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"Evaporating Genres" was first published in 2002 in Edging into the Future, edited by Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon; it was subsequently revised and expanded as the title essay of Wolfe's 2011 book Evaporating Genres. We're very pleased to be able to reprint the latter version here. Both essay and collection have attracted significant attention for their attempt to describe the evolution of the genres of the fantastic, both in terms of their increasing cultural reach and their broadening and blurring as categories; see reviews by Roger Luckhurst in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Jonathan McCalmont at Ruthless Culture, and Matthew Cheney in our archives. The collection also won the 2012 Locus award for Best Non-Fiction.

Contents

  1. Genre Coalescence
  2. Texts and Text-Products
  3. Narrative Formulas and Emergent Ideologies
  4. The Construction and Deconstruction of Horror
  5. Fantasy without Fantasy
  6. Science Fiction and the Colonization of Genres
  7. Science Fiction Historicals
  8. Science Fiction Thrillers
  9. Science Fiction/Science Fantasy/Fantasy
  10. Genre Implosion
  11. Notes

Genre Coalescence [contents]

For the first several years of their history, the major publishers of American mass-market paperback books numbered each new title sequentially, providing what is now a fascinating chronicle of popular reading habits during the 1940s, as well as a valuable resource for tracing the prehistory of what we now regard as the major market genres of popular fiction. In May 1943, Donald A. Wollheim’s anthology The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction appeared as Pocket Book #214, following close upon the heels of #212 (Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and #213 (The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories), and tucked into a wildly eclectic list of titles that included not only Shakespeare’s Five Great Tragedies (#3) and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (#68) but also a more specialized list targeted at specific audiences. These latter volumes, which characteristically followed the proprietary title formula "The Pocket Book of ———," began with broadly generic topics such as The Pocket Book of Verse (#62) or The Pocket Book of Short Stories (#91), but soon began to include such extraliterary oddities as The Pocket Book of Boners (#110)—mostly a collection of humorous schoolboy mistakes—The Pocket Book of Vegetable Gardening (#148), The Pocket Book of Crossword Puzzles (#210), and The Pocket Book of Home Canning (#217).

This is the context in which the first American mass-market science fiction anthology, and probably the first American commercial book to use the term "science-fiction," appeared. It seems clear that publisher Robert F. de Graff and the editors of Pocket Books—which began its mass-market publishing program in May of 1939 with a fantasy novel, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (following a 1938 test market edition of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth)—were, by the mid-1940s, still tentatively groping toward defining a variety of specialized readerships. Some of these readerships, like mysteries and Westerns, had crystallized long since as popular genres; nearly a quarter of the first one hundred Pocket Books published were classified as "mystery and detective stories" and given a separate list in the pages of promotional material that appeared in the back of each Pocket Book. Science fiction, on the other hand, was relegated to those specialty topics, like vegetable gardening and home canning, which presumably could be covered adequately in a one-shot publication. (Bantam Books, another mass-market paperback publisher that came to prominence in the 1940s, proved even more tentative in dealing with the field when it tried to market its first science fiction anthology, Judith Merril’s A Shot in the Dark [1950], as "a different kind of mystery thrill," not mentioning science fiction at all in the book’s front-cover copy, but including in the back pages a mail-order offer for several specialty-press hardcovers, presumably as a kind of market test.) Prior to the advent of Ballantine Books in 1952, according to paperback historian Kenneth C. Davis, science fiction "barely existed in book form at all. It was viewed by publishers as a sort of fringe genre that they knew or cared little about." [1] While this may have been true of paperbacks, the claim is more problematical in terms of the major hardcover fiction publishers. By 1949, Wollheim himself could publish an article in the New York Times heralding "a specialized class of novel called generically ‘science-fiction’."

Doubleday, for instance, announces that they are readying a title to head off their new science-fiction classification. Frederick Fell, Inc., announces a half-dozen such titles, an anthology and several novels, in a special science-fiction series with a colophon all its own. Other companies have slipped science-fiction into their line with less fanfare but no less prescience. Many book stores, among which are counted Scribner’s and Brentano’s, have pushed clear corners of their detective novel counters to make way for a host of strangely titled and fantastically jacketed volumes. [2]

The year after this article appeared, according to the New York Times, nearly fifty identified science fiction titles were published in the United States, with that number increasing again in 1951. [3]

As of the mid- to late 1940s, science fiction had yet to emerge as anything like an identifiable genre in terms of the rapidly expanding paperback book market—the market that would largely supplant cheap magazines within the next two decades as the principal medium of popular fiction. Yet, as the contents of Wollheim’s anthology clearly demonstrate, science fiction had developed not only a clear identity, but a fiercely loyal readership in the pulp magazines that flourished in the two decades immediately preceding the rise of the paperback. Pulp fiction—which shares with paperback fiction the odd distinction of being a narrative tradition so marginalized that it is commonly identified by the technologies of its manufacture rather than its textual content—had begun in general-interest adventure fiction magazines around the turn of the century, and by the 1930s had developed special-interest microgenres or niche markets to a degree never seen before or since, with magazines devoted to everything from varsity football fiction and World War I aviation stories to tales of "Oriental menace." Fantastic narratives were no stranger to these magazines, and one of the more enduring, Weird Tales, debuted in 1923 and would play a significant role in the development of the horror genre.

Science fiction, which famously entered this specialized pulp magazine market with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in 1926, was one of the more successful of these new pop genres, with something like thirty-five different magazine titles having been introduced by 1943, the year The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction appeared. Why, then, would such an apparently successful genre in the pulp magazines—as well as their immediate successors, the digest-sized fiction magazines that came to dominate the 1950s short genre fiction market—fail for over a decade to gain purchase in the burgeoning field of paperback books, with its apparently similar patterns of readership? Literary elitism alone hardly seems sufficient to account for this; despite the widely held belief among science fiction readers and writers that it has long been the most unfairly maligned of popular genres, an examination of early New York Times articles and reviews about science fiction reveals that it was not generally treated with out-of-hand contempt, and most of the reviewers assigned to the genre (Villiers Gerson, Basil Davenport, eventually Anthony Boucher) were reasonably sympathetic, even if their reviews did eventually coalesce into a recurring column called "Spacemen’s Realm." Furthermore, it seems fairly clear from a perusal of the early lists of Pocket, Bantam, Avon, and other paperback publishers that marketability was a far more important concern than respectability, and it seems likely that had a sufficient number of novel-length science fiction texts been available and visible, the paperback houses would not have hesitated to try to sell them, as they would come to do very successfully in the following decade.

Texts and Text-Products [contents]

But what does it mean for a text to be both available and visible? In the simplest terms, an available text is simply one that exists as a potential candidate for book publication or for paperback reprint. Visibility is a different problem, and one that raises crucial questions of genre identity: even though a substantial number of reasonably contemporary novel-length science fiction narratives may have been published in America by the 1940s, they tended to be defined either as oddball mainstream thrillers (such as William M. Sloane’s To Walk the Night [1937] and The Edge of Running Water [1939]) or as longish pulp stories or serials, with little crossover between the two. While both detective stories and Westerns flourished alongside science fiction in the pulps, each also had developed as a distinct tradition of popular novels—Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler are among those to appears on Pocket Books’ list of mystery stories, while Max Brand and Zane Grey were among the somewhat smaller number of Western writers to appear. Nearly all of these writers had developed followings in the hardcover market as well prior to their entry into the paperback world, and many hardcover publishers had clearly defined lines of mystery and Western fiction. Equally important, Westerns and mysteries had quickly gained a foothold as important genres in the newer mass media of film and radio, arenas in which science fiction would fail to succeed as a market segment until the 1950s.

While scores of novels that we can now readily identify as science fiction had appeared throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and the adventure tales of Jules Verne, the science fiction novel persistently failed to cohere as a genre in the manner of mysteries and Westerns. [4] Interestingly enough, the allied fantastic genres of horror and fantasy seemed to follow a similar pattern: while Gothic novels and several varieties of subgothic vampire stories retained popularity throughout the nineteenth century, a canon of popular horror stories failed to emerge clearly until well into the twentieth, and fantasy—although arguably the oldest narrative tradition of all—did not descend (or ascend) into genredom until about the same time. Lost Horizon may indeed have been Pocket Book #1, but neither its publisher nor its readers apparently saw it as an expression of an ongoing literary tradition connected with other nonrealistic texts: its popularity, as both novel and film, seemed to derive neither from its origins in utopian discourse or its modality of lost-world fantasy, but rather from its appeal as simple romantic adventure, literally escapist fare for a world plagued by economic depression and the threat of war.

The fantastic genres as a set then—some would say the supergenre of the fantastic—remained locked into the original mode of their publication in the pulp magazines; in order for the texts to gain definition as an ongoing narrative project rather than as the contents of ephemeral periodicals, they needed to be, in effect, liberated: the texts had to be decontextualized from the text-products, which in this case were the pulp magazines. [5] For this reason alone, the appearance of the Wollheim anthology in 1943 marks a crucial moment in the history of science fiction developing a genre identity—although this decontextualizing process would not really gain momentum until the series of large hardcover anthologies that began to appear in the late 1940s and early 1950s from such editors as Groff Conklin (The Best of Science Fiction, 1946; A Treasury of Science Fiction, 1948; The Big Book of Science Fiction, 1950), Raymond Healy and Francis McComas (Adventures in Time and Space, 1946), and John W. Campbell, Jr. (The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, 1952). These and other anthologies from the postwar period not only vitally preserved stories that had for the most part been consigned to ephemeral publications, but, by finding their way into public libraries, permitted the genre to begin to coalesce as something more than the object of momentary passions of pulp readers. [6] Science fiction now had a more or less permanent set of reference texts from which to derive its characteristic ideologies.

By the mid-1950s, science fiction clearly had arrived as something more than a set of text-products: in magazines, in paperback, hardcover, and specialty press books, even in film and television, science fiction had become a widely recognized and readily identifiable genre. And almost as soon as it arrived, it began to disassemble itself. Even by the late 1950s and early 1960s, only nominal relationships existed among the various media products marketed or perceived as science fiction: novels by authors as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut and E. C. Tubb, films as different as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Them!, TV programs as various as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and The Twilight Zone, comic books featuring unlikely superheroes and noble mutants. Unlike mysteries or Westerns, each of which tended to appeal in the same ways to the same audiences, science fiction already had begun to experience a radical balkanization of its reader- and viewerships. Even the leading magazines of the 1950s developed distinctly different identities, reflected in both their readerships and their contributors—Astounding for more traditional "hard" science fiction, Galaxy for satire and social commentary, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for literary quality and an early form of genre cross-pollination (originally titled The Magazine of Fantasy, it added "science fiction" to the title with its second issue). Similarly—although not to such a dramatic degree—the horror genre eventually would grow to encompass everything from Shirley Jackson and Thomas Tryon to Clive Barker and Stephen King, and fantasy everything from Robert E. Howard to J. R. R. Tolkien. The fantastic genres may have gained market individuation, but in a more formal narrative sense the genre markers themselves remained radically unstable.

