What is style?
What is style?
So the 21st of May came and went without a whiff of the Rapture, nary a hint of Moby Douche, the Great White Fail, breaching the firmament above. No star called Wormwood fallen from the sky, turning a third of the waters to tasty absinthe.
No angels treading the wine gums of the wrath of the Lord. Not a peep of New Jerusalem on the early warning radar. Instead here we are, still in New Sodom, with Benny the Rat still in the Vatican, Fred Phelps still on the streets, and Harold Camping still on the radio, still selling his schtick. The Rapture’s postponed apparently, till the 21st October. Cool. That’s going to be one fuck of 40th birthday party for me that day then.
Yes, I’m cynical. Deal with it. Dawkins, Hitchens and Pullman are a little po-faced in their harrumphery for my liking, but colour me skeptical and run me up the “oh really?!” flagpole, because when it comes to religion, you can keep your gestalt schizophrenia; I am not innarested in your condition. It’s that whole Enlightenment thing: I favour a worldview that’s less inclined to burn me at the fucking stake. It’s not a religion thing per se, you understand, just bugfuck nutjobbery in general. The rapture of unreason.
I came to New Sodom from a small town in Central Scotland, see, a queer kid in exile from a childhood I can’t help glimpsing in the picture Lou Anders paints of his own upbringing — albeit backwards in a different way, a New Town housing scheme, built in the 1970s to take Glasgow’s overspill, to punt the plebs out to the suburbs, greener pastures, bluer skies and flowers. The razor-gang culture of Glasgow’s inner city, the small town mentality of an Ayrshire village, crossbred to perfection with anti-Catholic bigotry in place of racism, it was swellegant.
There wasn’t a whole lot of creationist evangelism, but racists and homophobes? My formative years were the era of the National Front, nazi punk bands like Skrewdriver, the “Gay Plague” of AIDS, Clause 28. Good old Clause 28, outlawing the “promotion of homosexuality” in the public sector, leading to a veto of the bill itself as a topic for our school debating society. A debate on Clause 28 might be construed as “promoting homosexuality,” you see; to allow pupils to argue Clause 28 could be a breach of Clause 28, a sacking offence. (That’s some clause, that Clause 28, a homo Yossarian might have said.)
Point is, religion wasn’t the driving force, but the reactionary bollocks sprang from the same source, the abrogation of ethical judgement to received moral wisdom, the bugfuck nutjobbery of the righteous. All prejudice presents itself as piety. And if today I proudly wear the title “THE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!” gifted to me by homophobic hatemail, I don’t know that it’s just being a bugger as makes me bolshie. It’s not just the background of bigotry as resonates with me in that opening quote from Anders. A geek and a gawk in specs, with elbow patches on my blazer, I was a teenage Spock even before sexuality kicked in, booted me out of any dream of normativity, into the evermade estranged reality of the queer.
I could almost imagine that it wasn’t then the day my teacher vetoed that Clause 28 debate that set me on the path to New Sodom, a blue flower pinned in my lapel, but rather the moment a mate shoved a copy of Asimov’s I, ROBOT into my hand. I could almost imagine it was the logic of the Three Laws, reason and the scientific worldview, that set me against the bugfuck nutjobbery, the hysteria and hate, the rapture of unreason. I could almost imagine it was the experience of alterity accepted in Klingons and Green Men of Mars that served as antidote to the conditioning of my culture.
“When I say ‘missing the point’ what I mean is that (so it seems to me) Benford’s real concern is that scientific rationalism — or simply rationalism, full stop — is under constant attack from base superstition and base prejudice… When Benford disses the rise of fantasy, it seems to me his real concern is the loss of science fiction’s core message: that it can introduce the reader — particularly the young reader — to one of the core values of rationality: questioning the accepted order of things.”
Gary Gibson, The White Screen of Despair
That quote from Anders comes from a few years back, from another cycle of the Great Debate. Picture a blogosphere of heads hitting desks as Gregory Benford testifies, brother, against a rising tide of unreason in the shape of Fantasy. Fantasy being Harry Potter, rotting the rational faculties. Anders, like Gary Gibson, stepped in to defend Benford, to cut through the turf war rhetoric, highlight a crucial point — the import of reason as antidote to prejudice. Anders presents it as impartiality towards alterity, Gibson as dubiety towards normativity, but both speak to the core of the critical nous: that it abjures the feedback loop of faith, purges the valorisation of credulity, the belief that questioning belief is wrong.
The rapture of unreason sustains the rapture of unreason. This is what makes it unreason, the inverse and inhibition of the discursive, the self-correcting.
Those core values Gibson refers to are dear to me then — analytic intellect against the onslaught of folly. When push comes to shove, that teenage Spock still stalks my little noggin, raising an eyebrow at the rapture of unreason whenever it appears — at the fervour for the End of the Enlightenment you hear, for example, in the crazytalk of those who believe Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. For all that I’ve argued in this column against tribalist rationalism, I come to the strange fiction genres as one who identified first and foremost as a reader of SF. As a child, I loved Michael de Larrabeiti, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, but that’s like saying I watched The Box of Delights on the BBC, hardly a true fandom. No Frodo or Fahfrd for me, no Conan or Elric, only John Carter got by my no-swords policy at one point. (He was nekkid.) Instead, Asimov led to Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, Ellison, Farmer, Gibson, Heinlein and so on.
Did it teach me acceptance of alterity, that SF? A little, maybes. From the Mule of the Foundation series to the Martians of Bradbury’s “Dark They Were and Golden Eyed,” there’s much that might resonate with a kid queered by desire, finding solace in the local library, turning from Sarek on the screen to Simak and Sladek on the page. I remember how Heinlein unlocked the closet door for me with his sexual libertarianism, how Delany kicked that door wide open. It makes sense. The fiction of the strange is, by definition, the fiction of the alterior; surely it must then, by definition, render the alterior familiar.
And yet… every boy’s own adventure needs its savage enemies. We’d do well not to forget that what we’re dealing with here is category fiction born of the pulps, barefoot summer games of heroes and villains. For all we might point at what it is now, or at the deeper, wider heritage of strange fictions outwith the commercial field, from Gilgamesh on, talking of science fictions and fantasies unbound by the imperatives of juvenalia, our taproots are in the Street & Smith that published Nick Carter Weekly and Buffalo Bill Adventures alongside Astounding. It’s out of that soil this cultivar of a strange blue flower has sprung.
There’s an aesthetic inherited from that pulp, one that idealises individualism as will-to-power, appeals to emotion over reason, discards the restraint of realism to glory in the wonder of the incredible made manifest, the sublime. It’s an aesthetic which looks to the past for imagos of virtue in the cowboy or the knight, even where it renders them as spacemen. It’s the aesthetic which gives us fascism wherever its self-infatuation extends to the culture at large, the folk as hero, wherever it demonizes or fetishizes alterior cultures — as it so often does. It’s the aesthetic of Romanticism, and if we’ve one thing to learn from the 20th century it’s how badly that aesthetic can go wrong.
So, to use Anders’s examples, the Klingons and the Green Men of Mars are savages of Romance, their warlike characters determined by ethnicity much as we find in Tolkien’s orcs, in all those races of Fantasy whose “swarthy” skin is evermade a signifier of inhumanity, alterity as wrongness. The same sources offer races we are far less a-okay with: the Ferengi of Star Trek; the Black Men of Burroughs’s Barsoom. Essentialised grotesques, their greed or violence (or moral degeneracy, one might say) suggests we’re more a-okay with biological determinism than anything. Sadly, it seems, the fiction of the strange can just as easily render the alterior foreign, an exotic Other readily made monstrum when the story calls for a sensational foe.
My skepticism kicks in then, I confess, at heroic fantasies of SF freeing children from their shackles of conditioning. Would it were so. The reality of the escapes we’ve found, may still find, from the bugfuck nutjobbery of our immediate environs — whether that bugfuck nutjobbery be Creationism or Clause 28 — is that these are holidays as often organised to rapture us in moral bromides as to teach us to challenge them. As space cadets in brown shirts, we have learned songs of the sublime along with science and survival skills. In wild campfire tales of adventures elsewhen, told at Camp Consolation by counsellors who were themselves taught by such tales, for a fiction of scientific rationalism, SF can be terribly Romantic.
“A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics — in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and like it inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the terrestial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
SF has always had a love/hate relationship with Romanticism, happy to utilise its aesthetic of the sublime, but uneasy with the suspension of critical nous such rapture entails. Sense-of-wonder is a sense of incredulity, created in the breach of possibility — the technical or historical, physical or logical alethic quirk — so to appreciate the incredible in SF is paradoxically to fancy reason capable of that which it is not — not yet. Where even critics claim for SF a subjunctivity level of “could (have) happen(ed),” untrue because this would require technical possibility, the rapture is revealed: we fancy the fancy practicable. The denial is endemic. Our (in)credulity always already a betrayal of a wholly rationalist aesthetic — pretending the practicality of a quirk — it seems the less easy we are with the game of suspended disbelief as a game, the more we must gloss the impossible as possible, the implausible as plausible.
The rigour required to cleave to what’s actually plausible is the province of a rare few, not the core of the genre. An SF that eschews all mumbo-jumbo — a truly scientific fiction working only on the novum, with no place in it for errata, chimerae or suturae (the historical, physical or logical alethic quirks) — this is a fantasia of the genre’s future, a Hard or Mundane SF ideal, not an accurate model of our roots. This is not to criticise it as an ideal, simply to say it’s not the picture as it stands, as it has ever stood. The wildest technical impossibilities are seldom adequate, let alone the tamer ones which have real plausibility.
Instead, freely employing the Paradigm Shift Caveat to excuse all manner of impossibilities, SF blithely accepts into its canon works which breach not just known science but the laws of nature, works where the conceit is ultimately metaphysical. If a wormhole or FTL drive or an ability to jaunte is not glossed as magic, it remains a chimera, no more possible — or even plausible — than a teleportation spell. It requires a spurious physics in place of the established one. The difference in the text, like that between a mentalist and a magician, is only the schtick that sells the trick. The difference in the reading may be an actual plausibility we afford the chimera sold as novum, faith furtively sneaking in the back door as we swallow the pseudoscientific spiel of the illusionist. It’s a fun twist on the game, to suspend the disbelief that would remind us we are suspending disbelief, but a fancy of hyperspace is more credulous than that of an astral plane where it is afforded more weight; this is a tautology.
An SF that applies the Paradigm Shift Caveat or some other flimflam to legitimise those wilder quirks, but scorns them when (but only when) rendered as magic, is a fantasia of the genre’s present, glossing the illusion as a feasible marvel because it pulls the bouquet of blue flowers from the sleeve of a lab coat rather than a robe. It is a divine fable, and the higher the snoot is cocked at the frolics of those who don’t buy the schtick, projecting one’s own doubly-suspended disbelief into their gameplay, the more it reveals itself as grandiose conceit, its imagined tether of possibility mere credulity. The deeper the scorn of a magic carpet as against an Analog story of teleporting sun whales, say, the more we must arch a Spocklike eyebrow at the judgement lending such credence to the latter whimsy, so requiring it that it damns the former for not accommodating this doubly-suspended disbelief.
The more a straight man identifies as homophobic, experiments show, the more likely he’s aroused by gay porn, as if that hate is a song of fierce denial roared to drown out dread desire. I can’t help wondering what scorn of magic carpets comes from a similar doublethink of denial, angst at the echoes of faith that scorn reveals when not directed at teleporting whales of the sun, whether that doubly-suspended disbelief simply isn’t a game for some, but rather an actual belief, shorn of all doubt so as to disacknowledge that it is belief — not truth — that all those marvels now impossible are nonetheless more fundamentally possible, made so by the power of unknown science, even breaches of the laws of nature admissible, so limitless that capacity is in this credo.
