Notes from New Sodom

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

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Brief History of Genre

In a comment on the last post, Jonathan McCalmont of SF Diplomat asks... why do you think that horror, SF and fantasy are kept separate from romance and crime? they all deal in fictional worlds... Is there really anything more than similar marketing demographic that unites SF and fantasy but not SF and romance?

So.

To me it's not just about present-day marketing demographics, but also about the historical development of those, and about the aesthetics. There's historical and aesthetic factors that bind all the pulp genres as pulp, but there's also factors that distinguish the Unholy Trinity of SF, Fantasy and Horror from the other genres, factors that might make it less like Romance and factors that might make it more comparable to Crime.

All of these genres have their roots in proto-Modernity, I think. What the fuck is proto-Modernity? Well, briefly, as Clute says in his Fantastika and the World Storm essay, the Enlightenment radically reshapes our notions of fiction and literature. Beforehand, with the Renaissance you have the aesthetics of (Neo-)Classicism and Romance, but those aren't in dialectic opposition until the Enlightenment comes along. When it does you get this new scientific outlook called Rationalism, idealising Reason, and the complementary world-view of Romanticism, idealising Passion, the two defined partly in relation to the past (Classical Greece and Dark Ages Europe) but largely in relation to each other. In the interactions between them you get, I think, an initial synthesis of thesis and antithesis. I call that "proto-Modern" rather than "pre-Modern" because the latter term is usually associated with an equation of the Modern worldview with (scientific) Rationalism, an assumption that the worldview before Modernity was more (superstitiously) Romanticist. Contrary to this, I think we can identify a stream where Rationalism and Romaticism are in conflict with each other through the medium of individual texts -- i.e. where the author isn't purely allied one way or the other but playing out the conflict in their writing, trying to synthesise the two aesthetics.

So, we have the period in which the novel is being born as a Rationalist endeavour and thereby distiguished from the earlier Romance, but where the Romantic aesthetic is being constantly brought back into play in the novel, in attempts to fuse them, to create a Rationalist Romance. In that long period up to 1900 or so we get the roots of every modern genre. We get Samuel Richardson, Ann Radcliffe, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin (roots of Romance). We get George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbitt, Kenneth Grahame (roots of Fantasy). We get Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, H. Rider Haggard (roots of Adventure). We get Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, M.R. James (roots of Horror). We get Ernest William Hornung, Arthur Conan Doyle (roots of Crime). We get Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells (roots of Science Fiction).

None of these writers are "genre" in the modern sense because genre in the modern sense doesn't yet exist. There's a distinction between populist Gothic (Romantic) fiction and more high-brow mimetic (Rationalist) fiction gradually merging into the distinction between "pulp" and "literary" modes, and some of these writers are stuck on either side of that boundary, but most of them are in a zone between the two; they're not really Gothic but they're certainly not Victorian Realists. Because of the dynamic nature of that zone, many of those writers are formative of multiple genres because they work in multiple modes, but many of them are also seen as "literary" classics because the class divide and notions of "commercialism" haven't yet fucked over the debate.

The literary "variety" journals in the UK, most notably the Strand, capture the last days of this proto-Modernity perfectly, publishing many of the writers named above alongside poets and short story writers of any and every mode. Ghost stories, detective stories, all sorts of strange fiction sits side-by-side with the non-strange. All of this stuff is begging to be critiqued in terms of subjunctivity level and boulomaic modalities, I think, in the sort of way I approach NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It doesn't fit into this genre or that and we shouldn't try and force it to just to validate our genres with historical ancestries, but it is deeply concerned with the effects that derive from stepping outside the "could have happened" subjunctivity level of purely naturalistic, purely mimetic, social realism. Even in Dickens the importance of melodrama and the aesthetic of the grotesque should not be underestimated.

Then the steam train of Modernity hits and leads to mass-production and mass-marketing, greater literacy and a corresponding shift in class demographics. We start to see the penny dreadfuls and dime novels, the magazines and imprints dedicated to specific "genres". From the early 1900s through to the 30s or 40s, there's a boom that utterly reshapes the territory. It's a totally evolutionary process -- expansion, diffusion, isolation, specialisation -- that leads to most of the pulp genres we have today and a few that are now all but defunct. A process of symbolic formulation sets in within all of those genres. Marketing to readers on the basis that there's a discrete audience for "more of the same" means codifying "the same", defining what each genre is, or should be, in terms of conventional tropes of character, background and plot structure.

The fallout of this, in many respects, has a terrible impact on fiction. Because all of these genres are based on the reactions invoked in the reader when confronted with certain combinations of subjunctivity levels and boulomiac modalities, anything which uses those same combinations, and thereby invokes the same reactions, is suddenly percieved as being a work of this or that "genre". In fact, even fiction which uses variant combinations, in using the same underlying techniques, invokes the same reactions and thereby comes to be percieved as "genre"... and therefore allied with "pulp" rather than "literature". For a middle-class and middle-brow readership to whom intellectual status is important (and for whom mimetic representation is mistakenly equated with relevance) those associations bring on a crisis of faith -- should they really be reading such "sensationalist" pulp? That negative reaction plays out in writing and publishing as writers and editors, as readers, fall victim to the same crisis of faith or simply to the market forces born of it. Soon there's no fucking way you could publish a journal like the Strand and there's no fucking way you could run a publishing imprint which had a similar diversity; before you know it that dialectic is reified in an uncrossable divide between high-brow general literature (which has to be mimetic) and everything else, which has to be fitted into one genre or another.

But with this new dialectic introduced by Modernity, that of "pulp fiction" and "literature", while we're seeing these new commercial genres developing under constant pressure towards symbolic formulation, we can also see a new breed of aesthetic upstarts and refuseniks committed to finding the synthesis of those opposing theses. These writers (and editors) know fine well how valuable the techniques of strange fiction are, that mimesis is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. Unfortunately, from the start their choices are limited by that divide: they can either go for broke and create something so radical that its "high-brow" status can't be denied, or they can work within the dictates of commercial genre publishing, try and remake the genre and prove its literary validity. Where they choose the former you get the "elitist" strangeness of Modernism which the middle-brow middle-classes ultimately reject, and a feedback loop of cerebralism that drives the survivors up into the ivory towers of Post-Modernism. Where they choose the latter is where the story really gets interesting.

We can see some historical distinctions here, in terms of how this played out, between the deeply strange genres -- SF, Fantasy and Horror -- and genres like Crime and Romance where it's more the "laws of normality" that are disrupted than the "laws of reality". Romance is widely renowned (or disrenowned?) as the most formulaic of the genres, the most deeply-bound to conventional tropes of character, background and plot-structure. This is, I'd say, because the melodramatic use of boulomaic modalities is the one strange methodology allowed in general literature because it was formative of it. Most of Victorian "Realism" hinges on the most melodramatic twists and turns of fate. Thomas Hardy, anyone? So the contemporary realism born of that has always had to accommodate the strangeness of the boulomaic modalities and subjunctivity levels underlying Romance (the "should have happened" desires, the "could not have happened" coincidences that make or break relationships) or it might have little to hold the reader's interest at all. So if you're a Romance writer who wants to be "high-brow" you can pretty much jump ship to the "mainstream" without a problem. Leaving Romance to be the deeply formulated genre that it is. (Or, at least, that it appears to be; I'd be happy for my assumptions to be corrected by someone with more knowledge of the genre than myself.)

With SF, Fantasy and Horror, the opposite is true. The full-on breaches of the "laws of reality" here are the most noticeable markers you can get in strange fiction and therefore the most quickly and deeply rejected. The result? Way more would-be writers and editors who wanted to use those techniques and had little choice other than to ally themselves with the genre ghetto. With writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft directly carrying on the proto-Modern idiom of their predecessors, the dynamic fuckedupness of this three-in-one genre of "weirdness" that was not yet divided working against the pressure towards symbolic formulation, and the influx of a new generation of writers and editors utterly serious about the potentials of the form, the struggle to hammer this pulp genre into a legitimate mode of literature was over before it began. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John W. Campbell, Philip K. Dick, and so on through an A to Z of writers and editors -- the field, even when it's been marked by bad prose, cardboard characters and other such flaws, has never been wholly formulaic.

