Notes from New Sodom

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

Thursday, March 22, 2007

BSFA Event

I can't remember if I posted about this before, but a reminder's probably a good thing anyway, so...

Wednesday 28th March I'll be down in London, at the monthly BSFA meeting, for a short reading followed by an interview and Q&A. This'll take place upstairs in the Star Tavern in Belgravia (6 Belgrave Mews West, London, SW1X 8HT). Details can be found here but basically people will be gathering downstairs in the bar from about 5.00-5.30, heading upstairs around 6.00 (for the meeting, as I understand), with the interview proper kicking off around 7.00.

All are welcome; you don't have to be a member of the BSFA to attend. So if anyone wants to pop by, the more the merrier. I'll be trying to get there relatively early to hang out and chat, and hopefully won't have to rush off afterwards, so if ye can make it I look forward to seeing ye there.


On another note, I got an email from a chap called Michael Saler in the States who's currently working on a history of imaginary worlds, coming at it from a perspective very much simpatico with my own -- Modernism as blend of Rationalism and Romanticism. Anyway, he included a link to an essay of his, a historiographic overview of recent works on Modernism and enchantment, which I highly recommend. It's a fascinating analysis, and there's a lot that will resonate with writers and readers of strange fiction, I reckon, in terms of the respect or disrespect for "enchantment", the association of disenchantment with reason, the privileging of disenchantment as a mechanism in the construction of elites. It's highly pertinent, it seems to me, to some of the perennial debates as regards Elitism versus Populism and (Rationalist) SF versus (Romantic) Fantasy. Great stuff and well worth a read:

But within this exuberant excursus on the social and cultural meanings of griffin claws, unicorn horns, magical devices, mechanical automata, monsters, Wunderkammern, and peculiar emanations celestial and terrestrial, there are three innovative arguments that are important for histories of modern enchantment, no less than for the medieval and early modern periods. For their chosen period of emphasis, Daston and Park challenge the traditional, linear historical narrative concerning the gradual naturalization of wonders, arguing instead that elite attitudes toward them were undulatory and sometimes cyclic. Specific fractions among the elite had distinct attitudes toward wonders at different times, and it was not until the late seventeenth century that they united to promote the idea of disenchantment. Prior to this, seemingly unique, "marvelous" objects and events had a numinous aura that many elites hoped to appropriate for more worldly aims. Princes and courtiers collected marvelous items and categorized wonderful events to further their political, military, and cultural goals; for similar reasons, physicians and naturalists had recourse to wonders in their respective practices. Natural philosophers, on the other hand, were more ambivalent about wonders between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, as extraordinary objects and atypical occurrences challenged the habitual workings of nature upheld by scholasticism. By the seventeenth century, however, the development of the scientific method and the new understanding of empirical "facts" led natural philosophers to be more enthusiastic about investigating wonderful objects and events. In this respect, enchantment waxed rather than waned by the time of the Enlightenment, countering more linear narratives of progressive disenchantment.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Another Heads-Up

Got an email in from Jeff Deveaux about an anthology he's putting together, tentatively titled TOUCHED, which picqued my interest with its focus on queerness and the magical. Thought I'd pass on his call for submissions for anyone out there who might be interested. Me, I've got a new sonnet sequence that just might fit the bill, I reckon, being a sort of incantatory seduction spell. It is, of course and as usual, full of poncy classical allusions, invocations of the Muses and Apollo, references to the gods and heroes of antiquity. It just also happens to be based on the archetypal imagery of gay porn photoshoots, with each sonnet giving us a step along the way of sweet and salty lovin'. Heh. Anyhoo... here's Jeff's guidelines:

Call for Submissions – Touched (tentative title)

Editor: J.A. Deveaux
Publisher: Haworth Press
Submission Deadline: June 15, 2007

see my fingers rise like smoke
see them fall like ash
you're mine now, song
prayer and plea
whatever you heard is wrong
I'll never set you free
— "Mojo", Martin Pousson

Charms or hexes, curses or love spells, jinxes, voodoo, enchantments; spells cast for good or ill; evil enchantments that must be broken by a kiss—from a prince, or a princess, or a frog—all cultures throughout history have their tales of being touched by magic. The spell, in whatever form it takes, is so common in myth, legend, and fantasy that it's taken for granted in the stories.

TOUCHED, a queer-themed fantasy anthology of spells and magic, focuses on the mysteries of spells and gives readers an intimate look into the world of spell casting in all its myriad forms, through the unique viewpoints of queer storytelling and themes.

The title TOUCHED reflects the associations "touched by magic" and "touched by the gods," as well as colloquial associations of touched meaning "slightly insane" or "queer." This association has a long tradition in cultures around the world where queer people were often either honored or stigmatized by an association with magic. Native Americans considered their queer folk to be touched by gods, and were given honored positions within the tribe as shamans and medicine men. European cultures often stigmatized their queer folk as witches, touched by demons and devils.

Each story in the anthology will feature queer characters and themes. The common element that unifies the anthology is that each story must some way feature spells—in all their varied forms, and from any tradition or culture: charms, hexes, curses, jinxes, whammies, banes, the evil eye, "touched," blessings, enchantments, voodoo, juju, hoodoo, mojos, fetishes, incantations, invocations, evocations, conjurings, glamouries, grimoires. Stories can be inspired or drawn from myths and legends; cultural traditions such as the New Orleans traditions of African voodoo; worlds of fantasy, worlds of magical realism, historical worlds, or the modern world.
I'll be looking for stories with well developed characters and plots. Stories that are innovative and surprising, touching or moody or atmospheric, and that use the concept of "spells" in unique and unexpected ways. Any "subgenre" of fantasy will be considered—high fantasy, epic, sword & sorcery, urban fantasy, gothic, etc. Queer themes, characters, or content must be present, and should be woven naturally and seamlessly into the characterization and plot of the story.


1) Hardcopy, disposable manuscripts are requested, sent to the address listed below. If accepted, an electronic copy in an .RTF format will be requested.
2) Submissions should average 3,000 words to 5,000 words. Please query regarding longer or shorter submissions. Query regarding "short shorts" or "flash fiction."
3) Submissions must be typed, double-spaced with one-inch margins, and printed on one side of the page only. Please number the pages.
4) Use a 12-point font, either Courier or Times New Roman.
5) Name, pseudonym if used, address, phone number, e-mail address, and word count should appear on the first page.
6) Include last name and the name of the story along with the page number in the header of each successive page.
7) Include a brief cover letter with a short bio of up to 150 words.
8) Include an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) if you wish to be notified by "snail mail." All others will be notified through e-mail.
9) Include an SASE postcard if you want to receive acknowledgement that your submission has been received.

Payment: Writers will receive one contributor copy, and a cash payment on a cents-per-word basis that will be determined by the number of contributors and size of the anthology. That is, longer stories will be paid more than shorter stories. Contributors can expect pay to be between $50 and $100 dollars, depending on the length of the story and the number of contributors in the volume. Note: Any accepted short shorts or flash fiction will be paid at a lower rate.

Send QUERIES to Jeff Deveaux at Put Touched Query in the subject line of the e-mail. DO NOT e-mail stories unless requested.

Mail stories to me at the following address:

Jeff Deveaux
Box 501
1514 Bellevue Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122

Exception: If you are submitting from outside the United States, it is okay to e-mail me your submission in an .RTF attachment, but please notify me first of your intention to do so.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Encyclopaedia Fantastica

Email through from Paul Jessup of Grendelsong:

I've set up a wiki specific to fantasy fiction, critique, and exploration of the genre. What I hope is to build a community created Encyclopedia of all things fantasy- like an online version of Clute's great work (but, well, not directly Clute-ian). The address is here:

In a few months it will move to a more proper .net domain. But until now, here is where it be. Anyway, I've only put up a few entries (with little detail that I plan on expanding over the week). Feel free to wander around, adding or editing stuff, or just have some fun. The whole point is to edit, add, do whatever. Feel free to edit other entries, adding or taking away from them. If you have any problems, email me. Unlike wikipedia, this *is* a place to expound your own theories and ideas.

Sounds cool. Looks cool.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

They Tried To Keep Me Quiet...

Well, OK, actually they don't. Actually, they keep giving me opportunities to blather on at interminable length, like at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist or (I forgot to post this the other week) at John Scalzi's Wednesday Author Interview .

The Eternal Moment of Modernity

Every era is the Modern Era for its denizens -- since time began officially, at least, in the Neolithic, in the beginning, in the charting of cycles of stars and planets as seasons, in the charting of cycles of moon and sun as months and days, evenings and mornings, the whole heavens as clock and calendar.