“There is nothing whatsoever in science — and this should be shouted from the rooftops of every scientific institution — that makes it immune from such abuses… Some scientists will dispute this, claiming that the values of open, objective enquiry, mutual criticism and protection of learning in the accumulated wisdom of science amount to an ethical system which, if applied to the world, would make it a better place, potentially protected from future horrors. This is not wrong, just fantastically utopian. Such values are not exclusive to science; they preceded it. Science sprang from philosophy, theology and even magic. The reason it became science at all was because of the direction these disciplines took in the course of the Renaissance.”
It should be clear where I stand on the belief that reality cannot be ultimately amenable to reason because Old Nobodaddy in the sky slipped the ineffable into his crock pot of creation — dude, I am not innarested in your condition — but as the article on scientism in the special fundamentalism issue of New Scientist quoted above makes clear, the belief that the world is “accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason” is also “a profoundly unscientific idea… neither provable nor refutable.” Likewise the notion of science as a universal panacea for all human folly. The author points to Hitler’s use of the biology of Ernst Haeckel, the roots of Stalinism in Marx’s conviction that a science of history had been discovered, to illustrate the dangers of this scientism, this fiction of science as hero. It would be bully to believe that everything is and must be explicable and that explication will and must lead to ethical improvement — it’s certainly a good operating assumption, I’d say, tried and tested — but to take that stance as a conviction is an act of faith.
My skepticism calls shenanigans then at the zeal of loyalists like Benford, at the overturned tables of the SF Café, the volleys of blanks fired at brothers-in-arms, accusations of intellectual cowardice, cultural treason. Where a writer takes umbrage at the Hugo win for Harry Potter as fandom’s betrayal of science in favour of superstition, I see rationalism that has ceased to be rationalism, goaded to pious outrage at the folly of the faithless. A fantasist writes of a blue flower’s petals stewed to a tea that, with one sip, transports the drinker to another world, a nightmarish détournement of biological determinist pulp, say, and they are the enemy because this unmoored metaphor of estrangement is not… a sun whale using paradigm-shifted science… in a story that casts religion as the source of ethics, science as a straw man of relativism that — quick, push the button! — excuses rape?
My skepticism asks whether SF is engaging with the rapture of unreason here or surrendering to it. Is it analysing the semiotics of reactionary agitprop to defuse it, dissecting the madness of societies, or retreating into the secure self-certainties of ghetto guttersniping? Is it applying Kohlberg’s studies of the stages of moral development in children to critique the conventional worldview as not historically but psychologically immature, or being raptured in a fancy of holding the fort against the savage hordes, of the infrastructure of fandom infiltrated by a treacherous Fifth Column of fantasists — which we must imagine uttered with the emphasis of a sibilant hiss?
Anders and Gibson offer conciliatory perspectives — the former focusing on “narrative complexity and whether the speculative material you read (whether SF or F) serves to turn your brain on or turn it off,” the latter refraining from imposing a definition on fantasy which, “like sf and every other form of literature, is a tool to be used in whichever way a particular author chooses to use it” — but moderates seldom set the tone in the Great Debate. The rapture of unreason won’t stand for such nuanced opinions.
Instead, characterisation collapses into caricature: the hawk-eyed, square-jawed, intellectual brilliance of Science Fiction in the red corner; the slack-jawed, blinkered, credulous nonsense of Fantasy in the blue corner. Science versus Superstition. Or vice versa — the noble poet versus the dreary pedant, the artistic versus the autistic. Dynamism versus mechanism. To close the definitions of science fiction and fantasy to a Rationalist Science Fiction on the one hand, a Romantic Fantasy on the other is tiresome whichever corner is claimed. But those who would do so will seldom be swayed, caught up in ttheir self-heroising narrative.
One expects such from the Romantic, such refusal to countenance the contrary, but reason is discursive or it is not reason. Where that conviction of the limitless efficacy of science turns to condemn the absence of conviction — refusing as inadequate commitment belief held as an operating assumption, as if only absolute conviction were truly conviction — this is not rationalism but a romance with reason, blinded by love. Where it collapses the complex discourse to the faithless and the faithful, eliding in one all possibility of truth, eliding in the other all possibility of error, it is not just unsound in principle but in practice, calls us to question the functionality of its dysfunction.
“They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.'”
— Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”
Any rational view of the field should not blind us to the countless writers of strange fiction set on blowing up the walls of Camp Consolation by means other than the novum of science fiction. The erratum that contradicts known history rather than known science, the chimera that contradicts the laws of nature, the sutura that contradicts the strictures of logic — all of these quirks may be grenades thrown at the accepted order of things. It is simplistic to imagine those most outré quirks, the chimera and sutura, always indices of base superstition.
As an eyeball-kick born of Romanticism, a metaphysical quirk is likely no more (or less) than literary SFX, no more (or less) powerful and perilous than a novum used the same way; that the thrill of incredulity is the quirk’s purpose in being is all we need know to know the nature of the game. If the marvel is to be taken seriously at all, it is likely as a figurative vehicle of metaphor, unmoored from its tenor and rendered concrete; it exists to be read for its non-literal meaning. To project belief is silly-kittens; if I write about a Styx-water swilling cynic collecting an unbaptised infant’s soul for the Nursery of Limbo, dude, this is not evidence of faith but a critique of it.
Where fantasy is Fantasy, its definition closed tight to the monomythic mode — to the magically-gifted darlings of destiny, black-and-white struggles of Good and Evil, Dark Lords threatening the bucolic idyll — a supreme wariness is called-for. Where the wonder button is being pushed, there may well be Romanticism at play, and of the most reactionary sort. Alternatively, the text may be articulating a modernist agenda, seeking to resolve the agon of passion and reason, emotion and intellect. It may even be the product of a rationalist’s Absurdism — because the Absurd is often, post-Camus, the rationalist’s work even in its apparent illogic, clinical as an autopsy, dissecting a system to expose its disorder(s). Pinter is never more coldly analytic than where exchanges are filleted to a series of non sequiturs.
But the notion of magic as a foreign element is expedient. All problems of structural clichés — of character and setting, plot and theme — all the trite formulae for escapist pabulum developed in the pulps of category product as generic junk food… all of this improper conjuring can be circumscribed as wish-fulfilment and encapsulated in that one word. Every fault in SF can be nailed to this romantic irrationalism. It is never SF that is of pandering purpose, puerile import; if it seems to be, this is because it is not pure SF. It is contaminated, seduced by the exotic colour of the blue flower, intoxicated by its soporific fragrance, polluted by its narcotising essence — magic, which is to say faith.
A contemptuous snort at a bugbear fantasy of fantasy dismisses the imperative of improper conjuring upon all category fiction. It is the first trick taught at Camp Consolation: to ignore a morass of hackwork and focus on the kernel of quality in one’s beloved genre; to ignore the kernel of quality and focus on the morass of hackwork in another; to treat the superior work as exemplary here but exceptional there; to take one mode as essentially good but swamped with dross, the other as essentially bad but scattered with the odd diamond. Such doublethink is a self-reinforcing view. As prejudice presents as piety, so it renders its faults as products of influence, scapegoats the reviled enemy as a blight creating wrongness by a process of corruption. The deflection strengthens conviction, certainty of worth rewarded with certainty of worth.
In the rapture of unreason, history itself may be rewritten.
*”[Benford] talks about SF’s infrastructure being invaded by fantasy writers and fans, implying that there was a time when the two genres WERE separate. In fact, if you look at British Fandom’s infrastructure you see evidence of this… you have the BSFA and you have the BFA, and the BSFA, I get the impression, clearly favours SF over fantasy. So unless the BSFA was an attempt by SF purists to split the genre off, I think that your historical model has problems.”
— Jonathan MacCalmont, comment on Notes From the Geek Show
Only in a short time frame that skips the formative period of SF entirely, skips everything before the 1970s, can we really sustain this notion of fantasy infiltrating SF from outside; and MacCalmont’s example of British fandom backs this up. The British Fantasy Society began in 1971 as the British Weird Fantasy Society, an offshoot from the British Science Fiction Association set up in 1958. Which is to say, the infrastructure of fantasy writers and fans was created by an act of separation out from SF, and in the same year the category of Fantasy began separating out from Science Fiction with the the establishment of Ballantine Adult Fantasy Books.
Before this first true Fantasy imprint, diversity was the rule in the Science Fiction imprints. The focus may have been on the latter-day E.E. Doc Smiths of science fiction in Campbell’s Astounding, but most of the seminal magazines of the strange fiction genres — Weird Tales, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy — were publishing the Liebers and Lovecrafts of fantasy and horror alongside such fare, the three genres intimate bedfellows from the start, right up through the Golden Age. No writer better encapsulates the fusion of forms at play than Bradbury, sliding effortlessly between the modes, from SF to fantasy to horror, in a story like “The Veldt.”
Bradbury himself claims FAHRENHEIT 451 as his only real work of SF, yet his fantasies took the default label of the day — like Silverberg’s THE BOOK OF SKULLS, Zelazny’s ROADMARKS — pointing us at the real seam of alterity running through SF. His legacy is not just popular TV shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The X Files. It is New Wave stories like Disch’s “Descending”, Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” It is Interzone in the ’80s, The Third Alternative, all that slipstream blending of the domestic and the fantastic that characterises the UK and US indie press. It is Jeffrey Ford and Kelly Link. It is not the fantasy of the magical, so much as the fantasy of the weird, old and new — a terrain of the strange that encompasses the liminality of Todorov’s fantastique, Freud’s uncanny, Pinter’s absurd, Jarry’s pataphysical along with the broadest of bizarro pulp. Looking to the history, it was there from the get-go.
But then… BOOM! The meteor of Tolkien hits the city of Writing, his impact shaking the SF Café to its foundation, shockwave travelling far beyond it, opening the age-old crack that splits our beloved haunt in two. In the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café, the recognition of a wider market than the regulars leads to whole new imprints, a whole new commercial category, and formulation. The informal term fantasy gets formalised into a label for this new category — and that new category is populated with Tolkien’s peers and predecessors at first, but then… let’s see. Is that category characterised by works like Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COME, Silverberg’s THE BOOK OF SKULLS, Zelazny’s ROADMARKS? Hell, no. It’s dominated by the rotting corpse of Tolkien — the high heroism of “Epic Pooh,” as Moorcock scathingly calls it — and the noxious vapours of its decay, the umpteen volumes of THE CHRONICLES OF THE OBJECTS OF POWER. Those fantasists of the weird who gag on the stench of Tolkien’s fetid cadaver find there’s little welcome for them at the tables of adventurers on steroids.
The pap propagates, filling the tables, spilling out through the café. The rationalists in the booths react in horror. Suddenly McCaffrey’s Pern and Herbert’s Dune look suspect; their symbolic and structural tropes (dragons in one, epic in the other) reek of this unreconstructed Romanticism, this… fantasy, the term ceasing to signify any old fantastic conceit of the marvelous, the uncanny or the monstrous — a carousel that can reverse aging, a man turning into a beetle, a wheeling-dealing devil — come to signify instead specific formulae of story, structures of Romanticism — e.g. the monomyth at the heart of STAR WARS. No matter that SF has been selling snake-oil chimerae with a veneer of science for the last fifty years, from Buck Rogers onwards, now the shoddiest pulp charlatanry has a name by which it can be abjured. It is not SF, but fantasy. The Force is magic and jaunting is science.
