Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Of Genres and Sub-Genres

So I noticed that Jay Lake has been developing a taxonomy of sub-genres over on his LiveJournal (here). It's a project I'm in two minds about. On the one hand, I think the whole idea of it smacks of a content-oriented approach to the field, an attempt to sub-divide into discrete types identified by their key combinations of tropes. But on the other hand, I think the processes of symbolic formulation at play in the field do actually have the effect of generating these identifiable types, these classes of strange fiction. So I thought what I'd do is kick his taxonomy about a bit and look for... well... types of types, take it as a springboard and see where it lead me.

So, Jay starts off with Gothic, separating this out into three modes that I'm not honestly convinced by. I also think that if you're going to cast a wide enough net to include Gothic you need to cover the other forms of early strange fiction. Which leads me to a first group of "sub-genres":

Proto-Modern Romance

  • Gothic — Frankenstein, Dracula, Melmoth
  • Victorian Adventure -- She, King Solomon's Mines, The Lost World
  • Scientific Adventure — From the Earth to the Moon, The Time Machine
  • Juvenile — Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows

Here we've got the various developments of and from popular pre-Victorian, Victorian and post-Victorian fiction. We could include Stevenson, Buchan, Conan Doyle, Haggard and a whole lot more here, but that would take up too much room and too much time. So let's just say that what we've got here is narratives structured as Romantic Adventures.


Pre-industrial idyll (to be saved)

  • Secondary World Fable -- The Gods of Pegana
  • Secondary World Epic -- Worm Ouroboros, Well at the World's End, LotR
  • Juvenile — The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Heroic Quest — Dragonbone Chair, Sword of Shannara, The Last Unicorn
  • Anthropomorphic -- Watership Down
  • Deconstruction — Princess Bride, Discworld, The Iron Dragon's Daughter

Here your backdrop is an ultimately idyllic secondary world reconstructed from our myth, folklore and fable (childhood and the past idealised). And the narrative is Romantic Adventure restructured as such. The result is the Epic / Heroic monomyth focused on a single innocent hero / heroine, sometimes expanded to the noble band, the fellowship on their Quest to save the kingdom. We see this all over the genre, formulated by homage & copying, or deconstructed by parody or critique. When it's reconstructed by historification we get the next group...

Pre-industrial baroque world (to be won)

  • Pseudo-Mediaeval Epic— Tigana, A Game of Thrones, Prince of Nothing
  • Arthurian -- The Once and Future King
  • Greek -- Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts
  • Sumerian -- Gilgamesh
  • Celtic — Tam Lin

The backdrop here is still a secondary world but this is reconstructed from history and legend -- or myth, folklore and fable remade as legend. It takes place in more of a post-mythic "Age of Men" world, one that manifests our desires and dreams and so is imbued with wonder but one where the resultant vibe is more baroque, more complex and morally ambiguous, because Fate is suspect, the divine is fickle, multiplicitous, and the process of historification forces a recognition of the reality of imperfect rulers. The narrative is still structured as Epic / Heroic, but we may see it in saga form rather than monomyth, focused on multiple flawed heroes / heroines. Less of a Quest here, more of a Struggle for the Kingdom, more war and rebellion, intrigue and subterfuge. This type can be reconstructed, in turn, by downscaling from Epic to Heroic...

Neo-primitive world (to be conquered)

  • Planetary Romance -- A Princess of Mars, Slave Girl of Gor
  • Swords & Sorcery — Conan, Jirel of Joiry, Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser
  • Postapocalyptic — Hiero's Journey
  • Deconstruction Elric of Melnibone, Shadow of the Torturer, Viriconium

It's interesting that here the secondary world may well be rationalised as another planet, a prehistoric past or a post-apocalypse future. And there's a corresponding slide from the wonders of the idyllic and the baroque here, to a sense of the world as existential wilderness, the moral vaccum of a wild world, all too human kingdoms ruled by all too human powers. The Epic quest is replaced by Heroic mission(s), the narrative structured as episodic adventure, focused on the Romantic hero as noble savage or honest rogue. Ultimately this is deconstructed in the New Wave by the full-on anti-heroism of Decadent protagonists, writers seeking to directly critique the reactionary politics of the genre, the fascism of power-fantasy, or even, in Harrison's case, the whole aesthetic foundation of secondary world fantasy.

So what next?

Modern archaic world (to be rediscovered)

  • American Gothic — Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • Contemporary Fantasy -- Mythago Wood, American Gods
  • Urban Fantasy — War for the Oaks, Moonheart, Bones of the Moon
  • Dark Fantasy — Pillars of the World, Interview With a Vampire
  • Occult Adventure -- Declare, Last Call, The Club Dumas
  • Supernatural Romance -- Anita Blake
  • Pastiche / Parody — Fool on the Hill

This group takes a different tack. Here myth, folklore and fable are used to construct a secondary level to reality, a realm hidden beyond or within the contemporary world. Legend is remade as secret history. Our backdrop, then is the "post-magic" world of modernity. It seems only natural that the resultant theme here is the resurgence of the repressed, the uncovering of the cryptic (the message being that our world is itself, secretly, a locus of wonder). We see the return of the Gothic here via that occultism, but we also see it merging with more contemporary modes of Romance -- adventure, thriller, romance in the Harlequin sense. The narrative is generally structured as an Adventure / Mystery of some sort, though. As such it inherits those heroes, the innocent cynics, the mundanes who are not born to Epic / Heroic destinies, modern everymen who think they understand the world until they are suddenly faced with the return of the archaic.

And what about SF?

Colonialist frontier world (to be saved / won / conquered)

  • Prototypes — The Skylark of Space, The Lensman series
  • Juvenile -- Tom Swift, Podkayne of Mars
  • Space Opera — The Mote in God's Eye
  • Epic SF — The Stars My Destination, Dune, Nova, Fire Upon the Deep
  • Future-Historical SF — Foundation
  • Alien Invasion — War of the Worlds, Footfall
  • Politico-Economic -- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Crypto-political Thriller — Consider Phlebas
  • Military SF — Starship Troopers, A Hymn Before Battle, Honor Harrington
  • Alternate History — The Guns of the South

Here we see space as the secondary world scaled up, the future as idyllic / baroque / neo-primitive backdrop for all sorts of Epic / Heroic / Adventure / Mystery narrative. Super-advanced technological artifacts, as Objects of Power, imbue this new frontier with wonder, but that frontier is also a place of threat. An innocent Earth may become the victim of colonialist aliens, an idyll to be saved. Peaceful Earth colonies may be the targets of imperialist Terrans or the local savages, a kingdom to be won or a territory to be conquered (though the politics of this may be glossed over). So we get narratives structured as monomythic quest, power-struggle saga, episodic mission or cryptic thriller. Given the colonialist frontier thematics at play here it's no surprise that the field of SF incorporates a return to the romantic roots of all this -- the War of Independence, the Civil War, the Wild West, the Indian Wars -- in Alternate History so often focused on the (re)construction of America.

Which leads us to another group of types of SF, one overlapping with the field of Fantasy...

Industrial baroque/grotesque world (to be understood)

  • Future Fantasy — The Martian Chronicles
  • Social satire -- The Space Merchants, The Reproductive System
  • Drug culture -- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • Metaphysical — Lord of Light, Ubik, Valis
  • New Wave -- Cornelius Quartet, Dangerous Visions
  • Cyberpunk — Neuromancer
  • Steampunk --The Anubis Gates
  • New Weird — Perdido Street Station, The Etched City, The Physiognomy
  • Clockpunk -- Mainspring
  • Transhumanist — Accelerando

Here space, the future or an alternate history represents the modern world made strange, a baroque / grotesque backdrop for the sort of Epic / Heroic / Adventure / Mystery narratives discussed above. The use of technology here may also be as an Object of Power or a MacGuffin. But this is a post-Promethean world, an industrial, capitalist, consumerist, information age world where the everyman is hero. Because the real frontier is closed, Bradbury's fiction becomes an elegy for it. And because we are now in the Age of America's Empire we see the introduction of satiric and Noir narratives as critique of its culture, from Sladek through to Gibson. We see the counter-culture manifest in everything PKD ever wrote. We see postmodernity in the New Wave & slipstream disruptions of linear narrative. As we enter the post-industrial era we see the use of Gothic and Victorian Adventure to (re)construct a lost industrial idyll. The Information Age wonders of Singlarity fiction, it should be noted, could be considered a sort of idyllic / baroque / grotesque depending on one's level of investment in the dream of transcendance; you could see the futureshock of modernity in there or a new frontier myth.

Ultimately this group too can be reconstructed by removing Romantic narrative structures, adopting a social naturalist dynamics:

Conceptual world (to be survived)

  • Prototype — The Machine Stops
  • Technological -- Rogue Moon, Rendezvous With Rama
  • Socio-political — The Left Hand of Darkness, Double Star, The Female Man
  • Utopian -- Lost Horizon, The Dispossessed, Shikasta
  • Heterotopian -- Trouble on Triton
  • Dystopian — 1984, Native Tongue, The Handmaid's Tale
  • Apocalyptic -- Dalghren
  • Postapocalyptic — A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Drowned World
  • Psycho-social— The Time Traveler's Wife, Flowers for Algernon
  • Metaphoric — Gormenghast
  • Metaphysical — The Lovely Bones

Reality, here, is reconfigured by a conceit. The world is a modern or postmodern "strange land" to be... lived in. Romantic narrative structures are therefore rationalised or reconstructed entirely to social naturalist narratives of a protagonist confronted with that reconfiguration, struggling to survive. Conceits of technological innovation, socio-political development, environmental catastrophe and personal transformation can be made concrete in SF. Metaphoric and metaphysical conceits can be made concrete in Fantasy. Any sort of story, ultimately, can be told using the technique of the hypothetical, counterfactual or metaphysical conceit extended throughout the narrative.

That last point is crucial, I'd say. None of the above is intended as any sort of schema of how this or that "sub-genre" intrinsically "is" like these but "is not" like those others. Rather what I'm trying to unpack here is the aesthetics and narrative structures these variant forms of strange fiction seem to vaguely adhere to, to gravitate towards in the process of symbolic formulation. I'm not even entirely convinced by this taxonomy as it stands, I'd have to say; it's really more of a rough framework than anything else, and I'm suspicious of any model based, like this, on lumping individual texts together by "type"... but as a few broad thoughts on the faultlines within strange fiction if nothing else, I thought I may as well kick it around a bit and see how it holds together or if it turns into something else.


Blogger Unknown said...

You are my hero, Hal! :) Excellent, informative post.

7:10 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting that you broadly define sub-genres by their setting, and the direct interplay between a setting and the protagonists intention.

You make a pretty compelling argument but I can't help suspect their are exceptions. In "Water off a black dog's back" by Kelly Link (for example) I think is a story that would fall into the World's to be understood category and yet it has a contemporary setting. I know this is a short story but I wonder if with the move toward slipstream and interstitial fictions, toward a Post Modern view of this world, if the link between metaphorical fantasy settings and protagonists intent is becoming looser?

Also - where would you place yourself on this list?

3:34 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ben: Cheers, man. :)

thexmedic: I suspect the exceptions are as wide-spread as the examples in many respects. I'm really thinking of these groupings as rough ways to identify, I guess, branching paths the field moves along as writers riff off the previous generations. So in each group and sub-group I'd sort of expect to see a set of establishing works which were exceptional when they came out, works that might almost fit in another group or sub-group except that they take some novel twist of an approach, a turn in another (generally untrodden or less trodden) direction. Then I'd expect to see a set of works inspired by these which consolidate the group or sub-group by developing the themes; and these would shade into that set of works which are basically just derived, taking that approach as a formula, becoming symbolic formulation.

