Notes from New Sodom

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

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Strange Fiction 8

And you thought I'd finished with this shit. Nope; I was just busy.

8. Here, There and Elsewhere; or, Hard Fantasy, High SF and the Conceptual

If we are to see the metaphysical narrative as utilising a third vector of dislocation in a 3D timespace, as part of a deeper system in which it is the Z-axis to the X and Y of parallel and future narratives, then the logical question is whether the metaphysicals are treated in the same way as the counterfactuals or hypotheticals. What I mean is: do writers use the same techniques we have identified within parallel / future narratives to validate these metaphysical unrealities, to prevent the collapse of suspension of disbelief? Do they explain them or excuse them? Do they exploit them?

I think the answer is a loud yes.

Here's another nursery rhyme for you:

There was an old woman who lived back in Mu.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth and marked all their heads.
She cursed them to die, but was killed by the dead.


In the elsewhen of this variation -- the mythical land of Mu -- causality works in a whole nother way to the world we know. A word, a will, a magical "mark" can act magically on the world. Dark magic, however, may well come back and bite you on the ass. There's still a sense of cause and effect, a sense of logic, and people still clearly need to eat to survive, but the rules of the game are different. The metaphysics is different.

But there is a level of (albeit implicit) theory and extrapolation here which aligns this rather folkloric metaphysical fiction with those Alternate History or Hard SF forms of fiction which seek to rationalise the how and the why of the implausibility. We should easily recognise in this story an idea of reciprocity in magic. In many metaphysical fictions the systematic nature of magic will be spelled out. We'll be told that there are underlying principles -- "As above, so below"; "Like effects like". We'll be told that magic utilises elemental forces -- fire, earth, water, air. We'll be told that there is black magic, white magic, sex magic, death magic, that a spell aimed with evil intent will lead to ill effects on the user. And so on. This type of explanatory approach seems so persuasive, indeed, that there's a whole New Age industry of neo-pagan craziness aimed at those who seriously believe this stuff.

Personally I think those people are cracked but, hey, each to their own. The point is simply that there is a form of metaphysical narrative which seeks to return the reader to a subjunctivity of "could have happened if..." just as certain (explicatory, pathetic) parallel / future narratives do.

The folkloric vibe of this variation of the rhyme, it strikes me, seems related to a moral component to that explication. The metaphysics of this world is one in which good and evil are active forces. To act wrongly, using magic to kill, disrupts a sort of metaphysical equilibrium. In response, the metaphysical order seeks to restabilise itself. Action leads to reaction. The dead return to revenge their murder. As I say, this seems highly reminiscent of the moral logic of the fairy-tale where the wicked will meet their come-uppance and the good live happily ever after.

Here's another rhyme:

There was an old goddess who lived with Anu.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She made them some humans to cook them some bread.
But Marduk got angry and cut off their heads.


Here there's no explication, no attempt at rationalisation, and indeed there's a certain illogic to the whole sequence. Why make humans to make bread if you're a goddess and could just skip the middle man, make the bread yourself with your awesome goddess powers? Why does Marduk get angry? What the fuck is this story trying to tell us?

But if you know your Sumerian myth you can probably fill in the gaps. Marduk, see, he's a young and dynamic warrior god who supplanted Anu round about the time Babylon became the big power in Mesopotamia. The old goddess who made humans is clearly an example of the Middle Eastern mother goddess, probably associated with grain (the bread), and probably usurped along with Anu. Her children, who got their heads cut off by Marduk -- that's clearly a reference to the Sumerian equivalent of the Titans, Tiamat's monstrous brood who were defeated by Marduk. Because there was a shitload of them stirring up trouble. Compare the apocryphal giants, the Anakim, wiped out in the Flood of Genesis. Cross-reference to the Annunaki, the underworld gods usurped by the younger Igigi. And so on.

The point is, if you know the traditions of character, background and story-structure the rhyme makes perfect sense. If you know the tropes it's all fine and dandy. It's a bit short for a proper epic poem, but expand that story into a few hundred lines with the right conventional epithets and repititions ("There was an old goddess who lived with Anu. There was an old goddess who lived with the God of Heaven. There was an old goddess who lived with the Father of the Gods."), and you end up with the metaphysical equivalent of those parallel / future narratives which excuse their implausibilities with the romance of a Big Story. The only difference is that your Sumerian audience might well take this a whole lot more seriously than your average Space Opera fan takes his interplanetary romance.

