Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Stuff the Idiom Was Made On

So why, specifically, the rhetorical pretense that category fiction is about "story" rather than the sensational? Here's the nub of it:

Blunt force disruptions as narrative triggers, stakes so extraordinary as to be incredible, complications solid as a fist in the face, events as physical as an airship exploding... it's only natural that these are more engaging. But that's the rub: they appeal to anyone and everyone -- including children and the uneducated -- and so to the petit-bourgeois reader they become signifiers of a base taste that must be abjured. Cock forbid we enjoy the sensational relished by the unsophisticated palate!

The miserable poverty of critical savvy in this attitude must be made clear. There's absolutely no need to lose one's appreciation of the sensational in order to gain an additional appreciation for the less immediately engaging, even the outright challenging. One just needs a keener attention, sharper reading senses to extend the range of works one finds rewarding. But if your middle-brow banality sets a glass ceiling here, well, you've little choice but to lower your valuation of the "sensational" thereby raising your valuation of the "intellectual" relative to it. Or "crude" and "sophisticated," or "juvenile" and "mature" -- pick your rhetoric. Of course, the strategy is compensation for an absence of development, for the absence of that additional attentive appreciation whereby Ulysses could be ten times as taxing and still be worth it for the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end.

If you're really reaping the rewards of subtler literature, you shouldn't have to cast them in relief against the rewards of sensationalist stories, rendering the latter as ignoble in order to glorify the former. There is nothing more adolescent than disdain for the infantile; so too with the self-styled sophisticate scorning the "jejune." And it is the mark of the true mediocrity never to mature beyond this sophomoric hubris. The action of expressing (which is to say posturing) a superior taste (which is to say superior propriety) only serves to advertise a failure to abstract and appreciate with objectivity the form and function of a literary spear-thrower.  Picasso saw the gracile purity of a cave painting. Joyce and Potter saw the same in popular music, trite as its sentiments might be. Obliviousness to the same in pulp fiction is a deficit in any artist or critic.

Sadly, middle-class propriety has institutionalised this sad strategy of self-validation. It's nigh impossible to be raised within the cloisters of the discourse and not have the received values drummed into you by the ceaselessly droned rote. Except one is sensitised by abjected status, perhaps, to that bootstrapping strategy of privilege by prejudice, it takes a rather thrawn soul to turn a harsh eye on one's own thoughtless dismissals. (Doubt is, after all, always-already thoughtlessly dismissed.) Even, it seems, for those of us allied with the sensational via category fiction and passionate about its potentials.

Indeed, through the slow gentrification of category fiction, the environmental antipathy to (or angst about) sensationalism has arguably consolidated into an institutional standard. We can talk about "sense of wonder" all we want. The very voices most fervent in lauding the potential of science fiction in that regard often seem those most wedded to the aesthetic that abjures the sensationalist. Call it Anglo-American Neorealism, that post-WWII return to the enterprise of edification, that literary trend begun by radicals, appropriated by reactionaries. In science fiction perhaps more than any other genre, concern with intellectual credibility (both scientific and literary) set technophiliac and scientistic enthusiasts in sympathy with those neorealists, disavowing intellectual credulousness, advocating to all intents and purposes against the very stuff the idiom was made on.

The argument has been productive, as all such dialectics of aesthetics are, but ultimately the weight of anti-sensational thought has prevailed in establishing an authoritative propriety that partitions science fiction in much the same way Krystal partitions literature. One can argue c.f. Knight and similar that sf is a nominal label for the extant body of all speculative literature, established as too diverse for definition in the marketing category up until the segregation out of Fantasy in the 1970s. But amid the chaos of clashing aesthetics, a dominating propriety fervently denies this, essentially setting only what we might call "neorealist science fiction" as legitimate. And subsequent to the segregation out of Fantasy, with the generation of terms like "slipstream" and "interstitial," it is hard to sustain an all-inclusive usage both practically and theoretically. Unlike Krystal's "literature," the neorealist's "science fiction" is quite solidly defensible.

Although the literary decorum of this mode of strange fiction is where, incidentally, I might well source the crisis characterised by Kincaid as "exhaustion."

Just so you know.



Blogger Trip said...

I like your mention of "taste" in the first couple of paragraphs, and the way you see it work is pretty much the way I see it work.

It's basically a coarse sieve to help a certain type (or, more controversially, a class) of people to manage their reading material in a time where literature is as mass-produced as anything else.

I've heard it described by Delany via Walter Benjamin how the notion of "taste" appeared when people were no longer able to discern the mark of the craftsman in a mass-produced object. So they needed a canvass term that turned in the end away from the particularities of production/creation and to political (in the broader sense of the word) means of demarcation.

It's really what makes hard sf more "proper" than Star Wars-type sf. The verbal thud and blunder of Greg Bear, for instance, seems more, again, proper to the questions he wrestles with - like it's something you would expect of your physics professor, simply because you know that the "content" is worth it.

