Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Great Debate

So ye olde debate about genre distinctions in Science Fiction and Fantasy rears its head again in one of those explosions of links that rip through the blogosphere every so often. Sarah Monette makes a distinction between the two genres, which Ted Chiang picks up and runs with. Jeff VanderMeer and his Evil Monkey drink vodka and say "nay". Elizabeth Bear grins. David Moles gathers the arguments. Nick Mamatas knees them in the balls. And so on.

Too many links. Too many links. Fuck it, if ye're reading this ye'll probably know where to go to read these guys. I've spent too long writing this post already. Go find 'em yerself.

Me, I think any analysis of literary approaches is a worthwhile venture but when we phrase this in terms of genre... well, fuck it. Science Fiction is a marketing label. Fantasy is a marketing label. Horror is a marketing label. General Fiction is, by default, the marketing label for all that Bridget Drones style Chick-Lit, all that Middling Fidelity style Urban Satire and Angela's Grey Grimy Fucking Tear-Sodden Ashes style Kitchen Sink Realist bullshit, all the stuff which hasn't quite formulated its trite conventions into the full-blown cliches that the long-standing genres have had forever and a day to develop. A marketing label is not an analytic descriptor; it's just a postioning of a book in front of this audience instead of that one. If a genre -- like, you know, from generis -- is a "family" of fiction then, really, we're not talking about two inbred clans with long-standing feuds who'd slaughter any man, woman or dog who even dared to suggest there might be shared blood between them. Science Fiction as Clan Campbell! Fantasy as Clan Macdonald! The genre as the blood-stained battleground of Glen Coe! And never the twain shall meet.

Fuck that shit.

The families have been intermarried from the Year Dot, fucking and fighting for centuries, coming together at weddings and funerals only to split and feud over insignificant insults, slight differences of opinion blown up out of all proportion. Some of that family have married into money. Others live in penury. Resentments bubble. Alliances are made and broken. Drunken uncles insult their next of kin. Black sheep are ostracised. But for all the bickering and backstabbing, the talk of this side of the family and that side of the family, the gene pool is too mixed, I'd say to talk about SF and Fantasy as different forms, different genres, in an analytically rigorous way. Formally, we can talk about Space Opera, Technothriller, Epic Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery, because these are qualitatively distinct; but if SF includes Dune and Fantasy includes Gormenghast... I mean, where's the magic in Gormenghast, and isn't Dune chock full of it? Priests and prophecies. A drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future. Monsters and messiahs. And what's the most fantastical idea in Gormenghast? A really big house.

This is my main issue with any differentiation between SF and Fantasy based on one being focused on science and the other on magic. If you're contrasting Hard-SF and High Fantasy then, yes, you have a case. But to apply that to SF and Fantasy across the board just doesn't work. SF long since took on board the notion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And Fantasy long since took on board the notion that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. And so SF/F writers write the stories they want to, quite often treating the two as entirely interchangeable. Bradbury's entire ouvre is, I'd say, a case in point. Even with individual stories, like "The Veldt", say, you might well ask: Is this SF? Fantasy? Horror? Or all of the above?

And do we actually give a shit, given that it's a fucking immense story?

No. Science Fiction and Fantasy are just marketing labels. SF/F is one huge Crawling Chaos of pilfered tropes and techniques, shared plot structures and character types. Cowboys in space or knights fighting dragons. Dragons in space or cowboys fighting knights! The shit on both sides of the family have more in common than they have to distinguish them, hero-oriented power-wank filled with Objects of Power, Grand Devices that might be technological or might be magical. The shinola on both sides also has much in common -- using those Grand Devices as metaphoric conceits, extrapolating that killer idea into environments and cultures, plots and themes, drawing 3D characters who interact with the reimagined world and with each other on a much deeper level than The Adolescent Hero's Never-Ending Journey.

Now, that said, I think there is actually an interesting point raised in this discussion. I mean, suppose we strip away all the Symbolic Formulation, the juvenile tosh with its clunk-click assemblage of cliches, the adolescent fantasies based on technomagical McGuffins. Suppose we put to one side all that slippery stream of stuff that runs from Bradbury through the New Wave and right down to Link. Suppose we forget for a second that the vast majority of SF, Fantasy and even, yes, Horror shinola is, to all intents and purposes, simply Speculative Fiction, sometimes differentiated by the plausibilty of that speculation, but as often as not complexified by our emotional reaction of fear and/or wonder so that the most rigorously extrapolated speculation can be at once fantastic and/or horrific -- i.e. such that the work itself may be, functionally speaking, both Science Fiction and Fantasy, or both Science Fiction and Horror, or indeed all three. Suppose we forget that for a moment.

A distinction has been made between two subsets of the field -- science-oriented SF and magic-oriented Fantasy -- which are, it must be said, where many readers and writers perceive the core of these two "genres" to be. Are there at least, within that big ongoing drunken wedding party, two Grand Dams, Old Granny Campbell and Great Aunt MacDonald, sitting at separate tables, their arms folded, their gazes severe, each with quite distinct notions of how things should be done? Use your head, m'boy! No, it's the heart that matters! Even if most of the field is intermarried, interbred, even if many of us don't really give a fuck about those dotty old maids with their outmoded ideas on science and magic, is there still that sort of a split, and is it relevant to us young'uns? If so, is it to do with the Enlightnment, with a scientific worldview in opposition to a magical worldview?

Yes and no. I think it's fair to say that there are two seemingly incompatible aesthetics in the field, both products of the Enlightenment and each associated with one side or the other in its most specialised form -- the Rationalism associated with Hard SF and the Romanticism associated with High Fantasy. Both of these fictional forms have been segregated out from the field in general. They are, I would argue, valid "genres" in a way that SF and Fantasy are not. And the aesthetics they align themselves with are old enough and strong enough that I think the field of SF/F can't help but be affected by that centuries-old rift. Their argument carries on into our work and it's effect is powerful enough that we often have to make a choice -- or have the choice made for us -- as to which side we're on.

I think the division is there, yes. But I also think it's artificial and obsolete, and has been from the very origins of the field.

That distinction between the two aesthetics is illustrated best, I think, by the Romantic and the Neo-Classical movements in painting, both (arguably) born out of a reaction to Modernity. It was a schism in post-Renaissance art, a sifting of the aesthetic techniques of broad-brushed Rembrandts and tight-lined Raphaels, of airy Titians and earthy Brueghels. The Modernity it was reacting to was a new world of new technologies and new politics -- oil-based paints, burgermeister patrons. It was a Modernity where even if the subjects weren't new -- like Vermeer painting a cleaning lady -- the approaches were. It was a schism which resulted in Eugene Delacroix on the one hand and Jacques-Louis David on the other, in Romanticism with its emphasis on the sublime and Neo-Classicism with its emphasis on the ordered. In writing, that Romantic idealisation of the sublime gives us the archetypal flights of fancy, rakish wanderers, rebel poets and all the epic wildernesses we'll see in High Fantasy, while the Neo-Classical idealisation of order gives us the novel as social study, as empirical observation, and all the rationalist restraint we'll see in Hard SF (and in Realism, ironically enough). Passion and Reason. The prevailing themes of the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution. Both Delacroix (if I recall correctly) and David painted scenes from the Revolution -- Liberty Leading The Troops, and The Death of Marat. These paintings show the difference of the two aesthetics rather nicely, I think.