Narrative Formulas and Emergent Ideologies [contents]

Because of the uncertainty of these genre markers, the fantastic genres contain within themselves the seeds of their own dissolution, a nascent set of postmodern rhetorical modes that, over a period of several decades, would begin to supplant not only the notion of genre itself, but the very foundations of the modernist barricades that had long been thought to insulate literary culture from the vernacular fiction of the pulps and other forms of noncanonical expression. Other popular genres that grew to prominence in the early twentieth century gained their followings largely through the development of characteristic tropes and conventional narrative formulas. In his landmark 1976 study of such stories, John G. Cawelti identified formulas for crime novels, the classical detective story, the hardboiled detective story, the Western, and even the "best-selling social melodrama" (Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins, etc.). Significantly, Cawelti’s study included virtually no discussion of the three major fantastic genres that interest us here, and in fact it would be difficult for any critical approach based largely on narrative formula to accommodate the genres of the fantastic, which are more readily described as collective world-views rather than patterns of repetitive action. In terms of the narrative geographies staked out by each of these genres, one might almost invoke analogs of the "matters" first identified by the medieval French poet Jean Bodel: the matter of science fiction is the geography of reason; of horror, the geography of anxiety; of fantasy, the geography of desire.

This is not to deny that each of these genres developed its own share of characteristic and clichéd narrative formulas—only to say that such formulas were never sufficient to be the defining characteristic of the genre. While we can readily recite a litany of familiar tropes from the pulp era—alien invasions, time travel, science gone awry, space exploration, galactic war, mutants as monsters or victims—by the early 1940s, Astounding was regularly publishing tales that could not be subsumed easily by such formulas, that drew on more complex and subtle explorations of history, economics, psychology, even labor relations. (By the standards of the pulp era, one of the most popular series in Astounding, Isaac Asimov’s "Foundation" stories, was virtually without plotted action at all.) Science fiction, once it emerged from the cocoon of the space operas that dominated the early pulp era, began to explore its potential as a genre based as much in ideology as in story, eventually transforming itself into a dialogue and a dialectic about change that almost inevitably would lead to a blurring of its identity, as its favorite concerns and obsessions grew more congruent with the concerns and obsessions of the society at large, and with the capacity of rational action to address those concerns and obsessions. Horror, perversely naming itself not after narrative structures or settings or even ideas, but rather after its putative emotional effect on its audience, emerged from the shadow of the Gothic to discover that its key dynamic was not a particular story pattern, but an unanchored anxiety, which also came into eventual congruence with broader cultural issues. Fantasy—the oldest genre of all, but one whose principal pulp identity had been confined largely to sword and sorcery tales or lighthearted whimsy—did not really develop a clear market identity in America until fairly late in the paperback revolution (following the enormously successful paperback editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), but quickly moved to catch up with its sister genres in the process of dissolving its own borders, as its authors began to discover that the Tolkien quest formula was but one expression of the genre’s potential, and not a totalizing definition of it.

By the late stages of the pulp era (a decade or so later in terms of fantasy), the writers and readers of these genres had developed easily recognizable protocols and even consensus literary histories, all based in a kind of populist canon developed through common reading and in some cases through that proto-internet of conventions, hectographed or mimeographed fanzines, and magazine letter columns collectively known as fandom. The contents of these informal canons were often fascinating; while the texts included were not always popular or even widely available, they came to represent emergent ideologies that defined the genre in terms of both its market and its texts. Each genre’s readers came to identify a central ideological lynchpin—Robert A. Heinlein in the case of science fiction, Howard Phillips Lovecraft in the case of horror, J. R. R. Tolkien in the case of fantasy—and to a great extent the dialectic of the relevant genre seemed to define itself in recapitulation of, or reaction against, the world-views of these central figures. [7] And in each field, the dialectic seemed to offer two possible routes for later writers: expansion of discourse to the edges of genre and beyond, or collapsing of the discourse into an increasingly crabbed and narrow set of self-referential texts. Both kinds of results tend to promote the dissolution of the original genre—the one by integration with other fiction, the other by implosion—and both are abundantly in evidence in each genre today.

The Construction and Deconstruction of Horror [contents]

In the field of horror, for example, the defining emblematic figure to emerge from the pulp era was H. P. Lovecraft, who shared with Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett the distinction of having been wittily skewered at some length by the New Yorker’s high priest of modernism, Edmund Wilson. Lovecraft’s turn came posthumously, in a November 1945 column that almost willfully avoided addressing the question of what might appeal to certain readers in Lovecraft’s overripe prose, ersatz mythology, and paranoid misanthropy; as far as Wilson was concerned, such flawed texts could be enjoyed only by flawed readers, and the modernist community need feel no obligation to acknowledge further the existence of such populist aberrations. "The only real horror in most of these fictions," he wrote, "is the horror of bad taste and bad art." [8] By the time Lovecraft was brought to Wilson’s attention, he already had begun to emerge as the coalescent figure in American horror fiction, thanks largely to Arkham House, the publishing house (founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei) that began assembling and reprinting his works in 1939, and continued in what amounted to a program of cult canonization over the next several decades. Partly because of his direct influence—members of the "Lovecraft circle" during his lifetime included such influential later writers as Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner—and partly because of the availability of the Arkham House books, Lovecraft provided the standard against which later American horror writers would either measure themselves or rebel, or both.

Lovecraft’s emergence from genre cult figure into the broader arena of the postwar fascination with literatures of alienation may be due largely to the work of another Wilson, Colin (unrelated, of course, to Edmund). Lionized originally for his widely popular 1956 study of alienation in modern literature, The Outsider, the determinedly eccentric Wilson devoted the first part of the opening chapter of his 1962 study The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination to examining Lovecraft’s radically alienated, antimaterialist fantasies. By placing Lovecraft even remotely in the context of such canonical writers as Yeats, Wilde, and Strindberg (the other authors covered in that first chapter), Wilson anticipated the eventual breakdown of modernist barriers that would permit Lovecraft to emerge as a cultural figure of some interest outside the narrow genre of his original reputation, and which in turn, over decades, would contribute to the gradual evaporation of horror as a narrative tradition isolated from the mainstream of cultural discourse. (Wilson also discussed a number of science fiction writers in The Strength to Dream, and devoted a substantial portion of a chapter to J. R. R. Tolkien—surely one of the earliest discussions of that author’s fantasy in the context of broader literary culture.) A few years later, in novels such as The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), Wilson would appropriate and subvert the Lovecraft mythos in a manner that implicitly argued against the notion of horror as merely an isolated pulp genre.

For a good portion of the postwar period, the Lovecraftian aesthetic—remote, haunted villages, strange half-human families, forbidden books, and most of all ancient elder gods waiting to reclaim the world—dictated many of the terms by which horror fiction would be practiced in its relatively limited literary arena, with authors such as Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson striving to introduce a more contemporary, urban ethos, while Lovecraft’s more direct heirs, from August Derleth to Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell, expanded upon Lovecraft’s cosmic occultism in stories and novels that, in the beginning at least, were often little more than direct pastiches. But in 1967, the terms of horror fiction began to change radically. This was the year that Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, with its contemporary urban setting, its exploitation of the anxieties of pregnancy, and its eschewing of invented gods in favor of the oldest villain of them all, the devil, became a phenomenal bestseller and, in 1968, a highly successful film by Roman Polanski. A skilled storyteller who achieved his effects with a journalistic efficiency that contrasted dramatically with Lovecraft’s florid style, Levin recast the horror story as a paranoid suspense thriller—an emerging genre that owed as much to the detective and espionage story as to the traditions of the supernatural tale. Almost with one stroke, the post-Lovecraft dialogues that had defined the rather small and insular horror genre seemed swept away, and just as the genre began to attain massive popularity, its boundaries already were beginning to dissolve. In 1971, the equally successful The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty also featured a very traditional Christian devil as its antagonist, combining horror fiction first with aspects of the medical thriller (as batteries of doctors and psychiatrists find themselves unable to address what’s wrong with the possessed girl), and then with the didactic theological romance. The story also helped to break new ground in its depiction of graphic, visceral episodes of violence and obscenity.

By the later 1970s, of course, the terms of horror fiction were being dictated by an entirely new force, Stephen King, whose first novel, Carrie, appeared in 1974 and whose first major bestseller Salem’s Lot appeared the following year. King was well aware of the Lovecraft tradition and the manner in which later writers responded to it, as evidenced by his informed 1981 nonfiction study of horror, Danse Macabre, and several of his first few novels seem deliberate redactions of classic horror themes—the vampire tale in Salem’s Lot (1975), "The Monkey’s Paw" (a classic W. W. Jacobs tale from 1902) in Pet Sematary (1983), the haunted castle in The Shining (1977). But King also was interested, almost from the beginning, in dissolving the traditional boundaries of the horror story and merging it with other genres. The psychic powers that are featured in Carrie (1974) and Firestarter (1980) are more characteristic of 1940s science fiction than of most supernatural fiction, and science fictional devices are key aspects of both It (1986) and The Tommyknockers (1987). With the novellas in Different Seasons (1982) and novels like Misery (1987), King began to explore ways of moving the modalities of horror narrative outside the genre of supernatural horror altogether—a move that was accelerated by his colleague and sometime collaborator Peter Straub. Their famous 1984 collaboration The Talisman—the bestselling work of fiction for that year, according to Publishers Weekly—surprised many horror readers by borrowing its basic structure from the fantasy quest romance and scattering throughout the narrative allusions to writers from Mark Twain and L. Frank Baum, J. R. R. Tolkien, and even John Gardner. Described by Straub’s admirer and critic Bill Sheehan as "an eccentric hybrid of a book that is frequently vital and moving, and occasionally attenuated and overlong," the novel may well have confused critics and reviewers with its implicit refusal to abide by the largely self-referential traditions of horror fiction, and its consequent assertion that the membranes separating the fantastic genres from each other, and from external literary traditions, are highly permeable. [9] This genre-mixing trend was even more evident in the authors’ 2001 sequel Black House, which added a serial-murderer mystery plot to the horror and fantasy aspects of the narrative.

Straub himself had been bombing the borders between mainstream and genre fiction since his earliest successes back in the 1970s. His first major bestseller, the 1979 Ghost Story, with its studied allusions to Hawthorne, James, and Stephen Crane, its leapfrogging chronology, and its multiple viewpoints, was an effort, he told Stephen King, to do "something which would be very literary, and at the same time take on every kind of ghost situation I could think of." [10] It was, in effect, Straub’s first concerted effort to deconstruct the genre from within. In less than a decade, Straub had begun the series of interlinked Blue Rose stories and novels that would retain the sometimes gruesome tone of his earlier supernatural fiction in nonsupernatural narrative modes that borrowed far more freely from traditions of the crime novel (Koko, 1988; Mystery, 1990; The Throat, 1993) and the fairy tale ("The Juniper Tree," 1985; "Ashputtle," 1994) than from the traditions of genre horror. (At the same time, it might be noted, the police procedural crime thriller was moving aggressively into the realm of horror with such novels as Thomas Harris’s 1988 The Silence of the Lambs, further blurring genre boundaries.) The Throat, it might be argued, is a genuine postgenre work, a horror novel that not only lacks supernatural horror, but lacks traditional horror scenes of any sort. By this point, Straub’s authority and popularity were such that he continued to be honored for fantasy and horror even with works clearly more closely allied with crime fiction, if not with an even more diffuse American Gothic tradition (Koko won the World Fantasy Award in 1989 and The Throat a Bram Stoker Award in 1993).