Magic and monomyth, those fantasists of the weird say, is not what fantasy really is. That, they might say, is only market forces at their most heinous. Those market forces are all too persuasive though. At the booths of SF, they’re regarded with suspicion by those most devout in their idealism, most repulsed by the atavistic nonsenses of wizards and knights. And that suspicion has an impact. Fast-forward through the social pseudo-realisms of feminist SF, through the constant paranoia about “the death of science fiction” — as if it was not already the spectre of SF, that emptied signifier — through the boom of cyberpunk, the burst of New Space Opera, the blast of the Singularity, in which it is reborn in new flesh, new forms. The result? Science Fiction is risen from the grave. The definitions may contradict, requiring fuzzy set systems of subjective models, but there is certainty now in opposition to indefinition.
The ghost of SF as an empty signifier is exorcised, must whisper itself into the nanotech grey goo golem of speculative fiction to survive. Adrift in the SF Café, it stands in the corners or at the counter, wanders the gaps between the tables, lurks at the margins, in the indie presses of the UK and the US, small press magazines and webzines, anthology series. As the corpse of Tolkien rots down to its skeletal frame, the golem talks of slipstream and cross-genre, interstitial fictions, interzones and third alternatives, the weird. Clute’s fantastika as a faction inherently estranged from the SF Café’s main agon of aesthetics, as a fiction of estrangement. Those who would once have shrugged and said their work was SF simply because it could be sold as such now shrug as fantasy becomes the default label. The SF Café echoes with Knight’s and Spinrad’s indefinitions transfered to another signifier:
Fantasy is what we mean when we point to it, they say, a rosebud wristlet of blue flowers made obvious as they do just that, raising their hand to point at everything and anything.
“Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”
— Donald Barthelme
In the SF Café, if one looks out of the corner of one’s eye at the lapels of this patron or that, one might notice a blue flower as a buttonhole, a sweet-scented and asymmetrically-petalled orchid of a shade somewhere near azure and indigo, across from cerulean and cyan. Take a walk outside, squinting your eyes against the sunlight and you might notice these flowers growing from every crack in the sidewalks of the ghetto of Genre. They sprout in the crack that runs right across the floor of the SF Café. It is a strange blue, the blue of the blue flower — enigma and exotica, artifice or anomaly.
For one SF loyalist — let’s call him Strawman — those blue flowers on the lapels of the SF Café’s irregular regulars are a vile sight. Often you’ll hear him mutter that the blue flower is a weed to be eradicated, a sign of all that’s wrong with the ghetto of Genre, the lotus of the lotus-eaters. Those who wear it, he’s convinced, do so as sign of their allegiance to some mystic cult, some latter-day Golden Dawn or Theosophical Society… an Order of the Blue Flower. He does not trust such an enigma; all enigma is the ineffable to Strawman, and the ineffable is the irrational. It is fantasy. He recoils in revulsion from the heady hallucinogenic Blue Flower Tea served in the SF Café… which is an entirely natural response of disgust to blue-coloured food, of course… not reasoned, not rational, but natural.
His suspicion is not entirely misplaced. The blue flower was once a symbol of Romanticism: the blue flower of Novalis’s HEINRICH VON OFTERDINGEN; of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff’s “Die blaue Blume”; the flower that Adelbert von Chamisso saw as the symbol of our striving for love and eternity; the flower Goethe searched for in the countryside of Italy; the flower C.S. Lewis declared himself a votary of, associated with the yearning of Sehnsucht. Strawman hears tell of it in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. He hears it in the talk of latter-day Romantics, their boasts of the grand lineage of their cult — Macdonald, Tennyson, Macpherson, Spenser, Mallory, Geoffrey of Monmouth. But if Strawman looked closer, he might see that the emblems of an imaginary lost idyll those dreamers cradle in their cupped palms are paper copies. Closer still and he might see the real blue flower they don’t even know they’re wearing on their lapels. He might see the blue flower he’s wearing on his own.
The blue flower is not fantasy but the strange. If it might be supernatural, some magical blossom sprouting and blooming through rifts in reality itself, it might as easily be extraterrestrial, an alien life-form carried to the planet by a meteorite. Marvelous or monstrous, uncanny or weird, all we can say for sure is that it has no place in our experience of the world. To glimpse the blue flower is to see something with no place in all known history, known science. It might even be beyond the laws of nature or the strictures of logic. Or not.
If Strawman studied his own blue flower, he’d find that its blue is Hume’s hypothetical “missing shade of blue”, a shade unknown in nature, never seen, but imaginable in the mind’s eye… perhaps. This was Hume’s thought experiment: if conception is a recombination of perception, he asked, could we then imagine a colour we have never sensed? Hume was unsure, but given that blue and yellow, green and red, black and white, we now know, are only the symbolic dimensions in which our sense of colour is constructed as an abstract modelling of light frequencies by opponent processes, to take this literally rather than figuratively, the positive answer is obvious. It’s like asking if we can imagine a number between fifty-four and fifty-six without ever seeing a group of fifty-five things; the possibility is self-evident, our mind a pallete made to mix shades of colours which are always already imaginary.
To push the question beyond the literal though, towards a deeper interrogation, is to make the blue of the blue flower a figuration of the figurative itself. It is to imagine that blue only our symbol of another missing shade, a blue that lies not between two shades we’ve seen but beyond them all — a bluer-than-blue. The blue of the blue flower is a colour out of colourspace imagined in place of a colour outside of it, a surrogate we conjure in order to visualise the strange flower right in front of us. It is our rendering of the as-yet-unspoken, which was once Romantic, once purely a locus of the sensational, but which became, with the advent of modernity, too dangerous to leave unspoken. It is the impossible blue by which we articulate what others claim ineffable, do so figuratively in defiant experiments of unmoored metaphor, success uncertain. It’s the entirely new yellowish-blue seen by the subjects of Billock, Gleason and Tsou’s experiments in suppressing the mutual inhibition of opponent processes that otherwise prevents such a sensation.
The blue flower is that from which Philip K. Dick’s fictitious Substance D is derived in A SCANNER DARKLY. It’s the strangeness in that fiction that’s not Romantic awe but existential angst, in which metaphysical questions of the nature of reality are bound to questions of the nature of humanity, in which scientific rationalism is far from the point but in which the core value of secular humanism is — empathy. It’s the blue flower worn by a character in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, an oneiric enigma of signifier divorced from signified, the irrational perhaps, but the unreason masked by mundane shams of order, the faux reality of the suburbs; it seeks to render the as-yet-unspoken of the bugfuck nutjobbery that lurks beneath. It is not the ineffable but the touchstones by which we demarcate it, begin to make it effable. It’s the blue flower that might have been described in the meticulous botanical detail of a Guy Davenport story, “The Meadow,” say… though it so happens that it wasn’t.
Bradbury, Silverberg, Zelazny — all wear the blue flower as a buttonhole. All strange fiction writers wear the blue flower, whether they call it supernatural or extraterrestrial, both words parsing to the same relational meaning, different only in the subtle shading: super- or extra- denoting from above, outside, beyond; natural or terrestrial denoting of or pertaining to the condition we were born into, the soil that we live on, the world as our material environment. The blue flower is the quirk, and the quirk is alterity. Wherever strange fictions serve as a force against base prejudice, it is because of how they treat that alterity — not credulous in a conviction that we will be saved or slaughtered by the extraterrestrial or supernatural but skeptical of all Camp Consolation’s tales that cast the Other as enemy. It is all too easy to be prejudiced against blacks and gays when your SF is telling you that the invading aliens and the mutants in the wastelands are just plain dangerous.
Where this is our heroic fantasy — that the blue flowers are poisonous weeds to be stamped out — we are not tackling the rapture of unreason but surrendering to it. We will be until we are able to see the flower on every lapel, our own included, until we can see that we are all of us of the Order of the Blue Flower.
You may have heard of the UK lawsuit where Seven Days in the Art World, was reviewed in the Daily Torygraph by Lynn Barber, one of the people she interviewed for it. In her takedown of the book, Barber explicitly said she couldn’t trust Thornton’s claims regarding her rigorous research. Why not? She’s one of the interview subjects named, she said, and she never gave an interview:
“Thornton claims her book is based on hour-long interviews with more than 250 people. I would have taken this on trust, except that my eye flicked down the list of her 250 interviewees and practically fell out of its socket when it hit the name Lynn Barber. I gave her an interview? Surely I would have noticed?”
Unfortunately for Barber, Thornton had proof of the actual interview, proof that her research was not fabricated as Barber’s stupefied snark claims — and claims with the absolute authority of one who’d know for sure. Unfortunately for Barber, Thornton had proof that this libel and malicious falsehood was indeed libel and malicious falsehood. One might well give credence to Barber’s excuse that she just forgot — fuck, it strains credulity that anyone would deliberately dig a grave so deep — but the judge dismissed this as irrelevant, proving only an indifference to veracity that was scarce a mark of greater integrity. So he awarded £50,000 for the act itself and chucked an extra £15,000 on top just for the spiteful spirit of the false accusation.
This doesn’t seem too complex a story to me; it seems cut-and-dry, in fact. And yet we get the Slate piece by Francis Wheen linked above, which dances around apologia and quibbling argument, with testimony to the “scatty” memory of a “friend and former colleague” and hedged concern over the ramifications of the decision. What do I mean? Note the subtitle: the scare quotes afforded “malicious,” implicitly setting that judgement as subjective, a viewpoint on which judgement is reserved; the fact that it’s this perceived “malice” by which the review is characterised, not the fact of… you know… libel. The whole theme is encapsulated in the title, indeed: the subject here is to be the caustic critic on the run, hounded, harried — the hunting of the snark. Think of the poor wee harried snipewanks.
For sure, Wheen admits that this verdict is not, as some might paint it, a censorious embargo on ruthless critique that will heretofore enforce only simpering praise in reviews. But this is followed by the drearily oblivious “nevertheless” that dismisses exactly that admission in favour of a fret that editors may succumb to their timidity, self-censor in fear of legal reprisals. It is the “nevertheless” that is really a “yes, well, but”. It is the “nevertheless” that accepts the fact, boxes it up neatly as a fact, then shelves it to be quite forgotten; it’s superficial acknowledgement as a step to disposing of reality without further consideration. Yeah yeah, it accepts, actually this is entirely a matter of the reviewer being criminally negligent to the point of libel, being punished for a flagrant failure of integrity. But…
Ruthless critique may nevertheless be curtailed, Wheen worries. As I imagine… I don’t know… the fear of getting prosecuted for sexual harassment might curtail one’s harmless flirtation with this or that colleague. As the fear of being dismissed for homophobic abuse might curtail one’s freedom to banter in jovial badinage with that or this workmate. A reasonable concern, I’m sure we all agree, that the law which says, “You cannot publish this specific type of statement because every utterance is also an action and the particular type of action such a statement constitutes is criminally wrong, an action of libel,” will all too easily be taken to mean, “You best not publish all manner of things, because any utterance might now be construed as criminally wrong.” Yes, clearly when a judgement in a civil suit punishes a specific breach of journalistic integrity we should ponder the dread possibility that it will suppress writing that doesn’t constitute such a breach.
But, but, but… what if people ignore the actuality of the law and imagine it means “no harsh reviews ever”?
By all means, let’s consider the perilous chilling effect that might come from this judgement, from a law which punishes thoughtless blather when it falsely accuses a researcher of duplicities that, if true, would annihilate said researcher’s credibility. Let’s consider the perturbing possibilities if the smackdown given Barber for transgressing a clearly-defined limit of acceptable critique — “No, sorry, Ms. Barber, falsely accusing Ms. Thornton of fabricating an interview with you is not on,” — should strike fear into the hearts of those who are either so cretinous or so craven, poor things, that they’ll naturally extend that judgement to a Damoclean sword hanging over all snark. Let’s consider the fools and cowards who might be trembling now, afraid of being hounded, harried, hunted for their snark, tremulous that any snipewankery might now be deemed unpardonable transgression if it, in some vague and indeterminate way, goes “too far.”
Let’s consider them for all of two fucking seconds.
