Authors Walter Mosley (The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin) and John Scalzi (Redshirts) and editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (The Weird) praised genre-crossing and speculative fiction in a Tuesday panel sponsored by Tor Books, and moderated by columnist Ryan Britt.

Mosley opened by declaring, “The mainstream hasn’t excluded SF; the mainstream has excluded itself.” Looking back over the history of literature, he explained, speculative fiction has been the norm; it just wasn’t labeled that way until recently. “No one told Jules Verne he was a science fiction writer,” he said, “but he invented the 20th century.”

Jeff VanderMeer added, “Weird fiction is to the 21st century what fairy tales were in earlier times”: it gives readers examples of dealing with unexpected, peculiar situations and helps to prepare them for life in the real world.

Scalzi agreed, citing recent popular interpretation of odd news stories as signs of a pending zombie apocalypse. “Science fiction and fantasy give us a way to name and cope with the things we fear,” he said.

Scalzi suggested that SF inspires kids to become engineers and scientists: “They look at SF and decide, ‘That’s where I want to live.’ ” Mosley countered: “One thing that really bothered me about Star Wars: A New Hope is that everyone in it is white—in fact, most are even blond-haired and blue-eyed. Is that the future George Lucas wants, consciously or not? So SF can show us how to make things better, but it can also make things much worse.”

The VanderMeers deliberately looked around the world for weird fiction to include in their anthology The Weird. “It makes the conversation so much more interesting,” Jeff said. “And there was a period, around the 1930s, when it seems like everyone, in a great many countries, was writing about the same thing,” feelings of estrangement and discomfort.

With the all too brief discussion drawing to a close, Britt asked the panelists how they felt about genre distinctions. No one was fond of them. “I’m increasingly skeptical of genres,” Jeff said, “except insofar as they’re useful for discussing cross-pollination.” Ann described genre as “purely about marketing.”

Recalling the earlier discussion of the origins of “speculative fiction” as a concept, Scalzi said, “People talk about genre like this is how it’s always been and will always be. And neither is true.” What remains to be seen is whether these genre-benders will hasten the extinction of genre, and what will take its place.