Notes from New Sodom

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

Monday, July 31, 2006

Strange Fiction 7

7. Never Say Never: or, Metaphysical Narratives And 3D Time

So let's summarise where we're at. You've got your marketing categories and your aesthetic forms. The latter can be defined in terms of either negotiable conventions or non-negotiable requirements. The history of SF involves a huge argument which has a tendency to schism into rival camps as talks break down and one or other party insists on this or that as a non-negotiable requirement rather than a negotiable convention. Most of these camps seem to have too narrow an outlook for my liking, but I'm interested in the idea that there are nonetheless non-negotiable requirements that might be identified.

One way to look at it, I think, involves a modification of Delany's idea of subjunctivity, where the genre of a work of fiction is a product of whether the events "could have happened", "could not have happened", "have not happened yet", and so. Rather than mapping one subjunctivity to one genre, I think we start with a baseline of "could have happened" -- manifest in the reader's suspension of disbelief -- which persists in all fiction. A private narrative can be described as one which stays within that mode, portraying events on a usually domestic level which would not impact on our world. Even if CATCHER IN THE RYE was true, that is to say, if there was a Holden Caulfield, we wouldn't know it.

Comic or tragic narratives, however, generate a conflicting subjunctivity by introducing elements -- the absurd or the unheimlich -- which to some extent contradict our knowledge of "how things are". They challenge the reader's suspension of disbelief with events that we feel "could not have happened"... or perhaps more accurately "should not have happened". As the private narrative develops into the modern novel, we see comic and tragic elements utilised, played off against each other, fused in tragi-comic works such as CATCH-22, or underplayed to achieve an illusion of naturalism or social realism. This mode of private narrative, where the "should not" is founded on a sense of pathos rather than incredulity, may be described as realist works but as often as not these pathetic narratives are in fact melodrama, rife with heroes, villains and twists-of-fate (Oliver-Twists-of-fate, we might say (and then duck the rotten tomatoes)).

Alternate narratives and future narratives introduce counterfactuals and hypotheticals, events which conflict factually with our knowledge of the world. If GIANT was true, if Jett Rink had existed, we would know it, therefore a subjunctivity of "could not have happened" is introduced, in conflict with the suspension of disbelief. Similarly, 1984 could clearly not have been true at the point of writing, as the events portrayed were in the future. Again a subjunctivity of "could not have happened" conflicts with suspension of disbelief. Both of these are resolved by a sort of displacement, the subjunctivities reconciled in a sense that this "could not have happened now". The reader synthesises an elsewhen, a fictive world one step to the side in alternate narrative, one step forward in future narrative.

Where these modes of narrative have become genrefied within SF we ofen see extremes, where the elsewhen is a radical departure from the recognisable here and now. As the ramping up of the counterfactual / hypothetical becomes more and more of a challenge to suspension of disbelief, different techniques may be used to counteract the feeling of implausibility, to prevent the collapse of the suspension of disbelief. Rationalist strategies, in the form of extrapolated theories of science and history, may be used to explain away the implausibility with a sense that "this could have happened, if...". Romantic strategies, in the form of generic tropes of character, background and plot-structure, may also be used to excuse the implausibility with a sense that "this could not have happened, but...". Many of the arguments over what SF is or is not, why it should be taken seriously or why it should not, are born of miscomprehensions that one or other of these strategies is the only real technique for dealing with the effects of the counterfactual / hypothetical.

As a quick interjection... I made a comparison between the rationalised alternate/future narrative and the private pathetic narrative; both seek to maintain an illusion of plausibility. I think a similar comparison could also be made between the romanticised alternate/future narrative and the private pathetic narrative; if we accept within the private pathetic narrative the more melodramatic fictions that develop simultaneously with the naturalistic forms of social realism, it is not hard to see that many works which remain firmly in the mundane here and now also utilise highly conventional tropes of heroes and villains. It is the same heightened pathos, the same "operatic" quality, which gives its name to both Space Opera and Soap Opera.

However, it is a third technique which is, I think, at the core of SF. In this the counterfactual / hypothetical is to be understood as part of -- an expression of, a component of, a step in the construction of -- a conceit. An integral structural element of the story, the conceit does not require a rationalist explanation or a romantic excuse; rather it is the fundamental basis of the form itself, the novel or strange playing a role in the alternate / future narrative not unlike the role played by the absurd or the unheimlich in the comic or tragic narrative respectively. In contrast to the pathetic narrative which aims to minimise estrangement so as to maintain suspension of disbelief, and very much like the comic or tragic narrative, SF seeks to exploit that estrangement, to build the story itself out of the strange, the novel, the conceit permeating the text as a sort of concretised extended metaphor.