Mr. X (1999), heralded as Straub’s return to the realm of the supernatural, proved in its own way to be equally subversive of genre conventions, and is of interest here because of the Janus-like manner in which it addresses both the older, Lovecraftian tradition and the newer uses of horror. There is plenty of traditional horror in Mr. X, including a substantial and informed subplot involving Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos and Arthur Machen-like allusions to the survival of the god Pan, but there are also many elements that look beyond the conventions of genre, not the least of which is Straub’s choice to make his protagonist and his family Black (without directly asserting this, a device coincidentally used a few years later by bestselling fantasy writer Neil Gaiman in his 2005 novel Anansi Boys), and to use jazz performance as a fairly complex central metaphor (Straub may be the only novelist around to include Lovecraft and jazz convincingly in the same novel). Mr. X is essentially a doppelgänger tale, and the main doppelgänger in question belongs to the narrator Ned Dunstan, a software programmer drawn back to his hometown of Edgerton, Illinois, because of forebodings about his mother Star, a sometime jazz singer who maintained a close relationship with Ned despite having long ago given him up to foster parents. Since childhood, Ned has experienced strange lapses of consciousness on his birthday, when he sometimes seems to be transported to another time and place. More recently, he has found himself occasionally mistaken for someone else—the classic doppelgänger plot point—and even finds himself accused of murder before he has been in Edgerton for long. Ned becomes involved with a number of local characters—various aunts and uncles, an assistant district attorney named Ashley who is investigating a powerful local developer named Stewart Hatch, a secretive landlady named Helen Janette, and most importantly Hatch’s wife Laurie and her son Cobbie. In keeping with the shadow-figure motif, most of these characters are not quite who they seem to be, and even the town of Edgerton itself seems to have a dual identity, with its oddly out-of-place street names like Fish, Button, Treacle, and Wax, its Brazen Head hotel, and its ominous Veal Yard. Ned’s own family history is even more mysterious, dating back at least to eighteenth-century Providence, where a long-abandoned family mansion came to be known as "the Shunned House" (allusions to Lovecraft permeate the novel). While in Edgerton, Ned discovers that his father of record is not his real father, a man named Edward Rinehart, and that a twin brother apparently had disappeared shortly after birth.

The father, Rinehart—the Mr. X of the title—provides the novel’s second narrative voice, and unlike Ned, he knows that he’s in a horror story, largely one of his own creation. Obsessed with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, which he regards as a kind of divine revelation, Rinehart is one of Straub’s most chilling creations—a sadistic murderer with supernatural psychic powers, self-styled Lord of Crime, and a bad horror story writer in the Lovecraft tradition. He is, in effect, a creature made of genre. Rinehart’s story—and his narrative voice—provide a kind of grotesque mirror image of Ned’s: their respective youthful experiences at college and a military academy are pointedly juxtaposed, and Rinehart’s contemptuous hatred of Star is as central a motivation as Ned’s tacit devotion to her. It hardly comes as a surprise that Rinehart’s mission in Edgerton is to destroy Ned. But Ned’s own supernatural powers, together with those of his shadowy brother Robert, are sufficient to set the stage for an epic confrontation.

Despite several scenes of spectacularly gruesome murder, a deliberate evocation of Lovecraft’s paranoid world-view, and a protagonist who seems, science fiction-like, to be able to travel through time, Mr. X is a complex novel that engages in an active and often witty critique of the horror genre while staking an authoritative claim to being part of it. Lovecraft, for example, functions partly as an emblem of horror’s chronic looniness and partly as an inside joke for genre readers, even though Straub admits (in an afterword) that he has taken a few liberties with Lovecraft’s publication history. But such allusions are crucial to the texture of the narrative, which—like all of Straub’s best work—strives to add multiple tonalities to a genre best known for its one-note performances: the tragic and often treacherous family relationships, the detailed and richly textured portrait of the small southern Illinois town of Edgerton, and the persistent infusion of music into the narrative at both dramatic and structural levels, combine to give the novel a density of layers within which the conventions of genre horror are subsumed as merely another narrative resource. If Straub’s The Throat moved into post-genre territory by forsaking both supernaturalism and graphic terror, Mr. X proves to be even more subversive by returning to the matter of horror and refusing to let it dictate the terms of the novel. This movement became even more apparent in his metafictional diptych lost boy lost girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004), discussed elsewhere in this volume.

Fantasy without Fantasy [contents]

Always a more diffuse genre than either science fiction or horror, fantasy’s emergence as a popular market can be dated almost exactly: May 1965, when the first U.S. paperback edition of the first volume of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings appeared. (This edition, from Ace Books, exploited a technicality in American copyright law that permitted the publisher to view the book as public domain and avoid paying royalties, but Ian and Betty Ballantine quickly met with Tolkien to arrange an "authorized edition," which appeared from Ballantine Books that October and—according to Betty Ballantine—benefited considerably from the controversy that had arisen over Ace’s efforts to "cheat" Tolkien. The book was thus something of a literary cause célèbre even before the Ballantine edition appeared, which no doubt increased its profile in the general literary community.) Of course, individual fantasy writers had gained fame or notoriety before this, such as James Branch Cabell or Mervyn Peake (although their reputations had by now largely faded to cult-like status), and there were even earlier efforts to define fantasy as a popular genre, such as the pulp magazine Unknown (1939–1943; the title was changed to Unknown Worlds in 1941), created by science fiction editor John W. Campbell as a kind of companion to his Astounding Science Fiction, but for the most part fantasy, as a commercial category or a self-conscious tradition, had remained something of a muddle. The anthology series-cum-quarterly magazine Avon Fantasy Reader, edited by Donald A. Wollheim from 1947 to 1952, focused largely on the kind of supernatural horror fiction that had long characterized the pulp Weird Tales, while a 1951 paperback anthology called The Saturday Evening Post Fantasy Stories (edited by Barthold Fles) was in fact a mélange of science fiction, horror, and occult fiction. But Tolkien’s immense success set off a flurry of activity among publishers to find new writers "in the Tolkien tradition" and—perhaps more important—to resurrect older works that could be viewed retroactively as a popular canon of "classics." Ballantine alone reprinted major works by Mervyn Peake, E. R. Eddison, David Lindsay, and Peter S. Beagle within three years of The Lord of the Rings, and in 1969 instituted its Adult Fantasy Series, which eventually ran to more than sixty titles, including those published prior to the series’ official designation.

While a coherent idea of genre was never the series’ strong point—it would be hard to guess what fans of Tolkien’s hobbits would make of as crabbed and eccentric a work as Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus—there is little doubt that Ballantine’s program, together with similarly aggressive lines of original fantasy titles from Ace and DAW, helped create a sense of a coherent market. But while the market tended to define itself in terms of works that bore at least a surface resemblance to Tolkien, such as Stephen R. Donaldson’s double trilogy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (1977–1983; a third series began in 2005), the genre itself was already radically unstable by the time it had gained a clear enough identity to come to the attention of literary theorists, most of whom (including Eric S. Rabkin, W. R. Irwin, and Rosemary Jackson) were hard pressed to describe it except to assert that it involved impossible beings or actions, maintained a particularly otherworldly tone, and subverted bourgeois expectations of narrative. [11] While both science fiction and horror could point to proto-works dating from the nineteenth or even eighteenth centuries, fantasy’s late-blooming commercial identity depended on the archaeological discovery of such works; far more than its sister genres, it was a field constructed retroactively to meet the needs of a suddenly emergent market.

Yet one of the acknowledged canonical works of the field, dating from before Tolkien’s trilogy, was Mervyn Peake’s unique novel Titus Groan (1946), which was already violating one of the accepted terms of fantasy—namely, the presence of impossible worlds or beings. As exaggerated and unlikely as the world of the castle of Gormenghast is, with its bizarre population of grotesques (the servant Steerpike, the fat cook Swelter, the depressed Lord Sepulchrave), it is not explicitly an impossible world, and the events of the novel are not explicitly supernatural events. (The novel’s two sequels, Gormenghast [1950] and Titus Alone [1959], are more problematical in this regard, as it becomes increasingly difficult to separate what might be fantasy from hallucinatory surrealism.) The fact that few readers seem to notice this, or be bothered by it, suggests that the overwhelming tone of the novel carries enough of the fantasy affect to override mere concerns of plot and setting. Almost before fantasy came to be defined as a genre, then, one of its classic texts had already violated the terms of that genre, creating a classic fantasy novel without material fantasy.

A more recent example of this violation seems to address much more deliberately the question of genre identity. Geoff Ryman’s 1992 novel Was (British title "Was . . ."), described by its author as the work of a "fantasy writer who fell in love with realism," is set in a version of the American Midwest that seems strongly influenced by such naturalist writers as Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris, and on the surface offers few of the solaces of traditional fantasy. The novel’s central conceit is that the Dorothy Gale (Gael in Ryman’s novel) of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books was an actual orphan in turn-of-the-century Kansas, sent with her dog Toto to live with her cruel Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and haunted by the memory of her brief happy earlier childhood in St. Louis, before her father disappeared and her mother died of diphtheria. Dorothy comes to think of her idyllic past as a place called Was. Sexually abused by her uncle Henry, she becomes a serious behavioral problem in school, until a visiting substitute teacher takes an interest in her and asks her to write about her life, and the land of Was. The substitute teacher is, of course, Baum himself, who goes on to appropriate large segments of Dorothy’s tale into his famous novel. This narrative is intercut with two other narratives, one involving the childhood of the actress Judy Garland, and the other, more substantial narrative concerning a contemporary actor dying of AIDS who, in conversations with his therapist, becomes obsessed with the idea that Dorothy was real.

By an unlikely but fortuitous coincidence, the therapist who is working with the actor had been holding a summer job at a mental hospital in Kansas decades earlier when, during the first network television broadcast of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, in November 1956, one of the hospital’s oldest inmates began claiming hysterically that the movie had stolen her life: she was, of course, the aged Dorothy, driven to madness by a long life of disappointment and sexual exploitation, and given to rambling on about a place called Was, and how you can’t get there from Is. This key scene, which briefly unites the three plot lines of the narrative, is extremely powerful and lovely, but it is not fantasy. Nor is most of the rest of the novel, except perhaps for two brief episodes: one, when Dorothy finally runs away from home and has what appears to be a mystical encounter with a white buffalo, a mythic emblem of the lost American West; and another at the end of the novel, when the dying actor seems to disappear while searching for Dorothy. At the thematic center of the novel is the great fantasy The Wizard of Oz itself—as well as the 1939 Garland film—and much of the novel can be read as an extended meditation on the importance of fantasy in maintaining psychic equilibrium, especially in lives of extreme stress, but the novel is very nearly an anti-fantasy in its mode of presentation—as though Dorothy were the invention of Thomas Hardy rather than of Baum.

