Tag Archives: science fiction

Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story

By Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold

Story is not automatically story, especially when dealing with genre and its tropes. Trope can be a rather difficult concept to grasp, seeing as it includes so many different elements in literature. For the purpose of this article, we are using the term “trope” in the sense of a familiar and repeated symbol, meme, theme, motif, style, character or thing that is common in a particular type of literature. Such tropes are closely related to genre. Examples of this kind of trope in horror include the mad scientist or dark and stormy settings. Tropes can also be plot elements, such as the science fiction trope of an alien invasion that is deterred at the last minute.
The transmissibility of story is dependent on an understanding of (and, we would argue, interest in) the themes, motifs, props, and characters of the genre in question, from the wise old wizard of fantasy, to the plucky gal of chicklit, to the foreign planets of science fiction. But literary and mainstream fiction are not free of tropes either: the gut-spilling, angst-ridden, pseudo-autobiographical protagonist is a figure that appears repeatedly and almost exclusively in stories categorized as literary and mainstream.
When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, this can lead readers to reject a story outright. Within our field, witness the endless skirmishes between the old guard of Silver Age science fiction and the various innovations which have proliferated since the New Wave arrived – in recent times famously exemplified by critic Dave Truesdale’s emphatic rejection of the Karen Joy Fowler story, “What I Didn’t See.” (2002) For readers who find confessional narrative self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical fiction may strike them as dishonest; for readers who prefer their fiction a step away from memoir, anything that cloaks the story in the kind of tropes used in science fiction and fantasy will be too far away from reality for them to be interesting. The transmissibility of story is dependent on an acceptance of those tropes.
We’ve written before about Samuel R. Delany’s concept of reading protocols and what Gardner Dozois calls “the furniture of science fiction.” To simplify, protocols are the experiences and assumptions that a reader brings to a genre work – the shorthand that enables understanding without repeated explication. “Furniture” refers to the signifiers for these protocols – the standard props and elements that characterize a genre. These concepts are closely tied together and work in concert with each other.
For example, a science fiction writer might use the term “FTL.” A reader with even the most modest experience in science fiction will understand this to mean “faster than light,” and most will be conversant with the basics of Einsteinian physics and the implications of supraluminal travel. A reader with no experience in science fiction might well not even be able to parse the acronym. Those who look up the term and find out what it stands for may still lack the theoretical background to understand the implications a regular reader of science fiction will immediately comprehend.
In genre, we have stockpiles of tropes of varying familiarity. These elements serve to enhance the transmissibility of the story. When a writer takes up a standard trope, either to serve in its stock role or to invert it for their own purposes, they are tapping into the traditions and shared referents of their genre.
One thing that distinguishes genre fiction from naturalistic fiction is that these shared tropes are a result of specific, self-selected reading experiences, rather than coming from the normal course of life in the culture where the story is set. Philip Roth doesn’t have to explain the details of Alexander Portnoy’s life, he merely cites them.
Without these tropes and the shared assumptions they signify to serve as lubrication in the machinery of plot, genre stories would be heavily constrained by the need to explain.