If I wanted a better example I could probably rewrite that rhyme into the sub-Tolkien idiom of Epic Fantasy, throw in some elves, dwarves and goblins... but I'd rather slice the top off my skull and take an egg-whisk to my brains, so forgive me if I don't.

Anyhoo...

So we have metaphysical fiction which explicates and metaphysical fiction which excuses. Do we also have metaphysical fiction which exploits, which capitalises on the strangeness of its imagery?

You know I'm going to answer, yes, don't you?

In that second example I used the Sumerian template -- rather than, say, a Greek or Christian or Judaic set of tropes that would be more familiar to the modern reader -- so as to, well, cheat. Because, divorced from the familiarising effects of tropes, outwith the context of the Sumerian society, I think, the story ceases to have the supporting justifications of conventionality. OK, regular readers of this blog might well recognise Anu and Marduk, the creation of humanity, genocidal deities, and other such features of Neolithic myth from my endless blatherings on the topic, but familiarity with my whacky obsessions is not the same as the sort of deeply-engrained onventionality that makes High Fantasy an easy, popular read. Unlike the Greek myths there are tales from Sumer that just leave one going "Huh?".

It seems to me that those correspondances of explaining, excusing and exploiting types of Fantasy and SF could lead to a set of parallel (sub)genre labels -- as nothing more than rough benchmarks, shorthand, mind, for the purest exemplars. If you want to use the term "Hard Fantasy" maybe there's a clearer definition in the explanatory aspect of Hard SF. Could a lot of Space Opera / Science Fantasy / Genre SF, actually be classed more accurately as Epic SF in a parallel with Epic Fantasy? What, then, would be the broad labels for those types of SF and Fantasy which exploit the metaphoric conceit rather than explain or excuse it? I so want to call them Core SF and Core Fantasy, just to satisfy my own prejudices, but that wouldn't really be terribly objective. Conceptual SF and Conceptual Fantasy seems a good steal from the world of Art.

Assuming these correspondances are accepted this might lead us to see an advantages the 3D-time model of parallel / future / metaphysical narratives has over more usual ideas of genre. It offers a resolution to the hoary old argument over the "difference" between SF and Fantasy or the lack thereof. Proponents of Hard SF will often argue that the inclusion of magic in a narrative renders it Fantasy rather than SF. Proponents of Fantasy will often argue that SF is merely a subcategory of Fantasy. The same tiresome arguments surface again and again, ultimately because they are founded on category errors, on the application of mere marketing labels in place of qualitative descriptors. The exclusion of magic is an attempt to prescribe the use of the label "SF" rather than describe a fictive mode. The subordination of SF to Fantasy is an attempt to expand the use of the label "Fantasy" rather than describe an actual relationship between types of fiction. These are no more than futile arguments over the placement of theoretical boundaries which do not actually exist.

The first thing that should become apparent if we accept the 3D-time model, where the mode of the narrative is a product of the inclusion of counterfactual, hypothetical or metaphysical unrealities, is that the inclusion of one type of unreality does not preclude the inclusion of one or both of the others. Any potential combination is available. Suppose, for example, I write a version of that hoary old time-travel story in which a scientist from the 2020s invents a time-machine, goes back to the 1920s, and assassinates Hitler. This clearly involves both hypothetical and counterfactual unrealities, rendering the narrative both parallel and future. PKD's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not simply posit a parallel reality in which the Nazis won WW2; the introduction of the I CHING as a tool for divination presents the reader with a metaphysical unreality. In Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, the jaunting is arguably another such metaphysical unreality, a magical ability to wish oneself elsewhere presented alongside the hypotheticals of space travel, asteroid mining and so on. In truth, I would argue, many of the most respected works in the canon of SF are fairly profligate in their mixing of counterfactuals, hypotheticals and metaphysicals.

