Notes from New Sodom

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

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What is Fantasy?

Over at OF Blog of the Fallen, Larry asks, "What is fantasy?" Easy, I say. Needs a little technical jargon to explain it with precision, but basically all you need to start from is the way modal auxiliary verbs -- is, did, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must -- express opinions of fact (epistemic modality,) possibility (alethic modality,) duty (deontic modality,) or +/- desire (boulomaic modality.) So any articulation is going to have one or more of these modalities coded into it, right? It's going to tell of something that did or didn't happen, something that could or couldn't happen, something that should or shouldn't happen. Simple, huh?

See the post on narrative modalities for a fuller explanation; the theory is basically an expansion of the notion of subjunctivity as applied in Delany's "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words" (also c.f. The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, Clute & Grant.)


1. Fantasy is the articulation, in whatever medium, textual or audiovisual -- in the medium of imaginative thought if nothing else -- of a series of events having an epistemic modality of "did not happen" but treated as having an epistemic modality of "did happen." Which is to say, when we're talking of sexual fantasies or revenge fantasies, of a paranoid fantasy or a fantasy of fame and fortune, we're talking simply of suspension-of-disbelief in imaginary events. Don't give me any bullshit about this missing the point of the question, by the way, about that not being the type of fantasy we're talking about. We haven't established the type of fantasy we're talking about. And I doubt we will be able to. We can add a little nuance here though:

1.1. While this openly-defined fantasy (meaning 1) does not necessarily also have a boulomaic modality of "should happen," in which the series of events articulates desire, (paranoid fantasies being an obvious exception,) it is strongly associated with such, (with even paranoid fantasies essentially positing the supreme importance of the fantasist.) If desireability is not denoted in fantasy (meaning 1), it is certainly a connotation.

1.2. While this openly-defined fantasy (meaning 1) does not necessarily also have an alethic modality of "could not happen," in which the series of events is logically, physically, historically or technically impossible, it is strongly associated with such and with the related alethic modality of "would not happen," in which the series of events breaches expectations of consequence. The more implausible the series of events, the more "fantastic" the fantasy (meaning 1).

2. Where the above leaves all fiction as a form of fantasy (meaning 1), meanings 1.1. or 1.2. allow for a specification of fantasy (meaning 2) as a particular mode of fiction:
  • (a) One could theoretically apply meaning 1.1. and focus on fiction introducing boulomaic modalities of "should happen," but in practice the basic wish-fulfillment approach of erotica, Mary Sues, power-fantasies and suchlike is not what is conventionally denoted when we talk of the fantastic in literature, of fantasy as a broad class of literature.
  • (b) Rather we apply meaning 1.2, such that as fiction introduces ruptures to suspension-of-disbelief via alethic modalities of "could not happen" or "would not happen," it becomes classifiable as fantasy (meaning 2). Various modes and genres -- science fiction, supernatural horror, magical realism -- are sub-types of this openly-defined fantasy (meaning 2) even where they are determinedly distinguished from fantasy (meaning x) as a more closely-defined form.

2.1. With breaches of our expectations of consequence, the fantastic is supremely subjective, overlapping to a large extent with the absurd and the surreal; these latter are also predicated on events that "would not happen," and whether or not we read an absurd/surreal event that has a quality of non sequitur as fantastic is largely a matter of personal response. Works like Harold Pinter's THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, Lyndsey Anderson's IF... or Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL can be considered as fantasy (meaning 2.1.) given the profound strangeness they employ in places, the deep rupturing of our suspension-of-disbelief. If you find this objectionable, please to go watch THE BIRTHDAY PARTY followed by THE PRISONER tv series. Repeat until you understand why Sterling coined the term slipstream.

2.1.1. Where we exclude simple breaches of expectations of consequence, limiting the fantastic to ruptures of possibility, we construct a slightly more limited but still very broad fantasy as a mode of fiction comparable to comedy in its use of the comic and to tragedy in its use of the tragic (both of which modes can also be defined in terms of narrative modalities, by the way.) So fantasy (meaning 2.1.1.) is the fiction of that which "could not happen" given the strictures of logic, laws of nature, known history or known science -- the fiction of a man turning into a beetle, say, in Kafka's "Metamorphosis." In my surlier moments, I tend to think that if this is not what you understand by the term fantasy then you need to read some motherfucking Edward Whittemore. But then everybody needs to read some motherfucking Edward Whittemore.

2.2. With breaches of the strictures of logic, laws of nature, known history or known science, the fantastic is largely obvious, to some degree objectively verifiable; that events "could not happen" is often an establishable fact. This may be obscured however by the conceit of a context where such constraints do not apply; here key events are treated as having an alethic modality of "would have happened" or "would happen" if said conceit held true. The contingent events of the narrative can therefore be treated as having an alethic modality of "could happen." This allows for a closing of the definition.
  • (a) Meaning 1b comes into play again, such that fantasy is defined as the more implausible mode of fiction which does not (or even can not) argue its context in this way -- in contrast to the mode of fiction which can and does, generally labeled sf. Here fantasy (meaning 2.1.) must be relabeled (as speculative fiction or somesuch) with sf and fantasy (meaning 2.2.) as essentially distinct sub-types.
  • (b) So a man turning into a Star Child, say, in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, is fantasy (meaning 2.1.) but sf in contradistinction to fantasy (meaning 2.2.) because it offers a conceit of technological advances that "would have happened" for an alien race much older than us, with the transformation posited as something that "could happen" if said conceit held true. The context is arguable.
  • (c) It should be noted, many works such as Robert Silverberg's THE BOOK OF SKULLS are considered sf regardless of the fact that they clearly constitute fantasy (meaning 2.2.,) offering no conceit other than that the impossible is possible; the immortality is not contingent on anything that "would happen"; no effort is made to argue the context or even to suggest that it is arguable.

2.2.1. An orthogonal distinction becomes of import here, that between fictions breaching known history or known science -- where contingencies are easily posited -- and fictions breaching the laws of nature or strictures of logic -- where the conceit of a context where such constraints do not apply is essentially the conceit of an alterior reality in which the metaphysical impossibilities of our reality are possible.
  • (a) Applying meaning 1.2., we get a more implausible fantasy (meaning 2.2.1.) that allows for such conceits, in contrast to an sf that does not. In much of that sf defined in contrast to fantasy (meaning 2.1.,) however, conceits of developments in known science are contingent on conceits of revisions in (our understanding of) the laws of nature. Hence much of that sf constitutes fantasy (meaning 2.2.1.)
  • (b) So the jaunting in Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION is sf in contradistinction to fantasy (2.2.,) because it offers a conceit of the evolution that "would have happened" by the time the story is set, with the capacity to teleport as something that "could happen" in that context; but it is fantasy (meaning 2.2.1.) in so far as it requires a complete revision of the laws of thermodynamics. This is essentially a limit on the arguability of context, a refusal to accept metaphysical impossibilities.
  • (c) It should be noted, this distinction between sf and fantasy (meaning 2.2.1) is commonly asserted as the essential difference between the two genres by readers/writers who nonetheless ignore that limitation and class a work as sf regardless. Roger Zelazny's ROADMARKS, for example, hinges on an entirely metaphysical fancy that renders it fantasy (meaning 2.2.1.,) but the work is still classed as sf by most.

2.2.2. Another orthogonal distinction becomes of import also, between fictions employing an epic/heroic grammar founded on boulomaic modalities of "should happen" and fictions that do not. In the case of the former, the alethic modality of "would not happen" is so integral to the dynamics that it is palpable in the reading experience; the tension between boulomaic and alethic modalities is, to a large degree, what powers this mode of fiction.
  • (a) Applying meaning 1.1., we get a more implausible fantasy (meaning 2.2.2.) that is driven by this dynamics, in contrast to an sf that is not. Given the roots of sf in pulp action/adventure, however, so much sf constitutes fantasy (meaning 2.2.2.) that the dynamics must be characterised as a pervasive foreign presence at play within sf.
  • (b) So Frank Herbert's DUNE is sf in contradistinction to fantasy (meaning 2.2.) but fantasy (meaning 2.2.2.) because of its epic/heroic grammar. It is also fantasy (meaning 2.2.1.) because of its metaphysical impossibilities. In arguments over whether this work is sf or fantasy, one side may assert the arguability of its context. As with STAR WARS it is as often the epic/heroic grammar that is referenced by the other side as it is the breaches of physical possibility.
  • (c) This, in part, provides an explanation for the acceptance of THE BOOK OF SKULLS and ROADMARKS as sf in contradistinction to fantasy (meaning 2.2.2.) The decision is not based on the arguability of the context or the treatment of the laws of nature, but rather on the narrative grammar employed. Here sf is basically defined as any fantasy (meaning 2.1.) that is not fantasy (meaning 2.2.2.) Given the quality issue with wish-fulfilment, this is an expedient semantic strategy for disavowing that pulp pandering.

