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Is it genre?

To me, and seemingly to my friend Patrick, the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is a question of focus. Literary fiction is about the human condition. It's something we can all, a few psychopaths aside, relate to. And for those of us who are gamers, it's how you can play a Black American slave one day and an imperialist Space Marine the next. Underneath all the trappings, and despite the differences in situation, the human condition unites them all (cue pithy Sartre quote, preferably in French. God I'm erudite!).

Of course, you can play these games at face value, 3:16 is a glorious excuse to just kill make-believe aliens, much in the same way as you'd pretend machine gun your eight year old buddies. But the game really comes into its own when the military hierarchy clashes with the personalities and choices have to be made between people and purpose. Are you a Kantian or a Nazi? It's an interesting dynamic to explore, especially when nobody around the table has quite the same answer as you. It's also a metric spaceload of fun, and not just in the juxtaposition, the irony or the (space)-clichés (everything is better when prefixed with space-). There's an almost physical joy to blowing away another 37 space whales. They were probably Commies anyway.

So it's a bit strange that when you read genre fiction, it hardly ever approaches this level of analysis. The distance between the now and the genre almost always makes the fiction be about something other than the human condition. And even if it is about the future human condition, it hardly ever seems to fully inhabit that space. It's like an ill-fitting suit or one of those cheap (sexy-) halloween costumes (the best ones are prefixed with sexy, just check out Amazon for sexy rabbits and pre-teen princesses). And look at William Gibson's oeuvre, for example, the more he writes, the closer he gets to the present, and the better his books become at analysing the human.

So I guess my question is, is the human condition a proper subject for genre fiction? And if it is, who has done it really, really well?

And I do mean really well.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 3rd, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
Ursula le Guin springs to mind. Most genre authors don't bother, though: part of the attraction of genre fiction is precisely that one doesn't have to pretend to that sort of scope.
Feb. 3rd, 2011 08:17 pm (UTC)
I think we could drag M John Harrison into the discussion; he's also a bit mouthy on the subject himself. Even if I don't entirely agree with his views, "Nova Swing" is one of the very, very few books I've deliberately read more than once recently.
Feb. 3rd, 2011 09:52 pm (UTC)
Well, he is one of my favourites even if we do disagree about gaming. He has a strange approach to human nature, in that he never approaches it directly siddling up to it through seeming, and often actually, disconnected events, descriptions and ideas. He's a fan of negative capability,

I think I've read all his books at least three times. I'm such a fan boy.
Feb. 6th, 2011 03:16 am (UTC)
Feb. 6th, 2011 08:58 pm (UTC)
Much as I love Bujold, I can't see it.
Feb. 6th, 2011 09:01 pm (UTC)
Iain Banks? Philip K Dick?
Robert J Sawyer (especially the Hominids trilogy), though more about society than the human condition per se.
Feb. 8th, 2011 12:15 pm (UTC)
Dick's a weird one, as is Vonnegut. Certainly with the former, you can never be sure what the purpose of his writing is.
Feb. 7th, 2011 07:31 pm (UTC)
Steve sez:
"...genre fiction, it hardly ever approaches this level of analysis."

Too true.

Human condition genre fiction writers:

Matheson? Cherrhy?
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )