Notes from New Sodom

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

Friday, December 23, 2005

King Kong...

... would be a great movie if they took out the hour and a half of chick flick.

OK, maybe that's not entirely fair. I mean, the action scenes are padded to fuck as well, so it's not entirely that Jackson's taken a tight wee B-movie about a giant ape and crowbarred in, you know, all that girly emotional stuff. Like the scene on the ice in Central Park. I mean, it almost works; it does walk a fine line between heart-warmingly touching and insufferably cloying, but, well, that scene's just about the right length at least. So maybe it's just that the movie as a whole had a tone of timewasting and the vast it seemed based on Naomi Watts and Kong going all cow-eyed over each other. I'm not an insensitive man; honest, I'm not. But there's only a certain depth of development you can get out of a relationship where communication pretty much consists of thumping yer chest and grunting.

But, no. The truth is, I think, it's not so much a superfluous hour and a half of chick flick, as much as it's a superfluous hour and a half of everything. Every single scene in the movie, to my mind, could probably stand to be told in half the time. As an example, there's this scene near the beginning, where Jackson establishes the Jack Black character with a screening held for financiers. They discuss things, hem and haw, and eventually they ask Black to step outside. He eavesdrops and realises they're going to cut his funding, so he legs it. Sound fair enough? Yeah, well the discussion is entirely unneccessary. Here's a suggestion: cut it. The screening stops; they ask Black to step outside; he eavesdrops, legs it -- you could get the whole thing done in half the time, impart the same information and get on with the fucking story. The action sequences suffer from the same fat. Much of it's visually and viscerally great but after an hour of characters running this way and that way from beasties and savages and Kong and dinosaurs and creepy-crawlies, you know, there's just so little actually happening -- in plot terms -- that the effect wears off. Giant leech things? Cool. But can we get on with the fucking story?

It's the same all the way through. Jackson does not really need to take a sodding hour just to get his characters to Skull Island, but his slow boat to China steams slooooooooowly on as he takes forever building up the starlet/writer relationship (yeah, yeah, like it's a big surprise, Peter... get on with the fucking story), the thematic parallels (yeah, yeah, Heart of Darkness, very literate, Peter... get on with the fucking story), and a subplot of sorts involving "Jimmy" (the kid from Billy Elliot) and one of those bad-ass but wise-and-balanced black characters (you know: the "Leave me here. Go on without me." character who's clearly going to impart words of wisdom and then DIE HORRIBLY.) As I say: get on with the fucking story.

I say "subplot", but this is one of the things that annoyed me: if you're expecting any sort of revelatory resolution to that whole, "hey, that Jimmy kid's a *wild* one, but he's a *kid*, right, so I guess that's sorta symbolic of *innocence*, and he's reading *Conrad*, which is all about *savagery*, so that's, like, a theme we're dealing with, you know, and we keep making a big deal of this minor character, so clearly this is *important*"... you know, that whole narrative thread thing... if you're expecting anything other than for the character to be abandoned utterly, a pretty bauble of referentiality which reflects meaning rather than embodying it, discarded as soon as they leave the island... you'll be sorely disappointed.

Fuck, I don't mind Jackson using these cabin boy and first mate cliches, but if he's going to make a big deal of them he could do better than just nicking a couple of characters from Apocalypse Now (you know, Lance the innocent, and the black captain of the ship who, of course, DIES HORRIBLY). He could have done more than just throw them a few lines of portentious dialogue for some ersatz pseudo-Conradian weight in the first two-thirds of the movie. He could have made something of it. He's waving a big red flag called Conrad, shouting loud and clear about an "emotional journey", but the nearest we get to that is Jimmy's realisation that "this isn't an adventure story, is it?". Is Jimmy faced with "the horror, the horror" of humanity-as-beast? Does he stare into the abyss, into his own heart of darkness? Does the death of his Magical Negro friend lead to a moment of dark epiphany? Is he broken, scarred, in any way changed by the experience? Or is the character just dropped and kicked under the rug as Jackson moves off the island and back to New York?


But believe it or not, I didn't hate this movie. It's just that it's so fattened up with scene after scene after scene which could have been half the length and twice as good that, by the time we get to Kong's showdown with the biplanes atop the Empire State, as they buzz him and shoot him, and he swats them, and they buzz him and shoot him, and he swats them again, and he gets one, but they buzz him and shoot him a bit more, and so on, by the time we have Kong slipping sloooooowly away with one last look of love at Naomi Watts -- Christ, by that time, part of me was screaming out "just fucking die already!" There's a great movie in there. There really is. It's just not fucking three hours long. I mean, I'm not yer average ADD-addled adrenalin junky. I'll happily watch a three hour movie if it fucking works as a three hour movie. I'm not complaining that Kong wasn't some thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride of a schlockbuster. I just think its an hour and a half movie (two hours tops) padded out to a ridiculous length.

The big lummox needs to be cut down to size.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Ghetto Within The Ghetto

Lou Anders steps in to the Benford Debate with a very thoughtful post which says some of the things that Benford was -- I agree with Lou here -- trying to say about the precarious position of rationalism in a somewhat anti-rationalist climate... but leaving out the Fantasy straw man and getting to the much more cogent point about how that Enlightenment ethos is presently faring...

"In fairness to Benford, we are not exactly living under a science-sympathetic administration at present." says Lou.

He has a lot of good points, and I'll pick up on one in particular, which Gary Gibson also quotes in his take on the matter:

"As someone who grew up in a much deeper south than even the region is today, it was exposure to science fiction that had a direct and measurable influence on deprogramming me from the prejudices and ignorance prevalent in a lot of my immediate childhood environment. I grew up around Christians who believed in a seven day creation, preached the reality of Hell and Judgement, and railed against the lie that was evolution. They were also, for the most part, racists and homophobes. They told jokes using the N-word, would never date a minority or someone who had, and generally represented a host of values I find base and inexcusable. And the only difference between them and me was that I had a father who shoved a science fiction paperback into my pre-teen hands and ordered me to read it. After all, it's pretty hard to be prejudice against blacks and gays when you're a-okay with Klingons and the Green Men of Mars."

After quoting this, Gary goes on to say how he thinks some of the furore is missing the point:

"When I say 'missing the point' what I mean is that (so it seems to me) Benford's real concern is that scientific rationalism - or simply rationalism, full stop - is under constant attack from base superstition and base prejudice... When Benford disses the rise of fantasy, it seems to me his real concern is the loss of science fiction's core message: that it can introduce the reader - particularly the young reader - to one of the core values of rationality: questioning the accepted order of things."

I think there's a lot of truth to what Lou and Gary are saying. SF as deprogramming? Hell, as a gay kid growing up in Central Scotland, I can identify pretty strongly with the picture Lou paints of his childhod environment. The New Town housing scheme in Hellwinning where I grew up was built in the 70s to take the Glasgow inner city overspill and punt it out to greener, more suburban pastures. Result? Take the razor-gang culture of Glasgow and cross-breed it with the small town mentality of an Ayrshire village. Subsitute "catholics" for "blacks" and you get the picture. The Scots, much as I think wey're an innately socialist culture, also gave the world the Orange Lodge and the Masonic Order and, eventually, the Ku Klux Klan. I remember the National Front, Skrewdriver, all of that same "prejudice and ignorance" that Lou puts his finger on. And I remember how reading Robert Heinlein (of all writers!) opened my eyes to issues of sexuality and gender, with works that, for all their self-indulgent libertarian tosh, presented ideas of group marriages and alternative lifestyles that helped me come to terms with my sexuality. Samuel R Delany kicked the door wide open, but it was Heinlein who unlocked it, so to speak, when I was that 14 year old kid finding solace in the local library, devouring Asimov and Bradbury and -- holy fuck -- the crazy, whacked-out drug dreams of PKD. Questioning the accepted order of things? Damn straight.

And here we are now, twenty years later, with a rat in the Vatican and a chimp in the White House, with fundamentalism on the rise, and bread and circuses on the telly. Intelligent Design in the classrooms (well... some classrooms). Nazis marching in Australia. Is this actually the End of the Enlightenment? Do I get to live out the next fifty years of my life watching the gradual erosion of our belief in rational thought until one day the New Falangists come to shoot me and dump my body in the woods somewhere? Well, that might be a bit alarmist but I wonder just how much the name "Lorca" actually means to the man on the Clapham omnibus. Say "fascist" to someone and they'll nod -- yeah, like Hitler, Mussolini. Franco, anyone? Spain, anyone? A half a century of fascism right on our fucking doorstep, shrugged off with a few package holidays in Benidorm. Forgive me if I don't trust us not to backslide into the civilised barbarisms of the 20th Century.

So where does SF fit into this equation then? Does it have a core message of rationalism which serves to counter the anti-Rationalist drive of those who'd turn back the clock to the fucking Dark Ages? Yes and no, I think. Lou and Gary -- rightly, I think -- point to SF as a battleground between science and superstition, but to focus in too narrowly on rationalism as a central tenet of SF, I think, runs the risk of confusing the battleground with the troops. There's a lot of different types of SF, with a lot of different aesthetics at play in them. We can imagine SF as the vanguard of rationalism but I think a simple look at the shelves reveals a more complex picture, one with, yes, front-line shock troops, but one which also includes Fifth Columnists and armchair generals. This is my main bone of contention with the whole debate of SF=rationalist versus Fantasy=romantic; it's where I take issue with Benford, and anybody else arguing on the basis of such an artifical dichotomy.

Let's look at it from the other angle for a second. What seems to go hand-in-hand with this definition of SF as profoundly rationalist is the application of an oppositional definition as regards Fantasy. Gary doesn't do this and neither does Lou, but Benford's blog entry, I'd say, is working with exactly such a definition of Fantasy. And the key incendiary point which sparked off the webwrath around this entry is, I'd suggest, that the narrowing of definition with regards to Fantasy is carried out on a different basis to that by which the definition of SF is focused in on a purely rationalist core. Where SF is characterised by a kernel of craft which sits amongst a morass of commercial hackwork, Fantasy is characterised by the morass of commercial hackwork which sits around a kernel of craft. Benford, it seems to me, is making a category error we see constantly at the root of this Great Debate, equating SF with the literary handcrafted mode of Hard SF and Fantasy with the commercial production-line bulk of MacFantasy. Since SF has its own commercial production-line bulk and Fantasy has its own literary handcrafted modes, by not comparing like with like, the result is specious and insulting. At its most generalising and superficial this misconception ends up with the hawk-eyed, square-jawed intellectual brilliance of SF in the blue corner and slack-jawed, blinkered superstitious nonsense of Fantasy in the red corner. SF versus Fantasy. Science versus superstition. Rationalism versus Romanticism.

