The Great Debate
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.