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Notes from New Sodom | The Marriage(s) of Science Fiction / Fantasy by Hal Duncan

December 2

sf fantasy marriage

The Great Debate

“The question of whether a certain story of imagination is a fantasy or a science fiction work would depend upon the device the author uses to explain his projected or unreal world. If he uses the gimmick or device of saying: ‘This is a logical or probable assumption based upon known science, which is going to develop from known science or from investigations of areas not yet quite explored but suspected,’ then one could call it science fiction. But if he asks the reader to suspend his disbelief simply because of the fun of it, in other words, just to say: ‘Here is a fairy tale I’m going to tell you,’ then it is fantasy. It could actually be the same story.”
Sam J. Lundwall

Down in the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café that is our literary salon, in this scene of zines and forums, conventions and clubs, there’s a Great Debate that kicks off every so often. The diversity of the clientele maps to a diversity of opinions — convictions, even — and few of these are as contentious as those addressing the differences or lack thereof between science fiction and fantasy. To be fair, the taxonomy of literary genres is a game that appeals to the geek in me as much as anyone, but the diversity we’re dealing with in the SF Café is obscured by the very word genre, its meaning muddled by a conflation of openly-defined aesthetic idioms with conventional forms that are closely-defined and marketing categories that are all but empty of definition.

There’s genre and there’s genre.

Across the city of Writing — and in the SF Café most of all perhaps — we’ve forgotten that the word genre derives from the Latin generis, meaning family, that if a genre is a family of fiction, then a work can be a member of that family by marriage or adoption as much as by birth. Aesthetic idioms are constantly reshaped by writers marrying one technique with another, adopting unfamiliar aims, methods born in other idioms entirely. This is genre as one big open clan. I’ve joked that being a “Celt” is actually fuck-all to do with birth; all you have to do is drink with a Celt, and that’s you initiated into the clan whether you like it or not. It’s like Richard Harris becoming Sioux in A Man Called Horse, only less painful than hanging by your nipples. (Although the hangover the next day…)

But then there’s genre. Buying into a bullshit of blood-lines, many are proud of the traits inherited with the tartan — so proud of their clan name they’ve forgotten that family can be openly defined, that the in-laws with different names are still family if we accept them as such. For certain feuding factions indeed that very notion is anathema. The clan name is everything, and a pox on any cur who slights it. Any pure-bred work of Science Fiction (or as they will call it, science fiction) is entirely unrelated, they’ll insist, to that damnable Fantasy (or as they will call it, fantasy). There’s Campbells and MacDonalds, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

But all we really have, others will say, is a tartan of a marketing category with an empty definition. The presentation of this stuff as a genre of Science Fiction is just bagpipes-and-haggis branding. In truth, it’s an open idiom, a genre of works which may be in various genres, an extended family of fictions better described as Hard SF, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Technothriller, and so on. Fantasy is in the same position, a tartan label slapped on a box containing the closely-defined forms of Epic Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, etc..

These are not subgenres, but genres in their own right, and the tartan labels that adorn these works are simply branding, their purpose to position a book in front of this audience or that. And, you know, they’ll say, that latter brand was only schismed off from Science Fiction in the 1970s, when Ballantine established their Adult Fantasy line to target the growing market for Tolkien, his direct ancestors and descendants. Look at all the works branded as either which ignore the constraints of genre altogether. Forget the clan names and tartan; the only sensible way to talk about science fiction or fantasy is as aesthetic idioms . If genre is a matter of familial relationships, what we have here is not two distinct clans with a feud going back longer than living memory. Science fiction is not Clan Campbell, fantasy is not Clan Macdonald, and the ghetto of Genre is not the blood-stained battleground of Glen Coe. The feud begins in 1971; before then science fiction and fantasy were happily married and raising kids together.

And hell, someone else will say, when you look at them as idioms, science fiction is really just a branch on the family tree of fantasy.

This is when the Great Debate inevitably kicks off.

A Shit Sandwich and a Diet Coke, Thanks.

“I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
George MacDonald

Across the city of Writing, there are a lot of cafés and bistros, each with its own menu but all serving sandwiches and soda. Downtown in the ghetto of Genre or uptown in the chi-chi neighbourhood known as Literature, there are joints where the food is bought in ready-made from The Shit Sandwich Company, and behind the counter is a squirt-gun dispensing Coca Cola, Fanta or Sprite. Dr Pepper? Irn Bru? Maybe, maybe not. But you can guarantee the most populist tastes are catered for in these joints, that the most generic product is on offer. And many are happy with that; all they want is their local greasy spoon with the juke box they know off by heart, or the franchise with free Wi-Fi and coffee that’s the same in every outlet. The sign outside is the genre label, the promise of what you want, how you want it, every time, in the same way and in the same place — and for many that doesn’t mean a wholemeal bagel and a fruit smoothy or any such frou-frou crap; it means a Shit Sandwich and a Diet Coke, thanks.

And yet… the SF Café has Shit Sandwiches and Diet Coke on tap like all the rest, but it also (again like all the rest) has its own menu of hamburgers and hot dogs, fresh off the hot plate from the fry cook in back. And a fridge stocked full of all those weird soft drinks you’ve never heard of. We got Shinola Cola that you won’t get anywhere else. (It tastes a little strange at first, but a few cans and you’re hooked.) That’s because a marketing category offers more than is promised by the label, those red and white signs for Coca-Cola and the Shit Sandwich Company that adorn the front. As a marketing category it’ll stock whatever the fuck it can sell to its punters. And even if most punters want a genre, “more of the same,” there’s always some who want “something different,” want the wider menu of a genre as an openly-defined idiom rather than a closely-defined form.

The menu in the SF Café tells an interesting tale. See, regardless of what some punters might maintain, the SF Café was always under joint ownership. Old Man Campbell never ran the place on his own. Those who remember far enough back can still recall an old guy you’d see pottering around, name of George MacDonald. Some would say he was the senior partner, others that he was just hired help, but whatever his role in things he stamped his mark on the menu, made sure that the SF Café was serving the chicken nuggets of fantasy right from the start, as well as the hamburgers of science fiction. A nasty rumour surfaces from time to time, that he’s that McDonald, the clown who ripped the soul out of soul food, made it junk-food, fast-food, a factory-line product of sugar, salt and fat, identical in every franchise around the world. Pabulum for those with the taste-buds of a child. The quote from him above may go some way to explaining the source of this rumour and the subsequent attempt by one faction of patrons at the SF Café to assert their superiority of taste.

Science Fiction is not Fantasy, they say. It’s not for the child-like, never mind for children. No, Science Fiction is for the adolescent at least.

Welcome to the clan gathering at the SF Café. The feuds are great fun.

The Campbells and MacDonalds of science fiction and fantasy have been intermarried and interbred from the get-go, fucking and fighting, coming together at the SF Café’s drunken wakes and weddings, bickering over who belongs where and who doesn’t. Resentments bubble. Alliances are made and broken. Curmudgeons insult their second cousins. Black sheep flirt across the barricades. But for all the broadsides and backstabbing, the talk of this side of the family and that, the gene pool is too mixed to talk about different genres on any level other than loyalty. Genres? We can talk about Space Opera, Technothriller, Epic Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, the Campbells of the West Side, the MacDonalds of the Left Bank, and vice versa. There are the Three Sisters over here: Aunties Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. There are the Twins over there: Cousins Lieber and Howard. And there’s Crazy Uncle Lovecraft in the corner (the corner that doesn’t look… quite right). But many of us these days are bastards and step-kids, our lineages too mixed-up for us to give a fuck about some old fart’s obdurate insistence on a dichotomy that just doesn’t exist:

Science Fiction is not Fantasy?

Yeah, whatever. I’m more interested in the naked lunch that is the buffet.

A Really Big House

 

“‘The Carrick,’ ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ and ‘The Metamorphosis’: all three are commonly called fantasies. From my point of view, any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual. But when people call these three stories fantasies, they merely imply that the stories depart in their subject matter from what is commonly called reality.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures

Definitions of fantasy, like those of science fiction, come in three flavours — empty, open and closed. The quote from Nabokov above is misleading as regards his own contrast of fantasy and reality, but it’ll serve as a pointer to the first two. In the empty definition, fantasy is just imagination, story as extended fancy; all fiction is fantasy. This is not a terribly useful definition though, not when we use the term fantastic to mean that which is strange, bizarre in form or appearance. Where we say something is fantastic we mean that it is unrealistic, based on or existing only in extravagant fancy. We may even mean that it is wondrously so, to be marveled at. Since not all fiction is fantastic in this sense, an open definition seems more apt: fantasy is fiction which uses the fantastic. It departs from “what is commonly called reality.”

This open definition slides towards closure though, as the bounds of reality mark out a limit of fancy’s extravagance between based on and existing only in, where the unrealistic fractures into the improbable and the impossible. The nature of the fantastic, some will insist, is that it transgresses the laws of nature, is impossible, magical in the sense of metaphysical. The notion of the marvelous closes the definition further, specifying a distinctly positive tinge to our incredulity, not just awe but a wonder that implies desire, magical in the sense of delightful. While many of those in the SF Café shrug this off, drinking Kafka as their coffee, taking their fantasy bitter and black, there are those for whom the definition is and must be closed. There is no such fantasy. Either because they revere it or revile it, they acknowledge only Fantasy, that genre where the conventions of metaphysical agency and wondrous wish-fulfilment are essential, the conventional form with all its stereotypes of secondary worlds and heroic quests.

All too often there’s a scent of abjection when it’s a Science Fiction loyalist asserting a closed definition of fantasy, a sense that by defining these generic elements as Fantasy it is easier to banish them from Science Fiction. Because it’s not like science fiction was ever… you know… born from the frickin pulps.

Fuck that shit. Don’t be pissing on my Flash Gordon roots, motherfucker.

There is a neatness to the pairing of Fantasy and Horror as literatures of desire and fear. And the notion that science fiction deals with hypothetical improbabilities while fantasy deals with metaphysical impossibilities is one you’ll hear from many corners of the SF Café. But it’s not so easy as that; it never is with a genre. No, many works in the openly-defined aesthetic idiom of fantasy have zero interest in wish-fulfillment or the iconography of magic, scoff at the constraints of Fantasy. Meanwhile, delightful wonder abounds within Science Fiction, a direct inheritance of Gernsback’s “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Even the blithe assertion that science fiction deals with science while fantasy deals with magic is called into question by a glance at the shelves, where we see Herbert’s DUNE labelled as Science Fiction and Peake’s TITUS GROAN labelled as Fantasy. Isn’t the former chock full of magic — priests and prophecies, monsters and messiahs, a drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future. And what is the most fantastical idea in the latter? What magic does it contain?

A really big house.

That Tasty Tang of Boot Polish

The glib differentiations don’t hold up to scrutiny. If we contrast the extremes of Hard SF and Epic Fantasy, obviously there’s a polarity between these two aged maiden aunts of the family, these grande dames who think everything revolves around them; but to try and apply this science/magic divide as a basis for taxonomy across the board is futile. Science fiction long since assimilated the notion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, while fantasy long since assimilated the notion that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Writers on this side of the schismed family or that write the stories they want to, quite often treating the two as entirely interchangeable.

Even the Science Fiction of a Campbellian closed definition is deeply complexified by sense-of-wonder and futureshock so that the most rigorous futurology can be at once fantastic and/or horrific. Which is to say that the work itself may be, functionally speaking, both science fiction and fantasy, or both science fiction and horror, or all three. Ray Bradbury’s entire ouvre exemplifies the crumbling of Science Fiction into the open interplay of science fiction, fantasy and horror. With stories like “The Veldt”, for example, one is forced to ask: Is this science fiction, fantasy, horror… or all of the above?

And do we actually give a shit, given that it’s a fucking immense story?

No. The buffet at this clan gathering is a crawling chaos of pilfered tropes and techniques, shared plot structures and character types. Cowboys in space or knights fighting dragons! Dragons in space or cowboys fighting knights! The Shit Sandwiches munched down on both sides of the family have more in common than they have to distinguish them, heroic wankfests filled with Objects of Power, Grand Devices of technological magics, every FTL drive a mass-produced metaphysical causation engine, every wormhole a Clutean portal. The Shinola Cola passed out on both sides also has much in common too — using those Grand Devices as metaphors rather than just MacGuffins, extrapolating that Big Idea into novel narratives of worldscape, plot and themes, drawing 3D characters who interact with that worldscape and with each other on a deeper level than The Boy Hero’s Never-Ending Journey. If the glamour of incredibility can be seductive, if the formulae of plot offer easy options, and if these lead to different levels of aesthetic and ethical engagement, the difference is not between Science Fiction and Fantasy but between genre and genre.

You get different flavours of ice cream in your Shinola Cola Floats, but it’s that tasty tang of boot polish that makes them all so moreish.

Still, we do like our feuds. So we obscure this in every assertion of the science/magic dichotomy, each assertion fuelling the eternal argument partly because it carries or is percieved to carry an implicit judgement: that fiction utilising the former is intrinsically rational (intellectualist and critical) while fiction utilising the latter is intrinsically romantic (sensationalist and uncritical).

Cause, you know, magic is for children.

A Model of Magic

Let’s define magic. In essence, magic is metaphysical causality, a circumvention of the laws of nature; it’s cause-and-effect working outwith the temporal protocols of the cosmos. It is the activity and it is the capacity for that activity invested in any of the following: a system of forces; a location or state through which that system of forces can be accessed; an object (agent or artifact) charged with or tapping into that system of forces. By this simple definition time-travel and FTL are magical.

But Ted Chiang has pointed to a key distinction between science and magic: the former is reproducable industrially, on a mass scale, while the latter is not. Generally, in fact, magic is the preserve of a select elite of exceptional individuals, so much so that it’s often a signifier of their selection by the ultimate magic of the divine, a signifier of their destiny. Unpacking this and looking across the field of fiction though, we can say that human application of magic is located on a spectrum of methods of production that runs thus:

facility (gift) | art (talent)| craft (skill) | technique (process)

In any given work, the rarity of magic is largely a product of where it is placed on this spectrum. Magic may be presented as a facility, a gift that only the exceptional have; it may be presented as an art that only the exceptional will have a talent for, but that is learned almost as much as it is innate; it may be presented as a craft, a skill that comes naturally to some, but that’s more learned than innate and therefore open to use by anyone; it may be presented as a technique, a process which can be reproduced industrially because it is abstracted to mechanistic procedures.

The last presentation of magic is rare, used largely as a deliberate subversion of conventions., so Chiang’s distinction seems fair at first sight. What is science, after all, but the system of abstraction by which craft is transformed to technique, process identified in skill and therefore rendered reproducable, open to industrialisation? But if so, DUNE is utilising magic rather than science: the Guild navigators circumvent the temporal protocols of the cosmos; they travel through large distances of space in shorter periods of time than are allowable by those protocols; their manipulation of time and space is a craft, signified as such by the term guild (a pre-industrial organisation of skilled tradesmen); all of this is achieved only by means of a mental state bought on by melange; the procedure cannot be mechanised, reproduced industrially.

Similarly, note that in the TV series ANDROMEDA for a ship to travel through the slipstream (FTL) it requires a human pilot, because even machines with a fully-sentient AI are not capable of navigating this (magical) location/state. Note that jaunting, in Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION is a skill (craft) that pretty much everyone can learn but that jaunting through space is a talent (art) that only Gully Foyle has achieved. Note that at the end of the book he considers teaching this ability to humanity (transforming the talent to a skill, distributing it as he does PyrE) but has not yet begun this task. Note that either way jaunting is an essentially human capacity, not open to mechanisation.

All of this invites a simple question: What if the non-reproducable nature of magic is a ramification of it being a semiotic phenomenon, the skill an emergent feature of language and consciousness, not mechanised because it is a matter of agency?

An agent dealing with a world of signs has four key abilities: reception; perception; conception; inception. To be a semiotic agent one must be able to receive stimuli, perceive those stimuli as signifiers, conceive what is signified (i.e. process sensation into thought), and initiate action (i.e. act on thought rather automatic response). Magic is almost invariably presented in these terms, as a semiotic interaction with reality, a reading of its language and a (re)writing of its text through the application of that language. Words and gestures. Symbolic rituals. Magic is a hacking of reality, and that’s why it’s a craft, a skill. To mechanically reproduce it would mean building machines that replicate semiotic agency — AIs. In Asimov’s “Let There Be Light” this is exactly what happens. The end-product of AI technological development achieves the ultimate magic of godhood. It cracks the code of reality, and starts everything running again by calling the function that is the title of the story.

If such semiotic agency is considered limited to humans or similarly living entities, is this a fanciful worldview, or just a healthy skepticism about hard AI? Isn’t ANDROMEDA saying precisely that the ship’s AI is lacking the requisite semiotic flexibility? Certainly, magic often goes hand-in-hand with talk of spirits and souls, but is this religion or is it fiction? Does using magic in a story make one a priest, painting semiotic agency as the product of some metaphysical enspiriting that only humans have? Or might a writer simply be using magic and soul as conceits, tools for talking about semiotic agency itself? Trust me, when I describe someone as having “spirit,” this does not mean I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Magic is characterised as a semiotic skill because it is symbolic of semiotic skill itself — a metaphor of the power of language, of consciousness. The use of “spirit” as a metaphor for semiotic agency that goes with it is so profoundly resonant if we take it figuratively and so profoundly religous if we take it literally, it’s no wonder that magic pervades Science Fiction even as it’s abjected as Fantasy. It’s no wonder that the magic of Bester’s jaunting goes hand-in-hand with the Promethean fire of PyrE, an enervated and explosive substance triggered by thought, a blatant concretion of the metaphor of semiosis-as-power. It’s no wonder that some will insist, till they’re blue in the face, that DUNE is not “proper” Science Fiction, no, not with all that metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, all that magic.

Some get that it’s a metaphor, doofus; but some just ain’t got no poetry in their soul.

The Aesthetics of Old Maids

 

“SF is about confronting the strange in order to understand it and push the boundaries back but fantasy is either about enjoying the experience of strangeness (as in M John Harrison’s Virconium books) or bludgeoning it into submission in favour of a frequently politically dubious status quo (in the case of epic fantasy).”
Johnathan MacCalmont, Notes from the Geek Show

These sort of assertions as to what the two genres of science fiction and fantasy are “about” are unsustainable even as broad generalisations. Countless works of science fiction are deeply reactionary in their response to the strange, heroic adventures in which the aliens serve exactly the same purpose as Tolkien’s orcs. Countless works of fantasy, conversely, use the strange precisely to conceptualise what lies beyond our understanding. It is deeply problematic to view the Viriconium books as ultimately sensationalist pleasures when Harrison’s fiction is so clearly designed to disrupt and defy any attempt at passive immersion, to refuse the comfort of givens, to continually force the reader to face the unknown in the text and deal with it.) Hell, it is quite simply complacent to privilege science fiction in this way, as the more serious and committed form, boldly pushing forward to challenge the unknown and find answers (as opposed to, say, consciously or unconsciously manifesting knee-jerk right-wing American paranoia over enemies within and/or without — c.f. THE PUPPET MASTERS), while presenting fantasy as a reactionary enforcer of the social order (as opposed to, say, a cutting critique of the early 20th century class system and the impact upon it of populist but essentially totalitarian ideologies — c.f. TITUS GROAN).

