Thursday, May 3, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XIII: What the Hell is a Genre, Anyway?

If you ask somebody to define a genre, chances are they'll list a bunch of criteria they consider to be the essential elements of it. For instance, you'd probably describe the Western as stories set on the American frontier during the 19th Century, and indeed that would encompass the vast majority of stories we think of as Westerns, from High Noon to Deadwood. But it wouldn't encompass all of them. Take The Wild Bunch, a film widely recognized as one of the greatest Westerns of all time --- and yet, it's set in Mexico in 1913. Roy Rogers, one of the most iconic Western heroes, flew around in airplanes and had his own Jeep in the movies. And that's not even touching on City Slickers (set in the 1990s), Quigley Down Under (set in Australia), or Osterns (Soviet films about the Russian subjugation of Siberia and Central Asia). It is in fact impossible to create an all-encompassing definition of the Western -- or indeed any genre -- without resorting to special pleading.

That's because people misunderstand what a genre is. The word comes from the same Latin root as genus and genealogy -- terms that denote origins and family relationships. A genre isn't a grouping based upon some rigid definition; it's a way of looking at the way works relate to each other, and classing them into families based upon that.

One way to think of it is as a conversation. When Karel Capek's play Rossum's Universal Robots appeared in the US, it spurred a number of science fiction authors to write knock-offs about robotic revolts, fitting the basic plot to whatever their political bugaboo was. But Isaac Asimov hated these stories, seeing them as Luddite in their orientation, so he wrote his own stories in which robots are programmed with the Three Laws which prevent revolts. Jack Williamson looked at what Asimov was doing, though, and felt the stories were overlooking something very basic, so he responded with a story of his own called "With Folded Hands," about robots who are programmed to keep humans from getting hurt. They take this commandment so literally that they won't let humans do anything might even theoretically result in injuries -- which includes any physical activity beyond breathing. Other writers took up the cause, coming up with their own variations -- D.F. Jones wrote Colossus about a computer that enslaves humanity to fulfill its mission of preventing war; Phillip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to question whether humans have the right to enslave their creations; James Cameron wrote Terminator, which shows that any artificial intelligence humans create will be an extension of our own shortcomings; even Asimov returned to the subject by having his robots posit a Zeroth Law, which places the good of humanity above that of any individual.

Some might look at that and conclude simply that science fiction includes stories about robots. Others might advance a slightly more complex argument that science fiction looks at the implications of technology such as robots. But both approaches miss the important point -- science fiction is the discussion that these authors are having through their work.

Likewise the Western is a discussion of imperialism along an anarchic, colonial frontier. Early entries in the genre were works of pure jingoism, but after World War II the discussion became more complex, and authors and filmmakers began to question the morality of the frontier. The Wild Bunch fits into the discussion by looking at what happened to the men who lived on the frontier after the frontier disappeared. City Slickers delves into modern nostalgia for the moral simplicity of early Westerns. Quigley Down Under and the Osterns recapitulate the tropes of the genre onto other colonial frontiers to compare Australia and Tsarist Russia to American imperialism.

This way of looking at genres has some important implications that are worth going over.

Genres Are Not Static

People often talk about genres as though they're fixed and immutable categories -- Frankenstein contains elements that are found in science fiction, therefore Frankenstein is a science fiction novel despite being written a century before Hugo Gernsback coined the the term. The assumption is that science fiction has always existed, and we're just putting works into the box where they belong.

But that's not the case as all. While the term "genre" predates Darwin by a good stretch, the fact that it's related to "genus" and "genealogy" and "genetic" should bring to mind evolutionary theory. When you look at things that are related over time, they are never constant. Variations creep in. Influences get blended in new ways. Eventually, they diverge into different branches, or merge together to create something new.

Frankenstein is an ancestor of science fiction, but it is not science fiction in the same way that an archaeopteryx is not a bird. If you approach Frankenstein as a science fiction text, you'll come away confused and frustrated because you're viewing it through the wrong lens. You have to look at it in the context of the Gothic genre to understand what Mary Shelley was going for.