But there was a third aesthetic -- the Modernism of Caravaggio, who fuses Romantic chiaroscuro and Neo-Classical formality long before these terms were even in use, who paints sublimely ordered scenes, who uses a dead whore dragged from the river as his Magdalene, thieves and peasants for his saints. His work is fantastic and realistic at once. A pretty boy Bacchus, in a Caravaggio painting, is at once the Greek god himself and an urban hustler from the streets. He plays the sublime and the mundane off against each other. He renders the wild passion of a decapitation in the most coolly ordered composition.

A true child of the Enlightenment, Caravaggio's work embodies the rescaling that was going on, the re-evaluation of God and Nature and Humanity's relationship to them both. I'd call him the first Modernist painter (and I'm not alone in this, I understand) because he's quite distinct from his Renaissance forebears in the sheer humanism of his work -- but at the same time never surrenders to the idealisations that set the Romantics and the Neo-Classicists at each others' throats. He leaves it to the Romantics to blather on about the importance of bold colour over clean line, leaves it to the Neo-Classicists to witter on about the value of clean line over bold colour. Passion or Reason. The whole of Western Art spends centuries bickering over which worldview is better, centuries of Royal Academies and revolutionary outsiders, of worthy High Art and vulgar Low Art, of edifying Literature and emotive Pulp... and somewhere along the way that hoary old argument of Reason versus Passion ends up in SF and Fantasy. As if that's all there is. As if there's scientifically rigorous Rationalism or weirdly wild Romanticism, and never the twain shall meet.

Fuck that shit.

Neither SF nor Fantasy, I'd argue -- no matter what those old maids would have you believe -- has ever been so pure in its devotion to a singular aesthetic. The Rationalism of Wells is counter-pointed by the Romanticism of Verne. In the Gernsback-Campbell era when the term Science Fiction was born, those two aesthetics were already in deep collaboration. Romantic adventures fleshed with Rationalist science. Rationalist science extrapolated into Romantic adventures. Hell, from Frankenstein onwards this has been a field where the dynamic power of the fiction resides in the interaction of those aesthetics. Is Frankenstein Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror? Or is it, like Bradbury's "The Veldt", all of the above?

And do we really give a fuck, given that it's a fucking immense story?

In truth, I think this whole division between SF and Fantasy is an illusion, an artificial dichotomy based more on claims of allegiance than on actual practice. Two small subsets of the field may live by their words, creating Hard SF or High Fantasy that do exemplify the warring aesthetics of Rationalism and Romanticism -- probably par excellence. But if you look around the drunken wedding party, ignore the two old maids sitting in their corners, that dusty old duality looks pretty irrelevant. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's fucking Modernism. Pulp Modernism, cheap, populist, balls-to-the-wall-and-entertaining-as-fuck Modernism, but still Modernism. We use mimesis on the one hand, fantasy on the other. We rationalise magic and romanticise science. We combine the exotic and the mundane. We experiment with literary conventions. This isn't the fiction of science; it's the science of fiction. We take metaphoric conceits, fantastic ideas, and we put them to the test with literature as the laboratory. Of course, when we get good results, we do have a tendency to go into mass production mode, churning out dodgy copies from the cheapest of materials for a consumerist market that loves our new toys for a few days before abandoning them for the next shiny doohicky... but, hey, that Big Corporate Structure keeps the R & D department going so I'm not complaining.

Anyway, my point is that seeing SF/Fantasy as a genre is wrong. Seeing SF and Fantasy as two distinct genres is wrong. Seeing Hard SF, High Fantasy, Space Opera, Technothriller, Swords and Sorcery, and so on, as a huge big confused clusterfuck of distinct genres -- that I'll give ya. But when we're talking in such general terms as SF and Fantasy, then I think we're talking about methodology... and a shared methodology at that. And if we're looking for an underlying aesthetic which shapes that methodology it's not Romanticism or Rationalism, I'd argue, but something much more akin to the sublimely ordered Modernism of Caravaggio, reacting to the Modern world, portraying Humanity's relationship with Nature and the Divine, in a way that, when it works, plays the grandeur of Romanticism off against the restraint of Rationalism and results in something far better than either could achieve alone.


Blogger La Gringa said...

Science Fiction and Fantasy ARE marketing labels. Amen to that, dude.

We have this same argument every time we launch a new list.

And where does something like David Gemmelll's TROY novel fit in? I read it and there is no magic in the book. Just a good adventure novel about the seige of Troy. But our marketing department insisted it was fantasy, no matter what any of us who'd actually READ the book tried to tell them it wasn't

Ah, how I love the wordws "Fuck that shit."


5:52 am  
Blogger Farah said...

The term you seem to be looking for is "fuzzy set". (Attebery applied this in 1980). Ie we all know what the heart of genre looks like, but after that it's all up for grabs).

6:40 am  
Anonymous Phil said...

There seems to be 2 ways this perpetual argument keeps coming up. It either seems to be a fight over the differences between the 'cores' of SF and fantasy - the difference in approaches you pick out, Hal, interlinked as they are. Or we argue about the 'penumbras', the bits where the genres overlap and everything gets mixed up except in the crystal-clear minds of marketing folk. ie. we focus on the 'fuzzy' or we focus on the 'set'. What's interesting to me about all of this is how much time we spend arguing about these distinctions. That self-consciousness, more than anything else, probably sets us apart as a genre(s) - or a family. Dysfunctional as we the clans are, and despite the inevitable punch-ups, we still get together for the literary weddings and funerals.


10:13 am  
Blogger Jay Tomio E. said...

Ha! I was wondering when the Hal Duncan angle was going to be on display! Somewhere I can just imagine Greg Egan thinking "What's the big deal, nobody is writing real science fiction anyway"

Good stuff.

10:46 am  
Blogger Joe said...

Ah good old labelling, Mike Marshall Smith was once asked at an event I hosted if he minded being labelled an SF writer. He answered that some stores with good SF sections had him in SF, others with little SF but good crime section had him in crime, others in general fiction. He personally didn't mind because he kewn his books were a bit of all of these and labelling them for a specific category is simply a way of knowing where to find the book in a bookstore - and as long as readers can find it he doens't care which section it was in.

And then there's Neil Gaiman who pointed out (think it was in the Smoker and Mirrors collection) that really, all fiction is, by definition, a work of fantasy...

And then there is that Sal Funkin chap with his book Smellum: the Book of All Odours. It seems like fantasy but there are no gay elves; it sometimes seems like SF because it has nano tech and multiple realities but no cool bullet-time heroes in black leather slo-mo...

Oh, why can't they all write generic books so we poor readers won't be challenged as to what sort of book we're being spoon-fed?? Oh wait, we have Robert Jordan for that... ;-)

2:50 pm  
Blogger Seth said...

Woah. I've been following this debate with a vague and critical eye, feeling pretty dubious as I read one blog tract or another. Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade Books linked this and I checked it out.

Thanks. It summed up a lot of what I was thinking, but better-worded. Reminded me a lot of the old (and possibly current) introduction to Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness where she talks about how science fiction isn't necessarily about talking about the future, but about using a potential or fantastic future to speak with perspective about the present. I still think there's a lot of truth to that as well.

10:43 pm  
Anonymous Mark W. Tiedemann said...

There is a distinction, which is recognizable as a gut reaction when we read a given text. For example, when you reread some Golden Age piece of SF that has been "scientifically" rendered nonsense because what we know about the way things work has changed, we still, somehow, read it as science fiction, not fantasy. Larry Niven's "The Coldest Place" did not automatically become fantasy because within a month of publication everyone "knew" that Mercury wasn't tidally locked to the sun.

But arguing over the tropes is pointless. Tropes come from the prop department. And at the risk of sounding a bit academic, that means you have to look at the guts of the two genres to see both where they're similar and where they--quite decisively--part company.

The one word that ought to be added to Clarke's Law is "appears"--any sufficiently advanced technology appears indistinguishable from magic. Because ultimately, no matter how advanced, it ain't magic, because to be magic it must have one quality which technology-cum-science not only lacks but is oppositional to--it must be an aspect of the numinous, and ultimately unquantifiable.

Which means that the real distinction lies in the view the author brings to the creation of the work of what kind of universe he/she is writing about. And that's where that gut distinction can be found.

Science fiction is epistemological fiction.

Fantasy is religious fiction.

At the end of the day, this is why, really, Delany's Neveryona stories are science fiction and Lewis's Mars trilogy is Fantasy, tropes be damned.

Mark Tiedemann

1:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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4:10 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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4:11 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

you suck...bitch

No, I suck cock.

hehe.........fuck me

With or without the lube?

12:15 pm  
Blogger J M McDermott said...

I think the most interesting thing about Delacroix and David - again, I work at the Kimbell Art Museum and see the two artists daily, as well as the people looking at them - is how most people look at both paintings and do not comprehend the distinction between neo-classicism and romanticism is sheer academic bullshit out on the museum floor.

People go from one to the other, and do not talk about the differences. They talk about the similarities, sometimes.

Mostly, they just talk about how they like it, or not. Their appreciation usually depends on whither the story on the canvas compels them or not. Is it the self-sacrifice of a Turkish courtesan, or the death of Iphigenia?

'tis the story that matters. Everything else is academia.

(If ever you find yourself in Dallas/Fort Worth, TX, I urge powerfully to attend the Kimbell Art Museum, btw. Every painter you just mentioned has a masterpiece up and on view in the permanent collection.)

2:22 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

If I pick up a horror novel, I expect the writer to try to horrify me. No one picks up a science fiction novel expecting to be scienced or a fantasy novel to be fantasized (that takes porno?)

The starting point that they're all the same is just wrong.

The differences between science fiction and fantasy may be the style of the rationalizations, scientific sounding in SF and blatantly magical in fantasy. But what's less important than style when talking about fiction?

3:09 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

No one picks up a science fiction novel expecting to be scienced or a fantasy novel to be fantasized (that takes porno?)

Because the labels are nominal.

The starting point that they're all the same is just wrong.

They're all fiction. That's a pretty good starting point. They're all strange fiction is a good next step. After that it gets complicated.

The differences between science fiction and fantasy may be the style of the rationalizations, scientific sounding in SF and blatantly magical in fantasy. But what's less important than style when talking about fiction?

Gotta say, I'm not sure what you're arguing now. There's a superficial difference in the style of rationalisation? It's one marker that's touted as definitive by some, but when you actually examine the works, it doesn't pan out that way. And this marker is basically irrelevant anyway when talking about fiction? Doesn't this conflict with the statement that it's wrong to start on the basis that they're fundamentally the same?

7:29 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

But a difference in the style of rationalization is not superficial. (It's hard to argue that style is superficial, anyhow.)
Nor do I agree when looking at actual books that it makes no difference.

There is more weird stuff in Dune than Gormenghast, but the way that Dune's weird stuff is supposed to happen because it's another planet in the far future with artificially bred people. It gives the weird stuff a certain feel.

Gormenghast may not have anything weirder than some gigantic palace/castle/manor with some peculiar social system. But the way that it just is gives the whole thing a dreamlike quality.

As it happens, Gormenghast is one of the few fantsies that I really enjoy, more than Dune (I'm always a little baffled that people seem to love Dune.) Generally, the pseudorealistic style appeals to me more. Peake is one of the few fantasists whose style is rich enough to compensate for the lack of grounding.

(Speaking of fantasists, I've put in an interlibrary loan request for Vellum and Ink. But they both seem to be listed as checked out. I fear they've been disappeared.)

12:17 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hmmm. Sorry, the way I was reading you before was that rationalisation in one mode is handwaving while in the other it's hokum, but that this was style and therefore irrelevant ("what's less important...") So it sounded like a strange dismissal of the distinction you yourself were making, based on the old "style is just a superficial patina on content" idea. (I don't buy that myself; words are the substance of the work.) Hence the two confused questions, both meant in an "Are you saying that..." way.

So. You *seem* to be saying that the style of rationalisation distinguishes the two modes and is *not* superficial. Yes? Handwaving versus hokum.

Where you lose me is in how it can be the least important factor to consider when *talking* about books, but it makes a difference when *looking* at books?

For what it's worth, to clarify my own position with regards to the handwaving/hokum distinction: "When you actually examine the works, it doesn't pan out that way." I don't actually mean that it makes no difference because it's superficial, just that I don't think the works actually fit into those boxes. I mean, there are works which use real science rather than handwaving, works in which the handwaving is indistinguishable from hokum, works which treat hokum as if it were real science, and works which don't actually "rationalise" at all. I mean, there's a sort of irrationalist fiction that was published as sf in the past and is generally published as fantasy now, in which the approach to the strange events is a distinct style of anti-rationalisation. So it's not a clear-cut divide. Actually, much of that slipstreamy stuff I'd class as fairly pseudorealist.

Anyway, have you read the (looooong) series of posts on strange fiction I've got linked up to the left a ways? This entry is from a good few years back, and is a fairly cursory skirmish with the topic, tearing at the labels to get at what's underneath. That series gets to grips a bit more with the science/magic distinction, explication (which may or may not map to your notion of rationalisation), realism and the ways it's disrupted. I don't buy into the idea that you can distinguish between science fiction and fantasy as genres, but I do think a lot of the different features that people have advanced as distinguishing characteristics can be organised into a coherent framework.

5:13 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

My apologies for writing backwards.
It was supposed to be "more" important, not "less." Yes, I do things backwards, even in the classroom. Dumb, I know, but there you are. That's the drawback to posting on the internet, which attracts ninnies the way a flame draws moths.

Yes, I was reading through the some of those posts, and skimming archives. That's why I made a comment on this old post. The sequence about arguing with geeks looked brilliant.

The thing is, I don't think fantasy or science fiction are genres at all, not in any useful sense of the term. They're terms like historical fiction. They're styles or modes, which are usually easily distinguished. And blends rarely work, either. As a reader, the distinction is very important, because most people favor one over the other.

But in genuine discussion, the actual genre is what needs to be discussed. Horror novel, adventure novel, romance, whatever. If it's not a genre novel at all, it's needs to be discussed the same way you'd address any other "serious" or "art" novel. (Applies to other forms than novel, to be sure.)

2:22 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ah, that makes a *lot* more sense.