Of course, the struggle to force a recognition of that legitimacy has been going on ever since, and the pressures towards symbolic formulation have unrelentingly undermined that struggle by reinforcing the wide-spread association of the key combinations of subjunctivity levels and boulomaic modalities we find in SF, Fantasy and Horror with the most derivative and formulaic pulp. This is one hugely important shared feature of the three weirdest genres of strange fiction -- the external struggle for recognition and the internal struggle against formulation. In some ways the division of forces has helped (allowing us to attack the "mainstream" on three fronts -- think Army, Navy and Airforce) but in other ways it has weakened us, too often set us against each other, squabbling and bickering like cretinous children.

The infamous Benford article is, I think, symptomatic of the worst kind of internal feuding. By entirely missing the fact that symbolic formulation is how every fucking genre works he points us away from the real internal problem of symbolic formulation, the real "infiltration" of hack writers and fans with uncritical loyalty (the Fifth Column that is spread throughout Army, Navy and Airforce, to extend the military metaphor). Worse still, in pointing us toward Fantasy as the culprit here he squanders his own energy and forces others to squander theirs in a pointless brawl over his insult to honour (like a group of infantry grunts and sailors kicking the shit out of each other because one drunken moron from the Army shouted that all sailors were fucking cowards, scared to go where the action really is).

The esprit-de-corps is all very well in the battlefield. But make no mistake, Benford's rhetoric is counter-productive, because it turns that esprit-de-corps into boorish pride and ignorant animosity. As such, to any Fantasy writer or reader who knows that their genre is engaged in the same struggle with the same level of commitment, it reads as a profoundly insulting, throughly ignorant and deeply arrogant attempt to hierarchise the genres, to assert a greater legitimacy for one section of the field by scapegoating another as the source of all failures. It's fighting talk. I've said it before and I'll say it again...

Fuck that shit.

Thing is, we have a shared battleground of (dis)respect that binds these genres inextricably. And at a deeper level we have a shared technology of literary techniques (everything I've been outlining in my model of strange fiction) that binds us even more. In fact, I think, there's this huge force that exists across the genres, a sort of "Sixth Column", a Special Forces of Speculative Fiction, drawn from Army, Navy and Airforce, trained in using every aspect of that shared technology, and out there fighting on all fronts beside the soldiers, sailors and pilots of SF, Fantasy and Horror. I'll confess to a bit of esprit-de-corps here in terms of my own loyalty to that section of the field. As much as I recognise the skill you get with specialisation, I'm invested too heavily in the "Special Forces" ideal to be truly objective when those arguments kick off; I may well tend to go into a... well... "take on all comers" stance, bullishly and foolishly ready to try and prove that my crowd can kick anyone's arses cause, yeah, all the Fifth Columnists are weaned out from our ranks by the rigours of training.

But I know my own bullshit and I'll cop to it freely. Ultimately I'm way more concerned with slapping down the bitch-fights because I do believe, with a fucking passion, that each of the three genres have more in common than they have against each other. Much of that faith is founded on having come up through SF as a fan, being transferred to Fantasy as a writer, and realising as a critic (of sorts) that many of the techniques I was using were Horror. So because so many of the old "genre distinctions" between the three often seem little more than ciphers for hierarchical/territorial assertions of legitimacy, my core impulse is to focus on ripping those apart. I'm happy to reformulate afterwards, try and take account of how all this strange fiction can and does take radically different paths, but that hasn't quite led me back to the old trinity of SF, Fantasy and Horror as essentially distinct forms. Instead I see various forms distributed between the marketing categories -- Symbolic Formulation, Scientific Fancy, Soul Fiction, Scientistic Fiction (the one form solely limited to SF, I'd say), Spectacularist Fiction (as central to SF in the form of Space Opera as it is to Fantasy in the form of Heroic/High/Epic Fantasy), Structural Fabulation, and so on.