As I say, Lou doesn't make this slur:

"For my money, it's all about narrative complexity and whether the speculative material you read (whether SF or F) serves to turn your brain on or turn it off."

Gary likewise imposes no preconceptions on fantasy:

"It's hard for me to define what the core values of fantasy (however you might choose to define it) might be, but ultimately fantasy, like sf and every other form of literature, is a tool to be used in whichever way a particular author chooses to use it."

Thing is, you could swap the terms "sf" and "fantasy" in there and the statement would be just as relevant, just as pointed. Unless we define SF as innately rationalist we're unable, I think, to define the core message as rationalist; we can only examine it as, like fantasy, a literary tool with many applications. And the characterisation of SF as profoundly rationalist -- to the extent that Benford ascribes -- is, I think, a matter of choice rather than subjective truth. The nature of that choice is to take the whole field of SF, ignore much of the contradictory theories and alternative definitions, discard a large proportion of what we call SF, and focus in on a narrow subset -- the fictions created by those writers working in the literary mode I tend to label Scientistic Fiction.

Having already gone into the whole idea of fabulation and formulation at great length in previous blog entries, I'm not going to reiterate my position, except to say that a) the commercial bulk of both genres is Symbolic Formulation; b) Symbolic Formulation is functionally indistinguishable regardless of genre; c) we can either characterise both genres by the morass of hackwork or examine both on equal terms looking for core features; d) doing the latter allows us to distinguish various literary modes which can all be described as forms of Strictured Fantasy; e) one literary mode -- which I label Scientific Fancy -- is defined simply as utilising scientific speculation and is primarily concerned with the use of such as a fictive tool; f) the most deeply rationalist of these modes, precluding metaphysics and "magic" and requiring complete scientific rigour, I call Scientistic Fiction.

This begs the questions: is that literary mode of Scientistic Fiction actually the core of SF in general? Is this an accurate analysis of the basic nature of SF?

No, I'd argue. Scientistic Fiction is one type of SF but not the core. It is not the dominant mode -- in terms of basic numbers, in terms of books on shelves in the shops. Nor is it the fundamental mode -- in terms of historical roots, in terms of features necessarily shared by the books we label SF. The real core of SF is more Scientific Fancy than Scientistic Fiction, a literary mode which is as Romantic as it is Rationalist, if not more so... as much Verne as Welles, if not more so. Again, I've blogged about this at length already so I won't repeat myself; all I'll say is that any objective survey of the history of SF, whether you start with Mary Shelley, with Verne and Welles, or with the American pulps, will recognise the vast influence of Romanticism in SF. I think it's simply inaccurate to characterise SF as exclusively rationalist, when the core of it is driven, as I see it, by a fusion of Romanticism and Rationalism.

The proponents of Scientistic Fiction seem to have always had a love/hate relationship with Romanticism. While more than willing to utilise its heroic character types and plot structures and, more importantly, its aesthetic of the sublime, they are perhaps uneasy with the suspension of doubt which goes hand in hand with this Romantic sense of rapture. Since SF's sense of wonder, like that of Fantasy, hinges on the sensation of incredulity, this can lead Scientific Fancy to constantly push the boundaries beyond what is scientifically possible, if not indeed beyond what is logically possible in order to provide the reader with something truly "incredible". To the proponents of Scientistic Fiction there is a line that cannot be crossed, at which point the work becomes "Science Fantasy" or simply "Fantasy". This is usually the point where the incredible becomes inexplicable (other than with recourse to the metaphysical, the magical, that is). Scientific Fancy, on the other hand, gives a lot of leeway, accepting ESP and jaunting in the works of Bester, gods and reality-breakdowns in the works of PKD, the metaphysical conceit of Zelazny's Roadmarks, the bending of time and space in Herbert's Dune, and so on. From its very inception, indeed, SF had writers such as Bradbury, stories such as "The Veldt" at its very heart.

This, I suggest, is one source of the hostility shown to Fantasy by proponents of Scientistic Fiction. Many of the benchmark works of SF breach the rigours of Scientistic Fiction and yet, with a flagrant disregard for scientific orthodoxy, we continue to blithely refer to them as SF. The proponents of Scientistic Fiction, characterising such breaches as "fantasy", and characterising their own literary mode as the core of the field, must therefore characterise these breaches as the incursion of Fantasy into SF, a pollution of the pure form. The result is, I think, a bunker mentality, a sense that rationalist SF is under attack from an Other whose worldview is anti-rationalist, Romantic. The result is, I think, a ghetto within the ghetto.

There are two confusions at work here.

Firstly, if Scientific Fancy is the historical and formal core of the genre, it cannot be the metaphysical, the irrational, which is the corrupting element, since this is an intrinsic aspect of works like those of PKD. Romantic forms -- in terms of cliches of character and plot structure -- can be seen as having a negative affect on the literary nature of all SF, but this should be sourced to the process of Symbolic Formulation, which is as much a part of SF (c.f. formulaic Space Opera) as of Fantasy (c.f. formulaic Epic Fantasy). This is simply a side-effect of the process of genrification.

Secondly, the metaphysical and the irrational is not actually the automatic indicator of an anti-rationalist, Romantic worldview. Rather, it might equally well be evidence of a Modernist worldview at work, one which is seeking to reconcile the illogic of our human experience with the logic of the systems we create, to reconcile passion and reason, to offer frameworks by which we can relate the "spiritual" nature of our consciousness to the "material" nature of our cosmos. This is why, I would argue, so much SF is Scientific Fancy rather than Scientistic Fiction, and why so much Scientific Fancy not only accepts the metaphysical and the irrational as an element but, as in the works of PKD, addresses it full-on. The core values of SF include scientific rationalism, yes, but that is because it has the core values of Modernism; as pulp, populist, Modernist fiction, it inherits from and incorporates the rationalist worldview.

The predication of a division between SF and Fantasy based on the one being Rationalist and the other being Romantic, leads then, I think, to a division in SF itself, that between Scientistic Fiction and Scientific Fancy. Projecting the same erroneous assumptions of a Romantic aesthetic onto Scientific Fancy as it does onto all of Fantasy, seeing works in this mode as "impure" works of an SF which is and must be Rationalist above all else, the mindset of the champions of Scientistic Fiction leads us into a factionalism which is surely pointless and artificial.

Now, bringing this all back to the point we started at, where does this leave SF as a fiction which questions the accepted order of things. If we see it as, at heart, Scientific Fancy rather than Scientistic Fiction, as Modernist rather than Rationalist, I think, it's actually in an even stronger position, because in tackling the metaphysical questions, questions of what it means to be human, the nature of reality, of truth itself, as PKD, for example, does again and again, SF brings to bear not just the core values of scientific rationalism but the core values of secular humanism. It is both of these value sets, I would argue, which really define the battleground. And it is the latter, I would argue, most of all which make SF the type of fiction which can help a 14-year old kid in Ayrshire come to terms with his sexuality, or show another kid from the Deep South that the prejudice and bigotry of his peers is small-minded nonsense. I'm by no means trying to minimise the importance of scientific rationalism here, but without that humanist value system, we might well still be rationalising racism.

To use Lou's examples, in SF itself, I would argue, the scientific rationalist approach tends to give us characters whose nature is as often as not determined largely by their race. Both the Klingons and the Green Men of Mars are presented as warlike by nature. Other examples from the same sources -- the Ferengi, the Romulans, the countless sub-human races of Burroughs -- we are often much less A-OK with, and we are so because the writers are providing us with representations of genetic determinism which if applied to Jews or Germans or Amazonian tribesmen could be considered rather dubious to say the least. It is, I think, the application of secular humanism which gives us the subversion of such stereotyping in SF.

So... it seems to me that SF as I see it, while not as exclusively Rationalist as the Scientistic Fiction I think Benford is championing, is definitely on-board with the whole Defence-of-the-Enlightenment thing. The question then is how to go about it.

We can, if we wish, argue for a Rationalist entrenchment against the opposing aesthetic of Romanticism. It seems to me that this is, essentially, Benford's argument. And I think it's fair enough to look at those aspects of Romanticism which are deeply and dangerously irrational and reactionary. The aesthetic which idealises the individual's will-to-power, which appeals to emotion rather than reason, which derides the intellectual "constraints" of reason, which glories in the sublime nature of the wild, which looks to the "heroic" heritage of the past for chivalric models of virtue -- this is the aesthetic which gives us fascism. It's an aesthetic which is I think lurking at the heart of the current self-infatuation of Americanist culture, under the rhetoric of anti-intellectual, martial patriotism. I'd love to see some real scientific rationalism brought to bear on that.

I'm not convinced however that Scientistic Fiction, for all its opposition to the irrationalisms of Romanticism is actually engaged with it enough on any real level to serve as a counterweight. Sod the particle physics. Where is the Scientistic Fiction dealing with the linguistics and psychology of Neo-Con agitprop? The New Scientist had a recent issue devoted to the nature of fundamentalism. There are studies on the nature of fundamentalism. If Scientistic Fiction wants to counter the descent into the Dark Ages, these are the ideas we should be disseminating. Show me some Scientistic Fiction which extrapolates a dystopia from Kohlberg's study of the stages of moral development, which throws in the statistics showing greater engorgement in the dicks of homophobes shown gay porn than in those of non-homophobes; the front line of the battle against fundamentalist bullshit is not in a particle accelerator.

But instead of engagement Scientistic Fiction seems to be reacting with entrenchment, with a disengagement, a retreat into cloisters as shadowed and solid and safe for the would-be intellectual as those of Academia. What the fuck is Benford doing walking out of the Hugos, abandoning fiction for non-fiction? These are tacit acknowledgements of defeat... sullen, petulant hissy fits that hardly help the cause, brother. Rather than addressing the mire of human emotions, the insanities of societies and cultures, rather than acknowledge the irrational and tackle it full-on, the scientistic -- rather than scientific -- rationalist seems to have gotten into the habit of just snorting with contempt at their bugbears of superstition, metaphysics and "magic", "Fantasy". This is a reaction ruled by passion rather than reason; it smacks of one of the most basic emotions, one that drives us blindly and irrationally to the heights of idiocy and lurks at the root of all prejudice: disgust.

