Notes from New Sodom

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

Monday, December 17, 2007

Once More Into The Fray

Fellow GSFWC member, Gary Gibson, recently made a post on his blog on the distinction he sees between science fiction and fantasy and why the former is not, as some would maintain, a branch of the latter. Where SF, he argues, does similarly deal with the apparently impossible, it is distinct from fantasy in that it does so on the basis of a history of scientific discoveries and radical paradigm shifts, a recognition of the limitations of our present knowledge. What he's saying, it seems to me, is that in science fiction the conceit (the impossibility accepted as possible for the sake of the story) is not simply a spurious fabrication but is rather a rational speculation.

"One might speculate as to the (im)possibility of faster-than-light travel, time travel or alternate realities; no one to my knowledge has ever speculated on the possibility of finding elves, orcs or magic swords any time soon."

There are a couple of problems here:

Problem One:

On what basis do we distinguish the paradigm shift required to redefine FTL, time travel or alternative realities as possibilities rather than impossibilities from a similar paradigm shift that would redefine, for example, ESP, jaunting or intersecting realities as possibilities rather than impossibilities? Canonical works such as THE DEMOLISHED MAN, THE STARS MY DESTINATION and ROADMARKS require exactly such paradigm shifts to be defined as SF rather than Fantasy, and nobody, largely speaking, has a problem with making the required leap. We do indeed call these books SF.

But on what basis do we distinguish those paradigm shift -- which are radical enough, make no mistake, to breach the most fundamental principles of current science -- from potential paradigm shifts which could redefine even the spurious fabrications of fantasy as rational speculations? As SF writers and readers we are ready, it seems, to abandon the limitation of light speed that comes with Einsteinian Relativity so we can play with FTL, or to ignore the physical foundations of mind in the neurochemistry of the brain so that we can use ESP. We are willing to ditch the Conservation of Energy that is a basic aspect of Newtonian thermodynamics in order to portray teleportation as an act of mere will, to swallow jaunting as an ability to transport oneself instantaneously through space-time. We are more than able to throw away the very coherence of the space-time continuum we exist in so we can imagine a road that links all possible times and all possible histories.

If we're ready, willing and able to play this fast and loose with science why should we draw the line at equivalent paradigm shifts that, for us, render a work fantasy rather than SF? Aren't the secondary worlds of fantasy simply alternative realities where the archaeological distinction of gracile and robust hominids translates to elves and dwarves as distinct races? Aren't the magical powers of fantasy just the telekinetic talent to manipulate a reality tractable to the human will? Aren't all the spurious fabrications of fantasy in fact equally as recastable as rational speculations if only we accept paradigm shifts no more radical in truth than those required with the seminal SF of Bester and Zelazny?

In VELLUM and INK there are two big-ass conceits that, for many people I'm sure, render them fantasy rather than SF. I've certainly been asked enough times what category I'd place them in to know that it's a matter of doubt for some.

First, there's the idea of the Vellum itself, a 3D time-space with future and past as "forward and back", causally alternative realities (i.e. sharing the same basic physics but with different histories) treated as "parallel" worlds off to this "side" or that, and metaphysically alternative realities (i.e. worlds working with different physics entirely) treated as "higher" or "deeper" strata. This is a fairly systematic approach to the multiverse idea, I'd argue, and the fact that characters are able to move between realities doesn't make it, for me, any less SF than Zelazny's ROADMARKS. But I do present one of the "folds" of the Vellum -- shock, horror -- as a realm of what, to all intents and purposes, are dwarves and elves and orcs, fairies and all that fantasy malarky. In Ian Macdonald's KING OF MORNING, QUEEN OF DAY, if I recall correctly, a similar SFnal approach is applied to the idea of Faerie, positing it as a distinct reality that can and does sometimes intersect our own.

Second, there's the idea of the Cant, a language which can be used to reprogram this multiverse and which therefore endows whoever uses it with the ability to perform manipulations of reality that are, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the magic of fantasy. Fundamentally, this is riffing off the idea that the most basic principle in the universe is information, that maybe all we're made of, when it comes down to it, is data. It's a wild speculation in so far as it makes the whole kit and caboodle as malleable as a Phildickian consensus reality... but that's why I dig the idea. If it was SF for Dick to warp reality itself with drugs in THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, then it's SF for me to do it with words. Hell, if you read INK you'll even find that the Cant works within the strictures of thermodynamics; it requires energy and that energy has to come from somewhere.