Seriously, if some fucktard of a snipewank strayed into homophobic hate-speech in their review of a book, if what they said was judged to be legally punishably beyond the pale, not as some vaguely hurtful Blue Meany nastiness but because it breaks a specific fucking law against, in this case, hate-speech, what sort of credence would we give to a response fretting over the ramifications for the art of snipewankery? Think it through, for cock’s sake. Is there a logical outcome to such fashing other than, “We should discard such legislation to accommodate those who don’t grasp the clear limits of its application”? Hate-speech or libel, we’re talking very specific acts of malice here. Any maundering that suggests the discourse may be impacted as dull wits project from this some nebulous criminalisation of mere vitriol in and of itself simply begs the question(s): And? If an editor or writer can’t distinguish between snark and legally prohibited actions, whether they be hate speech or libel, are we really meant to worry about their fatuous tizzy?
To be fair, Wheen’s piece reads more as puffery than as a serious concern. It’s just springboarding off the judgement into a shallow puddle, splashing about in the issue a bit. It’s an easy opinion, operating at the level of chit-chat in the Bistro de Critique: we should scorn the writers who “go blubbing to [their] lawyers” over harsh reviews; writers should respond in kind, see, with counter-snark we can relish for its switchblade wit; or they might better deliciate in the schadenfreude of seeing a guilty snipewank cringe in the face of one’s resolute magnanimity; we should live with the fact that snipewankery will, of course, only be applied to strangers and enemies; this is the price to be paid if we don’t want the “bland pap” of snipewankery’s polar opposite, cockfluffery. This is coffee talk, not a hard questioning of the consequences of Thornton’s suit. Still, it’s worth interrogation, I’d say, as such.
To me this seems a defense of banality. Snark is fun, for sure, but it’s cockfluffery in its own way, pandering to the allied egos of reader and reviewer, offering the delicious cruelty of a tongue-lashing take-down meted out to some scribbler buttmonkey with the conceit to think their work worthy of respect in the salon. To imagine it a corrective for trite panegyrics is a self-serving obfuscation of a performative approach that may be equally shallow. Cause yeah, Louis Voxelles was soooo much sharper a critic when he dismissed the “bizarre cubiques” of Braques that he named an entire movement. And of course had he held his tongue out of social niceties and nepotism, because Braques was a buddy, his forsaking of shallow disdain for silent bias would simply be… the way of things.
Really? Do we really just want to shrug off the switchblade in the hands of the callow and/or hypocritical because that’s somehow more incisive than lazy plaudits, or is the point of that blade rather that in the hands of a surgeon it can cut to the very core of a folly, that in the hands of a satirist it will be snicking at its targets for a damn good reason? Don’t think for a second that I’m rejecting this weapon as too savage. Quite the contrary: I think the lesser snipewanks reveal themselves in their ineptitude, can and will be skewered by sharper wits. There should be no blubbing for them when such a skewering sends them into a tiff, when their skills with the blade fail and they resort to the petty hackwork of an outright falsehood.
I mean to say, Thornton doesn’t strike me as the one to be scorned here for a petulant and precious flounce in the face of snark. Rather, in the cut and thrust of discourse, it’s Barber whose wit seems to have been wanting, who succumbed to a “critical tantrum,” as Wheen describes it, when faced with a work that maybe cut too close to home. How so? From the Publisher’s Weekly review of Seven Days in the Art World:
“The hot, hip contemporary art world, argues sociologist Thornton, is a cluster of intermingling subcultures unified by the belief, whether genuine or feigned, that nothing is more important than the art itself. It is a conviction, she asserts, that has transformed contemporary art into a kind of alternative religion for atheists. Thornton, a contributor to Artforum.com and the New Yorker, presents an astute and often entertaining ethnography of this status-driven world… Thornton offers an elegant, evocative, sardonic view into some of the art world’s most prestigious institutions.”
Ah, right. So the book in question is itself sort of a… well… review — albeit of culture rather than text. It’s a work analysing the metanarratives of the art world, one might say, a critical examination of that domain’s stories of self. When one’s response to that sort of critique is to challenge its validity by impugning the critic’s integrity… really, if one wants to defend ruthless analysis, it’s not Barber’s blundering stab one should be making excuses for, not when the very reason it’s being punished is because it used a false accusation to discredit an unflattering analysis.
What we have, at first glance, seems an analytic study of the art world as a system wrought of reverence in which kudos is capital, a book of cultural critique. Articulating a view which gleans in that interweave of subcultures at least some degree of insincerity — “feigned” belief. And we might well catch a glint of switchblade in PW’s use of words like “astute” and “sardonic” to characterise Thornton’s analysis, a similar steely sharpness reflected in her own words from the intro: “As I’ve roamed the art world, I’ve been habitually amused by the status anxieties of all the players.” Not having read the book, I can’t judge just how characteristic that quote is, but it does sound like this scrutiny of social structures could be a little cutting to someone enmeshed enough in that domain to be a Turner Prize judge, no?
I have to confess to my own snarky amusement here, in this column that you could well call a review of a review (Wheen’s) of a review (Barber’s) of a review (Thornton’s), a little wry smile that Wheen’s apologia presents Barber’s ire as only natural in the face of arrant pretentiousness. We may be forced, she says, (by, you know, legal adjudication) to concede that Barber acted out of spite, to use that actual word. But cock knows, we’d rather not, rather allow her mere impetuous pique. There wasn’t even an animus until she read the work of this “decorative Canadian with a BA in art history and a PhD in sociology and a seemingly limitless capacity to write pompous nonsense,” until she was forced to suffer through its piffle and balderdash. That pomp, Wheen assures us, is the sole reason for Barber’s malice (or perhaps we should say, with scare quotes, “malice”):
“It’s not as if there was a history of animosity between Barber and the author; her spite, if we must use that word, was provoked entirely by the canting academic jargon of the work she had to review. Sarah Thornton presented her account of the art world as a piece of “ethnographic research,” part of “a genre of writing with roots in anthropology that aims to generate holistic descriptions of social and cultural worlds.” Is it any wonder that Barber threw a critical tantrum—and, in her fury, quite forgot about the interview that would eventually prove so lucrative for Thornton?”
Is it any wonder? I don’t know. Is it any wonder that a Turner Prize judge and Torygraph writer should behave exactly as if exhibiting the very status anxieties Thornton notes in her intro when faced with… what? A work of cultural critique that flagrantly uses the academic parlance of its academic discipline! An ethnographic study that wilfully articulates its theory and research within the discourse of ethnography! A work which unforgiveably applies the terminological toolkit of its field! No, it’s no wonder that a Turner Prize judge should be outraged at the polysyllabic abstractions, the scholarly fustian, the — no, wait. That doesn’t make much sense at all, does it?
I’ll admit, I tend to twitch at the word “holistic” due to its associations with New Age flim-flam, but other than that Wheen’s justification seems a bizarre appeal to the philistine for whom scare quotes around some exotic Latinate phrase — “ethnographic research” — is all one needs to dismiss the high-falutin hot air of ivory tower intellectuals. It seems a casual beckoning at the very notion of “holistic descriptions of social and cultural worlds” as if the pretension is self-evident. As if no more need be said. Thornton approached the art world as an ethnographer, by Cock; what do you expect but righteous fury at her conceit?
To which I say: Huh?
Are words like “social” and “cultural” markers of wild pseudo-intellectualism now? Are Turner Prize judges, writers, critics, now unable to conceive of “holistic” having a meaning distinct from the snake oil rhetoric of “holistic medicine”? Are they brought out in hives by language retrofitted to a specific function, frameworked for a particular school of thought? Or is this some common sense conviction that the entire discipline of ethnography is vacuous poppycock — much like the similar common sense conviction of the “all modern art is rubbish” brigade? A quick flick through Thornton’s intro, first chapter and afterword via Amazon’s Look Inside function, and it doesn’t even look particularly abstruse, to be honest. I know, I know, I’m the guy who happily drops the “boulomaic” bomb willy-nilly, but trust me; from what I’ve read it’s hardly Clute.
It’s not that other aspect of pomp that riled Barber then, is it? It’s not the detachment that might strike one as supercilious, the amusement at status anxieties that might strike one as condescension? It’s not that this ethnographic approach should dare to treat the valuations coded into the culture with, one would presume, the dispassion of an outsider for whom this is just another form of culture? It’s not that the book is, like some ruthless review, detailing the follies and fripperies of its subject, challenging the vanities of that subject’s makers where it focuses on the role of status within that world? In Thornton’s previous book, she apparently coins the the term “subcultural capital,” which seems pretty self-explanatory to me as a term for the kudos exchanged within communities of interlocking cliques. It also seems self-evident as a fact of the communities of interlocking cliques I tend to write about here — those cohered around the commercial strange fiction genres. As does the tendency of some invested in the valuations coded into this culture to react with petulance at the skewering of sacred cows.
That would be an all too understandable ire, I’d say. And an ire of no small irony, the reviewer essentially taking a snit at subtle snark, lashing out with their own snark but being unable to do so without stumbling clumsily over the actual truth. But what the fuck do I know what Barber was thinking? Maybe the book does start using all manner of poncy words like “sociopolitical” or “subcultural” beyond what little I’ve seen.
Whatever the root of the wrath that pushed Barber across the bounds of journalistic integrity though, the outcome of the resultant civil suit is not a defeat of ominous import for critical discourse that might dare to cast a less than adoring eye over its subject. The snark is not being hunted here. Rather, it has stalked on in its pitiless pursuit of the honest truth, uncaring if it ruffles a few feathers, raises a few hackles. It rather seems to me that it’s the snark’s mildest sniff at the scent of folly in the art world that’s set off the petty swipe of a critique in bad faith. My main point here is simply that it’s of zero consequence whether this blow was below the belt in some precious “writers are delicate flowers who shouldn’t suffer such venom” way, so there’s zero reason to fret that reviewers might now have their scathing joys curtailed. To crosswire our Carrollian references, the vorpal blade went snicker-snack for a damn good reason, a beamish boy called libel law giving that lesser snipewank of a review the spanking it deserved.
And if the snark should turn its cold gaze to bleatings of the threat to petty snipewankery, let it spike that piffle on its talon, slice that preciousness to shreds with scorn, and flick the ruins to one side, stalk on.
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.
“I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
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.
“‘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.
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.
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.
“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).”
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.
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.
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.
So Science Fiction is dead; but the death of Science Fiction is not the end of the story. Rather it’s the beginning of it. Torn apart in the struggles of its factions, deserted by the blood and breath of its most explorative writers, the carcass of that old Genre still sits in the SF Café, a leg here, an arm there, novitiates of this cult or that gnawing on its bones, sucking on what’s left of the marrow.
It’s a grisly scene, but if these devotees only looked around them they’d see the ghost that dwells in every corner of the diner. Everywhere in the SF Café you can still see the stains, still hear the echoes of that ghost — the closed definition reopened to a strange and subtle essence that defies all definitions — science fiction. And for all that its blood was spilled out, the dying breath of Science Fiction was guttered into a golem. The spelunkers of speculative fiction mining phosphorescent filth from the bowels of the city of Writing, the Sci-Fi freaks scraping kibble and kack that from the bins of decades-old shit sandwiches out back, we have built this thing to take its place.
This is the legacy of generations of writers who would rather tackle adult themes than pander to puerile power-fantasies, whose interests lie with the soft sciences and humanities as much as with the hard sciences and technology, for whom the fiction is always more important than either the fantasia or the futurology. It is also the legacy of those who simply don’t give a fuck about anything other than either fantasia or futurology. It is fiction in which the envelope has been pushed so far out, from ambition or expedience, that all the descriptions and definitions — Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Sci-Fi, even speculative fiction — can only be, at best, nominal labels. It is the fiction that abandons those labels for a negation of description, a rejection of definition — the acronym SF, which might mean any or all of those things.