Somewhere in Sumer, long before the Hebrews wrote of it in Genesis, a man once looked into those heavens and saw time's turnings, as measured as Newtonian mechanisms, counted out by the soss, the ner, the sar and the great sar. Living in a new now, that man knew modernity, the rationality and romance of it.

The Rationalism / Romanticism dichotomy begins in antiquity, in the earliest of all surviving stories, where we find the duality of the civilised man and the wild man, of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh is introduced as a builder of walls, which is to say, a builder of civilisation as the enclosed domain of formal, definitional structures -- the outer temple, the inner temple, the city walls. He lives within frames, creates them himself. Enkidu, by contrast, is introduced as a beast at a watering-hole, which is to say, a creature of the wilderness as the open territory of informal, nominative symbols -- animal, water, hill, tree. The only frame here is the edge of the pool, which Enkidu kneels outside of, leaning down to lap up water as a beast.

Gilgamesh is man as king. Enkidu is man as animal. In the walls of Uruk, the buttresses of will, of religious and military authority, we see the clean lines of David's "Oath of the Horatii", the aesthetic of Neo-Classicism, Rationalism in paint. In the long hair that coats Enkidu's body, the locks of passion, of bestial and sensual autonomy, we see the rough brush strokes of Delacroix's "Raft of the Medusa", the aesthetic of Romanticism. We see Apollo in one, Dionysus in the other.

When the world of Gilgamesh impinges on Enkidu it comes as a hunter, a trapper, a man of snares and pits, lines and edges. This is how authority impinges on autonomy, how will impinges on passion, how Rationalism impinges on Romance. Enkidu, the first of the Romantic heroes, will accept no such traps, no parameters and perimeters to his world:

He fills in the pits that I [myself] dig,
He pulls up the snares [that I lay.]
He sets free from my grasp all the beasts of the field,
He stops me doing the work of the wild.

The words of the hunter echo through time. Enkidu's rejection of the holes and nooses by which we carry out the "work of the wild" -- which is to civilise it, bind it and tame it -- echo in the poetry of Wallace Stevens's "The Man With the Blue Guitar", and wilder still, as Stevens rejects the nominative with the definitional, structure and symbol:

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that
But do not use the rotted names.

Modernism is often confused with Rationalism, seen in opposition to Romanticism, but it is a fusion of the two. Where Rationalism abstracts to the eternals of law, the Platonic essence, denying the moments of life, where Romanticism revels in the moments of life, the Byronic existence, denying the eternals of law, Modernism's project is to reconcile the two in the eternal moment.

Every era is the Modern Era because the Modern Era is always now, or a now, at least, that has existed since Gilgamesh and Enkidu met.

The now of Gilgamesh is a present with past and future; when Inanna courts him, he applies hindsight and foresight, listing her trail of jilted and cuckolded lovers as he rejects her. The now of Enkidu is a present with neither future nor past; when the hunter brings the harlot to him, when she offers herself, he goes willingly with her, to fuck for days in the seemingly endless immediacy of lust, not knowing that this will sunder him forever from his animal existence, his wild hair shaved, his skin oiled as an athlete's. He does not know that in entering the world of Gilgamesh, in meeting him on the threshold of a doorway -- the wild man and the king, Romance and Rationalism -- in coming together first as enemies and then as friends, perhaps even lovers, in the collision and collusion of aesthetics, they will both cease to be what they were, and become Modern.

Neither does Gilgamesh know that in entering the world of Enkidu, in loving him and losing him to death, this will sunder him forever from his godly essence, leave him a mortal man, maddened, wildened, wandering through the wilderness in a futile search for immortality. He does not know that when they set out together to kill the giant Humbaba and cut down the sacred cedar, this sacrilege will turn the gods against them, leave one dead and one doomed, aware of his position as a mortal being on that mesocosmic human scale of time between the cycles of stars and the moments of beasts -- the Modern Era in which we live and die.

The world in which Gilgamesh lives before Enkidu is the world of the me, the world shaped by craftsman Enki, god of clay, inventor of the wedge-shaped imprints of cuneiform, and the mathematics and writing that those marks graved into the world, inventor of irrigation, delineating territory into fields with the inscriptions of trenches. Enki, a metaphysical agency, yes -- a principle, as Anu of the heavens, Enlil of the stormy sky, Ninhursag of the foothills -- but the agency of reason, rationality as a principle, a force, a being. Enki's me, his Tablets of Destiny are the systems of the world:

Supreme lordship; godship; the exalted and enduring crown; the throne of kingship; the exalted scepter; the royal insignia; the exalted shrine; shepherdship; kingship; lasting ladyship; the priestly office known as "divine lady"; the priestly office known as ishib; the priestly office known as lumah; the priestly office known as gutug; truth; descent into the nether world; ascent from the nether world; the office of the eunuch known as kurgarru; the office of the eunuch known as girbadara; the office of the eunuch known as sagursag; the battle standard; the flood; weapons; sexual intercourse; prostitution; legal procedure; libel; art; the cult chamber; the role of the "heirodule of heaven"; the musical instrument called gusilim; music; eldership; heroship; power; enmity; straightforwardness; the destruction of cities; lamentation; rejoicing of the heart; falsehood; the rebel land; goodness; justice; the art of woodworking; the art of metalworking; scribeship; the craft of the smith; the craft of the leatherworker; the craft of the builder; the craft of the basket weaver; wisdom; attention; holy purification; fear; terror; strife; peace; weariness; victory; counsel; the troubled heart; judgement; decision; the musical instrument called lilis; the musical instrument called ub; the musical instrument called mesi; the musical instrument called ala.

From here it is only a small step to the Law Code of Hamurabi, the Mosaic Law, and monotheism as a universalised, legislative anthropomorphism that denies its own athropomorphism with a God whose face must not be drawn, whose name must not be spoken. It is a small step to the destruction of idols, graven images, the exile of all animistic spirits from the dust of the world. These steps must be small, because the Rationalist aesthetic is an artificed superposition, an imposition on the clay of a world deeply Romanticised by many. The overthrow of the animistic worldviews is seen as a hostile act of aggression by those who would rather live in the widernesses of informal, nominative symbols resonant with intent, with divine power. In many respects, because that Rationalism is seeking not just to delineate the territory into fields but to purge it of symbols first, to scour it down to a tabula rasa on which one particular new system of the world is to be engraved, it is a hostile act of aggression.

Still, the forward drive of Rationalism is insistent and it is a small step from the God of Moses to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, scoffing at those who would pray to images, comparing such superstition to prayers directed at a house, a small step to that same Heraclitus mocking the followers of mysteries who would "wash themselves with blood", as if, in stepping out of the sewer, one sought to cleanse oneself with shit. It is a small step to the original skeptics and cynics who took Rationalism from the religious domain of monotheism into the secular domain of philosophy. There are many such small steps though, and the Rationalism of this world will take three or four thousand years to truly come to fruition in the Deus Absconditus of Newton or the dead God of Nietszche, who once talked of looking into the abyss and finding it look back at you, into you. Still...

He who looked upon the deep, the Epic of Gilgamesh begins.

Every era is the Modern Era, and Gilgamesh is the first fictional character who exists in Modernity on record perhaps simply because he is the first fictional character on record at all. His world is one of technology and industry -- one of warlords and empires, yes, but also one of federations of city-states, with sovereigns who could be impeached and punished (as the king of gods, Enlil himself is exiled for rape) by assemblies of elders as executive and legislative powers. It is a world of the me, of the systems of the world. It is a Rationalist world, like our own, and, also like our own, equally as Romantic, because it is as much Enkidu's world as Gilgamesh's.

Enkidu at his watering hole is Pan in the forest, Dionysus and his Bacchae up on the hills. Enkidu ensnared by the hunter's plan is Dionysus bound by Pentheus, Romance trapped by Rationalism, bound by a King of Tears whose great crime is to refuse to pay this god of passion the honour that he's due, to deny the revels, the wild moments of Byronic existence. It should be remembered by all Rationalists that Dionysus destroys Pentheus utterly. Though the names of "Romanticism" and "Rationalism" were born in the Enlightenment, the aesthetics that they map to are as old as civilisation; and the conflict between them, from which the aesthetic of Modernism is generated, goes back to the wrestling of Gilgamesh and Enkidu on the threshold of a doorway on the day of a wedding feast in the ancient city of Uruk.

Enkidu at his watering hole can be found in Molly Bloom "under the Moorish wall", in the soliloquy at the end of Ulysses which celebrates the wild surrender to passion, to the moment, in a loss of virginity, pointedly located in an undelineated world, a world where civilisation and culture has abandoned the constraints of formal definitional structures, all those pits and snares, all those systems of inner temple, outer temple, city walls, all of them crumbling, becoming the Romantic wilderness of "the sea the sea the crimson sea sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes..."

