough to decide that for yourself. And if you’ve read this far, odds are you’re already on board for this beautiful magical take on Jane Austen’s world. So instead I’m going to throw another recommendation your way. Read Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club, a comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It’s another great example of fantasy used to explore a different facet of life. Like Shade of Milk & Honey it’s something you should love, and even if you don’t then it’ll add some variety to your life.

But read Shades of Milk & Honey too. Because I lied about not recommending it. And that Jason Statham car chase chapter is awesome.


Postscript, Monday morning:

I finished reading Shades of Milk & Honey last night. There actually is an action sequence of sorts near the end, and by the time it arrives any halfway smart reader will be expecting it. It doesn’t detract from my general point – in fact it’s so at odds with the tone of what enchanted me about this book that I may write another post about it – but I thought I should mention that it’s there.

No Jason Statham though. Not unless they make some strange casting choices when this become a movie.



I wrote this post in the middle of Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep. That may explain a lot. Expect more about this book later in the week, because I’m all enthused.

If you want to see how I write both full-blooded action adventure and fantasy that’s about art and whimsy, then please check out By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories.

Pirates In An Adventure With Genre Boundaries

Why do we care so much about what’s in a genre? It’s been bothering me recently as I look at discussions about what is and isn’t steampunk or YA or science fiction. People get into heated debates on this, debates which, while academically interesting, seem to involve a lot of stupid stances. So, to put it in the most sophisticated way possible, what’s that all about?

The YA Debate

YA (young adult) is a hot fiction category at the moment, so of course it’s the focus of arguments. I recently watched a debate on the popularity of YA descend into groundless assertions about what was and wasn’t YA, together with unevidenced definitions and dismissing or embracing whole categories of fiction. It eventually evolved back into something productive and civilised, but for a moment I saw the thin end of the internet stupidity wedge.

Like any debate about genre this had potential to be interesting. There are a bunch of questions to be explored. Is YA really a genre? Why has it become so popular? Does its use as a marketing tool undermine its value for readers? How do different people define it, and why? What does this say about youth consumer power and its impact on culture?

Instead it became people trying to label books as YA or not, or to make value judgements about the whole of YA, in a manner as productive as Margaret Atwood’s assertion that, all evidence to the contrary, she doesn’t write science fiction.

Children, pirates and mixed genres

Also this week I watched Pirates In An Adventure With Scientists, a film which says as much about genre as any of these debates.


Pirates is a delightful film aimed at children and adults willing to embrace innocent delight and wacky goings antics. In a wildly roaming adventure story it crosses over into elements of fantasy – sentient animals, sea monsters – and steampunk – vast steamships, pneumatic underdresses, science both mad and sane.

Despite all these features no-one argues about the film’s genre. That’s probably because it’s aimed at children, who don’t care half as much about genre, its structures or its limitations. They’ll take whatever you throw on the screen, disjointed as it might seem to an adult, and call it fun.

So what happened to us grownups that makes us fight our genre corner?

The psychology of genre

I’m going to go out on a limb here and put forward my own hypothesis. I think that it’s all about identity.

Identity is very important to human beings. If you don’t believe me just look at the national and regional feelings currently stirring in the Crimea, or the way that in fluid times Britains still value their sense of class. Identity is about our sense of self, and if we feel that our identity is under attack then we will leap to defend it.

The problem is that defensiveness often comes across as aggression. If you view yourself as the sort of sophisticated reader who doesn’t touch YA then you may not be happy to hear a favourite book labelled YA, and may leap to attack the associated definition of YA as a way of protecting your sense of self. Similarly, if you consider yourself the sort of open-minded reader who has time for any book, you may take umbrage at people dismissing YA and trying to pare it down just to its shallowest, most commercial stuff.

Attack begats defence begats attack. And again, on a much less significant level, we see the psychology of the Crimea.

Loosening up on genre

After all that, you won’t be surprised to read that I have an opinion on how to approach genre.

I think that genres are useful. They help people to sell books, and other people to find the books they want. They shape the stories we read in interesting ways. But we shouldn’t get too attached to them.

Accept other people’s definitions of genres. They may see a genre differently from you, but that doesn’t make their view wrong, just different.

Don’t defend your interpretation of a genre, but explain it. Explanations give people ideas to think about. Defences give them something to fight.

Accept the grey areas. Lots of stuff falls between genre stools or crosses multiple genres. That’s a sign of creativity, not a threat to the genre you love. If you try to pin down black and white boundaries you’ll just go mad.

But how about the rest of you? Any views on genre boundaries? Any interesting debates you’ve seen on the issue, or points to raise? Then leave something in the comments.

Wait, are comments a genre?