Interestingly, the contrasting landscapes in Ryman’s novel echo the traditional contrast between realistic and fantasy worlds in Baum’s novel: the bleak, gray Kansas of the real Dorothy is not dissimilar to the equally monochromatic Kansas in the opening chapter of The Wizard of Oz, while Dorothy’s remembered childhood in Was is an obvious analog of Oz itself. Other fantasy worlds populate the novel in subtler ways: the unreal Hollywood life of Judy Garland contrasted with her own earlier childhood, the false Oz of the movie set, the promise of a broader world that briefly seems held out to Dorothy by the attractive, adventurous substitute teacher Baum, even the world beyond AIDS that haunts the young actor, who comes to conflate it with the myth of Dorothy. Structurally, many of the elements of classic fantasy are present in the novel—the youthful protagonist, the magical tutelary figure, the quest, the secondary world—but they are consistently undercut by the intrusion of realism, by reminders that, in Dorothy’s words, you can’t get there from Is. Ryman, an author who in other works has deliberately tested the boundaries of genre, shifting between politically charged realism, fantasy, and science fiction often in the same work, in Was seems to be out to explode the notion of genre altogether. [12]

None of this, of course, prevented Was from being nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1993 as best fantasy novel of the year. [13] Interestingly enough, almost as if to underline the notion that fantasy as a genre had begun to evaporate into the broader spectrum of literature, Was was one of two non-fantasies on that final ballot. The other was Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (1992), a Holocaust novel in which a young woman attempts to uncover the secrets of her late grandmother’s life as a survivor, taking clues from the distorted version of "Sleeping Beauty" that the grandmother had told her and her sisters throughout childhood. Like Ryman, Yolen is a sophisticated writer with an acute understanding of the conventions of genre (earlier, she had written a time-travel fantasy about the Holocaust, The Devil’s Arithmetic [1988]). But apart from its allusions to fairy tales, Briar Rose contains no supernatural events and, like Ryman’s novel, it is meticulous in its historical realism, taking its readers to the survivors’ camp established by the U.S. government in Fort Oswego, New York, to the concentration camp of Chelmno, to postwar Poland, and to contemporary Holyoke, Massachusetts—all far removed from any sort of fairyland. At its most fantastic, it’s a very minimalist alternate history, positing that the grandmother might have survived a concentration camp from which there are no known women survivors. If it is a fantasy, it is a fantasy without fantasy.

Science Fiction and the Colonization of Genres [contents]

Unlike horror, which built upon a longstanding Gothic tradition and almost abruptly emerged as a blockbuster market genre in the 1970s, and unlike fantasy, which could lay a persuasive claim to being the dominant mode of fictional narrative for most of human history, science fiction, despite its healthy legacy throughout the nineteenth century, was essentially a designed genre after 1926, the year in which Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories. It consisted of a set of available markets to which writers ostensibly would conform, rather than a tradition of narrative that eventually would find its markets. This inevitably placed serious constraints upon the ability of writers to expand the boundaries of the genre, and the field is rife with tales like that told by Daniel Keyes, author of the now-classic "Flowers for Algernon," about the insistence of editor Horace Gold to tack a "happy ending" onto the tragic story in order to make it more acceptable to the readership of Galaxy Science Fiction. [14] Because of the limitations of the market, the obtuseness of editors, the decline of the magazines, the growth of bestseller mentalities among publishers, and the incursion of paraliterary offshoots of the genre such as movie, TV, and game novelizations, science fiction writers periodically will publish essays mourning the recent or imminent death of the field (such essays appear only a little less frequently among horror writers and fantasy writers). What these essays are really mourning, upon closer inspection, is the declining market health of that self-invented and self-reflexive genre. They tend to offer little evidence that science fiction is actually disappearing—only that its consensus core is evaporating. Writers from "outside"—Doris Lessing, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux, John Updike, P. D. James, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Roth—freely appropriate its resources, while the notion of a common readership with a common reading background—once defined by the magazines and later by the paperback book publishers with regular science fiction lines—grows increasingly uncertain. [15]

Science Fiction Historicals [contents]

Writers have begun to respond to the circumstance of the declining market in a variety of ways, developing strategies for writing science fiction without writing in the genre of science fiction, just as Straub experimented in writing horror without horror, or Ryman fantasy without fantasy. One strategy is essentially to colonize another genre, using the tropes of science fiction as instrumentalities for moving the narrative into a different mode altogether. The time travel theme, for example, often has served as a convenient mechanism for constructing science fiction narratives that at the same time appropriate the protocols of historical fiction. A fictional group of time-traveling historians in twenty-first-century Oxford has provided Connie Willis with an angle of approach for several richly detailed historical fictions set in venues as diverse as London during the Blitz ("Fire Watch," 1982), a fourteenth-century village suffering from the Plague (Doomsday Book, 1992), and the 1889 Oxfordshire of Jerome K. Jerome (To Say Nothing of the Dog, 1998). An earlier novel, Lincoln’s Dreams (1982), uses a kind of cross-time psychic connection to move the narrative into the era of the American Civil War. In each case, despite the science-fictional frame, the main narrative is constructed around the historical setting, which is the centerpiece of the novel and its raison d’être. Similarly, Kage Baker’s series of novels and tales about a time-traveling Company involve settings as diverse as sixteenth-century Spain and England, eighteenth-century California, and the early days of Hollywood. Jack Dann, another writer with strong science fiction roots, moved even more directly into the realm of historical fiction with his novel The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo da Vinci (1995), which retains a claim to a science fiction identity through a speculative passage involving da Vinci’s "lost" years; and with the Civil War novel The Silent (1998), whose connection to science fiction genre materials is even more vestigial.

A newer writer, Patricia Anthony, moved progressively further into historical fiction in two remarkable novels published in 1997 and 1998. The first, God’s Fires, is set in a Portugal hovering between the late Inquisition and the beginnings of industrial democracy. Manoel Pessoa, a circuit-riding Jesuit, arrives in the village of Quintas to find it gripped by mysterious signs and portents: strange lights are seen in the sky, women claim to have been sexually assaulted by angels, a young virgin is apparently pregnant, another girl claims to have spoken with the Virgin Mary, a farmer’s field is partially burnt and overgrown with huge, bloated potatoes. Soon an acorn-shaped spaceship is found and the two surviving aliens are captured and held in the local jail. And not long after that, the events in Quintas draw the attention of the Inquisition. Educated and humane, yet aware that his order is barely tolerated in Iberia, Pessoa forms an uneasy romantic alliance with another outsider, the Jewish herbalist Berenice Pinheiro (who herself occupies a middle ground between medievalism and modernity as a reputed "witch" whose knowledge of medicine derives largely from empirical observation). While almost everyone else sees the mysterious aliens as angels or demons—forcing them into an older cosmology—Pessoa suspects they may be something new in the world, and perhaps the harbingers of new ideas. This is certainly what they represent to the touchingly addled young King Afonso, whose mind is strangely filled with images that we recognize as science, but that the Inquisition views as heresy, and in particular the Galilean heresy, which proves to be one of the central lynchpins of the narrative. Despite the introduction of alien visitors, God’s Fires is principally an historical novel that turns not on its science fiction conceit, but on its evocation of the unsettling play of conflicting ideas in an apocalyptic age—themes that seem ideologically appropriate to serious science fiction, but that are equally the stuff of intellectual history. "God save us from men with ideas," the villainous Inquisitor-General remarks at one point, summing up his terror of the destabilized world-view he sees in the work of Hobbes, Locke, and Galileo. But this conflict of world views is what the novel is really about, and the aliens whose spacecraft crashes in the village of Quintas—the principal science fiction elements of the novel—are essentially used as no more than a lens through which to focus the essentially historical concerns of the narrative.

Anthony’s next novel, Flanders, a brutal combat novel of the First World War, virtually does away with all fantastic apparatus except one, and that is attached to only one character: the epistolary narrator Travis Lee Stanhope, a Texas sharpshooter attached to a unit of the British Expeditionary Force, is gifted with second sight. His premonitions can save members of his unit from being in the wrong place at the wrong time while under artillery bombardment, and his recurrent dreams of an ornate cemetery and a girl in calico enable him to keep contact with the dead—and eventually to foresee the fates of the living (his own future, however, remains mercifully clouded in mist). It may be a mark of Anthony’s cleverness that her sole concession to the supernatural takes the form of such an archaic trope; belief in second sight was so common in the era of spiritualism that it hardly disturbs the fabric of the tale’s historical realism. But Flanders proves to be a transgenre novel in more senses than simply combing psychic powers with historical settings: the novel also freely appropriates the effects of horror fiction as well. Of course, a natural alliance exists between horror stories and war stories, an alliance that we have seen exploited by Peter Straub’s depictions of the Vietnam War in Koko and The Throat. Anthony achieves a similar effect, investing all her strongly realized characters with a sense of impending doom (even Travis’s name, with its obvious echo of the Alamo, seems to presage his fate) and putting her hero through a relentless parade of exploded, burning, disemboweled, decaying, rat-gnawed, and maggot-ridden bodies. With its surrealistic trench-warfare setting and its moments of supernatural insight, Flanders is a novel imbued with the sensibilities of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, but that aggressively colonizes the narrative territory of historical fiction and the combat novel.

British author Stephen Baxter, initially known for his universe- and millennia-spanning cosmic epics in the tradition of Arthur C. Clarke, moved even further than Anthony in the direction of literally incorporating full-scale historical fictions into an overarching science fiction context. Baxter’s interest in exploring the possibilities of historical fiction was already clearly evident in his 2003 novel Coalescent, which traced centuries in the history of a British family, beginning in late Roman Britain, although it combines this saga with a contemporary family mystery, ends with a pair of chapters set on a distant planet, and leads to two sequels (Exultant, 2004, and Resplendent, 2007) which are pure SF in Baxter’s cosmological mode. His next series of novels, however, represents a far bolder experiment in developing historical fiction as literally a subset of science fiction. Titled Time’s Tapestry, this series began with Emperor in 2006, continued with Conqueror and Navigator in 2007, and concluded with Weaver in 2008. What is remarkable about this series is the manner in which each successive novel, set in a different period of British history, gradually brings a governing science fiction template toward the foreground, until by the final volume Weaver we realize that each of these historical episodes is actually subsumed into a science fiction narrative—even though the earlier novels in the series contain minimal overt fantastic elements. Essentially, Baxter has written a series of historical novels (or actually novellas, since the first three volumes in the series are comprised of ten discrete episodes) that retroactively are revealed to be science fiction, invoking time travel and alternate histories, as well as historical fiction. [16]

The first volume of Time’s Tapestry, Emperor, is essentially three novellas tracing a British family from 4 B.C. through the end of Roman rule. The sole clue to a science-fictional superstructure is a cryptic prophecy uttered in 4 B.C. by the dying mother of the family patriarch Nectovelin. Spoken in Latin—a language the woman could not possibly know—the prophecy foretells the coming of three emperors, the building of Hadrian’s wall, and what is evidently the American Declaration of Independence (the prophecy refers to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"). While the meanings of most of these prophecies become clear after the events come to pass, the reference to the Declaration of Independence remains unexplained in the novel—suggesting that its meaning will become evident only in later volumes. The prophecies are preserved through generations of Nectovelin’s family, covering the Roman invasion of Britain in A.D. 43, the building of Hadrian’s wall in the second century A.D., and the fourth-century reign of Constantine, who proves to be a central figure in the prophecy’s meaning. The novel ends with another birth and another prophecy, paralleling the opening, only now the prophecy is in yet a different tongue—Saxon—thus setting the stage for Baxter’s next novel.