Suppose we map this 3D time idea to the more familiar trinity of primary colours -- red, yellow and blue. The private narrative sticks to the muted tones of charcoal-and-chalk, painting its picture of "things as they are" in subtle shades of grey. The parallel / future / metaphysical narrative splatters glaringly gaudy primary colours in the centre of the canvas -- the red of counterfactuals, the yellow of hypotheticals, the blue of metaphysicals. The division between SF and Fantasy is about as purposeful as a division in an art gallery between "Orange" landscapes (Sunset In The Desert IV) and "Blue" landscapes (Winter Ocean At Night, Moonlit VII). Of course it is easy to apply broad taxonomies based on the tonal qualities imparted by an artist's palette. This artist does not just use red and yellow, we might find; they use counterfactuals of copper leaf, hypotheticals of gold foil, seeking to suggest the sun and all its solar symbolism of day, of the noon world shown crisp in the shining light of reason. This other artist does not just use blue, we might find; they use metaphysicals of silver, seeking to suggest the moon and all its lunar symbolism of night, of a dark world picked out in the low light of mystery. We have a whole culture of cross-wired metaphors to tell us how these aesthetics are so deeply distinct. SF is golden, solar, masculine, scientific. Fantasy is silver, lunar, feminine, magical.

But how does an artist like Bradbury fit into this dichotomy? Where do we place his masterpiece, "The Veldt"? At first glance this seems a simple work of Golden Age SF, our eye catching the glint of a hypothetical in the holodeck playroom of the children, such a simple touch of future narrative; but as we are drawn into Bradbury's painting we see hints of silver, of Fantasy, slowly building until, as we step back to look at the whole picture properly, we realise that this is not just hypothetical but metaphysical. As the lions come to life, devour the parents, we realise that, if we have been taken one step "forward" into the future we have also been taken one step "down" into a different type of elsewhen.

All this is to say (because apparently it needs to be said... again and again) that the science/magic distinction between SF and Fantasy is superficial, as superficial a signal as the colour of the foil in which the writer's name is embossed on the cover. The shared dislocatory effect which underpins all parallel / future / metaphysical narratives unifies all the disparate sub-genrefied forms into a single field. This is, I think, the nearest we will find to the sonnet's "fourteen lines and a volte". There are (other) negotiable conventions as to how that dislocatory effect is dealt with, which generate different forms -- just as the sonnet has its Spenserian or Shakespearean structures -- but underneath there is (only?) that

At the same time though, the "it's all Fantasy" argument is about as useful as claiming that every colour on the palette is "a shade of blue". Just because there are similarities in the way metaphysicals, hypotheticals and counterfactuals work doesn't mean the latter two are "really just" instances of the former, no more than all fiction is fantasy simply because it's "made-up". No more than all writing is fiction because it's "made-up". Follow this path and we end up saying that mathematics, physics, chemistry, language itself, are all subsets of Fantasy -- they're just complex artifices of the human imagination, after all, representing reality in the form of abstracted symbolic patterns. This is a blurring of the term "fantasy" which renders it so vague as to be useless.

So we could use another term for these parallel / future / metaphysical narratives considered as a whole. We could use a term which captures that breach of subjunctivity while making no assumptions about its nature (singular or composite -- a step sidewise, forward or down or a simultaneous dislocation in multiple dimensions) or what will be done with it (whether it will be explained, excused or exploited). We could use a term which doesn't assume inviolable boundaries between Hard SF, Hard Fantasy, Epic SF, Epic Fantasy, Conceptual SF and Conceptual Fantasy, between this here, that there and whatever elsewhere.
Which is why I like the term "strange fiction".

18 Comments:

Anonymous gabe said...

So, which is it? Are you insane or a genius? I haven't decided yet, but if you've got some insight....

10:53 pm  
Blogger sara said...

Awesome. This is the first of your mini-essays I've read, so I hope I'm not covering ground you've already dealt with and moved past.

I'm pretty sure I agree with the main idea here.

Thinking of the parallel/ future/ metaphysical stuff on your model of a graph with three axes, though, or a colour spectrum, it occurred to me that I wouldn't know how to place the divide between (the somewhat controversial and frequently disowned category of) New Weird on the one hand, and Fantasy on the other.