So in VELLUM and INK you basically have a whole underlying schema in which elves and magic are treated as rational speculations rather than spurious fabrications. If you want to argue that this schema isn't actually plausible I'll just shrug and say, yeah, so what? FTL isn't actually plausible. Jaunting isn't actually plausible. Time travel isn't actually plausible. And if the caveat of shifting paradigms works to excuse your inventions as speculations then it works to excuse mine, on the exact same basis that the history of science is one of apparent impossibilities being shown to be actually quite possible. Either we apply that caveat objectively or we ditch it entirely in favour of the hard-nosed rigour that says FTL, ESP, time travel, jaunting, anything which plays so fast and loose with the laws of physics, is all just spurious fabrication. The only other alternative is an entirely subjective application of the paradigm shift caveat -- or rather a refusal to accept the validity of its application -- on the basis of personal incredulity.

If that personal incredulity kicks in when you see a dragon on the cover, that's fair enough. But don't come crying to me when the Hard SF geeks or the Contemporary Realists write you off as a spinner of spurious fabrications because their personal incredulity kicks in at your FTL spaceship.

Now if you want to argue that SF is still distinct because it makes the rationalisation explicit whereas fantasy does not, that my speculative approach to the inventions in VELLUM and INK simply renders them works of SF rather than fantasy, I might well give you that. I like the wide definition of SF that encompasses the grand conceits of THE DEMOLISHED MAN, THE STARS MY DESTINATION and ROADMARKS; I'm quite happy to see myself as working within that tradition. But this brings us to the next issue.

Problem Two:

If both SF and fantasy deal with conceits (the impossible accepted as impossible for the sake of the story) and SF is distinct from fantasy because it also requires a level of rationality in approach, a degree of theorising that renders the conceit an act of speculation rather than mere fabrication, then unless fantasy also requires a secondary aspect which is either incompatible with this or, at least, simply different, then SF is indeed a branch of fantasy. It is simply the subset of fantastic fiction (fiction using conceits) which add rationalisation to the mix.


U is the set of fiction that does X
SF is the subset of U that does A
Fantasy is the subset of U that does B


Fantasy is the set of fiction that does X
SF is the subset of fantasy that does A

Where X is "use conceits", A is "rationalise them" and B is... something else.

To my mind the perennial argument over whether or not SF is a branch of fantasy as often as not comes down to an unrecognised and unarticulated disagreement over which of these models applies to the field.

Those who would argue most strongly that SF is a branch of fantasy are generally, I suspect, working with the latter model in which there is no extra criteria, no B, required to further define fantasy. For them fantasy is simply the field of fantastic fiction, fiction which uses conceits, which means it includes everything from the most generic sub-Tolkien product to the most respected literary tome. When they speak of fantasy they are as likely to be thinking of it in the widest of senses, as a mode of fiction that includes the work of Franz Kafka, Mikhail Bulgakov and Angela Carter never mind Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake and Kelly Link. For them SF is just a subset of that field, one with an additional requirement of rationalisation.

Those who would argue most strongly that SF is not a branch of fantasy are generally, I suspect, working with the former model in which there is an additional quality, a B, by which fantasy is defined. For them fantasy often seems to be the commercial genre of capital-F Fantasy, fiction which uses specific conceits in a specific way, which means it is inherently limited by those specifics. When they speak of fantasy they are likely to be thinking of it in the narrowest of senses, as a mode of fiction which excludes the writers mentioned above or within which those writers are at best marginal. For them SF is largely incompatible with that genre because the specifics of B are irreconcilable with the rationalism required in SF's A.

Whether the writers above are considered marginal to fantasy or actually excluded from fantasy altogether (classed as mainstream, Magic Realism, slipstream or SF) may give some indication as to what precisely constitutes the B of fantasy for those who hold to the latter model. Where these writers are excluded we are left with the specifics of the commercial genre -- which is to say the elves, magic swords and dragons -- as the B that fantasy requires in order to be fantasy. Where they are simply seen as marginal this can be taken as a tacit admission that these features are not the requisite B in question, that these writers' works can still be classed as fantasy regardless of the complete absence of elves, magic swords and dragons, because those features are not what defines it.

When Gary characterises fantasy "in its purest form" by those specifics -- the elves, magic swords and dragons -- it's not entirely clear to me which view of fantasy he's working with in respect to the writers named above and the abundance of others like them. Applying a term like "pure" in this context implies to me a definitional stance in which fantasy is in fact limited by these specifics such that the more a writer does away with them the less their work becomes definable as fantasy, the less "pure" it becomes as a work of fantasy. This would imply that the B of fantasy is, for Gary, precisely those tired sub-Tolkien tropes. If so, I think that's a blinkered view of the form; but that may be reading too much into one word, so I don't want to ascribe that view on that basis. And to be honest I don't have much of a problem at all if Gary's focus on that particular form of fantasy is simply a recognition of its commercial dominance within the field, of the marginality of the literary fantasists in comparison with the Tolkien clones. I would argue that it's an overly commercial view focusing on the economics rather than the aesthetics, the market rather than the form itself, but that's a separate argument which has no bearing on the question; the dominance of those specifics is irrelevant if they are not to be seen as the B that defines fantasy.