Crime has, I think, a similarly complicated history to our genre, with writers like Chandler reforging it early on into an innovative rather than derivative mode, but with a constant struggle against external prejudice and internal formulation. Hell, one of the innovations of Crime fiction, the idiom of Noir, was stolen lock, stock and barrel by SF and played a major role in the revamping of SF that took place with cyberpunk in the 80s, so I think we owe that genre one big tip of the hat. Ultimately though, I'd have to say I'm just not well enough read in the genre to feel confident making generalisations about the genre from a comercial/historical perspective. The combinations of subjunctivites and boulomaic modalities used by it, though -- those are widely enough disseminated into the mainstream that their importance is, I think, self-evident in something like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN which, as you might gather, I rate pretty fucking highly.

The same caveat holds true for Western, which is another interesting case. It seem to have pretty much died out in the written form, and I can't think of the last time I read a pure-bred genre Western story. But it saw a radical overhaul in the cinematic form in the 1970s and every so often you get these major works like THE UNFORGIVEN. (Although I prefer the awesome Gnostic parable that is THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, or the original bleak-and-gritty revisionist Westerns of Sergio Leone (or THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES) which did the same thing, I think, the later Eastwood flick did but just didn't get the same recognition.) I sort of wonder if the Western had to die as a distinct genre before those contemporary examples of it, coming out of the mainstream of the industry, could be accorded the kudos of Greatness.

So the way I sort of look at it is that genres develop during the "proto-Modern" period, come into existence with the Modern period and develop during that period through an internal struggle against symbolic formulation. Where they win you get truly Modern(ist) writers (like Bester in SF and a few hundred other writers) who manage to reforge that genre into something that has deep relevance to the present day. Or you get anti-Modernist writers (like Tolkien in Fantasy) reacting against that aesthetic but at a comparable level of commitment. (As much as I hate Tolkien he's not the symbolic formulation that his imitators are.) I suspect the cross-fertilisation and reunification of genres, the mainstreaming of pulp in the work of Palahnuik, Tarantino and so on, the whole New Wave fusion of SF, Fantasy and Horror -- all of that stuff -- is part of the whole "post-Modern" period.


Anyhoo, that's my thruppence worth.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jonathan said...

"Boulomaic modalities" eh? That's some good, tasty jargon.

I take your point about the shared history of the three speculative genres with a few caveats.

Firstly, sure fantasy was present in the pulps but Tolkien was no pulp writer and I think Tolkien's methods have been far more influential than the likes of Liber and Howard. Even second-generation Pulp writer Michael Moorcock wound up world-building and trying to tie all of his stories into one big superstructure.

You can argue that the existence of pulpish fantasy tainted the genre but Tolkien's technology isn't the same as Lieber and Howard's.


Secondly, One of the interesting things about the Benford piece is that it states that the time frame for fantasy cosying up to SF is quite short. He talks about SF's infrastructure being invaded by fantasy writers and fans, implying that there was a time when the two genres WERE separate. In fact, if you look at British Fandom's infrastructure you see evidence of this... you have the BSFA and you have the BFA and the BSFA, I get the impression, clearly favours SF over fantasy. So unless the BSFA was an attempt by SF purists to split the genre off, I think that your historical model has problems.


Thirdly, In your earlier pieces you linked together SF and fantasy in terms of a relationship with the strange. I don't think Benfrod would deny that, but I think he'd argue that SF's relationship with the strange is philosophically opposite to that of fantasy. SF is about confrotnting the strange in order to understand it and push the boundaries back but fantasy is either about enjoying the experience of strangeness (as in M John Harrison's Virconium books) or bludgeoning it into submission in favour of a frequently politically dubious status quo (in the case of epic fantasy).

You're right that Benford's post is part of a turf war but I'm not sure why it should be unhelpful. It's only counterproductive if the aim of writing is all about unity. Benford seems to be denying that, stating that the philosophical differences between Sf and Fantasy mean that the two genres shouldn't be united at all as they're philosophically completely incompatible.