Cos it seems to me that New Weird - which may be what you're calling Conceptual Fantasy in your essay - pulls this thing comparable to what Sumerian mythology tales do to our brains as modern readers; it not only tinkers with the three dimensions, but does it in such a way that, as you attempt to digest it, you're aware of it going down your gullet, so to speak. You don't assimilate the parallel settings and the metaphysical, magic-realismic tinkering as readily as you would with SF or Fantasy. Bedazzled, you stand a bit apart from it as a reader.

Maybe that's because so-called New Weird fiction isn't as widely popular or available and therefore conventional, but I really think the effect results more from something the author does than something spurious resulting from the genre's novelty. Dunno. Just wondering where you'd fit some of the stranger fiction onto the spectrum, I guess. Because I don't get the impression that New Weird fiction's got an outlying coordinate way up in the damn-weird settings of your three dimensions, or anything like that.

Great essay, Hal. You should publish these pieces as a work of critical analysis.

11:41 am  
Blogger Chinaski said...

Hal,

I just started reading Vellum yesterday so I decided to check to see if you had a blog. I have never seen this argument broken down the way you have broken it down. All I can say is "Wow." For me at least it's the first argument I've read that rings true for me.

As for gabe's question above, for the time being I'll say you are a genius...for now, hehe.

keep up the great work and I can't wait until Ink is released here in the States.

2:05 pm  
Blogger Gwen said...

Or both?
I thought I was crazy myself when you told me that that was why it was the topic of your next post and I couldn't find that next post. Very relieved that a) I'm not crazy, or at least not for not being able to find that next post, and b) the series wasn't over!
Very interesting stuff. I remember briefly attempting to organize my personal fiction library by such characteristics as the person and tense the story was told in; whether it took place in the past, present, or future to when it was written; whether alternate universes were involved; whether aliens were involved; whether magic was involved, and so on. Too much work, I quickly discovered, and my bookshelves quickly went back to alphabetical-order-by-the-author's-last-name.
Do you think that a system of classification based on your 3D idea (probably not all the way to "is this one further this way or is this one?" but at least "does the author go in this direction at all?") would be better or worse than the science-fiction/fantasy thing we've got going now?

3:21 pm  
Anonymous coffeedryad said...

I'm loving this series of essays, but I'm not sure I quite get what you're getting at with the exploitation of metaphysical strangeness. Are you talking about what you do and what, say, Kelly Link does in The Specialist's Hat, where the disorientation caused by the rules working in some unfamiliar or wrong-feeling way is part of the effect the story is supposed to create in the reader, or am I completely off target?

6:41 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Actually, I'm a SubGenius -- fully paid-up reverend with my ticket on the flying saucer outta here when X-Day comes... July 5th, 1998. Which probably tells you all you need to know about my sanity too.

4:04 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I'm not sure I quite get what you're getting at with the exploitation of metaphysical strangeness.

Ben Rosenbaum's story in the latest Strange Horizons seems like a good example here as it's so deeply metaphysical. The title, in fact, perfectly positions the story's "elsewhen" in terms of that third temporal dimension -- in "The House Beyond The Sky".

http://www.strangehorizons.com/2006/20060904/house-f.shtml

Or think of Borges's "The Book of Sand", or a more traditional fantasy story like Bradbury's "The Scythe", or even Jeff Ford's "The Annals of Eelin-Ok". The Conceptual Fantasy I'm thinking of isn't necessarily using the mechanisms that you point to in Kelly Link or myself (or that Rosenbaum or Borges or Ford use elsewhere). There's something else that slipstream -- sorry, infernokrusher -- works like "The Specialist's Hat" do that I want to approach separately. The sense of "disorientation caused by the rules working in some unfamiliar or wrong-feeling way" in those works is partly about keeping the ground shifting beneath the reader's feet by sending conflicting signals, I think; with those works we're not sure what the rules are at all. Clute's concept of "equipoise" is important to those types of stories. With the exploited metaphysical conceit of "Conceptual Fantasy" I'm thinking of something not quite so strange.

