Notes from New Sodom

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Strange Fiction 5

5. If, If, If... But, But, But: or, Of Counterfactuals And Hypotheticals

In alternative narrative, as Jay calls it, there is a different type of breach in subjunctivity, but it's minimal; where, in private narrative the events are on a personal level, a domestic level, remaining within the confines of a family or a group of friends whose lives would never impact on our own, in alternative narrative the events are on a scale where we would surely notice. With Jay's example of Jett Rink, the James Dean character in the movie Giant, for example, we would know of his existence in the world, remember him like another Howard Hughes. This great industrialist would have impacted on our lives. We're not asked to accept sweeping historic changes, but a counterfactual has been introduced. We know for a fact that this could not have happened, because the world would be different than it is.

The way I'd put it is that a subjunctivity of "could not happen" is introduced here, but it's one that's immediately rationalised as "could not happen now" -- i.e. in an alternative world, a sideways step through lateral time, another "now", there could have been a Jett Rink, so there (or rather then) it could have happened. In this example, the counterfactual is not sufficient to stretch the suspension of disbelief. The simple fact that one is reading fiction is enough for one to swallow this minor alteration in the fabric of history.

The SFnal sub-genre of "alternate history" can be positioned here as a form of alternative narrative which does stretch the suspension of disbelief. If the Nazis had won WW2, if the South had won the American Civil War, and so on -- these counterfactuals should surely play merry hell with our willingness to play the game. And for many readers they do. For many readers, the patent unreality of the counterfactual premise requires something else, some counter-force to balance it. The "if" immediately produces a "but".

In future narrative, the counterfactual becomes a hypothetical -- but again "could not happen" is rationalised into "could not happen now"... only in this case that other "now", is a future world where there could be a Big Brother, an elsewhen in which it could happen. Unlike simple counterfactuals, but very much like the counterfactuals of alternate history, such hypotheticals do stretch the suspension of disbelief. And again for many reader that "if" immediately produces a "but".

In much SF, as opposed to less generic future narrative -- utopian or dystopian fictions, for example, this is where the "laws of the possible", as Jetse puts it, come into play, the sciences -- hard and soft -- providing a base of theory and extrapolation on which these counterfactuals and hypotheticals can be grounded. The same base of theory and extrapolation is visible in alternate history, so it's little wonder that these two share a market category.

It's how that "but" is answered, and whether that answer works for the reader, that is crucial in understanding why we accept or reject alternative or future narratives, in their generic SFnal forms or in the non-generic forms written and/or sold as mainstream by writers working outside the tradition. Here I'm disregarding matters of quality; I'm not interested by whether a reader hates a work because the characters are cardboard cutouts, or the plot doesn't make sense; I want to focus on the failures of form, the way particular modes of narrative function and/or fail as a whole for different types of reader. My contention would be that the failure is largely to do with an inability on the writer's part or an unwillingness on the reader's part to sustain the tension of multiple conflicting subjunctivities. If all fiction is founded in the suspension of disbelief -- the make-believe that "this could have happened" -- it is when that suspension of disbelief collapses, I think, that we are alienated from the fiction and throw the book across the room in disgust.

The way different readers react to the base of theory and extrapolation offered to rationalise alternative and future narratives is, to my mind, a prime example.

Here is the secret, in my humble opinion, as to why non-genre readers often consider SF and other such fiction as little more than juvenile tosh: they don't give a fuck how well a flight of fancy is rationalised with solid extrapolations from theory and fact, whether it be scientific or historic; indeed, the more theory and extrapolation, the more bored they get; so in the end that whole counterfactual / hypothetical just strikes them as... well... a flight of fancy. The corrollary of this is that this is why genre-readers are often dissatisfied with SF works produced by writers not used to working in the genre; those writers don't know that the counterfactual / hypothetical has to be bolstered, backed up, supported.

This is because such rationalisation is a qualitatively different technique to that of private narratives which utilise the irrational in the form of the absurd or the unheimlich. In the comic or tragic narrative, to rationalise will actually dissipate the tension which these narratives seek to sustain. Instead the rationalistions of SF are more akin to the implicit social models underpinning the plots of the pathetic narrative. Like the domestic novel, alternative/future narratives which provide us with theory and extrapolation are seeking to explain how this could happen elsewhen, to persuade that this really could happen elsewhen. They deny the absurd and the unheimlich. They insist that the counterfactual / hypothetical is, was or will be a very real possibility.

Speak to many hardcore fans of Hard SF or Alternate History, throw some fanciful ideas at them which you've just picked out of the air, better still offer them a book or a movie where the counterfactual / hypothetical is treated as a fancy, no more, no less, around which to build a story. Watch them tear it to shreds with disdain for how "that couldn't happen".

Inversely, offer a solid work of Hard SF or Alternate History to a reader unfamiliar with those modes and I suspect you'll see the same reaction in reverse. Cued by the implicit rationalism of the text to read this work as analogous to the pathetic private narrative, as likely as not their lack of interest in the theories and extrapolations of science and history will alienate them from the very things which make the book work for the genre reader. They will be bored by the exposition, disinterested in "geeky" rationalisation, by diagrams and equations and dates and places laid out in tiresome detail.

But, then again, they'll also flock to the cinema to see Tom Cruise running from the Martians. Where SF readers will be screaming at the screens about why the fuck the Martians would wait underground a couple of thousand years, until humanity had developed the technology to fight them, before attacking.

Of course this is a gross exaggeration, and it's only half the story. There's no essential difference of inner nature that renders one reader "genre" and another "non-genre", now and forever always. There's nothing to say that a reader unfamiliar with this technique of rationalisation won't click to all the speculation and explication. The technique works after all, so we can expect it to work, in some cases, even on those not attuned to it. Where it doesn't work, though, where the rationalisation alienates interest rather than piquing it, we'll likely see a scorn not just of the story in terms of plot, character and writing; rather it will be a scorn of the "ridiculous" idea, the "silliness" of the fantasy, an inability to take the counterfactual / seriously. I'm sure most of us are familiar with this attitude, from the very friends and family who will happily sit and watch Star Wars, but who, when offered a serious work involving a counterfactual / hypothetical extrapolated logically from a theory, will a) find it boring, b) dismiss it as nonsense, c) respond to any argument that, actually, if you think about it, it is quite plausible with a mixture of bafflement and disdain at the fact that you are geekish enough to "take this stuff seriously". After all, it's Sci-Fi; it's not meant to be taken seriously.

Yes, it is, we say, insisting that "good" SF is actually founded in solid theory and extrapolation, sensible speculation. That's what SF is all about, we say.

Unfortunately, we're wrong.


Blogger Sean Wright said...

Fuck, Hal. You just warped and frazzled my already very warped and frazzled mind. Fascinating observations, btw!! (Staggers off to get blinding drunk).

10:03 am  

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