The Fuzzy Genre Set
I first read Nalo Hopkinson's "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone" in The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Tan-Tan, worn down by guilt and life's cares, arrives in Duppy Dead Town, "where people go when life boof them, when hope left them and happiness cut she eye 'pon them and strut away." There, in the town without hope or happiness, Tan-Tan comes upon Dry Bone, a man who appears to be starving, too weak even to stand. Tan-Tan, goodhearted, helps him and in doing so is trapped by him, the man or creature Dry Bone, who feeds on sorrow and pain. The story reads as a folktale, rendered in a vernacular that evokes the spoken word and following the common arc of a hero having to trick his or her way out of a mess, rather than fighting it head on. The setting appears pre-industrial. There are talking animals. This, undoubtedly, is the province of fantasy.
Recently, I read "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone" again, this time in Hopkinson's novel, Midnight Robber. The story is one of several folktales told about the main character, Tan-Tan, whose coming of age we follow in the main storyline. The Tan-Tan of that primary narrative is a young girl born on the planet Toussaint, where everyone is governed by a kind of Internet-artificial intelligence known as Granny Nanny. Tan-Tan's father absconds with her to New Half-Way Tree, a prison planet in another dimension, where Granny Nanny doesn't exist and various creatures and plants do, given names from legend (duppies, ground puppies, the rolling calf) but definitively alien. This, undoubtedly, is the province of science fiction.
Both of these observations are true. As a short story, "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone" wields tropes commonly associated with fantasy. It's unlikely that anyone reading it as a stand-alone piece would interpret it otherwise. Similarly, Midnight Robber is dense with science fictional tropes, from artificial intelligence to alternate dimensions to the contact and miscommunications between alien species. Often, genres are discussed as discrete categories -- here the drawer for fantasy, there the drawer for science fiction, over there the drawer for literary fiction. But the truth is, as "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone" demonstrates, the same work can fit in multiple drawers.
Does it matter? Do attempts to categorize works into genre do anything other than give people a lot to argue about? I think so. What it comes down to is a continual attempt to name what we like and don't like in a way that other people can understand and that potentially can lead to discovering and reading more of what we love. The arguments are just collateral, arising from our inability to ever completely capture the essence of what we love or hate in a few simple words. This also explains the hordes of sub-genres, budding off of genres and other sub-genres and dead genres and new genres and regenerated genres, on and on, each new grouping an attempt to hold someone's affection. There will always be these categories, as long as there is a love of books that calls out for more.
But genres are not the solid masses that common rhetoric would make them out to be. In the opening chapter to Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery proposes the idea that genre -- fantasy specifically, though the idea is transferable -- could be thought of similarly to a mathematical fuzzy set. There's a center containing the work or works everyone might agree belong to the genre, but then, as we move away from the center, things become less certain, less definite, the lines begin to blur. If we think about this in regards to all genres, then there are dozens of these fuzzy sets, or even hundreds once you include sub-genres and inert genres, left behind in time, all lapping up against each other, none of them entirely separate from any other. No genre is pure. All hail the mongrel genres.
This fuzziness is easier to see in relation to fantasy and science fiction, which are grouped together in libraries and bookstores and both eligible for Hugo and Nebula Awards. Their tropes seem distinct: magic versus technology, space ships versus horses. Yet, as Arthur C. Clarke observed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." What seems clear and explicable can take on the rhetoric and trappings of the inexplicable -- may even truly be inexplicable under our current understanding of the world. And though one tends to draw from the future and the other from the past, future and past don't always look that different. Characters knocking flint to make a fire and sharing folktales could belong to a fantasy world -- or they could be the survivors of a future apocalypse.
In Midnight Robber, the science fiction tropes outweigh the fantasy ones, but they are both present. Characters chafe under a high technology, surveillance state and escape it for an alien planet, where legends seem to come alive. The encounters between humans and aliens play off against the encounters between humans and legends. The folktales told about Tan-Tan aren't that far off from her "real life," and, it turns out, even a computer program will find truths worth sharing in stories that aren't real. Even in the future, the inexplicable -- the magical -- hovers in the margins of the known.