What makes a genre story transmissible, which is to say, accessible and meaningful to the reader, is its use of genre tropes. Viewed from that perspective, the tension for the genre writer lies in the balance between the degree of familiarity of the trope and the degree of novelty of the writer’s innovation within the story at hand.
While every genre has tropes, including mainstream and literary, the tropes of science fiction and fantasy are for the most part unconcerned with the emotional dimension of the story. Where character-driven tropes such the epiphany or the emotional framework of marital infidelity are broadly recognized in mainstream and literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy concern themselves first and foremost with the variation between the first world of the reader’s experience and the second world constructed within the story. These are mechanical, technological, magical, even sociopolitical elements – for example, romanticized feudalism in fantasy, or technocracy in science fiction – far more often than they are internal or emotional: plot and setting-driven tropes, rather than character-driven. Even the character-driven tropes our field does embrace at times tend towards the emotionally superficial – clouded succession to power, romanticization of certain roles (the scientist-as-hero), standard archetypes such the Dark Lord Brooding on His Obsidian Throne.
Examples of this distancing effect in genre abound, especially in the earlier history of the field. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1951) is famously clinical in its approach to characters and their stories, focusing instead on the concept of future history, which was established as a core trope in the field, in large part due to Asimov’s work. Other major works in science fiction where the genre tropes intrude on the emotional experience of the story include Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and its successor books. The fantastically realized world-building and sociopolitical gymnastics which are the core joy of that book to millions of readers are combined with characters who are either archetypical or lacking depth, depending on how one chooses to view the text. In either case, are not readily viewed as rounded, emotional human beings.
On the other hand, any story strongly felt can use genre tropes to its advantage, creating gut-wrenching emotional experience on the page as effective or more so than some fiction regarded as literary. One of the most famous short stories of post-WWII science fiction is “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, published by John W. Campbell in Astounding magazine in August, 1954. The emotional impact of this story is so profound, echoing across the decades since, largely because it inverts the scientist-as-hero trope to conform to the stark realities of engineering in a deconstruction of the same classic SF tradition that produced such classics as Foundation.
The transmissibility of story itself is not a function of these emotional transactions, however – with perhaps the exception of such genres as romance, which demand the emotional dimension through their very nature and definition. The intention and realization of story moves from the writer to the reader through the tropes of genre, naturalistic fiction no less than science fiction or fantasy, taking here the word “genre” in its looser sense of meaning. Even naturalistic fiction has its tropes: coming-of-age plots, familiar setting, and firm grounding in a recognizable cultural context. Story happens in the context of the shared expectations of writer and reader, and the controlled management (or violation) of those expectations during the course of the narrative.

The themes of genres vary widely as well. The story of epiphany, for example, is a strong thread in twentieth century naturalistic fiction, beginning with James Joyce’s classic The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and continuing with various related forms of self-revelatory and semi-autobiographical fiction such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). In this tradition we could also count the consciousness-raising novels of the women’s liberation movement in the seventies, such as Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1972) and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1978). Of course, only a small percentage of mainstream and literary fiction is fictional self-examination of this sort, but it is interesting to note that this particular impulse is almost non-existent in science fiction and fantasy.
Our genre has not in general been so concerned with emotionally revelatory writing, certainly not autobiographical or semi-autobiographical revelation. There is a thread of stories built on a strong emotional dimension – novels such as John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981), for example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968), or short stories such as David Levine’s “The Tale of the Golden Eagle” (2003), but more often than not the genre-related tropes seem to be more important than the emotional underpinnings.
This is not to say that the emotional structure of speculative fiction is suppressed, only that it serves the foreground concerns of genre. Often, the emotional transaction seems to come along for the ride rather than serving as the core driver of the story. Due to the primary payout of the genre experience – the exploration of the second world developed by the author, with the attendant thrill of discovery and sensawunda – few stories in science fiction and fantasy are written to be epiphanic or emotionally revelatory. Rather, they address some aspect of the tropes of the genre, using emotion as an optional tool to reach their point. Many of the strongest examples of the genre, however, do go the extra step and explore the emotional dimension of their subject.
It is interesting to note that a number of genre novels with a greater emotional underpinning appeared during and after the New Wave, when many of the elements of literary fiction were adopted by science fiction and fantasy writers. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) stands out in this regard, as do the novels mentioned previously such as Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
By the same token, when literary writers adopt science fictional language, while still employing their core emotional tropes, the result is often oddly unsatisfying to genre readers. Kirstin Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) are examples of this trend. Reading them with genre expectations impedes the transmissibility of story because the tropes are misaligned. An experienced genre reader has expectations of genetic engineering, time travel and interstellar travel stories which can impede the enjoyment of such works. Excellent as these books are, genre trope expectations are not met in them.
The story is transmitted to the reader at least in part because of the tropes. Some are emotional, some are external. The transmissibility of story is both enabled and restricted by the tropes of the genre within which the story – and the reader – are functioning.

This article was originally published in the Internet Review of Science Fiction (IROSF) in February 2007. I have made slight editing changes and updated the links.

Works Referenced

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Gnome Press Publishers, 1951.
Bakis, Kirstin. Lives of the Monster Dogs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1997.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: The Viking Press, 1968.
Crowley, John. Little, Big. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
French, Marilyn. The Women’s Room. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Fowler, Karen Joy. “What I Didn’t See.” SCI FICTION, July, 2002.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” Astounding, August, 1954.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.
Joyce, James. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1916.
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker and Company, 1969.
Levine, David. “The Tale of the Golden Eagle.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June, 2003.
Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler’s Wife. San Francisco, CA: MacAdam, Cage, 2003.
Piercy, Marge. Small Changes. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. (1963) New York: Bantam, 1972.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.
Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Villard Books / Random House, 1996.