This is where I think Benford, and Scientistic Fiction in general, goes wrong. As soon as your worldview has you reacting with knee-jerk disgust, turning away from any challenge to that worldview, cocking a snoot at some imagined rival encroaching on your domain, it ceases to be truly rationalist skepticism, I think, and runs the risk of letting in religious faith by the back door. It's not scientific but scientistic -- idealising the method, tribalising the practitioners, projecting malice onto those pagan idolators next door. Rather than questioning the accepted order of things you end up trying to impose your own "accepted order of things". A recent article on scientism in the New Scientist talks of the belief "that the world is accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason". How does it describe this belief? "This is a profoundly unscientific idea. It is neither provable nor refutable."

Further on in the same article, the author points to Hitler's use of the biology of Ernst Haeckel, and the roots of Stalinist Communism in the Marx's conviction that a science of history had been discovered, to illustrate the dangers of the scientistic worldview: "There is nothing whatsoever in science -- and this should be shouted from the rooftops of every scientific institution -- that makes it immune from such abuses... Some scientists will dispute this, claiming that the values of open, objective enquiry, mutual criticism and protection of learning in the accumulated wisdom of science amount to an ethical system which, if applied to the world, would make it a better place, potentially protected from future horrors. This is not wrong, just fantastically utopian. Such values are not exclusive to science; they preceded it. Science sprang from philosophy, theology and even magic. The reason it became science at all was because of the direction these disciplines took in the course of the Renaissance."

Damn straight. It would be nice to think that everything is and must be explicable, open to rational thought, but taking scientific rationalism that far removes the skepticism, renders it a faith. And if that scientistic faith has you hiding in the dug-out and firing blanks at your own comrades, basically calling them intellectual cowards for "retreating into fantasy", well, ye need some bloody sense knocked into ye, man, cause ye've clearly gone a bit doolally with the ole shellshock. But I'll cut Benford some slack. I'm not a true believer that way myself and I got my problems with the over-zealous application of that faith as regards SF (as should be fairly clear by now), but, hey, when it comes to the Enlightenment against the New Barbarians, man, we're quite clearly on the same side. I just think... point the gun over there, mate... over there.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Walls Of The Ghetto

John Scalzi has an interesting post on whether SF is lacking in contemporary "entry-level" works, kicked off by Gregory Benford's railing against Fantasy's evil schemes to take over the market and Scott Lynch's response. Sidestepping the whole "SF/Fantasy" debacle of confusing marketing categories with literary modes, I've argued (in my own recent blogging), that we have multiple SFs. Each of these, I think, contributes in its own way to the perception of inaccessability Scalzi identifies. He picks up on the perception that SF is basically full of calculus and other such mathematical bogeymen, but I think there's other barriers that are just as important. The ghetto is a complicated place. It has walls for all its different zones.

In one zone we have So Fuck, where whatever can be sold as SF is called SF. This unfortunately feeds an "uncritical loyalty" barrier, where SF is percieved as simply commercial hackwork, sold to fans who do not discriminate on the basis of content but simply go to their wee corner of the bookshop looking for a promise of "more of the same". I think this is one of SF's major issues, though its not exclusively SF's. All genres suffer from this barrier because non-genre readers are not boned up enough to know what is being sold because it's good X and what is being sold simply because it's X. Can you really trust the opinion of either the customers or the company, who're telling you, really, honestly, it's not all shit... some of its really good... it's just buried in shit? Aye. Right. I'll take yer word fer it, mate. That's the "uncritical loyalty" barrier.

Looking at it on a less superficial level, we have SF as Scientific Fancy, which uses extrapolation to build the environment in which the story takes place but doesn't necessarily take the science as central focus, often using a Romance (in the classic sense) adventure plot structure. That cuts both ways. It seems to me that's where a lot of SF crosses over with YA and offers good entry-level stuff... BUT... a) it's all too often Boy's Own / Military style adventures which feeds the "SF is for boys" barrier, and b) it's all too often so deeply plot-oriented it neglects character and thus feeds the "SF has no depth and therefore is not literature" barrier. You could rephrase this as basically "SF is overly Romantic". Romanticism has some neat tricks, but it also has a lot of, well, adolescent posturing bollocks. So many people talk of "growing out of SF" when they're really just leaving behind those juvenile power fantasies, never having gotten past that entry-level.

A different type of barrier -- the Scientific one -- might be part of the reason why they don't get past the entry-level, but this is better illustrated with the next type of SF...

This is Scientistic Fiction -- SF as Benford and many others would, it seems, define the core of the genre -- where the science really has to be central and rigorous, and where the metaphysical/magical is absolutely excluded. That feeds the "SF is maths" barrier. Mystery is excluded in this type of fiction, written for and by people who find science deeply exciting in and of itself, who are excited by things they don't understand, but more so, perhaps, by the moment when things click together and they "get it". General readers may be turned off at many levels here: a) they may just not be interested in science, so they're left cold by fiction dealing with it; b) they may get annoyed at the initial experience of not understanding, if they're not equipped with even a rudimentary understanding of what is and isn't possible (so the problem seems irrelevant to them); c) they may like the awe inspired by the initial incredulity of a Big Idea, but feel deflation by the mundane explanation, a solution that explains away the "mystery" they actually like. Basically it's not so much "SF is maths" as "SF is overly Rationalist " that's the barrier here. This might even relate to a transfer of sympathies from SF to more slipstreamy, fantastical work, for those who continue to read within the genre. I don't read a lot of Hard SF because the uber-Rationalism doesn't click with my Modernist worldview. I always preferred Bradbury's approach or Dick's where the irrational is just as important as the irrational. I do get off on the science. I do get off on the moments of incomprehension and of suddent startling comprehension. But I find the reductive quality of the scientistic mindset a bit, well... the world ain't a syllogism waiting to be solved for me.

There's Soul Fiction too, which is basically trying to create mythology for the Modern Era. I think the barrier here is largely to do with the middle-brow, middle-class concerns of the majority of readers. Many readers, coming from a grounding in Contemporary Realism -- or simply living in the environment that aims to represent -- are looking for melodrama rather than myth. It can be set round the kitchen-sink, in the drawing-room or entirely in the protagonist's head, the important thing is it relates to the mundane lives of the readers. They don't want profundity, just perception, the witty (or not so witty) "observational" insights of High Fidelity or Bridget Jones. I love Bester because I think The Stars, My Destination has that mythic resonance, but I'd bet any money that the Prometheus story doesn't have the same import, the same sense of universal importance for a lot of people more concerned about their worklife and their relationship issues. They want to read about break-ups and break-downs. So you have a "social relevance" barrier. "SF is about things that don't really relate to my personal day-to-day life". Alan De Niro jokingly refers to Slightly Fucked -- SF as a hybrid of Metaphysics and Romance. That has the same barrier, I think. Basically, there are some readers who just don't want myths or metaphysics; they want stories about mid-life crises and monetary problems.

Then you have Scientific Fabulation. I think this is where a lot of the "cross-over" fiction that might well end up being sold as mainstream is coming from. It has some of the same barriers outlined above but by not focusing on science or depending on adventure-style plot or mythic resonance, it often ends up reading like, say, Catch-22. You only have to accept a few unfamiliar metaphoric conceits, maybe just the one Big Idea; and in the main it develops that conceit in a familiarly literary mode. So Magic Realism is more accessable, or The Time-Traveller's Wife (by the sounds of it -- haven't read it yet) is more accessable because of the way the stuff reads. If there's a barrier here, it tends to be an "anti-Modernist" barrier, where this type of fiction is percieved as being too high-brow, too abstract, for a reader who really just wants a holiday potboiler. Concretised metaphors are "nonsense" to this reader. This is a barrier that's not between SF and mainstream but between SF and other genres. You're not liable to stumble into a Borgesian abstraction-made-concrete in the True Crime section or with Chick-lit or some Clive Cussler clone, but, god damn it, you just can't always rely on SF to be dumb. Ballard isn't reading for the poolside or the beach, not for most folks.

At the other end of the "high-brow / low brow" divide, there's Symbolic Formulation, which uses formulaic plot structures but works with tropes generated by these other SFs, developing on the works of others, conventionalising them. The lexicons of Trad Fantasy and SF (dragons, rocket ships, etc.), and even more recent cyberpunk-derived tropes, are familiar enough outside the genre that general readers can swallow them... but that type of "brain out, sponge in" fiction is done so well in movies that you run up against a "why should I read a book when I can see the gosh-wow SFX on a silver screen" barrier. Even in Big Dumb Movies there's another barrier here too. If this type of fiction grabs its tropes from cutting-edge works in the other SFs it's likely to be incomprehensible to readers unfamiliar with those tropes. Cyberpunk tropes had to filter into the zeitgeist before The Matrix could be made. In five years time I expect to see some crap Hollywood movie using the Singularity trope in a schlockbuster heroic adventure, but at the moment, I think, it would run up against a "not an instantly graspable trope" barrier.

You can look at all of these types of SF as Strictured Fantasy -- forms of fantastic fiction which apply certain symbolic or structural strictures. In that sense, a lot of this is to do with a "language" barrier. The "lexicon" and "grammar" of SF is seen as vulgar and crude on the one hand, lacking in the nuances required to render character effectively (Scientific Fancy), too highly developed on the other, a maths and physics-derived jargonistic geek-speak (Scientistic Fiction). Foreign, incomprehensible and inapplicable in day-to-day life (Scientific Fabulation), or emotive but superficial, empty of any real significance (Symbolic Formulation). Either way, general readers often don't know the language and may well not want to know the language -- not just because it's too much effort but because the language seems inbred to a point of inadequacy. Worse still, there's a whole set of different languages and those general readers are faced with a confusion of tongues that makes it very hard for them to learn.

Lastly, I think there's a basic barrier against all of what I call Strange Fiction -- fiction which, I think, gets its impact from testing the suspension of disbelief. There's the "weird" barrier for a lot of readers, which turns them off SF/F/H in general. They're just not looking for the thrill of the incredible in the same way SF readers are. The "SF is weird" barrier.