So that's the story so far. Does this mean, then, that incredibility is actually more important to SF than credibility? Is that not why we so deeply associate SF with a "sense of wonder"? It seems to me that we might easily understand wonder in this model as in the same relationship to the alternate / future narrative as humour is to the comic narrative or as "pity and terror" are to the tragic, as the affect generated in the tension between a subjunctivity of "this could have happened" and a challenging, testing, contradicting subjunctivity of "this could not have happened... surely not". It would clearly be useful to have a term in the same mould as "tragic", "comic" and "pathetic", a term which denotes the underlying aesthetic at play. I would suggest that the existing term "fantastic" is both suitable and simple.

I would stress at this point, however, that having identified three quite distinct techniques for dealing with the estranging effect of the counterfactual / hypothetical -- to explicate it, to excuse it, to exploit it -- we need to recognise that what we label SF involves such a variety of combinatorial approaches to these techniques that overemphasising one will only lead us to unfairly neglect the use of the others. This is the point where rather than make sweeping statements about Science Fiction, I prefer a more (light-hearted) taxonomy of labels like Scientistic Fiction (explicating, pathetic), Scientific Fancy (excusing, pathetic) and Scientific Fabulation (exploiting, fantastic), with the caveat that these are to be understood as fuzzy sets, over-lapping in the field and in many of the individual works which comprise it. To talk accurately about SF as a whole, as an aesthetic form, we really need to focus on the distinguishing features -- the counterfactuals / hypotheticals -- and how they distinguish the alternate / future narrative from the private. Only then can we begin to examine the different types of alternate / future narrative and their different aesthetics.

To that extent, in order to understand the full scope of the non-private narratives which are grouped together as SF, we need to bring in the fourth mode of narrative that Jay identifies -- the mythic.

In alternate / future narratives there is, as I have said, a synthetic elsewhen offered to resolve the "could not happen" by displacement forward or sideways in time ("could not happen now"), but with mythic narrative there is no such illusion of stability offered. Where counterfactuals or hypotheticals are only technical impossibilites, the irrationalities of mythic narrative involve metaphysical impossibilities. In Delany's theory of genre he describes the subjunctivity of fantasy as "could never happen" (his naming of the fantastic city of Nevèrÿon, indeed, seems quite significant in this context), and this seems to be an apt description of the mythic narrative as Jay outlines it. It also fits with Jetse's idea of the "laws of the possible" versus the "laws of the impossible", and with the idea that there's a qualitative difference between SF, which deals with science (possible), and Fantasy, which deals with magic (impossible). However, I think this begs the question: how does the reader maintain suspension of disbelief in the face of events which patently "could not happen... not now, and not in any now, not ever"?

I think the answer to this is, metaphorically speaking, right under our noses. In describing the idea of an elsewhen as it relates to the alternate / future narrative, I introduced a spatial metaphor in which time has two dimensions. The synthetic elsewhen of the future narrative is "one step forward" in the one-dimensional time that we live in, but the synthetic elsewhen of the alternate narrative can be described as "one step to the side", adopting a simple metaphor in which time is planar rather than linear. This metaphor is so common it's old hat. The term "parallel worlds", in use for decades, is instantly familiar, and that metaphor is implicit in it. It's almost so obvious it's not worth commenting on. But I'm spelling it out here because I think it points to a way in which we deal similarly with the metaphysical impossibilties of the mythic narrative by displacing the events in a third temporal dimension. The synthetic elsewhen of the mythic narrative can be constructed by us, is constructed by us, easily, with no more trouble than it takes to imagine a step ahead or a step to the side, by imagining that elsewhen as being "one step down", so to speak. Or "one step up", for that matter.

What exactly do I mean by "down" here? I confess it's not the easiest thing to put into words, but this vertical axis of time seems to me to be founded on a sort of vague notion that there are levels to reality and that these work by different rules of causality. We can see this manifested in all the mythological models of underworlds and eternities, heavens and hells, too numerous to recount. In many cases the conceptual model is expressed as "inside" and "outside" or with the Great Beyond simply projected in a specific spatial direction further than human knowledge extends -- Hyperborea in the North, the Hesperides in the West. It might combine spatial distance and temporal distance (STAR WARS is set "[a] long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away". Delany offers a number of potential translations for his "Nevèrÿon" -- "across never", "across when", "a distant once", "across the river", "far never", "far when". Compare Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere".). There's often a sense of this elsewhen being somehow "previous" (c.f. the Native American notions of the "Fifth World", the Ragnarok of Norse myth, positioned before ours by the survival of the Volsung).

But there's an underlying commonality, to my mind, more important than the conflict of metaphors. I'm advancing the up-down axis of time not as a literal description of human metaphysics but rather as a logical extension of an existing model of how we... re-orient ourselves in the face of non-private narratives. And in fact there is, I think, a justification in the term "metaphysical" itself, the Greek root meta- originally meaning with or after, but now often used to mean beyond or above, to convey a sense of a "higher order". We think of metaphysics as the attempt to map the more "profound" (from the Latin fundus, meaning "the bottom", "the deep") truths upon which our physical reality is "grounded", "founded". Whether we conceptualise these truths as higher or deeper, transcendant or immanent, exterior frameworks or implicate orders, it seems to me that what we are trying to express here is, fundamentally, an extra dimensional understanding of our own linear time.