Every Book Is a Thing Unto Itself

When discussing genre history, it's tempting to say things like, "Shockwave Rider is proto-cyberpunk," or "Voltaire's Micromegas is ur-science fiction," but such descriptions are back-projecting modern sensibilities where they didn't exist, and it slights the authors by making it sound like they only got halfway there --if only John Brunner had tried a little harder, he could've created cyberpunk 1975. But Brunner wasn't trying to write cyberpunk. He was trying to write Shockwave Rider, and he succeeded. You can't judge the book against a metric that didn't exist.

Which brings us to the corollary:

Genres Are Retrospective

Genres are created by authors responding to the themes of earlier works. The impetus of genre development is always on the more recent figure. Talking about how Frankenstein presaged The Island of Doctor Moreau, or was a forerunner of robotic revolt stories obscures this. Frankenstein didn't do anything in this relationship besides exist. It was H.G. Wells and Karel Capek who took ideas from Mary Shelley and built on them, just as she in turn took ideas from Ann Radcliffe and William Godwin and repurposed them to her own ends.

Genres Are Social Constructs

Some people think "social construct" means "made up and meaningless," but that's not the case at all. Money, after all, is a social construct--strips of paper and little bits of metal have no intrinsic value; we can only use them as a medium of exchange because society has agreed to treat them as valuable. And yet nobody would claim that money is meaningless.The act of collective belief imbues those strips of paper with value.

So too do genres have meaning insofar as readers and writers give them meaning. When books are segregated into different sections of a bookstore, and people make reading selections based upon those categorizations, the categories have a real impact. But they have no objective reality. No book is science fiction, or fantasy, or mystery. That is something we project on it based upon arbitrary criteria.

That Sweet Little Old Lady by Randall Garrett and Firestarter by Stephen King are both novels about people with psychic powers being hunted by government agents who want to harness said powers for the good of the country. Garrett's story is considered science fiction -- it was serialized in Astounding and nominated for a Hugo Award -- while King's is classed as a horror novel.

What's the difference betweem the two?

Not much, really. Neither book really considers the larger implications of psychic powers, and neither offers more than a hand-wavey explanation for how psionics work. Garrett tells his story in a more farcical style, with the government agents as heroes who have to deal with a batty old woman, whereas King's is a dark and cynical thriller inspired by the MK Ultra conspiracy, but no one has ever argued that tone is a defining feature of science fiction. Garrett set his story in the then-future of the 1970s, while Firestarter takes place in the then-present of the 1980s, but plenty of contemporary stories are considered science fiction.

No, the difference is perception. Randall Garrett was a science fiction writer. The story was published in a science fiction magazine. It won science fiction awards. The people who read it were science fiction fans, and it was part of a long dialogue within the genre about psychics. Stephen King, however, is considered a horror writer, and that's how readers approach his work, even when he brings in ideas from science fiction. Firestarter was shelved in the horror section, and only SF fans who also liked horror read it. As such, its influence has been on the horror genre, not science fiction.

Genres Are Culturally Contingent

The mystery genre emerged out the Gothic during the 19th Century, and during the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, there was no clear distinction between mysteries and supernatural fiction. Authors of one often dabbled in the other, and you can find many early mysteries that freely mix in elements of horror and fantasy. By the early 20th Century, Occult Detectives were nearly as popular as their more mundane counterparts, with long-running series feature fellows like Flaxman Low (by E. and H. Heron), John Silence (by Algernon Blackwood) and Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (by William Hope Hodgson).

But then in the 1920s, a number of fans and writers started pushing the concept of Fair Play mysteries -- the idea that an astute reader should be able to figure out whodunit by the time the detective does. They came up with a number of rule-sets, most notably Father Knox's Decalogue, which prohibited the inclusion of hackneyed plot devices like secret passages, Yellow Peril villains, and, yes, the supernatural. Mysteries writers who didn't heed these precepts soon found cool reaction, and those who still wanted to write about occult detectives migrated to fantasy and horror magazines.