Big 99c sale of Science Fiction and Fantasy eBooks, Jan. 7-8

We have another big sale coming your way to start the new year, over 100 eBooks in science fiction and fantasy genres, all for only 99c each.

January promo

Just go to http://pattyjansen.com/promo/ and click on your favorite retailer to see what’s available! The promo officially begins tomorrow, January 7, but a lot of books have already reduced the price.

My contribution this month is Shadow of Stone, book 2 of The Pendragon Chronicles. The books are standalone novels, though, so you can easily start with the sale-priced one. 🙂

Kindle Unlimited/Free on Kobo SFF promotion, March 5-6

It’s that time of the month again, the next Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Promotion!

March SFF promo

This promotion has two parts. The first section features a selection of books that are available through the Kindle Unlimited program — but for the duration of this promo, most of them are also on sale for 99c. 🙂 My contribution this month is Chameleon in a Mirror.

The second half of the promo is for first in series free books on Kobo. There you can get my story “The Leaving Sweater,” the first in my series “Tales From Far Beyond North.”

Enjoy!

Giant 99c SFF Box Set Sale, Feb. 6-7!

SFF 99c box set sale

For only two days, chose from over 40 boxed sets at a special sale price of only 99c! Science fiction, dystopian, fantasy, and SFF romance, there’s something for everyone who like speculative fiction here. 😉

My own contribution is Yseult, Books 1-4, on sale for 99c through tomorrow, Feb. 7.

Enjoy!

New cover for Beyond the Waters of the World

My cover artist, Lou Harper, has finished the cover for the second book of Looking Through Lace, Beyond the Waters of the World.

Beyond the Waters of the World

So what do folks think? I haven’t finalized yet, so some tweaking could still be done if anyone has any suggestions. Do let me know in the comments! And thanks in advance. 🙂

FREE though Friday – story collection with Jay Lake, Almost All the Way Home From the Stars

Almost all the way home from the stars

From now through Friday, you can get Almost all the Way Home From the Stars, a collection of seven science fiction stories that I wrote with my friend Jay Lake, who passed away in June after years battling cancer.

The description:

Near future dystopia, colonies in space, galactic empires: this collection has it all! “Almost All the Way Home From the Stars” is a collection of seven science fiction short stories by award winning writers Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold. The settings range from galactic empires on distant worlds, to a dystopia in the near future warped by fundamentalism, to an alternate US where slavery was never abolished. Here a sampling:

“Rivers of Eden”: In a world transformed by a virus affecting faith, one lone scientist wants to set loose a cure for fanaticism.

“The Big Ice”: On Hutchinson’s World, Vega and Mox are trying to unravel the mystery of the Big Ice — until the family responsibilities Vega has been trying to escape come back to haunt her.

“The Canadian Who Came Almost All the Way Home From the Stars”: An NSA agent is assigned to look after a Canadian scientist whose husband has left Earth to visit the stars — and the strange dimple in the lake that she is watching, waiting for his return.

Five of the stories have been previously published elsewhere, in various online and print markets, including Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction. Two stories are new with this collection.

If you get a chance to download and read, I hope you enjoy the stories!

The Future, Imperfect available as a Kindle Countdown Deal until Oct. 27

Until Monday, Oct. 27, you can get my collection of six dystopian short stories, The Future, Imperfect, as a countdown deal for only 99c.

The Future, Imperfect

Description:

“The Future, Imperfect” is a collection of near future, dystopian short stories by Ruth Nestvold. Environmental changes — slow in some regions, catastrophic in others — have had a major effect on our world, not for the better. While water wars and pandemics have devastated the Mediterranean region, and a major earthquake and the resulting destruction of nuclear power plants and sensitive research facilities have made much of California a wasteland, corporate-sponsored enclaves defend themselves from the have-nots. What can any one individual do to make a difference is such a world? These are the stories both of those who tried and those who failed.

Five of the short stories in this collection were previously published in such venues as Asimov’s and Futurismic. “Exit Without Saving” also appeared in Rich Horton’s Science Fiction 2007: The Best of the Year. “Killfile” is an original publication.