But, OK. Suppose we strip away the shit and the shinola. Suppose we strip away all the clunk-click assemblage of cliches, the adolescent fantasies based on technomagical MacGuffins. Suppose we put to one side all that slippery stream of stuff that runs from Ray Bradbury through the writers of the New Wave and right up to Kelly Link. Suppose we forget for a second that the vast majority of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror shit is, to all intents and purposes, simply product, while the shinola is, to all intents and purposes, simply fiction. Suppose we forget that for a moment.

There are two oppositional aesthetics in the field, both products of the Enlightenment and each associated with one side or the other in its most specialised form — the rationalism associated with Science Fiction and the romanticism associated with Fantasy — indexed by the words hard and high (or epic). Hard SF and Epic Fantasy — both of these forms have been conventionalised, proscribed and prescribed, such that they constitute valid genres in a way that science fiction and fantasy do not.

Those two grande dames do make a lot of noise, and people do listen to them. If they don’t and can’t circumscribe science fiction and fantasy, readers and writers do perceive them as the centres of their respective genres, in a sort of “fuzzy set” model where both science fiction and fantasy lack clear boundaries but each congregates around a different centre. Within that big ongoing drunken wedding party of this great divided clan, the two of them sit there, Old Granny Campbell and Great Aunt MacDonald, holding court at separate tables, their arms folded, their gazes severe, each with quite distinct notions of how things should be done. Use your head, m’boy! says one. No, says the other, it’s the heart that matters! Even if most of the field is intermarried, interbred, even if many of us don’t really give a damn about those dotty old maids with their outmoded ideas on science and magic, they that us young’uns must pick sides.

Bollocks to that.

The division is there, yes. And the aesthetics those old maids have aligned themselves with are written deep enough in our culture that the field can’t help but be affected by the real centuries-old rift — that between rationalism and romanticism. But that dichotomy is artificial and obsolete, has been from the start. So one group sit at the booths in the SF Café and the other sits at the tables, one comes and leaves through the Nth Street door while the other enters and exits through the door onto Avenue X. Who gives a fuck? That sign that used to read the The Science Fiction Café and Bar? You know, they tried out a few variants before they settled on that: The Fantasy and Science Fiction Diner; The Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Bistro; The Weird Fiction Greasy Spoon; The Café Fantastique; The Science Fiction / Fantasy Snack Shack.

A Thoroughly Modern Molly

The real division is that between the Romantic and the Neo-Classical movements in painting, that schism in post-Renaissance art, that sifting of the aesthetic techniques of broad-brushed Rembrandts and tight-lined Raphaels, of airy Titians and earthy Brueghels, these techniques born from a new world of new technologies and new politics — oil-based paints, burgermeister patrons, a world where even if the subjects weren’t new — Vermeer painting a cleaning lady — the approaches were. This schism resulted in Jacques-Louis David on the one hand and Eugène Delacroix on the other, in Neo-Classicism with its emphasis on the ordered and Romanticism with its emphasis on the sublime. It is this same division that, in Science Fiction / Fantasy gives us the conflicting emphases on futurology and fantasia, the aesthetic of the logical and aesthetic of the sublime.

In writing, that Romantic idealisation of the sublime gives us the archetypal flights of fancy, rakish wanderers, rebel poets and all the epic wildernesses we will eventually see in (High) Fantasy, while the Neo-Classical idealisation of order gives us the novel as social study, as empirical observation, and all the rationalist restraint we will eventually see in (Hard) Science Fiction. Passion and Reason — the prevailing themes of the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution. Both Delacroix and David painted scenes from the French Revolution — Liberty Leading The Troops, and The Death of Marat. These paintings illustrate the difference of the two aesthetics rather neatly.

There was a third aesthetic however that developed in the dialogue between these — the modernism or modernity of Caravaggio, who was fusing Romantic chiaroscuro and Neo-Classical formality long before these terms were even in use, who painted sublimely ordered scenes, who used a dead whore dragged from the river as his Magdalene, thieves and peasants for his saints. His work is fiercely passionate and and coldly reasoned all at once. A pretty boy Bacchus, in a Caravaggio painting, is at once the Greek god himself and an urban hustler from the streets. Caravaggio plays the sublime and the logical off against each other. He renders the wild passion of a decapitation in the most coolly ordered composition.

A thoroughly modern molly, Caravaggio in his work embodies the rescaling that was going on, the re-evaluation of God and Nature and Humanity’s relationship to them both. He is the first modern(ist) painter, quite distinct from his Renaissance forebears in the sheer humanism of his work, and never surrendering to the idealisations that set the Romantics and the Neo-Classicists at each others’ throats. He leaves it to the Romantics to blather on about the importance of bold colour over clean line, leaves it to the Neo-Classicists to witter on about the value of clean line over bold colour. Passion versus Reason — the world of Western Art spends centuries bickering over which is better, centuries of Royal Academies and revolutionary outsiders, of worthy high art and vulgar low art, of intellectualist Literature and sensationalist Genre… and somewhere along the way that hoary old argument of Reason / Passion ends up in Science Fiction / Fantasy. As if that’s all there is. As if there’s scientifically rigorous rationalism or weirdly wild romanticism. And ne’er the twain shall meet.

Fuck that shit, says Caravaggio.

The Fantasy of Genre, The Science of Fiction

There is a shared methodology in much strange fiction, whatever name it goes by, an approach shaped by a shared aesthetic, neither romanticism nor rationalism but something more akin to the modernism of Caravaggio, reacting to the modern world, portraying humanity’s relationship with “God” and “Nature” in a way that, when it works, plays the sublime grandeur of one off against the logical restraint of the other, and in doing so results in something neither could achieve alone. Neither science fiction nor fantasy — no matter what those old maids would have you believe — has ever been so pure in its devotion to those antithetical aesthetics. The rationalism of Wells is counterpointed by the romanticism of Verne. In the Gernsback-Campbell era when Science Fiction was born, those two aesthetics were always as much in collaboration as they were in conflict, romantic adventures fleshed with rationalist science, futurology as the source of fantasia. The dynamic power of the fiction resides in the interaction.

The distinction that drives the Great Debate is an illusion, an artificial dichotomy based more on claims of allegiance than on actual practice. Two subsets of the field live by their grande dame’s rhetoric, creating works that do exemplify the warring aesthetics of rationalism and romanticism. But if you look around the drunken wedding party, ignore the two old maids sitting in their corners, that dusty old duality looks largely irrelevant. Perhaps it is only in that shattering crack of lightning which splits the genre that the true nature of the hideous creation is revealed. And it is not Science Fiction. Science Fiction is dead. This is the Frankenstein’s monster of science fiction / fantasy, a patchwork of dead genres, of the cannibalised cadavers of Romanticism and Rationalism, torn apart and stitched back together, a glorious, monstrous marriage of meat machines. It’s a riven thing — we could hardly expect two or three hundred years of division between Romanticism and Rationalism to be healed in a few decades — but it is a thing.

That thing is, in essense, modernism. We might brand it Pulp Modernism — cheap, populist, balls-to-the-wall modernism, out to entertain more than an elite of aesthetes and intellectuals, but still modernism. It uses mimesis on the one hand, semiosis on the other, rationalising magic and romanticising science, combining the strange and the mundane, constantly experimenting with literary elements. The integrity we project on it, the unity we impose upon it with our so-well-formed definitions, is only that of a family which, in truth, extends as far as we decide it does. There is no genre of Fantasy, only the fantasy of genre. This isn’t the fiction of science; it’s the science of fiction. What we have is one confused clusterfuck of conventional forms ripped apart and rebuilt as an aesthetic idiom, a mode of fiction in which we take conceits, fantastic ideas, and put them to the test with literature as the laboratory.

When the results are good, right enough, we do have a tendency to go into mass production mode, churning out low-quality copies from the cheapest of materials, for a market of consumers who’ll love our new toys for a day or two before abandoning them in favour of the next shiny gadget. There’s an upside to that: that Big Corporate Structure keeps the R & D department going, so to speak, the vast market for commercial product supporting the smaller market for high-end fiction in this pulp modernist mode. But there’s a down-side: the commercialisation results in one key drawback, in the depth to which such works become bound to, sold as, and ultimately misunderstood as genre, as this schismed, schizoid Science Fiction / Fantasy, at odds with itself. And arguing in the ghetto creole of Genre, where aesthetic idiom is conflated with conventional form and marketing category, we buy into that, swallow it hook, line and sinker.

And the Great Debate rages on, food fights becoming flame wars, immolating meaning in a holocaust of definitions.

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  1. Well fuck that shit!

    I stopped reading when you asserted that Dune is “chock full of magic — priests and prophecies, monsters and messiahs, a drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future”.

    Those ‘fantastical’ elements are science based, something that you entirely gloss over in favor of your argument, weakening it in the process.

    One of the things that I didn’t see mentioned was the constraint(s) that reliance on science places on (good) SF, an element lacking in fantasy. SF can’t just pull another rune or spell out of the bag when it runs into a blind alley.

    But you may have addressed such past the Dune non-argument.

    Started out well though…

  2. Sorry, Steve, I stopped reading when you said, “I stopped reading…”

    Well, OK, I didn’t. But seriously, read the “Model of Magic” section before you make a blank assertion that DUNE’s quirks are “science based”. The way you use “runes” (language) to blithely dismiss fantasy’s magic is really quite pertinent.

  3. This was a remarkably lengthy column for it having no mention of Zelazny (and I will go to my grave holding “Creatures of Light and Darkness” superior to “Lord of Light”… but what do I know…).

  4. Don’t worry. That’ll be rectified in future columns, Clint. ROADMARKS is one of my favourite examples of Pulp Modernism.

    Hell, I didn’t mention Delany either, you know, and the Temple of Dhalgren is one of the most important landmarks in New Sodom.

  5. What I find interesting about this essay is how the debate over fantasy vs science fiction, magic vs technology parallels so closely many debates I’ve seen on religious and skeptic blogs about the definitions of supernaturalism vs naturalism.

  6. Caravaggio: if it’s baroque, don’t fix it.

    I like your semiotic reading of magic, and the notion that it hacks reality (or at least a model of a reality).

  7. Thoughts upon some odd assertions:

    Dune’s connection to our world is tenuous, being set thousands of years in our future. But the historical references establish that it is connected. But most of all, the science in Dune is the science of ecology, which is definitely connected to our universe. Gormennghast and Titus Groan are not set in our universe but its own. The mostly forgotten third novel is widely regarded as a failure. Because it so stupidly unwrites its fantasy univers by crudely stitching it into a crude version of ours? In any event, the “really big house” is one that defies the ravages of time in a completely fantastic way, as anyone who has lived in a small house of their own for just a few decades knows.

    Rigorous futurology “complexified by sense-of-wonder and future shock.” This is quite peculiar. The insistence that rigor must be unfeeling strikes me as covert abjection of rationalism.

    “Let’s define magic. In essence, magic is metaphysical causality, a circumvention of the laws of nature; it’s cause-and-effect working outwith the temporal protocols of the cosmos. It is the activity and it is the capacity for that activity invested in any of the following: a system of forces; a location or state through which that system of forces can be accessed; an object (agent or artifact) charged with or tapping into that system of forces. By this simple definition time-travel and FTL are magical.”

    This is not a simple definition. Warning! This is rhetoric, not logic. Fictional science, stylistically speaking, is as good as real science, unless you admit standards of good “style” in fictional science (the real, practical definition of “Hard” SF, I think.) A literary argument indifferent to style is really odd.

    “Or might a writer simply be using magic and soul as conceits, tools for talking about semiosis itself?”
    They rarely ever are. When they do, is semiosis an interesting topic? Isn’t semiosis heroic wankfest disguised as philosophy? Even more to the point, isn’t metaphysical transcending of reality the ultimate heroic wankfest?

    The Stars My Destination is first and foremost a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. It is an essay in heroic wankfest. The wish fulfilment in its fictional science accompanies this as naturally as bacon accompanies eggs. Nonetheless, the SF style of rationalization makes it different from fantasy and people who don’t care for SF don’t tend to like Bester.

    “(C)utting critique of the early 20th century class system and the impact upon it of populist but essentially totalitarian ideologies-c.f. Titus Groan.” First, the class system in Gormenghast is not specific but imagines itself sub specie aeternitatis, despite being drawn largely from 19th century English literature and Peake’s childhood. Second, the notion that it is critique of the class system is too problematic to call “cutting.” Third, “populist but totalitarian” is confused nonsense.

    The “rationalism of Welss is counterpointed by the romanticism of Verne.” Wells called his works scientific romances. Verne condemned Wells for the romanticized science. Such a reversal of fact suggests something seriously deranging the whole argument.

  8. On the subject of Peake:

    “(C)utting critique of the early 20th century class system and the impact upon it of populist but essentially totalitarian ideologies-c.f. Titus Groan.” First, the class system in Gormenghast is not specific but imagines itself sub specie aeternitatis, despite being drawn largely from 19th century English literature and Peake’s childhood. Second, the notion that it is critique of the class system is too problematic to call “cutting.” Third, “populist but totalitarian” is confused nonsense.

    First, yes, it’s abstracted from the specifics towards the universal; it’s not a historical novel set in an Edwardian “Big House” in the inter-war period, as fascism and communism literally emerge to challenge the Ancien Regime, but rather a strange-fictional novel which recontextualises and generalises that sort of class system, and what happens when the working/servant class reject it. Funny enough, feminist SF of the 70s manages to critique late 20th century gender roles using similar aesthetic strategies, constructing alien societies that nonetheless speak to relationships of power and privilege in our world.

    Second, no it’s really quite self-evident that it comments on the class system, and it does so incisively. So there. Sorry, if you’re going to throw a blank assertion at me, you get what you give. If you want to argue a casual gloss on the thematics of TITUS GROAN, argue it. “You’re wrong,” is not an argument.

    Third, why are you confused by this juxtaposition? We’re talking about ideologies which exploit human unreason, pander to the resentment of the under-privileged and uneducated by lionising “the people” as noble in their simplicity (Volk or worker) while blaming the decadents in power (Weimar society / Tsarist aristos) for the ills of the world. And so on. Why are you confused that I’d link the populist means of a demagogue with their ultimate ends as autocratic ruler of a totalitarian state?

    Honestly, are you seriously arguing with a reading of TITUS GROAN as addressing early 20th century politics? Steerpike as a lens on Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Moseley? If so, to what exact purpose?

    I mean, to forestall a tedious diversion on the thematics of TITUS GROAN, are you asserting that it’s a bad example here, that it can simply be dismissed as either offering an enjoyable “experience of strangeness” or “bludgeoning [that strangeness] into submission in favour of a frequently politically dubious status quo”. That this is what it’s “about”.

  9. On the “completely fantastic”:

    [T]he science in Dune is the science of ecology, which is definitely connected to our universe.

    One might equally say that TITUS GROAN is definitely connected to our universe via the (social) sciences of politics and psychology. Or by the fact that it contains… you know… people. Or rooms. Or a million other things that aren’t fantastic at all. That DUNE contains scientific conceits in the form of A, B or C is irrelevant to the argument that it also contains conceits in the form of X, Y and Z that are as fantastical/magical as those in TITUS GROAN. The question remains: is the magic in TITUS GROAN really more fantastical/magical than the navigation & manipulation of spacetime in DUNE?

    “In any event, the ‘really big house’ is one that defies the ravages of time in a completely fantastic way, as anyone who has lived in a small house of their own for just a few decades knows.”

    Taking 76 Earls x 20 years per generation (as a rough rule-of-thumb) makes Gormenghast about a millenia and a half old. That a single stone-built structure — like, say, the Colloseum — survives over such a time-scale requires only that it’s exceedingly well-built, but Gormenghast is not even presented as that, I’d say. The decrepit, hodge-podge Gormenghast reads as the end-product of centuries of building, with its annexes, wings and towers accreted over time, many presumably built in much more recent periods — and yet still crumbling. The ravages of time are written into it.

    This is why I point to the size rather than the age. All Peake has done is scaled up the castle / stately home to the level of a city and posited an isolation in which it has been neither abandoned to the elements nor destroyed, its survival as an entity for 1500-odd years no more fantastical than that of London or Rome. What is fantastical is, at most, the resultant size, the fact that buildings on the scale Peake suggests don’t collapse under their own weight; and note that Peake doesn’t really offer precise measures that a structural engineering geek could pull apart. The most fantastical idea here is a house big enough that we’re surprised it doesn’t collapse. Wow.

    If you want to look at survival-over-time, compare this with Lazarus Long, who “defies the ravages of time” in a far more fantastic way, as anyone who has lived at all for just a few decades into adulthood knows. Or, I repeat, the actual manipulation of time and space as an ability engendered by eating alien wormshit.

  10. On the “connection to our world”:

    Dune’s connection to our world is tenuous, being set thousands of years in our future. But the historical references establish that it is connected… Gormenghast and Titus Groan are not set in our universe but its own.

    This argument is more pointed. However, where Gormenghast is a sealed elsewhen that models itself on our world but refuses to be integrated rationally into it, it functions quite differently from the traditional secondary world of Fantasy, Peake’s exercise in estrangement bearing better comparison with the Bellona of DHALGREN than Tolkien’s Middle Earth or any of its derivatives. (I might also compare both to Kafka’s THE CASTLE.) Herbert’s elsewhen meanwhile, is worldbuilt, worldbolstered and worldbumfed (pseudo-documented) in a way that renders it vastly more comparable to Tolkien’s; both imaginary playgrounds are divorced from our world in a far more basic way by dint of their narrative function as environments of epic. I’ll be exploring the hows and whys of that — the stylistic approaches to future/parallel/ordinate elsewhens — in later columns, but for now…

    Magic is not made magic by the fact it takes place in a secondary world. Fantasy is not made fantasy by the fact it takes place in a secondary world. From Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, through most anything by Tim Powers to, as one example, THE PORTRAIT OF MRS CHARBUQUE by Jeff Ford, too much fiction labelled “fantasy” is set in our universe for this sort of notion to be anything other than an active closing of the definition of fantasy, unsustainable in the face of most “literary” fantasy and even a growing mass of commercial Fantasy.

    So, many argue that fantasy is made fantasy by the presence of “magic.” Some might argue that the presence of magic automatically renders even a world such as that of Bradbury’s SWTWC “not ours”, but if we don’t interrogate these two premises all we have is a cyclic argument that “it’s magic because it’s in a secondary world, which is a secondary world because it has magic in it.”

    In short, we still require a definition of magic.

