Featured Image: The CACTUS Observatory in Daggett, California. Converted from an experimental solar power plant in 2001, demolished in 2008. Image Credit: JohnNeutrino
I’m basically unplugged from “SFF” (Science Fiction-Fantasy) as a scene. I just read Clarkesworld (the best magazine in the world, imho) and that’s it. So you know it’s bad when SFF drama makes it big enough that I hear about it.
Which is what’s happened over the past month, as discussion of SFF has turned entirely into a discussion of “Cozy Horror” and the innumerable other fandom labels that have cropped up in the scene over the past few years. Cozy Horror is essentially a term for less terrifying horror work, stuff that’s less shocking and more chilling. The examples generally given range across genres, from cartoons like Over The Garden Wall, podcasts like Welcome To Night Vale, and writers like T. Kingfisher and R. L. Stine. This term has been floating around for a few years, but it got big after a Mary Sue article about Cozy Horror that kicked off a lot of discourse regarding it (I haven’t heard of it until this latest round of discourse). Now, what I’m not here to do is judge the genre – I don’t really read or watch horror that much, and I’m not a critic or artist working in the genre. It’s just not my place. But I can talk about the connection to SFF, because that is what really got the discourse going.
Now, the connection from SFF to Cozy Horror is pretty tenuous right now – there is the general feeling that some SFF writers are shifting to “Cozy Horror”, and generally there has been a recent shift where more writers working in SFF are moving to other genres. This has created a general impression that Cozy Horror is going to A) Usurp Science-Fiction Fantasy and B) the larger SFF Fandom and writing base will usurp horror. Everything will be turned into a blend of Cozy Horror. I don’t really think that’s happening, because when I was researching Cozy Horror for this, I didn’t find a lot of people self-identifying as Cozy Horror fans – meaning that there is, right now, no real audience for this stuff. We’ll see in a year if this changes, but I don’t think it will, for one simple reason: Cozy Horror is another one of these internet created genre labels, and not a real genre or movement. There’s no Cozy Horror conventions, manifestos, publications, or presses. The examples given range across times, creators, genres, and formats – from old R.L. Stine books to new cartoons. It’s more of a TV Tropes page than anything and is just retroactively applied to works.
Genre is a messy thing, and as someone who listens to a lot of obscure electronic music I can tell you that there is a real fuzzy line not just between genres, but between a genre being actually real and just being some arbitrary categorization. People just love categorization, and the internet has really fed that urge as we all come up with new ways to name existing art. But part of that is that the ways artists influence and respond to each other is complicated and nobody can really nail it. And this has happened in science fiction, where we’ve seen the creation of many new genres (sometimes termed aesthetics). Retrofuturism. Hopepunk. Dieselpunk. Post-cyberpunk. And so on. These are usually set up as small microfandoms, tumblr tags, subreddits, and aren’t really movements as much as ways for people to filter art.
And beyond this proliferation in genres and labels, the internet has also changed how we interact with art due to the algorithm. Algorithms thrive on categorization, which is why your Spotify Wrapped now has genres like “Escape Room” (Not me tho. I don’t use Spotify). I have never heard a musician willingly describe their work as “Escape Room”. It’s a handy label that Spotify uses to put musicians like Vince Staples on playlists and more effectively market music – mostly by concentrating popular music to a few superstars, while everyone else doesn’t get anything. Same basic process goes with literature, but it’s slower since it spreads through fandom classifications, blogs, and internet discourse dustups. But it’s the same deal, the algorithm of BookTok, Google SEO, Twitter discourse, and Amazon fragments art into increasingly more labels and genres as a way to distinguish products, create markets, and market art more efficiently as a product to check boxes than as art created by an artist. It picks a few winners and everybody else gets nothing. I don’t think its a sustainable way to make art, and this is what gets me about these internet genre labels.
But there’s more. Let’s look at “NASApunk” for example. This was a term used to describe Bethesda Software’s upcoming science fiction game, Starfield, and I hate it. For one, I’ve always hated “-core” and “-punk” being appended to genres with no relation to the punk scene (Cyberpunk is the exception, because it genuinely came about without being named after punk music). But it just reeks of this pinterest board, fandom reddit energy where people just classify things without really thinking about it. Most of the NASA equipment was designed by well known designers and architects! They were working within already existing artistic movements like Modernism! But now all that has been decontextualized into a descriptor to better convey to the videogame player what kind of science fiction it is. It just drives me up a wall. It’s just the same basic thing as “Cozy Horror”, where these are just internet genres with no real mooring or history.
Now, I’m not categorically opposed to using these labels. This is what critics do, and I fancy myself, at times, a critic. But I think this process is dangerous. It serves to reify these algorithms, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Ultimately, these algorithms don’t create new art or push genre boundaries, but just chop up what’s already there. As someone who likes new art, I hope that what’s in store isn’t a bunch of new labels for old stuff.