Enjoy!

New cover for “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide”

One of the things I’ve had on my to-do list for at least a year is to upload my short story “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” to Amazon and make it free. The story is also in my collection From Earth to Mars and Beyond, and I’ve been thinking that I should redo the Mars ebook with an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection in the back matter to entice a few readers to buy more. “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” is hands down my biggest “seller” on Smashwords, but just sitting there as a free short story without any incentives anywhere in the text to buy anything else from me doesn’t seem to be inspiring those who download it to go looking for opportunities to purchase my fiction.

Since I’ve had fairly good experience with the free story “Gawain and Ragnell” to keep my sales of The Pendragon Chronicles alive, I was hoping I could do the same thing with “Mars” for my SF collections. But when I went searching for the PSD of the original cover to edit it for recent standards and add the Nebula nom to the cover, I couldn’t find the file, nor could my daughter. She suggested that maybe it was time for us to make a new cover for the story anyway, since it was one of the first we did together, and reflects that. So that’s what we did. Here’s the new cover we came up with:

Mars cover

And here’s the old cover we did back in 2011, for the sake of comparison:

Mars: A Traveler's Guide

I’d love feedback on the new cover! And if you’ve already read the the story, so much the better. 🙂

Progress on various fronts and an excerpt from Recontact (with Jay Lake) for #WIPpet Wednesday

Since last week, most of my progress has been on the translation. I have no new words to report, but I did get “An Airship for Elise” finished in time to submit to “Women Destroy Science Fiction” and I’m very happy about that. I also had the girls a couple of times in the last few days, and that eats into writing time a lot. But it’s too fun to miss. Lately, Mira has been getting into learning how to write letters. Here’s a work we produced together yesterday:

I wrote the “Oma” on the top line in the middle, and the “Mama” on the bottom line, the rest is our newly minted four-year-old. (Don’t ask me what the third letter on the middle line is — sometimes she just makes them up.)

Anyway, on to my own progress rather than that of my granddaughter. After “An Airship for Elise” was finished and sent off, I returned to the project I mentioned a while back with my writing buddy Jay Lake, who has terminal cancer. No one knows how much more time there will be to finish it so that he’ll get a chance to see it published. So I hope my readers who want more of A Wasted Land will forgive me for not returning to that project just yet.

The book I’m putting together now consists of a short story and a novella that Jay and I wrote several years ago, both about first contact gone horrendously wrong. Together, they come to about 30,000 words, a good length for an ebook, I think. Several generations have passed between the two, but thematically they are both concerned with almost the same thing, first contact and second contact on one planet, and what it did to that planet’s culture, so I think it will work. I’m considering calling the whole “Recontact” but I’m open to suggestions.

No intricate math today; I’m just giving you 19 sentences for the 19th of the month from the beginning of the story:

Sharan plunged through the woods with the blind panic of the murderously pursued. The trees on this world were both more brittle and spongier than she was used to, and she left a clear trail of bent branches and shattered twigs.
If Arnoldson took up the hunt, it wouldn’t matter. He could track her with everything from sniffers to orbital reconnaissance. The bastard had all the power of the starship Hesperides and her bird-mad AI at his disposal.
Right now it was the locals here on the planet of Bonificium with their bronze-bladed spears and square shields who wanted her blood. She’d be just as dead from their sticks and stones as she would be from an orbital burn, but at least she had a better chance of escaping them.
She crested a low rise at a dead run only to lose her footing. The ground slipped away from her like a steep bank on a winter lake back home, and she was down. Mud? It was the dry season. Sharan grabbed for traction only to have a sandaled foot slam down painfully on her fingers.
A woman with deep brown eyes and miserably ragged hair stood over her, wielding a long crude knife. Sharan’s captor laid a finger across her lips and faded backward into the leaves and shadows at the side of the trail.
The others were too damned close behind. She could hear the men shouting as they ran. Sharan scrabbled again for purchase in the muddy trough where she’d fallen, only to smack herself hard behind the ear on a rock.
There was nothing for it but to lay tight and cover her head with her hands.

WIPpet Wednesday is the brain child of K. L. Schwengel. If you’d like to participate, post an excerpt from your WIP on your blog, something that relates to the date in some way. Then add your link here — where you can also read the other excerpts. 🙂