In Jay's description of the mythic narrative he characterises it as telling of "things which never actually happened, or could have happened in a literal reading, but encapsulate important truths for the tellers of the tale". This is maybe too specific for what I'm talking about. The use of the term "literal" and the idea of "encapsulating truths" implies for me that we are to understand the mythic narrative as intrinsically metaphoric. In the model of narrative I'm suggesting, however, conceptually dislocated by the metaphysical in the same way that the alternate and future narratives are conceptually dislocated by the counterfactual and the hypothetical, this seems to me to be adding an additional and unnecessary requirement given that we make no such supposition as regards alternate or future narratives.

Because of this -- and because the term "mythic" does imply a certain quality of archetypal symbolism -- I'm going to propose a renaming of the mythic to the metaphysical. And while I'm at it, I'm going to substitute "parallel" for "alternate", as it saves any pedantic arguments over the bastardisation of language ("It's alternative, you colonial barbarians!"... "Ah, go suck an egg!") and fits better with the 3D-time model I'm proposing.

So... what we have is three types of non-private narrative:

Parallel narrative, which uses counterfactual unrealities.
Future narrative, which uses hypothetical unrealities.
Metaphysical narrative, which uses metaphysical unrealities.

All of these effectively breach the "could have happened" subjunctivity, presenting a challenge to suspension of disbelief, but all of them offer a sort of temporal displacement which allows the reader to transform the disruptive sense that this "could not have happened" into a sense that this "could not have happened now". Even the metaphysical unrealities do not prevent the reader from constructing a synthetic elsewhen in which these unrealities could have happened. Despite what their names might suggest, Nevèrÿon, Neverwhere or Never-Neverland do not throw the reader into realms of absolute impossibility. The conceptual relocation in the metaphysical narrative is in a different "direction" to that of the parallel or future narrative, but it is still a relocation.

Never say never, mes amigos.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Hear, hear!

I'd love to get a good debate going, but I cannot find anything here to disagree with. :-)

1:15 am  
Blogger Gwen said...

I understood this series right up until this post. The first two axes of time-weirdness are "if this had happened, then this story could have had happened" (Jett Rink having existed; the South having won the Civil War), and "this could happen sometime in the future" (and they are axes in that they can overlap, though usually only because the future becomes outdated--Asimov's MultiVacs aren't such a great idea to base a future on anymore). So the third axis is...something else, which I'm not sure I understand.
You do mention "in a galaxy far far away," so I'm kinda getting the idea you're talking about worlds which have no relation to ours in terms of "how to get there from here, or from where we didn't go a long time ago" mentioned at all--not just alternate history (and prehistory), not in the future, but a world that may have elements in common with ours (humans, similar societies, et cetera) but is clearly not ours at all (different rules of physics, blatantly, or just different geography and no relation to our history at all). Is that it?

And I know that you're discussing mainly SF here, but the "SF always explains, fantasy never does" crowd is wrong on the second count as well as the first. Plenty of authors world-build and think of very rational and consistent explanations for magic working the way it does that just so happen to rely on a different nature of reality. Orson Scott Card's Ender series is seen as SF (even though the basic building block of matter is the soul, which can intertwine with other souls and stronger souls hold together higher forms of life while weaker ones might be lower life-forms or rocks or just blood cells or something) because it's got rivets, while a novel with the same ideas that has the same ideas but calls it magic, doesn't just discover it but has it as a known fact for millenia, is on a world that's obviously not ours nor in the future, and has dwarves and elves and dragons instead of Hive Queens and pequininos and descaladores would be called fantasy, even if it were just as rigorously explained.
Which goes back to the other two axes of the elements of a story, I guess, because it's the SF tropes versus the fantasy ones that would lead to that classification, and that's why the "the rationalism vs. romanticism dichotomy maps 1:1 to SF vs. fantasy" irks me just as much as it does you.
Food for thought is my favorite kind, which is why I'm sitting here browsing the Internet instead of eating breakfast, or lunch. ;^) Keep it up!

6:38 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I'm kinda getting the idea you're talking about worlds which have no relation to ours in terms of "how to get there from here, or from where we didn't go a long time ago" mentioned at all... Is that it?

Pretty much. If you think of 2D time -- i.e. with parallel realities -- as like a tree, growing and branching, with the eventual shape dependant on basic environmental factors (exposure, soil condition, sun) -- the metaphysics -- then think of 3D time as the forest of all possible shapes of that tree, each tree shaped by its own set of conditions.

4:09 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

And I know that you're discussing mainly SF here, but the "SF always explains, fantasy never does" crowd is wrong on the second count as well as the first. Plenty of authors world-build and think of very rational and consistent explanations for magic working the way it does that just so happen to rely on a different nature of reality.

Which is, funny enough, the subject of the next post.

4:12 pm  

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