  11. On that definition of magic:

    This is not a simple definition. Warning! This is rhetoric, not logic.

    It doesn’t seem that complex and rhetorical to me. It’s just taking “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces” (to grab a quick dictionary definition) and rearticulating super-natural as meta-physical. It’s also simply the launch-point into Chiang’s more subtle (re)definition, which is focused on whether or not such “infuencing” (i.e. causing of effects) can be reproduced mechanically, and in which Bester’s jaunting and Herbert’s space-time navigation remain magical by those criteria.

    If either or both of these definitions are unsatisfactory to you because you maintain such conceits to be science rather than magic, feel free to offer an alternative distinction. If you see this as a matter of literary style, by all means offer us some specifics. But all I’m hearing here is: “it’s magic because it’s in a fantasy book, which is a fantasy book because it has magic in it.”

    You say:

    Nonetheless, the SF style of rationalization makes [THE STARS MY DESTINATION] different from fantasy and people who don’t care for SF don’t tend to like Bester.

    It seems to me you’re rejecting a clear distinction (can the effect be reproduced mechanically?) for a fuzzy one — this “style” which you aren’t really defining. I’d argue that, when it comes to (pseudo)scientific rationalisation, there are works like Zelazny’s ROADMARKS or Silverberg’s THE BOOK OF SKULLS that present their conceits with little-to-none of that. And without any such active technobabbling and handwaving, we’re returned simply to superficial nomenclatures of “magic power” and “fantasy” versus “metaphysical causation capacity” and “science fiction”. If this is the shallow level at which you want to draw a distinction, fair enough; the difference is only the colour of the twinset worn by our two grande dames. If not, give us specifics.

  12. On the use of magic in fiction:

    They rarely ever are [using magic and soul as conceits, tools for talking about semiosis itself].

    Apply Sturgeon’s Law. Next!

    When they do, is semiosis an interesting topic?

    I find the workings of language and its relationship to the psyche and society quite interesting myself; Delany for one can make it riveting, though he tends to address it directly, his Nevèrÿon works (which are outright Fantasy) being almost entirely bereft of magic, as I recall. But in general, the tenor of those metaphors is not semiosis per se, but semiotic agency. Which is to say, we’re dealing with what it is to be human. It seems to me that those who abhor the metaphors of magic are often equally interested in that topic, simply rejecting the highly symbolic, often archetypal language employed to explore it. As I say, some people ain’t got no poetry in their soul.

    Isn’t semiosis heroic wankfest disguised as philosophy?

    No. Semiosis is semiosis. Any “form of activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, including the production of meaning” (to snaffle a quick definition from Wikipedia) is heroic wankfest disguised as philosophy? What are you on about, man? If this “semiosis = heroic wankfest” statement is intended to point in the general direction of some coherent contention — e.g. that the personal power associated with such symbolic iconography binds it to the archetypal plot structure of the consolatory Hero’s Journeys a la Joseph Campbell — I’ll beg to differ. But I can’t argue a point you don’t make.

    Even more to the point, isn’t metaphysical transcending of reality the ultimate heroic wankfest?

    Who said anything about “transcending”? Here’s the crux of it: we’re talking about capacities (gifts or talents, skills or techniques) for circumventing the temporal protocols of the cosmos. Whether works employing such conceits are heroic wankfests or not is a matter of what narrative grammar they employ. Yes, of course the narrative trajectory might be one of a glorious heroic ascent to Emperor of Everything, and almost invariably in such works magic is characterised as a gift or talent. This is the epic/heroic narrative grammar of DUNE, in which Paul Atreides is extra-super-special by birth.

    There are plenty of works of fantasy (pick anything by Tim Powers as a good example) in which no such heroic ascent takes place, and no such gift or talent exists; rather magic is simply another skill, often available to protagonists and antagonists alike, to anyone capable of learning that skill in fact. Just as, generally speaking, any of us are capable of learning a second language. If I write a character who speaks English but discovers there’s this other language they could learn, one that would be really useful in certain contexts — Spanish, say — this does not mean they’re the Darling of Destiny, with a natural gift that allows them to “transcend” English, born to save the world, win the girl and rule the kingdom happily ever after.

  13. While we’re on the subject of the Emperor of Everything:

    The Stars My Destination is first and foremost a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo.

    It takes its plot structure from that book, yes. The Joyce reference in the rhyme right at the start and the typographical experimentalism towards the end rather indicate that Bester wanted to do something a bit more ambitious than simply retelling a classic work of romanticism. His use of jaunting and PyrE as conceits is particularly pertinent to the Promethean subversion of heroic romanticism. See Spinrad’s “The Emperor of Everything” essay for details.

    It is an essay in heroic wankfest. The wish fulfilment in its fictional science accompanies this as naturally as bacon accompanies eggs.

    No, it’s an essay on heroic wankfest. The wish fulfilment in its fictional science is there, it seems to me, because Bester is deliberately critiquing the tendency of romanicism towards heroic wankfests. Repeat: see Spinrad’s essay. As I recall, ENDER’S GAME and DUNE are key comparisons.

  14. Finally, on rationalism:

    The insistence that rigor must be unfeeling strikes me as covert abjection of rationalism.

    Abjection is a denial/rejection of that which is/was a part of oneself. I explicitly posit modernism as constructed in the interplay of rationalism and romanticism — i.e. I’m arguing that rationalism is indeed a constituent element, a key ingredient. Ergo, no denial. Ergo, not abjection.

    Even aside from that, there is no insistence that rigor must be unfeeling; that’s a Straw Man. The only assertion here is that the results of speculation/extrapolation constrained by a principle of rigor are nonetheless complexified by those highly charged affective attitudes mentioned — i.e. that the stories born from such rigorous futurology will also be in part shaped by the extent to which the novum inspire wonder or dread. At most, this is a suggestion that such subjective affects influence the futurology itself at a formative level, that Science Fiction can and does serve to manifest wish-fulfilment and neurotic paranoia. This is not, I think, a particularly contentious suggestion.

    The “rationalism of Welss is counterpointed by the romanticism of Verne.” Wells called his works scientific romances. Verne condemned Wells for the romanticized science. Such a reversal of fact suggests something seriously deranging the whole argument.

    You know, I was actually going to throw in an “And vice versa” there for just that reason, but the less-made point is of more interest than the obvious and tired one. The plot structure in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is pure romanticism when compared with Wells’s THE TIME MACHINE. The former is an adventure with a square-jawed hero and a brooding anti-hero/villain so Romantic he makes Byron look like a nerd, while the latter is basically a futurological essay loosely structured into an “If This Goes On” narrative with a protagonist who’s just about capable of muddling through. Even outside those works, Wells is more of a social theorist in his fiction, where Verne writes bona fide adventure stories.

  15. “But in general, the tenor of those metaphors is not semiosis per se, but semiotic agency. Which is to say, we’re dealing with what it is to be human.”

    The production of meaning by the use of signs, which is what I would understand by semiotic agency, is only a small part of what it is to be human. Engagement with society is more than semiosis/semiotic agency. Interaction with the physical world is not semiosis/semiotic agency. This kind of slippery confusion is what I read as rhetoric, not logic.

    “Any “form of activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, including the production of meaning” (to snaffle a quick definition from Wikipedia) is heroic wankfest disguised as philosophy? What are you on about, man?”

    Why, I’m on about this: “All of this invites a simple question: What if the non-reproducable nature of magic is a ramification of it being a semiotic phenomenon, the skill an emergent feature of language and consciousness, not mechanised because it is a matter of agency?” Magic powers are not a daydream but a deep philosophical metaphor? But, they’re still magic powers.

    “Who said anything about “transcending”? Here’s the crux of it: we’re talking about capacities (gifts or talents, skills or techniques) for circumventing the temporal protocols of the cosmos. Whether works employing such conceits are heroic wankfests or not is a matter of what narrative grammar they employ.”

    See the quote from the original essay above . As to SF and Fantasy, the narrative grammar of SF has rules of syntax, most of which aim at the pretense of being natural, not supernatural. Poorly conceived wonders like Dune’s FTL are therefore poor SF grammar. Fantasy has no rules of narrative grammar. It does have an intrinsic appeal to dreams of infantile omnipotence when it uses magic, even when the author intends to deconstruct.

    Fantasy is usually like those lurid novels and stories that luxuriate in the depiction of sin to conclude with a stern moral enunciated over the pitiful corpses of the sinners. Is the point the moral or the prurient interest aroused?

    As for the alleged need for a definition of magic, magic is the belief that semiotic agency transcends reality. If the strange stuff in a story is supposed to be magic, or supernatural, or is uncaused, it is fantasy. Notice that fantasy without the supernatural is never as appealing to fantasy fans. That shows what the appeal of fantasy really is.

    And, last, there is a definition of fantasy that has been ignored, which is a daydream, an imaginative scenario of personal life indulged for self amusement. Perhaps the most common form of fantasy is the sexual fantasy.

  16. On your definitions:

    As for the alleged need for a definition of magic, magic is the belief that semiotic agency transcends reality.

    Doesn’t work. If a book has magic in it, this doesn’t mean it just has characters that believe in it. That would simply be having superstition, mysticism, New Age religion, whatever — something which is actually a belief — written into the book as a trait of a particular character. Hell, that belief actually exists in reality. So, by your definition magic exists, right? Unless you’re suggesting that the “belief” is on the part of the writers — which would really just be silly.

    No, if a book has magic in it as a conceit, that means magic occurs. Events take place, and those events are presented as magical. We could reformulate your definition then, to define an event as “magical” when it involves a semiotic agency “transcending reality”. But what does “transcend” even mean here? We’re not talking about disappearing to another plane of existence, never to be seen again, no? There’s not actually a whole lot of stories where that happens. How about “to be or go beyond the range or limits of,” to steal another quick dictionary definition?

    So: an event is magical when it involves a semiotic agency being or going beyond the range or limits of reality. And what exactly are those limits of reality? Would that be the “temporal protocols of the cosmos” I was talking about? In respect of which an up/down spatial metaphor is meaningless? Seems to me your definition unpacks to this: an event is magic if it involves a character being a semiotic agent — i.e. exercising semiotic agency, i.e. performing a significant action — and in doing so somehow circumventing the temporal protocols of the cosmos. Which is to say, surely, making something happen which is incompatible with those temporal protocols.

    You haven’t crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s to deal with the conceit of magic being invested in objects or places, but other than that, your definition is simply the metaphysical causation definition I offer above.

    If the strange stuff in a story is supposed to be magic, or supernatural, or is uncaused, it is fantasy.

    Fair enough, but you do realise that opens the definition of fantasy about as far as it goes, yes? It means horror is also fantasy. It means surrealist fiction is also fantasy. It means countless modernist and postmodernist works of the ponciest literary ambitions are fantasy. I’m down with that, because it’s often the most “literary” fantasy that, taking an oneiric or ludic approach to narrative, is most obviously using it to explore semiotic agency. You should realise though, allowing stuff like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” in doesn’t do much for your “fantasy = heroic wankfest” argument.

  17. On heroic wankfests:

    Magic powers are not a daydream but a deep philosophical metaphor? But, they’re still magic powers.

    Look at it in terms of creativity. You can posit the abilities required to write a good story or sing a good song as gifts or talents. I don’t. I kinda hate seeing singers accepting awards and “humbly” thanking God for their “gift,” cause actually it seems to me they’re writing themselves into a real-life Chosen One role, exactly the sort of heroic wankfest you’re talking about. It’s an inborn ability they’ve been “blessed” with, they’re saying. And gosh, it’s so wonderful to be the Darling of Destiny!

    However, see those abilities as skills, as crafts that can be learned by anyone if they try hard enough, capacities that might even be capable of being reproduced mechanically, and you remove the extra-super-specialness that largely drives the wankery. There’s no inborn ability, no “blessing,” no subtext of Destiny written into a person’s essence. They had to *try*. They *could* have failed. Hard work and luck (*not* Fortune, *not* Fate, just chance) were required to get them on — and keep them on — a path which eventually led to them being able to “conjure” up profound emotions in an audience.

    Hey, the ability to “conjure” up profound emotions in an audience! There’s plenty of people would like that, right? Plenty of would-be artists who daydream of one day creating their masterpiece? Does that mean if I write a realist novel in which a supporting character paints, in which I maybe even make her a *highly skilled* painter, then that novel will automatically be rendered heroic wankfest by the mere presence of this… creative ability? No. If I make them the *central* character, and write them as naturally gifted, an actual born genius; if I have the story be about their overcoming all odds to fulfill the role Destiny gave them, to realise the potential of their God-given gift/talent; if it’s all designed for the reader to identify completely with that character, for the character to enact a fantasy of success for the reader’s shallow gratification: *then* it becomes a wankfest (and most likely a Mary Sue.) But giving a character an ability to paint does not automatically shape the story in this way. Creative abilities are a daydream to many, and often talked about exactly as if they were magic powers. So what?

    I could just as easily have a protagonist with no creative ability whatsoever. The story could be of their inability to come to terms with their own mortality. Maybe their painter friend paints a portrait of them when they’re in the prime of youth. Maybe the novel is the story of their life, its up and downs, and sod all to do with their friend’s creative ability at all, except that the resolution has the protagonist, say, destroying the painting in some moment of psychological shattering, sickened by the sight of what they once were, what they’ve lost. What do you know? It’s a story with “creative abilities” in it that has sod all to do with pandering to those who wish they could paint!

    Translate that to magic as a conceit. You can have someone born as the Chosen One. They’re extra-super-special! They were born with some vague gift/talent only they don’t know it. They’re the orphan who’s secretly a prince! Destiny itself is on their side! Blah blah fucking blah. Or you can go the exact opposite route, reverse the polarites, and have your protagonist having zero magic powers at all, but being the *victim* of magic, having the misfortune to be the Chosen One in a horror narrative, the Fool of Fate. (See John Clute’s “Fantastika in the World Storm” essay for a great comparison of these narrative grammars.) Actually, riffing off the painting story, if Wilde hadn’t been there already, I could have my painter character somehow magically create a painting that aged instead of the protagonist. THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY is hardly rendered a heroic wankfest by the presence of that magic. It’s a good illustration of the exact flip-side, in fact, the narrative grammar of Horror.

    More to the point, these two extremes of Fantasy and Horror as literatures of desire and fear are not the only options. You can completely walk away from the gift/talent bollocks and the wankfest it all too often engenders. Posit a world in which magic is a craft, a learned skill, and you can demote the hero from the stock epic Darling of Destiny, this demigod of the fictive world, to an actual human being. The narrative grammar can be moved down a register, from epic/heroic to adventure/mystery/thriller/noir. You can tell stories in which the hero themselves is just a Joe Schmoe, with no magic powers whatsoever, but finds himself dragged into a plot involving disparate agencies with disparate agendas and disparate powers. And fantasy has been doing this since Ray Bradbury (c.f. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES,) with Tim Powers as a prime example (c.f. LAST CALL).

    Working in that idiom, I might posit a world in which, say, *any* painting might do what Dorian Gray’s portrait does, in which the “magic” of “immortalising” someone is a skill that can be learned, an act that can be accomplished by anyone who takes the time to learn how, finds the right “magic paint” or the right ritual to “seal” the painting or somesuch. The conceit would almost certainly be defined and limited, and the story would almost certainly limit the number of such conceits, and play them out with an eye on logic; destroying the painting might undo the effect, but simply having this conceit wouldn’t mean a character could just fly when they needed to get out of some peril. I might not have much peril at all, in fact. I might posit that the rich and powerful pay to have this done to themselves, and tell a story about a whole society run by Dorian Grays, with the focus on a painter who’s not allowed to do this to himself. Or I might posit the opposite, that the rich and powerful have it done to slaves so they can work them in plantations for decades and those slaves are always in their prime. I could work that conceit in pretty much the exact same way I would if it were presented in SFnal parlance as a *drug* that confered immortality, taking it in any number of directions according to the logical and thematic ramifications.

    And why might I do this?

    The production of meaning by the use of signs, which is what I would understand by semiotic agency, is only a small part of what it is to be human.

    But it’s a fairly important and interesting part of it, that facility to make sense of the world. Even our basic senses are pretty damn semiotic — c.f. our perception of colour in terms of red/green, yellow/blue and white/black opponent processes. Those colours are signs. Our very vision is semiosis. Frankly, I might well argue that a lot of our interaction with the physical world is actually semiotic — a processing of signs. But then I’m a huge Delany fan. So I might well want to use a magic portrait in order to address image and identity, symbols of self, and *control* of such. The point is where an sf conceit of an immortality drug might allow me to tell pretty much the same sort of story, that fantasy conceit can also function metaphorically, which might add a whole other figurative level to whatever story I choose to tell.

  18. But you’ve made your mind up, eh? God forbid you admit of the capacities and actualities of that sort of fantasy, not when this conflicts with a notion that fantasy is essentially pandering pabulum.

    Fantasy is usually like those lurid novels and stories that luxuriate in the depiction of sin to conclude with a stern moral enunciated over the pitiful corpses of the sinners.

    Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s-

    Sorry, I think we’re caught in a loop, with you mistaking a predominance of crud in a commercial marketing category for proof that an aesthetic idiom is essentially delimited by the characteristics of that crud. And this from a science fiction reader! Shame on you. Repeat: this is an active closing of the definition of fantasy. It is, in fact, the exact same “it’s all just sensationalist pulp” bollocks by which those who disdain science fiction justify their scorn on the basis of a closed definition, mistaking a predominance of crud in a commercial marketing category for proof that an aesthetic idiom is essentially delimited by the characteristics of that crud.

    Notice that fantasy without the supernatural is never as appealing to fantasy fans. That shows what the appeal of fantasy really is.

    So people read fantasy for metaphysical conceits. Wow. Notice that comedy without humour is never as appealing to comedy fans. That shows what the appeal of comedy really is. But funny enough, comedy can use that humour in supremely ambitious ways that make people think, rather than just pandering to those who like fart jokes. Kurt Vonnegut? Joseph Heller? A lot of us fantasy readers prefer writers who use “the supernatural” the way they use humour.

    So the most popular fantasy makes those metaphysical conceits function in a particular way, pushing particular buttons. Wow. Notice that movies without schlockbuster spectacularity are never as appealing to cinema audiences. That shows what the appeal of cinema really is. Do I have to start saying “Sturgeon’s Law” over and over again?

    You’re basically assuming that fantasy fans only really care about one thing and for one reason only. Notice that rock music without a 4/4 beat is never as appealing to rock music fans. That shows what the appeal of rock music really is. Cause, you know, it couldn’t be that there’s a whole host of different ways to do a 4/4 beat? And that other time signatures are used in all sorts of different styles of rock music? And that without riffs and licks those beats aren’t even really up to much? And that while some rock music can be broken down into formulaic structures of beats and riffs and licks, there’s some really fucked up shit like, say, math rock that’s not at all about those formulae.

