I dislike genres. Not the so called ‘genre fiction’ but the idea behind and the practice of classifying stories as belonging to particular genres.* I’m not even sure how or why the genres came to be. I suspect it’s a conspiracy of booksellers and librarians, a conspiracy to make their lives easier when it comes to choosing bookshelves.
I like how Geroge R R Martin put in one of the introductory essays in the second volume of Dreamsongs:
“We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s still the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself. The rest, my friends, is furniture.”
I couldn’t agree more. Because when it comes to stories the important part is not whether they take place in castles or on alien planets, whether they feature spies and cops, or wizards. The important thing is wether they ring true. The setting (be it castles, or alien planets) if done well certainly adds to the joy of reading. But the thing we as readers connect to on the emotional level is the reflection of our human condition (be it portrayed by humans, dwarves, or aliens).
I’m writing this because I’ve recently read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and I thought it was one of those books that prove that genres are an obsolete distinction. Sure, you could say it’s sci-fi, and it will be true depending on what definition of sci-fi you take. But it will also be somewhat misleading as there’s hardly any hard-core sci-fi in it. You don’t get to find out how the rockets work. The alien planet looks suspiciously like Green Bluff, Illinois, in 1920s. And the aliens themselves are very human in their motivations, weaknesses, and fallacies.
But this is precisely why Bradbury’s book will never date. Our technology changes, our beliefs might change, but the human condition remains the same. The Martian Chronicles reads true despite scientific implausibility; it reads true because the historical parallels and behavioral patterns are so recognizable.
I have my own, alternative to genres, categorization of books: the good ones and the rest. The Martian Chronicles belongs definitely to the first. Thoughtful, satirical, cautionary, nostalgic, observant. Very sad and a little funny at the same time.
*I admit, genres and nationalities are my personal pet peeves. I guess I just don’t like useless segregation.