SF is just hackwork. SF is just adventure stories. SF is just maths stories. SF isn't relevant. SF is incomprehensible. SF has nothing to say. SF is weird. All of these are misperceptions but, I'd have to say, I think they're not entirely unfair. By lumping together a whole bundle of different literary modes under the umbrella term SF, we put ourselves in this situation. We accept So Fuck into the club, that means we let in hackwork. We get off on Scientific Fancy, then we're creaming over power-wank adventure stories. We insist on the rigours of Scientistic Fiction, and we look like anal geeks. We proclaim the profound power of Soul Fiction, and people ask what the fuck that really means to me with my office job and relationship problems. We invent the erudite abstractions of Scientific Fabulation and they go "huh?". We glory in the banalities of Symbolic Formulation and they think it's all eye-candy. We kick off on wild flights of fancy, following rules of form and composition which we've spent the last century or so developing into these Strictured Fantasies, and people stand there, looking up at us in the sky and then down at the fucking million-page monster of a rulebook sitting on the ground in front of them, which isn't even divided into different sections for the radically different flight paths we might follow with these often radically different types of SF.

They look at that rulebook and all they see is SF on the cover. Non-SF-readers can only work with the generalisations, the associations that we offer them. So SF inherits the baggage of all these literary modes, accepting the guaranteed readership that comes with genre packaging as the pay-off for the barriers, the price we pay for that genre label. Now if that guaranteed readership is dwindling there's a few different ways to go. Personally, I'm inclined to focus on SF in the most inclusive way imaginable -- as Strange Fiction -- and say, OK, there's a whole bundle of different types of fiction here. Yes, it's all weird. It's all strange. But there are entry-points.

You can break the field up into SF, Fantasy and Horror. Or you can break it up into the different types of SF I talk about above. Doing it the former way leads to the bullshit division between SF and Fantasy. Doing it the latter way, I think, helps identify the different entry-paths a reader needs to follow to get into it. I think Scalzi's concept of entry-level fiction is a very reasonable approach, and, hell, I think its tried-and-tested in terms of SFs long-established bond with the YA market, from Heinlein on. However, I think we need to recognise that each type of SF has its own potential entry-point. YA is a good entry point for Scientific Fancy. Technothrillers might well be a better entry point for Scientistic Fiction. Literary fantasy might be a better entry point for Scientific Fabulation. Urban fantasy might be a better entry point for Soul Fiction. With what I call Strange Fiction I think there's a gaping big entry point for an indie hipster audience, the type of people that listen to Sonic Youth and watch David Lynch movies and read independent comics. YA is a good market to aim at, sure. But the 18-35 demographic is a fucking goldmine of readers who've moved on from adolescence and are hungry to satisfy eclectic tastes, who aren't geeks but do want the weird, smart, culty stuff that SF has to offer.

But turning Fantasy into some straw man reader-thief and railing against the death of Rationalism, is, to my mind, really just an arguement that Scientistic Fiction is great and glorious and the genre ghetto must be transformed into some sort of preserve devoted to the conservation of this precious creature above all other impure forms of SF. It is also, I think, the best way to kill that genre off forever. Scientific Fancy and Soul Fiction will jump ship to Fantasy. The Fabulists will jump ship to mainstream. The Formulists will jump ship to Hollywood. And so on. Arguably this process is already happening. I know I feel less able to describe VELLUM as SF because that Scientistic Fiction definition is pulling in the walls of the ghetto too close for my comfort. SF -- my SF and I daresay that of a lot of others -- is not solely Scientistic Fiction. But hey, if we want to exclude the irrational and inexplicable from SF, well, that's fine; I'll just take my Bradbury and my Dick and my Zelazny, and all the rest of that fucked-up weird shit which never really gave a fuck about maths or physics, and head off into the wilderness outside those walls. I'll still call what I'm doing SF but it probably won't have that on the cover. Less and less of the good Scientific Fancy or Soul Fiction or Structural Fabulation will have that on the cover. They'll label it Fantasy or General Fiction and critics will talk of slipstream and magic realism and cross-genre and all that codswallop.

As I say, I think the big entry point for SF now is in that doorway between Strange Fiction and all the strange fiction -- Danielewski, Chabon, Lethem -- that gets sold as General Fiction. We could be drawing in readers through that door. If we're not, if we actually stand at that doorway saying, no, that's Fantasy you're looking for, mate, we're having none of that irrational and inexplicable nonsense in here, no sir, we're scientists... well, rather than the readers coming in, I think we'll see more and more authors going out. If the pay-off between category labelling and the barriers that imposes is no longer cost-effective, the authors may well have no choice. The publishers will look at that stonking big book with nanotech and VR and AIs and all that SFnal gubbins and say, yeah, but if we call it Fantasy because it has angels we've got a more open market. Those SF geeks are only going to turn their noses up at it anyway. Hell, it's got literary aspirations too, so if we leave off any mention of Fantasy or SF at all, we might even grab some mainstream readers.

And then it really will be, "Sayonara, SF".

Friday, December 16, 2005

Caledonia Uber Alles

Well, the second annual GSFWC / Wrier's Bloc, East vs West Write-Off went rather swimmingly last night. It was a packed house and a packed programme full of names to watch out for. Gavin Inglis -- he of the wonderful "Pisces, Ya Bass" in Nova Scotia -- was Master of Ceremonies, looking the part in black evening suit, top hat and scarlet tie. Gavin tied the night together with the same wit and aplomb he brings to his readings, finishing it off with a wee story dedicated to all UNIX systems administrators, which had the audience in stitches. Gavin's a born performer and if ye ever get the chance to see him read, fuckin jump at it.

The West Coast was represented: by Mike Gallagher with a sorta modern day folk tale called "The Soul Skerrie" and a shorter piece co-written with Andrew Wilson (co-editor of the Nova Scotia anthology); Richard Mosses (whose first novel ENOCH'S VAULT is probably sitting on some agent's desk somewhere right now) with a tight wee SF story called "The Search Engine"; Phil Raines, with one of his Clean Steve fucked-up Glasgow stories, "A Christmas For Christmas" (one half of the Raines/Welles writing team that's been in a few Year's Bests now, Phil currently has John Jarrold touting two novels, MOONDOG and THE FANCY, around town -- we expect big things of Phil, we do); Paul Cockburn, who we stole from the Ediburgh group a few years back, bwahahah, and who gave us "Bastard No-Show", a dark wee story of when dates go wrong (and which he insisted was NOT based on a true story); Mark Harding, a relatively new member of the GSFWC, who bravely performed a story done as a sort of mock interview with himself -- which required him to turn this way and that on stage like a madman in order to play both parts; and of course meself, doing my twisted, poignant, little thousand-worder, "The Disappearance of James H___".

Of the East Coast mob, we had Stefan Pearson (he of the also wonderful "The Bogle's Bargain", also in Nova Scotia) with an extract from his patently mad novel set in the mad teuchter land of Kinlochbogle (or wherever the hell it is), titled "My First Shag", but dealing with something entirely different from what you'd expect. That was based on a true story, he told us, "but with the names changed to protect me". I tell you, if half the stories he was telling us at the bar afterwards of his upbringing up North are in the book... man, I have to read it. I thought Kilwinning was fucked up. Andrew Wilson (yes, Nova Scotia, yes, you know that) gave us some in-flight reading of the future, including a great wee travelogue of the planet Biblios that managed to be somehow both Borgesian and Lovecraftian, but was also quite definitely Wilsonian. Jane McKie, who we're stealing away to Glasgow on the patently absurd excuse that her and Phil are getting married (I mean, come on... who would marry a guy who comes on stage with little plastic elephants attached to the shoulders of his dinner jacket?), gave us a "Stocking Filler" of her own, as well as reading a Santa's-elves-discover-Marxism story by a writer who couldn't make it along, and whose second name I can't remember... Morag... something. Anyway, that was a hoot. And then there was Alan Campbell, who gave us three wee shorts about adventurous explorers and who, it turns out, has an urban fantasy novel called SCAR NIGHT coming out from Pan Macmillan / Tor UK next year.

It was such a packed programme (with mainly short pieces being read) that I'm sure I've missed someone out, but for the life of me I can't think who. Anyway, as well as enjoying watching consummate performers like Gavin or Phil work the audience, it was just great to look around the room and see a bunch of people that a year, two years or three years back were just waiting for that Big Break, all mixed in with the folk who in a year or two, I reckon, will be getting their chance. With Neil Williamson (Nova Scotia editor, short story collection THE EPHEMERA out next year, etc.) and Gary Gibson (ANGEL STATIONS, AGAINST GRAVITY and more to come) in the audience, and realising that yet another Scot had been signed to the same stable as meself and Gary, I really had the sense of "something happening here". I mean, last year I think it was, someone passed on a remark they heard made at a con, where somebody had asked "What do you have to do to get a book deal?", and the answer was "Live in Scotland".

Heh. It's mainly bollocks, of course -- wishful thinking and happenstance -- but it's great to see how the GSFWC and Edinburgh mob have become sorta support systems for those willing to make the long haul from newbie to neopro and, hopefully, onwards. I certainly expect to see some of the other guys publishing novels in the future; fuck, some of them are dead certs, I reckon. So, even if it's just chance that Scotland's got Banks, McLeod, Stross and Morgan, even if the rest of us are really just a few young pretenders trying to muscle in on their action, well, it's nice to see there's so much fucking talent bubbling away under the surface. To be able to at least pretend that it's all just about to erupt in a huge explosion that critics will invent silly names for... which we'll all deny vehemently, of course. The New Scottish SF! The Glasgow Boys! The New Weans! Cyberjock!


Ach... maybe I just want more mates to get book deals so there's more excuses to party... as if an excuse was actually required.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Oh, Yes!

I meant to post about this too but forgot....

The GSFWC and the "Edinburgh mob" (aka Writer's Bloc) will be doing a joint reading thingy tomorrow night (well, tonight, strictly speaking), Thursday, 15th December, from 8:00, in the basement of Canon's Gait bar in Edinburgh. There will be beer drunk and stories read. I'll be doing my own, um, deconstruction of a certain well-known character from children's fiction, as published in Strange Horizons earlier this year -- The Disappearance of James H____.

Anyone in the vicinity is welcome to pop along; I believe it's two quid admission, one quid fer concessions.

Go on. Ye know ye wanna.

Another Review

I just had to link to this reader's review because, well, it's really positive (hey, I'm hardly going to link to a bad review, am I?) but also because he pretty much lays out exactly what it is with Vellum that will be a problem for some readers. I just think he's got a really good handle on it, in terms of what folks will either love or loathe about the book.

Cheers, Russ.

Yay, Scott!

I was going to post a response to Greg Benford's rant about how Fantasy is a perfidious Evil and Scientistic Fiction is our LastWhite Hope (from the threat of the Yellow Peril, that is)... but Scott Lynch basically says it all.

So I don't need to. Hoorah!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Infinity Plus Review

Infinity Plus has just posted a rather good review of Vellum:

"This is quite simply the most original piece of speculative fiction I have read for years."

The review also nicely picks up on some of the structural elements and their symbolism, seeing the order in there amongst the chaos...

"Inevitably first impressions are that the author has thrown his readers into a literary chaos. But... first impressions are misleading. Vellum is kaleidoscopic rather than chaotic."

... which is cool.

On another front, I got the page proofs for the US edition through the other day, and have started the long haul job of proofreading. Weirdly enough, I've been, um, kinda enjoying it. I mean, it was a horrendous slog for the Macmillan edition, coming at a point where (and I've heard a few writers say this sort of thing) by that stage you're just absolutely sick of the damn thing. You're rereading your own work, and it's not that you want to edit this or that -- more that you've just gone through the same damn book so many times that you it's just words on a page. You want it to just be over and done with. The thrill of having a deal in the first place has worn off. The actual publication seems so far away. It's just a dreary dragging of feet through spelling mistakes and font irregularities. This time round though -- maybe it's because the book is already let loose into the wilds in the UK -- I seem to be able to read it as a book again, rather than as a bunch of pages covered in words.

Maybe it's the gorgeousness of the design job they've done on it. The different fonts are just a little more distinguishable than the Macmillan edition and, to my mind, just that little bit prettier; I'm just a sucker for those sorta things. Hell, the chapter and section headings are sexy as fuck. And they've done that thing where the first letter of the first word of each chapter is BIG and handwritteny-looking, like an illuminated manuscript, you know? And the Volume Heading pages have a sorta watermark thing in the background. Fuck, in the same way that Macmillan wowed me with the cover, Del Rey have got me droolling like a doggie over the page design. I'm just hoping the corrections I send back won't be made too illegible by my slabbers.

The only thing I've had to resign myself to is the loss of my precious Modernist dash for dialogue. I know, I know. I know why they've done it, and it's fair enough (and in some ways, I even kinda like the idea that the different editions will be -- kinda sorta -- different books for that reason), but... well, I do like my Modernist dash. I think one of the effects you get with a breakdown of that barrier between narrative and dialogue imposed by inverted commas is a seepage of voice. I'm not sure I can articulate quite what the aesthetic effect is, but I do think there's more to the dash than affectation.

But, hey, I got watermarks on the Volume Heading pages! It's soooooo purty! So I ain't complaining.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

SF Considered As A Subset Of SF

[Updated 12th December 2005]

"So Fuck?"

There are many definitions of SF. They are all right… for someone. They are all wrong... for someone. The definitions below are taken from this online list . Some of them are, I think, paraphrases rather than quotations, but they'll do.

"What SF writers write is SF."
-- Orson Scott Card

"If this appears that I am arguing for a deconstruction of our ideas of generic norms, returning us to a primal chaos of fictive forms in which all fictive forms are equally privileged; if this appears that I am arguing for the dismantling of the concept itself, ‘science fiction,’ as more a barrier than an aid to reading; if this seems as if I am saying that all fiction worth examining is, one way or another, science fiction; it is because that is what I am doing."
-- Frank McConnell

"Science Fiction is what we point to when we say 'science fiction'."
-- Damon Knight

I've never found the existing definitions of Science Fiction terribly convincing, I have to admit, and I've never found them terribly useful. In most respects SF has always struck me as an arbitrary lumping together of diverse works for the sole reason of marketing. For many readers, writers, editors and agents, I think, this is in fact the working (in)definition. It's what can be sold as Science Fiction. SF is short for "So Fuck?"

Likewise, Fantasy can be defined, if one so wishes, as whatever can be sold as Fantasy. These are simply marketing categories, characterising the literary products in no way, shape or form; they're circular definitions which can't really be argued with for that reason, but which, also for that reason, don't exactly serve a purpose, other than the obvious commercial one.

So, since I've been thinking about this the last week or so, I'm going to advance a few more conflicting definitions which do actually attempt to characterise the type of fiction which gets called Science Fiction and/or Fantasy. Rather than use the marketing labels, however, and risk the assumption that I'm talking, with any of these definitions, about some singular, coherent "genre" which these variant definitions could or could not, should or should not, be applied to, I'm going to make up a new label for every type of definition. Cause it's fun. For ease of reference, all of these will abbreviate to SF, but the point is to examine the multiplicity of features, not to end up in pointless bickering over which of these features are required or forbidden if some work is to be called SF. Each of these SFs is to be considered a quite distinct SF, its own SF, an SF which may not be yours and may not be mine, but which probably belongs to someone out there.

Here's one SF:

"Scientific Fancy"

In its weaker form the content-based type of definition of this SF simply requires the presence of an element of vaguely plausible scientific speculation, extrapolated out into background, plot, etc. This speculation need not be the focus of reader attention, and may serve as little more than a superficial justification for the Romantic story structures. This SF is simply Fantasy with the fanciful element rationalised in terms of science or technology.

"By ‘scientifiction’… I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story -- a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision."
-- Hugo Gernsback

"The best definition of science fiction is that it consists of stories in which one or more definitely scientific notion or theory or actual discovery is extrapolated, played with, embroidered on, in a non-logical, or fictional sense, and thus carried beyond the realm of the immediately possible in an effort to see how much fun the author and reader can have exploring the imaginary outer reaches of a given idea’s potentialities."
-- Groff Conklin

"A simplified definition would be that the author of a ‘straight’ science fiction story proceeds from (or alleges to proceed from) known facts, developed in a credible way, whereas the author of a fantasy story starts with an idea and builds a world around it. The question of whether a certain story of imagination is a fantasy or a science fiction work would depend upon the device the author uses to explain his projected or unreal world. If he uses the gimmick or device of saying: ‘This is a logical or probable assumption based upon known science, which is going to develop from known science or from investigations of areas not yet quite explored but suspected,’ then one could call it science fiction. But if he asks the reader to suspend his disbelief simply because of the fun of it, in other words, just to say: ‘Here is a fairy tale I’m going to tell you,’ then it is fantasy. It could actually be the same story."
-- Sam J. Lundwall

"Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of science credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science and philosophy."
-- Sam Moskowitz

Although Lundwall's definition sets up SF (with explanation) in opposition to Fantasy (with no explanation), I include it here because he focuses more on the fact of explanation than on the rigour of it, just as Moskowitz focuses on the "atmosphere of science credibility" and Conklin on the sense of play. The caveat of "areas not yet quite explored" also provides the backdoor by which metaphysics and magic (e.g. FTL or ESP) can sneak into SF, with a wave of the hand and a mutter of "hyperspace" or "untapped human potential". Working by this type of definition , the writer may play fast and loose with even the laws of physics; as long as the reader comes along for the ride then it's still seen as SF -- Scientific Fancy, that is.

This is not to assume that the writer will play fast and loose with the laws of physics. The approach can be quite systematic.

"Fantasy is the literature of believing in a world greater than the one that meets the eye, and letting your imagination take you in unlimited directions. Science fiction is the literature of presenting a world that can be systematically extrapolated from elements of our own reality."
-- Vera Nazarian

It is more that the science serves in the main to extrapolate the environment -- low-level details of technological artefacts included -- in which the story takes place, rather than being, by definition, the subject of the story.

"Scientistic Fiction"

In its stronger form the content-based type of definition specifically turns the whole focus of the story on science in terms of character, background and plot, not only regarding the scientific speculation as essential but requiring its centrality and expecting a degree of rigour in its treatment.

"[Science fiction] is fiction about the future of science and scientists."
-- Isaac Asimov

"Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often the civilization or the race itself is in danger."
-- James Gunn

"Fiction in which new and futuristic scientific developments propel the plot."
-- Harper Handbook of Literature

"Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method."
-- Robert Heinlein

If this were all then one would simply classify this SF as particularly rationalist Scientific Fancy; but in its most extreme form this SF actually does something quite distinct, precluding the presence of any element in the story which breaches scientific orthodoxy.

Magic is something of a sticking point for many SF writers, so much so that many include it in their definition of SF. Where Scientific Fancy is predicated on the inclusion of a certain element, this type of definition is predicated also on the exclusion of another element, usually referred to as "magic".

"To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation of the known must be made. Ghosts can enter science fiction, if they’re logically explained, but not if they are simply the ghosts of fantasy. Prophetic extrapolation can derive from a number of different sources, and apply in a number of fields. Sociology, psychology, and para-psychology are, today, not true sciences; therefore, instead of forecasting future results of application of sociological science of today, we must forecast the development of a science of sociology. From there the story can take off."
-- John W. Campbell

"The term can be applied only to a story in which wherein removal of its scientific content would invalidate the narrative."
-- Theodore Sturgeon

"It is the premise of science fiction that anything shown shall in principle be interpretable empirically and rationally. In science fiction there can be no inexplicable marvels, no transcendence, no devils or demons--and the patterns of occurrence must be verisimilar."
-- Stanislaw Lem

This type of definition has to be at its very narrowest (as where Campbell rejects sociology and pyschology) in order to cover all the strictures that identify Hard SF; but even when applied widely and loosely enough to include the "soft sciences", this type of definition remains qualitatively different from Scientific Fancy in its exclusion of the inexplicable. The deep-rooted Scientism of this type of definition involves a rejection of the metaphysical and magical ideas allowed by Scientific Fancy. Many of the novels of Philip K. Dick could not, for example, be classified as Scientistic Fiction.

"Soul Fiction"

Definitions of SF are not all predicated on the presence or absence of a certain type of content, however. Another type of definition based on effect or process treats SF as the mythology of the Modern Age, as the form of fiction which renders physical forces, events and agencies with the same import and to the same purpose as the pre-industrial religious literature rendered metaphysical forces, events and agencies.

"Science fiction is the prophetic… the apocalyptic literature of our particular and culminating epoch of crisis."
-- Gerald Heard

"[Science fiction] is the myth-making principle of human nature today."
-- Lester Del Rey

"Science fiction is the myth of machine civilization, which, in its utopian extrapolation, it tends to glorify."
-- Mark R. Hillegas

"Science fiction frequently tries to imagine what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery; its setting is often of a kind that appears to us technologically miraculous. It is thus a mode of romance with a strong tendency to myth."
-- Northrup Frye

"In this kind of story the pseudo-scientific apparatus is to be taken simply as a ‘machine’ in the sense which that word bore for the Neo-Classical critics. The most superficial appearance of plausibility--the merest sop to our critical intellect--will do. I am inclined to think that frankly supernatural methods are best. I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus. Nor need the strange worlds, when we get there, be at all strictly tied to scientific probabilities. It is their wonder, or beauty, or suggestiveness that matter."
-- C. S. Lewis

Assuming that portrayals of metaphysical or of physical forces, events and agencies can both have contemporary relevance and mythopoeic import, by this definition there is little coherent distinction between works which achieve the required effect with an iconography of science and those which achieve it using an iconography of magic. Only the degree to which one iconography is contemporary and the other obsolete might differentiate the effect and therefore, by extension, the process.

"Scientific Fabulation"

There is of course an SF which does differentiate the process in this way. This next type of process-based definition envisions our scientific culture as a source of metaphor and meaning. This is not dissimilar to the previous SFs and could be considered, in some respects, the process by which Scientific Fancy is made to function also as Soul Fiction, by taking one or more scientific fancies as metaphoric conceits and extending them through the body of the story or novel.

"Science fiction is a form of fantastic fiction which exploits the imaginative perspectives of modern science."
-- David Pringle

"Science fiction is not fiction about science, but fiction which endeavors to find the meaning in science and in the scientific technology we are constructing."
-- Judith Merrill

"In fact, one good working definition of science fiction may be the literature which, growing with science and technology, evaluates it and relates it meaningfully to the rest of human existence."
-- H. Bruce Franklin

"Science fiction, then, commonly uses techniques both from the realistic and the fantastic traditions of narrative to tell a story of which a referent, implicit or explicit, is the mind-set, the content, or the mythos of science and technology.

"In his Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Attebery shows how science fiction uses science as its ‘megatext.’ The nourishing medium, the origin of the imagery, the motive of the narrative, is to be found in the contents, assumptions, and world view of modern science and technology. ‘Science [writes Attebery] surrounds, supports, and judges SF in much the same way the Bible grounds Christian devotional poetry.’"
-- Ursula K. LeGuin

"[A] fictional exploration of human situations made perceptible by the implications of recent science. Its favourite themes involve the impact of developments or revelations derived from the human or physical sciences upon the people who must live with those revelations or developments."
-- Robert Scholes

"Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould."
-- Brian Aldiss

There is still no explicit exclusion of the metaphysical in this SF, but in its focus on the relationship between science and humanity it is arguable that this SF is more likely to treat any metaphysical forces, events or agencies it might utilise as either open to rational explication or of secondary import. This would be true by definition; just as the investigation and explication of the conceit is what defines the process as fabulation, the source and nature of the main conceit(s) is what defines the process as scientific. With many of the works of Philip K. Dick however, we might argue that the major fabulation is focused on the metaphysical but the context of scientific fabulation it is embedded within is sufficient to classify the work as SF... by this definition.

"Slightly Fucked"

Alternatively, where the major focus is on the metaphysical one may well say, if not entirely seriously, that the metaphysical speculation is the definitive feature, that (one) SF is basically embedded in the context of science, taking its literary language from the technological culture it developed within, but appropriating that heritage and metaphorising it into more abstract ideas.

"Science fiction is the bratty kid resulting from the marriage between Metaphysics and Romance. The child was born out of wedlock, however, and was put up for adoption–to be raised by a radio tinker and amateur rocketry enthusiast who happened to live in an abandoned nuclear powerplant."
-- Alan De Niro

This SF could be seen as a more intellectual relative of Soul Fiction, concerned with developing modern metaphysics rather than modern mythology, or as a more mystical relative of Scientific Fancy, accepting metaphysics as a valid domain for speculation. Since this type of definition is largely context-based, a definition which positions this SF in relation to other modes of discourse rather than identifying key features of content, process or effect, and since the coinage of "Slightly Fucked" has been advanced (we might also suggest "Stoner Fiction" as a less intelligent sibling of this SF -- c.f. the works of the Wachowsky Bros), we include it here as distinct definitional approach.

"Strictured Fantasy"

All of these types of definitions can be thought of as placing different limitations on the nature of the fancy and its relationship to the story. Within the structural limitations of Scientific Fabulation the fancy is developed through the fabric of the story or novel. Within the symbolic limitations of Scientific Fancy, Scientistic Fiction and Scientific Fabulation, the fancy is (definitely maybe) sourced from the domain of science. In a wider sense then all these SFs can be considered as forms of Strictured Fantasy. It is simply that the particular strictures vary depending on what type of SF you happen to be writing.

"Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life--science, all the sciences and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of those metaphors, so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor."
-- Ursula K. LeGuin

But everything, in fiction, can be a metaphor, and if new metaphors can be and are drawn from the historical outlook, then we should, I think, allow this particular definition of Strictured Fantasy to stand alone, as a form of fantastic fiction which requires only a level of structural and/or symbolic restraint sufficient to distinguish it from otherwise freeform fantastic fiction. This SF is, then, the SF of Dick's The Man In The High Castle and of other alternate history novels. It's the SF of Mieville's Perdido Street Station and of other "alternate society" or "alternate biology" novels (to coin even more new terms). It might even be the SF of Zelazny's Roadmarks or Silverberg's The Book of Skulls; given that I've heard both of those books described as SF, I can only suggest such a wide-ranging generalised definition as a way to plausibly justify that description.

"Symbolic Formulation"

In another type of SF, we must note -- a type related more closely to the Soul Fiction outlined above as defined mainly by affect rather than content -- both structural and symbolic limitations are not systematic, as with the other SFs, but are rather, I would suggest, mainly if not entirely conventional. This type of SF is, it would seem, derived from the previous types through a process of copying and conventionalisation. It is recognised as SF by these conventions, sold as SF on the basis of these conventions and bought as SF for these conventions. This SF is identified by the the tropes of character, background and other such trappings, and by the plot-structures which these tropes are fitted into like symbols in a formula. This Symbolic Formulation is, sadly, the form that many who do not read deeply within the field are most familiar with.

"Science fiction will always offer easier alternatives. Science fiction will always be slanted, by definition, to taking its readers out of the world. Only weak people, however -- pat Freudianism and the great cult psychology movements of the seventies have taught us -- want out of the world. Strong people want in. Strong people want to, must deal with life as it is presented. Science fiction is a literature for the weak, the defenseless, the handicapped and the scorned. Panacea and pap."
-- Barry Malzburg

"Nine tenths of science fiction is crud. Of course, nine tenths of everything is crud."
-- Theodore Sturgeon

To talk of this Symbolic Formulation as distinct from any other equivalent genre is misleading. Functionally speaking, the formulas of one genre can be utilised with the symbols of another, and vice versa. Symbols may even be mixed and matched in order to simulate originality by offering an unexpected hybrid form. As a process this SF could be considered as failed Soul Food, striving for the archetypal resonance of myth but achieving only the stereotypal hollowness of pulp.

One might, however, argue that as a process the definition of this SF does not specify failure. Nor does it specify the exclusion of other SFnal content, effects or processes as parallel and related activities within a single text. Many works of this SF, we might argue, utilising the most familiar tropes and the most formulaic plots, may nevertheless function simultaneously on other levels by also applying the features which characterise the other SFs. Symbolic Formulation is only derivative hackwork in the absence of any real creative activity.

"Strange Fiction"

The last definition of SF is one in which it's simply a subset of fantastic fiction in the vaguest terms, with no real distinction made.

"A work belongs in the genre of science fiction if its narrative world is at least somewhat different from our own, and if that difference is apparent against the background of an organized body of knowledge."
-- Eric S. Rabkin

"We talk a lot about science fiction as extrapolation, but in fact most science fiction does not extrapolate seriously. Instead it takes a willful, often whimsical, leap into a world spun out of the fantasy of the author."
-- H. Bruce Franklin

"Science fiction represents the modern heresy and the cutting edge of speculative imagination as it grapples with Mysterious Time -- linear or non-linear time."
-- Frank Herbert

"[T]he idea that a magazine like Astounding, or Analog as it's now called, has anything to do with the sciences is ludicrous. You have only to pick up a journal like Nature, say, or any scientific journal, and you can see that science belongs in a completely different world."
-- J.G. Ballard

In the recent blogosphere debate over SF and Fantasy I came across a few definitions put forward for Fantasy which were about as grandiose and all-encompassing as you can get. I've heard the argument before. All fiction is made up, it goes; therefore, all fiction is fantasy. A quick look at the entry for "fantastic", I would argue, establishes very quickly that this is playing fast and loose with the concepts of "fiction" and "fantasy":

1 -- Quaint or strange in form, conception, or appearance.
2 --
a. Unrestrainedly fanciful; extravagant: fantastic hopes.
b. Bizarre, as in form or appearance; strange: fantastic attire; fantastic behavior.
c. Based on or existing only in fantasy; unreal: fantastic ideas about her own superiority.
d. Wonderful or superb; remarkable: a fantastic trip to Europe.

Not all fiction is strange. Strangeness is a feature of only a subset of fiction, a type of fiction which involves something extraordinary. Look at the words scattered through that definition -- quaint; fanciful; extravagant; bizarre; unreal; wonderful; remarkable. This is not a description of fiction in general. But it might well be a definition of SF. Or rather of one SF -- Strange Fiction.

"Science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement."
-- Darko Suvin


"A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time make it seem unfamiliar."
-- Bertolt Brecht

Ah, right.

"[Science fiction is] a new way of reading, a new way of making texts make sense--collectively producing a new set of codes. [SF writers invented the genre] by writing new kinds of sentences and embedding them in contexts in which those sentences were readable."
-- Samuel R. Delany

Elsewhere, in his essay, "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred And Fifty Words", Delany outlines a continuous correction process involved in reading a simple sentence:

The red sun was high, the blue low.

Being Delany, he does this at great length and in the most fascinating way. Starting the essay with a proposition that it is meaningless to talk of style in opposition to content -- that it is all, in fact, form -- that meaning is best considered as a thread of memory we follow from word to word through a text -- he gives us a reconstruction of the reader's path through this particular sentence, leading us eventually into a discussion of the role of subjunctivity in relation to genre.

"[W]hat distinguishes science fiction from other kinds of fiction is a peculiar compromise between scientific truth and untruth. Samuel Delany has analyzed this compromise in terms of the SF text’s subjunctivity ("About 5,750 Words". What he means by this term is the degree to which every statement in the fiction describes a hypothetical condition: something that is not happening, has not happened, could not have happened in the past (unlike realistic fiction), but might happen, given the proper changes in society and scientific knowledge. Another word for subjunctivity might be ‘ifness,’ the condition of being contingent.

"What SF is contingent upon is change that does not violate the reader’s understanding of scientifically defined reality, which is not to say that we necessarily accept any statement in the text as scientifically valid. Rather, we accept reference within SF as allusions to science, broadly conceived of as a field of endeavor, a way of mapping the universe, and a way of speaking about the universe and the attempt to comprehend it."
-- Brian Ateberry

"Suppose a series of words is presented to us as a piece of reportage. A blanket indicative tension informs the whole series: this happened. That is the particular level of subjunctivity at which journalism takes place... The subjunctivity level for a series of words labeled naturalistic fiction is defined by: could have happened.... Fantasy takes the subjunctivity of naturalistic fiction and throws it into reverse. At the appearance of elves, witches, or magic in a non-metaphorical position, or at some correction of image too bizarre to be explained by other than the super-natural, the level of subjunctivity becomes: could not have happened."
-- Samuel R. Delany

So when a strange, fanciful, fantastic image appears in a story or novel, Delany says, we're kicked out of the naturalistic subjunctivity -- this could have happened -- and into another -- this could not have happened. Delany distinguishes this from the subjunctivity of speculative fiction:

"[W]hen spaceships, ray guns, or more accurately any correction of images that indicates the future appears in a series of words and marks it as s-f, the subjunctivity level is changed once more: These objects, these convolutions of objects into situations and events, are blanketly defined by: have not happened."
-- Samuel R. Delany

One of the most interesting things about Delany's essay is that Delany thereby places both naturalistic and fantastic fiction as subsets of his SF, the subjunctivities of events which "have not happened (but could)" or "have not happened (and could not)". He says this explicitly about naturalistic fiction in the notes to the essay. He doesn't actually say the same about fantastic fiction, but the way I read it, this is surely a ramification of his idea.

But I'm not talking about Delany's SF here -- speculative fiction -- but about Strange Fiction, which is defined not by one or other subjunctivity but rather by the challenge itself. The subjunctivity of this SF is undecided, conflicted. Here's a sentence, modelled on Delany's own:

The crescent sun was high, the moon low.

When a strange, fanciful, fantastic image appears in a story or novel, I would argue, we can not immediately rule out the possibility of an explanation emerging later in the text. There is a moment of subjunctive indefinition here which is, I think, essential to our understanding of how all Strange Fiction works. In reading a sentence such as the one above, when we read "The crescent sun" we are faced with an impossibility which requires interrogation. Does the sun only appear to be a crescent, the sun being in partial eclipse perhaps? Is the crescent sun an image rather than an actuality, a symbol on a flag perhaps? When we read further, to "The crescent sun was high," the question becomes more pressing. Is the writer using the symbol on the flag to represent the flag itself? Or is this to be read literally? When the moon appears we might abandon the idea of the flag, our reading corrected by the parallel of sun and moon, so that we decide: yes, this is a description of the sky. Any moment now we're going to get stars in a darkened sky, the shadow covering the earth, and so on. But we still have a moment of interrogation to go through:

The crescent sun was high, the moon

... was what? Eclipsing it? Obscuring it? Hiding it? With the last word, "low" this resolves into impossibility. We're asked to accept that the moon is not, in fact, eclipsing the sun but is, in fact, in another place entirely. In the sky? In the real world, our world, where this is a physical impossibility?

We might say that, at this point, the subjunctivity flips, becomes that of fantastic fiction: this could not happen. But I think what we actually have is subjunctive indefinition, indecision -- neither "this could happen" nor "this could not happen", not a statement but a challenge: could this happen?

I think this tension of subjunctivities is actually the dominant mode of SF, the characteristic feature.

Later in the story or novel in which that sentence appears we might be offered a resolution. The hero removes his VR goggles and we realise this is speculative fiction. Or he wakes up in bed and we realise this is naturalistic fiction. Or he meets an elf and we realise this is fantastic fiction. But SF is defined, I would argue, more by the moments of indecision than by the moments of decision.

All fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. Strange Fiction is that which actively challenges that suspension of disbelief, throwing at the reader images, situations, which are dissonant with our knowledge of what Wallace Stevens calls "things as they are". In some respects the differentiation of Strange Fiction into Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror may simply be a matter of how we respond to those situations. Do we understand them? Do we desire them? Do we fear them? In our moments of subjunctive indecision, other questions are fired off by that basic question of "could this happen". With curiosity we ask ourselves: how, when, where could this happen? With fear and desire we ask ourselves: would this, could this, should this (not) happen?

None of these are mutually exclusive. And these are the defining questions of Strange Fiction, of wish-fulfillment dreams and dread-filled nightmares, plausible or implausible. Possibility is irrelevant. We know these novum (as Suvin refers to the fantastic ideas which instigate his "cognitive estrangement") are not possible to us, not here and now. But we have already suspended our disbelief. We are willing to accept temporarily, in reading any work of fiction, that these are events which are happening now in the constructed elsewhere of our imagination, events which are happening in simulation. With naturalistic fiction there is seldom any question that these events have not happened but could have -- elsewhere, elsewhen, in an alternate history that is simply so close to our own it's all but indistiguishable. With Strange Fiction, though, that elsewhere or elsewhen, as we reconstruct it in the reading, is rendered so different from our own by the novum which the writer employs that it is, quite literally, incredible. The sense of wonder or horror which permeates SF -- all the SFs -- is based on the exploitation of our incredulous response to these novum and of our desire and/or fear -- in our state of suspended disbelief -- that they might somehow be made real. To that extent, SF is driven not by credibility, scientific or otherwise, but by incredibility.

That's my SF, anyway. Yours may be one of the others, or something else entirely.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Czech Deal

Polaris, in the Czech Republic, have bought the translation rights to Vellum. No word yet on when it would come out.

Hoorah! Now if I can just wangle a trip to Prague out of it...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pinter's Nobel Lecture

I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.'

It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Modernism And Modality Links

Anyone who thinks all this writing about writing malarky is irrelevant and dull... well, move along now... nothing to see here. Ye'll just be bored.

For anyone else who, like me, tends to like to kick these ideas about just to see if their heads crack open and, if so, what colour and consistency the brains are... as says over at his Live Journal, the whole Romanticism/Rationalism dichotomy is much more interesting than any (perceived or real) split between SF & Fantasy. I've got some more thoughts on this coming, but in the meantime, he's provided a nice wee link to an summarising the differences between the two. I'm kinda interested as to whether you can splice the "Third Way" of Modernism into this compare & contrast, so I'll probably end up rewriting me Rats vs Roms thoughts in those terms.

Another thing that's piqued my interest with this debate, and that I think takes it in a more interesting direction is that a few people have linked to Delany's essay, I hadn't read this up until now, and oooooooh but it's good. Anyone who hasn't read it: go read it. Fuck it! Anyone who has read it: go read it again. It's kicking off all sorts of ideas in my head at the moment with regard to my own pet theories of Structural Fabulation and Symbolic Formulation -- SF as (writing/reading) process rather than (written/read) product. Ben Rosenbaum has a comment on reader pleasure over at, which ties in with this (and, in some ways, isn't far off Delany's idea of differences between being based subjunctivity -- this could happen, this could never happen, this has not happened, this will never happen).

Anyway, thoughts are currently stewing in my head about whether SF could actually be argued to produce multiple conflicting subjunctivities rather than the singular subjunctivity Delany ascribes. Unfortunately it's a long time since my lit-crit classes at Uni and I was never the biggest fan of that jargon-heavy theory anyway, so I'm not entirely sure if Delany's notion of subjunctivity, as "the tension on the thread of mean­ing that runs between (to borrow Saussure's term for ‘word’:) sound-image and sound-image" matches the idea of modality I'm imposing on it. I mean, like... "could", "should", "must", "is" -- that's whatcha call the modality of a sentence, innit? So why'dja gotta hurt my head with subjunctivity and that Saussure bastard?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Great Debate

So ye olde debate about genre distinctions in Science Fiction and Fantasy rears its head again in one of those explosions of links that rip through the blogosphere every so often. Sarah Monette makes a distinction between the two genres, which Ted Chiang picks up and runs with. Jeff VanderMeer and his Evil Monkey drink vodka and say "nay". Elizabeth Bear grins. David Moles gathers the arguments. Nick Mamatas knees them in the balls. And so on.

Too many links. Too many links. Fuck it, if ye're reading this ye'll probably know where to go to read these guys. I've spent too long writing this post already. Go find 'em yerself.

Me, I think any analysis of literary approaches is a worthwhile venture but when we phrase this in terms of genre... well, fuck it. Science Fiction is a marketing label. Fantasy is a marketing label. Horror is a marketing label. General Fiction is, by default, the marketing label for all that Bridget Drones style Chick-Lit, all that Middling Fidelity style Urban Satire and Angela's Grey Grimy Fucking Tear-Sodden Ashes style Kitchen Sink Realist bullshit, all the stuff which hasn't quite formulated its trite conventions into the full-blown cliches that the long-standing genres have had forever and a day to develop. A marketing label is not an analytic descriptor; it's just a postioning of a book in front of this audience instead of that one. If a genre -- like, you know, from generis -- is a "family" of fiction then, really, we're not talking about two inbred clans with long-standing feuds who'd slaughter any man, woman or dog who even dared to suggest there might be shared blood between them. Science Fiction as Clan Campbell! Fantasy as Clan Macdonald! The genre as the blood-stained battleground of Glen Coe! And never the twain shall meet.

Fuck that shit.

The families have been intermarried from the Year Dot, fucking and fighting for centuries, coming together at weddings and funerals only to split and feud over insignificant insults, slight differences of opinion blown up out of all proportion. Some of that family have married into money. Others live in penury. Resentments bubble. Alliances are made and broken. Drunken uncles insult their next of kin. Black sheep are ostracised. But for all the bickering and backstabbing, the talk of this side of the family and that side of the family, the gene pool is too mixed, I'd say to talk about SF and Fantasy as different forms, different genres, in an analytically rigorous way. Formally, we can talk about Space Opera, Technothriller, Epic Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery, because these are qualitatively distinct; but if SF includes Dune and Fantasy includes Gormenghast... I mean, where's the magic in Gormenghast, and isn't Dune chock full of it? Priests and prophecies. A drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future. Monsters and messiahs. And what's the most fantastical idea in Gormenghast? A really big house.

This is my main issue with any differentiation between SF and Fantasy based on one being focused on science and the other on magic. If you're contrasting Hard-SF and High Fantasy then, yes, you have a case. But to apply that to SF and Fantasy across the board just doesn't work. SF long since took on board the notion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And Fantasy long since took on board the notion that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. And so SF/F writers write the stories they want to, quite often treating the two as entirely interchangeable. Bradbury's entire ouvre is, I'd say, a case in point. Even with individual stories, like "The Veldt", say, you might well ask: Is this SF? Fantasy? Horror? Or all of the above?

And do we actually give a shit, given that it's a fucking immense story?

No. Science Fiction and Fantasy are just marketing labels. SF/F is one huge Crawling Chaos of pilfered tropes and techniques, shared plot structures and character types. Cowboys in space or knights fighting dragons. Dragons in space or cowboys fighting knights! The shit on both sides of the family have more in common than they have to distinguish them, hero-oriented power-wank filled with Objects of Power, Grand Devices that might be technological or might be magical. The shinola on both sides also has much in common -- using those Grand Devices as metaphoric conceits, extrapolating that killer idea into environments and cultures, plots and themes, drawing 3D characters who interact with the reimagined world and with each other on a much deeper level than The Adolescent Hero's Never-Ending Journey.

Now, that said, I think there is actually an interesting point raised in this discussion. I mean, suppose we strip away all the Symbolic Formulation, the juvenile tosh with its clunk-click assemblage of cliches, the adolescent fantasies based on technomagical McGuffins. Suppose we put to one side all that slippery stream of stuff that runs from Bradbury through the New Wave and right down to Link. Suppose we forget for a second that the vast majority of SF, Fantasy and even, yes, Horror shinola is, to all intents and purposes, simply Speculative Fiction, sometimes differentiated by the plausibilty of that speculation, but as often as not complexified by our emotional reaction of fear and/or wonder so that the most rigorously extrapolated speculation can be at once fantastic and/or horrific -- i.e. such that the work itself may be, functionally speaking, both Science Fiction and Fantasy, or both Science Fiction and Horror, or indeed all three. Suppose we forget that for a moment.

A distinction has been made between two subsets of the field -- science-oriented SF and magic-oriented Fantasy -- which are, it must be said, where many readers and writers perceive the core of these two "genres" to be. Are there at least, within that big ongoing drunken wedding party, two Grand Dams, Old Granny Campbell and Great Aunt MacDonald, sitting at separate tables, their arms folded, their gazes severe, each with quite distinct notions of how things should be done? Use your head, m'boy! No, it's the heart that matters! Even if most of the field is intermarried, interbred, even if many of us don't really give a fuck about those dotty old maids with their outmoded ideas on science and magic, is there still that sort of a split, and is it relevant to us young'uns? If so, is it to do with the Enlightnment, with a scientific worldview in opposition to a magical worldview?

Yes and no. I think it's fair to say that there are two seemingly incompatible aesthetics in the field, both products of the Enlightenment and each associated with one side or the other in its most specialised form -- the Rationalism associated with Hard SF and the Romanticism associated with High Fantasy. Both of these fictional forms have been segregated out from the field in general. They are, I would argue, valid "genres" in a way that SF and Fantasy are not. And the aesthetics they align themselves with are old enough and strong enough that I think the field of SF/F can't help but be affected by that centuries-old rift. Their argument carries on into our work and it's effect is powerful enough that we often have to make a choice -- or have the choice made for us -- as to which side we're on.

I think the division is there, yes. But I also think it's artificial and obsolete, and has been from the very origins of the field.

That distinction between the two aesthetics is illustrated best, I think, by the Romantic and the Neo-Classical movements in painting, both (arguably) born out of a reaction to Modernity. It was a schism in post-Renaissance art, a sifting of the aesthetic techniques of broad-brushed Rembrandts and tight-lined Raphaels, of airy Titians and earthy Brueghels. The Modernity it was reacting to was a new world of new technologies and new politics -- oil-based paints, burgermeister patrons. It was a Modernity where even if the subjects weren't new -- like Vermeer painting a cleaning lady -- the approaches were. It was a schism which resulted in Eugene Delacroix on the one hand and Jacques-Louis David on the other, in Romanticism with its emphasis on the sublime and Neo-Classicism with its emphasis on the ordered. In writing, that Romantic idealisation of the sublime gives us the archetypal flights of fancy, rakish wanderers, rebel poets and all the epic wildernesses we'll see in High Fantasy, while the Neo-Classical idealisation of order gives us the novel as social study, as empirical observation, and all the rationalist restraint we'll see in Hard SF (and in Realism, ironically enough). Passion and Reason. The prevailing themes of the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution. Both Delacroix (if I recall correctly) and David painted scenes from the Revolution -- Liberty Leading The Troops, and The Death of Marat. These paintings show the difference of the two aesthetics rather nicely, I think.

But there was a third aesthetic -- the Modernism of Caravaggio, who fuses Romantic chiaroscuro and Neo-Classical formality long before these terms were even in use, who paints sublimely ordered scenes, who uses a dead whore dragged from the river as his Magdalene, thieves and peasants for his saints. His work is fantastic and realistic at once. A pretty boy Bacchus, in a Caravaggio painting, is at once the Greek god himself and an urban hustler from the streets. He plays the sublime and the mundane off against each other. He renders the wild passion of a decapitation in the most coolly ordered composition.

A true child of the Enlightenment, Caravaggio's work embodies the rescaling that was going on, the re-evaluation of God and Nature and Humanity's relationship to them both. I'd call him the first Modernist painter (and I'm not alone in this, I understand) because he's quite distinct from his Renaissance forebears in the sheer humanism of his work -- but at the same time never surrenders to the idealisations that set the Romantics and the Neo-Classicists at each others' throats. He leaves it to the Romantics to blather on about the importance of bold colour over clean line, leaves it to the Neo-Classicists to witter on about the value of clean line over bold colour. Passion or Reason. The whole of Western Art spends centuries bickering over which worldview is better, centuries of Royal Academies and revolutionary outsiders, of worthy High Art and vulgar Low Art, of edifying Literature and emotive Pulp... and somewhere along the way that hoary old argument of Reason versus Passion ends up in SF and Fantasy. As if that's all there is. As if there's scientifically rigorous Rationalism or weirdly wild Romanticism, and never the twain shall meet.

Fuck that shit.

Neither SF nor Fantasy, I'd argue -- no matter what those old maids would have you believe -- has ever been so pure in its devotion to a singular aesthetic. The Rationalism of Wells is counter-pointed by the Romanticism of Verne. In the Gernsback-Campbell era when the term Science Fiction was born, those two aesthetics were already in deep collaboration. Romantic adventures fleshed with Rationalist science. Rationalist science extrapolated into Romantic adventures. Hell, from Frankenstein onwards this has been a field where the dynamic power of the fiction resides in the interaction of those aesthetics. Is Frankenstein Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror? Or is it, like Bradbury's "The Veldt", all of the above?

And do we really give a fuck, given that it's a fucking immense story?

In truth, I think this whole division between SF and Fantasy is an illusion, an artificial dichotomy based more on claims of allegiance than on actual practice. Two small subsets of the field may live by their words, creating Hard SF or High Fantasy that do exemplify the warring aesthetics of Rationalism and Romanticism -- probably par excellence. But if you look around the drunken wedding party, ignore the two old maids sitting in their corners, that dusty old duality looks pretty irrelevant. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's fucking Modernism. Pulp Modernism, cheap, populist, balls-to-the-wall-and-entertaining-as-fuck Modernism, but still Modernism. We use mimesis on the one hand, fantasy on the other. We rationalise magic and romanticise science. We combine the exotic and the mundane. We experiment with literary conventions. This isn't the fiction of science; it's the science of fiction. We take metaphoric conceits, fantastic ideas, and we put them to the test with literature as the laboratory. Of course, when we get good results, we do have a tendency to go into mass production mode, churning out dodgy copies from the cheapest of materials for a consumerist market that loves our new toys for a few days before abandoning them for the next shiny doohicky... but, hey, that Big Corporate Structure keeps the R & D department going so I'm not complaining.

Anyway, my point is that seeing SF/Fantasy as a genre is wrong. Seeing SF and Fantasy as two distinct genres is wrong. Seeing Hard SF, High Fantasy, Space Opera, Technothriller, Swords and Sorcery, and so on, as a huge big confused clusterfuck of distinct genres -- that I'll give ya. But when we're talking in such general terms as SF and Fantasy, then I think we're talking about methodology... and a shared methodology at that. And if we're looking for an underlying aesthetic which shapes that methodology it's not Romanticism or Rationalism, I'd argue, but something much more akin to the sublimely ordered Modernism of Caravaggio, reacting to the Modern world, portraying Humanity's relationship with Nature and the Divine, in a way that, when it works, plays the grandeur of Romanticism off against the restraint of Rationalism and results in something far better than either could achieve alone.