Conqueror, the second novel in the series, is organized around successive appearances of Halley’s comet between A.D. 607 and 1066, and opens with a Saxon boy and a Norse soldier searching for that second prophecy from the end of Emperor, now some two hundred years old. They find it in the possession of the ancient Ambrosius, called the "last Roman," who explains that it predicts a great war and the rise of an Aryan empire—references immediately recognizable to twentieth-century readers—and that it is the work of the Weaver, "who sits in his palace of the future and sees all—and schemes to establish the new Rome." [17] Almost echoing the Hari Seldon of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories (perhaps the most famous earlier example of science fiction appropriating historical narratives for its own ends), Ambrosius explains that the prophecy must be fulfilled exactly "if this shining future is to come to pass. Otherwise darkness will surely fall." The next three tales in the novel follow the prophecy through several centuries, including a Viking invasion, Alfred’s defeat of the Danes, and the Norman invasion. Still another set of anomalies is introduced—detailed drawings of complex war machines produced by a near-autistic orphan, which, together with an account of Leif Erikson’s westward voyages to discover Vinland and the first stirrings of the eastward Crusades, seem designed to set up the central conflict of Baxter’s third volume, Navigator.

Navigator introduces yet another prophecy. In the ruins of a York laid waste by the Normans, a brutalized woman named Eadgyth speaks in a voice clearly not her own of a powerful figure called the Dove, who must be made to fly west rather than east. We eventually learn that this refers to Christopher Columbus. Those da Vinci-like war machines imagined by the autistic child in Conqueror, it turns out, are actually being built in Spain, one of Baxter’s more villainous figures proposes to use them in an apocalyptic war against Islam, and if King Ferdinand can be persuaded to support Columbus’s westward explorations rather than the eastern war, civilization may be saved. While this novel again features historical setpieces such as the Muslim Siege of Seville in 1248, the science fiction elements clearly move to the forefront. We learn that the mysterious Weaver from the future is engaged in a struggle with another figure called the Witness to alter history, as in Fritz Leiber’s famous series of Change War tales. Other SF devices appear: a mysterious monk named Alfred may himself be a time traveler. A strange "amulet" shows up in thirteenth-century Jerusalem, apparently a voice recorder that when shattered reveals metal disks and other electronic bits. The superweapons from those drawings come to full fruition, with submarines, gatling-gun-like cannons, and flying machines being prepared for the holy war against the Muslims. The future represented by these weapons, one character speculates, is the result of the Weaver’s meddling, while the Witness—possibly an inhabitant of that disastrous future—seeks to divert history in another direction: toward the discovery of a new world. By now, Baxter has set up so many possible alternate histories and made so explicit the theme of engineering history that his fourth volume will almost have to resolve into pure science fiction.

And so it is, but perhaps not in the manner we would expect. While it was clear that Baxter would reveal the identities of the Weaver and the Witness and how they managed to influence historical events and plant prophecies across time, his first surprise is in neatly dispatching both of these questions within the first few pages of Weaver. In the first place, the secret lies not in our future, nor even in our present, but in an alternate England during the early years of World War II. A brief prologue, set in an early computer lab at MIT in 1940, shows us how the first of the prophecies was transmitted into the past, involving something called a Differential Analyser, a brilliant young physicist (and former student of Gödel) with the rare ability to project his dreams along Gödelian closed timelike curves, and notions of time and consciousness that suggest Gödel, Husserl, and even J. W. Dunne.

Unlike the earlier novels, Weaver is a single tale in a single setting: England between 1940 and 1943. As such, it achieves a coherence and narrative suspense that makes it qualitatively different from the earlier volumes. Instead of choosing the episodic saga as his form, Baxter echoes the classic British Invasion scenarios that became so popular in the decades following George Chesney’s "The Battle of Dorking" in 1871. Baxter’s jonbar point, or fulcrum for alternate time streams, is a failed Dunkirk evacuation (historically, a Panzer general was actually positioned to attack the trapped British force, but didn’t), which leads to Churchill falling from power and the Nazis mounting a land invasion of southern England and establishing a protectorate called Albion. The Nazis hope to capture Ben Kamen—that student of Gödel’s whom we met back in the prologue—and use his wild talent to alter history and establish the ten-thousand-year Reich mentioned in the ancient prophecies. But despite the revelation that some of the manipulations of the past originated from this scenario, it’s never entirely clear whether those distortions actually take hold, or the extent to which we are now invited to read those historical novels as themselves alternate histories leading to this point. In the end, the Time’s Tapestry series evokes the central questions of the best alternate history tales: Is time malleable? Are we living in the wrong history? Do our choices matter? Such questions are among the key reasons readers tend to regard the alternate history tale as a subset of SF—rather than as fantasy—and Baxter may well have gone further than any other novelist toward suggesting that historical fiction may itself be a subset or special case of the alternate history subgenre.

Science Fiction Thrillers [contents]

Another genre that science fiction writers have been attempting to colonize with some regularity is that of the suspense thriller. Here the dissolution of genre boundaries is more subtle, since the imaginative material and narrative conventions of science fiction may be retained, while the plot, structure, and tone are borrowed from a mode of paranoid pursuit melodrama pioneered in espionage novels from John Buchan to Robert Ludlum. Initially, those novelists who seemed most successful—at least commercially—in effecting this merger were novelists whose starting point was the thriller rather than the science fiction tale: Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, and Peter Benchley are among the most prominent examples, with Crichton having based nearly his entire career on science fiction conceits. Occasionally, professional science fiction writers have ventured with some success into this arena (Frank Robinson’s The Power, 1956; D. F. Jones’ Colossus, 1966), but for the most part the very intellectual challenges that traditionally define an effective technological science fiction story seem to mitigate against the largely anti-intellectual (or at least anti-scientist), technologically ambivalent tone of the paranoid thriller. This may be a rare case where the most visible barriers separating two related genres lie in ideologies of power rather than in narrative mechanisms. Nevertheless, science fiction writers fairly consistently try to bridge the gap, sometimes very successfully (as with Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, which freely uses the multiple viewpoints and globe-hopping locations of thriller fiction, but offers a solidly imagined evolutionary speculation as its thematic center; or Ken MacLeod’s 2007 The Execution Channel, which treats themes of terrorism and environmental catastrophe with an unusual degree of political sophistication), more often with mixed results (such as Ben Bova’s Death Dream [1994] or Wil McCarthy’s Murder in the Solid State [1996], novels you have most likely never heard of for this very reason) . [18]

One science fiction writer who consistently tried to expand into the thriller market is Gregory Benford, one of the premiere hard SF writers of the last three decades; his most famous novel, Timescape (1980), was praised for its mainstream virtues, particularly its depiction of academic scientists at work in the 1960s, as well as its ingenious plot involving cross-time communication. In 1985, Benford published Artifact, a near-future archeological thriller involving the discovery of an ancient Minoan artifact that seems to contain some sort of alien singularity that, if released, could have catastrophic effects. Despite the sophisticated physics that goes into the explanation of the artifact (some of which is relegated to an appendix at the back of the novel), this central science-fictional device is for the most part reduced to the role of a MacGuffin (to use Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an object whose sole purpose is to motivate characters) in what is primarily a novel of international political intrigue and adventure. Later, recognizing that novels like this were on the far edge of the genre in which he already had built a substantial reputation, Benford adopted the pseudonym Sterling Blake for his thriller Chiller (1993), a Robin Cook–style suspense novel involving cryonics.

In 1997, Benford returned again to this field under his own name with Cosm, which—despite another ingenious device at its center, again drawn solidly from theoretical physics (a chrome-like sphere accidentally created in a uranium nuclei experiment turns out to be a window into a newly created micro-universe—the "Cosm" of the title)—was sufficiently driven by a simple chase-and-pursuit plot that it briefly attracted the attention of Hollywood. But the novel is the result of two genres virtually laid one on top of the other, with the Cosm itself serving, on the one hand, as an inventive and evocative novum in the most traditional science fiction sense, and on the other as a thriller-MacGuffin like the artifact in Artifact. When the heroine, a Black physicist named Alicia Butterworth, removes the object from the laboratory at Brookhaven where it was created, she finds herself in the midst of an adventure tale involving fundamentalists, federal marshals, bureaucrats, and academic politics, while the provocative notion of a mini-universe evolving at a rate millions of time faster than our own takes a back seat to the cat-and-mouse pursuit plot. As in Artifact, Benford offers an afterword arguing for the plausibility of the physics involved, but for the purposes of the thriller aspect of the novel, the Cosm is for the most part simply a very strange object that might explode, like a smuggled atom bomb or a vial of deadly viruses.

Benford’s most successful foray in transforming science-fictional materials into the materials of the commercial thriller is the novel Eater, published in early 2000. Eater seems almost a deliberate exercise in genre dissolution. It begins as an astronomical puzzle, and in rapid succession turns into a first-contact tale, a world-threatening disaster epic, a tragic romance, a space adventure, and an ontological fable that returns to one of Benford’s favorite science fiction themes: the relation of organic to artificial intelligences in the universe. Benjamin Knowlton is a distinguished astrophysicist at the Mauna Kea observatory. His wife, an ex-astronaut, is suffering from late-stage terminal cancer as the novel opens. When a young colleague presents Knowlton with evidence of what appears to be a highly anomalous astronomical artifact—a repeating gamma ray burster—he is initially skeptical, but hesitant to discourage the enthusiasm of a younger, more idealistic scientist. One of the most impressive aspects of these early chapters is the manner in which Benford convincingly describes the real-life problems of science and science management; the varying styles of intellectual problem solving and reacting to new phenomena are an important part of the characterization of his major figures, and coping with scientific and political bureaucracies becomes an important survival skill as the plot unfolds.

