Long ago, when I was all hopped up on little sleep and theory readings, I tried to write a paper making the case that the most important genre marker of science fiction was not the nova that it introduces but the way it teaches the reader to read it as it goes. Now, I still sort of like that idea, but it’s too common in all texts to really work. I think my professor’s comment was something that boiled down to, “this is a very good paper, A, but the idea doesn’t make sense, don’t try to publish this.” Fair.
I’m telling you that because the way that a text shows you how to read it, and how to read the genre it is in, means a lot to me. And I think it’s important generally as well. I’ve written on genre a few times before, most recently in using genre theory to evaluate magic texts. But here, I want to talk about an experience I had with a novel and the general idea of reading using genre.
Empty Space and Me
Empty Space is a novel by M. John Harrison. It’s the middle book of the Light trilogy, and it is very, very good. I don’t want to review it for you, but in short, the book is about the aftermath of a person flying a ship into an artificial black hole kinda sorta thing. It crashes into a planet and makes a zone where reality shifts and weirds all the time.
Yes, it bears an obvious debt to Roadside Picnic. But anyway.
It’s also deeply reliant on the genre of hardboiled detective fiction. The detective does very little but sit in clubs and talk to people; the crook is stuck with his own mysterious feelings, going back into the site again and again; and there’s a woman of course, though this trope is handily complicated by the science fictional aspects.
And the thing is, I read it when it came out, over a decade ago, and I didn’t really like it. Light blew me away. I remember sitting in my dad’s armchair reading it and feeling like I was falling through space. Empty Space, in comparison, seemed dull. It was people wandering around talking and driving and having sex. Who cares?
Well, I mean, me, now. Personally, it was also a book that I think I could respond to as an adult rather than as a youth, an undergrad hungry for the weird shit (not that I’m less hungry for that now, I just appreciate other things too).
The thing to keep in mind is that I didn’t understand how to read hardboiled fiction at the time, because I hadn’t read any. I’d only read science fiction that made use of it.
As with any genre, hardboiled detective fiction has certain generic markers that signal to the reader what to do with the things they encounter.
So let’s come up with a hypothetical to begin with. There are three characters in a room. Two are men. One is a woman. The woman wants something from Man A. Man B wants to stop the woman from getting it.
What genre is this? It could be anything. The woman could be Alianne, from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, and the men could be the vice-regent and the master of the king’s guard.
The woman could be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Man A could be Sam Spade, and Man B could be Gutman, and they could be wrangling over the Maltese Falcon.
The woman could be Bridget Jones, Man A could be Mark Darcy, and Man B could be Daniel Cleaver, and Bridget could be deciding she wants a relationship with Darcy while Cleaver tries to convince her otherwise.
Three totally different genres, but one scene. Here’s a different way to think of it: it’s the same scene, but in option 1 the woman has sworn to save her charges from assassination to the god himself, who is standing in the corner. In option 2, Man A has used the word "dame" at least once and is drinking at work. In option 3, the woman is flirting ferociously after talking about her sex life with her best friend.
These aren’t plots, now, but genre markers. They’re vague, of course, and silly, but you see what they do: certain word choices, plot beats, or character types — such a literal god, that isn’t in our zero world at least — tell you what you’re reading. They alter the way that you interact with the text. It’s about expectations, as I said last time: you have a library of stuff built up in your head for certain genres, and when a new book or movie tells you it’s in a genre you know, you levy a bunch of information to immediately shape the horizon of intent for yourself as you navigate the events.
This doesn’t mean everything must include every marker, or that there can’t be innovation — despite what the CIA-trained Iowa writer’s workshop clan would have you believe — genre is a tool that can be used, just like foreshadowing or irony, to direct or misdirect readers while adding to their experience.
About that Harrison novel
So the thing is, Empty Space is a science fiction novel, and part of a trilogy, but it vastly different to the other two books. I mean, the city’s name is Saudade for pity’s sake! It’s covered in the tropes of hardboiled fiction, in part because hardboiled fiction excelled at presenting people who cannot make sense of the world and who impose their own sense on their actions instead. Marlowe resorts, at times, to the language of chivalry, even though he knows such a careful order, reliant both on the goodness of everyone in it and the natural order having a mystical and moral dimension — isn’t there, at least no longer. And he also plays chess, which allows him to think about how his knight is useless and can’t manage to do anything. In a sense, Chandler’s innovation for Marlowe was to take someone who believed in the ideals of a past age, throw them into a world where those ideals do not exist, both because no one practices them and because modernism saw the explosion of ideals, and then see what happens when they try to live their life according to that code. It’s reminiscient of Don Quixote, honestly.
So when you take all that stuff and read Empty Space it makes sense. The characters don’t know what they want, they just know it isn’t what they have. And the site could hypothetically give them anything they want, but they have to know what it is and get past everything they’re afraid of to get to it.
I’m not saying that the book requires you to be familiar with these tropes. But in my personal experience, familiarity actually changed my opinion of the book. That’s one of the many ways genre is helpful to everyone, and not just marketers.
Support this work
Your support makes the this work possible and I am thankful for your consideration!