What Was Genre Before It Was Genre?


[This article was also published on Inkwell, the official blog of Inkitt.com: http://www.inkitt.com/blog]

What do you call ‘science fiction’ before anyone had imaginatively traveled at light speed? Or ‘fantasy’ before Dungeons and Dragons had rolled a single die? Though these categories command impressive real estate in bookstores/websites today, at one time they didn’t exist until an intrepid author—often called a madman or fool—dreamed them up. One of the first works that we now consider science fiction, The War of the Worlds, came into being in 1898, the fourth in a string of classic novels by H.G. Wells. While the novel can now seem a bit dated, its events run-of-the-mill to a cynical filmgoer, imagine what the imaginative landscape looked like in 1898: aliens had never invaded the Earth, robots had never considered if they were human or not, ships had never traveled through wormholes (or, for that matter, across the sky), and the internet would have to wait for the invention of personal computers—almost a hundred years distant. 

To imagine the planet invaded by Martians who are little more than crawling brains ensconced in gigantic fighting machines, able to dispense both death rays and chemical warfare, is a feat unmatched in history or literature (move aside Nostradamus). As Wells writes at the beginning of the war, “Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal. And shining with the growing light of the east, three of the metallic giants stood about the pit, their cowls rotating as though they were surveying the desolation they had made” (Part I, Ch.11). In a few short decades, war would indeed be “indiscriminate and universal,” with deadly machines dropping bombs and releasing gas to decimate the ranks of both soldier and civilian. Wells gave his readers a glimpse of a true dystopia from beyond, one brought by cunning Martians bent on total destruction; little did we realize that we were the Martians, hell-bent to devise new ways to poison and destroy our civilization.

Throughout the novel, Wells makes the point that we, and not the Martians, are the true invaders, the ones who twist everything beautiful out of recognition. Priests abandon God, police kill civilians, and desperate survivors hatch a plan to kill the weak and only let the strong survive to fight the Martians (“The Man on Putney Hill” chapter—one of the most prophetic in the novel). Even the Martians suggest a more earthbound lineage, as in Chapter 2 of Part II, when the narrator suggests, “the perfection of mechanical appliances must ultimately supersede limbs; the perfection of chemical devices, digestion; that such organs as hair, external nose, teeth, ears, and chin were no longer essential parts of the human being, and that the tendency of natural selection would lie in the direction of their steady diminution through the coming ages. The brain alone remained a cardinal necessity.” In other words, our technological advances, even in 1898, were quickly rendering us mere living brains, only a step away from the Martians themselves. Of course, as Wells warns, “Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.” The novel thus becomes a Jekyll and Hyde story writ large, as we fight with our future selves over the fate of humanity. Chillingly, the Martians win the battle, only losing the war to the most primitive form of life—bacteria.

Without historical and literary context, The War of the Worlds loses some of its power as a work of art. As a “classic” we approach it as a work of history, prophetic to be sure, relevant to our own times, absolutely; but still a work that requires a few footnotes and the reminder that “he wrote this book a long time ago.” So all of this begs the question, what genre is Wells’ masterpiece? Can a work with all the hallmarks of science fiction be science fiction before it technically existed? While the easy answer is “yes,” it is also necessarily to admit that anyone who reads Wells today reads it backwards. No, not from the end to the beginning, but from the 21st century to the 19th. You’ve seen a movie of the film before, or a movie cribbing from the book, or a book borrowing some premise of the novel. You can never read it as a new work or a work that is responding to what came before. Rather, you read it as a work that has been responded to, which is typically how we read classic works of fiction.

The world of genre typically denotes something new and of-the-moment. It responds to our world, couching the political and aesthetic dilemmas of the day in the metaphors of science fiction. Can a work over a hundred years old sit side-by-side with works that take virtual reality and wormholes for granted? Or to take an even greater leap, can works outside the novel find space on the shelf of genre? Genre typically means the novel today, since very few readers outside of academia read anything but novels. So what about Shakespeare: is The Tempest, Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and a handful of others “fantasy”? Is More’s Utopia “science fiction?” And what about Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgamesh? All of these are poems, which pre-date any attempt to form a coherent genre, much less the tastes of the average reader of fantasy. Can a genre encompass so many disparate times and forms and ideas? Should it? Or should we simply limit genre to modern novels that require no footnotes or cultural translation?

Genre is a problematic term, as it is largely an invention of the 20th century—and 20th century marketing at that. It’s a way to help readers find works that remind them of their favorite novel, and to help publishers zero in on exactly what sells and keep selling it. However, it’s also an example of square pegs into round holes: art never follows such strict rules and boundaries. At best, literature is a conversation that responds and expands on previous ideas, sometimes introducing new ideas, sometimes going back to ones that are generations old. It’s all related, and the more you read, the more you see these seemingly invisible threads connecting the most far-flung books and authors. Genre emphasizes difference, and in some ways it teaches readers to be wary of anything that doesn’t speak your language. Peruse Goodreads or Amazon and you’ll see many 2 and 3 star reviews of classic works, including Wells’ The War of the Worlds. While few deny its originality, the most consistent criticism is the language, the style, and the insistence on philosophy over plot. One reviewer even commented that it didn’t read like “the science fiction I like to read.”

As a reader, the best thing we can do is see genre for what it is: it doesn’t bind works together or establish a set of eternal rules for all subsequent works to follow. It’s simply a signpost, like calling a city “Oklahoma City” or “Pittsburgh.” Sure, everything in the general area belongs to that city, but little of it is uniform or shares the same culture or identity. You have to go up the obscure side streets (and not just the main intersections) to get a lay of the land. There you will find obscure coffee houses and comic book shops that you won’t find in the guidebooks. And these places, much more than the bestsellers adorning the top 10 lists, could be the first landmarks that remind you of home. 

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