The young scientist’s measurements hold up, however, and the mysterious object—which has many of the characteristics of a black hole—is not only real, but is headed toward Earth at a startling rate. The object, which comes to be known as "Eater of All Things" because of its tendency, like a black hole, to consume objects in its path, proves to be intelligent—apparently the remnant of an ancient civilization that, when faced with doom at the hands of the black hole, downloaded itself into the singularity’s magnetic fields and has been cruising the universe ever since, collecting samples from various civilizations. Now it demands the uploaded minds of several hundred humans—whom it identifies by name—to add to the collection. To underline the seriousness of its demands, it burns a huge swath across eastern North America, including the Washington, D.C. area. The scientists—who by now must contend with paranoid government bureaucracies as well as the all-powerful and possibly deranged alien—face the Abraham-like dilemma of whether to offer up the sacrifices. As a kind of supreme sacrifice, the dying astronaut volunteers to have her consciousness uploaded into a space vehicle, in the hopes that she can at least do some damage to the seemingly invincible alien. As do all seemingly invincible aliens, these have an Achilles heel waiting to be discovered, and while Benford’s version of it is more sophisticated and intelligent than most, the final chapters of the novel veer toward crowd-pleasing escapades and uncomfortable echoes of far less sophisticated works, including such pop films as Independence Day, Contact, and Armageddon.

Eater works well enough as a science fiction novel, in terms of its scientist characters, the depiction of alien intelligence, and the nature of the central problem and solution, that it might seem perverse to cite it in the context of novels that test the boundaries of genre, or that contribute to the dissolution of their source genre. But the solid science fiction narrative at its core is repeatedly diluted by echoes of other genres—not only the thriller, but the epic disaster novel (which Benford had visited before with his 1980 Shiva Descending, co-authored with William Rotsler), the academic novel, and the mainstream novel of science, which Benford had blended effectively with a science-fictional conceit in his classic Timescape. Still, the novel must be counted as a more successful hybrid of science fiction and the thriller than some prominent examples of the reverse—novels by thriller writers seeking to exploit science-fictional plots—such as James Patterson’s Where the Wind Blows (1998) or Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), both of which cavalierly violate the terms of their science fiction rationales in order to expediently deliver the next chapter-ending cliffhanger.

Science Fiction/Science Fantasy/Fantasy [contents]

Finally, there is the most obvious candidate of all for science fiction’s imperialist impulses, the sister genre of fantasy. As we have already seen, the most important of the fantasy pulp magazines, Unknown, was founded by John W. Campbell, Jr., largely as a venue for fantastic stories that did not meet his rather narrow technological criteria for Astounding Science Fiction, even though many of these stories were from regular Astounding contributors. But Campbell’s materialistic bias tended to influence these writers toward a more highly rational, less numinous brand of fantasy that already, in 1939, had much in common with science fiction. Unknown’s authors included Henry Kuttner, L. Sprague de Camp, Eric Frank Russell, L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Williamson, Theodore Sturgeon, and even Robert A. Heinlein, and their characteristic approach to fantasy was to treat it as a kind of alternative science, with its own rigorous but internally consistent rules and a minimum of mythological supernaturalism. On several occasions, a fantasy template would be introduced and developed only to be resolved, in sometimes clunky endings, as the work of aliens interfering in human affairs. This, at least, was the central conceit of Eric Frank Russell’s Fortean novel Sinister Barrier, which was the lead story in the first issue of Unknown in March 1939 and which to some extent set the tone for the skeptical approach to fantasy that would characterize much of the magazine’s fiction. [19] "They" (1940), for example, one of Heinlein’s three contributions to the magazine, presents a classically paranoid vision of a world the protagonist believes to be constructed entirely for his own benefit, only to reveal in the closing paragraphs that the Dr. Hayward to whom he has been revealing his suspicions is in fact a strange creature called "The Glaroon" who indeed is supervising every aspect of his life as though it were a scientific experiment or military observation. Heinlein stops short of explaining in science-fictional terms who or what the Glaroon is and what his motives are, but only this withheld explanation would seem to qualify the tale as fantasy. (Later, of course, Philip K. Dick would virtually make a career out of paranoid visions of reality resolved into science-fictional scenarios, and later still, films such as The Truman Show would exploit this basic fantasy in pop-media terms. [20])

"Rationalized fantasy" of one sort or another has been a common enough device over the years to earn no fewer than three definitions in John Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997): works in which such fantasy elements as magic are given quasi-scientific rules, Unknown-style; works in which the fantasy elements are explained away altogether, and works in which fantasy elements are transmuted into SF tropes—elves or witches turning out to be mutants with psychic powers, for example, or the dragons of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels revealed as the product of genetic engineering. [21] This sort of device has been commonly used to rationalize aspects of supernatural horror as well, with trumped-up biomedical explanations for vampirism so common as to have generated a small but persistent narrative tradition of their own, from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) to Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard (1989) and Dan Simmons’s Children of Night (1992). Works in what appears to be a fantasy landscape but is in fact a science-fictional world are even more common, and this kind of hybridization—sometimes called "science fantasy," in one of that term’s various incarnations—has provided the template for some of the most powerful ongoing narrative traditions in either field: the romantic epic set in such a distant world that connections to our own are nearly unrecognizable, such as Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth (1950), and its most important heir, Gene Wolfe’s four-volume Book of the New Sun (1980–1983). [22] All these examples are what Mark W. Tiedemann calls "seed stories," which eventually give rise to the more radical genre-mixing of writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Carroll, and Michael Swanwick.

Such narratively complex genre mixing, in which the narrative is not necessarily resolved according to the protocols of either fantasy or science fiction, is somewhat less common than rationalized fantasy. Some earlier experiments in this area were little more than crude tricks of marketing, such as Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series of novels, which began with Split Infinity (1980) and generated a roomful of sequels. Anthony’s gimmick involved a protagonist who moves between the science fiction world of Proton and the fantasy world of Phaze; both worlds are portrayed in terms of the most generic clichés, and the narrative simply shifts between worlds at convenient points like a juggling act. A much more provocative novel published the same year as Split Infinity is the British novelist Ian Watson’s The Gardens of Delight, which ingeniously provides a science fiction rationale for what appears to be a purely spiritual landscape in the tradition of David Lindsay, in this case a planet whose exotic landscape and inhabitants seems to be a living realization of Hieronymous Bosch’s famous apocalyptic painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. (It is also worth noting that 1980 saw the publication of The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.)

A writer who has made something of a career out of conflating such genre protocols is Sheri S. Tepper, whose first published novels, the True Game series (1983–1984), followed the pattern of science fantasy by introducing fantasy tropes into what was essentially a science fiction environment. Her 1991 novel Beauty freely combines elements of fairy tale (the Sleeping Beauty tale), historical fiction (the fourteenth-century setting of the novel’s opening), science fiction (the presence of time-travelers), and genre fantasy; and in later works, she has played deliberately with genre expectations. A Plague of Angels (1993) is one of her more successful novels in this regard, aggressively challenging the commonly held genre assumptions that one can’t mix spaceships and robots with dragons and ogres or place high-tech cities in the middle of medieval fairy-tale landscapes. Like Gene Wolfe, Tepper uses SF concepts to generate what appears to be a fantasy environment, and then gradually leaks out the science-fictional underpinnings so that the novel appears to shift genre as we’re reading it. Science fantasy of this type is so easy to do badly ("Good Heavens! The oracle is a computer!") that when it works it’s especially impressive—a way of asserting, as does the most effective postgenre writing, that the author and not the genre is in control of the material. But A Plague of Angels plays with this issue of authorial control in ways unusual even for this unusual genre.

Early on, the novel calls attention to its own textuality as we learn that a young girl named Orphan lives in an "archetypal village" where everyone fulfills a traditional fairy-tale role: hero, oracle, miser, and so on. What seems odd is that the characters know that it’s an archetypal village, and refer to it as such in the text. So do other characters, such as a farm boy named Abasio, who sets out hobbit-like to have an adventure and ends up in the violent and seedy city of Fantis. Dominated by youth gangs and plagued by drug abuse and immune-deficiency diseases, Fantis quickly reveals that this world is neither as innocent nor as pastoral as it seems. By the time we learn that the "witch" Ellel is seeking to dominate the world with the aid of an army of androids and weapons that she hopes to retrieve from a long-abandoned space station, the reader confidently assumes that the setting is a disguised SF environment, the novel a variety of rationalized fantasy. But then Tepper introduces the talking animals. Much of the appeal of A Plague of Angels comes from learning how and why this world came to be; much also comes from watching Tepper adroitly fit new pieces into her puzzle as the narrative progresses. We watch Abasio and Orphan grow from childhood to adulthood as their destinies gradually intertwine; we learn that neither is quite who they seem to be; and of course we learn from crucially placed clues that the world isn’t what it seems to be, either. This rich background gives rise to a plot that on its surface is the simplest of fairy tales: the wicked witch pursuing the innocent orphan for nefarious purposes, while the farmer’s son helps her evade capture and gradually enlists the aid of whole armies of allies, each with different strengths. The concluding epic battle fits easily with the traditions of both heroic fantasy and heroic science fiction, and even then we are still learning new and significant revelations about the world and the place of humans in it.

The final author who I would like to consider in terms of the increasingly complex relationship between fantasy, science fiction, and horror is the relatively young Sean Stewart, whose first experiment with genre expectations was the 1993 novel Nobody’s Son. Like Tepper’s A Plague of Angels, this novel begins in what appears to be a highly conventionalized fantasy world in which the title character, a commoner named Shielder’s Mark, successfully exorcises the haunted "Ghostwood," which had foiled his society’s greatest heroes, and then returns to claim as his prize the hand of the king’s daughter. But there he confronts a court ridden with political intrigue and clearly annoyed by this upstart interloper. He finds that his real quest has yet to begin—overcoming his own intimidation and lack of education, and winning the respect of the court, the tomboyish Princess Gail, and her elegant lady-in-waiting Lissa. When he is awarded a dukedom, he finds himself thoroughly inept at managing affairs, and increasingly dependent on the politically savvy Lissa. His new bride even refuses to sleep with him, because she wants to put off having children. For most of the novel, it would seem that the fantasy setting is little more than a convenient backdrop for a coming-of-age tale with vivid, likeable characters, and indeed these characters are the novel’s major strength. But then the fantasy reasserts itself as it becomes apparent that his initial heroic act has had the unforeseen consequence of releasing magic back into the world. For the reader, it comes as something of a surprise that this apparently generic fantasy world had ever lacked magic; the novel—which at first had deliberately undercut the happy-ever-after endings of traditional fairy tales with problems drawn from the realistic novel of manners (political rivalries, spousal rejection, financial management)—now reasserts its fantasy content in terms that have given it far greater depth. The novel shifts its genre footings twice: once by revisioning the happy ending of fairy tales and quest fantasies, then by reintroducing magic.

The return of magic to the world is also a central element in Stewart’s remarkable series of novels (not really a trilogy, in terms of plot) that started with Resurrection Man (1995) and continued with The Night Watch (1997) and Galveston (2000), all of which share the premise that magic began to reassert itself in the Western world (there are strong suggestions it never really left China) following World War II, when Golems began to appear in the Nazi death camps. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, minotaurs bred of collective fear roam city streets, psychically sensitive "angels" assist police investigations, ghosts and dead bodies materialize out of nowhere, and the management of human affairs is increasingly given over to "krewes" associated with various supernatural figures or resurrected gods. Fragments of recognizable but altered history survive, however: although John Kennedy was assassinated, a psychic helped avert the murder of Robert Kennedy, who became president. But not everything is changed. Poverty and street gangs still haunt the cities, and in a cleverly written conversation in Resurrection Man that succinctly interrogates the whole notion of alternate worlds, several characters wonder if the film Star Wars could ever have been made without the return of magic.