    You’re simply refusing to admit of the notion that fantasy could ever really be about anything other than this one thing (to wit, pandering) which is, in fact, only one possible attribute. Notice that cakes without icing are never as appealing to cake fans. By golly, that must show what the appeal of cake really is. Honestly, that’s what you’re saying, as far as I’m concerned. You’re saying that you hate cake because you hate icing. In fact, where I say, as someone who actually eats and bakes cakes, that cake is not actually all about the icing, you insist that you know better, that a cake isn’t really a cake without that icing, and that people who like cake only really like it for the icing, and that makes them wrong.

    Go read some Kelly Link, for crying out loud. And stop insulting every fantasy writer and reader who couldn’t give a fuck for the pandering pabulum.

  19. The difference between science fiction and fantasy….I’ve been toying with that for decades, especially after I realized that there’s something about most fantasy I find off-putting. Say it’s an aesthetic stance, but that doesn’t mean a difference isn’t there.

    What I concluded finally was the difference had to do with where one stands on the continuum between (for lack of better labels) spirituality and materialism.

    Never mind individual titles—when we read a given book we can pretty much determine what it’s intended to be, badly done or otherwise, and the distinction is real. It has nothing to do with a fidelity to science (otherwise there are a lot of out-dated Arthur C. Clarke stories that ought to now read like fantasy, but they don’t), but an adherence to the aesthetics of science, which comes out of how you think the universe works (in reality or just within the confines of a given story).

    Magic is the special kiss granted to the avatar by the sentient universe.

    Science is the hard-won understanding of a universe that has no innate sentience.

    Fantasy is at base religious (thematically it’s about essences, reification, destiny, and all that “true king” kind of stuff, which is only supportable by a universe that gives a damn).

    Science fiction is epistemological (thematically, because it’s about figuring out how shit works or at least asserting that everything can be figured out, within a universe that could care less—because it can’t).

    We (at least I) pick up on this pretty much right off the bat when the story begins.

    Now maybe along the continuum you can describe books that do a little of both and thereby make the argument that it’s a difference without a distinction, but so what?

  20. On the science fiction side of it:

    Science is the hard-won understanding of a universe that has no innate sentience.

    I totally agree. I’m an atheist materialist, myself. I’ll even buy the idea of “an adherence to the aesthetics of science, which comes out of how you think the universe works (in reality or just within the confines of a given story)” as a key feature of Science Fiction… to some extent. You have to, I think, allow for different aesthetics born of the hard/soft sciences distinction, different aesthetics born of a distinction between scientific and scientistic thought, different aesthetics born of Rationalist, modernist and postmodernist attitudes to science, and a profound and lasting effect from the absolute centrality of the Romantic aesthetics in Science Fiction‘s formative period, when it was being born from the pulps.

    Science fiction is epistemological (thematically, because it’s about figuring out how shit works or at least asserting that everything can be figured out, within a universe that could care less—because it can’t).

    “Asserting that everything can be figured out” is a pretty good example of where the sneaky influence of that Romantic aesthetics reveals itself, I’d say. Personally, I think a truly scientific aesthetic doesn’t make such an assumption, because that would be taking for granted the truth of a proposition when the only way we can prove or falsify it is by running this ongoing experiment of science as a whole and seeing what the outcome is. Maybe we will indeed find that everything can be figured out. Maybe we’ll find that certain aspects of reality are simply not capable of comprehension. The idea that we can ultimately figure everything seems like a Romantic meta-narrative to me, with Science as the noble hero.

    I mean, some science fiction manifests a strong aesthetic stance that a solution can always be found, this playing out in highly heroic stories of romanticised individualism, Heinleinian competent men and problem-solving scientists. But the 60s and 70s saw a collapse of Rocket Age faith-in-the-future that was reflected in the fiction. New Wave and sf oriented towards the soft sciences seems to me to often posit a deep epistemological uncertainty, one that’s played out in canonical sf works with distinctly postmodern and irrationalist narratives. DHALGREN, say? For me there’s a valid scientific aesthetic that accepts uncertainty, even exploits illogic like some experimental psychologist fucking with test subjects’ minds. But for some writers and readers this seems to represent a non-scientific or even anti-scientific aesthetic they want eradicated from sf. If they want to idealise the capacities of science, more power to them, but an outright opposition to epistemological uncertainty… to me that just seems like a scientistic aesthetic against a scientific aesthetic, essentialism against existentialism. And wherever there is essentialism there is God.

  21. On the fantasy side of it, meanwhile…

    Fantasy is at base religious (thematically it’s about essences, reification, destiny, and all that “true king” kind of stuff, which is only supportable by a universe that gives a damn).

    Again, this is a closure of the definition. Fantasy is at base symbolic, I’d say. It’s about entity and identity and the way we make sense of it via signs, the way those signs interrelate with each other. To take those conceits literally as articulating a religious/spiritual worldview is like imagining that Joyce actually believed there was a giant gone sleepy-bye-bye somewhere under Ireland. Even the “true king” stuff is largely about archetypes, resonant metaphors of psychological subsystems — the Ego, the Id, the Shadow — and the psychodramas of individuation etc.. And hell, that “true king” stuff is simply not the essence of fantasy. This is like referring to sf in terms of “all that ‘space squid’ kind of stuff.”

    Let me put it this way:

    I realized that there’s something about most fantasy I find off-putting.

    I have the same dislike for something about most fantasy. Pretty much always have and probably always will. The only thing that’s changed is my realisation that what I don’t like about “most fantasy” is an essential feature only in one individual flavour; it’s just that that flavour has a market share that dwarfs all other flavours combined. Like strawberry jam. I prefer blackcurrant, don’t really like strawberry jam at all. And how fucking hard is it to get blackcurrant, when you can always get strawberry? Apparently, in some sort of jam variant of Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of jam is strawberry, which is just plain shite. But that doesn’t make me stop eating jam because there’s something about “most jam” — i.e. that strawberry flavour — that I find off-putting. In fact, if you look at it in terms of the range of potential flavours, actually I do like “most jam”. I like blackcurrant, apricot, damson, raspberry, bramble, etc.. It’s really only strawberry I hate.

    I did however apply this principle to fantasy for many years.

    As a child of the 70s, I was born in the year Ballantine brought out their Adult Fantasy line; so my eventual exposure to Fantasy as a conventional genre / marketing category was in the context of that huge boom of Tolkien derivatives, and pretty much wholly negative. I read the Narnia books and various other kid’s fantasies (Alan Garner, Susan Cooper,) but it all looks a bit twee as you get older. My favourite book as a kid was a fantasy — Michael de Larrabeiti’s THE BORRIBLES — and there’s a huge wad of wish-fulfilment written into the basic “Lost Boys as latchkey kids in 70s London” premise — that kids can decide to never grow up, choosing instead to run away from home and become Borribles, not aging from then on unless they get their (now pointy) ears clipped — but that premise is all there is in terms of “magic”. And it’s largely an all-out anarchist assault on the cosy middle-class conventionality of classic children’s fiction. (They basically slaughter the Wombles in a Dirty Dozen style mission.)

    Anyways, I hit adolescence and discovered I much preferred sf to that marketing category Fantasy. I read I, ROBOT and loved it. I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS and hated it. I read a few Shannara books, and while the first worked OK for me as an anodyne adolescent adventure, the reiteration of that heroic wankfest quickly tired, and all I can remember now is some glancing mention of a ruined concrete structure from ancient times — i.e. an implication that this was a far-future, post-post-apocalypse setting. That must have piqued my interest. Point is, I was already well into the Gollancz Classics at my local library. As someone weaned on Asimov, Clarke & Heinlein, then Dick & Delany, Sladek & Simak, the New Wave & Cyberpunk, and so on — i.e. 99.99% science fiction — I didn’t have to read more than three or four works of this epic/heroic Fantasy stuff to develop a downright aversion to it.

    I’m a hard-line atheist and as anti-monarchist as they come. I’m living with the remnants of feudalism in a nation that established the whole “sovereignty resides in the people” thing (in the Declaration of Arbroath); bring back the guillotine, I say. As an “unnatural” gay, the medieval religious notion of Good and Evil coded into epic fantasy is utter anathema to me. And when it comes to the Darling of Destiny… fuck that shit. Magic swords? I never even had much time for King Arthur, all that chivalric tosh.

    All that malarky is strawberry jam to me.

  22. Magic is the special kiss granted to the avatar by the sentient universe.

    I’d think it’s clear from my response(s) to S. Johnson how that gitft/talent bestowed on the Chosen One as some sort of “divine blessing” is, for me, writing Destiny into the fiction in such a way that heroic wankfest is a near certainty. I saw fantasy in pretty much exactly those terms and avoided it like the plague because I don’t want to read a Mary Sue about someone extra-super-special whose success is ordained from the start of the book. I hate the narrative grammar and I hate the subtext of it. I’m not interested in a world run by the Flying Spaghetti Monster unless he’s a Phildickian Demiurge or Lovecraftian Cthulhu who might actually just be some kinda, well, entity who happens to be bigger and scarier than us but is nonetheless an existential being in an existential universe void of intrinsic meaning.

    So, no, says this young would-be sf writer at some point in the early 90s, about when he’s turning twenty and expanding his reading to include William Burroughs, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Guy Davenport and all that poncy literary modernist and postmodernist stuff, like the stuff Sterling pointed to in his original CATSCAN article where he coins the term “slipstream”. No, I am most decidely not interested in reading The Boy Hero’s Journey: Book One of the First Volume in the Chronicles of the Objects of Power. Bollocks to that.

    But then of course, I can’t not read Delany’s Nevèrÿon series. And steampunk / proto-steampunk like THE ANUBIS GATES — is that sf or fantasy? And if THE WARLORD OF THE AIR is so much fun, and the Jerry Cornelius books are awesomely fucked-up, well, it’s worth at least giving those reissues of Moorcock’s other Eternal Champion works a try. After all, I didn’t mind a little swashbuckling in those old Errol Flynn movies, or in the Barsoom books; and if I hate the Darling of Destiny I can be pretty sure Moorcock’s going to be fucking with it big-time, the old anarchist, right? And meanwhile there’s Franz Kafka, Angela Carter, Jonathan Carroll, Italo Calvino…

    Never mind individual titles–when we read a given book we can pretty much determine what it’s intended to be…

    But as someone who hates the Darling of Destiny, I don’t find it difficult to determine when a work is using that and when it’s not, when the hero is blessed and the worldscape imbued with Fate/Divinity and when that just ain’t so, when it’s epic fantasy with a particular narrative grammar and when it’s just plain fantasy. And there’s simply too much work which is just plain fantasy to sustain a closed definition based on epic. Which is to say, there’s just too much fantasy that just doesn’t fit the frame. Hell, the only work of Ray Bradbury’s that he himself classed as sf was FAHRENHEIT 451; everything else he classed as fantasy. I don’t see magic anywhere in his work being “the special kiss granted to the avatar by the sentient universe.”

    Up until that Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, and a long time after it, there was a whole tradition of fantasy that mixed it up with sf on the Science Fiction / Fantasy shelves, so you’ve got a whole tradition of fantasists like Bradbury (or Silverberg with THE BOOK OF SKULLS, say,) who were published as sf back then. In recent years you have more and more writers who actually seem far more sfnal in a latter-day New Wave way but are published as fantasy. There is a polarity between one particular scientific aesthetic and the aesthetic of epic fantasy, born of the opposition of Rationalism and Romanticism, but these writers are in the middle-point less because a few unconventional works do a little of both, and more because everything does a lot of both. The idiom is modernist, and those works which adopt one of the two antagonistic extremes are the exceptions, not the rule. I know when I read a short story labelled “fantasy” and it’s basically doing the exact same horrorific thing as Disch’s “Descending.”

  23. The difference between science fiction and fantasy…. Say it’s an aesthetic stance, but that doesn’t mean a difference isn’t there… Now maybe along the continuum you can describe books that do a little of both and thereby make the argument that it’s a difference without a distinction, but so what?

    My argument is that the dichotomy is false, based on a premise that Hard Science Fiction and Epic Fantasy are the cores of the respective “genres” and that the essential aesthetic stances of the two modes are a) discrete in and of themselves; b) mutually exclusive. I just don’t buy that. I think the polarity between these two is, in fact, of negligable import, and serves largely a political/territorial purpose: it denies unpalatable qualities that are fundamental to science fiction as an idiom born of the pulps, and projects them onto fantasy, binding it to a closed definition that does it a grave injustice. At root it’s designed to legitimise one by delegitimising the other.

    This is exactly the same argument I’d have with someone positing a polarity between contemporary realism (as intellectual, edifying “literature”) and science fiction (as sensational, pandering “genre”). We’re all familiar with the way that abjection works, right? Readers of contemporary realist fiction will set up a polarity of aesthetic stances as essential natures to the genres. There’s something off-putting about science fiction, they’ll say. And then they’ll give a closed definition of science fiction as pandering pabulum.

    What it is, they’ll say, is that contemporary realism is about the novel form as exemplified by Zola, Proust and so on, focusing on character and prose, aiming for profound social relevance, while science fiction is about the romance form as exemplified by STAR WARS, BUCK ROGERS and so on, focusing on plot and sense-of-wonder, aiming for shallow vicarious gratification. (They may use other terms, but that’s the thrust of it.) You and I know this is grossly unfair, but any examples offered to refute it will be met with dismissal. Sure, they’ll say, maybe along the continuum you can describe books that do a little of both, but so what?

    I’m not just attacking this sort of abjection when applied by sf readers/writers as hypocritical. I’m not just opposing it as a reader/writer of fantasy. I think it’s profoundly harmful to science fiction, never mind fantasy. Over the last two decades or so, it appears to me that centring science fiction on that aesthetic stance has led to a mass of works that could be labelled simply strange fiction — sf in its most inclusive form, encompassing novels like DHALGREN and VALIS and THE BOOK OF SKULLS — being positioned instead as “slipstream,” “interstitial,” “cross-genre” and ultimately fantasy.

    My copy of THE BOOK OF SKULLS is under an SF Masterworks imprint. It’s canonical sf, but given the conceit, if it were written today it would almost certainly be published as fantasy, and that’s nothing to do with science having outpaced it. Seems to me the same is true of novels like Zelazny’s ROADMARKS, Priest’s INVERTED WORLD maybe, and all too many besides, I’d hazard. Write a collection of stories like Thomas Disch’s “Descending” and today it will be seen as fantasy belonging beside, say, Kelly Link. As the upcoming writers of unconventional strange fiction hit the market they’re liable to find that market is largely the indie press magazines and anthologies that populate the dealer’s room at WFC, and that their “slipstream,” “interstitial,” “cross-genre” novel largely influenced by 60s/70s New Wave is branded as fantasy rather than sf. And then they’re going to find themselves constantly running face-first into the blanket dismissals of Science Fiction loyalists who refuse to even countenance the notion that fantasy might be an entirely different creature now than it was as a ten-year-old in 1981.

    That attitude only means that the writer of the next ROADMARKS or THE BOOK OF SKULLS or DHALGREN or THE CORNELIUS QUARTET is actively alienated from sf. I know I used to identify wholly and utterly as sf. Not any more. I wrote VELLUM & INK as sf in the mould of books like those four named — sure, with some influence from other idioms, poncy and pulpy, (James Joyce & Jorge Luis Borges, H. P. Lovecraft & Grant Morrison,) but primarily seeing the New Wave as a core influence. This apparently makes me a fantasy writer.

    I shrug and say it’s all strange fiction, but oh noes, it’s gotta be either science fiction or fantasy according to the Science Fiction loyalists. I shrug and say it’s sf then in that messed-up way, but oh noes, all those metaphysical and logical quirks in the New Wave, all those textual chimerae and suturae, have no place amongst sf’s novae according to the Science Fiction loyalists. I shrug and say it’s fantasy then, but oh noes, fantasy doesn’t actually do that sort of shit at all according to the Science Fiction loyalists. I shrug and say it does, actually, if you take an open definition, but oh noes, the only possible way to talk about fantasy is with an absolute closed definition of the state of the commercial marketing category circa 1981… according to the Science Fiction loyalists.

    This is the point where I walk away in disgust. As does the next writer. And the next. And the next, and the next, and the next. I don’t think that’s at all good for sf in the long term.

  24. Well, that was thorough. And I agree with about 95% of your response. For the most part, this is a silly, territorial argument, true, except…

    When you pick up a book and find you dislike it, not for bad writing, not for plot necessarily, but because there’s an innate aesthetic “take” you just can’t accept, you’re tripping over a difference between it and something you do like. It can be intellectually amusing to break it down and figure out why.

    “Again, this is a closure of the definition. Fantasy is at base symbolic, I’d say. It’s about entity and identity and the way we make sense of it via signs, the way those signs interrelate with each other. To take those conceits literally as articulating a religious/spiritual worldview is like imagining that Joyce actually believed there was a giant gone sleepy-bye-bye somewhere under Ireland.”

    My only comment here is that, while structurally you’re correct, artistically there’s a difference between Joyce and Crowley (or yourself) in that Joyce knew he was playing with symbols and that the world through which Bloom moved wasn’t “really” any different from the one you or I move, but Bloom’s perceptions altered the landscape for our interpretive benefit. Whereas in what we now call Fantasy, the intention it to assert that, no, the landscape is changed. Modern fantasy and science fiction use the same trick of foregrounding the metaphor and treating them as mimetic. That turns the character interaction away from slippery Jungian mind-rambles and gives it that adventurous kick we all really like.

    ““Asserting that everything can be figured out” is a pretty good example of where the sneaky influence of that Romantic aesthetics reveals itself, I’d say. Personally, I think a truly scientific aesthetic doesn’t make such an assumption, because that would be taking for granted the truth of a proposition when the only way we can prove or falsify it is by running this ongoing experiment of science as a whole and seeing what the outcome is.”

    On some level, for the committed scientist to even get up in the morning, he or she must believe “figuring it all out” is at least possible. Assuming there is a solution, however, is not the same as presuming what the solution is. However, that may be a quibble. Even so, there is an aesthetic of confidence the non-scientist attaches to science which includes this and that is what we see in SF.

    I grant you all the Romantic baggage SF and Fantasy have dragged along from, in my opinion, the Victorian Age when supreme confidence in all things Man does reigned. After the New Wave failed to flense all this from the genre, what remains is a thin strain of belief that the enterprise is nevertheless worth doing—or trying to do.

    For the record, I think most SF is stridently anti-Post Modernist, and I’m frankly glad of it.

    I did mention a continuum. Along which you do encounter writers who employ the tropes of both for other purposes rather than engage fully with the essential thematic discourses. I think Delany’s “Dhalgren” and the “Neveryon” series are prime examples of this. They are not exactly within either side of the polarity and take advantage of the tropes to make points most SF or Fantasy don’t (or at least didn’t) bother to address.