Arguably, the term speculative fiction was, and still is, successful (to an extent) with those readers, writers, editors and publishers aware and accepting of the intrinsic diversity of the field, simply because it waves in the general direction of a meaning and, better still, abbreviates easily to SF. Hence it translates to the label of science fiction through that acronym, if and when required for the ease of communication; it is backwards compatible. That acronym reanimates the dead Science Fiction in the stains and echoes that pervade the SF Café. It binds it to the golem of speculative fiction and Sci-Fi all mashed together, this clay-made, uber-malleable monster of fictive clay. In it the dichotomy of Science Fiction and Fantasy is resolved into a unity utterly in contrast with the riven notion of Science Fantasy. We can even extend the F, echo it, to include the closed-definition Fantasy (and the openly-defined fantasy,) in SF/F, remove the dividing slash entirely in SFF, elide the one into the other as in SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
If we want to be all poncy and academic about it, we might even expand that acronym to structural fabulation.
This is the beauty of the SF acronym, in fact, the beauty of the SF Café, that it offers a neutral zone where all the factions can communicate even if they do so in the most argumentative fashion. And as abbreviations go, where Sci-Fi is cringe-inducingly cute and clever, SF is short and snappy, no nonsense, like the utilitarian acronyms of soldiers and businessmen.
That all the writers of a myriad modes and methods are grouped together as SF is an assertion of the indefinable nature of the field. Forget futurology. Forget the rationalist ideal of the logical. Forget the Romantic wonders of the Rocket Age. Forget the 60s and 70s fears of Future Catastrophe. Forget the counterculture of acid visions and sexual revolution. Forget every abandoned zeitgeist. Forget the codified conventions of the puerile pap. Forget the cobbled combinatory systems of plots and characters, settings and themes. Forget those illusions of SF as the innumerable permutations of an ever-changing set of tropes. Or remember them, but remember them all. This is a confusion of contradictions that can only be made sense of by cutting the Gordian Knot, by saying, like Norman Spinrad, that SF is whatever is sold as SF, or like Damon Knight, that it’s what we point to when we use the term.
Paring the label down to these two little figurae, we make it stand for whatever narratives we throw at it; we use the fiction to define the model. It allows for any narrative to be written as SF, because we are applying the label after the fact, saying: this is SF because it can be sold as SF, because it can be bought as SF — not just literally but conceptually, not just purchased but… admitted. In this vector of definition, in fact, the model becomes a method of reading a narrative, any narrative, as SF.
To take one example, we might use this as a way of interpreting THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH, look for a reading of the story as SF. This is a different thing altogether from laying claim to the work as an example of a genre; and it’s entirely possible; we can understand this Sumerian poem of a hero’s journey, in the context of its culture of origin, as embodying the cosmological conceits of his day, the speculations of the Bronze Age rather than the Rocket Age. We can read Enkidu, Humbaba and the scorpion-men as cryptids and sports. We can read the Cedar Forest, the Deluge and the Plant of Immortality as hypothetical exotica of terrestrial deep space. Adding this SFist reading methodology to the arsenal of Marxist and feminist readings might not be worthless; in so far as SF is rooted in fantasia and futurology, an SF reading of a narrative constitutes an interrogation of its dynamics of passion and reason.
But if this expulsion of meaning is a refusal of constraints, it also disacknowledges any distinction between genre as aesthetic idiom and Genre as conventional form and/or marketing category, collapsing them all together into this empty symbol of SF. It’s little wonder then that others who look at that vacuity see only a signpost to the market where it’s sold, see only the outer decor of the SF Café and its environs, the ghetto of Genre. In accepting that SF’s nature is that of a discrete sub-domain of Genre, in allowing SF to be treated as SF, we invite a logical extrapolation from the common understanding of how marketing categories function, how Genres work, the syllogistic a priori reasoning by which SF is rejected as sub-literate scribbling. The argument that damns us, this Form=Formulation Syllogism runs thus:
It should be obvious to any SF reader that this is a gross misrepresentation, but judging by some of the talk you hear down in the SF Café I’m not sure it is. So let’s spell it out point by point. This is the essence of the distinction between genre as aesthetic idiom and Genre as conventional form / marketing category:
1. Genre labels signal that a work conforms to a set of aesthetic criteria prescribed as Genre conventions.
No, there are works which get a Genre label without conforming to the conventions. THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER is neither a “let’s pretend” adventure nor a “what if” thought-experiment. It has next to nothing of Gernsback’s “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” in it, not in the sense of futurology and fantasia. It is not Campbellian Science Fiction by a long shot. And this is not to say that it merely stretches the conventions by applying the Paradigm Shift Caveat to excuse lack of rigour, or by directing its speculation towards the soft sciences. Where it breaks with tradition in utilising religious conceits — transmigration, visions in the irrational revelatory rather than rational predictive sense, etc. — it establishes a new set of aesthetic criteria by integrating those conceits into what is otherwise a work of contemporary realism.
The publication and reading of this work as SF simply expands the zone of indefinition, asserts that however we conceive of this Genre we must now allow for the incorporation of this type of novel. The Genre label signals only this then: that something about a work has been deemed sufficient justification for any adjustments to aesthetic criteria required to accomodate it under that label. Personally, I take this work as proof that sufficient justification may entail no more than a smidgeon of metaphysical strangeness and an author established within the field.
2. These conventions are designed for producing works of a certain stereotypical Genre form.
No, for every reader there’s a personal set of constraints and characteristics they see as sufficient justification to label a work SF. When that reader is also a writer, they may well set out to write a work that reads as SF to them by treating those as a set of aesthetic criteria. While some of these are commercially standardised so that stereotypical Genre forms can be produced to order, but many are not. Some are no more than… the 2D outline of a work’s base, so to speak, with its greater structure entirely freeform. Still others do little more than describe the general contours of the broad terrain on which the work is to be formed.
Compare, in poetry: the conventions of the stereotypical Limerick as a Genre, fun but formulaic; the constraints and characteristics of the sonnet as a genre, based on a shape of fourteen lines and a volta but on any subject, in any tone; and the wildly notional aesthetic criteria of the poem, any work within that vast domain. Similarly, in SF, we have: the conventions of the stereotypical Cyberpunk story, as it stands now; the much wider range of constraints and characteristics back when the genre of cyberpunk was exemplified by the MIRRORSHADES anthology; and the wildly notional aesthetic criteria of SF in general.
Delany’s DHALGREN is not a product of conventions designed for producing works of a certain stereotypical Post-Apocalypse SF form. The ruined cityscape and social collapse of Bellona that lead us to label it post-apocalyptic fiction are at most the contours of its foundation and arguably no more than the gradiant of the territory it inhabits.
3. Genre forms have inherent flaws due to their commercial imperatives and counter-literary value-systems.
This means precisely nothing if the marketing category maps to an aesthetic idiom rather than a conventional form. If a lack of thematic depth is inherent in the form of the Limerick, this is irrelevant as a critique of poetry. If a lack of thematic depth is inherent in the form of the stereotypical Cyberpunk, story this is irrelevant as a critique of SF. So the formulation of Genres leads to works produced to fit standardised aesthetic criteria (e.g. plot-structure, worldscape development and futurological novelty). So commercial imperatives may pressure for a neglect of non-required features such as depth of character and theme, may even embody a counter-literary value-system, preferencing crudely bodged prose that “doesn’t get in the way of the plot” over “style” that foregrounds its own craftedness. Applying only to the Genres contained within the genre’s broad terrain, this is exactly as irrelevant as a critique of SF as a critique of poetry based on the flaws of the Limerick.
4. Works conforming to those conventions will have those flaws.
Again this now means nothing. Works fitting the aesthetic criteria that define the sonnet as a genre need only fourteen lines and a volte. Formulation of a stereotypical Shakespearian Love Sonnets might lead to flaws of neglect (e.g. a lack of originality) and counter-literary value-systems (e.g. saccharine romantic sentiments), but the genre of the sonnet is distinguishable from this Genre precisely by its opposition to formulation, its literary imperatives to exceed minimum requirements, to build a multi-dimensional structure upon that outlined base. Formulation of a stereotypical Cyberpunk within SF may lead to flaws of neglect or counter-literary value-systems, but SF is distinguishable as a genre precisely by its opposition to formulation.
There are many Genres within SF, and many exhibit the flaws that go with formulation: concerns with plot and worldscape built from futurology and fantasia overshadow concerns with character and theme; complexity and subtlety is deprecated as “pretension”. An assertion that SF necessarily has these flaws because it is a Genre are like an assertion that poetry necessarily has the flaws of the stereotypical Shakespearean Love Sonnet, articulating only the ignorance and presumption of the speaker.
5. Works published with Genre labels will have those flaws.
The application of an ignorant and presumptious judgement on the basis of marketing category is not only false and misrepresentative; it’s superficial, quite literally judging a book by its cover (the image, the imprint, the copy and blurbs, the label on the back), reducing a work to the brand image. Countless works within the genre of SF disprove that judgement by counter-example, works by writers such as Aldiss, Ballard, Bradbury, Bester, Butler, Cherryh, Clarke, Delany, Disch, Dick, Ellison, Farmer, Gibson, Harrison, Heinlein, Hopkinson, Jakubowski, Keyes, Le Guin, Lem, Moorcock, Niven, Norton, Orwell, Priest, Russ, Ryman, Spinrad, Sladek, Tiptree, Vinge, Willis, Zelazny.
Not that we really need to list these; the Form=Formulation Syllogism is demonstrably flawed on every count, largely because it fails to differentiate genres from Genres, assuming a universal process of formulation when the reality is the familial development we find as aesthetic criteria are simply adjusted in order to accommodate THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER or whatever work is married into the clan, taking this nominal label as its name.
Sadly, in our own conflations and confusions we invite these misperceptions by accepting the framework of logic in which “genre” means an aesthetic territory of formulation (as in “genre work”) rather than an aesthetic idiom (as in “the genre of a work”). This ghetto of Genre we ally ourselves with is defined precisely as the region where marketing categories and conventional forms collude to insist on formulation, in contrast to “non-genre” where they do not. Genre fiction versus non-genre fiction? All fiction is in a genre, even if that genre is only the novel or the short story.
When we talk of works as “transcending the genre”, position them as exceptional rather than exemplary, we tacitly accept: that the Genre label indicates some set of aesthetic criteria shared by Genre narratives, sought after by a certain target market; that the commercial impetus of those criteria constrain the form at a deeper level than the constraints of a sonnet, create a limitation of quality; that a narrative needs to circumvent those demands of form not by ignoring them (because then the narrative would cease to be Genre) but by some shift into a more elevated sphere of abstract action. We accept that the idiom we signify with the Genre label is a stereotypical Genre form that has to be transcended in this way.
If transcendence is our metaphor then truly SF is an incorporeal spectre, a ghost, slipped free of the flesh and bone forms long ago.
Of course, the fuzziness of the whole notion is expedient, allowing us to wave a hand towards the aesthetic idiom(s) we like, in the form of a shelf labeled SF, referring to this as genre, while simultaneously waving away the conventional forms we hate, happily referring to these as generic. When an outsider challenges us on this slapdash clumping of works, we might be able to articulate that SF as a marketing label is bound to a set of aesthetic criteria too diverse to pin down with precision, diverse enough that they allow for a “literary SF” with its definition lost somewhere among all the arguments. What we generally fail to articulate is that SF is not a Genre at all, but rather a vast high-level genre made up of myriad idioms and forms, a dynamic family of genres and Genres, the most ambitious and innovative craft wed to and at war with the most formulated and derivative crap.
So it goes.