Gilgamesh can be found, at the end of his story, where it all began, amongst the great walls he built round Uruk. There is an emptiness to that grandeur now, however, a loneliness and desparation as Gilgamesh urges the boatman who has brought him back from his failed quest to examine and admire his handiwork, how well wrought these walls are, how they will last. It is left unspoken that Gilgamesh himself will not. The desolation is as Romantic as that of Freidrich's"The Wanderer", where a lone figure looks out over the sublime Alpine wilds. It is as Rationalist as the deslation of the heavens in H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds -- that "timeless gulf of space", barren of life, of agency, of intent. It is as Modernist as the desolation we find in Yeats's "Byzantium", where:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Hearing the mathematical atonalities of Modernist music, seeing the geometric abstractions of Modernist architecture, we might be forgiven for thinking that Modernism is merely Rationalism by another name, implacably opposed to the Romantic. But when we look at much of the written form we find something far less sterile and intellectual. We find elegies for the Romantic, celebrations of the Archaic, attempts to turn the measuring of the world against itself, to restore the animism of antiquity, to reject the very possibility of a truly Rationalist delineation of the world, devoid of Romance.

In Guy Davenport's "The Playing Field":

On the willow oak under which Mikkel and Magnus were lying one summer afternoon there rained down ever second on every centimeter of long sunlit leaf a quintillion photons.

In W.B. Yeats's "Byzantium":

At midnight on the Emperor's pavements flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit.

In Wallace Stevens's "The Man With the Blue Guitar":

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a bue guitar."

The Modernist looking up into the heavens today sees the stars and planets, sun and moon, cycles of seasons, months and days measured in time that warps and twists, sees cycles of centuries, precessions of equinoxes, processions of arcane symbols still alive in the imagination, symbols of ancient civilisations now in ruins, the whole cosmos not as clock and calendar but as a new deep, a new abyss, a new wilderness where the only real frame is the edge of the watering hole we stand outside of, children of kings and animals, leaning down to be surprised at our own reflection, seeing ourselves against that backdrop, looking for the eternal moment where essence and existence collide and collude in a Rational Romanticism, a Romantic Rationalism.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

More Links

Ya dancer! Me old mucker from the GSFWC, Jim Steel, pointed out to me that Gwyneth Jones has reviewed INK in today's Guardian, so I nipped out to pick up a copy... and was even happier to find that my review is directly under Audrey Niffenengger's review of Kelly Link's MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS. Couldn't be in better company, far as I'm concerned. It's a qualified positive, one of those that doesn't really dig the fragmentary structure, but does at least seem to like a lot of what's going on. Encapsulating quote:

"Readers content to be carried along by the tide will be rewarded with a rip-roaring supernatural adventure..."

That's not too bad at all. And, hey, it's Gwyneth Jones, in the Guardian.

And while I was at the shop, I thought I'd check the shelves... and yes, indeedy, the feature article on The Ballads of the Book is in the current issue of The List, Scotland's coolness and happenings culture mag. The album being out on Monday and all.

So all is well with the world.

More Aesthetics

So, this is a response to the responses to the Aesthetics of Fat post, posted up front because, yes, it grew stupidly long. Again.



When you say that "fantasy" has no Modernist elements, that it could be classed a Romantic genre, and so on, this is precisely the reference slippage and aesthetic-form / marketing-category / commercially-branded-product error I'm talking about at the start of that post. It's a common error amongst SF-oriented readers to think fantasy = Fantasy = High Fantasy, but it's as baseless as the same category error applied to SF by those who, despite not reading it, are quite sure they know exactly what it is: science fiction (aesthetic form) = Science Fiction (marketing category) = Sci-Fi (commercially branded product).

I could throw names of writers at you but I'll simply refer you to me own Vellum here, which is consciously and deliberately constructed as a "Cubist" narrative. If I were to detail the Modernist elements in it we'd be here all day. You could, of course, turn around and say, "That's not really fantasy. See the Modernist elements in it? Why that's patently SF!" I'm sure many do. My dad, meanwhile, would turn around and say, "That's not really SF."

The desire for authenticity *is* a Modernist element, so saying it's not found in fantasy, that fantasy is a Romantic form is simply to narrow the definition of "fantasy" to include Romantic works and techniques but exclude Modernist techniqes. This is as bogus as narrowing the definition of SF to any one of the subsets of (combinable) modes at play in the field. For a pretty detailed breakdown of these modes as I see them, read the "SF as a Subset of SF" post, linked under "Scribblings on Scribbling" to the left there.

OK, so now apply that to "fantasy". Many of my playful variants of what "SF" stands for (So Fuck, Soul Fiction, Scientific Fancy, Symbolic Formulation) are equally applicable to works sold as "Fantasy" or identified as "fantasy". Fantasy is as much of a bastard hybrid as SF. Where does the desire for authenticity spring from? From the process of hybridisation, the interaction of Romantic, Rationalist and Modernist aesthetics in the diverse field of strange fiction we call "fantasy".

So rather than say...

Is this [aesthetic of authenticity] really a value of the genre...?

... we should be asking: Which subset of the modes of (combinable) fiction that add up to what we call "fantasy" implement this aesthetic, and how does that affect our notion of fantasy as a "genre"?

My own notion of strange fiction is a sort of Grand Unified Field Theory of the works that we label SF, Fantasy, Horror, Slipstream, Magic Realism and so on. The full theory is laid out more fully in the posts linked (to the left again) as "Strange Fiction"; again it's pretty detailed and pretty damn long, but you might find it interesting if you've got a spare day or two :). The important point is that it provides (I think, anyway) a basis for addressing exactly the sort of issues you raise as regards authenticity.


[H]ow does the desire for a world to be geographically, socially and technologically authentic sit with the presence of magics and elves?

Answer: Same way the desire for a world to be geographically, socially and technologically authentic sits with the presence of FTL and aliens. Elves, as a biological conceit, an invented species, are no more problematic than aliens (except in so far as they're presented as having magic powers). Magic is the big sticking point, but it's essentially just a metaphysical conceit, equivalent to the counterfactual and hypothetical conceits of Alt-History and SF. And such conceits are almost as notable in "SF" as they are in "Fantasy". FTL is actually a metaphysical conceit as much as magic is. The jaunting in Bester's The Stars My Destination is even more of a blatant metaphysical. It is, to all intents and puposes, a conceit of teleportation as a magical ability to wish oneself from A to B.

It's only in Hard SF that metaphysicals sit uncomfortably with hypotheticals and counterfactuals. Which is to say it's only Hard SF writers and readers who make a clear-cut distinction between acceptable hypotheticals and counterfactuals and unacceptable metaphysicals. Note that many readers who reject strange fiction entirely consider the counterfactuals and hypotheticals equally ludicrous. They might well ask, with arched eyebrow: does the desire for a world to be geographically, socially and technologically authentic sit with the presence of space travel and aliens?

So, yes, we are talking about different sets of fans, but in adopting the strange fiction model, ditching the marketing tags of "Fantasy" and "Science Fiction" in favour of more precise modal differentiations, accepting that multiple modes are often implemented in any one work, we're able to look at the value of authenticity, for example, as a value of the mode, and therefore as a value of the "genre" constructed from those modes.

Your third point is totally in tune with what I'm saying in terms of how some writers and readers question authenticity generated from explication. We could make a (subtle but relelvant) distinction between authenticity and the illusion of authenticity. As in SF where the scientifically savvy may differentiate between rigorous extrapolation and technobabble, so in Fantasy the historically savvy may differentiate between rigorous historification and specious windowdressing. Or may not.

The cardinal point I'm making is that while some (or much) of the "fantasy" we label "fat fantasy" can be considered as basically symbolic formulation, much of it will be better understood as, say, "Strictured Fantasy" or "Soul Fiction". Which is to say, it adds extra aesthetic values like authenticity, implementing another literary mode (explication versus excuse) in order to achieve this. Or it goes further in inverting the primary aesthetics partially or entirely, radically altering the modality. Some will maintain the primary aesthetics of accessibility, immersion and conventionality but place a complementary aesthetics of complexity, introspection and innovation (or subversion) into direct conflict with this. Some will perform a balancing act between the two sets of aesthetics, while some will capitalise on the tension between them.