Actually, think of GORMENGHAST where the metaphysical is so subtle as to be almost not-there. Peake's house is so big, as I imagine it, that you wonder if it could actually support its own weight against gravity. It's the seeming impossibility of that which renders the novel fantasy, I think. The elsewhen of GORMENGHAST isn't a parallel reality, based on a counterfactual where one upper-class family isolated themselves in a mansion, which just grew bigger and more self-contained over centuries. Nor is it a future reality based on a hypothetical where the class system has been extrapolated to a post-technological environment of grandiose decay. It's more of a metaphysical dislocation we get with the novel, a sense that this world is downways from our own; the conceit is simply that we're in a reality which can support such monstrous scales of construction. And Peake exploits that conceit to the full.

In Hard Fantasy you might have some sort of Stone Magic explaining how these towers upon towers don't collapse under their own weight. In Epic Fantasy, you could simply have it built by giants, elves or angels, excusing the implausibility with conventionality. But in GORMENGHAST that implausibilty becomes part of the metaphoric resonance, part of the meaning of the conceit. The Big House is (in part) society -- over-built to the point of incredibility. It is redolent with the potential of its own collapse. The architectural conceit, the societal structure of the characters, the style of the prose, and the plot all play off one another. To that extent this is probably the best (or purest) example of Conceptual Fantasy I can think of.

4:10 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

[I]t seems to me that New Weird - which may be what you're calling Conceptual Fantasy in your essay - pulls this thing comparable to what Sumerian mythology tales do to our brains as modern readers; it not only tinkers with the three dimensions, but does it in such a way that, as you attempt to digest it, you're aware of it going down your gullet, so to speak. You don't assimilate the parallel settings and the metaphysical, magic-realismic tinkering as readily as you would with SF or Fantasy. Bedazzled, you stand a bit apart from it as a reader.

The New Weird? I'm not entirely sure there's enough of a shared nature to the works of those writers who get grouped, willingly or unwillingly, as New Weird to justify treating the term as an aesthetic form distinct from other types of Fantasy. It strikes me as a marketing label more than a critical term. Or rather if there is a shared nature, it's something that's shared by works far beyond the scope of the New Weird. I quite like what Michael Cisco has to say here:

http://www.themodernword.com/columns/cisco_001.html

To quote:

The distinction between genre literature and general literature is bogus, at least in any non-colloquial sense of these terms. What is “general literature”? If we begin to define it, even assuming this definition can be uncontroversial, we are already outlining tendencies or rules which are indistinguishable in kind from those that are used to define genre literature. The distinction between genre and general is an evaluation from the outset, and not an innocent differentiation. The “New Weird” might be better defined as a refusal to accept this evaluation of imaginative literature, whatever form it may take.

To me, the New Weird, then, immediately calls to mind all those other labels which have accreted to this type of literature -- Magic Realism, cross-genre, slipstream, postmodern, experimental, literary fantasy, New Wave Fabulsim, Infernokrusher. Which brings me back to the distinction above between works which utilise equipoise, which keep the ground shifting beneath the reader's feet by sending conflicting signals.

Which is probably the topic of the next post.

4:18 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Do you think that a system of classification based on your 3D idea (probably not all the way to "is this one further this way or is this one?" but at least "does the author go in this direction at all?") would be better or worse than the science-fiction/fantasy thing we've got going now?

I'm not sure it works as a system of classification per se unless you're dealing with the most singularly directed works. I suppose if you want works that allow only counterfactuals, only hypotheticals or only metaphysicals then you could distinguish these into 3 classes. And if those works can be broken down into those which only explain, only excuse or only exploit, then you end up with 3 sub-classes per class. In terms of marketing categories, I suspect there are readers of particular sub-classes (Hard SF, Epic Fantasy) whose requirements would be pretty well served if you shelved along those lines; they'd know exactly where to get what they want. But I think the exclusivity of those tastes is not characteristic of the general readership. The "does the author go in this direction at all?" question is only important to those readers whose tastes actively exclude a particular direction.

I think the mainstream of strange fiction is often work which involves dislocation in multiple dimensions. Most commonly, as in Bester or Dick, you have hypotheticals and metaphysicals side-by-side, but it could be any combination of all three. And the same goes for the treatments of the conceit. In reusing known tropes we partially excuse them with conventionality, but often we also offer (hand-waving) explanations which bolster an illusion of plausibility. And at the same time we fuck around with those tropes. We find new twists which restore some of the strangeness, make us see them again as novum; so we are also exploiting them. Neither direction of dislocation nor technique of resolution are mutually exclusive.

