Travels in Genre Fiction (Part I – Why I Don’t Necessarily Care About Your Action Granny on a Steampunk Flying Sofa)

I love sci-fi, and fantasy, and some horror, and some detective novels. It’s because I love books and will read anything that looks half-decent, or even some things that don’t on the off-chance they’ll be good. (Dinosaur Planet, amazing as the title sounds, wasn’t very good though).

But I’m getting increasingly put off from the genre fiction I used to love because of what I can only perceive as a laziness in writing it. I’m not here to rant or rend my hair about ebooks, self-publication or the good and bad of the decline of publishing houses (although I am going to be talking about self-published books later). I’m here to talk about why I think this trend has come about, and why I don’t like it.

The issue is steampunk or indeed weird fiction. I don’t hate the concept. In fact I quite like the individual ideas of alternate history with advanced technology and horror or fantasy in a modern setting. HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe are superlative authors of what nowadays would be called weird, and I even quite liked programmes like Heroes before the writing went downhill. So I don’t even really have a quarrel with either of those things. Like with anything, they’re tools in a writer’s utility belt that he can apply usefully.

My complaint, then, is this. Genre trappings are becoming a substitute for decent plotting and characterisation. It’s writing for your fanbase; writing to a demographic who will consume without too much discrimination. Be those genre trappings those of steampunk adventure, paranormal romance, modern weird, Scandinavian thrillers or whatever you like, when your genre is the selling point of your book not your book’s content there’s a problem.

Earlier this year, I commented on this trend in response to reading a review of a book called Angelmaker, synopsis thus:

“…here comes a new riveting action spy thriller, blistering gangster noir, and howling absurdist comedy: a propulsively entertaining tale about a mobster’s son and a retired secret agent who are forced to team up to save the world… When Joe [Spork] fixes one particularly unusual device, his life is suddenly upended. The client? Unknown. And the device? It’s a 1950s doomsday machine. And having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the government and a diabolical South Asian dictator, Edie’s old arch-nemesis.With Joe’s once-quiet world now populated with mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realises that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she gave up years ago, and pick up his father’s old gun…” (Source: The Guardian)

Absurdist Comedy. Words that, for better or for worse, are beginning to lose their lustre for me. I’ve read some cracking absurd books; Jasper Fforde has a handle on the genre par excellence, as does Toby Frost. To dive back in time I think you could argue Tristram Shandy was the book that started it all.

But I read that synopsis and felt actively put off by it. Not least because a character called Joe Spork needles me because “haha spork is a funny word monkey cheese” is a trend popular among inexperienced writers who think random means inane non-sequitur and is inherently funny. It’s typical of where I see genre fiction as losing it’s way. There’s too much genre in it. Perhaps this is a cynical line to take but it sounds puerile; childish. It’s the sort of thing I don’t much like in genre fiction, a superflux of Stuff piled in to almost make a list of unique selling points for your book, much like a computer game might have on the back of the box Over 40 Levels! 6 Playable Characters! In books this translates into Mad Monks! Psychopathic Serial Killers! 1950s Doomsday Devices! – evoking the days when SF was all about spectacle and wild imaginings. The problem is, it risks missing the purpose, as I see it, of SF. Throwing all that stuff together without something strong as a foundation is like building a house entirely out of ornamentations; it’s too much, without a good strong base. SF, for me, is about going beyond aliens and planets and spaceships whizz bang! And exploring why and how.

My way of judging genre fiction is this; would the book work if it wasn’t about spaceships, or 90-year-old super-spies, or whatever? Does including those things improve your point, or would your plot not work without them?

Does your book work because of, or despite, its genre?

Perhaps it’s a cynical line to take, but I think a lot of these over-stuffed sofas of SF or fantasy novels are overcompensation for the author’s fear that the audience don’t want strong plots or restraint, or don’t have the attention span or willingness to take a more focused look at something. As I said above, writing for your fanbase.

Reviews of Angelmaker seemed to support this; they said the plot contained holes glossed over with the genre elements. I believe the word “romp” or “caper” may have been used. I don’t deny that sometimes you want a romp or caper, but the best of those are something beyond stuffing your face with shiny things to cover up weaknesses of your plot or characters. Or they do something very interesting with those genre elements. I point here to Jasper Fforde; he writes books exceptionally well-informed in literature, with jokes that work both as excellent visual gags or slapstick scenes, but also as superb riffs on classic literature.

So there’s a case study and my thesis. One swallow does not a summer make, but take a browse along your SF and Fantasy rack in your local bookshop; see how many steampunk or absurd genre books you see, and see if you agree with me that they’re becoming predictable in their efforts to stand out.

Why do I have beef with steampunk then? I’ve talked about it a lot but not really touched on why. It’s because it’s lazy. It is the very epitome of a genre whose visual trappings and cliches define it; airships, gears, monocles, dashing adventurers. Write something with those in and people will read it. But they’ll be reading it, I’d hazard, because it’s steampunk. If you look across books in the genre, they tend to be rather similar and touch only on one tiny, tiny part of the potential of the setting; the dashing gentleman-adventurer on a quest for something.

But to me, if you said “imagine if the 19th century had advanced technology,” I’d want to know about what this has done on the home front; the lives of the workers, the ordinary people. Save your airships and Phantasmagorical Steam Wizards or whatever; the Victorian era in fiction to me is the Victorian Novel. What would a Victorian Novel in a steampunk world be like? How about Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Bleak House with a fantastical background? Then we can see if the genre and the setting stand up, or if they’re plasterboard constructs. A setting should be able to feature stories outside of one archetype. There’s SF about planetary colonists, master criminals, gutter rats in the slums, grand admirals, hard-bitten private eyes, and ordinary families. There’s not very much steampunk fiction along those lines.

This has been a pretty vitriolic article; I mean no offense to Nick Harkaway, the author of Angelmaker, or anyone who likes Angelmaker, or indeed anyone who likes steampunk fiction. The article represents only my views on what I see as a trend in genre fiction I don’t like.

So to conclude; next time you’re reading a SF or fantasy book, take a step backwards, and think what could you take out of this and have it still work? Or if you’re writing a book, think about showing some restraint; do you need the airship, or the talking dog, or the secret society of ferrets with a secret that could Change The World!!!

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