Benford is saying that ideological content matters more than historical ties and methodological similarities when it comes to links between literary movements.

4:38 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

One of the interesting things about the Benford piece is that it states that the time frame for fantasy cosying up to SF is quite short. He talks about SF's infrastructure being invaded by fantasy writers and fans, implying that there was a time when the two genres WERE separate. In fact, if you look at British Fandom's infrastructure you see evidence of this... you have the BSFA and you have the BFA, and the BSFA, I get the impression, clearly favours SF over fantasy. So unless the BSFA was an attempt by SF purists to split the genre off, I think that your historical model has problems.

Benford's short time frame is what creates the illusion by ignoring the formative period of SF entirely. It takes little account of the history of the genre before the 1970s.

Your own example actually backs up my argument, I'd say. As I understand, the BFS was set up in 1971 as an offshoot from the BSFA (set up in 1958) -- i.e. the infrastructure of fantasy writers and fans was created by an act of separation out from SF. This maps almost perfectly to the separation out of Fantasy from SF as a distinct marketing category in the wake of Tolkien's popularity in the 60s. Compare the run-up to and the establishment of Ballantine Adult Fantasy Books (also 1971) in the Wikipedia article on the imprint.

I'm not an expert on the history by any means, but my understanding is that this is basically where SF and Fantasy diverge -- in terms of publishing, in terms of writing, and in terms of fandom(s). Before then? You have Astounding/Analog as a bastion of Campbellian SF but the vast majority of strange genre magazines (Weird Tales, F&SF, Galaxy, etc.) are mixed-up to fuck, with the Liebers and Lovecrafts of fantasy and horror published right beside the science fiction. And if the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series is, as I understand it to be, the first true "Fantasy" imprint, that pretty much implies that the dedicated "Science Fiction" imprints up till then were reflecting the same diversity. So it seems to me that the three genres were intimate bedfellows from the start, right up through the Golden Age, until Fantasy starts to get separated out in the 1970s.

[S]ure fantasy was present in the pulps but Tolkien was no pulp writer and I think Tolkien's methods have been far more influential than the likes of Lieber and Howard... You can argue that the existence of pulpish fantasy tainted the genre but Tolkien's technology isn't the same as Lieber and Howard's.

I'm not sure I was arguing any of that. What I'm arguing is that in the early pulp period you're looking at a genre which is turning the proto-Modern adventure story into the Modern mass-market pulp narrative. One Nick Carter dime novel in 1886 begets Nick Carter Weekly which becomes Detective Story Magazine in 1915; that same magazine publishes Arthur Conan Doyle but it does so alongside the Shadow. The publisher, Street & Smith Publications -- who bought Astounding in 1933, funny enough -- also gave us Comics like Doc Savage and Air Ace, Western magazines like Buffalo Bill Stories and True Western Stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs gives us Tarzan of the Apes in 1912 and John Carter in 1917, both via All-Story Magazine, which was to merge eventually with Argosy. Amazing Stories gives us Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon only being created derivatively as a rival. I don't think pulpish anything tainted the genre. The genre was pulp. It was created from pulp, as pulp.

So were Lieber and Howard less influential than Tolkien? Sure... in the long term. But at the early stage the pressures towards symbolic formulation gave us Swords & Sorcery cloned from Lieber and Howard just as it gave us Space Opera cloned from E.E. Doc Smith. Although the marketing category didn't really come into existence as a discrete genre until after Tolkien, we had "fantasy" for a long time before -- being published in Astounding, F&SF, Amazing, Argosy, Weird Tales, Unknown and so on. It was often deeply generic because of its pulp nature, but in there, alongside the symbolic formulation of Space Opera SF and Swords & Sorcery Fantasy (and whatever the equivalent would be for Horror), you also had, from the start, writers and editors who wanted to do much, much more than that with "fantasy". If I was to pick one out in terms of influence to compare with Tolkien, frankly it's piss-easy: Ray Bradbury.