So I suppose it's a bit like classifying colours. You do have the primary colours -- red, yellow and blue, but you can't classify all shades as one or the other. You could add in the secondary colours which each combine two of the primaries -- orange, green and purple. You could add a final classification to cover the tertiary shades which combine all three -- brown. but most shades of strange fiction are "natural" colours, I think -- ochres and umbers and ambers, coppers and golds and silvers, rather than the bold primary pigments of a child's paint pots -- so, to me, applying this as a system of classes of fiction, rather than of qualities present within a single class of fiction (strange fiction) would misrepresent the field as a set of "primary" genres (Alt-History, SF and Fantasy -- Hard, Epic and Conceptual) which just feeds into the tired old genre-divide argument and implicitly treats the vast mass of strange fiction as a "secondary" or "tertiary" hybridisation, as "cross-genre".

5:13 pm  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Psst.

Hey, Hal, I need your email addy.

matociquala AT gmail DOT com

--ebear

3:12 pm  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

I'm with Sara above; I would pay for a book-length collection of your literary theory. Ever thought about it?

4:34 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Actually, I'd be well up for the opportunity to batter these ramblings into order, pare away the repetitions, and flesh out the logic and references -- be a bit less freeform about it, yanno. Whether a publisher would be up for it, though -- that's another matter entirely. :)

9:02 pm  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Wow, thanks for the shout-out on "House Beyond Your Sky"... I didn't expect to find that when I stopped to read these comments. I'd love to know more about your reading of it.

I don't think the distinctions have to be binary for a classification system to work. We could treat each triad (hypothetical, counterfactual, metaphysical; explain, excuse, exploit) as an independent axis. I'd like to walk into a bookstore and find, on each book, somewhere surreptitious, two small colored squares, each one representing a poisition in the color space.

I think you'd want to use hue/saturation/brightness for the axes, though, not R/G/B as you suggest. Wouldn't you? Just because they seem more heterogenous and orthogonal.

Shall we use hue for hypotheticals -- the blue of the solidity of known history, the fertile green of the present perhaps, the bright red of the extrapolated future? Saturation for counterfactuals: the intense richness of the real, the faded ethereal touch of the might-have-been? And then brightness for metaphysicals -- the dimness of the everyday, mundane consensus reality, the searing brightness of archetype and myth?

And now I think, to make sure we're on the same page with this and develop it as a shared critical tool, we should make claims about various books and stories, e.g. "Crying of Lot 49 is #33CC99, House Beyond Your Sky is #FF0066"? Or indeed simply make our claims thus: <font color="#CCCCFF">Vellum</font>?

Once people are familiar with the shorthand, one could simply express one's opinion on the genre positioning of a work (in a review, say), by the font color chosen for the initial mention of its title (for extremely counterfactual and archetypical works, this might make it a little hard to read against a white background, but such are the costs of precision in genre classification).

Now, with exploit/excuse/explain, I have to stop and ask -- are these truly orthogonal? Or are they, to some extent, more alternatives? Can a work explain in great detail its strangeness, and still exploit it? Can it excuse without undermining its explanations? Hmm.

I do think I need some more help determining, in practice, what makes a work metaphysical. How metaphysical is Moby Dick?

5:01 pm  
Blogger Gwen said...

Wow--as weird as the idea of showing the category a book is in by its color is, it's kinda pretty to think about. You could see what kinds of books someone likes in an instant with a color map, or compare readerships of certain magazines, or what sorts of stories Ray Bradbury wrote over time, or all sorts of things. I don't think it'd catch on for the general populace, but it's a poetic idea.

10:15 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hey, good story -- deserves a shout-out. I'd have to reread it a few times before giving any sensible thoughts though. :)

As for the Light/Chromaticity/Hue model... I like it cause it's even more whacky than my Red/Yellow/Blue (I was using Yellow instead of Green because I think in terms of paint pigments -- which match our conceptual colours -- rather than the physics of light. Our conceptual colourspace is RYB, not RGB). I'm not sure Vellum shouldn't have a different colour for each letter, though. Whether the layman would be able to get their head round it, I don't know, but it would certainly be a more creative way to label books.

