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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.

New Blog Feature: Reprinting IROSF Columns Written with Jay Lake

Almost 15 years ago now, Jay Lake and I started writing a (mostly) monthly column in IROSF (Internet Review of Science Fiction), which we kept up for over three years. Topics varied from writing advice to observations on genre to literary criticism in the broadest sense.

Even after IROSF folded, they maintained archives so that the articles they had published could still be accessed. Just recently, however, I received an email from someone who had followed a link to one of our pieces and could no longer get it. Sure enough, the archives had been taken down.

For that reason, I have decided to republish those articles here on my blog. I will start with the one requested, “Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story” — once I can find it, that is, and as long as I am not interrupted by the birth of the next grandchild. 🙂

It’s certainly a good reason to revive this flagging blog. On that note, I wish you happy reading.

Entering story

Hugo Nominees 2017

With a couple of notable exceptions (which I will not name for fear of being banned *g*), it looks like the Hugos have largely recovered from being hijacked for a couple of years by a bunch of lunatic dinosaurs:

http://www.tor.com/2017/04/04/2017-hugo-award-finalists-announced/

Yay! What a relief! What I find particularly interesting, however, is how completely Tor.com is dominating the ballot for short forms this year. The usual suspects (Asimov’s, F&SF, Analog) are absent entirely. I’m suspecting it has to do with fewer and fewer people subscribing to and reading paper magazines these days.

The monthly SFF promo is here again! Over 100 books for 99c each, Sept 3-4

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We have another great promo for fans of science fiction and fantasy this month — over 100 books, all for only 99c! The sale officially starts tomorrow, Sept. 3, but a lot of the books are already reduced in price. Like my contribution, Shadow of Stone. the second book in the Pendragon Chronicles series, available on Amazon for only 99c. Or my collection of short stories, Oregon Elsewise, available on B&N, Kobo and Apple for only 99c.

Oregon Elsewise

So check out the sale, and good luck finding something you want!

And sorry about the recent radio silence. I decided to mostly ignore social media until I get the next couple of books finished. Once I get a few of those projects off my plate, I’ll be back. 🙂

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!

Villa Diodati 11, Or: Why didn’t we get this organized earler???

VD11

The past (long) weekend, I was off in the Black Forest for another Villa Diodati workshop — the first one in over a year. The last workshop was in April 2012 in southern England. But with one thing and another (most of the anothers having to do with the fact that I’ve been too caught up in my indie career and haven’t been taking responsibility like a dictator should), we’ve missed two workshop dates. Until last year, the workshop met twice a year since its inception in 2007, at various places throughout Europe, organized each time by a different workshop member.

I will try to readjust my priorities so that won’t happen again. Meeting with crazy — er, helpful — fellow writers face to face is a wonderful thing, and the energy generated is amazing and stimulating and inspirational.

This time we met at Casa Cristina in Herrischried, about an hour from the Basel airport. The workshop began with multiple catastrophes. While I was still on the train to Basel, I got a call from Floris, the organizer this round — the flight he was on with two other workshop members had been canceled, as had Jeff’s flight from Nice. That amounted to two-thirds of the folks who were going to arrive on Friday.

At least the weather was absolutely unbelievable for Germany in late October, and I sat around in a park across the street from the Schopfheim train station until Jeff and Jeremy picked me up. Floris and Co. rented a car and drove down from Amsterdam, not arriving at Casa Cristina until after 9 pm.

The next morning, Christian joined us, and Sylvia went on a shopping spree — when their flight in Amsterdam was canceled, she hadn’t been able to claim her bag, since she was coming from England.

Normally we critique in the morning and do various writing exercises in the afternoon, but with all the complications this time around, we had to set the critique sessions in the afternoon. Given the amazing weather, we attempted to have it outside on the patio, but unfortunately, the wasps soon chased us back inside.

VD11

This year, we had two new members, Grayson Morris and Jeremy Sim, who provided both excellent stories and excellent critiques. I will be looking forward to reading more of their work in the future.

A bit of background: I originally organized the Villa Diodati workshop for expat writers of speculative fiction in Europe, since it’s difficult for us to find crit groups where we live. From the first workshop on, however, we also had non-native speakers who wrote in English. And when Stephen Gaskell joined our ranks, we had our first member who didn’t really need us, seeing as he has more immediate access to other writers writing in English. We’re obviously just too cool to resist. 🙂