This alternate-world setting seems to place these novels clearly in what had become one of the most popular SF traditions during the 1980s and 1990s, but the very opening scene of Resurrection Man seems taken straight from the pages of supernatural horror, as the protagonist prepares to perform an autopsy on what appears to be his own dead body, which somehow materialized on his bedroom dresser. But soon we learn that this protagonist, Dante, seems himself to be a figure of fantasy, possessing some of the powers of an angel; furthermore, he is assisted by his ghost-like foster-brother Jet and his sister Sarah, a stand-up comedian. Dante views the corpse as an omen of his own impending death, and as the action unfolds during the following week—presumably Dante’s last—he and his siblings uncover a series of dark secrets about their Hungarian-American family, Jet’s birth, and a daughter who Sarah miscarried years earlier. Meanwhile, Laura Chen, a Chinese-American architect with whom Dante is secretly in love, becomes involved with the family after she discovers a break-in at Dante’s apartment back in the city. Nearly all these characters have problems that, like those that undercut the fairy-tale atmosphere of Nobody’s Son, derive from the realistic novel of character, but nearly all of their problems come to find symbolic analogues in the re-emergent magic of Stewart’s world. Stewart’s carefully balanced yet poetic style (at its most haunting in a series of interpolated comments by Jet on family photos that he has taken) gives this unusual plot something of the flavor of a mainstream family saga, as well as of mystery, horror, and fantasy (a mix of genres that would also work successfully in Stewart’s unrelated 1998 novel Mockingbird).

While Resurrection Man is set in the very near future of this world, The Night Watch moves the action up to the late twenty-first century, when the magic is beginning to fade again. The Edmonton of The Night Watch is a city that has survived by dividing itself into magical and nonmagical districts, whereas Vancouver has fallen entirely under the sway of a phantasmagorical Chinatown. Something of these same contrasts are at work in Galveston, a setting chosen in part perhaps because of its borderland nature, an island that partakes of both New Orleans/Gulf coast culture and mainland Texas. The novel takes place mostly in 2028, midway between the two earlier novels, and introduces yet another set of science-fictional generic protocols: that of the post-apocalyptic novel in which society is reduced to a more primitive level of survival. For Joshua Cane and his family, the "flood" of magic seems a disaster comparable to the legendary 1900 Galveston hurricane in terms of the damage it has done to the human community. On parts of the Texas mainland, bands of marauders have turned to cannibalism, while tinkerers and mechanics like Josh’s friend Ham try with increasing desperation to keep the small supply of automobiles running on makeshift parts and scavenged gasoline. The return of magic has not done twenty-first-century Texas much good at all, in fact, and Stewart doesn’t miss many opportunities to point out how a return to an animistic world has created immense suffering.

Josh’s father has long since disappeared after losing his house and all his money in a poker game, and his mother dies of diabetes from lack of insulin. Like his mother, Joshua is a pharmacist—a holdover from the world of scientific rationality—who is rapidly being reduced to becoming a herbalist, since the few remaining stores of "pre-Deluge" medicine are dwindling, forcing them to derive crude medicines from local plants and herbs. Josh is forced to amputate a ten-year-old boy’s leg without anesthetic, even though Josh knows a small amount of penicillin would have cured him. After saving the wealthy debutante Sloane Gardner from an attack, he learns that her mother is also dying, but Sloane’s idea of helping her derives not from medicine, but from magic. The magic in Galveston is centered around a kind of addictive refuge from reality called Mardi Gras, a tacky amalgam of Las Vegas sideshows and New Orleans carnivals that functions much the way virtual reality does in cyberpunk fiction. Mardis Gras is dominated by an incarnation of the god Momus, the Greek god of mockery. When Sloane disappears, the corrupt local sheriff Denton and his sadistic deputy manage to frame Josh and his friend Ham, sending them into exile shortly before a massive hurricane threatens the entire Texas gulf coast. The hurricane, the novel’s major setpiece, effectively shifts the narrative into a survival-quest tale, with Josh and Ham, having to survive not only the storm but also the depredations of the cannibal-infested countryside before returning to Galveston for a climactic showdown with Denton, presented as an odd amalgam of magical fantasy and courtroom drama.

For most of its length, Galveston develops its narrative along the lines of a classic postcatastrophe tale, only Stewart’s catastrophe is not drawn from the repertoire of SF—nuclear war or universal plague or purple clouds—but from fantasy. Stewart’s choice of magic may well represent a conscious effort on his part to sabotage genre expectations, and the novel does this rather consistently, even offering a major natural disaster—a catastrophic hurricane—which turns his post-disaster world into a post-postdisaster world. With its high melodrama—pursuits and captures, heinous villains and goonish assistants, unrequited love, ladies in peril, and a huge, likeable, lumbering sidekick—Galveston is clearly the work of a writer familiar with a variety of genres and genre tropes, and not afraid to mix them freely.

Genre Implosion [contents]

"Fantasy is evaporating." At the risk of unseemly self-quotation, this is a sentence I found myself writing a few years ago in a review of the annual anthology The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (this anthology series remains the most effective and efficient way of following the developments of short fiction in these fields, and the lengthy introductions and summaries make it an important resource for the researcher as well as the casual reader). I meant to suggest not that the genre was in a state of collapse, but quite the opposite: that it had grown so diverse and ubiquitous that it seemed a central part of the fabric of contemporary culture—infiltrating other genres, the literary mainstream, otherwise conventional movies and TV programs, commercial art and advertising, music, theater, design, even pop ontology, as people showing no other outward signs of religious practice proclaim belief in angels, while Goths, Wiccans, Druids, Vampires, and Elves have their own websites and, in some cases, their own nightclubs and conventions. Fantasy, in other words, was in the air, like a mist. I could have said much the same thing about science fiction, and to a more limited extent about horror (which, of the three major fantastic genres, seems still to be struggling for identity). The writers who contribute to the evaporation of genre, who destabilize it by undermining our expectations and appropriating materials at will, with fiction shaped by individual vision rather than traditions or formulas, are the same writers who continually revitalize genre: a healthy genre, a healthy literature, is one at risk, one whose boundaries grow uncertain and whose foundations get wobbly. The authors discussed here—Straub, Benford, Baxter, Anthony, Ryman—are only the tip of a very large and imposing iceberg, and several more and lengthier essays could be devoted to those writers who, in the last decade or so, have moved even further along the postgenre path than some of those discussed here—Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Carroll, Paul Auster, Paul Di Filippo, Kelly Link, China Miéville, M. Rickert, Jeffrey Ford, and Elizabeth Hand, to name only a few. [23]

But there is another aspect to the destabilization of genre that is far less sanguine, and at which I have only hinted. While on one end of the spectrum are these writers who strive to free genre materials from genre constraints, and in the vast center are authors who work with apparent contentment within a genre, testing its possibilities without contesting its terms, at the other end are writers for whom genre seems to be its own reference point, if not very nearly the whole of the literary universe. For every Peter Straub or Stephen King, the horror genre is populated by dozens of writers of fatally limited ambition, who are content—even eager—to recycle familiar tropes and effects in increasingly crabbed and self-referential works that appear in tiny-circulation magazines or as evanescent paperbacks, their apparent goal being not to enter dialogue with earlier horror writers, but simply to echo them: a kind of literary karaoke. Much the same is true of many current fantasy trilogists and franchise authors, except that they are far more likely to enjoy substantial financial rewards. Science fiction writers who periodically proclaim the impending death of that genre cite as major culprits the flood of novelizations and franchises based on properties such as Star Trek, Star Wars, or The X-Files, which, it is claimed, divert the skills of talented novelists from their own work and crowd more imaginatively challenging science fiction off the bookstore shelves. [24] Publishing executives, drawn increasingly from the financial and marketing ranks of parent conglomerates, look only at prior sales records and pre-sold formula markets, further driving out fictions at the edges.

But there is at most limited evidence that any genre has been halted in its creative tracks by commercial franchises and corporate bottom lines; one might even argue that, as we saw at the beginning of this essay, popular genres owe at least a portion of their origins and growth to just such marketing decisions. But it is demonstrable that certain kinds of books, such as short story collections and experimental fictions, increasingly have shifted toward smaller, independent publishers. [25] Of greater concern than simple commercialism is the increasing self-referentiality of many genre texts, a narrowing of horizons that eventually leads to an accelerating inward spiral, resulting in a kind of genre implosion or collapse—virtually the opposite of the volatility represented by the more innovative and adventurous writers that has been the primary focus of this essay. Something very close to this happened in the horror field in the early 1990s, with designated mass-market imprints folding under the weight of too many novels that looked far too much like each other, or like replications of a handful of source texts. Genre implosion does not necessarily lead to the disappearance of a given genre, or even to a weakening of its market viability, but it can lead to atrophy and to a limited, self-contained readership, as happened with the Western novel after a half-century of dominance, with the series romance after a decade in which it grew to account for startling percentages of total paperbacks sold, and with the classical English-village murder mystery, which essentially devolved into a kind of puzzle recreation for a limited circle of devotees.

The fantastic genres, by virtue of the kinds of instability that I have attempted to delineate here in preliminary form, would seem to be less vulnerable to such genre-wide implosions—perhaps better able to sustain the depredations of formula abuse and rampant commercialization, but hardly immune to the damage from these forces. One can readily visualize a scenario in which science fiction, fantasy, and horror continue to evolve into postgenre modes of narrative discourse while leaving behind pools of comparatively degraded self-referential formula fictions. Already, it has become problematical to discuss in any meaningful way a "genre" that includes both Straub’s The Throat and teenage slasher movies, both the novels of Sheri Tepper and Star Wars novelizations, both Sean Stewart and Robert Jordan. In fact, the term "genre" itself has accrued almost too many meanings to be useful: in one sense, it simply refers to market categories; in another, it refers to a set of literary and narrative conventions; in yet another, it refers to a collection of texts with perceived commonalities of affect and world view. To some extent, these problems affect all genres: the work of John Le Carré (and before him of Graham Greene) has never quite nestled comfortably within the conventions of the espionage thriller, nor have those of P. D. James or Scott Turow fit easily into the mystery genre. In a few cases, such as that of Raymond Chandler and the hardboiled novel, the very works that helped to define the genre far surpassed what would eventually become the terms and conventions of that genre. But the fantastic genres in particular seem evolutionary by their very nature: science fiction must accommodate the shifting and often counterintuitive visions of base reality that science itself reflects; horror must accommodate the constantly transforming sources of the anxiety that it seeks to exploit; fantasy must accommodate the shifting dreams of a world no longer governed by the conventionalized desires of pastoral idealism. In the end, science fiction, fantasy, and horror are the genres that at their best, and by the very terms of the imaginative processes involved, transcend or supersede the old notions of genre. They are narrative modes that already have leaked into the atmosphere, that have escaped their own worst debilitations, and that have therefore survived.