4:32 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Now, with exploit/excuse/explain, I have to stop and ask -- are these truly orthogonal? Or are they, to some extent, more alternatives? Can a work explain in great detail its strangeness, and still exploit it? Can it excuse without undermining its explanations? Hmm.

Hmmm, indeed. I'm in two minds about this myself. I don't think they're quite alternatives in terms of being mutually exclusive, but maybe dimensionality is not quite as apt a metaphor here. The first two strategies can, I think, work in tandem. The fact that androids are a conventional trope (and therefore excusable as part of the idiom's figurative trove) wouldn't undermine a plausible, scientific explanation based on A-Life and AI theories; you might make the work a bit more boring for the more Epic-oriented fan who'd rather you just got on with the story, but you might also make it more interesting for the Hard-oriented fan. Conversely the use of scientific theory isn't going to detract from the conventionality of the trope, make it less excusable. You're not suddenly going to stop believing in the android because the author made it more plausible, I don't think.

Both techniques, I'd argue, work towards supporting the suspension of disbelief, one by widening the parameters of what's acceptable (android-as-conventional-trope), the other by arguing the acceptability (android-as-plausible-speculation) on a case-by-case basis. As I see it, they can be used independently (in more "purely" Epic SF or in more "purely" Hard SF), and you will get some readers who preference one over the other. Add to that the idea that a deep commitment to one technique may shade into an animosity towards the other and you end up with the Hard SF versus "Science Fantasy" (i.e. Epic SF) schism within the genre. But regardless of these extremes, much SF seems to "spread the load", so to speak, over both techniques.

So you get the explanatory and excusatory techniques working together. You can offset less rigorous science with more vigourous (i.e. Romantic, adventurous, trope-bound) narrative, and vice versa. Early Heinlein like STARSHIP TROOPERS seems to me like a good example. Giant bugs are kinda scientifically dodgy if I recall correctly. Interstellar warfare without FTL seems a bit unlikely to say the least, and FTL itself is hardly on a solid scientific basis. It's the bildungsroman form of Heinlein's book that makes it work. Same with his juveniles where the science is even more handwavy. Maybe this kind of stuff is what we tend to label Genre SF?

There may be some conflict between the first two strategies and the third, though, since the latter seems to me to be geared towards challenging that suspension of disbelief. If the strangeness is explained or excused doesn't that make it less strange? If the android is an utterly familiar trope, or rationalised to the most rigorous degree, or both, surely it can't continue to function as a novum. Doesn't it just become another tired variable in those "Old Equations"?

Well, yes. That's why the trope trove of SF has been constantly replenished over the decades by writers generating new novum in their work. As we exhaust the strangeness of the spaceships, aliens and robots, we add cyberspace, singularities and posthumans. And we haven't yet, to my mind, entirely run out of weird new scientific ideas -- weird enough to test our suspension of disbelief, and new enough not to be conventional. Others might disagree, right enough, if the perennial arguments about the "death of SF" are anything to go by. Here the idea often pops up that scientific advance now feels more commonplace, that our world is so techno-whizzy anyway that the sense of wonder which drives SF is less intense. We're harder to futureshock. Is that the case? I'm damned if I can say, but I do know that for me at least there's still plenty of weird new stuff that makes my head go ping!

Anyway, the point here is that there's no reason you couldn't explain most of your stuff in detail but throw in a novum right at the heart of it. Indeed, in something like 2001 you have the plausible scientific speculation of the human spaceship (no artificial gravity, no hyperdrive, and it takes a long time to get to Jupiter) but with the monolith as a huge big novum at the core of the story. The remake of SOLARIS might be another example where you have a backdrop that's not wildly weird, that's made acceptable by its visual extrapolation from our time (in terms of technology, style, culture, etc.), and then the novum on top of that or in the middle of it. In some senses, you could say, the explanatory Hard SF vibe of the human culture only heightens the strangeness of the alien other in both of those fictions.

So you can also have explanatory and exploitative techniques working together, I think. Hard/Conceptual SF?