So the question is: if we do admit of a fantasy distinct from SF which is not defined by the specifics of one (albeit commercially dominant) form, then what exactly is it that distinguishes it out? What is the B?

In many respects, for a large contingent of SF writers and readers who would seek to make exactly that distinction, I suspect the simple answer is that B equates to not-A, that it is simply the absence of rationalisation that, for them, distinguishes a work out as fantasy rather than SF.

And this is why the argument persists. If the B that defines fantasy is simply not-A, then SF and fantasy exist as concentric zones, the former nestled within the latter but excluding by definition that which exists outside its strictures, identifying it by negation. The exteriority of fantasy means that there will always be those who see it as encompassing SF, containing it. The exclusivity of SF with regards to works that fall outside its definitional zone means that there will always be those who see fantasy as an essentially distinct form.

So where do I fall on this question? I have to admit I'm somewhat torn. I'm largely more interested in using the conceits than in rationalising them, but I do hold to a view of SF in which the paradigm shift caveat applies to VELLUM and INK, to much of what I write however wildly implausible it may seem. I'm largely more interested in the experimentalism of those writers listed above, the ones that get classed as mainstream or Magic Realism, slipstream or even SF, than in the commercial work so deeply bound to elves, magic swords and dragons, but I have no problem using the tropes that for many render my work essentially fantasy. I can't help but think that the dichotomy set up between the concentric zones of SF and fantasy is facile and circular, a denial of SF's nature within a wider context of fiction based on conceits. But I also can't help but think that in the historical and economic context of the development of the genre, from the birth of Science Fiction as a marketing category through to the splintering off of Fantasy as a distinct section in the bookstores, the claim that SF is a branch of fantasy glosses over the realities of how those terms are actually in use in the wider world. As much as I'm likely to develop a complex rationalisation for my conceits I will deliberately breach reality with the entirely irrational, the entirely inexplicable, but for me this is a feature that was developed in SF during the New Wave. For me SF is allowed to do that, has been since Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, but then if a work like that is published now it's most likely published in the independent presses as fantasy.

So at the end of the day I throw my hands up. If I know what this or that person means when they use the terms SF or fantasy I can usually name a half dozen people offhand who will disagree with them, and I can't say I blame them. The terminology has become so muddled I'm not sure it's really worth a shit anymore. SF? Fantasy? Whose definition are you working with?

Sod it. I know what strange fiction is. I know how that strange fiction breaks apart into this or that sub-type, and I reckon I know how those aesthetic fractures map to all the endless arguments within the field over the empty nomenclatures of SF and fantasy. Somebody give me a sodding non-fiction contract and I'll give you a goddamn book on it, I swear. I'm serious, man. I got it half-written on this blog already, and I would love to go to town on this shit.

And then maybe we can put a bullet in the head of all the category errors and conflations of forms. And move on already.


Blogger L.A. Mitchell said...

Hi there,
I picked your blog up on a google alert for time travel. I, too, write "strange fiction" not always easily classified. I enjoyed your analysis. Happy writing...

10:44 pm  
Anonymous Al said...

Hmm – very interesting. Been pondering all this myself. What’s interesting about your argument is that it tries to make a distinction based on how the *strange* content is rationalised / not rationalised, rather than what that content is in itself. At its most basic level, that leads to a not very exciting definition – ‘if it’s elves, it’s fantasy’ and so on – but dug into there’s something interesting there.

Been wondering lately if you can read fantasy and science fiction in general as literatures of dis-alienation, rather than of alienation. That is, their function is to take the deeply alienating (the insanely huge vastness of space, for example) and by dropping human scale narratives into such incomprehensible presences (Luke loves Leia! Or whatever) give us as finite human readers a finite, comprehensible way of engaging with them.

Given that, the distinction stops being one of how a given strangeness is rationalised, but rather becomes one of what kind of alienating presence is being defused.

SF looks outwards – most immediately, to the vastness of the cosmos, more generally to the inherent unpredictability of the future in general (‘it is the business of the future to be dangerous’, as Hawkwind had it – SF defuses that danger by assuring us that we’ll still be able to engage with the (mostly reassuring) narratives that sit within it).

Fantasy, perhaps, looks either inwards – defusing the Boschian fertility of the imagination by stabilising and structuring its creations – or backwards, fusing history and myth to reassure us that the past isn’t in fact another country, but rather just one more suburb of where we are now.

12:59 pm  
Anonymous Al said...

