Science Fantasy: when genres collide.

I’ll probably touch on genre blur quite a lot – the spaces between genres, what belongs where… it’s a wholly appropriate subject for a science fiction blog, and for a bookseller. Genres should never be the ‘be all and end all’; they are useful tools, nothing more. A book (or a film, or a game) should never be discounted by a person purely because of the genre they are commonly classified as. And as popular culture shifts, genre classifications must necessarily shift too.

Take Nineteen Eighty Four, for example, without a doubt science fiction, but will you find it in the SF section? No, you’ll find it (usually) amongst the general population, in fiction, or literature. If you’re a sci fi fan though, particularly dark future/ cyberpunk, and you haven’t read it, you really should put it straight to the top of the pile.

So what started me on this riff today?

A few years ago a comics firm, Wildstorm (actually an imprint of DC, who bought them a few years earlier) rebooted their universe. This isn’t an entirely uncommon thing in comics, some creative director decides to tidy up the timeline and modernise a bunch of the characters while they’re at it. (see retcon). As part of this, Grant Morrison (to my mind the best writer in modern comics) took over the writing on the relaunched Authority comic. The original 12 issue run of the Authority, written by Warren Ellis, was one of the best things to happen to modern superhero comics, and no writer on the comic since, despite the great characters, has never been able to recreate that excellence, so I had high hopes for Morrison’s stint.

Except that two issues in it suddenly dried up. Vanished. A new Authority series appeared in it’s place and it was… horrible.

Now, several years later, the Authority: the lost year carries on where Morrison left off, and it’s using his original plotlines and notes, but with a new writer, Keith Giffen. So, is it everything I hoped it would be…?

Well, not exactly. You can see Morrison’s touch in the story, the grand weirdness, the intelligent themes, but it lacks the deft touch of his writing. There is no subtlety, ideas are explained to you several times as if Giffen himself is still trying to get his head around them. It’s still good, and interesting, but it’s not Morrison good.

The most recent storyline is particularly appropriate to my chain of thought here. In an alternate dimension the Authority have become divided. The two sides are that of the Engineer and that of the Doctor.  The Engineer has a fleet of nanobots in her blood which essentially enables her to shapeshift through machine forms, including weaponry. The Doctor is the world’s shaman, the repository of all the world’s tribal magic now that the human tribe is a truly global one. Their world has become divided into science versus magic.

“Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. That’s what it all boiled down to.” – the Doctor.

And it occurred to me that superhero comics sit in this almost unique place between science fiction and fantasy. There are master magicians, there is advanced technology, there are aliens and there are humans with special powers. It’s a space very close to that occupied by urban fantasy, itself very close to paranormal romance (two genres to recently explode themselves). But the superhero genre as a whole is a massive genre, there are hundreds of titles published every month and yet it’s almost non-existent within books, and it has only recently established itself as a big player within films.

And this handily illustrates the usefulness and the restrictions of genre labels. Iron Man is science fiction. Dr. Strange is fantasy (or urban fantasy, really), Blade too. We could go through all the individual superhero comics and divide them by genre, and I don’t think that would be the wrong thing to do, but equally, they clearly all belong together in one genre. Just like the team up comics, like the Avengers or the JLA, or the Authority – the brilliance of which stemmed from the characters all being archetypes Ellis took from all the strata of superhero comics, from all their varied genres. It’s the ultimate meta-comic if you like, in those original twelve issues Ellis was not only writing excellent superhero comics, but he was writing about the genre itself.

2 Responses to “Science Fantasy: when genres collide.”

  1. Wrote a long response. Thought it was too long. Put it on the blog section of a website I signed up for a little while ago. Click website link.

  2. I don’t think I was really objecting to anything… =)

    My point though was not that nothing exists in this space between genres (and let’s not forget, in a sense, fantasy and science fiction are the black and white… there are so many shades of grey in between*). I was more thinking about the size of superhero comics as a genre, and also as much about how in a broad sense sci-fi is the future and fantasy is the past (culturally, technologically etc.) but superhero comics are modern day, much like urban fantasy. You could label a lot of it urban fantasy, but a lot has too much by the way of science fiction… so… urban sf? ;)

    The Final Fantasy games are a great example of what else occupies this space – largely fantasy in terms of magic, weapons and gods, but with a heavy emphasis on technology. Steampunk is another example, set in a victorian era but with advanced technology.

    I was just thinking out loud really. =)

    *(not sure what colour that makes horror… ;) )

Leave a comment

Spam protection by WP Captcha-Free