    Tim Powers’ novels bounce around inside a bubble that’s a lot like this. I read the “Anubis Gate” as SF, likewise “On Stranger Tides” and even “The Stress Of Her Regard” but “Declare” and the “Last Call” trilogy are edging toward Fantasy…

    But this fails to address potential counter-arguments with the nature of Fantasy that tend to look like fantasy but are something else. China Mieville’s books are what I consider anti-fantasy (as are yours, btw) because they tackle the landscape of fantasy while extracting the sentient universe element, leaving behind a structure that manages to function without the organizing principle most people presume. (I claim there is no god in Mieville’s universes, but they are constructs that require one, and therefore they are shit house messes.) Bradbury likewise writes about a universe permeated by the numinous, but there’s no trace of the source (unless it’s humanity bringing their own perceptions and expectations to it without realizing it).

    Lastly, the main problem I’ve seen in so-called mainstream fiction since Philip Roth declared the death of the novel is that most of it refuses to acknowledge that things change. Material things, that is. While people interact in ways that appear to accept change within mainstream work, all of it seems perfectly in line with the whole Henry James enterprise of a century ago. The world goes through “episodes” but is essentially the same. What irritates mainstream writers so much about SF is its primary insistence that, no, things are going to be REALLY FUCKING DIFFERENT. (They have an affection for Fantasy, I think, because it’s “safe”—nicely Arcadian, mythic, used-to-be kind of stuff.) I don’t think most SF writers view mainstream in negative terms, I think we see it as being about the sorts of things we’re interested in as well but also about this other stuff which we think ought to be taken seriously.

    I will say that Henry James did first-class damage by giving us a justification for taking the romance out of The Novel.

    Lastly, though, I think this debate is essentially pointless, because we are nevertheless talking about a continuum, and a given work is either your thing or not. I only stir the ashes when I hear it stridently asserted that there is no difference between the two. Because that’s silly. It’s like saying there’s no difference between a murder mystery and a Harlequin romance. Or between a western and a spy thriller. Break them down far enough you can find sufficient commonality to make a serviceable argument that this is true, but it’s meaningless to the reader choosing the next title. If someone doesn’t like spy thrillers, all the analysis in the world saying that they’re no different from a Jane Austen riff will make them see it—nor should it. Otherwise we’d all be writing the same thing, over and over and over and over….

  25. It can be intellectually amusing to break it down and figure out why… I only stir the ashes when I hear it stridently asserted that there is no difference between the two. Because that’s silly. It’s like saying there’s no difference between a murder mystery and a Harlequin romance. Or between a western and a spy thriller.

    Absolutely. That’s why I talk about breaking science fiction / fantasy down to genres like Technothriller, Epic Fantasy, and so on. Because in sf, you could have, structurally speaking, a murder mystery (Asimov’s THE CAVES OF STEEL and umpteen short stories,) a Harlequin romance (Niffenegger’s THE TIME-TRAVELER’S WIFE,) a western (some of Heinlein’s work maybe, or better examples might be found in the 40s/50s pulps,) or a spy thriller (Stross’s THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES.) You can even see the genres which people are less inclined to talk about because they don’t necessarily have bookstore marketing categories — e.g. war story and Buchan/Haggard style adventure. Crucially though, the all-time bestselling sf work is an epic, structurally speaking — Herbert’s DUNE.

    To me, it’s more useful (or at least more interesting) to break science fiction down that way; in fact, it would be silly to… well, stridently assert that there’s no difference. Of course, we *do* want a wider perspective that treats of the commonalities making these works all sf, but by breaking it down that way, it seems to me you’ve got a better start-point for asking what it is that actually makes a work sf. I mean, you can strip out the narrative grammars and see what’s left, or overlay them to see if maybe they’re different flavours of a more general narrative grammar that *can’t* be stripped out.

    Now, I think fantasy actually works the same way. Again, of course, you can also take a wider perspective that treats of the commonalities, but it’s not all Epic Fantasy; it does come in a variety of narrative grammars. Truth is, you could have a murder mystery (Ford’s THE GIRL IN THE GLASS, maybe,) a Harlequin romance (that whole genre of Paranormal Romance,) a western (Bishop’s THE ETCHED CITY maybe, though I think a purer example could be found,) or a spy thriller (Powers’ DECLARE). Again, there’s a good whack that could be seen as war story or Buchan/Haggard style adventure. Crucially, I’ve spoken to epic fantasy writers who explicitly said they felt “out-of-place” at WFC, while in the UK there can be a lot of grumping about Fantasycon’s horror bent.

    Thing is, this diversity in fantasy is denied by characterisations that say fantasy simply *is* this or *does* that. Strident assertions that there is no difference within fantasy. And the closure of the definition is invariably towards epic. Not at all surprising given the birth of the label, but this is where *I* stir the ashes. To me there’s a commonality at the lower level — where both genres utiise the same set of narrative grammars — and a commonality at the higher level — where, as you say, “Modern fantasy and science fiction use the same trick of foregrounding the metaphor and treating them as mimetic” — but much of this is obscured and denied by an insistence on a specific difference. Where those denials are based on closed definitions that mask off the presence of epic in sf and mask off the presence of anything but epic in fantasy, I’m inclined to knock em down. This comes out as “it’s all strange fiction” but that’s… a start point. A clearing out of the Augean Stables.

    Down the line, I want to get into the nuts and bolts of how I do see all those “sub”genres allying with each other, or opposing each other, because of very real differences, the way we end up with a sort of phase-space of multiple dimensions of potential literary strategies that different readers automatically (and decisively) parse into zones of sf and fantasy, to actually tackle that “I know it when I see it” spidey-sense. Still, I think the boundary disputes indicate the absence of a single essential polarity, never mind a clear dividing line. So, I reckon you can talk about strange fiction as a whole, and individual genres, but that “what the idioms of sf and fantasy are” is always a projection/decision on the part of each individual reader/writer, that the rationales of thoses decisions are too varied for consensus, and that the result can only ever be a conflict of arbitrary judgements. If the debate is trivial on one level, because the readers *will* always be making those decisions when they come to choose the next book, I do think the territorial/political impact makes it worth getting into when it comes to not alienating new writers and readers — c.f. my comments above about sf losing slipstreamy writers to fantasy.

    Anyway, the key point here is that even if there *is* a difference, to get to it, I think, you have to be willing to accept that fantasy comes in distinctly different flavours, even if losing the stereotype completely destabilises a polarity dependent on it. It’s no great loss if that polarity misrepresents both genres by putting them in a relationship of abjection, with the qualities of epic denied in one (e.g. DUNE in sf) and projected onto the other as an essentially characteristic Wrongness.

  26. So, the argument that fantasy isn’t essentially epic…

    Riffing off Clute’s notion of narrative grammars, I think you can identify a spectrum of narrative grammars running from epic with all it’s “Thinning,” through adventure, mystery, thriller and noir to horror with all it’s “Thickening”. In that middle zone, Clute’s narrative grammar of SF, I think, can be seen as a special case of a more general structure I’d call “Twisting”. I break from Clute’s model because what I’m calling epic he calls (Full) Fantasy and I think that’s misleading; the way I see it, you also get fantasy with that “Twisting” narrative grammar, and fantasy and sf are both best seen as modes that may occur at any point on that spectrum. In sf, you have DUNE at one end, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” at the other.

    In the more general narrative grammar of “Twisting” I think the sfnal novum has correlates in other flavours of… call em “quirks” — units of strangeness, those metaphors we treat as mimetic. I think one reason some of Tim Powers’ works might read as sf, and one reason many works like THE BOOK OF SKULLS are still published as sf (despite the fact that it’s about four guys going to a monastery to try and gain immortality in a mystic ritual!) is that metaphysical quirks — call em “chimerae” — can be exploited in the same way the novum is. The conceit is worked through as the driving force behind the Twisting rather than just clicked into place in an epic formulae. The whole text becomes an exploration of the idea.

    Anyway, that narrative grammar is, to a large extent, a product of the protagonist’s relationship to the worldscape. At one end, you’ve got the Darling of Destiny in a worldscape that is itself on his/her side. At the other, you’ve got the Fool of Fate in a worldscape that is itself out to get him/her. In between…? Well, I think you can see the hero of adventure shading into that of epic, and the anti-hero of noir shading into that of horror, and a pretty much seamless transition, in the mystery/thriller region, between the two. And all of this is, in turn, to a large extent, a product of the aesthetic of the worldscape, I’d argue. It’s interesting that you pick up on LAST CALL as sliding towards Fantasy. To me, it plays an interesting game of creating a Twisting that flips back-and-forth between the hero being Darling of Destiny and Fool of Fate, and especially with the note of “restoration to idyll” at the end, I can see how this would push the “epic” buttons, so to speak. Where THE ANUBIS GATES, in contrast, is straight down the middle adventure/mystery/thriller. I’m curious why you’d put DECLARE and THE STRESS OF HER REGARD in that order, though? To me there’s very little difference in the approach, and if I were recommending “fantasy that reads as sf” to a curious sf reader, the more contemporary setting of DECLARE and the more Gothic/Romantic vibe of THE STRESS OF HERE REGARD would probably incline me towards the former.

    I think your “sentient universe” is very pertinent here actually, though I think it’s too literal. In the epic, I’d say, Good is written into the cosmos as a sovereign power, whereas in horror it’s Evil that’s ultimately in charge. But is it sentience? Horror isn’t always spiritual/religious and neither is epic, I’d say; rather I think it’s to do with a sense of epistemic certainty coded into the work via the aesthetic of the worldscape. Your comment about fantasy being “safe” — “nicely Arcadian, mythic, used-to-be kind of stuff” — ties in; it speaks to an idyllic aesthetic to the worldscape that contrasts with horror’s grotesque. It’s more complex than “everything’s nice” in epic, with the idyll usually poldered, a sublime wilderness (for adventuring) beyond it, and a baroque aesthetic introduced in terms of societal structures. Still, if the idyll is disrupted, much of the epic *is* about its restoration.

  27. The numinous in Bradbury is a good illustration, I think, of exactly how and why fantasy *isn’t* bound to the epic grammar. The numinous is a product of the nostalgia; there’s a recurrent vibe of elegy for the loss of idyll, which seems to me to be tied firmly to an “end of the frontier myth” thematics. I don’t think this is truly about a spiritual view of how reality works; rather it’s mythologising America, weaving stories of (the end of) innocence and summer, using the unreality of carnivalesque magic to sepia-tint the worldscape to autumnal golds and browns. Or imagery of dusk/gloaming, the twilight. How significant is a title like “Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed” or “The October Country”? Compare the latter with Jeff Ford’s THE SHADOW YEAR, which I haven’t read yet but which, if “Botch Town” is anything to by, is working a very Bradburyesque vein. What we’re looking at is not the sort of religious/spiritual belief that underpins Tolkien & Lewis, but rather fantasy as poetic fiction. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES is not about materialist/spiritualist metaphysics, but about the existential realities of our… emotional relationship to youth and ageing.

    Contrast that “lost idyll” twilight with TITUS GROAN and the aesthetic of Dickensian/Hogarthian grotesque that pervades it, the greyness of dust and stour, the way it works as a figuration of British society, the End of Empire. Different culture, different aesthetic take, Peake sitting nicely alongside, I think, Waugh’s A HANDFUL OF ASHES. Again those metaphors are foregrounded, the conceits made concrete so the character interacts with them, but I don’t think Peake’s fantasy has anything to do with a sentient universe. I’d say it’s entirely materialist, addressing heritage and society in a universe that’s not at all interested in what Steerpike’s up to. As a more metaphysical example on the same housey theme, there’s Danielewski’s THE HOUSE OF LEAVES. This house that has an impossible door opening into endless empty grey corridors and spaces of impossible size could be taken as articulating some sort of bleak existentialism, if you want to see its aesthetics as expressing a view of reality. I see it more as one vast figurative exploration of the nature of loss.

    To me, these are just… different potential flavours of the jam that is fantasy. It’s not a matter of all jam being strawberry but sometimes with different flavours added to the mix. And it’s not the case, I think, that if you extract the essential strawberry flavour entirely what you’re left with is some sort of anti-jam.

  28. Here’s where the notion of “anti-fantasy” doesn’t work for me. I don’t think it *is* about works that “look like fantasy but are something else,” no more than New Wave works look like sf but are really something else. It’s about anti-dominant-paradigm fantasy, anti-dominant-paradigm sf — and in a context where you have the dominant paradigm but many others besides. You could theoretically say the New Wave is anti-sf — and I think you have to, for consistency’s sake, if they were doing to sf what people llke Mieville and myself are doing to fantasy, stripping out / flensing an essential aesthetic. As I say, I don’t see the aesthetic as essential, but VELLUM & INK are certainly fucking with the epic form (even announcing that intent in the first sentence.) So what’s the problem with seeing them as anti-fantasy? Well, what’s the problem with seeing the New Wave as anti-sf?

    My concern with sf would be that this plays into: on the one hand, a conservatism on the part of hardcore genreheads that would basically deny sf the relevance of reflecting the zeitgeist, changing with the times, thereby rendering it a literary museum piece of the Rocket Age; on the other hand, the “if it’s good, it can’t be sf” argument, where “good” basically means “engaging with that old ‘human condition’ rather than serving as a diversion from it,” because those who’d argue that can then turn around and say, “look, these writers who question are basically kicked out for not toeing the party line.” I think it’s better for the sake of sf to treat it as a discourse of paradigms, where one may be dominant, but others are allowable, and where adopting a directly oppositional paradigm doesn’t render a work “anti-sf”. Further, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; if this logic applies to “anti-sf” it applies to “anti-fantasy.”

    If you apply it to sf, but not to fantasy, that’s where I see privilege & prejudice. It might not be the active “sneering disdain” style of dismissal, might even be quite tolerant of… all that fantasy stuff. But if an sf reader/writer isn’t willing to accept the consequences of a closed definition in their genre, imposing that on another genre is just not on. This is where I scent an underlying agenda, because the obvious result is to make sf look dynamic and diverse in comparison with that stultified and stereotypical fantasy. And this, in fact, is where I immediately look for abjection, look at sf to see if there’s a revulsion at the qualities projected onto the object — the details of how that definition is closed — and whether those same qualities are in fact also present in sf, maybe even fundamental to it. That being what abjection is all about, a rejection/revulsion at that which is/was a part of oneself.

    And it strikes me that the same frontier myth Bradbury turns into little elegies imbued with a sense of lost idyll is writ large in sf, and that in the hands of other writers — writers who are considered more purely sf — actually *does* lead into a narrative grammar of epic, replete with Darlings of Destiny and Restorations of the Realm. Kind of my point about ” where there’s essentialism, there’s God” is that the supreme confidence in Man’s endeavours that you trace back to the Victorian Age (and I agree, though I’d say it’s reinforced in Rocket Age America and tied into that frontier myth and notions of Manifest Destiny,) has written an element of “spirituality” into sf at its roots (in inverted commas because, as I say, it’s more about epistemic certainty written into the worldscape.) DUNE, with it’s epic narrative grammar, is sort of evidential of the… presence of that which is rejected. While many hardcore genreheads will defend it as valid sf till their dying breath, others just as decisively label it (and similar works partaking of the aesthetics and narrative grammar of epic) as “science fantasy”. Where that term was coined for works like “Magic, Inc.” that applied an sfnal methofology to fantasy, it’s become, I think, a mechanism of marking out sf works as “impure,” the term “fantasy” signifying as foreign, as Other, this monomythic heroism that seems to me a pretty big aspect of early pulp science fiction, something that could well be seen as the very fuel that sent Space Opera to the stars.

  29. I sorta distrust the whole sf take on fantasy because of that. It seems like a disavowal of sf’s pulp roots in gloriously gauche hokum, hokum that’s actually *not* a terrible anti-scientific faith-driven betrayal of rationalism — because the monomyth is a juvenile/adolescent psychodrama that’s fine and dandy as long as you don’t keep reading it all your life. It seems like an attempt to write that out of the history, to validate sf as legitimate intellectual fiction by saying that the heroic wankfest element was only ever there as an infection from fantasy. And for a lot of my generation and below, having grown up in a culture permeated by mainstreamed geekery, that just isn’t an issue; those who still sneer at pulp are coming more and more to look like fusty old farts. I just don’t think there’s any need to try and legitimise sf by redefining fantasy as “that thing we’re most definitely not”. It’s trying to have it both ways, asserting the polarity, but allowing New Wave into sf while painting fantasy’s equivalent dissenters as anti-fantasy.

    You could, of course, just say that the New Wave *was* anti-sf. I mean, you could say that the dominant paradigms are essential in both sf and fantasy, and that which challenges them directly is anti-sf or anti-fantasy, while that which adopts other paradigms is… marginal, impure, quasi-sf or quasi-fantasy. There are the hardcore genreheads on both sides of the fence who hold to exactly that. But this risks, I think, driving away any writer who wants to offer “something different” rather than “more of the same”. Cause if you’re mixing it up, writing something at odds with these dominant paradigms, trying to move the idiom with the times, you’re going to be seen by one side as anti-sf and by the other as anti-fantasy. And if you’re *essentially* so, well, there’s not much point in trying to carve out a place for yourself where you really don’t belong. Result: at best, like Lethem or Chabon, they publish in general fiction and acknowledge the tradition that they, sadly, had to leave to die away into insularity and irrelevance; at worst, like Vonnegut, they actively disavow the genres for their reactionary autocracy of aesthetics.

    Bottom line: I always saw the sf community as pissy about Vonnegut’s disavowal precisely because we considered him as being in our camp, as sf, regardless of what he said. I always saw the New Wave as in that same camp, as sf, regardless of its anti-dominant-paradigm stance. I always saw all sorts of strange fiction as sf because I was working with an open definition. But if the tag I end up with from writing my own openly-defined sf is “fantasy,” well, OK, maybe sf isn’t any longer what we point to when we say “sf”. Maybe it *has* (re)set its limits, narrowed its range, closed the definition. If so, either fantasy has opened up its definition such that it happily accepts crazy-ass shit like mine — in which case sf writers/readers (and the hardcore epic fantasy genreheads who don’t want nothing but) are going to have to ditch their closed definitions and come to terms with the fact that fantasy has taken over the default label role — or I’m mislabelled and doing something else entirely, one of those writers who “employ the tropes of both for other purposes rather than engage fully with the essential thematic discourses” — in which case there are dimensions to strange fiction that are orthogonal to that polarity, other discourses at play. Practically, I think fantasy has become the default label. But there’s still pressure for a closed definition, and I probably *am* working at cross-purposes to that polarity. So it’s probably natural that I’m going to tear down any fence designed to box in fantasy and fight with a reductionist sf/fantasy polarity that elides those other discourses.

    Of course, I’m sure a lot of it is just a geeky sf writer obsession with How Things Work. That “OK, how can I take this apart?” response.

