Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Science Fiction vs. Horror: Definitions

This is a response to Russ's comment on the previous post. I originally was going to respond with another comment, but it wound up being quite long. Besides, the URLs weren't linked, and I used the wrong form of "its." I can't have typos like that in my blog.

Here's Russ's comment:

Now. Sandra, I'm going to take issue with your strict delineation between sci fi and horror. I don't think they can be so easily separated. Sci fi is about the unknown, about discovery, about mystery. These can be wonderous and enlightening, or they can be terrifying. Think E.T. vs. Alien. Which makes sense, by the way, because horror is about the unknown too - something lurking out of sight, a mysterious hidden threat - that sort of thing. The genres cover the same themes, so it makes sense that the delineation between the two frequently blurs.

And here's my response:

Well, yes and no, Russ. Science fiction can evoke a sense of wonder, but that's not necessarily its primary job. It's really more about the relationship between humanity and science/technology. Without the speculative scientific element, the story would fall apart. Here's what Robert Heinlein has to say: "A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of "almost all") it is necessary only to strike out the word 'future.'" (See more definitions here:

As for horror, this is directly from the Horror Writers Association website:

...horror can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn't have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread. ...By this definition, the best selling book of all time, the Bible, could easily be labeled horror, for where else can you find fallen angels, demonic possessions, and an apocalypse absolutely terrifying in its majesty all in one volume?

So, yes, there can be overlap, but the two genres are trying to do two different things.


Sandra said...

I meant to say "Just Kidding" after the typo comment in the first paragraph. Blogger seems to be freezing up when I try to edit the post, though.

Russ said...

Ummmm...OK, so you agree they overlap. Cool. Then I'm good. ;)

I didn't suggest they were trying to do the same thing. I was suggesting that they are close enough in nature that some blurring of the distinctions could be expected. Incidentally, I think the Heinlein quote reflects his idea of science fiction, a much more intellectual approach than some other efforts in the field (would Heinlein have written Alien? I really doubt it, but I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong.)

In truth, this reminds me of a class I took (waaaaaaaay back in college) on Nietzsche, and one theme the professor liked - about how human minds insist on categorizing things, and get themselves in trouble as a result because the world doesn't cooperate with all these boundaries. No, sci fi and horror aren't the "same" (that's why they get different names), but I stand by my original thought, that they are close enough related in nature that some overlap is inevitable.

Russ said...

Here's another thought - I think the Heinlein definition is very cold and analytical. To me, it expresses some refusal to see sci fi for its first purpose - to entertain. It makes me wonder - do science fiction writers see that function - as storytellers, entertainers - as undignified? Do these writers want to see their function as some sort of quasi-scientist? This is your world, so tell me what you think of this.

Sandra said...

Well, Russ, I think science fiction should do both--entertain and speculate about the future. For example, Star Trek can entertain while also raising questions about identity and prejudice, just to name a couple of issues. Of course, you can have "fluff" stories and very intellectual stories in science fiction, but I think good stories in any genre can be read on more than one level.

As for Heinlein's quote, I know there was a time in science fiction when the ideas were more important than the storytelling, but I think most authors these days consider both of them important.

The Dear Nyer said...

This is great! Passion, passion, love it! Thanks, you two.

Sandra said...

Dear NYer, Eugene will be selling tickets and popcorn on his blog... ;)

Anonymous said...

OK, so you agree that Heinlein's quote is taking too limited a view of sci fi - focusing on only the "highest-brow" of the genre. That begs the question - why make such a strict delineation between sci fi and horror? It seems to me, if entertainment is one goal of sci fi writers, then the absorption of additional genres should be welcomed. Said another way - you, as a writer, have an idea about humanity's relationship to technology (for example.) You write about it, because you want to share your idea with an audience. Then, if that audience can be broadened by appealing to multiple interests, shouldn't that be deemed a success? It seems to me that not only should a writer acknowledge those overlaps between genres, the writer should be adept in aiming for those areas of overlap, taking advantage of them and using them to produce a more colorful, layered story? Again, your area, so I'm interested in your response.

the dear nyer said...

Sandra, I'll wait in line for the show ;) Wow, Russ, never knew YOU were so passionate about Sci-Fi too. Boy, what one can learn from a blog ;)

Sandra said...

I never thought that short story on Strange Horizons would lead to so much discussion here. Anyway, Russ, yes, there are a lot of cross-genre books being written these days. One of the most popular trends is science fiction/fantasy and romance. Given that over 50% of the fiction books sold are romance, that's not surprising. I'm not very interested in straight romance, but I have bought and read several crossovers. Some I like; others don't work as well for me. But without the genre mixing, I wouldn't have read them in the first place.

I think what you might be trying to get at is why break up fiction into genres in the first place? Is it just to make it easier to find a certain type of book in the bookstore? That then begs the question as to why people might want to find different types of books. Some people like to solve puzzles, some people want to fall in love, and some people want to visit strange new worlds. The genres serve diffferent needs. Genres also have different conventions. For instance, in science fiction, a figurative phrase like "she rolled her eyes" can be literal in some instances. And in romance, it's common for authors to switch viewpoints within a scene, but this is frowned upon in other genres. One author of a science fiction/romance series does this, and it distracts me every time. (She does other things well enough for me to keep reading.) And while I can't speak for other genres, I know that in SF, readers/writers are influenced by a shared body of knowledge. The days are long gone when everyone at a convention would have all read the same books, but there are still some topics all SF writers/readers might be familar with. This means, for instance, that a SF writer might discuss cloning differently than a mainstream author who has no prior experience with the topic.

So, in conclusion, you can mix genres, but there are good reasons for them to be separate as well. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Um, I wasn't exactly saying/asking that, but I think I'll just drop it at this point. This one's probably beat to death and buried at this point.

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