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Worldbuilding with Bonsart: What is a Genre?

What is a genre? I have often defined Steampunk as a subgenre of Science Fiction. But, what is (sub)genre? Before we get started, I'll be discussing two things. First, how genres are perceived by the public. This, however, will mostly be a rant for your amusement. In the second part, we'll discuss how genres are useful to the writer.

Public Perception

We all have a vague idea of what a genre is. Lets say the Super-hero genre, which we associate with stories related to spandex-clad super-powered people fighting evil geniuses or alien invasions.

Things got a bit more complicated when we mention Fantasy. Wikipedia alone mentions over 30 subgenres (including Dieselpunk for some reason).

I think it's fair to say that Lord of the Rings is the definitive example of (General) Fantasy, although there are probably a few readers out there going to tell me it's this or that subgenre. Leaving that aside. The tropes of fantasy include fantastical races, magic, anthropomorphic trees or mountains, and other worlds created by gods. Powerful heroes going on journies of self-discovery. You get the idea.

But then there are the many, many flavors. My favorite series are Berserk, Elfquest, and the earlier seasons of the Games of Thrones TV show. I like them because they are grounded. Conceptual in a sense. Tales that are as much about the world itself as it is about the characters. And they don't have every imaginable race like D&D.

This is a bit of a tenant, but I never liked D&D. It's just everything. I get it. It's a game. Game masters make up new shit all the time, and that's get reflected in the world. But there is no sense of mystery. Characters come across a monster or some hidden race. Oh, look. Another race. It's all treated as mundane and there little sense of discovery. And that is not what these are supposed to be. They tend to be about ass-kickers kicking-ass riding dragons to music by Glory Hammer.

This is all subjective, right. Point is, that we accept instinctively there are such things as subgenres because some types of fantasy are not like the others. Now, I think there are too many. Too many in the sense that many labels are so similar there really is no point in them existing. And I'm sure the writers among you have met 'the one' that proclaims his/her work will be so unique it will start a whole new genre the world has NEVER SEEN BEFORE! Only it either never finished or that bad- Anyway.

Here is the thing about all labels and genres. Mostly these are used for marketing reasons. This book is X-Punk. And the reader goes, "Oh, I like X-punk." You get the idea.

The other is, that authors, want to appear unique by inventing new labels. Not a good reason, but understandable. Now...


Too often, genres are used as descriptors of individual works of fiction rather than a collection of works that share a common source of inspiration. This is fine from the consumer's point of view, I suppose. But the public and critics alike ignore the creative process that leads to the final product.

Bioshock is a great example of this. People just assume that the video game and setting look the way they do because it's a whatever-punk. Seriously, pick a 'punk' and you'll find Bioshock has been called that. Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Decopunk, Teslapunk, Biopunk, Oceanpunk, Hydropunk, Aquapunk, Wrenchpunk (!) and Retro-futurism. Was kinda surprised to see Retro-futurism in this list. But what do any of these labels mean? Are there any other examples of Wrench Punk? It's one of the reasons I just gave up on making sense of all these subgenres. Anyway...

The problem here is that labeling any story as Something-punk omits how a work of fiction, or a game, becomes a finished product. Bioshock was put together to create a credible world for the players to immerse themselves in. Some elements are there because the developers needed a solution. Others because they came across things in the real world that inspired them. Most creative projects didn't end up as intended. For example, no one starts with the idea of making a terrible movie. Great cinema can be thwarted by faith. Actors dying during production, natural disasters destroying priceless sets, equipment malfunction, or just sheer incompetence.

The same goes for brilliant scenes in cinema. Iconic moments can come together by chance, which I will demonstrate. But first, let's discuss the meaning of the word 'iconic'.

There is this belief that creators can make something 'iconic' by design. Iconic is a popular phrase used by marketers and self-promoting creatives. For example, arguably the Associates of Ishtar look iconic with their masks and timeless aesthetic. Some would consider Anwin to be a mascot of the series. I mean look at her. She's adorable!

And maybe, in the context of the series and its community, it is. But is not Iconic in the way that the Android of Metropolis is, or the Big Daddies from Bioshock. Iconic means there is a deeper meaning there that goes beyond its franchise. Metropolis was a milestone in scifi movies. The Big Daddy represents environmental storytelling and immersive gameplay. Thor's Hammer. Sure it looks awesome in the movies, but that Hammer legacy goes back 2000 years of our history. It represents a male archetype that is probably older than history.

Icons are also related to the genre. What genre is this phrase? "Engage!"

or "You got my Axe."

or "I am your Father."