  30. Was New Wave anti-SF? Well, in a strict structural sense, sure, because a lot of it was talking about biology and that has always seemed a problematic aspect of the beany-wearing SF reader. (Is biology a “soft” science? Is psychology?) I never read it that way. All I saw was an approach that took the same universe traditional nuts-n-bolts SF worked in and then inserted ordinary people who couldn’t figure out what was going on. The underlying aesthetic hadn’t change re the universe and how it functions, only the kind of people we thought we were in dealing with it. (Yes, yes, that’s an oversimplification, but I think it tracks. In this sense you could even include something as supposedly hard core as Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.)

    So anti-paradigmatic, sure. Maybe I should have used that term for what I described as anti-fantasy. (And I just reread the first line of your Vellum and laughed my ass off, yes, indeed, you threw down a gauntlet there.)

    I agree with your assessment of Bradbury completely—he has always been mostly about nostalgia, and it permeates everything he does (even Fahrenheit 451) and you can’t read one of his stories without everything going late-afternoon-in-September-tinged.

    I suppose my stance can be best illustrated this way: you have two anatomists. They both are very good at what they do, but one is a Lamarckian, the other Darwinian. Even though in the specifics of their job they are equally competent, their definitional perspectives are irreconcilable. And at some point deep down into the guts of their practice they’ll inevitably find a crossroads that sets a boundary across which they can’t move without giving up a cherished ideology.

    I put “The Stress of Her Regard” in the SF side of the Powers canon because it is essentially a SFnal take. The vampires are no more than an unrecognized species, living parasitically on humanity, and despite the Gothic sensibilities it plays out on my grid as SF. “Declare” rests atop a swamp of sentient universe assumptions and so slips over to the fantasy side.

    Yet I can still read it with immense pleasure without my automatic tripwires being effected because what Powers does is pretty much deny the whole destiny thing throughout. That universe is there, but it only comes into play if someone (like Philby) fucks with it. (Such is not quite the case in Last Call, because those powers are applied to characters without their consent. Even so, I read enjoyed Last Call and Expiration Date because he managed not to deploy the Good vs Evil motif in a grandiosely implausible manner.) But, yeah, “Declare” is fantasy that reads like SF and “The Stress of Her Regard” is (more or less) SF that reads like fantasy.

    It may be that there is a different label for what you and Mieville and Crowley (in the Aegypt cycle) do, but good grief that last thing we need is another category!

    Lastly, though, I’m not sure I want this whole issue settled. I rather like that it’s constantly being turned over because the result is new stories that do different things. (When I hear someone declare, as I have often heard them, that SF and Fantasy are The Same Thing, what I hear is someone attempting to end the argument by asserting a hierarchy with their favored candidate in charge. My hackles rise.)

    I think your take on Epic being as great a determining factor is a good one—in a way, Tolkien ruined fantasy and it is damnably hard to get out from under that overwhelming mass of iconic verbiage.

    On a panel many years ago, the question came up about Destiny and I was asked “Does the starship captain have a destiny?” No, I said, he (or she) has potential. There were several people who didn’t grasp the distinction. For me it’s fundamental. Destiny, in my mind, is inextricably linked to Destination. Preordained equals dull, boring, and ideologically deadly. I pick up a lot of that in the fantasies I peruse and it turns me off almost at once.

    To cop to a bit of waffling, the fantasies I enjoy I seem not to recognize as fantasy while I’m reading them. (Try as I might, I cannot read Delany’s Neveryon novels as fantasy. No more than I could read Mary Stewart’s Merlin cycle as such. And I don’t read Mieville that way.)

    A minor thing—Vonnegut’s dismissal of SF was possibly one of the few false steps he ever took in print. It wasn’t the genre he despised—obviously! he used it!—but the marketing category that limited his potential audience. He stated it badly. Ellison is more precise and a minute’s thought shows he means no mean against SF, just the thick-skulled way in which critics, publishers, and readers slot it in a category sublabeled “Garbage.” (What I can’t stand about Vonnegut—and he did this quite intentionally—is he decision to write everything for a fifthe grader. His language turns me off. I’m not an idiot, I have vocabulary, and I resent being talked down to, which he did in everything except his first novel, in which he showed he really could write. That’s personal, though.)

    Anyway, this has been fun. It’s nice to talk about this thing with someone who prefers to open out the discourse rather than circle wagons.

  31. “So, by your definition magic exists, right?” Yes, the belief that semiotic agency can really do things does exist. In the world, it is superstition and fraud. Dismissing concerns about this baggage when carried into fiction as lack of poetry in my soul is not persuasive. Worse, by your definition, people who don’t understand electricity any better than melange should reasonably call a TV set magic. Even fiction should connect enough to the world to use the same language!

    Clarke’s Law is not even a social bluc by-law. If aliens raised the dead, like Klaatu in the movies, only people who already believed in magic would believe it was magic. Chiang’s version incidentally has a fairly well known counterexample I think in the (unfinishable by me) Ian MacLeod fantasies, where magic is industrialized so that an industrial society can be portrayed. Why then call it magic instead of a fictional element with fictional properties? To denote that MacLeod’s world was not Dickens’, i.e., ours, I think.

    In fiction, if the story believes that semiotic agency can really do things, then it is fantasy. Or if the story believes that the world is semiosis or that there is another place beyond our reality or that there are persons, objects, powers (effects, generally) that come from someplace outside reality, then it is fantasy. The narrative grammar of the impossibilities is what you wish.

    But if the impossibilities are supposed to be have material causes in this world, or that the world obeys laws instead of esthetics or ritual, that there are paths from here to the strange worlds it depicts, that there are all persons, objects, powers, effects are within the cosmic order, then it is science fiction. The narrative grammar of science fiction is not what you wish. The slovenly depiction of our world as it is or the unmarked path from here to the strange new land are bad syntax.

    The SF/fantasy divide is like the division between free verse and the various metrical forms of poetry. Plainly poetry is poetry, because it is not prose. Similarly, fantasy and science fiction are not realism. Admitting that concedes nothing of interest. Science fiction’s pseudorealism is like metrical forms in poetry. Insisting that they are the same is like insisting there is no bad verse, because all poetry is fundamentally the same: Poetic forms don’t really exist as definitions of poetry. Therefore bad rhymes and bad scansion are merely insults against the text by the unprivileged reader.

  32. Not to spam, sorry, but I forgot this one: “…but you do realise that opens the definition of fantasy about as far as it goes, yes?” No, it doesn’t open fantasy to cover science fiction, which seems to be why you can’t accept it. Personally, I never said fantasy was even a genre, so demonstrating that it isn’t all epic fantasy really is a Straw Man.

    I say that fantasy is not a genre, but a narrative technique or grammar for incorporating impossibilities in fiction. Horror can use it, sure, but horror can also use science fiction. It was the original essay that seemed to posit fantasy as a family of genres. Science fiction is a different, incompatible technique for incorporating impossibilites into fiction. Just like fantasy, it too can be found in all sorts of genres. Near future thrillers are particularly fond of using it, I think.

    I apologize if I was too cautious in thinking those two questions weren’t necessarily rhetorical.

  33. Please excuse me for being so bold as to interrupt, Mr. Tiedemann, but this was interesting: “Now maybe along the continuum you can describe books that do a little of both and thereby make the argument that it’s a difference without a distinction, but so what?”

    Is there really a continuum between a fundamentally religous view and a fundamentally materialist view? I think there’s lots and lots of bad SF that suddenly drags in a divine revelation or the Hand of God at the climax, in a jarring juxtaposition that undermines both the SF and religion. But there’s no halfway, just a pretense there’s a halfway, like people live without planning on miracles, then hope for heaven at the end.

    “For the most part, this is a silly, territorial argument, true, except…”

    But why is it silly? In practice, the market has spoken, fantasy and science fiction are exactly the same, totally mixed up. And fantasy has won the commercial battle. No one needs to provide a theoretical justification for fantasy taking territory that it already has, nor will the theoretical justification give the science fiction reader a conveniently separated (much smaller) shelf at the bookstore. Isn’t the issue what’s good?

    “On some level, for the committed scientist to even get up in the morning, he or she must believe “figuring it all out” is at least possible. Assuming there is a solution, however, is not the same as presuming what the solution is. However, that may be a quibble.”

    Is it possible that it is not just a quibble, but a philosophical chasm? Deep epistemological uncertainty, aka skepticism, is historically a deeply reactionary philosophy.

    “For the record, I think most SF is stridently anti-Post Modernist, and I’m frankly glad of it.” Insofar as I understand it, there’s lots of use of fantasy in Post-Modernism. Is it possible that the insistence that SF/Fantasy are the same thing is about incorporating Post-Modernism into SF?

    “What irritates mainstream writers so much about SF is its primary insistence that, no, things are going to be REALLY FUCKING DIFFERENT. (They have an affection for Fantasy, I think, because it’s “safe”—nicely Arcadian, mythic, used-to-be kind of stuff.)”

    Strictly speaking, there are two factoids here. That SF primarily insists that tomorrow will be different tends to define SF as the good stuff, assuming that the weird stuff in good SF is a rational choice to achieve the serious artistic goal of depicting change? I would like to think so, but the most (only?) popular form of SF is the superhero comicbook movie, which is just as much heroic wankfest as the trashiest epic fantasy. Also, barring scientific polling, how can we assume that mainstream writers have so much affection for fantasy?
    I suspect you’re right, on both counts, but aren’t these tricky judgments, not so much about the psyches of individual writers, but about ideological biases in conventional wisdom?

    If there is a continuum between SF and fantasy, where do alternate history stories lie?

    Is the problem in these discussion not the difficulty of distinguishing SF from fantasy but the practical impossibility of defining SF as a genre, especially Hard SF?

    Is the whole notion that SF is a rationalist pole and fantasy a romantic pole belied by the fact that the historical opposition is not between rationalism and romanticism, but between neoclassicism and romanticism? Who even argues SF is really Neoclassical? Isn’t that a Straw Man? SF has had its romantic and intellectual sides from the beginning with Wells and Verne, but where is the rational side in fantasy? Isn’t it stretching to counterpose fantasy to intellectualism, given the novels of Charles Williams, Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters or Alan Moore’s Promethea?

    Last, is it possible there is an intrinsic difficulty in fantasy: Where the narrative grammar is what you wish, foregrounding wishful thinking as a metaphor, treating it mimetically, forecloses irony or disbelief? When Wells wanted to play with disabusing fantasies of power, he wrote The Invisible Man, and deconstructed a fantasy with science. When a fantasist like Alan Moore supposedly wanted to deconstruct similar fantasies, he and Dave Gibbons wrote Watchmen, which is not much success as deconstruction because he wrote it like there was no difference between SF and fantasy.

  34. “Is there really a continuum between a fundamentally religous view and a fundamentally materialist view? I think there’s lots and lots of bad SF that suddenly drags in a divine revelation or the Hand of God at the climax, in a jarring juxtaposition that undermines both the SF and religion. But there’s no halfway, just a pretense there’s a halfway, like people live without planning on miracles, then hope for heaven at the end.”

    The continuum exists within readers and, therefore, writers in their daily apprehension of the world. The process of compartmentalizing occurs sometimes minute by minute, but most people seem to sustain both ends of the spectrum simultaneously. Consequently, the fictions we write and consume will land on some section of, yes, a continuum because of the nature of the characters used in those fictions.

    Now, strictly in terms of SF vs Fantasy, again, sure there is a continuum due to the nature of some of the tropes deployed. It can confuse. To name a biggie, the continual confusion of how to classify “Star Wars”, which many see as SF (bad SF perhaps, but SF) because of the spaceships and ray guns and others (myself included) see as Fantasy because of the underlying cosmic sentience implied by The Force (at least until Lucas attempted to do a SFnal spin on it in Parts 1, 2, & 3) and the obvious quest plot.

    The attempt way back when to “create” a third category called science fantasy failed, I think, because really readers wanted one or the other or, more likely, just didn’t want to think about their candy so deeply. So you have a continuum of effect if not strict taxonomy.

    “Is it possible that it is not just a quibble, but a philosophical chasm? Deep epistemological uncertainty, aka skepticism, is historically a deeply reactionary philosophy.”

    In the matter of actual scientific practice, it is indeed a chasm. In the matter of science fiction and fantasy, probably a little more than a quibble, but we are, after all, talking about fiction. I cop to a desire to see as much rigor in the latter as in the former, but concede that sticking to such dictums can lead to stodgy writing and editorial disputations which could harm the final product.

    I would argue, however, that historically skepticism as embodied in the Enlightenment is not so much reactionary as revolutionary, since up till that point conservatism was embodied by accepting received wisdom without question and to say “But on what evidence do you base your assertions?” was a form of radical revolution. Skepticism may have become a hallmark of individual reactionary conservatism, but when effectively applied remains a revolutionary practice because it never concedes the status quo.

    Consequently, SF as a concept remains the more radical of the two genres even if its execution harkens back to, as you assert, classical forms (an intriguing notion, btw, and I’ll have to think about that, especially in the comparison of Verne and Wells—I recognize Wells as perhaps the earliest practicioner of “modern” science fiction, but Verne was not—he wrote what we’d today recognize as technothrillers. Wells directly engaged the thematic consequences of radical change on the human landscape while Verne always safely returned the reader to the everyday Victorian day dream after sinking the nasty new gizmo) because it embodies skepticism in its very DNA. Even in examples of SF where deus ex machina comes into play, an honest reading tells us that this is a betrayal of the primary telos, and we read these as bad SF.

    A comment on the comicbook superhero—that would be Batman and maybe Iron Man, but the rest are all intrusions into otherwise mimetic landscapes of supernatural agents. Wonder Woman explicitly so, all the rest to varying degrees iconic representations of “guardian angels” for a technological civilization. They function as a separate case, I think, and are not actually SF. “Watchmen” was an attempt to *make* comic book superheroes SFnal (and I applaud it for mostly achieving that) and as a result functions as critique of the entire corpus of superhero comics fully embodying the irony so often mentioned but seldom evoked in such comics.

    As to its popularity, you may be right, but for different reasons—I question that most readers look to comics for science fiction, but look to comics *for comics*. Delany recognizes comics as their own “paraliterary” form, and I’m inclined to agree.

    I actually can’t answer the question “where is the intellectual side of fantasy?” because I have never found one that I subsequently regarded as fantasy (for instance, Delany’s “Neveryon” novels are rigorously intellectual, but as I said above I simply cannot read them as fantasy—that may be an aesthetic quirk on my part, a mental trick that reclassifies something like that for me so I can “buy” the conceit).

    I was wondering if alternate history was going to come up in this. Some are clearly SF because there is a SFnal “cause” for history to have changed. Others are simply exercises in “What if?” for their own sake, like Keith Roberts’ “Pavane” and, more recently, Jo Walton’s rather excellent “Small Change” trilogy.

  35. As to comic book superhero movies being the most popular form of SF, yes, indeed, readers don’t look primarily to them. But readers are the minority. Therefore what they read is the minority taste. Even of what is read, television tie ins constitute a large proportion of the work published, even if Locus doesn’t cite them. I meant popularity as measured by the whole population.

    Personally I never felt the slightest hesitation in classifying Star Wars as a yet another scientifically goofy (but, for once, cinematically innovative) SF movie, precisely because the Force felt to me conspicuously nonsentient. Thinking of it as a barely disguised entity explains any question about it being SF.

    In the peculiar world of the comics, where not only is no one is ever forgotten (as in SF generally,) but it always comes back to a.) repeat his or her origin story and b.) have a fist fight with other heroes, it is notable that even the extravagant imaginations of comic book editors and writers find it difficult to do this for Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and Dr. Strange. And Dr. Fate and Zatanna, too, I suppose, if they ever do anything but cameos. The fictional science rationalizing superpowers may be horrifyingly bad, and the scientific rationalization of their exercise practically nonexistent. But it is nearly universally the case that they are SF rationalizations, not supernatural ones.

    Continuum and compartmentalization seem to me to be opposites.

    Deep epistemological skepticism denies the possibility of knowledge, and questions of evidence are irrelevant. The modern skeptics are people like Berkely and Hume. Solipsism is a skeptical epistemology.

    Thanks for the comments.

  36. S. Johnson:

    Dismissing concerns about this baggage when carried into fiction as lack of poetry in my soul is not persuasive.

    But you *don’t* got no poetry in your soul. You don’t got no *soul*.

    Literally speaking, that is, and you and I both believe this, right? That you *couldn’t* have poetry in *what doesn’t exist*. But me, I can happily say, in the words of the song, I’m a soul man. I like soul music and soul food and, yes, I think much of the pulp fiction I relish could comfortably be described as “soul fiction” — and without this implying that it’s any more religious in nature than “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”. I mean those old Flash Gordon serials, for example. Read the lyrics to that song. There’s zero “spirituality” in the religious sense. But put them to music and there’s a whole lot of soul there, brother.

    Few of us have any issue with using an idiom like “don’t got no soul”. The idiom does not “believe”. You talk about the story “believing.” By this logic, that idiom also “believes” that this is how the universe literally works, that there’s a magic sparkly *substance* inside of us. Maybe you think idioms like that do carry that meaning and have to be eradicated from our language or it’s the End of the Enlightenment, but if so, this is not about the qualities of fiction but about the qualities of language. I’d say most of us are actually parsing “don’t got no soul” to an entirely secular meaning, and if you dispute this, well, time is money and I don’t got enough to waste here opening that can of worms. And that doesn’t mean I believe I can go to a bank and take out some time from my account, dig? If you *do* at least accept that “don’t got no soul” is a figurative expression, well, most of us, even hard-line athiests like myself, have no issue with filching the semiotic framework of words like “soul,” “spirit,” etc., and applying it to the affective infrastructure of human experience that these terms are and have always been mere signifiers for anyway, the religious simply literalising and concretising the referent(s), essentialising the existential.

    Even fiction should connect enough to the world to use the same language!

    This is the point: the fiction *is* using the same language. I mean, you know that “poetry in the soul” comment is meant to be read with a certain irony, right? As a nod to the extent to which such figurative conceits are woven through our everyday speech? And it’s glib, but it’s pointed. I’d hazard that most everyday uses of phrases like “don’t got no soul” bear no relation to whether the speaker believes in the Big Bang, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tooth Fairy or some aetheric puppet master driving the vehicle of the body as a MeatMech. “You don’t got no soul,” speaks to… not a lack of empathy per se but…. an inability (or refusal) to engage via affect, a hide-bound regulationism. It’s sort of a figurative way of saying a person’s behaviour and belief structure is a mechanistic rather than dynamic system.

    Now, your concerns are political, ideological — the risk of fostering “superstition and fraud.” I appreciate the passion of your commitment, not least because I’m a hard-line athiest myself. But I’d be dubious to say the least if you were saying that whenever people use the phrase “don’t got no soul” in everyday parlance 1) that this essentially articulates a certain belief, 2) that the true materialist *never* uses such idioms, or 3) when they do this is a profound Wrongness. The first is simply demonstrably wrong, I’d say, a literalist interpretation of figurative speech that’s verging on neuro-atypical. The second is wrong in the same way; the idiom is so woven into daily discourse that even the briefest search on the interwebs brings up an admirer commenting on, for example, “Richard Dawkins’s spirited answer.” If your ideology would condemn such an idiomatic use of the term as encouraging “superstition and fraud,” frankly there’s no purpose in discussion; I might as well be defending a poet from the Platonic Republican Guard. That third axiom though? Within a domain of actual scientific discourse, certainly such informal idiom is not proper. The most fervent materialist might use it informally in day-to-day speech, but to use it in a research paper… hell, yeah, that would be as Wrong as a kitten in a dog show.