I totally agree that fantasy and science fiction aren't genres. Most you could maybe say is that the latter *was* a genre for a while back in the Gernsback/Campbell era. Maybe. Even if you can argue that, I think you have to say that it very quickly collapses into a mode. What can we say about that mode? That it utilises fantastical imagery? Yes. That it rationalises it with science? Not always. There are canonical works like Zelazny's Roadmarks or Delany's Dhalgren (and countless others) that simply don't fit. In the New Wave, arguably, there's a schism into two modes -- an sf that broadens (Campbellian) Science Fiction into a style but clearly adheres to a sort of Rationalist aesthetic (or style or mode), and an sf that might be better labeled "speculative fiction" but which continued (and *continues*) to be referred to as science fiction.

So you have (Rationalist) Science Fiction and you have just plain science fiction.

Fantasy has never been a genre, always a mode, although this is insolubly confused, I think, by the appropriation of the term in the 70s to a marketing category that was bound to a (set of?) rigorously defined genre(s?) of mainly "secondary world" Fantasy, with magic and whatnot. Strip that away and think of fantasy as simply that fiction which uses the fantastic, and you have a mode that encompasses the *scientifically-rationalised* fantastic. But many refuse to admit of a general mode of fantasy on those terms. For them fantasy is a sort of by-definition *magically-rationalised* fantastic, bound to a perticularly Romantic aesthetic (or style or mode). Looking at the reality on the ground gives a different picture though. From Ray Bradbury up to Jeffrey Ford (and Kelly Link and a whole host of others), you've had a rival mode which (and Ford is a prime example here) had/has more in common with Kafka than Tolkien. It *is* basically just fantasy as the fiction of the fantastic.

So you have (Romanticist) Fantasy and fantasy.


8:41 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Now, it's piss-easy to distinguish Science Fiction and Fantasy not just from each other but from all else. But the blends are both prevalent and hugely successful. So much so that the label Science Fantasy was adopted for that instantly recognisable convergence of modes in works like Dune, the Pern books, Star Wars and countless others -- completely oblivious of the fact that this approach goes back to Gernsback's scientifiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and suchlike. Even before that, Verne and Wells were coming at it from different angles, but each was bringing together aspects of the two dominant aesthetics of the day -- Rationalism and Romanticism. I'd argue that this is actually the core mode of the field -- Rationalist Romance.

The degree of Rationalism gives us a spectrum from Gernsbackian Science Fiction to Campbellian Science Fiction, from "soft" to "hard". The degree of Romanticism gives us a spectrum from Lieberesque Fantasy to Tolkienesque Fantasy, from "low" to "high". The presence of Romanticism within Science Fiction from its inception is what gives us the heroic adventure plot-structure which, at its "highest" becomes the Epic form of Dune, which is why that work gets labeled Science Fantasy. Such labeling is even more likely where that quality is combined with the "softness" (to the point of squishy) of something like Star Wars. Because the secondary world of Fantasy can be posited as another planet or a multiversally adjacent reality, and because magic can be rationalised by the Paradigm Shift Caveat (c.f. jaunting and telepathy in Bester), there's no reason a work can't be both. It's only that the readership is polarised by those who want only the hardest or only the highest.

These are, I think, the stylistic features at the root of the division you're making, but they're in an orthogonal relationship to each other. They construct a 2d framework by which we measure how much a work is Science Fiction and/or Fantasy. The division is usually based on that polarisation of the readership, but it's usually hamstrung by an ignorance of that which isn't to the tastes of whoever is making the distinction. A work that's too "soft" may be rejected as not Science Fiction, but that doesn't mean it's Fantasy, as it may not be "high" enough. A work that's too "low" may be rejected as not Fantasy but that doesn't mean it's Science Fiction, as it may not be "hard" enough.


8:43 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Meanwhile the science fiction that's not Science Fiction and the fantasy that's not Fantasy are completely at odds with that framework and, to all intents and purposes, identical. Moorcock's Cornelius Quartet. Silverberg's The Book of Skulls. Roadmarks, Dhalgren, Slaughterhouse 5, Inverted World. And so on. These are not blends at all -- which is why it doesn't really make sense to ask if the Cornelius Quartet is "hard" or "soft", "low" or "high". Or rather, what they're blending is the pulp mode of Rationalist Romance -- which is a coherent approach in its own right by the time Campbell christens it science fiction -- with the "literary" mode of Modernism. The result? A Pulp Modernism. See Alfred Bester for the point where this, I think, begins. Nova follows on directly. The New Wave is where it really takes off. Historically, the absence of the marketing category of Fantasy until the 70s meant that most of this was published as science fiction. But the sense of it being a substantively different mode from that of Science Fiction is what gave rise to that "speculative fiction" label or the tendency to just use the acronym sf in an all-inclusive way. Subsequent to the emergence of the Fantasy label however, much of that type of work has gradually come to be published as -- and seen as -- literary fantasy.

Result? When one is talking about science fiction, one is really talking about Science Fiction *and* speculative fiction; and when one is talking about fantasy, one is really talking about Fantasy and literary fantasy; and speculative fiction and literary fantasy are simply not distinguishable within the 2D framework we can apply to Science Fiction and Fantasy. It's possible to apply that framework prescriptively, or as a filter, and only be talking about Science Fiction and Fantasy, but this unduly neglects the vast bulk of seminal works like Roadmarks or Dhalgren that are at odds with that model. At its worst, what you get is an identification with, and loyalty to, one or other of the nominal labels which leads to an attempt to claim those works for one's favoured territory.

This is why I think we're better off -- in critical terms -- stripping away the contentious labels in the first instance and starting from scratch.

As I say though, my thoughts have moved on from this to the meat of how all this strange fiction can be analysed in a framework that addresses the distinguishing features readers are looking for.

Have you read Delany's essay, "Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words" where he argues that it's all about the subjunctivity level? He views sf as constructed from sentences with a subjunctivity level of "could happen" and fantasy as constructed from sentences with a subjunctivity level of "could not happen". Which could fit with a distinction of modes to do with style of rationalisation. My own argument in the strange fiction series, natch, is that it's more complex.

8:44 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Our disagreements are pretty clear now. Starting with the least important point, yes, Delany's essay was very influential on my thinking.

Your distinction between Rationalist and Romantic, so important to your thinking, goes over my head. Therefore I don't find it a necessary distinction to make. I'm not a literary person, I just like to babble about what I like and why. Terrible to say I'm so self absorbed, but criticism is a kind of self exploration.

Although I contend that fantasy and science fiction are in fact relatively easy to distinguish, I disagree vehemently that it's particularly easy to distinguish non-genre fiction from non-genre science fiction. Dhalgren in particular is infamous for copying Finnegan's Wake ourobouros opening/ending/opening. Finnegan's Wake, according to James Blish in Spock Must Die! predicted nuclear power! The difficulties in discussing Dhalgren have nothing to do with it SFness but everything to do with being an ambitious novel with no genre hooks or expectations to guide easy reading.

Coming from the opposite direction, William S. Burroughs' Nova Express could be published as science fiction. The thing is, that both Dhalgren and Nova Express, difficult to distinguish from "regual" literature, has a stylistic flavor easily identifiable as related to "science fiction." Ditto for Gulliver's Travels.

On the other hand, At-Swim Two Birds, stylistically is obviously related to fantasy, no question. But it's hard to distinguish from "regular," "mainstream" literature. By your standards I'm ignoring the important division between Rationalist and Romantic, I suppose, focusing on the wrong thing. As I say, though, I'm not literary.

