Monday, April 16, 2007

What's in a Name

In this Wired article, author Jason Silverman presents cases of publishers and TV producers ducking the label "science fiction," since it turns off many perspective customers. The sort of "fanboy" and series novels that one finds in a big box bookstore's SF row don't appeal to me, but I do like other things that should -- could -- be in SF. And I always feel a little bit sheepish about it. Like the time I wanted to recommend a novel to my bookclub, and I began by saying, "It's not exactly time travel, but. . . ," and they all shut me out. At the other end of the spectrum, I had a friend in college who was really into SF and fantasy, and she made me feel like a lightweight, a dabbler.

Silverman cites a few phrases used to avoid "science fiction." China Mieville is a "mythmaker," and Cormac McCarthy's The Road is "post-apocalyptic." I see that my library system classified the two Mieville novels we own as "fiction," though both have "fantasy" as a subject heading. In our system, at most locations, science fiction works are on separate shelves, while fantasy -- often with a little genre sticker on the spine -- are interfiled with "regular" fiction. That could be a perfectly fine way to manage, if it weren't for the way that works sometimes seem to be arbitrarily classified. I believe that most of our catalog records come to us from our book vendor. No one in our employ chose to download that particular catalog record from OCLC; it wasn't one of us who called Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys "fiction" and Douglas Adams's similarly-themed Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul "science fiction." I would have called both "fantasy." No, wait, what about the quick rule of thumb I learned at the state library conference? When the stuff that happens in the world of the novel that's different than the real world is attributed to "magic" you've got fantasy; when "science" makes the difference, you've got science fiction. But those two, like Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books, are more about life in slightly alternate worlds: pretty much like ours, only gods we dismiss as "myth" roam the earth; or, just like ours, only some people can walk into the storyline of a book. It's not "magic," it's just that world.

I suppose all of this confusion over labels is why reader's advisory is supposed to be a dialog: "Tell me what you liked about Teatime. The humor? The setting in England?" rather than hearing that she liked it, noting that it "belongs" in science fiction, and suggesting Dune or a Star Trek novel. Because to me, if you like Adams, Fforde, Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett are all authors worth trying before looking at Frank Herbert.

Capital City weather: Today - cold, windy, clear. Yesterday - localized basement flooding. : (

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