02 August, 2009

Subgenres in Science Fiction & Fantasy

Crawling around MentatJack's blog last week, I came across his TagShadow project and was mightily impressed, mostly because any math that does not involve numbers is, well, impressive. That said, I think I understood what he was trying to get at, and the project is, conceptually, a really cool idea. From what I understand, and please correct me if I am wrong, it is a way to automatically generate subgenre tags based on what people are posting across the web. Talk about science fiction, the feat entails reading the shadow given off by a three dimensional curve to simplify the data and map out a book across its subgenres.

The TagShadow project piqued my curiosity and in no time flat had me trawling the web for a comprehensive list of subgenres in science fiction and fantasy. Given the highly subjective nature of the process, it was no surprise that pretty much every list I came across left something out that I felt was essential or was just plain inaccurate. Take a look at the wiki subgenre list for example. I found a couple more detailed articles when browsing, such as the now fairly old one from SFSite, but none explore the interconnectedness of the subgenres enough, nor do they go into nearly enough detail.

Some writers have gone on to ridicule the excessive number of subgenres out there, this specific article making light fun of an online store which breaks its science fiction offerings down into 51 different categories. There are a number of highly thought out descriptions of subgenres floating around, such as the recent article over at Tor discussing the finer aspects of historical fantasy. However, the highly fluid nature of subgenres gives them a certain ephemeral quality that makes them exceedingly difficult to pin down.

To complicate matters further, publishing houses tend to deliberately blur the line between subgenres so as to increase sales. A succinct post over on the fantasyliterature forums describes many books with Urban Fantasy covers which don't necessarily qualify for the genre, and I have noticed this trend myself. Interestingly, the post also brings up the idea of a short shelf life on certain subgenres. Regardless, given the current popularity of Urban Fantasy, I can't blame publishers for trying to make an extra buck.

The superabundance of subgenres (here is a fun list with 55) paradoxically renders them pretty useless. The whole purpose of a subgenre is to fit a book into a relatively neat category for descriptive purposes--when they are used to simply describe the themes or ideas of a novel they loose their broad utility. My purpose in this post is mostly to ask if anyone has had any significant discussions on the topic or knows of any good resources -- so if you know of anything thats out there, let me know!

13 comments:

ediFanoB said...

That is an interesting topic. We all tend to categorize things. From my experience it is good when you connect authors or better books to subgenres. But I also know that there are a lot of books which fit in more than one subgenre.

mentatjack said...

My goal with the tag shadow project is almost the exact opposite of what you describe. My goal is to take a comprehensive tag cloud of speculative fiction and use that to map all of the books onto a 2D plane that preserves most of the relationships between the books while abstracting out all the details. Sub genres would PROBABLY cluster together, but the most important aspect would be that given a book that you like you should be able to look at the books' nearby neighbors to find similar books.

Hopefully the result would be some unintended connections or some concentrations that would distinguish new or historical trends. Eventually you'd be able to zoom in on this 2D "universe" and explore the details of each "galaxy" of books. I'd even be able to plot users after they tag themselves with what they're interested in. Extensively tagging links to blog posts and articles on other sites would allow commentary on speculative fiction to be mapped into the same space.

I guess the simplest way to explain this is that it'll be a recommendation engine that is a bit more exposed than the black box that recommends your books at amazon or your music with pandora or iTunes genius.

Your enthusiasm lights a fire under my ass. I should probably stop fiddling around with Twitter Plus One and get back to work on TagShadow.com

All of that said, I find the concept of sub-genres to be a neat starting point for discussion and fully suspect that my TagShadow if successful would be a fertile space for discovering and thus coming up with interesting names for new ones.

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Rofl, the TwitterPlusOne is pretty hilarious, I see your projects vary is scope and... importance.

Sorry I misunderstood what you were getting at with the the TagShadow project, and I hope you get there sometime soon!

What you just described reminds me of a Ted lecture I watched not too long ago... I'll have to see if I can't find it for you. Although, I might be off the mark again here...

mentatjack said...

Opinion Space was one of the inspirations for TagShadow, which might give you a feel for what I'm envisioning. In their case, they're mapping 6 "dimensions" to a 2D map, so in many ways it's a MUCH simpler proposition than what I'm proposing.

Shellie said...

This sounds like an awesome resource for readers interested in a particular genre - hopefully it will be end user friendly... so that I (not very geeky) could use it. :)

ediFanoB said...

mentatjack, thanks for clarification. Indeed your project is ambitious.

mentatjack said...

Yeah, I've expanded the project to learning a bunch of pretty cool technologies that will let me make this VERY scalable, but learning multiple new programing languages slows down the process ... slightly.

I sometimes envy people that can just enjoy a book. I feel a rabid need to contribute to the community and review blogging has fueled that desire instead of sating it.

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Heh, seems like I wasn't the only one to be a bit confused by the project.

I know what you mean about the reading for pleasure v. reading to review impulses. I read outside spec fic when I want to just chill, since I don't have to worry about reviewing it.

icowrich said...

The list of 55 subgenres to which you linked at the end of the post was intended to be a set of metatags. They are mostly user-generated (that list grows) and many of those categories have overlap. These lists are, as you say, "pretty useless", if you see the subgenres as traditional non-overlapping categories (like, say, the dewi-decimal system).

The beauty of metatagging is that they can (in fact, almost always do) overlap, and so users can categorize any way they want. The website you referenced (www.worldswithoutend.com) takes the top three tagged subgenres and assigns them to the book in its novel page. The three most popularly tagged subgenres then become considered the most relevent ones. It is a wiki-approach to subgenre management.

The system is intended to provide the brevity of a small lists with the depth of longer ones...utilizing the strengths of each.

To see the wiki-subgenre system in action go to any novel in the page, such as: http://www.worldswithoutend.com/novel.asp?id=1026

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Ichwrich, first off let me say how cool the site is, and I see exactly what you mean. My apologies for the mischaracterization of the extensive list. My intent was not to argue against overlapping subgenre tags. Instead, I was trying to point out that when a subgenre tag is overly descriptive, why not just have a description instead? Yes, I find it useful to know that Powered Armor might be a theme somewhere in a book that I am considering (say Starship Troopers), but I don't consider Powered Armor to be a subgenre, precisely because of its descriptive quality. A Subgenre, and I use the capital S deliberately, should quickly and in broad strokes relate scope, scale, tone, and technology among other things (in SF/F). I believe there is a significant difference between a Subgenre and a descriptive tag, and that in many cases people, myself included, use them interchangeably--that is mostly what I was trying to point out.

icowrich said...

Oh, I didn't perceive a slight. I agreed with your assessment that those are waaay too many subgenres for a traditional exclusive categorization scheme. I was just pointing out, in case you weren't aware, that it was a meta-tagging scheme. Your original critique still stands.

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Ok, we are good :P

mentatjack said...

And I'm back with an update. I've actually got the prototype of TagShadow ready. I'd love your input and I'm totally available to discuss the project at length.

This first iteration is basically a proof of concept using a snapshot of ALL the tags used on amazon to describe SFF books.