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The Iron Law of Sturgeon

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 26, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 26, 2011 |

Prisco wrote a series of fantastic articles over the last week on the set of genres with which we are cursed and blessed. You should go read them. Repeatedly. From different IP addresses. Not because the amount of cigarettes put out the soles of our feet are inversely proportional to the ad revenue we bring in or anything, but because between his words and the comments, each is an encapsulated summary of what works and doesn’t work in each genre.

But why do we have genres in the first place? They are at face value just vague bins into which we toss stories. Spaceships? Science fiction. Swords? Fantasy. Guns? Action. Love? Romance. But there’s more to genre than just the bins, even if that’s all they originally were. They have rules and norms. In fancy-speak, genres have become reified in a sense, we’ve invested concrete meaning and structure in something abstract. If genres were just bins for categorization then Twilight would be easy. Put it with the other vampire books, which are found in the horror section. The protests to that inclusion are based on the rules that we’ve built up around horror.

At one of the panels at ComiCon last year, China Miéville argued that genres are sets of rules. And while many of the other authors on the panel argued that the rules were made to be broken, or to be muddled up between genres, Miéville took on the utterly contrarian stance that not only were the rules necessary, but that following them was the ultimate challenge to a writer. It’s easy to break the rules of a genre, but it takes fantastic skill and willpower to actually follow those rules to the letter and yet still produce something incredible and original.

Coloring outside the lines is easy rebellion against arbitrary rules, but the more mature rebellion is through the subversion of the lines from within. Coloring outside the lines highlights the lines, validates them. But it is possible to color within the lines with such magnificent originality that the lines cease to matter at all, that the causal arrow is flipped and the coloring seems to cause the lines. Normal genre fiction elicits the response “ah, this follows these rules.” Transcendent genre fiction on the other hand inspires “ah, this is why those rules exist.”

That’s why it’s usually so painful when authors dip their toes into genres completely foreign to their previous work. They want to color outside the lines but haven’t earned the right. I don’t mean that there’s some karmic requirement to make a name in a genre before originality should be suffered. I mean that the artistic right to break a rule is earned by loving those rules in the first place. Often I think those genre-crossers do so because they fall victim to a side effect of Sturgeon’s Law.

Theodore Sturgeon spent years defending science fiction against the charge that while there might be great authors in the mix, 90% of it was crap. Finally he retorted, one imagines in a moment of sarcastic exhaustion at answering the same argument over and over again, with what became colloquially known as Sturgeon’s Law: that while 90% of science fiction is crap, that’s to be expected since 90% of anything is crap. When talking about the 10% that isn’t, those are the works that people read across genres. So when a literary writer decides to try their hand at fantasy because they loved The Lord of the Rings and think they can do better than the 90% of the crap out there, they’re missing the point. To like The Lord of the Rings is not to like fantasy, it’s to like the cream of the crop. That’s like insisting that you’re a football fan because you watched that one Super Bowl with the insane ending and it would have been even better if they didn’t have running plays at all.

Loving a genre means loving it for the 90% of crap. The 10% don’t really matter for this calculation, because anybody with taste is going to like the 10% regardless of their favored genre. For me, that’s science fiction and to a lesser degree fantasy. I can certainly distinguish the cream of the crop from the also rans, but give me a spaceship and the story has to be cataclysmically bad for me to not get some enjoyment out of it (for instance, Skyline). To love a genre is to approach that genre the way Billy Crystal’s Harry approaches dating. I can say that a story was terrible, the characters atrocious, the dialogue abysmal, I’d recommend it to no one, but of course I took it home and finished reading it … and there was this one little part that was memorable.

But in some genres, especially in certain mediums, that 90% falls into a terrible trap: the means become the ends, the rules cease to be the path to the story and become the point of the story. It’s something I was rolling around in my head after reviewing No Strings Attached last week. The problem is that there’s just no variance in the way that the 90% approach the rules. No creativity, just the same rote and mechanical performance over and over again. It’s the route to cliche, and to the slow strangling death of that genre. It’s a fascinating train wreck to watch, but serves as a creative warning to other genres.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.