Another SFContario has come and gone. Rather than bore everyone who wasn’t at the affair with every detail of my weekend, I’m going to use this post to reflect on two of my panels, both of which left me thinking about their discussion long after the session ended.

I had the pleasure of joining Sandra Kasturi, David Nickle, and Matt Moore for a discussion on politics and horror. The scope of this panel included both film and literature, leaving us with a lot to cover in our hour. After a few opening comments the discussion shifted, as it so often does when horror comes into the equation, into the divergent definitions of horror. Such discussions often leave me with more questions than answers and a considerably longer reading list.

As I said on the panel, I tend to classify horror, in either film or literature, as something that subverts the expectations of normality. One examples I cited is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. I view Contagion as a study in hubris, and a reminder that despite all the trappings of modernity and civility, humanity is not safe. We can be undone by things invisible and largely (i.e. without very specific scientific training) unknowable beyond their visible effects on a person. An additional qualification for Contagion as horror is in the inevitability of a viral outbreak as well as the psychological burden that comes with said knowledge before, during, and after the event. .

Sandra offered that horror requires a supernatural element. In that light Contagion, for want of a supernatural element, is best seen as a thriller. A good point. I wonder though, what happens if a story like Contagion’s is set in a pre-germ theory world? It probably becomes historical fiction and the point is moot. Assuming it doesn’t, I’ll ask what is more important to horror’s formula: the reader’s definition of supernatural or one that is most relevant to the story and characters at hand?

A panel called “Strength of Character” left me mulling over a seemingly tangential comment from Derek Künsken. During this panel I paraphrased this article, which frames John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War as entry-level science fiction. Derek quickly suggested authors like Ken Liu and Aliette de Bodard should serve as an introduction to science fiction for intelligent readers – or words to that effect. Ever the consummate moderator, Derek didn’t let the panel stray too far into this discussion on entry-level fiction.

Though I’ve only read a single short story from Liu and de Bodard, both of which I reviewed as part of a larger anthologies, there’s no doubting the impressive social commentary that drives their fiction. So why not use writers of their pedigree as gateways into the genre? Liu and de Bodard make perfect sense as ambassadors for the genre. At the same time, I’d also recommend de Bodard, Liu, and Scalzi, as excellent choices for those well versed in science fiction. This begs the question, what exactly is entry-level science fiction? After spending an hour in parking lot grade traffic on the way home from the convention, I decided that the term itself is problematic and I’m going to stop using it except when dismantling it.

As a descriptor, entry-level is almost always used as an antecedent for the word job. I don’t think I’ll get too much dissent if I generalize entry-level jobs as tedious and rudimentary. Even though the aforementioned writers have wildly different styles and approaches to storytelling, nobody in their right mind should see their work as anything less than sophisticated and well measured. Moreover, all three authors meet the essential litmus test for good literature, regardless of genre, in exploring complex contemporary issues through prose fiction. Do we really want to bandy about terms like entry-level when it might evoke comparisons to professional donkey work? I think not.

James Marshall once told me that “literary fiction” is little more than a synonym for quality fiction. Both science fiction writers and readers alike know that the label of genre is often heaped upon our body of work as a brand of inferiority. Calling something entry-level science fiction, even if the intent is benign, might further marginalize science fiction at a time when it ought to be held on even footing with lit fic.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where I’ll end this post. Even though I have a few more things to say about the weekend, they are hardly so time sensitive that I feel the need to impose upon the attention span of my readers.

To be continued…