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is there such a thing as “original” fiction?

I began reading Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game this weekend. In the intro, he made an offhanded comment that Science Fiction is one of the only genres where originality is stressed. I don’t think he meant to slam the other genres…or maybe he did…but I took a little offense to this.

I thought about if this statement was even true. I don’t read a lot of Sci-Fi, so feel free to correct me in the comments below. But, at least as far as movies are concerned, the genre typically follows space odyssey centered around exploring other planets where the humans encounter a race they must outsmart to survive. Or they involve a battle already taking place. Most plots involve deep space exploration, explaining the travel by placing characters in “deep sleep” with liquid oxygen (which movies make look like pink goo). Can we really say that Sci-Fi is completely original?

But he strikes on a chord currently in the industry. Someone posted on twitter a while back that the “cookie cutter” story was most of what publishers were currently seeking because they know how to sell it. Romance genres are always accused of following this structured form of writing. By definition, this means that they go beyond the typical plot arch and actually define common events: Boy meets girl, boy/girl hate each other, boy/girl fight until an event causes them to realize their love, boy/girl get together in the end. Scenery and names change, but the basic plot line does not.

I thought maybe the “dystopia” novels might fall victim to his claim, mainly because I read Brave New World as well as Anthem in the same month during high school. They are so close, I could not tell you the difference because they have meshed inside my head. But, Brave New World and Hunger Games are distinctly different. Looking only at current novels, Hunger Games and Divergent are different in the messages they send. But are any of them truly “original”?

He did go on to say that Sci-Fi doesn’t simply want to entertain, but to cause the readers to stop and reassess ideas. Okay, I can give him that, but does that not happen in other genres as well? Is there no “point” to Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games?

While it is true that most genres have their characteristics and expectations, I would be hesitant to say all genres are following this same cookie cutter approach. I think Orson Scott Card is partially right. Many stories are spin offs (so to speak) on other novels. A writer might consciously (or subconsciously) take their own twist to something they previously read. But I disagree that the genres are simply mimicry (while Science Fiction never falls victim). Just think of the urban fantasy novels out there. There are vampire monsters vs vampire hotties; there are gods versus heroes or supernatural versus heroes.

Such diversity is still out there and I hope that never changes.


  1. Daveler

    I agree with you.

    I think because the importance (and fun) of sci-fi and fantasy are more about settings than plot lines it is typical and easy and even satisfying to jam The Hero’s Journey into different worlds. Readers don’t always have a problem with predictable events because that’s not what they’re there for. They want to be privy to the world and the characters’ interaction with the world, so a basic, uninteresting set up that just propels the book forward can be, at times, good enough for anyone just seeking a decent read.

    But while most purely commercial novels can be pretty similar settings AND plots AND characters, such as mystery or romance, even a purely commercial, pulp fiction science fiction story has to have something different about the world. Generic plot and characters are okay, but if there’s not a remotely unique concept behind it, readers go, why would I care? Most genres have a strict emotional base attached to them (Mystery is curiosity, romance is love, horror is fear, thriller is adrenaline)but sci-fi doesn’t. So it needs to do one of those things PLUS have an interesting environment, or I’d just pick up one of the others.

  2. BJ Kurtz

    Good points. Do you think that Sci-Fi would be adventure/exploration for it’s emotion?

    I like that you bring up the “why do I care” question. It is important that writers remember that as they are plotting.

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