Hannah’s Note: It has been brought to my attention that there’s a Firefly/Serenity spoiler in the first paragraph so just a quick note to be careful if you’d like to avoid that. Otherwise, enjoy!
B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness at www.professorbeej.com.
As a scholar, a lot of my work has focused on cross-genre literature. My Master’s thesis was on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and how the author’s mixing of genres affected the Campbellian Hero’s Journey. I have written on how each season of LOST uses different genre conventions to tell a more complete story and how Firefly, the fan-favorite genre-crosser, just had to kill off the loveable pilot Wash because no other character was as expendable.
But what does that really mean? How can a novel be both science-fiction and fantasy at the same time? Aren’t those kind of…different?
Well, yes and no.
Science Is My Fiction
Science-fiction is all about science. (“You’re welcome,” says Captain Obvious.) In other words, scifi is about the rational explanation and exploration of a concept. If you want characters to be on Planet X, you can’t just put in a scene-break and let them be there. They have to build a ship, conquer relativity, and hash out the real-world consequences of intergalactic space flight.
Or as much as they can.
There are varying levels of science–fiction (note: that’s a TV Tropes link. You have been warned!), and you’ll find that authors often cherry-pick how much and what kind of science goes into their works. Some, like Larry Niven’s Ringworld ,are so science-based that the narrative itself is secondary, while others, like Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising, extrapolate contemporary theories into a “what-if” scenario where the only science involved is in the premise itself.
In general, though, the primary focus of most SF stories is the how and the why.
And then there’s fantasy, where all that goes out the window, right? If the author can imagine it, it can happen. You can have a world where there are root beer oceans or talking sofa cushions, elves that hate dwarves and dwarves that hate turnips. Even unicorn-eating dragons who marry manticores and have little hippogryph babies can happen.
After all, it’s fantasy, right?
Well, sort of. That’s the basic idea, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a well-written fantasy novel that didn’t have rules. Even magic–the effervescent concept of it just happens–is often governed by rules. Not scientific rules, mind you, but rules nonetheless. Brandon Sanderson is well-known for the logic he ingrains his systems of magic–just read Mistborn or Warbreaker, and you’ll see what I mean. Even Tolkien had rules for keeping Gandalf and Sauron in check. But the stories aren’t about those rules.
If you really want to have a unicorn-eating, manticore-marrying dragon-mama, you can. And it doesn’t have to make any sense. What does have to make sense, though, is the story you’re telling about dragon-mama there.
Fantasy then, unlike SF, deals with the adventures dragon-mama has as she moves between Point A and Point Z, and how she has changed by the time Point Z comes around. The how and the why behind it can be secondary.
I Want It All!
For me–as a reader, a scholar, and a writer–I see no reason why you can’t have it all. A novel can have a logical, speculative backbone and tell a sprawling, character-based story. The two should not be mutually exclusive.
So in Birthright, I had to make a choice. How did I want to approach this conundrum. I’m an English major, not a scientist, so providing equations to back up my science–like Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke do–was out of the question, and I was a bit too intimidated to plot out a George R.R. Martin-esque narrative/cast of characters.
I just wanted to tell a good story in a cool world. Like I said on the Kickstarter page, I wanted spaceships with my dragons, and laser guns with my wizard staffs. I wanted an awesome sci-fi setting with a good ole fantasy plot and conventions.
So that’s what I did. I started with a fairly straightforward hero’s quest (like I said, I’m a Campbell scholar, after all) and began tweaking it and working with it from there. I tried to subvert every archetype I could, from the Hero, the Boon Companion, to the Wise Old Man–who I assure you is not what he seems in this one. I worked to introduce a system of magic that would include rational technological limits and boundaries, while still evoking a sense of awe in readers. I wanted my characters to explore exotic locales without having to bend relativity.
And so in Birthright, there are gods and pocket universes, angels with flaming swords, soldiers with laser guns, and a young boy who grows into a man, but unlike Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, he does not gradually earn his maturity. It is thrust upon him abruptly, and Birthright is about dealing with the repercussions.
So What does Cross-Genre Mean?
Ready for a non-answer? Good, because cross-genre means whatever you want it to mean. It can be as simple as Star Wars–a Cambellian quest for redemption that happens to be set in space–or as complicated in SF/horror mythology as Ridley Scott’s Alien. And don’t forget the intergalactic cattle-rustling shenanigans of the space-outlaws on Firefly. Cross-genre can mean pretty much anything.
For me, though, cross-genre means freedom. Freedom in being able to tell the story I want to tell. I get to pick and choose my favorite parts of my favorite genres and tell exactly the story I have in mind.
For some people, I’m sure I didn’t pick the right parts of science-fiction to include. For others, the fantasy might feel watered-down and trivial. But for me, Birthright is the culmination of a lifetime as a fan of genre literature. I know what makes a good SF story, and I know what makes a good fantasy story. So I took those elements, tossed them in a blender, and made what I think is an absolutely delicious word-smoothie.
I really hope you think so, too.