Notes from New Sodom

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

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".


Blogger paul f cockburn said...

Ken MacLeod recently blogged on youngsters discovering and losing interest in SF:

9:07 pm  
Blogger Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Concerning 'uncritical loyalty': consider also the possibility that the 'more of the same' phenomenon may partly be fuelled by share holders, marketing departments and pubishers (in that order) willing to sacrifice quality for commercial gain by pandering to the less critical, but ultimately larger, potential audience for their wares. It's not entirely down to the authors or their readers.

3:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Al. Have I ever told you I love you?


2:53 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Paul: Yup. I caught that a few weeks back.

Gary: Aye. I think a lot of it is also misperception due to the media tie-in Lou Anders blogged about recently -- spin-offery basically. There's an automatic suspicion of spin-offs, I reckon, on the part of most folks.

Jeff: Have you and Evil been at the vodka again?

4:32 pm  

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