The examples cited for successful blends mostly confuse dumb science with fantasy. If dumb was the hallmark of fantasy, the usual TV detective, noble and wise, would make most cop shows fantasies! Also, it is not at all certain how Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, designed for Saturday matinees for kids, were ever successful for anything but that limited audience. Given the bile routinely vented on George Lucas, I'm not sure that Star Wars is successful in any way other than commercially. Certainly I can't make myself read a Pern novel. (I'm not literary that stuff hurts!) Actually, I don't even understand why you didn't cite Tarzan in preference to Barsoom.

7:33 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I disagree vehemently that it's particularly easy to distinguish non-genre fiction from non-genre science fiction.

Did I imply that? I didn't mean to. I totally agree that writers like Joyce and *particularly* Burroughs are in the same aesthetic territory in places. Joyce is pure Modernism, but the label "pulp Modernism" is particularly applicable to Burroughs, I'd say. I haven't read At Swim-Two-Birds yet unfortunately, so I can't comment on that.

I thought we were agreed that science fiction isn’t a genre though, but a mode, so aren’t you distinguishing these types of works as non-genre science fiction from… well, non-genre science fiction? Or do you mean that there’s the superordinate mode of science fiction and genre works and non-genre works within it? I’m being terribly pedantic here, but I’d say that there *are* distinct genres you can identify within that mass of strange fictions that aren’t Space Operas, Epic Fantasies or what have you. Modernist, (post)Modernist, Magic Realist. Do we get science fiction and fantasy flavours of these? Maybe to some extent, for certain values of “science fiction” and “fantasy”, but if it’s easy to distinguish these superordinate modes, is it so easy to articulate them? In clear, demonstrable terms? If so, go for it. I’m only half being cheeky here. I think we may well be talking about similar qualities but from different angles, with my position simply being that the modes are not mutually exclusive to the extent that deeming them so just collapses into a nominalist territory dispute.

Put it this way: for me Dhalgren *does* have "genre hooks". It opens with a scene profoundly resonant of archetypes, specific myths even. The lone drifter, the one bare foot (or is that later in the text?) referencing Jason, the transformation of the woman into a tree referencing Daphne, the crossing of the bridge. These are, I think, the same types of figurative elements that one can point to in Delany’s earlier works (not so much Babel-17, but Nova, The Einstein Intersection and The Jewels of Aptor) as “stylings of fantasy”. What they actualy are, I'd say, is features of Romanticism, resonant tropes that fit within an aesthetics grounded in the sensational.

But Dhalgren has other features -- e.g. the contemporary realist approach to the post-apocalyptic cityscape -- that could well be read as “stylings of science fiction”, aspects of Rationalism, an aesthetics grounded in the intellectual. You say Gormenghast is one of the few fantasies you really enjoy because of the pseudorealism in the prose. Is there an extent to which what you're predicating "SFness" as a mode of engagement? A similar "psuedorealism"? If so, this may be what I'm characterising as Rationalist.

There are, I’d assert, specifics like these that we can identify in a text — even one as complex as Dhalgren — and discuss it in relation to the rest of the field. It’s specifics like these that lead one person to situate it within science fiction. But it’s also specifics like these that lead others to reject that categorisation. I say phooey to such boundary battles. I can see why someone would label Dhalgren as science fiction. I can see why someone else wouldn’t. Even more so Dune. There are people who will argue till they’re blue in the face that Dune is “science fantasy”. They’re not right or wrong because these labels have no essential definition. God did not create the literary modes by twos, male and female, each according to their kind. There is however a clear distinction of modes we *can* make if we step out of the turf war mentality.

But to do that I think we *have* to look at it in terms of Rationalism and Romanticism.


10:06 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

OK. Rationalism and Romanticism. These are the two dominant aesthetics of the last three hundred years, so if you’re going to talk about fiction at all, I wouldn’t just dismiss the distinction. They’re particularly relevant in the strange fiction genres, I’d say.

Gulliver’s Travels is a good example of *exactly* how and where the distinction between Romantic and Rationalist is pivotal, actually. It comes out of the genre of traveller’s tales, which is essentially a sort of low Romanticism — adventures in exotic lands which are largely all about the wondrous exoticism, the sensationalism, but stripped of the characteristic grandeur of epic Romance (singularly great hero on bona fide Quest) or its merely heroic derivatives (yet another hero on yet another series of wanderings, saving maidens, slaying dragons, ya de ya), and becoming something more like picaresque (not particularly heroic hero wandering about, getting into all manner of nonsense.) Gulliver’s Travels takes that sensationalist mode and appropriates it to a satiric function. It’s a decidely *intellectual* approach focused on observational relevance, social commentary. It has an Enlightenment mentality as opposed to a Mediaeval mentality.

Don Quixote takes a similar approach, savagely satirising the Romances it despises, parodying the fantasy by rationalising it as delusion. Giants are actually windmills and so on. But note that Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t do this at all. It’s just as fantastical as the works it’s riffing off. It does however — like all traveller’s tales — work by dislocating the strange to beyond the sphere of the known world. In the mundane world we live in, we know there are no giants. But maybe in that exotic land of Elsewhere

These two works are formative of the novel — as opposed to the romance — as a literary mode precisely because they apply Rationalism. They, and others like them, set up a dialectic that carries on through the centuries to the present day. Realism in fiction comes from the Rationalist side. Dime novels, penny dreadfuls, sensation novels and pulp largely come from the Romantic side. Science fiction is born in the pulps and inherits that Romanticism. It is absolutely 100% integrated at the heart of the genre, there from day one and there to the present day. It’s a large part of the reason why science fiction is often reviled as a lower form of literature. Proponents of the Realist mode inherited Cervantes’s scorn of that “pandering trash”. Gothic novels were just potboilers for hysterical women, things to excite the senses, mere sensationalism rather than anything of intellectual value. Even someone like Aldiss situates science fiction as an outgrowth of Gothic. Every claim to Frankenstein situates science fiction as an outgrowth of Gothic. The mode of Frankenstein is unquestionably Romantic — lurid, wild, riven with lightning bolts in the night. It’s in the same mode as Wuthering Heights, not Gulliver’s Travels. And I think those claims are dead wrong for precisely that reason.


11:37 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

You don’t, I think, start to see the roots of science fiction until you start to see the roots of *all* the 20th century genre-forms in literary variety journals like the Strand. That’s where you get the mystery stories, adventure stories, spy stories and so on, and Verne and Wells sit well within that context. But these aren’t pure Romanticism. Actually they’re often doing something similar to Swift and Cervantes applying a Rationalist intellect to a Romantic sensationalism. Sherlock Holmes is one of the prime examples of a fusion of modes we could label proto-Modern, I think. It’s not purely sensationalist, not pandering trash, but neither is it Proust. It recognises that a little bit of the strange, the exotic, the fantastic, adds a dynamism to the fiction, but it wants to do more than just function as a diversion. That means more pseudorealism, more mimesis. But it’s there in a *very* limited way.