Tho' perhaps seeing it as a defusing process is too negative; perhaps both are better seen as ways of mediating between the structured / human and different kinds of overwhelming, chaotic masses?

1:55 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I do think there's a lot of strange fiction that defuses the strange (estranging, alienating) by integrating it into a Romantic narrative, in which it becomes the Big Wilderness where the Adventure takes place. Even in less-Romantic modes (Rationalist or Modernist ones), yeah, you could maybe see the human scale narratives as ways of defusing, mediating or engaging with the strange in a similar fashion, by concretising it as the vast environment within which more finite, human-scaled struggles take place. I suspect that as soon as alienating elements (i.e. the strange) enter a work of fiction, the simple fact that it is a work of fiction makes it as much about dis-alienation as about alienation, about how it might be possible to not be overwhelmed by the vast forces that dwarf us.

I suppose a broad distinction could also be made between different types of representations of the Big Wilderness, which we could then map to the backdrops we're dealing with in the heroic/epic forms of each genre -- Space Opera and High Fantasy. So, yes, I can see the argument that there's an extent to which the nature of the content distinguishes the thematic focus on that level. You have unwritten Futurity versus overwritten History, "empty" Outer Space versus "full" Inner Space, the Great Beyond versus the Deep Within. Could we maybe see this as representing two different existential reactions, one to an absence of meaning (figurated as the vast potentiality of future/space), the other to an overload of meaning (figurated as the deep stratification of history/myth)? It's certainly possible, I think.

But even in the epic/heroic stuff, I'm not sure there isn't a large extent to which both Space Opera and High Fantasy overlap and interplay those symbolisms. I'm thinking of how Space Opera populates the emptiness of the future / space with ancient civilisations (tapping into our concern with the historic / mythic?), while High Fantasy presents the irruption into the historic / mythic environment of a Great Darkness (that might well represent the same uncertainty as the future / space in SF?). I wonder where DUNE would sit in a model that takes SF as dealing with the future / space and fantasy as dealing with the historic / mythic.

Anyway, I think it makes for an interesting approach to a critique, to look at the type of alienating presence(s) a text is engaging with or attempting to defuse. I'm just loathe to map even the broadest of content-based dichotomies directly to SF and fantasy as genres, largely because I don't think the terms have the critical integrity required for us to do so. In the wider field of strange fiction, you're as likely, I think, to find writers dealing with both absence and overload of meaning, both futurity and history, both outer and inner space (or dealing with other stuff completely, for that matter). In the past a lot of that fell under the catch-all of SF; these days a lot of it falls under the catch-all of fantasy. But at the same time both of these labels seem to me inordinately focused, for many, on the narrowly defined modes that are commerically dominant. So you run the risk of getting bogged down in semantics and distracted from the aesthetics.

10:32 pm  
Blogger Jakob Schmidt said...

To be honest, I'm not too convinced by your set-subset model of fantasy and sf ...
If I'm understanding it right, your argument at this point rests upon the notion that

a) sf and fantasy narratives have certain "elements" (dragons, ftl, huge hairy monsters)

b) These notions can either be rationalized with regards to our contemporary paradigm of the world (sf) or not (fantasy, which would make it the more general set).

But I'm not sure if the distinction between the elements and their rationalisation holds, or, put differently: why don't we regard raionalization itself as an element, alongside dragons, ftl and huge, hairy monsters?

If we would do so, however, a distinction based upon the presence or absence of this one particualr element would seem even more arbitrary. But that might turn out as a win rather than a loss, because we would be forced to look more closely at the narrative structure of fantasy and sf stories instead of the elements they feature (for example how a certain type of fantasy narrative is typically about the return of the "old" order of things, how certain types of sf are about establishing a "new" order, how certain types of horror are about realizing how fucked up things are in the first place). The question, after all, is not if something essentially IS sf or fantasy (or both at once), but why certain narratives strike us as fantasy and others as sf - and why this perception may vary from reader to reader. This may be less due to the presence of certain elements and more about the question of how a narrative is structure (and how "competent" we are individually in detecting and recognising certain structures).

What I'm getting at is actually John Clute's model of narrative grammars of the fantastic genres, which is less interested in making clear distinctions between them, and more in how narrative grammars of different types of the fantastic are structurally similar - and still very distinct in certain regards. He recently gave a very short summary of this model:

1:48 pm  
Blogger Seeker said...

Dear Hal,

I have been reading your blog regularly but this is the next time I'm commenting on it. Reading your blog has been a ritual for me and I want to thank you for all the happiness you've given to me.

At this time, I want to take the opportunity to give you my heartfelt wishes for Christmas and wish you a great New Year ahead.

May all your dreams come true :-)

My Positivity Blog

2:34 am  

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