2.2.3. The conceit of an alterior reality in which the metaphysical impossibilities of our reality are possible is traditional enough that it has become a formal convention -- that of the secondary world -- so highly defined in terms of generic characteristics, it is distinguishable from conceits positing realities that are equally alterior but which simply do not fit the template. This leads us to a completely closed definition of fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.)
  • (a) With this genre of fictions also characterised by its epic/heroic grammar, meanings 2.2.1. and 2.2.2. fuse into a rigorously defined fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.) that is greater (or rather lesser, more limited) than the sum of its parts. Fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.) is, at its core, the "full fantasy" defined by Clute, set in contrast to sf and horror, with works that do not fit the taxonomy classed as a sort of foundation or broader context of "fantastika."
  • (b) So THE LORD OF THE RINGS and its derivatives are not just examples of fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.); fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.) essentially is and only is THE LORD OF THE RINGS and its derivatives. Or at least it centres on such, with deviations from that template rendering a work less "pure" as fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.) Fans of this narrow genre, this supremely limited sub-type of fantasy (meaning 2.1.), are as likely to use the term to mean this and only this as are the detractors who consider those limitations intrinsically ruinous.
  • (c) This is a logical result of the historical development of Fantasy as a marketing category, segregated out from SF in the 1970s to target the vast market of Tolkien fans with works in the same vein. With the marketing category schismed from sf to sell fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.) to that target audience, for many readers/writers whose perspectives are limited by that discourse, the term fantasy can only signify this rigid genre which sf is essentially not. Where sf exhibits features they consider flaws indeed -- a failure to argue context effectively, a failure to sell a metaphysical impossibility persuasively, a pandering and consolatory plot dynamics -- these are identified as qualities of that other(ed) genre, deemed elements of fantasy (meaning 2.2.3.) by which sf has been contaminated. For them, that is what fantasy is -- the flaws that must be expunged from sf.

None of these definitions has any greater authority as far as I can see. I don't see how we can legitimately take a stand at any point and say, this position is clearly right, this is what fantasy is. And sadly, utility doesn't seem to enter into the realities of use.

In a critical discourse dealing with literature in general, meanings 2.1. and 2.1.1. are clearly preferable; one needs to be able to talk about the fantastic in the works of Kelly Link or Franz Kafka as one would talk about the tragic in the works of Arthur Miller or William Shakespeare. I have no time for those who refuse to acknowledge even the possibility of using the term fantasy in this way. Unfortunately, in everyday discourse, the commercial categories are carved so deep into the public parlance that meaning 2.2.3. is probably going to be presumed in most contexts. Hell, in my experience it is probably going to be insisted on by the most tiresome territorialists. What is fantasy? There are multiple answers, but to offer one at odds with that tired fucking bullshit that it's elves and magic swords and darlings of destiny (with an implicit yay! or boo!) is to invite tedious argument with boors and blusterers.

So fuck that shit. What is fantasy? Take yer pick.

I am not innarested in yer rotted names.



Blogger Michael said...

Zelazny seemed to share your disinterest in classifying gneres - Roadmarks partakes of quite a few SF conventions - machine intelligences, alternate histories, aliens, whereas Lord of Light (clearly SF) has gods, demons and magic. And the Amber books, of course, are fantasy through and through except for the hard bitten voice...

10:33 pm  
Blogger baczko said...


I’m a chief on one of the biggest polish site about fantasy and science fiction books (, and I’d like to ask about one thing: would you like to write a short article (app. 3-4 k) about your plans as a writer (means books, thoughts & information about your newest texts, cogitation about fantasy & science fiction)? Our readers will be very surprised and satisfied ;)

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11:11 pm  

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