Science fiction is born out of that, but it comes by way of pure pulp. Street & Smith, Clayton Magazines, Experimenter Publishing. These are the people who publish Doc Savage, Nick Carter Weekly, innumerable boy’s own adventure magazines of every genre imaginable, united by a common mode: pulp fiction. You might want to dismiss Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, but this is just putting your head in the sand. Gernsback’s scientifiction is inextricable from that mode of pulp fiction; it exists within that mode. Romanticism is the basic *stuff* of early science fiction. Campbell coined the term and he tried to redefine the genre/field he was naming, by way of his editorial policy, to demand a degree of Rationalism in the form of scientific plausibility, but he had *no control* over the rest of that field. He was hugely influential, but *his* mode of science fiction is only a part of the picture. There never has been a mode of “science fiction” that wasn’t indistiguishable from daffy Flash Gordon hokum except by way of a territorial claim over who gets to say what’s what.

Still, three distinctive modes did grow out of that field, I’d say, a Rationalist mode that associates with the label “Hard SF”, a Romanticist mode that gets associated with the label “Science Fantasy” and a Modernist mode that runs with the zeitgeist in general fiction, or inherits from its developments, and applies a new aesthetics altogether. Within that field we have work like “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. Is it fantasy or science fiction? What mode is it in as far as you’re concerned? I honestly don’t know, can’t predict. Talk to one person and they’ll say it’s fantasy. Talk to another and they’ll say it’s science fiction. Pretty much the only way to distinguish Bradbury’s “The Veldt” as in a mode of fantasy (or horror) rather than a mode of science fiction is to identify the Rationalist mode with the mode of science fiction in general. In other words, to say that *only* work in that mode counts as science fiction. Pretty much the only way to consider it science fiction is to accept that science fiction has these Romanticist or Modernist modes and that “The Veldt” sits very neatly in one or tother, thank you very much. You say it does? Then Jeff Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” is science fiction. Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” is science fiction. You say it doesn’t? Then Thomas Disch’s “Descending” isn’t science fiction. Most of Harlan Ellison’s work isn’t science fiction.


12:30 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

If you think you can situate “The Veldt” like that in a way that everyone will agree, then power to you. I think when you try to categorise a work like that, you just end up slamming your head against the brick wall of those who completely disagree. Which is why I’ve abandoned the labels. Have them. They’re no use to me. If you don’t think “The Veldt” is classifiable as science fiction, we’re not talking about the same thing, so it’s easier if I just call it strange fiction and explore it on that basis. If you don’t think “The Veldt” is classifiable as fantasy, *again* we’re not talking about the same thing, so it’s easier if I just call it strange fiction and explore it on that basis. If I’m going to be hamstrug by a dualism that’s (a) largely irrelevant in terms of my approach, and (b) so hotly contested that classifying “The Veldt” as either science fiction or fantasy is only going to result in a strenduous insistence that I’ve applied the wrong taxonomic model, that really it’s easy to see that it belongs in the other group… well, then contrary to your first comment, scrapping the labels and starting from first principles is exactly the right approach. Because most likely I’m not talking about science fiction and fantasy as far as you’re concerned. Hell, if I do happen to be talking about yours, I’m almost certainly not talking about someone else’s.

No, I’m talking about “The Veldt” and if you’re down with Delany that’s excellent. I can tell you how I think that story shifts in subjunctivity level from “could happen” to “could not happen” at the first novum (the viewscreen) because this is a temporal *impossibility*. This is where I argue with Delany, because temporal impossibilities (technical / historical) are still impossibilities. However, that novum reads as sfnal because it’s only a temporal impossibility (as opposed to metaphysical or logical). That shift in subjunctivity level is rationalised by a dislocation to a conceptual elsewhen, I’d argue, analogous to the elsewhere that accomodates the exotica of Gulliver’s Travels (“exotica” being another flavour of “quirk” to the “novum”, “quirks” being shifts in subjunctivity level.) With that conceptual dislocation we collapse the subjunctivity level back down to “could happen”. We re-establish suspension-of-disbelief after a brief jag of the strange. It’s only a *temporal* impossibility.

I can say how the subsequent shift, when the lions come to life, is a different flavour of quirk — a “chimera” in my shorthand. This is a *metaphysical* impossibility, a breach of the laws of reality. It’s not “magic” (a trope with certain features). But it is distinct in a way that for a whole lot of readers renders the text “fantasy” rather than “science fiction”. Crucially, it does not do so for all readers. Why so? It shifts the subjunctivity level to “could not happen” in a way that’s more in line with Delany’s characterisation of fantasy. But still, chimerae can be rationalised by another conceptual dislocation to another sort of elsewhen. This is what happens in secondary world fantasy. That it doesn’t do so in “The Veldt” is a significant distinguishing feature of this kind of strange fiction from a common stereotype of fantasy. It’s a Modernist technique of irrationalism that readers will go either way on. Some reject it as fantasy. Others accept similar chimera as science fiction — as in a work like Dhalgren. Slipstream and interstitial fiction is rife with them. Disch’s “Descending” is based on one very simple one introduced in the subtlest manner. The boulomaic modality of “should not happen” or “must not happen” often associated with this irrationality often makes such work horror as well.

Look at what’s actually going on in “The Veldt” and I honestly think it doesn’t matter what you call it. It functions as science fiction, fantasy *and* horror. Or it starts off as science fiction, turns into fantasy and ends up in horror. Or it’s just strange fiction.

1:21 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

When I point out that Gulliver's Travels or Nova Express I'm the one being pedantic. It's also a trivial detail for those particular works. It's like noting that James Bond is often science fiction. The important thing about Bond is that they are spy thrillers.

The thing about trying to collapse distinction between fantasy and science fiction modes is that there are lots of genres where that also collapses critical distinctions. Flash Gordon's genre is boys' adventure serial. It is in the science fiction mode, however. So, in the second serial, when Azura Queen of Mars has magic powers, it is a stylistic misstep.

For all the Flash Gordon serials, being in the science fiction mode raises questions of common sense, like not knowing that air pressure decreases with height. Such things are why Flash Gordon is only tolerated when seen through a veil of nostalgia. Approaching Flash Gordon thinking such questions are irrelevant starts by making excuses. Are we supposed to conclude that Flash Gordon serials are actually good? (By the way, I wasn't arguing that Flash isn't science fiction, I was arguing that it isn't fantasy, and also that it's questionable that it's successful.)

By contrast, there is a genre (rife with sub-genres I imagine,) in which it really does't make a difference, except stylistically, whether it's science fiction or fantasy mode. Namely, horror. That's why Stephen King can write science fiction mode in The Tommyknockers and Firestarter but fantasy mode in The Shining or Salems' Lot.

Indeed the modes really can be mixed, as in The Stand. I would suggest that successful blends are pretty rare, because the styles don't mesh. Even The Stand doesn't so much blend them as put them in opposition. And it decidedly favors fantasy in the end, too. The thing is, that the modes are stylistic decisions for the horror genre. In fact, horror doesn't need either mode, as King's Cujo or Dolores Claiborne show.

The point is, ignoring whether horror is in science fiction or fantasy mode, or neither, doesn't matter. It's just a question of style. (Just!) If the genre is war, it doesn't much matter if the mode is science fiction, as in David Drake, and David Weber, and John Ringo and all those others I personally avoid. The mode could be historical, as in Conn Iggulden and Steven Pressfield. But no one would be crazy enough to say that Conn Iggulden and Steven Pressfield could throw in lasers or guardian spells all of a sudden because the modes are all the same, fundamentally.