A better writer than most of his contemporaries, sliding effortlessly between the subjunctivities and modalities of SF, Fantasy and Horror, Bradbury's influence on all three genres is, I think, hugely underestimated; I'm not sure where I'd even start if I was attempting to detail it. Christ, you only have to read a Jeff Ford collection to see it still resonating today. And Bradbury is actually, I think, in one writer, a perfect example of the fusion of the three strangest genres. If I was picking a set text to demonstrate the construction of genre from subjunctivity levels and boulomaic modalities it would probably be "The Veldt", a story that moves from SF to Fantasy to Horror in a few short pages. I think you can see a similar technique at play in a lot of New Wave writer's fiction -- Disch's "Descending", Ellison's "Repent Harlequin..." -- or in 80s Interzone, or in that "slipstream" blending of the domestic and the fantastic that characterises the UK and US indie press. It's a distinctive enough technique that TV could pick it up and formulate it into The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and eventually The X-Files.

Bradbury is the benchmark when I'm talking about Fantasy, and frankly I think he should be the benchmark for any SF critic. Tolkien? His influence doesn't kick in until well past the point when the three genres have reforged themselves as a sort of Pulp Modernism, proud of their heritage in the genre ghetto (maybe too proud at times), totally at home with the "sensationalist" nature of genres founded on the incredibility of the "could not happen" subjunctivity and all the boulomaic modalities that attach to it, but utterly committed to their literary ambitions. Until that time Fantasy has its Swords & Sorcery just as SF has its Space Opera, but it has its Bradbury just as SF has its Bester.

Of course, I'll bet you five pints of yer usual that I can find a fan who'll insist till he's blue in the face that Bradbury is SF not Fantasy (regardless of Bradbury's own statement that Fahrenheit 451 is his only SF work, that what he writes is fantasy.) Why? Because in the context of his publication -- in the magazines and imprints of the day -- it was all just one big mess labelled "SF" by default. Same goes for Silverberg's THE BOOK OF SKULLS or Zelazny's ROADMARKS. Either they're "SF" and "SF" is just a catch-all for the three genres or they're "Not SF but Fantasy" and the two genres are defined distinctly but clearly interwined throughout their history. Either way suits me.

But then, yeah... BOOM! Tolkien hits the culture as a whole, his massive popularity extending way beyond the subculture of SF (not unlike Rowling today) but reverberating deeply -- as is only natural -- within that triune genre. The realisation that there's a marketing demographic to be exploited leads to whole new imprints, to a whole new category, and to symbolic formulation within that category. The informal term "fantasy" (referring to works like those of Bradbury, Silverberg or Zelazny) gets formalised into a label for the new commercial genre of "Fantasy" -- and that new genre gets populated with the Heroic Romance, the Epic Adventure, the High Fantasy of Tolkien's seemingly endless imitators.

Now, that huge impact of Tolkien-derived formula pap on this new "Fantasy" helps drive a wedge between SF and Fantasy of all types. It coincides with McCaffrey's Pern and Herbert's Dune series which, with their symbolic and structural tropes (dragons in one, Epic in the other) smack of that Heroic Romance pap to some and thereby end up with the label "Science Fantasy". For many, the term "Fantasy", in fact, eventually ceases to refer to anything like, say, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, and now refers to symbolic formulation. Hence when STAR WARS comes out, and we all love it but recognise it as the derivative hokum that it is, its Heroic Romance plot structure means it can be shunted out of SF and into "Fantasy". Forget the fact that SF has been doing exactly this shit for the last fifty years, since Buck Rogers onwards. Suddenly it's "Fantasy" with a "veneer" of SF.

No, it's a pulp narrative. It's Heroic Romance. Yes, light-sabres are magical, but so is jaunting. STAR WARS is SF. All Sci-Fi is SF. Deal with it.