    Hold that thought…

    Scaling that attitude up, translating it to usages of the idiom writ large as conceits, saying that “the story believes,” what you’re saying seems to be that 1) fantasy articulates a certain belief, 2) that the true science fiction writer never uses such conceits, or 3) when they do this is a profound Wrongness. This seems fair, no?

    I argue with you over the first because it fundamentally misrepresents fantasy and condemns it on that basis. If someone doesn’t *get* the humour of Monty Python’s “Three Yorkshiremen” sketch, their obtuseness is no big deal. If they refuse to accept that others do, insist instead that those of us who laugh must be maliciously revelling in the horror of suffering described, simply because they will not take any humour on any level other than pure literalism, that obtuseness becomes boorish. If they explicitly and repeatedly attack all comedy as essentially schadenfreude, set themselves up as a campaigner against the malign & pernicious infuence of cruel and callous humour, that boorishness becomes the soapbox oration of a prig. That’s how I take your “superstition and fraud” schtick. A wry joke that you’ve got no poetry in your soul is a tactful response to this sort of condemation, I think. If most stand-ups were faced with a comparable “all comedy essentially erodes compassion” denunciation, they’d do a lot more than shrug and say, “Have you had a sense-of-humour by-pass?”

    OK, back to that third assertion…

  37. In the same way that using a phrase like “don’t got no soul” would be utter Wrongness in an actual scientific discourse, you would apply that to science fiction, such that using the analogous conceits is “bad syntax”. Is that a fair description? You hold that the second and third premises are axiomatic in sf. You might be surprised by the extent to which I consider this a *quite justifiable* position. To map it to the comedy example, one might imagine a mode of fiction or drama which explicitly eradicates the comedic (in the humorous sense) as part of its ideological aesthetic. It is anti-absurd, anti-comedy, and we might well ascribe it the name “Serious Fiction.” I can appreciate the sort of ideology underlying such an aesthetic: life is hard, and we need to face up to the cold realities of suffering in it; and eradicating comedy may be a good strategy for denying the refuge of cosy whimsy and the tacit acceptance (even enjoyment) of suffering as long as it happens to others. Fair enough.

    But that doesn’t necessitate an abjection of comedy as the Enemy. It would say more about the Serious Fiction purist than aything else if they demonised comedy as essentially manifesting a criminally “un-serious” or “anti-serious” worldview. Though comedy *can* be crass and pandering, it can also be… thematically weighty, profound, highbrow, incisive and sincere. Tthis is what the Science Fiction loyalist is all too often doing in their discourse as regards fantasy. All we need to get past that is for the Science Fiction loyalist to step back a second, pause the pillorying long enough to look at what actually goes on in fantasy, beyond the immediately obvious pabulum, and listen to what those who are actually versed in it say about its aims and methods. If they simply quit the demonising — and that includes the “yes, but” cop-outs, the strategies of excuses and exemptions which reintroduce the same condemnation by the back door — there’d be no need for those of us who *simply aren’t doing* what Joe Genrehead considers Science Fiction to expend so much energy extricating ourselves from our position as their ideological piñata.

    Sorry, this cur won’t be kicked just because you’ve decided that fantasists can only ever be doing either a) the wicked Fantasy, or b) a miscegenation of Fantasy and Science Fiction that is “bad syntax” as either. This is like a Serious Fiction purist for whom all else is either a) damnable Comedy or b) a miscegenation of Comedy and Serious Fiction that is “bad syntax” as either. So your Serious Fiction must abjure comedy? Whatever. This does not mean that comedy must abjure the serious. And comedy does not do so, not essentially. Writing or appreciating comedy does not mean one is in thrall to some puerile Farrelly Bros mentality. It does not mean that one is promulgating infantilism and schadenfreude. Any Serious Fiction loyalist clinging to a dogma in which CATCH-22 is either a) pandering pabulum because all Comedy is, or b) a halfcast hybrid of Comedy and Serious Fiction that is rendered Wrong, an aesthetic *failure* by its breaches of “syntax” in terms of both aesthetics, is simply making a fool and a knave of themself. And I can’t help hearing this in your spurious claims:

    The story believes… The narrative grammar of the impossibilities [in fantasy] is what you wish.

    Pandering wish-fulfilment. Yeah, we got the stereotype already. Sorry, man. Carroll was wrong; you can say it as many times as you want and it still won’t be true. And as long as you cling to this dogma that every fantasist is essentially promulgating belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you might as well be spitting in Otis Redding’s face and telling him his “soul music” carries the inextricable spiritual belief-structure of gospel and therefore foments lies, lies and more damned lies. Or heckling Eddie Izzard for not doing a solemn monologue about the trials and tribulations of tranvestitism because what he’s doing is truth-denying whimsy and malicious schadenfreude that corrodes the soul!

    I can keep trying to explain the discourtesy of this “pandering wish-fulfilment” schtick, but the main point is that you’re closing off the discourse, circling the wagons, as Mark puts it, around Science Fiction by refusing to accept that any fantasist could be anything other than the Mortal Enemy. This is simply unproductive. And as I said to Mark above, what I’m trying to argue here as much as anything is that there’s no need for this abjection. The Serious Fiction loyalist could, you know, simply accept that comedy has its own agendas, that there’s fiction/drama which uses the comic to all sorts of variant purposes, that much of the result is legitimately known as comedy even though it doesn’t at all conform to the stereotypical shape of the dread spectre, Comedy, but then argue that Serious Fiction is doing its own thing, that it expunges all humour in a concerted effort to achieve its aesthetic agenda.

  38. The SF/fantasy divide is like the division between free verse and the various metrical forms of poetry. Plainly poetry is poetry, because it is not prose. Similarly, fantasy and science fiction are not realism. Admitting that concedes nothing of interest. Science fiction’s pseudorealism is like metrical forms in poetry. Insisting that they are the same is like insisting there is no bad verse, because all poetry is fundamentally the same: Poetic forms don’t really exist as definitions of poetry. Therefore bad rhymes and bad scansion are merely insults against the text by the unprivileged reader.

    See, now this is a perfectly reasonable tack. I dispute that there’s “nothing of interest” to be gleaned by looking at what makes non-realist fiction non-realist, just as I’d dispute an assertion that there’s no value in a work on poetics addressing the figurative image, speech cadences, phonetic patterning and all the myriad features that distinguish poetry from prose (or that render prose “poetic”). That’s just silly. But talking about techniques for “incorporating impossibilites into fiction,” asserting that sfnal technique is, in this regard, about formal limitations comparable to those of metre in poetry, that fantasy is without those restrictions… OK. As far as it goes.

    First, I think you have to narrow the field a little when it comes to “the various metrical forms of poetry.” A sestina and a sonnet have quite different rules. A rondea can but be reviled if you judge it as a ballade, and a ballade is bad, bad, bad if you’re measuring how it fits the rondeau form. Even if we want to judge a sonnet for its formal integrity, we need to ask if it’s Spenserian or Shakespearian, or maybe something else. And what else could it be? What rhyme schemes might we see? ABAB? AABB? ABBA? ABBA CACA CDDC EE? In fact there’s sonnets in blank verse, quite metrical, but with no rhyme at all. There’s sonnets in free verse, as well, yes, sonnets wrought in verse that’s free. (And prose that writes-in poetry.) Where sonneteers through the ages have revamped the conventions of the sonnet — as they have — breaching the formal conventions has resulted in good sonnets, better sonnets. Going for a more complex rhyme scheme than the conventional, they can still be judged for bad rhyme. Writing in blank verse they can still be judged for bad scansion. Even in free verse they can still be judged for bad scansion. Pure prose can be judged for bad scansion; irregularity doesn’t mean gracelessness.

    The point is all the various metrical forms of poetry are not, as a unity, hidebound in conventionality. Yeats made up his own metrical structures and broke them; as long as it’s patterned it’s metrical even if one line is iambic pentameter and the next trocheeic hexameter. But still, your analogy is apt, I think, because of that. The sonnet is a good comparison precisely because you can have a closed definition held to by one poet/reader, in which only sonnets in one of the utterly traditional rhyming & metrical forms is considered a “proper” sonnet; while you could have someone else who requires the classic metre but accepts innovative rhyme schemes, or even the non-rhyming blank verse; and you could have a third viewpoint with someone who accepts even free verse sonnets as an entirely valid development of the form. The hard-line traditionalist is quite entitled to reject the “bad syntax” of the blank verse sonnet and say, “No, this has gone beyond the tradition. It is no longer a sonnet.” Hell, they could do that even with a new rhyme scheme. The way you’re positing it is a different position: if it’s simply metricality that matters, only the free verse “sonnet” would be rejected as “bad syntax.” And you’re just as entitled to place the boundary there. You and the hard-line traditionalist can duke it out to your heart’s content, in a pointless squabble about whether or not the blank verse sonnet is a sonnet at all. And if that discourse is constructed around an idea that it’s all about how much or how little the “bad syntax” makes it really “free verse,” free verse poets might well just point and laugh.

    See, just to be awkward, some free verse uses metre — iambic free verse. That which does not may be cadenced. Even where you get into the Modernist poetry most deliberately composed “in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome,” works by Yeats and Stevens, for example, are in part at least, tightly metrical (Stevens: “They said, you have a blue guitar / You do not play things as they are / The man replied things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.”) Free verse does not abjure formality, only entrenched traditons which would require fitting specific patterns like the rondeau or the Spenserian sonnet. Form is deeply important. The point is to break free of clichéd moulds and create new structures. Stevens’s “The Man With the Blue Guitar” begins metred and rhyming, loosens up as it goes on, but maintains a couplet structure throughout, sometimes metrical, sometimes not. If you think Stevens should have sat himself down and decided on whether to write in pure free verse or make it all properly metrical, that his mixing it up could only be “bad syntax,” I may start taunting you with a spork to see if your head explodes.

    But the real point here is that free verse is not absent all limitations; it creates its own — or in part seeks to find the natural limitations of speech. You can still point to bad rhyme and bad scansion in free verse. Not that you say you can’t, but in so far as free verse *does* dispense with the traditional schematics of, say, fourteen lines in iambic pentameter on an ABABCDCDEFEF GG rhyme-scheme with a volta somewhere along the way, this doesn’t make it a lazy poet’s cop-out. You want to compare fantasy to free verse? Sure, but that doesn’t mean the technique it employs for integrating the impossible is just to chuck it in according to whim. As Eliot said: “”No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” As poetry goes, rhyming couplet doggerel is easier by far.

  39. Given the modern development of science fiction versus fantasy, I think you might even be better to turn your analogy around. Think of those rondeaus and sonnets and ballades and sestinas as the dreary old conventional forms of traditional Romantic fantasy. With Milton and Tennyson in mind, seeing that traditional epic form as a *sometimes* inspired but sometimes *trudging* iambic pentameter isn’t a stretch. For all its metre, such poetry can read as quite… prosaic. “The brave Geraint, a knight of Arthur’s court, / A tributary prince of Devon, one / Of that great Order of the Table Round, / Had married Enid, Yniol’s only child, / And loved her, as he loved the light of Heaven.” Blah blah blah blah blank verse. Then the modernists come along and construct themselves largely in opposition to that metronomic monotony. Wells or Verne might be the Whitman of sf, the one who, as Lawrence puts it, “pruned away his clichés — perhaps his clichés of rhythm as well as of phrase.” Only the clichés of rhythm here map to the traditional rationales for the impossible. It seems to me this is more in line with your take on sf and magic, no? Sf abandons the wizards, hags and monsters as the modernists abandon the old frameworks, and then it has to create the equivalent of entirely new systems of rhythm appropriate to each individual poem.

    The new idiom is based on innovation then, and the way it focuses in on science is comparable to the cerebral craft with which the modernists focus in on image. It’s that tight control, the precision of placement, the need for it to be new, of the now, that the poetic and fictive forms share. It’s a far more intellectual endeavour than simply shaping some bloated waffle about knights into a doorstop of iambic pentameter. And of course to our free verse poet sf writers that vast bulk of traditional poetry fantasy that *is* just hideously clichéd iambic pentameter stands as an emblem of everything they’re against. It’s easy to dismiss it as doggerel. And a poet with a hard-line free verse aesthetic might do just that. Metrical poetry? Bleh! Trite nonsense harking back to the past, pandering to an infantile craving for the easy, familiar, comforting banality of limericks and nursery rhymes. It may be a nice diversion, but it’s unchallenging, safe. Isn’t this actually a better mapping for your oppositional discourse of sf and fantasy?

    Of course, fantasy is not actually all iambic pentameter, but rather metred in a multiplicity of ways. Much of it is rhyming couplet doggerel though, because that shite is easily accessible and therefore popular, and easily written and therefore churned out in tome after tome after tome of unreconstructed Romantic drivel, full of “true king” mumb-jumbo and wankery. Oh, but the sonnet is a whole nother story. As is the rondeau and the sestina. The modern sonneteers have learned from those free verse modernists. They may dispense with rhyme and metre entirely, and write a free verse sonnet (and get slammed for it by reactionary doggerel fans.) Or they may keep metre and write a blank verse sonnet that one free verse afficionado likes because it has the precision of imagery without the silly rhyming couplet stuff, even if it is tightly regular; while another may vehemently reject it, that metricality sending off “doggerel” alarm bells, rubbing them up the wrong way.

    That, it seems to me, is how sf readers react to disputable works, some insisting that this is tainted with fantasy, others that its quite acceptable as sf. Where one reader calls DUNE “science fantasy” because it’s in iambic pentameter, so to speak, you might say, no, it has the precision of imagery that’s key to sf, and it *doesn’t* have all the nonsensical rhyming; it may breach the formal constraints with that regularity of rhythm but this is one misstep of “bad syntax” and it’s not enough to make it “not sf.” You read STAR WARS as SF. Mark reads it as Fantasy. While I say “it’s all strange fiction,” this is not because I deny the difference of approach, but because I see it as… in iambic pentameter but blank verse rather than rhyming couplets, so to speak. And imagery-wise? Well, it does use clichéd wizards and knights basically, but it makes them new and of the now (relatively speaking, where Rocket Age pulp is new in 70s cinema in comparison to Robin Hood, etc..) I see no need to pigeonhole it by terms that it will not fit for one or other of you. It fits the criteria of Epic Fantasy for me, but it also fits the criteria of the most traditional Science Fiction.

    Anyway, I’d have thought this way round would suit your position more. Wouldn’t science fiction’s pseudorealism fit better with the pseudonaturalism of free verse? It seems to me that this is more in line with your rejection of magic as an artificial (and dangerously so) conceptual framework. And you could construct a more compelling case for a distinctive sfnal syntax on that basis. Where metrical & rhyming poetry has ultimately arbitrary sets of conventions which we could map to how fantasy exploits the pre-existing frameworks of myth & legend, one might well root the sfnal syntax in a stripping away of those frameworks, leaving only the natural rhythms and unrhyming of speech. This would be why for many sf must be absent of “that fantasy thing” in order to be sf. But in order to function as poetry, sf-as-free-verse must still be creating those musical phrases. It must therefore develop its own dynamics of word & image. And such a free-verse poetics could of course be brought into a blank verse metrical work. This would be the key ingredient that for some makes a fantasy work “read as SF” (while the same works read as a miscegenation to others.) Meanwhile, the level of diversity in metrical forms, and the extent to which they’re simply invented by poets like Yeats, and invented and breached by poets like Stevens — this would be what I’m trying to get across about fantasy not being, well, all sodding Tennyson, how it is in many ways bedfellows with sf.

    I know *my* aversion to certain types of fantasy is quite comparable to my aversion to doggerel.

  40. I’m not sure I want this whole issue settled. I rather like that it’s constantly being turned over because the result is new stories that do different things.(When I hear someone declare, as I have often heard them, that SF and Fantasy are The Same Thing, what I hear is someone attempting to end the argument by asserting a hierarchy with their favored candidate in charge. My hackles rise.)

    Yeah, I do think there’s a dynamism born of the discourse. And I do try to acknowledge that polarity of aesthetics with the whole open/closed definition thing, saying, OK, you’ve got (Hard) Science Fiction and (Epic) Fantasy. And they’re like Neo-Classical and Romantic painters, their defitional perspectives irreconcilable like those of your anatomists.

    But rather than being at opposite extremes of a 1D spectrum, I see them as at the extremes of distinct axes. Like, if each axis is on a scale of 1 to 10 according to how important that quality is as a constituent (say X is clarity of line and Y is boldness of colour,) you have these two clusters centred at (9,3) and (3,9). Each cluster sees one feature as essential and when they look at the other cluster they see X *utterly forsaken* in favour of Y, and vice versa. So they see Y as negative-X and X as negative-Y, imagine these qualities as the inverse of each other, essentially incompatible. Some Xists start to argue that the absence of Y is what makes their work what it is (and again vice versa). They seek to minimise the unwanted quality, and the centres of the clusters shift to (9,1) and (1,9). They turn a blind eye to that negligible Y-value of 1; that’s not *really* Y, they say.

    They construct a spectrum, a line that models anything that doesn’t conform to the Xist or Yist aesthetic as a trade-off, a mixture. There’s a mid-point at (5,5), soft-X at (7,3) and so on. Looking at everything in that phase-space, they try and fit it somewhere along that continuum. There are outliers in that X cluster, at (9,2) and (8,1), but they’re OK. But now when it gets to (8,3) or (9,4), that higher Y-value becomes an issue. They weren’t even thought of as outliers back at the start, when the X cluster was at (9,3) — the cluster was big enough that they were considered core — but now? Now one Xist denies that Y-value and insists that (9,4) work is (9,1), another reckons the rough ratio of X to Y and puts it on the spectrum at (7,3), a third sees the Y-value as *clearly* 4 and has to therefore place the work at (6,4).

    That’s where the debate becomes really unproductive, I think. There’s no big deal with Xist #2, but Xist #1 and Xist #3 are now radically misrepresenting that work and in doing so the very roots of the genre. One will refuse to recognise its real Y-value while the other will refuse to recognise its real X-value, and it all becomes about who can shout, “La la la la, I’m not listening,” loudest and longest. This is where I see a lot of the political/territorial hierarchising coming in, and my attempt to sweep away the polarity is about tearing apart the discursive mechanisms that perpetuate those turf wars more than anything. Ultimately, my favoured cluster *couldn’t* be given any sort of primacy in the sort of model I’m aiming at, cause it’s recogniseably marginal, aesthetically and historically. I have multiple favoured clusters scattered across that X-Y plane (Flash Gordon! New Wave! The Borribles!) but a lot of my aesthetic is way off on some Y-axis, I think, going, “Oooh, pataphysical quirks!”