The ghost haunts the café, animates the lumbering golem of the field in its physical form. The name is sustained in our speech, the inchoate idea reiterated in every sibilant and fricative utterance of SF, because it offers a subtle strand of identity even in its indefinition; it is enough for us, as a community of fiction readers, writers, editors and critics to congregate around. In the spectral apparition and the material shape there is enough rough semblance of Genre that these monsters might frighten the citizenry if they stepped out into the city at large; and both are bound to the SF Café by their shared history anyway, by their loyalty to a beloved heritage. And as long as the SF Café is sustainable as a commercial enterprise, as long as it keeps drawing in the punters with the promise of pulp thrills and spills, the promise of exciting entertainments, of Genre, the ghost and the golem have a home.
I love and am loyal to that home myself — it’s been fucking good to me — but I think it’s always worth being aware of the double-thinks we apply, as when we talk of transcending the genre. The relationship between genre and Genre is a weird balance of symbiosis and mutual parasitism, and it seems to me that our unadmitted recognition of that only leads to bitching about lack of respect on the one hand while, on the other, extolling works with a phrase that damns SF as derivative in its essence. The deal with the devil doesn’t seem… well, that big a deal to me any more. Commercial pressures toward formulation have a corrosive effect on literary quality; but the market for the most conventional forms subsidises the most literate and ambitious aesthetic idioms — works that might well be unpublishable outside the ghetto, without the security of a guaranteed market. The literary imperatives of the whole aesthetic idiom degrade the efficiency of formulaic products with their narrowly-defined utilitarian function as entertainment; but the continual influx of originality counteracts the Law of Diminishing Returns in a set of SFnal Genres where “more of the same” paradoxically means more novelty.
The ghost and the golem could not survive without the SF Café, but without them the SF Café would quickly become an empty shell.
A moment. Ghosts, golems — these metaphysical tropes of fantasy are incongruous in a study of SF surely. Ah, well, let’s just employ the Paradigm Shift Caveat here. Let’s hypothesize that the parapsychologists are right, that in the future our empirical observations of some truly strange phenomena forces a radical revision of our physics. No ectoplasm here though, no spiritualist mumbo-jumbo of the soul as some aetheric substance. We’ll call it the Quantum Interconnectedness Principle, say that reality is information and the universe a hologram, that every fragmentary particle of our cosmos contains an image of the whole implicate order, the urgrund.
In the SF Café every patron wears mayashades that reconstruct the urgrund from the fragment-forms immediately perceptible. In part a forensic analysis of reality, in part a data-mining of the urgrund, what is offered is, in essence, a heads-up display of information we could not otherwise have access to. Gaze into the eyes of another patron and the mayashades scroll their thoughts across your vision. Gaze out of the window and the mayashades flash glimpses of the future on the streets outside — a joy-rider ploughing his car into a bus-stop queue you might be standing in five minutes from now. That sort of information is useful, after all; if we had not (hypothetically) developed the technology to access and utilise it we might even (hypothetically) have evolved a natural capacity, some sort of Externalised Simulatory Processing of the world we have to live in, some sort of… “ESP”.
Phil Dick sits in a corner, his mayashades on the blink, showing him the SF Café as a tavern in AD 70, a secret community of Christians hiding from the Roman Empire; his mayashades are communicating an analysis of society in metaphoric form, the ghetto of Genre as the Black Iron Prison of the Gnostics. They flash words in koinos Greek across his vision, a language he cannot know but which these wondrous gadgets can use freely in their access to that urgrund. They offer him a reinterpretation of the world in which he is not Phil the SF writer but Thomas the early Christian. This is not a transmigration of souls, but rather reincarnation as retro-incarnation, as a downloading of the data that defined a long-dead psyche, a simulation of another’s memories.
The ghost of SF is no supernatural spirit, just the simulacrum of an essence, the abstract agency we glimpse as we gaze round the SF Café with our mayashades scanning for hidden meaning, a wireframe model reconstructed in a purely virtual medium. As for the golem? Let’s make the monster a machine, a robot made of muck instead of metal. We’ll say its clay is carbon, the grey goo of nanotech devices, millions of miniscule mechanisms fused into one lumpen mass, given identity in the name projected onto it, SF as its logos and its logic.
Hey presto! Magic becomes science. Fantasy becomes SF.
For the benefit of this who care about that shit, you know.
It’s not that hard to see SF’s relationship with Genre, I think, to critique it with clarity and objectivity, picking out juvenile tropes and themes from adult treatments — as Spinrad does, say, in his classic “Emperor Of Everything” article, showing Bester’s smart and mature inversion of the heroic rags-to-riches power fantasy in THE STARS MY DESTINATION. But resisting critical analyses that recognise the aesthetic idiom for what it is makes it easier to excuse generic twaddle such as The Matrix or Independence Day, to forget why these are twaddle because, well, they’re enjoyable twaddle. Both are juvenile. Both are formulaic. Both are Genre in precisely the way that the Form=Formulation Syllogism damns it. We only need to compare them to, say, Gibson’s NEUROMANCER or Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH — to pick two works that are hardly lacking in the good old-fashioned plot-driven dynamics of the thriller or action/adventure genres they inhabit — to judge them pretty much derivative hokum. But if we like these two movies and hate another two — Minority Report or War of the Worlds — we can simply wave our hands, say that the former are genre, the latter generic.
This distinction between genre and generic is a wonderfully expedient sophistry. Both “genre fiction,” as we all too often use the term, and generic fiction are defined by the familiarity of their forms; more, they are fictions which exploit that familiarity. What they offer the reader, we say, what the reader requires of them, is a narrative composed of conventional elements — plots and characters, settings and themes. There may be originality in the treatment, but too much originality, not enough familiarity, and that novel ceases to be generic; it ceases to be genre. Or at least, this is the conventional wisdom — that it’s all a matter of conventions. The marketing categories have become ghettoised as Genre because the Genres bound to them exist to be generic in this way, to provide the reader with “more of the same”, all gathered together in one place, under a certain branding.
But, of course, what we have is all this fiction gathered together under that branding, the works that we love because they’re genre but not generic. And the ones we hate because they’re generic, reviling them even to the extent sometimes of denying that they’re really SF, refusing to recognise them as being valid examples of the genre on the basis that they’re too generic. In contrast to the canon of definitive works that we describe as transcending the genre.
Run that by me again?
Personally, I think I’d like to see the word “genre” die if it’s going to be overloaded with meanings and skewed to double-thinking purposes. Even Campbellian Science Fiction might be best not considered a Genre if that’s going to tangle us up in the morass of genre and the generic. Its key stricture of futurology works more like the arbitrary constraint of an Oulipo writer than the conventions of form that mark out fiction as generic. Where Gernsback’s definition sets out distinctly standardised aesthetic criteria in requiring the plot structures of Romantic adventure, Campbell’s allows for entirely non-generic plot-structures as long as the fiction employs this strange Oulipo-style constraint of grounding its fantasia in futurology.
And as for the ghost and the golem, the model and the machine, the stuff that’s out there now? As for SF, or speculative fiction, or whatever you want to call it? Construct the narrative with MacGuffin devices and stock plots, and the SF novel or story may become generic, as much SF undeniably is. There is a mode of Epic SF which all too closely parallels Epic Fantasy with its exotic settings, noble heroes, quests as archetypal psychodrama, more Joseph Campbell than John W. Campbell. But SF as a whole, which delights in offering unfamiliar forms… is it really generic enough that we’re happy to call it a “genre,” when to do so is inevitably to call it Genre — cause it’s not like the bolding and capitalisation I’m using here works in speech? Bearing in mind that every time we dismiss some formulaic dreck as generic or extoll the latest masterpiece with the rhetoric of transcendence we’re reifying the notion of genre at the heart of the Form=Formulation Syllogism?
Fuck, if only “aesthetic idiom” didn’t sound so damn poncy.
Thing is, if we examine other marketing categories — Crime, Western, Romance — it seems SF is not alone in being essentially an openly defined aesthetic idiom damned by the formulation it’s inextricably bound to. Crime, for one, is in a similar position to SF, with as much originality twisting and tearing at its orthodoxy of familiar tropes and tricks. All these marketing categories have their deconstructions and subversions, parodies and pastiches, reinventions and restorations, non-generic works that might be better understood as Anti-Genre in so far as their categorical imperative is to bring something new into the family, to force the adjustment of aesthetic criteria required to accommodate them and thereby counteract the impulse to formulation. It’s the paradox of the ghetto of Genre, that the canonical works are exemplary because they are exceptional, not just another iteration of THE MACGUFFIN DEVICE, but rather, like THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER, freaks and sports.
But holding fast under a flag of pedantry in which genre means simply family, trying to unravel the conflations of aesthetic idiom, conventional forms and marketing categories that make the word, in a phrase like “genre fiction” synonymous with formulaic, seems to be pissing in the wind. For all that the term genre might be applied to an aesthetic idiom as openly defined as the novel, for all that it may be applied, as a label slapped on a book shelf, to a marketing category that amounts to little more than “that stuff over there, that stuff I’m pointing to,” I’m not sure we can redeem it from the abjection by which it is applied to that which is most commercially conventional and conventionally commercial, that which is Genre rather than Literature. So fuck it.
From here on in, in these columns, when I talk of SF, I’m talking of a field and the various forces that comprise it. I’m talking of SF as a mode of fiction, an approach in fiction, a telling of tall tales with strange elements, where those elements are integral to the dynamics of the story, where the process of the story is generated from the strangeness of the idea, where the story is an event enacting strangeness. This is SF not as a singular form but as, at best, a loose federation of forms, a field so diverse that you can throw a hundred different definitions at it and none of them will stick. All genre definitions will fail, I think, because they attempt to describe the field as this form or that, and all those forms are actually, I’d argue — even the most conventional — better understood as forces, the illusion of delimitation (in terms of plot and character, setting and theme) ultimately a trick of perspective, these types and tropes of “genres” and “subgenres” mere snapshots of whorls in cigarette smoke, emergent from and embedded in a wider process: carving the fabulous in the reader’s mind in an experience as sharply-defined as the “genre” is inchoate. This is SF as a fabulous formless starkness of effect(s), bound only to an acronym that acknowledges its own emptiness of meaning in its rejection of specificity.
If the field is as definitionally circular as Spinrad’s statement asserts it to be, this seems only right; the empty signifier of SF is far more apt as a label than science fiction. As Cheney said in his Strange Horizons article, quoted in the first of these columns, the genre of science fiction no longer exists. As we have declared right here, Science Fiction is dead.
SF, on the other hand, seems to be alive and well — for a ghost.
Or maybe it’s not a ghost at all. Maybe that simulacrum of an essence we see as we gaze through our mayashades at the SF Café, that wireframe model of an abstract agency… maybe it really only wore the skin of Science Fiction the same way it now wears the golem’s clay. Maybe it was there all the time, this field of forces, and simply took that form as a response to the time and place.
But that’s a topic for another column.
The Appetence for Alterity
Exoticism is — rightly — something of a dirty word. It is the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar. The example that always comes to mind for me is Lamont Cranston — The Shadow — who learned the power to cloud men’s minds “while traveling in East Asia.”
— Daniel Abraham, A Defence of Exoticism
It’s the other day in the SF Café. I’m sipping a coffee, checking emails, browsing blogs, when I notice, over at his booth, writer Daniel Abraham musing on exoticism. As he takes pains to note, as we can see in the quote above, the stigma of colonialism attaching to that term is not to be dismissed. Still, he admits, he can’t wholly dismiss the appetence for alterity either. It’s less a defence he offers, I’d say, than it’s a consideration of an ambiguous stance that allows for value in the romance with the Other. He’s not denying the toxic outcomes, but suggesting that these aren’t the aim of our attraction, that there’s an impulse here that isn’t pathological for all its ultimate effects.