In the context of this particular discussion, I'd say the notion of Strictured Fantasy is a good starting point for talking about Epic / High / Heroic Fantasy. What I'd seek to do is identify the aesthetic values inherent in this mode that distinguish it from symbolic formulation. At a very basic level, I've tried to begin this by pointing to authenticity as an extra aesthetic value, an evident stricture that is foreign to symbolic formulation. I'd say the next step in the right direction might be subversion. While the "cult of innovation" as Scott puts it, might have little effect on the aesthetic of -- let's invent another name, just for the fun of it -- Spectaculist Fantasy (much of it capitalises on conventionality, so full-on innovation would involve ditching a useful tool from the kit, so to speak), Scott's valuation of "subversion as subversion, fiction that is truly disturbing, thought-provoking, what have you, simply because of the kinds of readers it reaches" points to, I think, an aesthetic focused on reconfiguration of symbols and formula in subtle but highly pointed ways (i.e. keeping the tool of conventionality but using it in an unconventional way).

The aesthetic of Soul Fiction, I think, also offers scope for exploration. The resonance of the symbols we're dealing with in SF-as-Spectaculist-Fantasy, their archetypal effect opens up a whole new set of questions with regards to the psychology of immersion and identification. I don't think there's any question that much of the Monomythic import of this mode is geared towards consolation and compensation, but I also don't think there's any question that the collisions and collaborations of symbols of persona, id, self, anima/animus, shadow, ego and mana can serve more complex purposes such as individuation. Spectacularist Fantasy is psychodrama with the metaphors concretised. To a large extent I think the technique of exploitation comes into play here, with the incredible not being resolved by explication or excuse, not completely at least. Many of Scott's "adventure junkies" are, I'd say, actually looking for an exploitative effect here, the unresolved incredibility being at the heart of the "fantastic" quality of the backdrop, the "kickass" quality of the characters, the "cool" quality of the storytelling -- the effect of psychodramatic rapture. The "high" of High Fantasy can be more, I think, than the "buzz" of symbolic formulation.

If I was to put a name to this as an aesthetic value I'd call it articulation. This is where complexity is valued in the experience of immersion and identification, where a work "speaks to" a reader because in articulating (combinatorially structuring) the symbols it articulates (expresses) relationships recognised by the reader as internal relationships between different resonant metaphors of identity, perhaps to the point of rearticulating (combinatorially restructuring) those internal relationships -- manifesting and resolving conflicts. The profound affect that results from effective articulation is part of what makes Spectaculist Fantasy so inspiring of loyalty. While sometimes, yes, the reiterations of the Monomyth can seem rather retarding, simply putting the reader through one Coming-of-Age after another, these are often the kind of books that readers consider life-changing. The book "spoke" to them at a particular point in life, articulated their identity to them in a way they might not have been able to themselves, and that experience was transformative.

Anyway, this is where the aesthetics of symbolic formulation becomes insufficient -- important, yes, but inadequate on its own -- as a toolkit for analysis of Spectaculist Fantasy.


Maybe the above will give you a better idea of how I'm not trying to set up a distinction between types of readers that sets up one group as "getting it" while the others don't. But I'll try and lay out my intent more clearly.

I call those whose interests tend toward the exploration of soft-world alternatives, 'possibility junkies,' those whose interests tend toward character and narrative, 'adventure junkies,' and those whose interests tend toward hard-world alternatives, 'world junkies.'

I don't think our categorisations quite map. I'm not trying to distinguish readers here, nor even (strictly speaking) types of fiction (in the "groups of books" sense), so much as modes of writing and their relationship to variant and contradictory aesthetics applied by the writers and readers, any of which can be applied simultaneously in, or to, one work. I probably didn't foreground it enough in the post but as textual techniques exploitation, explication and excuse can be and are combined in (probably most) strange fiction. Many readers and writers like a bit of everything and apply multiple contradictory aesthetics at once.

Way I'd put it is we're all "incredibility junkies", getting off on the buzz of reading something that Could Not Possibly Be. Mostly, I reckon, we want adventure-in-a-world-of-(im)possibility. We want worlds and dreams built and broken and we want that process to consitute an adventure for us on whatever level. The three types of reader you're talking about should then theoretically be quite happy with reading the same story if it delivers on all three counts... and I think a lot of strange fiction aims to do exactly this. What I'm calling Spectaculist Fantasy above is a good example of this more rounded approach.

However I think it's evident that there are readers whose tastes are as much defined by a dislike of X as by a tendency of interests towards Y. If the aesthetics are contradictory that's to be expected, of course. You're going to get those who subscribe to one aesthetic absolutely and react against works based on conflicting aesthetics. For the purposes of the post, to explore the idea of an aesthetic based on accessibility, immersion and conventionality, I was focusing in on the extreme case of symbolic formulation, as the form where those values are adopted to the exclusion of -- or at least above -- all others.

The point being:

Where the [possibility junkies] tend to fetishize language's ability to defect from the real, and the [world junkies] tend to fetishize language's ability to replace the real, the adventure junkies simply like fantastic backdrops to their kickass characters and cool storytelling.

... but some are also deeply antagonistic to any defection from or replacement of reality which makes the story harder to parse. If they're real bona fide "junkies", that is. See, the "simply" is the keyword in that sentence. It's hiding a whole world of "merely" and "only" and "just", where that "simply" doesn't signify "this is all we require"; it signifies "this is all we accept". Because the adventure junkies of symbolic formulation can be seen as just as much fetishists.

Thing is, I doubt there's many of the other two types who dislike fantastic backdrops, kickass characters and cool storytelling, so that taxonomy as it stands is like a distinction between beef, pork and meat. Or, to bring it closer to home, Hard SF fans, High Fantasy fans and, well, readers who "just like a good story". When you say "fetishizing" that narrows the other two sets to readers who take a particular aesthetic (exploitative or explicatory) to its max, so defining adventure junkies in a wider sense is kinda like saying there's these two junkies and this, well, occasional dabbler in drugs. If we're going to talk about the other two type as narrow sets of "fetishists", shouldn't we be defining the adventure junkies as those who are fetishizing language's ability to X the real, whatever X may be?

Alternatively we could take the opposite approach. We could say that the "possibility junkies" simply like stories where language defects from the real, while the "world junkies"
like stories where language replaces the real. This places their aesthetics on the same non-fetishistic -- i.e. non-extremist -- level as that of "adventure junkies". I think this is less useful though, largely because I'm more interested in the extreme cases here -- because I'm more interested in the aesthetics, and these become more clearly defined amongst the fetishizing readers. Still, that's actually what I'm building towards in terms of Spectaculist Fantasy, where exploitation and explication are not ruled out. Coming more from the "possibility junky" perspective myself, I'd describe my own aesthetic in a similarly non-exclusive way, as one where explication and excuse are not ruled out. I daresay there's many "world junkies" whose interest in explication doesn't rule out (i.e. over-ride completely) a liking for exploitative and excusatory modes and their results.

Anyway, to tweak your taxonomy a bit, if the first group maps to an aesthetic of exploitation, I'd tend to call them "impossibility junkies". Where they're looking for language to "defect from the real", it's the non-possibility of the narrative that achieves this. The second group, in so far as they map to an aesthetic of explication, are so concerned with restoring a sense of possibility they almost seem to better fit the first label. Way I see it, they're more about language's ability to replicate the real; it's the simulation of reality they're seeking, versimilitude. The third group seem to me to be the ones who're actually concerned with language's ability to "replace the real" -- to substitute story for reality.

To me this sounds like a split into Modernist, Realist and Romantic aesthetics. You got (im)possibility junkies who are all about the defection from reality (c.f. Cubist fragmentation, Abstract non-representation, Surrealist symbolisation). Then you got world junkies who are all about the replication of reality (versimilitude, authenticity, representation). And you got adventure junkies who are all about the replacement of reality (with something bigger, better, bolder -- story). Given that we're talking about aesthetic forms of fiction that came together properly in the 20th Century, this tripartite distinction makes a lot of sense to me.

In those terms there probably is a fair mapping to my own model of exploitation, explication and excuse. But again, bear in mind that we're jumping whole levels to a high degree of abstraction and generalisation. What I'm talking about is textual techniques of dealing with the strange by flipping subjunctivity -- i.e. functioning on the sentence level. Factoring that up to the levels of story and aesthetic form, I see them as generally working together, except in specific forms where the focus is largely or wholly on one as an application of a particular aesthetic. Factoring that up to a taxonomy of reader types defined by one particular aesthetic... well, I'm willing to go with the idea, but only if we include a "none of the above" option or an ability to tick more than one box, cause I don't think all readers can be fitted neatly into those categories. As I say, we're all really incredibility junkies, far as I'm concerned.

I do, however, think you can factor those techniques up and get specific aesthetic forms with dedicated readerships, definable by their loyalty to one aesthetic over all others. I mean, I'm sure there are dyed-in-the-wool fans of symbolic formulation (and nothing but symbolic formulation). And this type of fan could be classified as an adventure junky if that's your preferred term. But I suspect what you mean by adventure junkies is readers primarily (or solely) interested in the heroic genres within strange fiction -- readers of Space Opera or Epic Fantasy -- rather than readers primarily (or solely) interested in the symbolic formulation sold within those genres. Which is to say, the adventure junky you're talking about is, I suspect, someone who's bringing an aesthetic based on more than accessibility, immersion and conventionality to the table. Something like I'm broaching in applying the values of subversion and articulation to Spectaculist Fantasy.

In practical terms, though, if we're talking only about the aesthetics of symbolic formulation we're talking about a reader for whom "the interest in character and narrative" is entirely proscribed by accessibility and conventionality. This is the kind of reader, I'm arguing, for whom complex character and complex narrative equals "difficult" equals "impenetrable" equals "inaccessibile" equals "no story". Which is simply to say, constructing a story from characters and narratives which are unconventional and / or complicated makes the story harder to parse, just as constructing a sentence from words and clauses which are unconventional and / or complicated makes the sentence harder to parse. The aesthetic of accessibility is one which values the minimal complexity of an easily parseable story. Valuing simplicity in the construction of characters and narratives doesn't say much for one's interest in character and narrative as things in and of themselves.

However, as implied above, I do think a lot of your "adventure junkies" value complexity in character and narrative; it's a requisite feature of subversion and articulation. A lot of them value complexity full stop. And even if some prefer a good solid riff to a twiddly-wank guitar solo in character or narrative terms, well, you can still do new and interesting things with just three chords. You can see the aesthetic of symbolic formulation coming into play though, where you run into hostility to this complexity: "Four chords?! None of that fucking prog shite, mate!"

To be frank, I think that aspect of hostility to complexity is not limited to symbolic formulation but can be found in all the genres that symbolic formulation subsists within. I have next to no time for it because it's generally phrased as an ignorant and arrogant refusal to recognise the very existence of a narrative in the face of complexity, or as a not-quite-so-ignorant but equally arrogant denial that the work in question is "proper" Fantasy or "proper" SF or "proper" whatever. And it pisses me the fuck off. It's the bleating idiocy of a moron who runs into a sentence with a semi-colon and a few polysyllabic words, and declares it to be nonsense.

That's by no means a characteristic I'm applying to all "adventure junkies" though. I know personally, from responses to Vellum, that many "adventure junkies" take complexity in their stride. They've written to say how much they enjoyed it simply on the level of kickass characters, fantastic backdrops and cool storytelling despite being utterly lost in terms of what story they're meant to be constructing. This makes me a very happy puppy, because I believe firmly that readers have a capacity to parse stories on an unconscious level, to make sense of them on a quite abstract level, so that they come out of a story thinking, "yes, that makes sense", even when they can't quite explain how it made sense. I think these responses indicate that while they couldn't explain what the plot is, how it works, they were able to parse it satisfactorily in terms of situations, conflicts and resolution(s).


Now on this scheme, if I understand you aright, the possibility junkies are really the only people who 'get it.' Having made a fetish of innovation, they dwell in the aporetic interstices between language's performative and representational functions. The world junkies, on the other, almost get it - they have an appreciation for the way language can perform realities, but in the end they go running back to the representational function, to the 'explicated world' as you call it - the fat. The poor adventure junkies, however, are left even further in the lurch, since they have no real appreciation for either function, and as a result are satisfied with hackneyed versions of the represented - fatuous fat.

No, no, no, no, no! I don't even think in terms of a distinction between performative and representational functions. That sounds hideously pomo for my liking. I much prefer the old-fashioned breakdown of linguistic functions as referential, poetic, expressive, connative, phatic and such. And as for "aporetic interstices" and " the way language can perform realities"... to me that feels like looking at fiction on a level of abstraction which becomes metaphor more than anything. I am, I admit, quite interested in the way langage in fiction doesn't just perform a referential function but also poetic, expressive and connative functions, which -- if I read you right -- would be "performative" in opposition to "representational", but I'd argue that the aesthetic of Spectaculist Fantasy is as much concerned with these as my own brand of strange fiction. The expressive and connative functions in particular are, I think, particularly appreciated by adventure junkies.

I might well, partly from a personal appreciation of the poetic function, be a little judgemental when it comes to the type of adventure junky or world junky who rejects the poetic wholesale. I think having a "tin ear" for poetic features means missing out on a lot of the scope of strange fiction. But my real value-judgement is focused on those for whom the rejection becomes animosity rather than obliviousness, and it's largely reserved for those who go on to advocate the expunging of any poetic function in the name of accessibility, with or without the additional imperative of referential explanation to resolve the implausibility of the incredible.

This doesn't mean that I'm raising (im)possibility junkies over them as the ones that actually "get it", with "it" being a sort of all-encompassing "point of strangeness in strange fiction", a "what fantasy is all about". Rather I'm saying that within the diverse spectrum of incredibility junkies there are those who don't "get" the specific "it" of poetic function and for whom a resultant hostility-to-complexity becomes advocacy of a deeply limited and limiting view of what strange fiction can and should be. The point I was making in suggesting that, hey, if anything is to be called "real" fantasy maybe it should be the stuff that exploits the incredible -- that's meant to be read as a devil's advocate position. It's not a statement that only the exploitation purists are "right" in liking what they like; it's a usurpation of the concept of "proper fantasy" in an antitethetical stance, a turning of that prescriptivism back on itself. Were I facing up to the relevant analogue of an (im)possibility junky applying a similarly ignorant hostility, a pomo experimentalist prescriptivism which derided the referential function of language, say -- the literary equivalent of a Conceptual Artist dismissing figurative painting -- I'd adopt a quite different stance and it would be equally oppositional. Indeed, the whole point of my theorisation of strange fiction is largely to develop a vocabulary through which the incredibility junkies can reclaim the field as an innately diverse territory of aesthetic forms. One battle at a time, though. One battle at a time.

Now let me make clear here that I do not believe in posterity. Literature dies with our generation - I think that this is an incontrovertible fact. Technologically mediated social change, as drastic as it has been, is just beginning, and when it really gets rolling, our culture is going to need as much conceptual versatility as it can get. As a result, I think any writer who wants to make a positive difference needs to look at the apparatus of commercial publishing as an opportunity, and to adopt those forms that reach the most diverse readers possible. Those who don't simply aren't making a difference, aside from appeasing those who already share the bulk of their values - literally turning thoughtfulness into another socially inert consumer good.

This is a social and political aesthetic of relevance and reach, of writing as a tool for social change. I may not entirely agree with the futurology of the prediction, and I'm not sure how you get from "the death of literature" to the "importance of commercial publishing" (unless by literature you mean not "writing" but "particular aesthetic forms of writing privileged by society with the term literary"). But that's another discussion entirely. I do agree with the core aesthetic of relevance and reach.

So, when it comes to the "cult of innovation" and postmodernism, I think you're reading my priorities wrong. I'm far from postmodernist. Actually I've argued quite strongly on many occassions that postmodernism is a defensive reaction to a 20th Century backlash against Modernism, that in the wake of that backlash there was a wholesale retreat of those who couldn't take the heat into the safety of the ivory tower of irony, that the players left on the field, or those who came after, were forced to (or willingly and defiantly decided to) assume a marginalised position in the fields of genre and stand up to the onslaught of Contemporary Realism from there. The result, in both SF and Fantasy -- and I include Spectaculist Fantasy here -- was a vigorous hybrid of Romanticism, Rationalism and Modernism. The sensationalism of "novelty" and the intellectualism of pomo "cleverness" are both results of that hybridisation, and both, I agree, aesthetics to be wary of in so far as they push us away from relevance. Compare my critique of Populist and Elitist prescriptivisms and you should be able to see (I hope) that I'm no fan of either.

In terms of "performative tension" and "representational comfort", then, actually I see this as a false dichotomy which comes out of the pomo refusal of the integrity of the text. The sentences with which we construct strange fiction, as I see it, perform representation. It's a crucial feature of the generation of a subjunctivity of "this could not be happening" that there is a "this" being represented. The exploitation of that subjunctivity, the tension, is actually a feature of the representation, of this imaginary construct of a thing which cannot be. The tension requires an acceptance that what is being performed is representation.

That division into performance and representation seems to me to come from the postmodernist refusal to accept the responsibilty inherent in a text as an act of representation. It's the quotation marks of irony, in which the text is to be understood not as true representation (which would imply import, which would imply intent, which would imply authority) but as an inherently artificial performance which represents nothing, as being said "only for effect". I deny the very possibilty of this. The quotation marks simply become a part of the text, so to speak, rendering the text a representation of performance. The text can never actually represent nothing and simply "be" the sum of its performative effects, not when the basic and fundamental effect is that of representation.

I could go into this in more depth in terms of my own work as anti-pomo, as representing performance in a deliberate attempt to refuse the escape clause of "it's all just a game" (cop-out!), as using metafiction, for example, not in an attempt to foreground the story as an artifice (cop-out! COP-OUT!) but rather in an attempt to immerse the reader in representations of representations of representations so as to blur the boundaries between their own reality and the representation of it, to make the representation more immediate and compelling. In many ways I want to steal the tools the postmodernists have been hogging and put them to good use where, I think, it matters, and metafiction's probably a good example of this. Breaking the fourth wall can be a way of distancing the reader from the representation, but I think it can also serve as a way of opening up the story so the reader gets dragged in, becoming utterly engulfed in the representation. And what rocks for me is that a lot of "adventure junkies" seem to have no problem whatsoever getting that; they really rather dig it.

In terms of that socio-political aesthetic of relevance and reach, my personal belief is also that epic fantasy is a great avenue for reaching a wide audience. Otherwise I wouldn't have written two stonking big fantasy books, the first of which verily shouts its adoption of the epic form in the opening lines. I just happen to be thrawn when it comes to limiting prescriptions of what you can and can't do in the form, so these epic fantasies also happen to be Pop Modernist, Cubist Pulp, Indie Fiction -- pick your name. My own "manifesto" might also differ from yours in that personal history makes it very much about certain specific socio-political and psychological subjects for me rather than a wider struggle against cultural vacuity.

I'm happy to sacrifice accessibility -- which is to say, I'm happy to lose "adventure junkies" hostile to complexity -- if it means a novel that more profoundly articulates the emotional realities of, to put it bluntly, being queer and losing a brother, of isolation and the sort of grief that can hit you like a monster-truck, shattering your world and your very identity. I'm happy to sacrfice "accessibility" if it means more profoundly articulating that kind of reality to even one single solitary reader somewhere who's dealing with that shit and for whom that articulation is helpful in making sense of it all. If that requires a complexity of fragmented character and narrative that renders it "inaccessible" to some who can't parse that kind of story and won't try, well, fuck 'em; I'm not going to compromise the work by offering a representational comfort that, in failing to represent honestly, ceases to provide true comfort. Hell, that part of my manifesto is stated about as clearly as it could be in Sonnet VII of my Sonnets For Orpheus, in the whole "I sing for death..." proclamation. I make no bones about it.

So if I scorn symbolic formulation and its more outspoken champions it's because I reject their (frequent and loud) attempts to impose limitations on the aesthetics applicable in the field. For a writer like myself that hostility is a very real force that I can either submit to or stand up against. Submission would mean surrendering genre to that aesthetic, letting the philistines define the field in terms utterly opposed to the values I hold to most strongly. I'm not willing to do that, though it surprises me very little when writers are, given that they can publish in the mainstream, still have their work bought by the same huge market of incredibility junkies who would have bought it as genre, and add to that the huge market of readers hip to strange fiction but coming from an "indie" rather than commercial attitude. So, if I'm going to stick around in genre for the duration of a career rather than be the Next Evil Turncoat, I'm damn well going to hold my corner, stand up to that aesthetic of symbolic formulation, and call it as I see it -- an aesthetics of fat. Fat is tasty. Fat is not an evil scourge to be eradicated from the menu. I just don't see why we should let someone with a taste for fatty fat fat with fat on top dictate the menu.

All our grandiose proclamations about genre being where the action's at will become worthless bluster if we can't acknowledge that aesthetics of fat, analyse its effect on the field and criticise it as Populist and philistine without being automatically assumed a paid-up member of the opposing camp of Elitist philosophers with their aesthetics of...what... celery, maybe? Frankly, I think the half-arsed critical vocabulary of "genre", where, over half a century since the emergence of the field, we still can barely distinguish a marketing category and an aesthetic form, is largely to blame for the incessant eruptions of snobbery and inverse snobbery that drive those divisions, the inferiority complexes and compensatory arrogance that lead us to deny the actualities of the aesthetics while simultaneously advocating them as absolutes. And I think those divisions are the overwhelming reason why "genre" loses good writers to the "mainstream" where they can publish their strange fiction in peace without any of the bullshit about whether it's "proper" Fantasy or "proper" SF. As long as that process carries on, "genre" will become increasingly less where the action's at and more where the action could have been... if it wasn't for the philsophers and the philistines.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ballads of the Book Links

The Ballads of Book mini-site is now online.

Meanwhile, people are saying nice things about the album, like:

...a frothing Irn Bru of talent: eighteen songs of romance, violence and menace...


A bold experiment that miraculously is pulled off, ‘Ballads Of The Book’ will hopefully pave the way for more collaborations of this type...

The Aesthetics of Fat

Jonathan McCalmont comes up with an interesting, two-part take on the aesthetics of... well, a certain subset of strange fiction he refers to as "fat fantasy", adopting this rough shorthand so as to avoid nit-picking distinctions between epic, heroic, high, etc.. There's a little bit of reference slippage because of this shorthand, with "fantasy" and "fat fantasy" being used interchangeably, while the old category error of equating marketing label and aesthetic form also pops up, with "fantasy" (the aesthetic term) being used to refer to "Fantasy" (the branded product), so you end up with a few statements that could be (mis)read as unfair generalisations, with a dash of the old SF/Fantasy artficial dichotomy. But on the whole, if you parse it out of the terminology in which fantasy equals Fantasy equals Fat (Epic, Heroic, High) Fantasy it's a fair attempt to look at what's going on in this one particular form.

As someone who doesn't really click with much fantasy, McCalmont decided, in the spirit of fairness, to try and figure out what aesthetics "fat fantasy" readers were applying to these doorstop novels, to give himself a better handle on critiquing them. From recurrent features in online discussions and suchlike, he identifies three commonly professed requirements on the part of readers: accessibility; immersion; conservatism. His exploration of these values references my own post on populism and elitism, and a lot of what he says is very much in line with my own thoughts on "symbolic formulation".

To some extent, that creates another problem with the analysis. Scott Bakker, in the comments, makes the point that, other than immersion, these aren't so much the aesthetics of fat fantasy in particular as the aesthetics of any commercial genre, and while I think McCalmont's approach is a good starting point, Bakker has a good case. The way I'd put it is that in exploring "fat fantasy" McCalmont is actually honing in on "the aesthetics of fat" rather than "the aesthetics of fantasy". That said, it's a good analysis of how that aesthetics effects fantasy, how it is manifested in (this particular subset of) strange fiction, so I think it's well worth reading and a good springboard for further exploration.

So, when I say he's talking about the "fat" rather than the "fantasy", that this fits with my own ideas of "symbolic formulation", what do I mean?

Well, my own idiosyncratic theory is too gnarly to reiterate fully here, but to give a quick recap: the long and the short of it is a modification of Delany's notion of genre as defined by subjunctivity. In strange fiction, the incredible is used to challenge suspension of disbelief, to flip the subjunctivity of the text from "this could be happening (here and now)" to "this could not be happening (here and now)". The incredible -- that which challenges suspension of disbelief -- is what powers strange fiction, creating a tension, the thrill of estrangement.

Maintaining the suspension of disbelief in the face of the incredible involves a sort of displacement of the action to a fictive elsewhen in which the incredible could be happening (there and then), if only X were true. The particular nature of the incredible -- counterfactual, hypothetical or metaphysical -- can be viewed as a sort of temporal displacement in one of three dimensions: "sideways" into the parallel worlds of Alternate History; "forward" into the future worlds of Science Fiction; "up/down" into the metaphysical or supernatural worlds of Fantasy. While distinct genres can be identified by unidirectional displacement, much strange fiction actually involves displacement in more than one direction (c.f. jaunting in Bester's The Stars My Destination or all manner of divine forces in the novels of Philip K. Dick).

As a writer you can deliberately exploit that incredibility, maintaining the challenge to suspension of disbelief as an aesthetic effect, or you can attempt to resolve it in one of two ways. The first strategy is explication, where the writer uses detail to rationalise the environment to a convincing level; we see this in Alternate History's reconfiguration of history, SF's extrapolation of science, Fantasy's exposition of culture. The second strategy is excuse, where the incredible is viewed as a feature of Romantic narrative, a customary trope of plot, character, cosmology, etc., recognised as implausible but accepted as a matter of convention, as part of the game, for the sake of entertainment. Across the genres, and particularly in the most commercial and derivative works, readers simply accept the incredible as part of a Romantic tradition.

These three approaches can, of course, also be combined, but in the most commercial and derivative works of genre what we often see is Romantic tropes of plot, character, etc., processed to the point of being symbols in a formula, with little real attempt made to exploit or explicate the incredibility. By "symbolic formulation", then, I mean those types of strange fiction which take a purely excusatory approach to the strange, rather than explicatory or exploitative approaches. As an analysis of the aesthetics of symbolic formulation, McCalmont's three values seem spot-on.

Accessibility is indeed a key value; it's a word that crops up a lot in debates within genre, where symbolic formulation resides. As I was (sort of) saying in the post referenced by McCalmont, this is often phrased as a negative judgement of complexity as inaccessibility, difficulty. Bakker takes issue with this, referring to the alienating effect of fantasy's trappings on readers averse to the form. But inaccessibility is less to do with the difficulty of "getting into" an invented world (the antipathy to "funny names" he cites), I think, than it's to do with the difficulty of "getting into" a complex reading experience -- one which sets up contradictory emotional and intellectual responses and which therefore requires active engagement on the reader's part. Accessibility is more about the openness of a work to a passive or loose engagement, with works being judged impenetrable because "the story" is too difficult to discern -- which is to say, because it's not obvious how to parse the narrative into character, plot and theme.

A more accessible story, then, is one where these structural features are clearly defined -- whether that means unorthodox but simple or deeply conventionalised as in the extreme case of symbolic formulation. In practical terms many of the identifiers that Bakker offers as more relevant identifiers of fantasy ("the use of innocence (via characterization) as a foil to some apocalyptic threat, the valorization of archaic social interrelationships, the espousal of some bivalent morality, the compositional influence [of] Tolkien") are very much about accessibility in this sense. These features function as instantly recognizable benchmarks, blatant signposts of the story that's being told. It's in the boldness and clarity of the relationships they construct that the writer renders the story accessible. The boldest and most clear signposts are the ones with the most standard symbols placed in the most obvious positions -- symbolic formulation.

The complexity of detailed world-building may alienate the reader in a superficial sense, but it doesn't render the work structurally impenetrable. The barrier to accessibility in this sense is in the compositional structure -- character, plot and theme -- rather than the surface detail. The complexity of worldbuilding isn't at odds with accessibility, then, but may actually serve it. Admittedly this may be stretching the meaning of the term, but "the use of alternate, anthropomorphic worlds" and "the use of serial formats" Bakker refers to both demonstrate an important process in "fat fantasy" -- the establishment of a stable environment that can be returned to again and again.

The detailed worldbuilding, the ever-present map at the start, "Volume One" on the cover -- all of these serve to promise the reader a repeatable experience; they signal a commitment on the writer's part to establishing and maintaining the imaginative environment as an environment. A background developed to the level that it can be separated completely from the structures of character, plot and theme is a background where the reader's access is completely open. Taken to its ultimate, we end up with the open invite of a D&D roleplaying game, Star Wars toys or any fanfiction mythos, where the player is free to create their own story -- which is to say there is no story to demand interpretation, to create a sense of difficulty, impenetrability. This is the fictive environment as "sandpit", the accessibility of a carte blanche to do what you want with the toys.

This function of worldbuilding brings us to immersion. At one level -- immersion as a product of immediacy, immediacy allowing passive immersion rather than active engagement -- this is a value of symbolic formulation across commercial genres. Whether it's a film noir city of night and rain, an SF urban sprawl of hackers and corporations, a forest citadel of elves and dwarves, a mountain castle of decadent vampires, a suburban mall of materialist kids, the wild west of cowboys and indians, whatever -- the immersive experience is the same, an easy and instant vicarious gratification. Our ability to immerse ourselves in that environment is a matter of our desire to do so, to project ourselves out of glum reality and into a glamourous elsewhen. That "glamourous" quality which makes the elsewhen so appealing is, to give it its proper name, Romanticism, and this is a major factor in the excusing of the incredible. The Romantic elsewhen is sufficiently cool (to us, at least) that we simply don't care that it's no more than fancy.

If we are readers of symbolic formulation, that is. In his comments on McCalmont's first post, Bakker picks up on the immersive effect of worldbuilding, singles this out as a specific and distinct feature of "fat fantasy". If he's right to do so -- and I think he is -- this indicates some other aesthetic at play here, something more to immersion than the Romantic glamour, the excusatory fancy of symbolic formulation.

But I'll come back to that.

The last value McCalmont identifies is conservatism. In the aesthetic sense he applies to the term, this is absolutely fundamental to symbolic formulation, the generation of symbols and formula being entirely a matter of tradition. While the traditionality of tropes and themes can and often does result in a traditionality of political message, however, conservatism is, I think, too inextricably associated with right-wing politics. What we're really talking about here is conventionality. In symbolic formulation this is a basic requirement. The very acceptability of those Romantic tropes hinges on the fact that these character types and plot tokens are part of a known game, a customary / habitual mode of make-believe. Again, this doesn't actually distinguish fantasy from any other (Romantic and excusatory) commercial genre, but that's not the point here. In terms of symbolic formulation, I would argue, McCalmont is rightly pointing out three key aesthetic values.

So. Accessibility, immersion and conventionality. I think it's quite fair to place these values as a primary aesthetic for readers of formula fiction of any genre. If this is the only aesthetic then we might wonder why readers would be loyal to any one genre of symbolic formulation over another, but before we jump to assumptions about readers looking for one feature in this genre, another feature in that -- i.e. loyalty on the basis of aesthetic form -- we should probably consider two more basic possibilities. Loyalty to one particular genre may simply be a matter of familiarity, habituation, a particular set of tropes functioning as a known and therefore comfortable idiom. Alternatively, when we look at the degree of identification that follows on from immersion, when we consider the symbols in the formulae as self-symbols (as the subcultures of Otherkin and suchlike virtually demand we do) then loyalty to one genre can be understood as an articulation of self-image. The reader who seeks their symbolic formulation in the marketing category of Fantasy is still looking for the same thing as the reader who seeks their symbolic formulation in the marketing category of SF (or Western or whatever). There's no particular feature that they're seeking in the genre they're loyal to... only a costume of preference because of its connotations, whether it be cowboy hat, chainmail armour, or spacesuit.

The three values McCalmont focuses on, then, form a good basis for an aesthetics of symbolic formulation in general and one type of symbolic formulation in particular -- "fat fantasy" considered as the area where the sets of fantasy and symbolic formulation overlap. But, as was mentioned earlier, Bakker's highlighting of immersion generated by worldbuilding as properly fantasy-specific (in contrast to accessiblity and conventionality) raises an issue. All symbolic formulation could be said to aim for an immersive experience as a product of immediacy, but if we're talking here about immersion as a product of worldbuilding and therefore as a feature specific to fantasy, then we're getting into a more complex aesthetic. While this primary aesthetics may cover the requirements of many readers, there's no reason that a secondary aesthetics can't come into play for other readers, who may be reading symbolic formulation mainly for accessibility, immersion and conventionality but focusing on a particular genre because it does indeed offer additional features.

So... back to worldbuilding.

At this point, I think, we need to distinguish purely excusatory "fat fantasy" where the worldbuilding is largely irrelevant, superficial and derivative (the classic Tolkien clone) from explicatory "fat fantasy" where the worldbuilding is integral, layered and innovative (as in Tolkien himself). With the latter, I'd argue, there is an aesthetic at play in which value is placed on a pseudo-historical versimilitude akin to the pseudo-scientific versimilitude of Hard SF, and that the valuation is due to a desire for explication. This is evident in one of the reactions to M. John Harrison's "clomping foot of nerdism" dismissal of worldbuilding, a thread on the Deep Genre blog where the importance of this versimilitude was stressed in a number of comments. The anachronism of an object in the wrong type of historical context, the impracticality of a warrior society with no peasants providing food, the ignorant misrepresentation of an easily researched craft like metallurgy -- these and other such errors are deeply problematic for many readers of "fat fantasy". That they are is evidence of another aesthetic value being applied here: authenticity.

For some readers the ability to immerse themselves in an environment requires versimilitude in the work itself, not just a willingness to be charmed by Romantic fancies. We find exactly the same requirement in readers of Hard SF or Alternate History. It's a requirement for detail and rigour, for explication. In my own model of genre as defined by subjunctivity, the reader of these forms is, unlike the reader of pure symbolic formulation, unwilling to simply excuse the incredible for the sake of a ripping yarn. It must be rendered plausible -- the subjunctivity must be flipped back from "this could not be happening" to "this could be happening (elsewhen)" by detailed exposition of the nature of that elsewhen, how and why it deviates from our own, how certain simple and basic differences factor up into a complex and utterly alien but nevertheless sustainable imaginative environment. In fantasy terms this means laying out a whole secondary world with its own geography, botany, zoology, history, politics, religion, even metaphysics.

