Strange Fiction 8
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.
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".