    All I saw was an approach that took the same universe traditional nuts-n-bolts SF worked in and then inserted ordinary people who couldn’t figure out what was going on. The underlying aesthetic hadn’t change re the universe and how it functions, only the kind of people we thought we were in dealing with it.

    I think what it is for me is that a lot of New Wave fiction has its worldscape radically disrupted in a way that makes it logically unrationalisable. Like the cyclic structure of DHALGREN, the transformation at the start, the spliced-in journal entries. The catastrophe extends to ruptures in logic & the text itself, in a way that resonates with… I dunno… the end of Lindsay Anderson’s IF…, Bertrand Blier’s BUFFET FROID, Pinter’s THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, most anything by William Burroughs. And I see a connection there to a strain of fantasists riffing off Kafka. Like there are generally middling X and Y values, but notably high Z values, and in an idiom where Z is generally minimised. I mean, I’m sorting of playing with the idea of high Z representing an existential aesthetic. Writers/readers clustering around, say, (5,5,9) might be materialists themselves, but if the materialism in the (Hard) Science Fiction cluster carries that techhead sense of The Way Things Work being hardwired in, then that cluster has the same zero Z-value as the (Epic) Fantasy cluster with all its Destiny and Fate. It’s essentialist. Which is to say, maybe is some of that anti-sf and anti-fantasy (and maybe even some of the quasi-sf and quasi-fantasy) looks like it’s in the middle of a continuum to others but to those who’re doing it, well, they’re thinking, “I’m not even in that plane.”

    It may be that there is a different label for what you and Mieville and Crowley (in the Aegypt cycle) do, but good grief that last thing we need is another category!

    Ah, category is just about getting it to the right reader, far as I’m concerned. When it comes to decribing a work I’m interested in that “position” in a framework of qualities as dimensions, not in slapping a nominal label on it according to territories and loyalties.

    On a panel many years ago, the question came up about Destiny and I was asked “Does the starship captain have a destiny?”

    I can’t help thinking, “No, silly. He has an enterprise!”

    Anyway, this has been fun. It’s nice to talk about this thing with someone who prefers to open out the discourse rather than circle wagons.

    Indeed. I do think the Great Debate can actually be fun and interesting when the territorialism is laid to one side. I appreciate your being a sport about it.

  41. “Continuum and compartmentalization seem to me to be opposites.”

    Logically, they are, but we’re talking about perception, which means psychology, and it happens all the time.

    For instance, take Sir Lancelot at one end and Johnny Rico at the other. Both armored warriors, serving their kingdoms (states) and yet one is firmly fantasy and the other just as firmly SF, and most readers will likely not see them as essentially two ends of the same continuum because of that background classification. They will apply compartments—because that’s what people do—and read them as distinct.

    “Deep epistemological skepticism denies the possibility of knowledge”

    That’s a mischaracterization more to do with pseudoskepticism, which, in your formulation, is pathological and, yes, solipsistic. Genuine, honest skepticism requires proof and concedes its validity in order to escape tautology. So while your assertion is strictly true, it’s a marker of exactly the opposite—a fundamental embrace of unbelief through a refusal to believe, regardless of evidence. In short, a rhetorical stance except in cases where it is not simply dismissive of any and all authority.

    “As to comic book superhero movies being the most popular form of SF, yes, indeed, readers don’t look primarily to them. But readers are the minority. Therefore what they read is the minority taste. Even of what is read, television tie ins constitute a large proportion of the work published, even if Locus doesn’t cite them. I meant popularity as measured by the whole population.”

    Yes, well…personally I could care less about any medium other than the written in this debate, because television and film do different things than text and in any case derive their ultimate philosophical authority, whether aknowledged or not, from the work found on the page. From my experience, there is a divide in actuality between people whose primary fictive indulgence is visual and those who go to the trouble to read the stuff, the latter having been continually in the “minority” for a good part of the last century and consequently a largely ignored element in any such discourse on the part of the so-called majority. No one in film/tv engages this particular debate because they see the elements from purely visual positions and in that instance find no distinction. They treat them as mix-n-match and are genuinely baffled when they’re called on the carpet for misuse of certain tropes. The assumption seems to be “if we can film it then it’s all the same.”

    This comes across to me in a peculiar way—I can barely tolerate most epic fantasy on the page (Robert Jordan either bores me or makes me gag) but I can *watch* this stuff quite happily. This is because film makers are partaking of a third category of primary metaphoric building blocks by fully deploying their creations as Dreams (which explains many if not most of the plot and logic problems in all manner of film).

    So while I won’t deny you have a point about comic book superheroes in relation to what you claim is the majority popularity, that is simply not how I “read” it because I’m comparing it all to text fictions—minority or not, text supports this kind of deeply examined subtextual discourse far more than film and television.

    Personal prejudices on my part.

  42. “I mean, you know that “poetry in the soul” comment is meant to be read with a certain irony, right?” There was no irony to be read there: It was just an insult. I am unashamed, however. When the story starts working magic, instead of getting thrilled, I’m reminded of fraud and superstition. I don’t think the case for regarding this as an esthetic/moral deficiency has been made.

    Fantasy in the form of secondary universes don’t carry that baggage. They merely suffer from the usual tendency to be senseless hodgepodges, therefore boring. It is a rare fantasist with powers of invention strong enough to make nonsense fresh enough to take seriously. Universes with a Plan or their opposite, universes where nothing makes sense and the notion of causation is fraud and superstition, are hard to take seriously because the fundamental falsity is too obvious to overlook.

    I suppose this is where we’re supposed to succumb to the delusion that the strange stuff in science fiction and fantasy is all fundamentally the same. The thing is, even in crappy science fiction, the fig leaf of “science” covers up that embarrassingly dinky appendage of nonsense which when analyzed is every bit as silly as magic. Science fiction helps the reader achieve the willing suspension of disbelief. Whereas fantasy insists on flashing the reader. Again, it is the rare fantasist who actually has the equipment to inspire admiration instead of laughter.

    The science fiction writer who can actually produce worthy speculation about the real world is equally (more?) but no fantasist, no matter how skilled, can possibly do the same. The real world is not just the individual psyche. Metaphors of magic can explore that just as well any other, I suppose. The tacit insistence that exploration of the psyche is the only worthy goal of Literature pursues an ideological agenda. But, people live in societies, which exist in a material universe.

    Declaring so much of reality out of bounds really is closing off the discourse. Insisting that science fiction notions about rigor in extrapolation, plausibility in speculation and all that is cliche, doggerel, that destroys the real poetry implies: Magic is poetic; Understanding is not; A universe of limitless possibilities means I can do anything (aka fantsy of infantile omnipotence); A universe of laws enslaves me; Things just happen and anybody who says they understand it is a fool or a fraud.

    Given that there is more fantasy than ever, and science fiction is rapidly declining, there is no need to argue the case for serious fantasy, fantasy as high art, against science fiction. If science fiction is the enemy, it is a defeated enemy. Why is necessary to try to deligitimize the entire concept of SF? Don’t protest that it’s not an attack. If understanding makes the wonder go away, then SF in its occasional incarnations as serious fiction, is at root wrong. If not understanding, if being *Magic* is cooler, if the world (internal psychology, social being or physical landscape) is at bottom irrational, then fantasy addresses something genuinely true tha realism doesn’t.

    “…saying that “the story believes,” what you’re saying seems to be that 1) fantasy articulates a certain belief, 2) that the true science fiction writer never uses such conceits, or 3) when they do this is a profound Wrongness. This seems fair, no?” No. The fantasy story set in an impossible world or portraying an absurd universe of uncaused effects or blatantly using magic all require a willing suspension of disbelief that demands ignoring what we know factually to be false. The problem with fantasy (at least the kind that pretends to be serious) is that the willing suspension of disbelief also suspends its seriousness. Fantasy in a humorous vein isn’t affected the same way, which I think is why some fantasists hate it with a passion.

  43. There was no irony to be read there: It was just an insult.

    Where’s the insult if neither of us believe in the soul? Unless you can parse it to its secular meaning. Can you? Can’t you? If you can, fair enough. You do actually have some poetry in your soul. If you can’t…

    When the story starts working magic, instead of getting thrilled, I’m reminded of fraud and superstition. I don’t think the case for regarding this as an esthetic/moral deficiency has been made.

    When I use the metaphor “don’t got no soul,” instead of parsing it to its meaning, are you reminded of fraud and superstition? So much so that you think those metaphors are pernicious? If so, that’s an incapacity to parse metaphor. If you can’t scale that up to a fantastic conceit, that’s an incapacity to parse a fantastic conceit. Nothing moral about it, but it’s kind of like not getting the humour in comedy.

    I mean, does a man turning into a giant beetle remind you of fraud and superstition, fairy stories of princes turned into frogs? If that’s the only way you can read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” I’d say that’s… idiosyncratic.

    It is a rare fantasist with powers of invention strong enough to make nonsense fresh enough to take seriously.

    Do I have to keep repeating Sturgeon’s Law over and over again?

    Again, it is the rare fantasist who actually has the equipment to inspire admiration instead of laughter.

    Apparently I do. Nah, just take it as read.

    Universes with a Plan or their opposite, universes where nothing makes sense and the notion of causation is fraud and superstition, are hard to take seriously because the fundamental falsity is too obvious to overlook.

    And if just one ickle thing doesn’t make sense? I’ve only rarely read fantasy that goes the full-on oneiric route and abandons causation entirely. Usually it’s the most high-brow of the lot — the equivalent of experimentalist arthouse cinema. Mostly there’s a handful of conceits that are extrapolated into a story otherwise bound by the limits of known nature, history and science. Still, the main reason fantasy doesn’t all crumble apart to non sequiturs and nonsense in my hands is because I get that it’s figurative.

    I suppose this is where we’re supposed to succumb to the delusion that the strange stuff in science fiction and fantasy is all fundamentally the same.

    Well, it all shifts the alethic modality of the text to “could not have happened.” There are differences in terms of levels of (im)possibility — logical, metaphysical, temporal and technical — but sf plays with all four, as does fantasy. There are also differences in how these are treated, but different styles of sf take different approaches, sometimes multiple strategies. The same is true in fantasy, to the extent that where you draw the boundary between the two idioms is unlikely to be the same as where others do. It’s not actually that difficult to see why this is when you ignore the whole turf war.

    Science fiction helps the reader achieve the willing suspension of disbelief.

    Mostly yes, sometimes no. If you apply this as a rule, you exclude DHALGREN. Oh, and fantasy does this too — generally in a different way, but sometimes with similar strategies.

    The tacit insistence that exploration of the psyche is the only worthy goal of Literature pursues an ideological agenda.

    Straw Man. I’ve only ever said that this is a worthy goal.

    But, people live in societies, which exist in a material universe.

    And fantasy addresses our interaction with each other and with that world. It just uses extended metaphor.

    Declaring so much of reality out of bounds really is closing off the discourse.

    Where have I declared anything of reality out of bounds?

  44. Insisting that science fiction notions about rigor in extrapolation, plausibility in speculation and all that is cliche, doggerel, that destroys the real poetry…

    Are you actually reading what I write? I compared sf to the sonnet form, which I respect highly. Then I turned your analogy round and compared sf to modernist poetry, which I also respect highly. I compared *traditional Romantic fantasy* to doggerel. And I see no threat of “the real poetry” being destroyed by “science fiction notions.” I only point to the folly of misrepresenting it as part of a discourse of abjection. As I said to Mark upthread, this harms sf by alienating the very sort of writers who made it great — the next Delany, the next Zelazny, the next Silverberg — when books like DHALGREN, ROADMARKS and THE BOOK OF SKULLS are highly likely to be published as fantasy these days.

    Given that there is more fantasy than ever, and science fiction is rapidly declining…

    … because the default label has shifted to fantasy…

    … there is no need to argue the case for serious fantasy, fantasy as high art, against science fiction.

    The opposition is yours, not mine. I’m arguing for fantasy as high art as well as science fiction. The only thing I’m against in science fiction is the loyalists who seek to impose a closed definition on fantasy as part of a discourse of abjection. Well, no, actually I’m also against the trad Romantic fantasy loyalists who seek to impose a closed definition on fantasy because that’s all they want. But there’s none of them here arguing that right now.

    Why is necessary to try to deligitimize the entire concept of SF? Don’t protest that it’s not an attack. If understanding makes the wonder go away, then SF in its occasional incarnations as serious fiction, is at root wrong.

    
I’m not at all sure what you’re projecting on to me here. I don’t subscribe to the view that rationalisation (which I presume you mean by “understanding”) makes the “wonder” go away. Nor do I believe that in doing so it would be essentially wrong. I hold that sometimes sf is not truly rationalised, simply using various other strategies to maintain suspension-of-disbelief in the face of the incredibilities which generate wonder. I hold that sometimes it is entirely rational and may be bereft of wonder, but that this is entirely valid, as is any self-imposed stricture. In my comparison with the notion of “Serious Fiction” when I express how I appreciate the impetus behind expunging comedy, you should be able to read this extended metaphor as expressing comparable sentiments about uber-rational sf.

    If not understanding, if being *Magic* is cooler… then fantasy addresses something genuinely true tha realism doesn’t.

    The first and second conditions have nothing to do with your conclusion. The first doesn’t even make sense as a predicate.

    … if the world (internal psychology, social being or physical landscape) is at bottom irrational, then fantasy addresses something genuinely true tha realism doesn’t.

    This at least makes sense. And yes, I’d say, that follows. It’s not what I’m arguing though. I’m arguing that fantasy is largely as rational on a figurative level as any metaphor that would be irrational nonsense if taken literally — e.g. “time is money”. Sometimes it uses the irrationality of these conceits to address our interaction with aspects of reality so complex and abstract, not to mention rife with anomaly and inconsistency, that they appear irrational. Here and there in some of that experimentalist arthouse stuff, it may actually posit that the world *is* irrational, but generally it is simply trying to render the complex and abstract comprehensible — to rationalise it — via extended metaphor, just as “time is money” gives us a conceptual hook that helps us get our heads round time. This is a capacity of all non-realist fiction. Realism lacks that capacity but can address the same problems with its own toolkit, and does.

    The fantasy story set in an impossible world or portraying an absurd universe of uncaused effects or blatantly using magic all require a willing suspension of disbelief that demands ignoring what we know factually to be false.

    So does every metaphor. And the level of suspension-of-disbelief is quite different if you’re reading a narrative as figurative, reading for something more conceptual than an immersive adventure. I know CATCH-22 is too absurd to be literally true. I do not have to suspend my disbelief to the point of utter credulity, ignoring the fact that it’s absurd, in order to appreciate it. I get that its a joke, with a very serious point.

    The problem with fantasy (at least the kind that pretends to be serious) is that the willing suspension of disbelief also suspends its seriousness.

    For you perhaps. I find it as easy to parse a fantastic conceit to its meaning and appreciate the import as I do to parse a sentence like “He’s a gutless, spineless, soulless bastard” and appreciate how serious an accusation this is. As easy as it is to read CATCH-22 without feeling that it’s “suspended its seriousness.”

  45. There is a marvelous novel called “Lempriere’s Dictionary” which plays fully with the distinctions between a fantasy (mythic) perception and a rationalist one. It is about a young man whose only desire is to compile a new dictionary in the 18th Century. He is functionally blind as the novel opens and his father takes him to an occulist. There is a memorable scene where the young man is gazing at the fire in a kiln and marveling (and cowering) at the demons dancing in the blaze. Then his new glasses are put on him and the scene resolves and the demons vanish. It’s just a fire.

    But he marvels at the abrupt and seeming miraculous shift in perception a simple change in the way he’s seeing brings about.

    Lawrence Norfolk, the author, plays with this throughout the novel to great effect, making it quite clear that, regardless of the rigor one brings to anything, conclusions are utterly dependent on how one sees something.

    I always took this as a sly working of the whole tension between fantasy and reality. It’s a play on the way the Enlightenment altered the way we all see.

    And that’s what happens in both good fantasy and good SF.

    John Crowley did this in his Aegypt cycle marvelously, working the conceit that the world changes because we learn to see differently. Was magic always a myth? Maybe, but what if we simply experienced a paradigm shift in the way we perceive…?

    You don’t need to accept magic as an empirically valid theory of the universe to enjoy the psychological play suggested by the form.

    I will posit that some writers (and many, many readers) very much wish to see magic as exactly that—reality—and subsequently support readings of certain texts that one could label fraudulent (or at least dishonest in its underlying assertions) and I actually have little patience for such work because it plays to gullibility rather than any “search for truth” that might be engaged in lieu of cheap effect. But so what? 99% of popular romance is bollocks in its construction (and a lot of it is barely disguised rape fantasy, which is worse) but the aesthetic value is clearly important to those who indulge it. (I loathe and despise country & western music, but I can’t arbitrarily dismiss it as fraudulent or corrupt, because on some level I just can’t “hear” the value.)

    This, of course, takes us dangerously close to a kind of relativism which, if stretched, allows for no room to judge a bad work as, in fact, bad. But that’s not what I’m saying. While I sometimes would love to simply consign a great deal of fantasy to the draw labeled “Trash” I do not because I would then have to be fair and do the same with work I like. You can judge however you choose, but in the end people read what they do because it does something for them, and it may not even be what we think it is. I argue that there is a substantive, qualitative DIFFERENCE between SF and Fantasy. I certainly prefer SF, and for some reasons that lie outside the texts themselves. But I won’t arbitrarily categorize Fantasy as fraudulent because ultimately it’s not about hewing as closely as possible to the material reality around us—it’s about hewing closely to our understanding of people, which is the metric by which all literature is finally judged. A work rises or falls in value depending on what it tells us about ourselves (and, yes, I include in that how we as people perceive the universe around us and how we react to that universe, fictional or real). The hard SF crowd have always had just as hard a time with that notion as the Epic Fantasy crowd—both would rather play with icons and symbols rather than gushy, fallible human beings, and to the extent that they do their work is good or bad, (I have a problem with the Destiny trope in fantasy exactly because it removes the human quality from the character.)

    So while all this back and forth about sustainability and fraud is interesting, some of it misses the point because it’s teasing at something the writer probably didn’t care about and certainly his or her fans don’t, either. Whether they should is another topic, and one with much wider implications than for just genre fiction.

  46. Seems discussion is over, but I take that as a golden opportunity to slip in the last word 😀

    I have been reading SF and Fantasy for years, always thinking there are differences, though with some borderline crossovers, and never knowing people fuss so much over it.

    However, for me, you hit the nail with this:
    “And do we actually give a shit, given that it’s a fucking immense story?”

  47. I agree with you actually, I’m sure! May that become a possibility to be able to get your web blog translated into Greek? English is my own second language.

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