So I spent the past several days making an elaborate spreadsheet of my “To Be Read” List, and classifying each book by genre. This endeavor has only reinforced my long-held belief that authors are very tricky people.
Classifying literature is difficult. A book is a multi-faceted creation, and most have elements of multiple genres. Sometimes the dominant genre is clear – if it involves hunting down a killer it’s a mystery - but usually it’s not. A book taking place in the future might not necessarily be science-fiction. If it’s the far-flung future (as in, 50+ years) then it’s almost always sci-fi - but if it’s the immediate future (anywhere from 1-10 years) its classification becomes murky. Many books that take place in the immediate future are actually about the present. They’re about the ramifications of modern society; our world with one key difference, or one aspect taken to a more extreme degree. In cases like that, I’d argue the book is still considered Contemporary fiction. Contemporary is a monster of its own though, and I’ll get to that one in a later post.
Where do you draw the line between Science-Fiction and Fantasy? Fantasy is anything with magical or supernatural elements in it. Demons, fairies, werewolves, etc. are fantasy. Advanced civilizations, dystopian futures, and anything with advanced technological elements is science-fiction. But what about alternate histories? Is steampunk considered fantasy or science-fiction? This is where personal interjection comes into play, because the nature of the alternate world is what determines its classification. For example, let’s say the premise of the novel is that Hitler never committed suicide. Unless it’s got magical or supernatural elements I would classify it as Science-Fiction, especially if time-travel was involved. But what if there are no external elements that cause Hypothetical Hitler to live? What if he just decides not to kill himself and the novel still takes place during WWII? Does that make the novel historical fiction? I think so. The alternate timeline hasn’t consumed the character’s universe yet. The more that time is allowed to lapse within an alternate history the further the story slides into inescapable science-fiction and fantasy territory. The author has to interject and guess as to how the world is changing since we’ve fallen off of history’s true course. As long as we’re still near the inception of the alternate world the work can fall under the domain of other genres. If, instead of committing suicide, Hypothetical Hitler is murdered the book would fall under Mystery/Thriller.