Sure, it doesn't help that the genre of Fantasy, through the 70s, 80s and 90s, is so swallowed up in Tolkienism that the Bradbury-style writers want nothing to do with it, calling themselves speculative fiction writers or just SF writers. It doesn't help that there's damn few works of fantasy like Silverberg's THE BOOK OF SKULLS or Zelazny's ROADMARKS being put out there, during this period, amongst the umpteen volumes of THE CHRONICLES OF THE OBJECTS OF POWER. Fantasy does become dominated by the hoary spectre of the rotting corpse of Tolkien. But this is nothing to do with what Fantasy "is" in some essentialist sense. This is simply market forces at their most fucking heinous.

Over the last few decades those market forces have changed though. The indie press has grown as a field where the Bradbury-style fantasists can do whatever the fuck they want. In the UK, TTA took over from Interzone as purveyor of that strange, slipstreamy stuff that might be one genre or another, while Elastic Press and others factored that up to the book level. In the US, there's too many presses and anthology series to mention now. Within SF, meanwhile, a new generation has grown up through the boom and bust of cyberpunk, with the New Space Opera rising, with the Singularity to play with now... and constant paranoia about "the death of SF". That's what happens when you lose your would-be Bradburys to the indie press because they don't really care about tech, the Heroic Adventures of Space Opera and Epic Fantasy look equally tired to them, and the whole "Fantasy cooties" paranoia is just plain tiresome.

And it's that "Fantasy cooties" paranoia that makes me shake my head over the Benford piece. So it used be that "Fantasy" was a cipher for "Tolkienist pap" which was a cipher for "juvenile, escapist, Heroic Adventures". Now "Fantasy" is a cipher for "Harry Potter" which is a cipher for "juvenile, escapist, Heroic Adventures". And SF has never been about that! But that's what "Fantasy" is in some essential way, this intrinsically consolatory, juvenile, escapist, Heroic zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Sorry. Anyway, so...
SF is about confronting the strange in order to understand it and push the boundaries back but fantasy is either about enjoying the experience of strangeness (as in M John Harrison's Virconium books) or bludgeoning it into submission in favour of a frequently politically dubious status quo (in the case of epic fantasy).

Nope. Don't buy it. For one, it rather complacently privileges SF as the more serious and committed form, boldly pushing forward to challenge the unknown and find answers (as opposed to, say, consciously or unconsciously manifesting knee-jerk right-wing American paranoia over enemies within and/or without?), while presenting Fantasy as at best a superficial sensationalism (and I'm baffled as to how Viriconium could be viewed in this light when Harrison's fiction is so clearly designed to disrupt and defy any attempt at passive appreciation, to refuse the comfort of givens, to continually force the reader to face the unknown in the text and deal with it), and at worst a reactionary enforcer of the social order (as opposed to, say, a cutting critique of the early 20th century class system and the impact upon it of populist but essentially totalitarian ideologies?).

This is, to me, just another of those arguments that says, "SF is Rationalist, and Fantasy is... um... Tolkien!... um... and some other stuff which isn't shite! (but isn't as good as SF (wait, I didn't say that out loud, did I?))"

I mean, yes, these are identifiable veins within the types of fictions published as SF and Fantasy, but I honestly think the two marketing categories are so diverse that to make these sort of assertions as to what they're "about", even as the broadest of broad generalisations, is unsustainable. Countless works published as SF strike me as deeply reactionary in their response to the strange, Heroic Adventures in which the aliens serve exactly the same purpose as Tolkien's orcs. Countless works published as Fantasy fit the mould you identify for SF more than either of the ones you attribute to Fantasy, to my mind; I'd recommend Jeff Ford's THE PORTRAIT OF MRS CHARBUQUE, for example, as a starting-point, if you haven't already read it.

Ultimately, part of what I find problematic with these sort of generalisations is the same thing I find problematic with Benford's piece -- the bold assertion of one's own philosophy / ideology as being a core feature of SF and the projection of a spurious philosophy / ideology onto the genre of Fantasy as a whole... especially when that philosophy / ideology is basically WRONG BAD EVIL ANTI-RATIONALISM (or just frequently dubious anti-rationalism).

9:26 am  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Are angels the new elves? :)

Agree with you re 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' - that opening scene is just amazing.

6:06 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home