It's bit like how literature was seen academically some 100-150 years ago: it couldn't stand on its own terms, so it was allied with, if not downright subsumed by, the discourses it borrowed from - philosophy, history, etc.

Just so with sf - it's gotta give you that odd physics lesson in order to have the right to even exist properly. Or it has to remind you in some way of the strangeness of Kafka, Marquez, Borges, etc., in other words, to have about them that whiff of "real" albeit strange literature.

It's a failure of both logic and historical thought to recognize these as political distinctions, not based in any way upon some imaginary inherent qualities of the genre as a whole of its texts in particular.

In the case of the potential Greg Bear - Star Wars deathmatch of sf-trope realism, on a superficial level Bear just rips SW apart.

It's tasteless to have gaygolden robots and future-world pyjama knights flying around, but sound in space?!?! Gimme a break. All right, all right. How about this.

You postulate a device on board of all spaceships that translates the ion-vibrations of their engines or something like that, into sound so pilots can better orient themselves through sound as well as sight. You slip that piece of info in the narrative as elegantly as you can. As a piece of invented technology it's really neither better nor worse than various explanations of time-travel or FTL-drives, as I see it. Then you think of a scene that juxtaposes mute space and noisy cabins in a creatively interesting way.

That's sf. That's how it works. And that's where SW fails as sf, not in the inclusion of the notion of sounds of spaceships. And certainly not in the gaygolden Fritz Lang-esque robot department.

Still, I bet it's the "sound in space is impossible" issue that will come up most often from people deriding SW as sf.

11:44 am  
Blogger Trip said...

As for being hard to sustain an all-inclusive usage, I believe that Delany's position of sf being functionally described (he doesn't like the word "defined") by it's reading protocols, comes very close to a good defence of that all-inclusive usage. Maybe you've heard this example of his:

Imagine getting a copy of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis", packaged as a part of a "Great Literature of the 20th Century" series. Reading the first sentence, you ask yourself "What's this transformation a metaphor of? How does it signify the subject?"

Now imagine getting a copy of it in some "Best Sci-Fi" series. Reading the first sentence, you ask yourself, "What does this transformation bespeak of the world around Samsa? Has performed some sort of operation on him? Is he a hybrid lifeform? How does it all signify the object?"

The really sad shit about that certain class of people trying to read sf (or even worse, reading it and thinking they "understand" what it's about) is that they ask and appreciate, and privilege the first set of question over the second one. As I see it, it's another demonstration of overvaluing some misguided notion of subtlety. (Not to be confused with smarter and more rarefied notions of subtlety.)

P.S. Just now listnening to Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On". Coincidence?

11:44 am  
Blogger Trip said...

Fuck my grammar. Sorry for occasional idiocies on that front. Not my first language.

11:48 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Heh, I vaguely recall arguing that spaceship sound could be rationalised on a similar principle -- proximity sensors feeding pilots motion data for nearby objects as audio. Might be a bit iffy for exterior PoV shots, but I could see it being argued.

Given that sort of playing fast and loose with physics is endemic in SF though, I don't know if this is the thing that really feels "improper" for most. With TV sci-fi in general, yes, but where Star Wars in particular is being singled out, where it's used as a signifier for impropriety in SF, the "magic" of the Force seems more problematic -- because, I reckon, action-by-will, ESP, all that jazz is hugely wish-fulfilling. If the Golden Age of SF is, as they say, fourteen, such "magic" is for, like, ten-year-olds. Ick!

Indeed, interestingly, I've heard a whole lot of people explicitly argue that what makes Star Wars not-SF for them -- i.e. improper as SF -- is the Campbellian monomyth. They'll cast it as knights and princesses being Fantasy but when it comes down to it what they're baulking at is pure narrative grammar. It's not even the "magic." In taste terms, it's improper because the plot dynamics is that of fairytale / heroic legend. Hell, you could rationalise the Force with quantum entanglement or somesuch. You'd still have these elements that are sensational, that are instantly engaging to children, that would lead many to see it as improper SF, I'd say.

3:56 pm  
Blogger Trip said...


Jeez, but there are heaps of "High" books and movies whose plot dynamics are masked heroic legend or myth. What, you can have it, but Random Chance forbid it's undressed down to light-saber showdowns instead of a kitchen conversation fulfilling the same structural role. Honestly, these people...

Of course, I don't think you're in any way wrong that this is how things stand, sadly.

What I mostly wanted to show with the SW example, though, was what should matter, and that the palette of sf-effects has high-and-fast play with physics as simply a prerequisite to using it for fictional effect, which is the reason fiction exists.

It's not really that important what exactly science-bending novum you'll postulate and it's not really essential to argue it *that* conscientiously. The important thing is it will give you stuff like the "Silent exterior/Noisy interior" juxtaposition to work with for effect.

Kind of dumb-sounding, I admit: "The meaning of fiction is to have an effect on you.", but with all the high-falluting rhetoric surrounding the purported, um, purpose of art, I would say it would refresh me to hear it a bit more often that in the end art makes stuff happen in your head.

