Some time ago I said to someone else something to the effect that, "I call myself a science-fiction writer because I don't really have any better label for what I do." I gravitated towards that category to describe what I did because it was the only one that seemed open-ended enough to cover many of the things I was aiming for.
Not everything I've done belongs there. The Four-Day Weekend is Plain Old Fiction, and Welcome to the Fold is closer to being a psychological thriller than anything else, although it has elements that could nudge it towards SF. At least one other project I have in mind is not SF in any way, shape, or form. But a lot of what I do ends up in that bucket, because there just doesn't seem any other place to put it.
Fiction's large, it contains multitudes. A lot of what Kurt Vonnegut wrote was labeled SF even though he didn't want the label applied to his work. Slaughterhouse-five is more like magical realism than SF, and Cat's Cradle has SF elements but is closer to the tar-black Armageddon Rag satire of Dr. Strangelove than anything else. And so it goes, as Unca Kurt himself put it time and again. The label was just the oom-pah (his word once more) you used to get 'em in the tent.
The risk I faced when using the label, I realized, was in misleading people. If they opened my book expecting Vinge and they got Vonnegut instead, I wouldn't be surprised if the book ended up lodged in the closet door spine-first. A lot of SF fans are, rightfully I guess, leery of something labeled "SF" that turns out to be mainstream fiction with a dusting of SF sprinkled over it. To them it feels like slumming, an attempt to avoid being associated with something "pulpy" or "disreputable". I suspect this attitude is starting to fade, thank goodness, but I still feel like it has influence when I see stuff like Colson Whitehead's Zone One on the shelves.
Back when I first started to pound keys, I actually thought this wasn't a bad attitude to take. I was just pretentious enough to think I could avoid being labeled with a genre, because once people discovered how brilliant I was they wouldn't care. I know better now (well, at least I hope I do), because I understand all too well that people need a label to get them into the tent. They have to start somewhere, and whether they also end up there or end up somewhere else is your own choice to make.
I'm not fond of labels. Unfortunately, it seems we can't live without them. The most we can do is not let them rule us.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind