Notes from New Sodom

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

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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

and, in some ways, isn't far off Delany's idea of differences between [genres] being based subjunctivity

... which is not surprising, as I took it whole cloth from Delany's Silent Interviews

12:37 am  
Blogger Ted said...

I first read the Delany essay in Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and while I like his analysis of which sorts of sentences can be understood in various types of fiction, I interpret him as saying that SF has to conform to known science ("The subjunctive level of s-f says that we must make our correction process in accord with what we know of the physically explainable universe.") This seems to me too narrow. Given that we agree (I think) that a work can be usefully described as SF even if it is inconsistent with current science, do you have an interpretation of what Delany is saying that permits such examples? Do we have to say that jaunting is physically possible to call The Stars, My Destination SF?

4:07 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ben: Ahhhh! Fair enough.

Ted: I'm not sure I can find an angle to what Delany is saying which permits the physically impossible to be read as SF in his terms. As I read him we'd have to approach jaunting as "this never happened (but it could)" in order for it to be SF, but I just don't think it has that subjunctivity for me; I read it as having the "this could not happen" subjunctivity he ascribes to fantasy -- i.e. it breaches "what we know of the physically explainable universe". It's an event which requires no power, involves manipulating matter in a jaw-dropping way, and which is instigated by mere will, placing it in the same category, I'd say, as Dracula turning into a bat. Perhaps you could make Delany's definition less narrow by allowing for a level of uncertainty, a degree of implausibilty, but I don't think you can get away from the exclusion of impossibility if you're mapping the "this could happen" subjunctivity directly to SF.

What I think we can do, though, is expand on Delany's idea. In that essay he uses the sentence, "The red sun was high, the blue low." to illustrate SF's subjunctivity. I'd say you could probably use a similar sentence -- "The crescent sun was high, the moon low." -- to illustrate the "this could not happen" subjunctivity of Fantasy. Stepping through that sentence the way Delany steps through his, you'd reach the end, having corrected your reading a number of times, (maybe having gone through various possiblities such as the crescent sun being an image on a flag, or a metaphor for an Islamic culture) and settle at the end on a subjunctivity of "this could not happen", having realised that it’s intended to be read literally. Ah, you'd say, this is a Fantasy story.

If you follow Delany's theory strictly, and if jaunting reads more like a crescent sun than a blue sun, then the subjunctivity of TSMD's jaunting sequences would similarly place the book in Fantasy rather than SF. But I'm thinking that it's wrong to assume a single subjunctivity here. If the process of reading is one of continual correction maybe we can suspend our ultimate decision and read the text as having multiple subjunctivities, taking one sentence as "SF" the next as "Fantasy", either switching back and forth in one's attitude to the text or just being in two minds about it, so to speak.

Stealing that famously SFnal sentence of Heinlein's and splicing it together with my own, suppose you kick off a story with a two-line paragraph:

The door dilated. Outside, the crescent sun was high, the moon low.

Is it going to be an SF story or is it going to be Fantasy? If the story goes on to work almost entirely in the "this could happen" mode we'd probably suspend our decision, waiting for some revelation which explains the crescent sun and places the story firmly in the realm of SF (Oh crap, it's a VR story!). If it develops in the "this could not happen" mode, with more and more impossible things, we might expect a revelation which throws away our reality altogether and places it in the realm of Fantasy (Oh crap, the hero's dead!). Or, indeed, the story might well never actually resolve into one or the other, instead utilising the tension between conflicting subjunctivities of "this could happen" and "this could not happen" (in which case we probably hum and haw and mutter something about "slipstream" when we reach the end).

In fact, I think SF novels like TSMD demonstrate that we're a lot more lenient as readers than the definitions we impose, that there's a lot more of "this could not happen" than we might expect. If a flagrant impossibility is not quite so outrageous as a crescent sun, if it's on its own rather than being one part of a huge shitheap of impossibilities, or if it's simply such a cool idea we want it to be feasible, it seems to me we can quite often just shunt the "this could not happen" subjunctivity to the back of our minds and read the work as SF regardless.

But what I'm wondering at the moment is if both SF and Fantasy aren't often playing a similar game with the tension between subjunctivities. PKD, for example, constantly crashes through from "this could happen" into "this could not happen", smashing up realities and ending up in metaphysical weirdness that makes a crescent sun look like a kitchen sink. Anyway, I'm still formulating my thoughts on this. It strikes me that the affective responses of desire and fear complexify Delany's idea further and might well lead to more subjunctivities to throw into the mix. Do "this should happen" and "this should not happen" map to wish-fulfillment and horror, for example?

1:58 pm  

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