It's what sf exhibits even more strongly than "mundane" fiction, I'd say, with sentences like these:

"We were moving out, boy, with the three hundred suns of the Pleiades glittering like a puddle of jeweled milk on our left, and all blackness wrapped around our right...Most people go blind in blackness. I have a fire in my eyes. I have that whole collapsing sun in my head, my visual tectum shorted wide open, jumping, leaping, sparking. It's as though the light lashed the rods and cones of my retina to constant stimulation, balled up a rainbow and stuffed each socket full."

If that's not just magnificent *and* sensationalistic...

If anything, my single greatest complaint against large-scale operatic fantasy (which I Platonically love and, in reality, often loathe) is that for all its sensationalism and bombast, armies of Black and Gray and White clashing in the hundreds of thousands, it almost never has such sentences.

4:31 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I think Delany's functional description of sf by reading protocols works for Delany's "speculative fiction," circa Jewel-Hinged Jaw & Starboard Wine. But that's before the segregation out of Fantasy, back when the Knightian nominal label usage of "sf" was at its height because the field was a melting pot. Even then, Delany's adoption of "speculative" is telling. Even then, I daresay, the mention of dreams, the overnight transformation, the radical impossibility of it, would problematise a reading as "science fiction." But you could easily imagine it as a New Wave story's opening, reading it as "sf" in the "spec-fic" sense that would include a whole lot of fantasy.

With the establishment of Fantasy as a separate category, that gave something else for such a story to be other than "sf." Category Fantasy being Epic at first, it didn't wholly work, so we kinda got "spec-fic" taking root as umbrella term, and "interstitial" and "slipstream," ya de ya. I think we've now shifted so that if you read the opening line of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in Strange Horizons, it would register as "fantasy" as much as, if not more so than, "speculative fiction." Thing is, I guess I'm not sure we can now really get away with the conflation(s) once acceptable via the "sf" abbreviation. I reckon that increasingly it's being surrendered in favour of "fantasy" as default.

That's really just about taxonomy though. It doesn't so much dispute Delany's functional description as simply say that the neorealist science fiction view holds sway enough that applying that to "sf" would lead to a loud "NO!" You might pacify them with "I mean speculative fiction," but I think many are now sidestepping the whole tired argument altogether by using "fantasy" or "fantastika" as the all-inclusive umbrella term.

4:54 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Additional thought: I wonder if the reading protocols are changing too, to be honest. With the spec-fic that isn't "proper science fiction" bleeding out into "fantasy" or "fantastika," I suspect there's a whole lot more published within the category that invites a reading as fantasy in the Kafkaesque mode, as comment on the subject? Maybe in addition to the reading as comment on object?

Or, indeed, I wonder if in a 21st century reading the first question would be "What does this transformation bespeak the relation between subject and object? What operation has been done on him? How does that signify the interaction of object with subject?"

Damn. I need to pick up Starboard Wine. As I understand, the subject/object reading protocols stuff is most fully explored there.

5:04 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

Yeah, but don't you find it galling, that constant talk in totalizing terms?

They smother all self-reflexivity by short-circuiting dialogue with that maddening "Ah, it's a matter of terminology, we're both right in our own way." But it's not about being right or wrong in the first place.

It's about articulate and enthusiastic exchange of readerly responses - of what you love/hate right here, about this sentence, of what exactly you would have loved/hated even more. I'm aware that such a dialogue exists in some readerly enclaves, but I'm unhappy with how it doesn't figure into popular writing about sf.

All to the point where texts with lot less strangeness to them than "The Transformation" would be stupefied into oblivion by many readers constantly asking "But what is it a symbol of???", all exuberance in imagery and invention smothered in the quest for totalizing explanations.

5:20 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

@ you additional thought:

I think that seeking relations between subject and object would be implicit in both subject and object-oriented readings. It might be that "orientation" is the operative notion here.

But I do find it more pertinent to ask: "What's the world like so that this guy is like that?" than "Why did the writer decide for this guy to be like that? What did he/she mean by it?!"

As you can see, the second question entails the task of unearthing hidden meanings and that sort of nonsense.

5:32 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Yeah, I've said a fair few times that I think the philosophers have it as wrong as the philistines when they also treat narrative as a vehicle, a mere conveyer of insight (rather than story). The quest for totalizing explanations, intellectual "substance" or "content"... this is narrative as a means to an end, not the experience as an end in itself. Words are the only substance. Those who chain the art taking that substance as medium to the enterprise of edification... meh.

6:43 pm  
Anonymous Kellan Sparver said...

When you say, "Cock forbid we enjoy the sensational relished by the unsophisticated palate!" all I can think is of a chef saying, "Poor food uses salt and pepper to exclusion and excess, therefore my haute cuisine shall use none!"

He would be rather a poor chef, that made that mistake.

1:03 am  

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