The appetence for alterity…
The desire for Diversity Victor Segalen called it in his posthumous, fragmentary Essai sur l’exotisme. I prefer my terms, for the sense of affinity versus lust, deviance versus variety. And I’m not one for the pomp of concepts rendered as proper nouns, unless in a metaphor of domain — the ghetto of Genre, the city of Writing. But what Segalen’s suggesting is precisely what Abraham is reaching for — a flensing of what he sees as false exoticism. Writing on the cusp of modernity, Segalen seeks to shred the colonialist muscle and fat, strip back the notion to its skeleton and reconstitute the term:
Clear the field first of all. Throw overboard everything misused or rancid contained in the word exoticism. Strip it of all its cheap finery: palm tree and camel; tropical helmet; black skins and yellow sun; and, at the same time, get rid of all those who used it with an inane loquaciousness.
To Segalen this is not exoticism at all but a fetishistic travesty of it — a colonial exoticism. He seeks to reclaim exoticism in itself as something that may not be territorial, to remake it as not just spatial — focused on elsewheres — but as temporal — focused on elsewhens — seeking alterity in history as well as geography. In the future too. He even speaks of sexual exoticism — not a matter of perversion but in a sense of alterity between genders.
Dodgy as he is when it actually comes to the latter, I’ve got sympathy with his aims in theory, and with the explorative methodology that follows from them. Like Segalen’s project then, this’ll be an essay in the classic sense — not an articulation of a stance, but a foray, a sortie into the territory that begins by accepting that a stance is only a pause in the process, action suspended temporarily to become attitude. The appetence for alterity entails an impulse toward such sorties; the shifting of stance is part of what is sought.
The appetence for alterity…
Beyond the doors of the SF Café, beyond the ghetto of Genre, the city of Writing, beyond even the nation of Art, is a whole world of Experience. Born into our little locales, only a fraction of that world is familiar to us, most of the rest entirely foreign. Most, I say. Our nation of Art sits on the continent of Imagination, where the manufacturing of ersatz experience is the major industry. So we end up facing not just the familiar and the foreign, but also a fakery which may be either, neither, both or all of the above.
These are what we’re dealing with in exoticism then — the familiar, the foreign and the fake.
“Imaginary Exoticism: Wells, for example. His mechanism: the dissociation of ideas, and their subsequent reassociation with a peculiar state of mind. Examine the question of ‘the Future.'”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
There’s a particularly bold form of the fake that’s of import here, what I call the quirk — the core component of strange fiction, born in breaches of narrative modality. The import of a narrative, the judgement of meaning we make on it, isn’t flat pseudo-fact, as if we were transcribing a deposition with no concern over the content. Rather there’s a constant tension between the narrative and our stance to it: did this happen? could this happen? should this happen? would we have this have happen? To grasp the different modalities that might play in a narrative, we only need to look to the modal auxiliary verbs that set the mood of a sentence: will; is; did; can; could; shall; should; might; may; must. There are four broad types of judgement there.
There are four flavours of narrative modality then, four flavours of quirk:
In practice that means there’s reportage, which has an epistemic modality of “did happen” (or at least is meant to.) And there’s fiction, which has an epistemic modality of “did not happen,” but which is enjoyed under the pretence of a modality of “did happen” — in a suspension-of-disbelief.
And in practice, fiction functions on an alethic modality of “could (have) happen(ed)”… until along come those crazy (alethic) quirks that we strange fiction writers throw into the narrative to create a peachy keen credibility warp. We can schematise these, carving out our sense of possibility into four domains according to the levels of (im)possibility, saying these events are on record, these tekhne work, these relationships can be assumed to be universal, these principles must hold in any universe simply for it to cohere as a universe.
There are four philosophical flavours of impossibility then, four flavours of alethic quirk:
This is alterity of the most profound form, deviance from the normative so radical it warps our sense of credibility. The strange is exotic by definition. It’s foreign to our very experience. It’s necessarily fake. It is of course also a powerful tool for figuratively tackling the familiar, one which can create a work as true as any figuration.
Or it can lie. It can, for example, inject the chimera of a strange mental faculty — the power to cloud men’s minds, learned while traveling through East Asia. The physical impossibility of this is not the lie that matters here, mind; this is just a fancy that some will relish and others revile, no more of a lie than any other chimera. It’s the “traveling through East Asia” part we want to be wary of.
“I know and do not hide it: this book will disappoint most readers. Despite its already somewhat compromised title, it will not have much about the tropics or palm trees, cocunt trees, Asian palm trees, or guava trees, unknown fruits and flowers; nor about monkeys with human faces, and Negros who act like monkeys…”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
That schema of possibility is a product of the Enlightenment though, the grand enterprise which rationalised Western culture’s model of How the World Works. To parse quirks in this way is to assume notions of history, science, nature and logic that are coherent and comprehensive enough for us to sense a breach with that distinct flavour. In pre-Enlightenment literature, a looser schema seems required.
While we do find the blatant chimera of the magical and miraculous breaching the laws of nature — and even if we are being asked to believe the narrative of a man walking upon water as the gospel truth, this implicitly asserts the laws of nature in the miracle of the breach — when it comes to the lower levels of practical possibilities, what we find tends to take other shapes than the erratum and novum. There’s no need for the erratum and novum perhaps, both history and science as yet unsystematised. But there is a distinctly analogous approach.
There’s a strain of strange fiction that eschews the chimera as just too damn incredible. The frisson of the strange is still required, but in an alethic quirk that can be rendered credible. This isn’t difficult though; one simply selects a jumping-off point within those domains of knowledge, and a trajectory that takes one beyond the known, and then makes the jump. The trajectory may be offered as argument, but the quirk may well be rendered credible simply by being set in the alterior context of an elsewhen — by moving the action from the here and now, sideways (and possibly back) to a parallel world, or ahead to a future world. What could not have happened now, could have happened elsewhen (as opposed to the chimera, which could not happen ever.)
In pre-Enlightenment times, we find a similar strategy which simply jumps way backward from the here and now rather than sideways or ahead. In gives us the arcanum, quirk of legend and lore, that which would have been possible, so the conceit goes, in the epoch of those ancients whose wisdom is long since lost, in the elsewhen of a past long-buried in the ruins of immolated history. The arcanum is still with us, in truth, in every ancient alien artifact. Or in ancient secrets passed down across the centuries, known only to initiates of mystic orders. In Tibet, say.
But such radical leaps through time were not necessary in an era when one could simply move the action not elsewhen but elsewhere, beyond the limits of the known world. Herodotus, Marco Polo and their ilk could pass off the most outlandish fancy as reportage even, it seems — Anthropophagi, Prester John. The whole idiom of the traveler’s tale emerges out of such histories and travelogues, burgeons in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel’s and Voltaire’s Candide, in utopias and picaresques; but scouring away these evolutions of form, what we can see here is a form of alethic quirk going right back to the scorpion men Gilgamesh encounters at the edge of the known world. Sometimes in this literature we meet chimera, sometimes we meet arcana, but everywhere we find ourselves facing exotica — the alethic quirk of something that could not happen here, something we can however imagine happening elsewhere, happening somewhere… foreign.
Beyond the known world, the known rules may not apply, after all.
When the exotica are projected to a truly unknown territory we have no dealings with, a land we can have no dealings with because it’s as invented as a future or a parallel world, this strategy is no more or less reckless than any of its modern analogues. Though it deals with exotica, in fact, in so far as that’s just the flavour of quirk in use, to call this type of fiction exoticism is to say that all strange fiction is such, emptying the term of all utility. But where we find this strategy persisting even as the blank spaces on the maps are filled in, where we begin treating colonised lands as elsewheres of alethic potential, then we have the exoticism Segalen seeks to redeem.
Seduced by the potency of the quirks, the Romanticist may question if it even needs to be redeemed. Isn’t this the alterity you’re looking for? Isn’t this exoticism just a relish of the difference of the foreign, the exotica used to empower the rendering, to conjure the true wonder of the foreign figuratively?
No, I say. No, sadly it’s not.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
— Jim Jarmusch
To get at the problem of colonial exoticism though, like Segalen we need to clear the field a little. That quote from Abraham injects a misleading notion. In an example like The Shadow learning his powers in East Asia, we’re not talking looted artifacts like the Elgin Marbles, for a start, any more than Jarmusch is urging the theft of actual bridges. There’s the inspirational avidity Jarmusch is talking of and there’s the wholesale pillaging of material resources: the rivers of culture wrought in stone, bronze, iron, whatever, that keep a community fecund, diverted to the museums of colonial powers; a murderous rapacity leaving the colonised domain arid.
That’s not the issue here.
And if that might be abstracted to a notion of “illegitimately adopting the cultural practices of other communities,” that’s still not the issue; rather it’s how those cultural practices are being rendered. What we’re dealing with is not appropriation but representation. This is to say, it’s not lifestyle theft, but it may well be lifestyle slander.
Let’s break it down:
I’ll say as an aside that those notions of lifestyle theft and lifestyle miscegenation don’t fly with me. To judge acculturation and transculturation for legitimacy like this assumes a community’s claim of copyright on lifestyle itself, in perpetuity. It’s to say the Scots of forever own the poetry of Burns, have every right — “A Man’s a Man For a’ That” notwithstanding — to polder it in ritual as exclusively Scottish culture, forbid an illegitimate Burns Night held by the Mugwumps of New Sodom two centuries from now. I’m with Jarmusch if we’re applying the idea of theft here.
But that is only an aside; we’re dealing with a bonsai this author doesn’t have, acculturation that hasn’t taken place. The Shadow a work of fiction, there are no “secrets of the Mystic Orient” being learned.
“Let us not flatter ourselves for assimilating the customs, races, nations and others who differ from us. On the contrary, let us rejoice in our inability ever to do so, for we thus retain the eternal pleasure of sensing Diversity.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
We are also not dealing then with the deculturation that results from transculturation in a colonialist power dynamic — where the assimilation of the colonised tends to erasure of alterity, may indeed be coerced to that end, an active extermination of lifestyle. The generations of authors are not a host of Lamont Cranstons learning the “secrets of the Mystic Orient” and shrewdly offering the tulkus a steady diet of Coca-Cola and Big Macs in return, weaning them to American lifestyles, gradually erasing alterity until there are no Asian tulkus, just a Secret Order run by Lamont Cranstons.
Again as an aside: this assimilation is the real issue of transculturation, I hazard, obfuscated when we parse the problem as lifestyle theft — not the illegitimacy of exchange(s) but the tendency to erasure, the way a colonialist power dynamic finds in transculturation another mechanism by which to subjugate. In part, I’m saying it’s not lifestyle theft we’re dealing with here because it never is, not really — it’s lifestyle genocide. Again, this is only an aside though. That’s not what’s going on when we are thrilled by the notion of Lamont Cranston learning “the secrets of the Mystic Orient.” There is no acculturation across the borders, no learning of lifestyle from the alterior.
What we have instead is, to take the 1994 movie version of Abraham’s example, The Shadow: a story that begins with the image of an opium field in Tibet; a story in which Cranston enters as the monstrum of a criminal warlord; ensconced in the opulence of an expropriated temple, surrounded by minions, bedecked in silks, fingernails grown sharp, he is Ying Ko, the very epitome of the exoticist Segalen rejects; he is the very epitome of the colonialist, seizing power from indigenes with murder, notorious as the Butcher of Lhasa; he is a “beast” inside.
The monstrum is another quirk, I should add, one of negative boulomaic modality — i.e. of profound antipathy. The monstrum is that which “must not happen,” or when you’re dealing with entities rather than events, which “must not be.”