The same thing happened during the production of Bladerunner. A film that has become synonymous with Cyberpunk genre. The now-signature rainy nights are considered iconic. The Bench mark for Cyberpunk and scjifi Noir. But you are mistaken if you believe it was always supposed to look that way. You are wrong. These effects were applied to cover up the terrible building miniatures. So, they used mist, rain, and low light to cover up the flaws.

It's probably why so many creators fail to recreate this atmosphere. Because the atmosphere was there to hide many flaws.

Another example is the ridiculous, but iconic, Rover from the hit series The Prisoner.

"Wait? What the Rover you ask." Ok, tirade time.

Look at that glorious bastard looming over its victim like an inflated condom.

The Rover is a prison warden of sorts from a secret agent show... Of Sorts, called The Prisoner. It's hard to explain. It's a peak 70's show you can watch on Youtube if you want to see it. Originally that had some vehicle in mind for the Rover. But, when the vehicle arrived on set, it looked like a cheap parade float shaped like a birthday cake AND they couldn't drive it for various reasons. But it was already the first day of shooting, and they needed a machine to capture prisoners who were trying to flee the island. And then one of the staff saw big white balloons fly by. This sparked the idea for the Rover. Just take a big balloon with a string and chase the actors with it. It's dumb and it worked. And it became iconic... Not the most popular one, mind you. But a symbol of what you can do under pressure with a little imagination. The Prisoner is a sci-fi classic referenced in various works that came after... And all of that because some guy on set saw some balloons fly over.

In all these cases, the creators had to take shortcuts due to time restraints or budget issues. But instead of crap, they created something memorable. The Companion Cube from the Portal series is just such an example... I could go on with stories like these.

Even with the best-laid plans, the creative process is messy. Especially when dealing with creatives how can change course mid-production because some flaw or problem gives them an idea. Just listen to developer diaries. And you be amazed how some of the most iconic scenes in a film are but a fluke. Like the hilarious scene where Indian Jones shoots somebody. It's because Harris Ford was too sick that day for the intended fight scene. The tears in Rain Speech by Rutger Hower in Bladerunner. It's something the actor scribbled on a napkin inside his van just before filming. The ability to improvise is so important. Without Harrison Ford's or Rutger Hauer's participation backstage Bladerunner might have been an utterly forgettable film. Lighting in a bottle I think that is called.

Also for you world-build builders out there who are convinced that taking years to design a setting will create something everyone wants to read and makes producers shower you with film deals, think again.

What does this have to do with genre? Well, due to essayists and fanwankery, the public got this idea in their heads that there is such a thing as perfect fiction. That writers are these legendary beasts crafting their stories and worlds with superhuman insight. Therefore, everything they produce is as intended from the moment the first sentence was typed by their sauces fingers.


As demonstrated by the earlier examples, elements can come together by accident. Therefore calling it anything after the fact is just such a shallow approach to fiction overall.

The creators of Bioshock knew the type of world they wanted to create and the story they wanted to tell. But they needed to figure out what tools they needed. Storytelling tools I mean. One of these tools is genre. These things they discovered among the way. But for that, I suggest the documentary the creators made themselves where they discuss how they came up with the city of Rapture and so on.

Ok, rant over.

That took me a while to get there. But I want my readers to understand the difference between the perception of genres and how to use them. Too often I hear genres being discussed as a goal in itself. No. The goal is to make people want to read your work... At least that's my goal.

First, you need to know your audience. If your readers want to read Fantasy that is what you must deliver.

Second, you need a good back flap. Too little-discussed! But some writers start with a back flap before starting on the book. I don't. Not yet. But I should.

Third. What tools do you need to tell that story?

- High Concept or Low Concept.

In order to deliver the experience you promise on the back flap, what kind of structure does it need? If you promise a "what if" or "what would it be like too", it's High Concept. If you just what to write about a character overcoming obstacles, fulfilling a destiny, or a romance story, Low Concept might be the way to go.

- What Genre? Feels a bit weird to make that the last thing. But here's the thing. I see a genre as a toolbox. Genres have tropes, cliches, points of view, and archetypal characters. And like for any task, you need the proper tools. Let's say you and your friend wants to refurbish a kitchen. You bring your carpentry kit and your friends come in with a bulldozer. Very inappropriate.

Mortal Engines on the back flap reads like a High Concept story about driving cities and duking it out in the wasteland. But in reality, it's a typical hero coming of age story, and the mobile cities are just a metaphorical backdrop. Another example is the modern Star Trek that has been turned into Space Fantasies with characters having destinies now and blah, blah blah...