Notes [contents]

  1. Kenneth C. Davis, Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 166. [return]
  2. Donald A. Wollheim, "The Science-Fiction Novel," New York Times, August 28, 1949. Available online. [return]
  3. Villiers Gerson, "Spacemen’s Realm," New York Times, January 13, 1952. Available online. [return]
  4. The situation in England was somewhat different in a purely literary sense, less so in terms of book markets. To be sure, a substantial tradition existed of post-Wells "scientific romances," ably documented by Brian Stableford in The Scientific Romance in England, 1890–1950 (London: Fourth Estate, 1985). But as Stableford notes, this tradition never really cohered as a popular market (only a handful of titles made their way into the Penguin line that dominated British paperbacks until the postwar years) and essentially disappeared as a separate tradition when Americanized science fiction began to appear in substantial numbers. Nor were British readers immune to the attractions of the American pulps: British fan societies existed on the model of the Americans, at least one British pulp (Tales of Wonder) began publishing in 1937, and more than one British reader from that era remembers the excitement of finding cheap copies of American pulps, which apparently had been imported after being used as ship ballast during the Lend-Lease years. [return]
  5. The term "supergenre" was employed by Eric S. Rabkin in The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976) and, in a somewhat broader sense, by R. D. Mullen in "Books in Review: Supernatural, Pseudonatural, and Sociocultural Fantasy," Science-Fiction Studies 16 (1978): 291–98. [return]
  6. In the horror field, an argument could be made that similar canon-defining anthologies include Dorothy L. Sayers’ three volumes of Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (1929–1934; retitled as The Omnibus of Crime series in the United States, and with somewhat different contents) and Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser’s Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944). The Sayers anthologies, with their substantial content of supernatural fiction in the "Mystery and Horror" sections, were almost certainly among the first respectable twentieth-century anthologies in England to identify horror as a distinct literary tradition, while the Wise and Fraser omnibus shared with Healy and McComas’s Adventures in Time and Space the distinction of being reprinted by Random House’s Modern Library, which meant that the books would remain widely available and in print for decades, thus influencing generations of readers. [return]
  7. Admittedly, this choice of key figures is supposed to be somewhat provocative, but not entirely arbitrary; although a case could be made for Isaac Asimov in science fiction and Poe in horror fiction, it seems to me that Heinlein and Lovecraft more directly set the terms of ideological debate for the writers who followed in their wake. These choices are in keeping with my view of genres defined more clearly by world-views than by conventionalized narrative tropes. [return]
  8. Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the 1940s (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1950), 288. [return]
  9. Bill Sheehan, At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub (Burton, Mich.: Subterranean Press, 2000), 148. [return]
  10. Peter Straub, quoted in Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Berkley, 1982), 251. [return]
  11. Rabkin, The Fantastic in Literature; W. R. Irwin, The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976; Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New York: Methuen, 1981). It has become virtually a critical commonplace in recent decades to describe the difference between science fiction and fantasy as the difference between the possible and the impossible. A more useful recent approach to discussing a taxonomy of fantasy on its own terms is Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2008). [return]
  12. Ryman’s work consistently has revealed a desire to meld or break genres: The Unconquered Country: A Life History (1984) conflates science fiction, fantasy, and historical realism in a radically distorted but easily recognized analogue of the Cambodian war; The Child Garden: A Low Comedy (1988) is a complex mix of alternate worlds, dystopia, drug novel, and realism; 253 (1998), originally published as a hypertext novel on the Internet, freely mixes the formalism of the French new novel (253 chapters of 253 words each, depicting the lives of 253 passengers on a London underground train) with closely observed psychological realism and, it is gradually revealed, elements of fantasy and secret history. More recently, he has revisited the issue of Cambodia from the perspective of an historical novel conjoined with a contemporary thriller (The King’s Last Song, 2006), the ghost story combined with alternate history ("Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)," 2006) and the historical fable combined with fantasy ("The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai," 2005). [return]
  13. The World Fantasy Award is selected annually by a panel of judges rather than by popular vote, and has never seemed too constrained about genre boundaries. The best novel award for 1989, for example, went to Peter Straub’s Koko, which as we have already seen was a nonfantastic mystery thriller, and in 1992 it went to Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, an essentially mainstream novel from a writer known for his horror fiction. [return]
  14. Daniel Keyes. Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer’s Journey (Boca Raton, Fla.: Challcrest Press, 1999), 111. [return]
  15. Lessing’s forays into science fiction include not only the well-known Canopus in Argos series of philosophical novels (1979–1983), but substantial elements of other novels such as The Four-Gated City (1969), The Fifth Child (1988)—which is also viewed by some readers as a horror novel—Memoirs of a Survivor (1981), and Mara and Dann (1999). Piercy’s best-known works in the field are Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and He, She, and It (1991). Atwood’s are The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003). Theroux’s most familiar title is O-Zone (1986), Updike’s is Toward the End of Time (1997), James’ is The Children of Men (1992), Winterson’s is The Stone Gods (2007), and Roth’s is The Plot against America (2004). [return]
  16. A similar device, considerably more understated, is employed in Neal Stephenson’s ambitious historical trilogy "The Baroque Cycle," consisting of Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004), and The System of the World (2004), and connected to Stephenson’s earlier novel Cryptonomicon (1999). Although the trilogy is set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and Cryptonomicon during World War II and in the 1990s, a mysterious and seemingly ageless character named Enoch Root shows up in all the novels, with fairly overt hints that he may be a time traveler and that the various histories he is involved in may be subject to manipulation. [return]
  17. Stephen Baxter, Conqueror (London: Gollancz, 2007), 55. [return]
  18. British novelists also have taken up the challenge of combining science fiction with the contemporary thriller, with comparably mixed results. Paul McAuley’s Whole Wide World (2001), White Devils (2004), and Mind’s Eye (2005) have explored different aspects of high-body-count thriller writing, while Ken Macleod’s The Execution Channel and Charles Stross’s Halting State (both 2007) might be counted as among the most impressive examples of using the combined science fiction/thriller mode to address contemporary political and social concerns. Meanwhile, other writers have chosen to combine the appropriation of the devices of historical fiction with those of the science-fictional thriller. Two of the more interesting recent forays into historical espionage fiction are Dan Simmons’s The Crook Factory (1999), which concerns Hemingway’s amateur spy ring in World War II Cuba, and Tim Powers’ Declare (2000), which takes place between the Cold War years of 1948 and 1963 and features Kim Philby as a major character. Simmons, who has sought deliberately to bring his readership across genres, has written successful horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream novels; The Crook Factory, with no fantastic elements, is his first serious foray into espionage, although he has written a series of hardboiled novels featuring a private eye named Joe Kurtz. Powers, a fantasist specializing in "secret history" narratives, seems a bit more subversive in Declare, which clearly draws its inspiration from John Le Carré during its first half, but then transforms itself into a spectacle filled with supernatural occurrences and fallen angels. [return]
  19. Charles Fort (1874–1932) was an American journalist who specialized in popular compilations of mysterious or inexplicable phenomena, which he consistently employed to tweak scientists and the scientific world view. The Fortean Society, founded in 1931, included such luminaries as Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, and Alexander Woollcott, but his most direct influence in fiction is to be found in the stories of Russell and other contributors to Unknown and to a lesser extent Astounding Science Fiction. Science fiction writer Damon Knight published a biography of Fort in 1970, and a magazine, The Fortean Times, continues to be published. [return]
  20. One of Dick’s earliest novels, Time Out of Joint (1959), has been noted by several critics to bear resemblances to the film The Truman Show, in that both begin with characters unaware that their entire community is a sham constructed for their benefit, but Dick quickly moved on to more complex and sophisticated versions of alternate reality, including The Man in the High Castle (1962), in which a world where the Nazis won is shown to be a sham—but in which the real world is not our own; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and A Scanner Darkly (1977), both of which explore the alternate realities of hallucinogenic drugs; Ubik (1969), which examines the notion of reality as perceived by a consciousness preserved in a machine; and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), in which androids may be indistinguishable from humans even to themselves. [return]
  21. John Clute and John Grant, eds., The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 801–802. [return]
  22. Two of the more insightful discussions of science fantasy as a subgenre may be found in Carl D. Malmgren’s Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) and Brian Attebery, Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992). [return]
  23. Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) freely mixed elements of fantasy, dystopia, surrealism, and the hardboiled detective novel, and his 1995 collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye is a veritable sampler of the free appropriation of multigenre materials. Carroll initially gained popularity among horror readers, although his complex first novel The Land of Laughs (1980) borrows at least as much from fantasy. More recent novels like The Marriage of Sticks (1999) and The Wooden Sea add elements of science fiction and the "village" novel. Auster’s New York Trilogy (City of Glass [1985], Ghosts [1986], The Locked Room [1986]) ingeniously manipulated the conventions of the detective story to create metaphysical puzzles of identity with overtones of supernatural and horror fiction. Di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy (1995) is a collection of three tales that draw freely on conventions of fantasy, science fiction, and horror ("steampunk" is a term sometimes used to refer to alternate-world SF based on or in nineteenth-century science, but this is only marginally the case with Di Filippo’s tales, one of which, for example, imagines a fantasy-world love affair between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson). Stepan Chapman’s The Troika (1998) begins as a surrealistic fable set in an apparent dreamscape, but increasingly invokes genre tropes to destabilize our initial impression by offering hints of both more traditional science fiction and fantasy. Elizabeth Hand began her career with three science fiction novels, but in the loosely connected narratives of Waking the Moon (1995), Black Light (1999), and the title story of the collection Last Summer at Mars Hill (1998), she draws upon conventions of fantasy, horror, and the more limited subgenre of occult fiction. [return]
  24. "The enormous pressure to become a reliable cash cow has resulted in a big portion of bookstore shelf space being taken up by franchise work, reinforcing wish-fulfillment fantasies of people in search of an entertaining escape from reality," wrote Kim Stanley Robinson in a symposium of comments in Nebula Awards 33: The Year’s Best SF and Fantasy Chosen by the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, ed. Connie Willis (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 255. The annual Nebula Awards anthologies have for several years included such "symposia" in which various writers and editors comment upon the state of the field, and Robinson’s comment expresses succinctly one of the most persistently recurring themes in these annual assessments. See also the rather gloomy prognostications in Nebula Awards 30, ed. Pamela Sargent (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996) and in Nebula Awards Showcase 2000, ed. Gregory Benford (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2000). [return]
  25. As an example, the science fiction newsmagazine Locus compiles an annual list of recommended books in each of several categories—novels, collections, anthologies, and the like. In the category of single-author story collections (not including British or Australian publications), the recommended list for the year 2000 included twenty-three titles, only seven of which—30.4 percent—were published by large commercial publishers. The same list for the year 1990 yielded eighteen titles, eleven—or 61.1 percent—published by commercial presses. By 2007, the list included seventeen titles, only one of which (5.8 percent) came from such a publisher. [return]



Gary K. Wolfe is a science fiction editor, critic, and biographer. He is Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies.
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