Then, of course, you get a new set of exceptional works which kinda sorta might almost fit into that group or sub-group, except that they take some new turn along the way and set off in another direction, and the whole process starts all over again.

Or they might switch streams, so to speak. A neo-primitive, postapocalyptic, swords & sorcery novel could easily bring a Conan-style hero suddenly into a baroque setting (an enclave of Renaissance-level culture and Medici/Borgia style intrigue), and shift the whole narrative structure up a gear into Epic by making it a struggle for civilisation. It could shift the focus again by introducing a sense of the idyllic, a potential to get "through" all that baroque complexity and make the world whole again, even introducing a sense that the hero is in fact Chosen for that role.

The point is, nothing here is meant to be taken as a discrete essential form that a writer has to select and then write the story as an example of. Instead, I'd say, these are the rough, vague outlines of forms that some writers have at some point selected to work within, the symbolic formulation tracing out that outline over and over again. Any writer might take one outline but... colour outside the lines, creating a new variant of the form to be outlined by subsequent copyists. They might overlay multiple outlines and complexify the work that way. They might totally cut-up and fold-in multiple templates. Or whatever.

With the latter two groups, I suspect, the overlap between them is pretty strong. There's no reason, for example, that the industrial baroque/grotesque aesthetic couldn't be constructed entirely from contemporary (post)modernity, for example. It's largely, I think, a not-so-indirect way of talking about our world anyway, so you could simply take, say, American Suburbia and skew it into something weirder, stranger, bring out the baroque grotesquery of the existing culture. David Lynch does this, I'd say, as do many of the New Wave writers and I think that's a strategy you see a lot in of the New New Wave (slipstream, interstitial, New Wave Fabulist, and so on). Then take away the sort of Mystery plot structure you have in Twin Peaks, leaving only the conceit you've overlaid on reality in order to bring out the strangeness of it, and you have the Conceptual, where the protagonist is cut loose from a traditional Romantic narrative path (like "uncovering the secret truth") and may end up just stumbling about trying to deal with this (post)modernity on a domestic level. That's the sort of tack you might well see a lot of Kelly Link stories as taking.

You could argue that the Cornelius Quartet does this actually, starting out with a Romantic narrative structure in which Jerry is the Hero in an Adventure narrative structure, breaking that up into episodic sub-structures (which are fine within the Heroic / Adventure form), but gradually, as the episodes progress, stripping away the Heroism, transforming the Adventure into a domestic drama... Jerry as a spotty adolescent wannabe in a scuzzy London that's virtually Eastenders.

As for meself, with THE BOOK OF ALL HOURS I'm going for a layered effect where you have a Conceptual basis in the 3D time idea as a way of talking about story and the 7-fold soul idea as a way of talking about identity, and the resurgence of historical/naturalist narratives makes it kind of about the individual's struggle to survive in a modernity reconfigured through that conceit. But there's a definite sense in which the narrative is Heroic, so you could well read it as industrial baroque/grotesque. Then you've got all those old gods coming out of the woodwork, the mythic archaic resurfacing in the modern, so it's digging under that, trying to rediscover the anciet. In fact, in many respects it's ultimately Epic. I mean, you've got all the Virgilian stuff, which is totally about the idyll, and you have opening and closing sections which state pretty blatantly "This is in the Epic idiom", the spin I'm trying to put on it, I guess, being that the idyll is here and now, inside us, if we want it to be, if we recognise it. There's the elegy that goes with that, because to recognise the idyll we have to accept it as a dream, but simply by restoring that dream, as a dream, well, that's what makes us whole as humans, and that's what makes (post)modernity liveable.

2:06 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Note: a lot of the discussion on the BrokenCircles blog -- here -- feels relevant to the notes I've written here on that "industrial baroqe/grotesque" aesthetics and its relationship to the "conceptual". I'm no more keen on the "Next Weird" label than I am on "New Weird" or "slipstream" or "interstitial", but I think if you strip it down to "weird", what they're talking about is, I think, (post)modernity filtered through a baroque/grotesque aesthetic.

2:14 pm  

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