When asked to describe what kind of music his band plays, Andy Dwyer—the kindhearted lug played by Chris Pratt on Parks and Recreation—states that he “doesn’t like to define” their sound but that they sound like Matchbox 20 and The Fray. “So … rock,” someone responds. “Well, again,” explains Andy, “I don’t really like to define it.” Of course, this complete lack of self-awareness has been evident in every single person who’s ever picked up a guitar and written a song. (For the record, I have absolutely been that guy.) But here’s the thing: Yeah, Mouse Rat was a rock band, but Andy wasn’t necessarily wrong to refuse labels because those types of short-hand designations can be detrimental to artists.
The value proposition offered by labels is that they allow consumers to easily identify art that will be akin to other things that they like, thus allowing them to find and appreciate more art. This is good! It’s also particularly relevant in our extensively databased, highly searchable digital world; certain consumers and artists absolutely benefit from the use of labels. But for some artists, the labeling of their work can be exclusionary, preventing potentially interested consumers from ever experiencing what they’ve made. This is particularly problematic for works that skirt around the edges of various genre labels, courting a few but not committing to any, and is amplified by the fact that many labels carry negative connotations for many consumers.
Dan Simmons’ 1989 novel Hyperion is labeled as science fiction and, broadly speaking, it is. The story takes place in the distant future and features sci-fi hallmarks like space travel, alien lifeforms and artificial intelligence. But to focus on those aspects of Hyperion is to consider the frame rather than the picture. The novel—which was heavily influenced and inspired by The Canterbury Tales, a piece of literature that is decidedly not sci-fi—is a collection of traveler’s tales, each completely unique from the others. The disparate parts that make up Hyperion include a detective story, a military thriller and a cautionary tale of imperialistic industrialization.
So yes, Hyperion is a sci-fi book. But it is many other things too, transcending simple ideas of genre through its diverse and branching narrative (a process that is wonderfully reflected within the book itself through the story of the Ousters). It is the type of book that will undoubtedly appeal to many readers of sci-fi—it did win the Hugo, after all—but also to many readers who look down at that particular genre label with disdain. If only they would listen to a wise man and refuse to define it.