Adding Modernism to Romanticism and Rationalism doesn't help, they still go over my head. And shamefully I don't think I've read The Veldt. I did some internet reading, including a James Patrick Kelly on slipstream. I discovered to my horror that I had read some Isabel Allende and Paul Auster and Margaret Atwood but I hadn't read a single other author he mentioned! Plainly my opinion is uninformed. You should wait until I catch up.

For what's it's worth, I can try to explain why I generally prefer a pseudorealist style (science fiction mode, if you prefer.) The blanks get filled in with daily experience, so to speak. Real life is generally so much richer and various than day dreams (which is what most writing is, after all.)

It takes a strong writer indeed, in some fashion, to make up for the thinness of imagination. Tolkien's knowledge of real languages gives his made up words a conviction most don't. The Jack Vances are rare. Just as rare are the Mervyn Peakes who can substitute something strikingly original or visual to substitute for reality. The science fiction mode steals the conviction of reality to dress up the fantastic. It's all just styly, but as I meant to say originally, is there anything more important than style?

5:46 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

So, in the second serial, when Azura Queen of Mars has magic powers, it is a stylistic misstep.

Then, in The Stars My Destination, when Gully Foyle jaunts through deep space, is this a stylistic misstep? Or when he jaunts through time? Doesn’t the whole notion of jaunting — a blatant breach of the laws of physics — situate this seminal sf novel in the mode of fantasy? It is basically a conceit of magic powers — that people can teleport by the power of thought alone. It can only be justified by either the One Impossible Idea Caveat or the Paradigm Shift Caveat (the idea that there could be a paradigm shift in our understanding of the laws of physics, in this case one so radical that basic thermodynamics no longer applies). Bester relies on both to some extent but mainly on the latter: there are other Impossible Ideas but none so grand; and he posits this ability as a product of human evolution. Given that Azura Queen of Mars is not even human, isn’t the “product of evolution” handwaving even more applicable here? Or if it’s viewed as a learned skill, can’t the Paradigm Shift Caveat still be applied along with Clarke’s Law? Is it explicitly stated to be magic (serious question; it’s too long since I’ve seen it) and if not, does that mean it's a stylistic misstep because it’s not stated to be science?

Let's make that Question 1: Does Bester get away with hokum or not, and why so?

Does the same strategy in Heroes, where characters’ abilities are treated as evolution rather than magic, mean it constitutes a work in the science fiction mode like Bester's TSMD? How about the Wild Cards series which posits similar abilities as the effects of an alien virus that rewrites human DNA? And Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider?

Lewis Shiner’s story in the first Wild Cards anthology is based on a character Fortunato, whose powers are explicitly drawn from Tantric sex magic. Does this place it in the fantasy mode or does the alien virus place it in the science fiction mode? The whole series is based in an alternate history that sits well within the broad tradition of sf, and there are many other stylistic features that, I’d argue, will lead readers to class it as "science fiction", but doesn’t your argument that Azura’s magic constitutes a stylistic misstep mean that this and countless other seminal works are actually based on core conceits that are similarly “stylistic missteps”?

So, Question 2: If Bester does get away with it, do (a) Heroes, (b) Wild Cards and (c) Spiderman get away with it on the same grounds or not, and why so?

Honestly, I can understand a preference for pseudo-scientific handwaving over straight-up hokum. I just don't see where you can draw the line without excluding or including a work that would be highly contentious.

8:47 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Such things are why Flash Gordon is only tolerated when seen through a veil of nostalgia.

Nonsense. I thoroughly enjoyed the Flash Gordon serials as a child, in the same way that they were enjoyed by children of the previous decades. Because I didn’t care. I didn’t have to “tolerate” it. I relished it. And in projecting nostalgia onto any who enjoy that or similar hokum as adults, you’re making an utterly spurious presumption of what motivates people to dismiss scientific silliness. Battlestar Galactica fans who defend the finale aren’t rendered oblivious of its nonsenses by nostalgia. Some don’t know. Others don’t care. They are relishing the work, by most forum accounts for its character drama and heroes-in-peril dynamics.

Even you and I had quite different grounds for similar reactions to those nonsenses in the finale. You were more concerned with ramming speed from a dead stop and the presence of air in a colony with a ruddy big hole in it (stylistic missteps?). I was far more concerned with the narrative misstep of making a BFD of the Galactica’s disintegration for plot expediency in the run-up to the finale then having it survive the colony’s guns and that ramming. Similarly ,with the helmets I didn’t really care about the atmosphere that should be escaping but found it ridiculous as a removal of armour before going into combat — not a folly of ignorance pertaining to scientific fact (which is what the atmosphere decreasing with height is) but an actual folly of common sense in terms of Darwin Awards stupidity.

The tolerance that readers and viewers have for scientific silliness is nothing to do with nostalgia. Sometimes it may be to do with ignorance. But largely I suspect it’s to do with the fact that they just don’t give a fuck. Remember that battery scene in The Matrix? It’s head’splodingly stupid for anyone who immediately thinks, but- but- but they need to put more energy into keeping the humans alive than they’ll ever get out! How much did that matter to the majority of people who saw the movie and would quite happily class it as Sci-Fi, which they see as identical to science fiction? Not a sausage. Is this sort of balderdash and piffle uncharacteristic or is it, in fact, utterly characteristic, there in every other exercise of the Paradigm Shift Caveat? I’d say the latter. That scene in The Matrix? Didn’t bother me in the slightest, because the rest of the movie was tightly-paced and full of pulpy goodness.

Approaching Flash Gordon thinking such questions are irrelevant starts by making excuses.

I agree. Unfortunately, that’s how the majority of readers and viewers have approached the majority of science fiction throughout its history, from the Gernsback era to the present day. The actual content of works presented as science fiction then and now, and at all points between, indicates that they’re far more interested in story and spectacle than in actual science. Hence the Paradigm Shift Caveat. If you want to get on your high horse about it, are you saying that, since such questions are not irrelevant, and we should not be “making excuses” for such infractions of “common sense”, that Bester should be scorned for his use of jaunting?

Seriously. Make that Question 3: Would you criticise as “making excuses” anyone who appreciated The Stars My Destination, given that it blithely ignores basic physics in the name of a damn fine story with some pretty literary ambitions?

Are we supposed to conclude that Flash Gordon serials are actually good?

If you appreciate them, yes. If you don’t, no. I think they’re good boy’s own adventure serials that have clearly stood the test of time. As an adult, my fondness for them is partly nostalgic, but it’s also partly a sensibility that appreciates the pulp form as often highly crafted in narrative terms and usually delightfully lurid even when it’s not.

9:34 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

By contrast, there is a genre (rife with sub-genres I imagine,) in which it really does't make a difference, except stylistically, whether it's science fiction or fantasy mode.

Because, I'd argue, the sense of horror is constructed from epistemic and boulomaic modalities that function similarly to -- but concurrent with -- the shifts in subjunctivity level that (in part) construct our notion of a work being in this mode or that, this genre or the other. Just as a sentence can switch the subjunctivity of a text to "could not happen", it can introduce two rival modalities -- a boulomaic modality of "should/must not happen" attached to the anticipated nastiness and an epistemic modality of "will/must happen" attached to the inevitability of that nastiness in the narrative dynamics.