Also, over and above the replenishment of the trope trove with new novum, how we actually use those tropes is important here. It seems to me that the focus on originality and inventiveness in SF, on finding a new angle on the old tropes is, in part, a tacit recognition that conventionality dissipates the strangeness effect, that to sustain the sense of "incredibility" requires a (constant) reinvention of those tropes in order to defamiliarise them. So you have the robot as genre convention -- a mechanical worker, occassionally treated as sentient but more usually a mindless drone -- and in order to make a good SF story you have to add your own twist. Asimov gives us (the logical permutations of) his Three Laws of Robotics in I, ROBOT. Bester gives us the AI psychosis of "Fondly, Fahrenheit". Sladek gives us the poor put-upon child robot of RODERICK. Each is, in his own way, using the conventionality of the trope as something to kick against, to confound expectations. A genre using conventions to excuse implausibilty creates expectations around those conventions. A writer can either meet those expectations or go out of their way to fuck with them.

Does that reimagined trope then become a novum itself, or is the novum within those stories located in the twist -- the Three Laws, the psychosis, the childhood? I don't know. I think the novum should be seen as a more abstract effect that is generated by the work rather than an item of content, a thing which the work contains. To me the novum of an SF work, as a form of conceit, boils down to a noun-verb statement (if you can even reduce that far) rather than a noun; that's what distinguishes it from a trope.

As an aside, that whole "death of SF" argument -- another reason often proffered is that we've run out of things to do with those tropes; we've exhausted them. Basically, the trove is all played out. Again, I find this unconvincing.

Anyway, all of the above means, I think, that you have the excusatory and exploitative techniques working together as well. In its deliberate inversions and subversions this type of Epic/Conceptual SF can read as parody, pastiche or satire, or it can read as something more serious, more pointed, a sort of deliberately anti-Epic in fact As should be obvious from the examples of Asimov and Bester, I think this has been going on in SF from waaaaay back.

So, if you can then, theoretically, put these all together you end up with... what? Maybe Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION? There you have some of the classic tropic conventions -- space travel, asteroid miners. These are treated with some level of scientific theory and extrapolation (though I'd have to say, not much). The story itself, as we all know, is straight from THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. How Romantic do you want to get. But Bester fucks with the conventions, makes Foyle an anti-hero, an Everyman. He treats jaunting and PyrE as novum, weaves all these elements together into something that combines, I think, the best of all three modes of SF -- Hard, Epic and Conceptual.

Bringing it all back to the idea of suspension of disbelief, I think the game SF plays, more often than not, is to play the subjunctivity of could have happened off against the subjunctivity of could not have happened. I think it's rare for an SF work to simply collapse back into the pathetic narrative by explaining everything, and rare (though maybe less rare -- and quite common in the visual media) for it to excuse itself as formulaic Romanticism where "anything goes" because it's "just a bit of fun". But it's also rare, I'd say, for an SF work to not utilise excuse or explanation at all, to remain purely Conceptual. Rather, those excuses and explanations become mechanisms for sustaining the tension, for offering little releases here and there, little placations which mitigate the sense of incredibility enough that the reader gets drawn into a more intense state without suffering incredibility-overload and getting kicked out of the story.

If you look at some of the most novum-saturated SF -- like NEUROMANCER, say -- the denseness of the environment is mitigated heavily by borrowings from the noir idiom, by constantly reminding the reader that this is a thriller, so it's OK, cause this sorta wild, adventurous hokum is acceptable in a thriller. And by reigning the timescale in to a very near-future, extrapolating low-level computing and information technology rather than space travel and immortality and other such Grand Science, Gibson achieves a hard edge, an illusion of plausibility. I reckon this is one of the reasons why cyberpunk took off so well; it was able to utilise all three techniques of dealing with the incredible -- excuse, explain and exploit -- with incendiary results. Hell, look at that opening line about the sky being the colour of a TV set tuned to a dead channel. It's voice is noir (Epic), it's description is bleak naturalism (Hard), and it's simultaneously the opening statement of the conceit that permeates the novel, artificial reality (Conceptual).

4:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Random interjector "bloody mary required".

11:45 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Bloody Mary always required, random anonymous interjector dude.

3:02 pm  

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