This Labeled World

When I first read what is now termed speculative fiction, it was known as science fiction. Then sometime in the late 1960s, with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy emerged as a separate sub-genre and grew over the next few decades to outsell science fiction, and the field became F&SF. Now, it’s speculative fiction with so many subgenres I doubt I could name them all – hard science fiction, social/soft SF, alternate world/counterfactual SF, media tie-in SF, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, horror fantasy[as opposed to “straight” horror, which has become its own genre], and the list goes on.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m one of the few remaining writers who can and does publish a range of work, from “hard” SF and military SF all the way through alternate world SF to fantasy, all of which are published under my own name. From what I can tell, the majority of up-and-coming writers are either encouraged or required to use a different name when they write in a different genre. My use of the same name for whatever I write doesn’t seem to confuse my readers. Some like the fantasy, some the SF, and some like both. Some even like one fantasy series rather than another.

But the marketing types apparently are getting the upper hand. Heaven forbid that Samantha Smith, who writes urban fantasy, should publish hard SF. So she needs a totally different name. “S.C. Smith” won’t even do. Nor can Steve Smith, who wrote thrillers, publish social SF under his first name.

This sort of labeling isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, either. Labels and acronyms proliferate everywhere, and they change all the time. “Work-study experience”: is now “experiential learning.” “External diseconomies” became “negative externalities,” which is actually less accurate. But who cares about accuracy? If you need to reinvigorate an older practice, just jazz it up with a new name.

Nor do names necessary mean anything. What exactly is the “optimal learning interface?” Is there any meaningful difference between “individualized instruction” and “differentiated instruction?” In business, what exactly is “thought leadership?” How can you have leadership without thought? Or “laser focused?” That strikes me as so tightly focused that, the words of a much older maxim, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Which, to me, is the real problem with buzzwords and labeling everything.

Not that the marketing types care in the slightest. Just make them think it’s the new and improved version of whatever.

6 thoughts on “This Labeled World”

  1. Arin says:

    It isn’t always that authors swap names due to genre switches. Sometimes, it happens as the publisher believes in the author, but the author’s sales aren’t doing well, and a fresh start can significantly help.

    1. Right… as witness Robin Hobb, but that took place before the modern name madness.

      1. Arin Komins says:

        Yep, that’s the one I was thinking of as well.

  2. Lourain says:

    The author name-changing is foolishness. If I know an author writes well in one genre, I am more likely to purchase a novel in another genre if it is by the same author.

    1. Derek says:

      I’ve read some authors that were amazing when writing in an established universe (someone writing for Star Trek or Star Wars), but their own worlds weren’t that interesting. The author Michael A. Stackpole is an example of this for me. I loved his books as a teenager, and when I was an adult I sought out some of his own original work thinking I’d enjoy it too. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t interesting.

  3. Daze says:

    In this context one obviously has to think of Iain Banks / Iain M Banks, and the way that his final novel was so difficult to label that the US and UK publishers couldn’t agree on whether it was SF and therefore deserved that distinguishing M!

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