This shifting of modalities bears no relationship to whether the quirk that flips the subjunctivity level to "could not happen" is a temporal or a metaphysical or even a logical possibility, nor to whatever mechanisms the writer may use (or not use) to flip the subjunctivity level back. In fact, horror can function by these modalities alone, can even exploit our natural tendency to conflate "should not happen" and "could not happen", creating a sense that even perfectly possible events are somehow wrong, somehow... uncanny.

9:52 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

p.s. You really should read "The Veldt". It's really short and online here:

Though I recommend copy and pasting into a document. Tiny green font on black background. What were they thinking?

And, of course, I'd recommend actually buying some of his work, rather than just pointing you to pernicious piracy.

9:58 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Yes, they used the word magic in talking about Azura's powers. And it grated even when I was a preteen rapt over Saturday afternoon's vast wasteland of television! When I was that young I didn't really grasp that air pressure and temperatures changed with altitude. As an adult, it is hard to make allowances for such stupidity, because even then they knew for a fact that it wasn't so.
Except for aforementioned sheen of nostalgia. As to adults who come to Flash Gordon and enjoy it, is there anyone like that?

The sudden appearance of magic was like reading a novel written in a Hemingwayesque style that suddenly threw in a few paragraphs of Jamesian pastiche. The rules of literature and drama are rules of thumb, meaning everybody knows there are exceptions. But generally, they're right. Radical shifts in style are generally not successful. And the same for shifts between science fiction mode (pseudorealist) and fantasy mode (surrealist.)

As to rationalizations in other cases? Bester starts off his novel, as I recall, with a description of the scientific experiments that led to the discovery of jaunting. And he adds enough lectures about its consequences to read like sociology. You don't get more science fictional in style than that!

The real comparison to Bester's teleportation is Jumper. That movie tacitly relies on familiarity with Bester, I say. But the movie suffers (some)precisely because it doesn't better rationalize the teleportation.

It is of course absurd physics. That absurdity does not make it fantasy. The reed that supports this scientific nonsense is feeble (a future setting, hints about evolution if I remember,) but the reed is there.

Peter Parker's spider got changed to a genetically engineered spider for the movies just because there's enough common knowledge about radioactivity to make the old rationalization bad style. That's why the Fantastic Four movie rewrote their origin as well.
Wild Cards I haven't read.

The note about BSG is interesting. I didn't see the previous episodes, so the emphasis on the decrepitude was hammered home. But the big Baltar speech, clearly meant to be received as some sort of thematic capstone, was immediately contradicted by the gunfight breaking out. Personally, I thought that was either some of the heaviest handed irony ever perpetrated on videotape or stunningly obtuse.

The Veldt I will catch up on in the library.

3:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

As an adult, it is hard to make allowances for such stupidity, because even then they knew for a fact that it wasn't so. Except for aforementioned sheen of nostalgia. As to adults who come to Flash Gordon and enjoy it, is there anyone like that?

With those special effects, in black and white, with largely juvenile-oriented plotting, how likely is that? But ramp up the SFX and add a more adult-oriented plot-structure and it’s easy for adults to make allowances — as witness BSG. Even with adolescent-oriented plot-structures, adults will make allowances — as witness The Matrix. You can dismiss it on the basis of audience ignorance, but the point remains: the formative impetus in the field of sf has been and remains not just ignorant but *willing to overlook* such “stupidity”.

I mean, OK, so one reason that can make them do so is if the “absurd physics” has a reed — even a feeble one — and rationalising explication. Bester’s physics is surely “stupid”, but the way he plays it gets him off.


Peter Parker's spider got changed to a genetically engineered spider for the movies just because there's enough common knowledge about radioactivity to make the old rationalization bad style. That's why the Fantastic Four movie rewrote their origin as well.

So you’re including these as science fiction? Heroes too? The reed is there, albeit thin. If the reed is feeble, but at least there, is simply slotting in a new spurious rationale sufficient to avoid a stylistic misstep, or do they remain “stupid”? I’ll take your comments on Bester as a “yes, he gets away with it, and no, it’s not making excuses”. But these examples have none of that explication that makes him archetypally science fictional in style to you.

But couldn’t this simply be because they’re not really in the mode of science fiction as you’re characterising it? They’re in a wider mode that may use that reed at times but may use another — as Dr Strange gets his powers from magic, as do Thor and various others. Are all these comics science fiction works that misstep into fantasy, or are they fantasy works that misstep into science fiction? Or are they strange fiction that just picks and chooses its reed as and when? I’d say Heroes just doesn’t set itself up as seeking to be read in the mode you’re identifying. Present day, no explication, a cursory mouthing of “evolution”. It sits better beside The Lost Room, which takes a conceit most would these days see as fantasy: a hotel room where *something* happened causing all the objects in it to be invested with strange properties; some believe that *something* to have been the death of God.

But this high concept approach is shared with seminal works of sf such as Towing Jehovah, Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant”. Many works we classify as sf are equally laissez-faire with feeble reeds and zero explication. Roadmarks has no interest in justifying its conceit with explication. Neither does Inverted World. Neither does Dhalgren. They take metaphysical conceits and approach them in a quite different way. The reed is kicked away. There can be no explication.

These (often New Wave) works adopt a radically different mode that redefined sf as something very different to the rationalising science fiction. And now this mode is generally released as fantasy, but it has nothing to do with magic.


7:21 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Yes, they used the word magic in talking about Azura's powers. The sudden appearance of magic was like reading a novel written in a Hemingwayesque style that suddenly threw in a few paragraphs of Jamesian pastiche.

Fair enough. Calling it “magic” is a specific rationalising strategy of a particular mode of strange fiction stereotyped as Fantasy. This is utterly incompatible with the mode stereotyped as Science Fiction. But here’s where I disagree:

Radical shifts in style are generally not successful. And the same for shifts between science fiction mode (pseudorealist) and fantasy mode (surrealist.)

That Fantasy mode is not surrealist but equally pseduorealist. It functions by dislocating the action to a pseudoreality that’s orthogonal to the moves “forward” or “sideways” that rationalise a story as being “in the future” or “in a parallel world”. I tend to think of it as “up-or-down”. Here lore is treated with the same rigour that science and hisory are treated with in Hard SF or (Hard) Alternate History. It’s a different reed but you see exactly the same focused, detailed explication as you see in Bester. It is, to paraphrase yourself, absurd lore, but the reed is there. Still, the different directionality and the focus on lore rather than science makes it jump out a mile. This does constitute a huge stylistic misstep for many readers who like their fiction in that horizontal plane, and prefer it to have both reed and explication.

However, irrealism (surrealism is a very specific technique of juxtaposition that’s used in strange fiction but way too narrow as a label for what we’re discussing) *is* a distinct mode also. It’s used widely in fantasy that’s as distinct from Fantasy as Science Fiction is — *more* so in many respects. It’s also the dominant mode in Dhalgren. It’s the mode that “The Veldt” ends up in, the mode that much of Kelly Link’s fiction takes. Its power rests in dissonance and as such it refuses explication. Often it refuses any reed at all — c.f. Dhalgren’s dearth of futuristic trappings. It refuses explication.

Again, I say, it’s this mode I’m interested in talking about, and it’s simply not amenable to evaluation in terms of reeds and explication. I’m happy to give up the label “science fiction” to those who want to apply it to work that *is* amenable to such evaluations. But in so far as you’ve described the mode you attach that label to I consider it impractical to my subject matter.

7:35 pm  

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