High Concept is a lost art in Hollywood. Remember Sliders, Star Gate, ST:NG, Deep Space 9... Even Ware House 13 did a better job... I mean it was a fine show, but far from perfect.

Some genres are better for High Concept than others. Steampunk, and Scifi in general excel in speculative fiction. It is why it became a genre. Scifi speculates about the future. More fantastical elements have seeped in through its 100+ years of history. Especially during the Gurnsbeck era when the New Age was very popular and writers believed that humans can ascend to higher states of being. That never went away, but it's how they went about it. These stories weren't about characters overcoming evil and entering godhood. It was about exploring the nitty-gritty of ascending to godhood, often described from an outsider's perspective to get an idea of what it was like to witness it. The protagonist is often a point-of-view character rather than the main character. They see how stuff unfolds around them rather than being the center of the story universe as in Low Concept. That is the nifty thing about High Concept. You can get away with stuff like that.

Let's contrast Classic Star Trek with the new Calvin Trek, or whatever the timeline is called now. In Classic Trek, the crew of the Enterprise gets a distress call from a ship in need. It's a waffle trading ship that has been attacked by raiders. But once they engage the ship the raiders turn out to be desperate colonists or something, and if they don't bring the waffle shipment their colony will starve. However, if the merchant doesn't deliver the waffles other people will starve. Then through in some tragic backstory on how the merchant attained the waffles and you have a moral dilemma with no right answers. What will the enterprise Doo-Nooooww?

New trek, it's all about its main character. Nothing in the STD universe can happen without the main character being there. Then there are some member berries for the audience the characters go on some quest to fight a space monster. I don't know. I didn't watch it beyond the third episode.

Here is the thing. We think of genres in terms of aesthetics, themes, and clichés. But how does that help us become better writers?

First off, history. Genres have developed in certain ways for a reason. Cyberpunk for instance was a product of its time. Just as Romantic Futurism. As our understanding of the universe grows and our perception of the future changes, Scifi changes accordingly. It's why Cyberpunk turned futuristic speculation into a retrofuturistic aesthetic. It's an antiquated vision of the future. Steampunk resembles that as well. Aesthetically, it's the futurism of yesteryear. However, as a genre, it still holds up. These stories speculate on what could-have-been.

So, when is Steampunk the right tool for the job? When dealing with topics and themes such as technological progress, societal change, and class conflict. Most of these are historical topics associated with the industrial revolution. [The pop-culture version of the industrial revolution at least.] And the typical subjects of Scifi like the relationship between humans and their technological environment, ambition, and future prospects. It's one of the reasons I like the statement that Steampunk is Cyberpunk in the past; Scifi stories inside an alternate timeline. But when it comes to Steampunk there is a bit more to it than that.

Lets look back to the argument that genres are only useful for marketing. Steampunk and similar niches have developed organically. But it doesn't mean there is no consistency. This genre developed in an interesting time in which writers can take inspiration from a century of sci-fi literature and pop culture. I think it's important to understand Steampunk has the unique quality to revive and keep alive antiquated cultural icons. This is what the Steampunk audience wants. Historical costume dramas and pop-culture references.

Looking at Steampunk as a tool, its application also makes more sense in including it in a fantastical setting. Still, for these tools to work as intended, you have to be careful not to use your wood saw on a piece of granite. You want to use your tools with maximum efficiency after all, and not have them break because you are attempting to duck tape a blow torch to a chainsaw. I mean it sounds awesome, but in reality, these contribute little to each other.

A good example of using Steampunk in fantasy fiction is the Guns Above. It's about an airship crew onboard a scout vessel It goes into great detail on how the airship works, the culture onboard the ship, and the horror of the airships battle. It also demonstrates why airships wouldn't work in a post-flintlock age, but that's beside the point. But the world is fantastical. And I am totally fine with this. The point of the story is the airship and its crew. It's speculative fiction about what airship combat could look like. And no. It's not the 4th rake ships of the line soaring the clouds. It's a cannoneers boat with a single canon. Most fighting is done with muskets because firing cannons on a dirigible isn't a good idea overall. It's probably important to note the book is an exploration of what airship combat could be like. It's not about an alternate history of how this all came about. For books like that, I'll have to direct you to books by authors like Harry Turtledove.

And with that, we'll conclude this piece on genres. These can be useful tools, be it for marketing, or how to structure your story. For me, a genre is an important framework for analysis be for fiction or our literary history.


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The Wrench in the Machine

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