My favorite author, and why “genre” is not enough

Asking, “What genre is it?” misses the point.When anyone asks me, I say I wrote sci-fi, with occasional fantasy.But on thinking about it I’ve decided that asking “what genre” is not asking the right question.

Genre is important. It’s the mode, the setting in which your characters play out their roles. If it’s a western, then it’s cowboys. If it’s historical, then it’s kings and queens, or Roman Senators in togas, or whatever fits the period. And if it’s sci-fi, then it’s some time and space outside our present knowledge.

But there’s another question, another classification, to consider. It’s the question, “What message are you putting across?”  Because that message comes from your own private worldview, and it’s going to be implicit in everything you write.

What I want, and this is just my taste, is a book, a story about some sci-fi event, which is written in a way that brings out important and contemporary issues about our own human status.

But not all sci-fi (or any other genre) is like that.

Some people want big battles, mega events, something for your brain’s internal CGI to work on. “Mobile planets, armed and garrisoned as only an armed mobile planet can be.” It’s the plotline that drives almost every sci-fi film I’ve ever seen.  I liked those stories as a teenager. I thought they were great. Nowadays I get bored.

Some writers offer mega detail of every character’s background, especially the intimate details of their sex lives. I don’t want to be prudish. If sex is important to the plot, then it should be there. But the last book of this kind I read seemed to be just  soft porn with a sci-fi excuse.

Some of my Christian brethren write very obvious Christian Allegory. I can’t complain if it’s done well. After all I enjoyed all the Narnia books and Pilgrim’s Progress is something to reread every decade or so. But I’ve got to say it’s not what I want, although I’d not wish to criticize those who do.

That’s why my inspiration is John Wyndham. His stories are always sci-fi, and the sci-fi is central to the plot. But the interest isn’t the sci-fi event, it’s the people involved. How they react, what it means to them. Crucially for me it involves asking difficult questions about what do we base our standards of morality on. Is it really Christian (or Capitalist, or Socialist, or whatever) ideals, or is it just an inherited set of laws handed reverently down, but not understood, from those who went before.

Wyndham’s point, made most powerfully in “Day of the Triffids” is that too many people simply accept their moral heritage without really understanding it. You could add nowadays that too many people simply reject their moral heritage, without really understanding it.

Both faults are dangerous, and that’s why I think my choice of sci-fi matters. Because we are now living in a real sci-fi situation. A world where technology has so changed the way we live that sci-fi stories written only 30 years ago are now utterly dated.

We need writers such as Wyndham today, to ask the questions that matter about the way we as a society should live. And we need Christian writers to ask the questions about how we should live as followers of Christ.

I’m not as good as Wyndham, but that’s sort of story I want to write.

Malcolm Cowen has worked in information technology for over forty years, including writing part of one of the first truly multitasking opMalcolm Cowenerating systems, GEOrge 3. For the last 25 years he’s worked as a freelance software designer, through his own company, Cowen Software Ltd., http://www.cowensw.co.uk and www cowensw.com. He’s had about six short stories published, and two novels, Lady of Foxdale and Daughter of the King, are available as e-books from http://www.e-bshop.co.uk and Amazon. A couple of his sci-fi whodunit audio scripts have been broadcast on local radio stations.


3 comments on “My favorite author, and why “genre” is not enough

  1. Thank you for this, you are spot on.
    I agree that we put too much weight on genre. I find some genre writing like sci-fi to be more realistic simply because it does not try to mimic reality. Instead, it explores the wonders of life and places the biggest questions of reality at the forefront ( the message, as you say). So how big of a division is there, really? We all want to understand life.
    In the end, it’s the characters we will connect with, love, and remember. Good characters can be placed anywhere! (At least I think so). But what do I know?
    I’ll have to check out more of John Whyndam. I really appreciated your post

  2. Malcolm, this is a great twist on such a common question! Nobody seems to get it if I say I’m writing a werewolf story. They shake their heads, either because it’s outside their realm of possibility or because it’s so cliche these days.

    I’d much rather say “My story is about what Christianity looks like without the typical trappings of church and bible study and choir. I’m using a werewolf employed as an assassin who has an undeniable encounter with Christ to illustrate this.”

    It’s still weird, but it’s a weird that might actually pique curiosity in the right folks. It’s more accurate and it shows the spirit behind what I’m doing.

    I can’t explain why putting this message in a speculative setting makes it sing for me, but it is what it is. Tell me a love story, but include dragons. Tell me a redemption story, but make it far future. I am wired for speculative fiction. But my heart is human and it beats for God.

    I believe my (intended) readers are in the same boat.

  3. They once asked Simenon why he wrote murder stories.
    He answered that he didn’t write stories about murder, he wrote about human passion, and the greatest passion is murder.

    And if you just write a werewolf story, then that’s all it is. But if you write a story about repentance and use a werewolf’s life and experience to tell it, then you have the possibilty to write something far greater.

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