In its pure form, the Fair Play school didn't last much past World War II, by which time hard-boiled and procedural mysteries were coming to dominate the genre, but the general concept of Fair Play remained, and the supernatural has never reentered the mystery genre.

At least not in the English speaking world.

In Japan, however, it's different. The Fair Play ideal had its impact there, but it didn't create a decisive schism between occult and mundane mysteries. Instead the two are seen as a conjoined genre, like science fiction and fantasy. Even a writer like Yukito Ayatsuji, who's a founding member of the Shin Honkaku (Neo-Orthodox) movement, which seeks to return to the Fair Play tradition, has written supernatural mysteries like Another. Many of the books and movies we term J-Horror in the West are considered a form of mystery in Japan.

Koji Suzuki's The Ring is a prime example, and you can see this in even the Hollywood adaptation. Here's a story of a reporter who looks into the mysterious death of their niece. After hearing a rumor about a videotape that causes you to die seven days after watching it, the reporter locates a remote cabin where their niece stayed a week before her death. There the reporter discovers the videotape and watches it, after which they receive a creepy phone call from a girl who whispers, "Seven days." The reporter decides to investigate the strange images on the videotape, and eventually discovers the murder of a girl on the spot where the cabin was built.

In form, this is a pure mystery that happens to have supernatural elements, and Japanese readers recognize it as such. But for American audiences, the inclusion of a ghost and a magical video cassette automatically disqualifies the work as a mystery.

The fact that genres can develop insularly is going to be important when we look at the history of science fiction, because the British, American and French traditions developed along different lines for much of their history, with only sporadic cross-fertilization.

Genre Fans Are Not Experts on Genre History

Very few people have had the luck to follow a genre from its inception, and nobody ever sits down and says, "Okay, I want to be a science fiction fan, so I'm going to start with everything Jules Verne wrote, then move on to H.G. Wells, then work through every magazine Hugo Gernsback ever edited, before doing the same with Astounding, Galaxy and Worlds of If." No, most people come to genres haphazardly.

A teenager who wants to get into science fiction today will likely start with John Scalzi or James S.A. Corey, then maybe jump back to Ender's Game, then forward to The Martian, then they'll dive into The Foundation series for a couple months before picking up Ancillary Justice because the cover art is similar Scalzi and Card novels. They'll be able to tell that some of these books are older than others because of how dated the technology is, but unless they make a habit of reading copyright pages, they probably aren't going to have a good sense of when Foundation was written in relation to Starship Troopers.

More importantly, when they turn back to the past, they're only going to be reading the high points of the genre -- they're going to skip tons and tons of dreck, most of which is long out of print. But dreck has a place in genre history. Many great books have been written because somebody read something and thought, "That was a cool idea, but damn the execution was horrible."

Now I want to stress, this is not an attempt at gate-keeping. Quite the contrary, in fact -- self-professed "True Fans" often have the worst grasp of genre history. They're steeped in fanlore, which they accept uncritically because they heard it from a favorite author, or it flatters their ego. Look at Star Trek fans who claim TOS featured the first interracial kiss on American television. This tale has been roundly debunked by numerous researchers, but Trekkies keep repeating it because they love the idea that they're part of this ground-breaking progressive fandom. Likewise, sexist and racist attitudes of the past can distort how history comes down to fans -- there were plenty of female mystery authors in the 19th Century, but they've largely been erased in favor of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. You can see something similar with science fiction and the erasure of women like Zenna Henderson.

This doesn't mean you have to sit down and wade through back issues of Astounding before you can understand science fiction. I certainly haven't. Thankfully other people have done that for us. You can pick up books on genre history that will contextualize the developments and major works of any genre. That's what I'm going to be relying upon as I discuss Frankenstein's place in genre history over the next few weeks.

To get started, we need to look at its roots in the Gothic genre.

NEXT WEEK: Goth Before It Was Cool

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