The categorisation and reference problems mentioned earlier as regards the term "fat fantasy" are highlighted here, in the risk of conflating the excusatory and the explicatory. One can pretty much guarantee that any such conflation will be deeply offensive to writers and readers who place a high value on authenticity and who therefore recognise a qualitative difference between the fiction that strives for it and the mere symbolic formulation. More importantly, this authenticity aesthetic is an important distinguisher between the explicatory genre work and mere symbolic formulation. For the sake of fairness to both writers and readers, and accuracy of critique, then, it's essential to keep the distinction in mind.

Unfortunately that conflation is common amongst those less versed in the relevant genres since the excusatory symbolic formulation, by nature, rips off the explicatory works, simulating authenticity by simply copying from the original. This leads to much of the explicatory genre work, over time, becoming harder to distingish from the excusatory symbolic formulation of these Nth generation knock-offs. Add to that the fact that it's rare to see worlds built entirely from scratch. With even innovative worldbuilders like Tolkien tending to ground their ideas in existing mythology or history, the result can be a sense of deep familiarity, even unoriginality. And finally, we're faced with the reality that while much of the explicatory genre work places a high value on authenticity, much of it nevertheless retains the core values of symbolic formulation -- accessibility, immersion and conventionality -- as a primary and predominating aesthetics.

Bakker is right to focus in on immersion and worldbuilding as more crucial in the aesthetic of "fat fantasy" readers; the valuation of explication is very much seen as a quality marker in the field, as a feature desired in fantasy in the same way scientific plausibility is desired in Hard SF, and it stands as one key distinction between what many "fat fantasy" readers would describe as "real" fantasy and what they'd dismiss as derivative hackwork. But it is also a key distinction between that "fat fantasy" and the fantasy of writers like M. John Harrison. For these writers, authenticity may well be highly valued but it is not valued for an explicatory purpose; these writers have no interest in resolving the challenge to suspension of disbelief by flipping the subjunctivity back from "this could not be happening" to "this could be happening (elsewhen)". They have no interest in rendering the strange plausible, explaining it away.

There are two reasons for this, I'd say. One is that the authenticity generated from and focused on explication is itself considered dubious. If one is constructing a secondary world with its own geography, botany, zoology, history, politics, religion, even metaphysics, this necessarily involves the application of one's own ideas of how such things work. When it comes to the socio-political sphere in which one is inventing human cultures, the most important in narrative terms, authenticity is at the mercy of assumptions. One's ideological preconceptions will inevitably colour the types of societies one creates, how they are portrayed as functioning, how individuals are portrayed as functioning within them, often leading to utter nonsense of whatever persuasion -- libertarian or liberal, reactionary or radical. The aesthetics of symbolic formulation may also factor in here, requiring societies where Romantic characters can engage in Romantic plots against Romantic backdrops, leading to even worse nonsense -- idealisation, for example, of the ethical historicities of warrior castes. The result may well be an "authenticity" that is risibly unrealistic.

The other reason is that the authenticity is considered irrelevant. A surfeit of detailed exposition on levels -- geographical, technological, etc. -- where we can rely on facts rather than assumptions may be all very interesting if you have an obsessive fascination with such matters but utterly pointless in terms of narrative. Pedantry for the sake of expressing one's own obsessive fascination is pretty much the definition of nerdism. Detail serving no purpose other than the explicatory is window-dressing. It exists only to create an illusion of completeness, as a demonstration of how exhaustively (and exhaustingly) one has thought through the elsewhen. It violates Grice's Maxims of communication in offering excessive information. The phrase "clomping foot of nerdism" is deeply apt.

Worse, in so far as an irrelevant authenticity of pseudo-factoids may serve to compensate for a dubious socio-political authenticity, what we can end up with is a profoundly inauthentic fiction, discernable from symbolic formulation only in respect of its additional quality of reading like it was written by a Nazi historian with Aspberger's Syndrome. When Harrison dismisses worldbuilding so brutally, it is this sort of fiction, I suspect, he has in his sights.

And yet Harrison is himself a fantasist and therefore engaging in, as many would define it, worldbuilding. How can he dismiss what he himself is doing? The answer, I think, lies in the distinction between worldbuilding as explication of the incredible and worldbuilding as exploitation of the incredible. In certain modes of strange fiction the subjunctivity of "this could not be happening" is maintained in order to create and exploit a tension between the incredible and the reader's suspension of disbelief, a sense of estrangement, of cognitive dissonance. In order to maintain that tension the fiction must maintain the strangeness. It must constantly breach plausibility by introducing new unrealities -- counterfactuals, hypotheticals, metaphysicals. Often the result is that these little unrealities build into one big unreality, a good example of this being Peake's Gormenghast books, which are virtually relentless in their refusal of explication or excuse. One might look at Gormenghast as an incredible feat of worldbuilding, but what it really is, at heart, is dreambuilding, this ultimate version of the Edwardian "Big House" as grotesque and baroque as the characters that inhabit it, inexplicably vast and ancient, its grandiose isolation in utter defiance of practicality. The same could be said about Harrison's Viriconium.

There are many surrealist, experimentalist, metafictional, slipstream or simply unclassifiable modes of strange fiction -- some published as SF, some as Fantasy and some as Horror -- that maintain estrangement by worldbreaking rather than dreambuilding, with many of the novels of Philip K. Dick being prime examples. There are many modes of strange fiction that build worlds only to break them, that break worlds and build dreams in their place, that break dreams and build worlds in their place... again with many of the novels of Philip K.Dick being prime examples. There are many that build and break worlds and dreams so as to eventually return the reader to reality, but in a state of estrangement. It's no accident that Harrison's Viriconium sequence ends with such a return to reality, in a young man's journey to Viriconium or London, depending on where you read it. Harrison's mode of strange fiction is not in the slightest concerned with worldbuilding as explication, as a means to construct the false authenticity of pseudo-factoids and dubious socio-political relationships.

Where authenticity is a value in these types of strange fiction it is largely on the inter-personal level, the authenticity of the mundane, the domestic. Rather than being a feature of the imaginative environment it is a feature of the characters who inhabit it and their relationships with each other, generated less in details of things and more in actions that could take place anywhere. This inter-personal authenticity bolsters suspension of disbelief and heightens contrast with the incredible, heightening the tension of subjunctivities, the tension between "this could be happening" and "this could not be happening". If SF, as Delany says, creates new types of sentence, it also often creates old types of sentence along with them in order to play the two off against each other.

To many who write or read the strange fiction sold as Fantasy, this exploitation of the strange is probably a more definitive feature of the genre than any conventional trope, though I doubt many would talk about it in those terms. And the primary aesthetics of this type of fantasy is quite different, necessarily, from that of symbolic formulation. In fact, I'd argue that they're pretty much directly opposed. If you reverse the polarities, so to speak, for accessibility, immersion and conventionality, what results is complexity, introspection and innovation (or subversion), and these are, I'd argue, precisely the values you find in what these writers and readers might well describe as "real" fantasy. Personally, I use the term "strange fiction" because, as much as my own allegiance is to the exploitative approach, I prefer to avoid that sort of advocacy, which boils down to, ultimately, an attempt to assert ownership on a marketing category label that has little real relevance to the aesthetic forms we're talking about. But at the end of the day, if we have to talk in terms of "fat fantasy", to me the "fantasy" is all about complexity and innovation (or subversion) as generators of estrangement, and introspection as a reaction to estrangement, while accessibility, immersion and conventionality are pretty much just "fat".

But is it fair to assume that only the exploitative modes of strange fiction will implement that contrary aesthetics, that an explicatory aesthetic of authenticity will necessarily be bound to the primary aesthetics of symbolic formulation, that this combination of values is therefore sufficient to describe the aesthetics of "fat fantasy"? As someone who doesn't read much high, epic or heroic fantasy myself, I'm not in the best position to defend it, but I do think that self-same principle of authenticity can lead to a direct rejection of the primary aesthetics on one, some, or all three points. I see no reason (other than the obvious commercial pressure) why high, epic or heroic fantasy could not or would not value complexity, introspection and innovation (or subversion) while happily preferring to explicate the strange rather than exploit it. Actually, I find it pretty damn likely that the best writers in that mode are implementing exactly that aesthetic.

I will say this, though: as an analysis of the aesthetics of symbolic formulation, those three values are, I think, totally fair, and sprinkling a little worldbuilding into the mix doesn't improve things as far as my personal tastes go. If what we mean by worldbuilding is simply explication, if what we mean by "fat fantasy" is fiction bound to accessibility, immersion and conventionality but with that extra element of worldbuilding, well, adding explicatory authenticity to symbolic formulation does not make it "fantasy" to a writer or reader who wants their fiction truly strange; it simply adds more fat to the fat.