It might almost sound like a critique of colonialism then… except: Cranston is the very image of the civilised white man “gone native”; he’s kidnapped by the tulku, cliché of the Mystic Oriental in service to the white hero; the first Asian he encounters on return to America, Roy, is a comic coward who will also serve him, is given no choice; that good Asian’s home-life is pure Americana, complete assimilation; the villain is Genghis Khan’s descendent, a madman in awe of Ying Ko, his white role model; and in a dream of the evil that lurks within, Cranston will tear the skin from his face to reveal the monstrum of this “barbarian” prowling in his own heart, Shiwan Khan.
Any critique collapsing into indulgence, The Shadow’s exoticism becomes an exercise in neurosis, shameful and shameless at the same time, rendering the monstrum of colonialism in all its callous avarice, but simultaneously absolving the familiar with its rendering of the foreign, projecting the bestiality, the barbarism, into the alterior. Call it an expiation narrative; it’s one that seeks to purge sin with fakery.
The temple and the tulku, the sidekick and the savage — it’s not so much that the culture of a community is being, as Abraham puts it, “appropriated, reinterpreted, misinterpreted.” Interpretation is false because it’s not the foreign being interpreted at all, but the fake — a fake which misrepresents not just the culture but the community. To paint a false picture of a people’s lifestyle is to paint a false picture of the people anyway, but here it’s not even that indirect. The “cheap finery” Segalen scorns goes hand-in-hand with clichés of character that are, right down to the cosy reassurances they offer — that the colonised is the monstrum, that it can be assimilated — utterly familiar.
“For there is perhaps another shock, from the traveler to the object of his gaze, which rebounds and makes what he sees vibrate.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
A digression: a notion: the stance.
We each have our own unique set of attitudes-to-objects — stances — as emotional as they are intellectual — which we can and will bring to bear in dealing with those objects. A stance doesn’t just define how we engage with an object; it’s the disposition we assume in the process of engaging, the internal aspect of engagement.
As a community we share stances to objects; there are stances conventional and unconventional; we acquire our stances from our community in the first instance. In so far as our individual lifestyle, our community’s culture, can be considered less in terms of artifacts than in terms of our attitude to them, the process of enculturation — the learning of lifestyle from one’s own community — which comes long before any acculturation across the borders, can be considered no more and no less than the acquisition of stance(s).
That’s what matters here. The story of The Shadow’s origin isn’t a doorway opened into that East Asian culture, through which the Westerner steps to pilfer its arcane secrets. The Westerner can’t return with snaffled secrets that don’t exist, that doorway opening only into a simulation of “the Mystic Orient” run on the distributed network of the Westerner’s own culture, a semiotic gamespace in their imaginative media. These snaffled secrets that don’t exist are not actual beliefs adopted but misunderstood, akin to actual cuisine or clothing copied cheaply for a shallow mummery. These aren’t the foreign but the fake, not spoilings of East Asia but spewings of the West that render East Asia; they are not thefts but the lies about the victim that come before, during and after such thefts, to justify them… and justify more besides.
They are renderings from which we learn stances.
I set appropriation aside then, and place representation in the frame here, because the former is only a symptom. Where we’re larcenous in our dealings with the foreign, this is just part of a greater aggression born of the fakery. Those deep falsehoods, yes, cast fraud as fair trade, forgery as innovative industry, but this is hardly the core concern if they cast every fucking-over of the foreign as fair play. Again: expiation narratives.
To render a subject is always already to render it subject. That is to say, I use the term render here precisely for its double meaning: to depict an object, X, in a medium, or to set an object, X, in a state; to render East Asia in cinema, or to render East Asia obscure, obfuscated. All renderings act indirectly upon the object they render, is my point, impacting the audience’s stance; to affect how the audience will engage with East Asia is to act upon East Asia via the audience… and of course upon people of or from East Asia.
The artist is not Lamont Cranston, learning his skills from a tulku. He is already The Shadow, clouding the audience’s minds with a rendering of X that sets it in Y state, makes them engage with it — even if only here and now, for the duration of pretence — as Y.
— You are not engaging with East Asia, whispers The Shadow. Look again, see instead the Mystic Orient. See the Mystic Orientals.
“Others, pseudo-Exots, (the Lotis, tourists, had an effect that was no less disastrous. I call them the Panderers of the Sensation of Diversity.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
The key questions with exoticism are of the duration of the pretence, and of how positive any stance toward a fakery of the foreign can be. If an author renders East Asia (as) the Mystic Orient, to what degree does the stance the audience takes to the Mystic Orient during the game of narrative:
No rendering comes without stance. The author cannot help but write a stance into a rendering (whether it’s their own or a quirk of some clichéd trope). The audience may well reject that stance where it palpably conflicts with their own, but ultimately they’re born into the culture of their community, the system of all those individual stance-sets in collision and collusion, articulated all around them, not least in art. It’s folly to imagine renderings not integral to that process of enculturation. We’ve all heard of propaganda, advertising, scripture, right?
If we replace “Mystic Orient” with “Yellow Peril,” it should be obvious how that fakery can impact the audience’s stance by rendering X a very particular type of Y. Not Charlie Chan, but Fu Manchu. Not the Magic Negro, but Mandingo. With just one word — “swarthy,” say — it’s piss-easy to write a stance into the thrilling pulp fiction read by the kiddies of your culture, a stance of deep suspicion towards dark skin; do so and that prejudicial stance may well be part of the lifestyle the next generation learns from their own community, part of their enculturation.
Thrilling pulp fiction is prone to offering up the cheapest and easiest villainy, so it’s rife with such stances, the “degenerate race” as a perennial trope, for example: the Persians in 300; the natives of Skull Island in King Kong; the cannibal Caribs of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. These modern examples all have clear roots in the pulp era of Lovecraft, Burroughs and Howard, but it’s a tradition we might trace back to the original treatment of Xerxes’s Persians by the Greeks contemporary with them…
Assuming one allows that “decadent” is the watchword there rather than “degenerate,” that is. Prior to Gobineau, I’m not sure we have the meta-narrative of devolution in that way; rather the Mandingos and Manchus of Western literature evidence a nasty-neat double-bind. Their community is more materially cultured? Why then those sophisticates are “decadent.” Their community is less materially cultured? Why then those savages are “depraved.” The anti-Semitism typified by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is perhaps the nadir of this tradition, with its oxymoronic stance in which Jews are both decadent sophisticates and depraved savages. Awesome.
The answer to that first question, then, should give us a sense of the peril in the exoticism Segalen seeks to overthrow. When I say “a stance of deep suspicion” this is understatement, in truth. It’s an attitude that abhors alterity, abjures it, an attitude that abjects — seeks to cast out. The monstrum is not just to be held in antipathy. That it must not be functions not just as judgement but as imperative, to make it so, to expiate, to expunge.
The expiation narrative that surrenders to this imperative becomes an extermination narrative.
Such a grave problem may invite a (hardly unreasonable) defensive stance here, an answer to the second question which casts all fascination with the fakery of the foreign as ultimately hostile to the foreign itself, casts exoticism as an aspect of abjection. Alternatively, it may point us to a more structural understanding of what exactly we must strip from exoticism if we wish to push Segalen’s project to fruition. That Khan in The Shadow becomes the beast within Cranston, that the stance to this fakery of the foreign is one of abjection, may be precisely what we need to understand to grasp that this exoticism is not an appetence for alterity at all. If anything, the expiation narrative is a fascination/revulsion with the familiar, the fakery of the foreign a way to deny that it is familiar.
“It may be the freedom is one of the characteristics of the Exot, that is, being free with regard to the object that is felt or described, at least at that final phase when the Exot has moved away from the object. The Lotis are, quite the contrary, mystically drunk with and unconscious of their object. They confuse it with themselves and passionately intermingle with it, ‘drunk with their god!'”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
Where it comes to communities and their cultures, the alterity is real. The foreign is other by definition, which means it’s also Other in our psyche and society. Which is to say, foreign individuals are evermade benchmarks that define a familiar group’s identity by negation. That sweeping circle of the upper-case O in Other inscribes a boundary between Us and Them, delimits Us with a fencepost pounded into the soil every time we apply that notion. Us is what sits inside that circle. Them is what sits outside, a dark forest of fenceposts beyond the campfire’s light. Pointing at Them and saying, “not Us,” becomes a stance of community solidarity, faced out at that forest, what we are set as inverse of the particular alterities we stand against.
But the act of definition works both ways. Identity is, of course, already defined, whether in the Harlequinades of complexes and archetypes that Freud and Jung outlined, or a more complex masque their models only loosely fit. As a symbol graved into fantasies and fictions, it’s hard to deny the reality of one rather pertinent figura of the undermind — the Shadow, not as pulp hero but as the dreaded monstrum of urges born in the very action of ego that casts those urges as transgression.
Here’s the thing: Moral dicta engender a dread of transgression, a dread of even the desire to transgress, but in doing so they invite fleeting, horrifying notions of our potential impulses. We need not even truly wish to do the forbidden for the monstrum to emerge; all it takes is that for a moment our chaotic libido… ejects into our mind the shape of that desire, as in some Tourette’s Syndrome of the subconscious, precisely because it is what’s inappropriate in that context, what we do not wish our desire to be. And in that moment we glean Cranston’s beast within; in that moment the monstrum is born to be denied, the part of Us already defined as not-Us, as Other. The aptly-named character of The Shadow is an exercise in the figuration of that monstrum. Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Of course he does; he is that evil.
In our stance set against that dark forest of fenceposts, pointing out at Them and saying, “not Us,” we’re always already projecting this evermade Other onto the foreign. In truth, it’s the familiar we now have our backs to, that which we deny, this monstrum dancing round the fire as we gaze out, see the shadows it casts past us. But seeing the shadows cast on the fenceposts offers us an absolution if we just… give it the face of Khan. Look! See? It is not-Us. It is Them. This xenophobic stance to the foreign is not just prejudice; as it seeks to cast out the internal Other by projecting it onto the foreign, it becomes what Julia Kristeva terms abjection — a profound irrational revulsion at that which was once part of us and which, on some level, still is. The key insight in Kristeva’s notion is that our hatred of the Other might be, at heart, in proportion to the degree to which we liminally discern our own denial’s fakery, must hold doubt at bay with rabid dogs of unreason.
This is what David Lynch was dealing with in Twin Peaks, what Arthur Miller was dealing with in The Crucible, the shadows cast upon that forest of fenceposts. Think of the entry to the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Think of the witches’ Sabbaths in The Crucible. Both Lynch and Miller are pointing to the Puritan projection of the Other, the Shadow, onto the American wilderness, just as their European forebears, in their folklore, projected it onto their own wildwoods of big bad wolves. Lynch is of particular interest actually; an auteur of the uncanny, (the familiar-yet-foreign,) he constantly inverts the projection, twisting our stance to face the monstra as within community and individual Self. Though his quirk of choice is the boldest fakery a strange fiction writer can use — the sutura, breaching logic itself, turning story to oneiric collage — compared to the fairytales of forests, the result is more honest because of this, for all its artifice.
That scene in The Shadow, where Cranston dreams of ripping the skin off his face to find Khan underneath? If Cranston’s dream had been showing him the truth, it would have had Khan ripping off his face to show that of Cranston in the guise of Ying Ko.
“While experiencing China profoundly, I have never had the desire to be Chinese. While I have felt the force of the Vedic dawn, I have never really regretted not being born three thousand years earlier and a herdsman. Take off from the real, from what is, from what one is. Homeland. Epoch.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
The truth is, the radio serial simply added “the power to cloud men’s minds” as an expedient device to keep the action moving — no need for tedious explanations of where he was hiding, how he could come upon the villains out of nowhere. As I understand, the original backstory was just handwaving, that he learned this art “while traveling through East Asia.” We might imagine then another movie, a true origin of The Shadow, in which it is East Asia we see at the start, an opium field in Tibet perhaps, but in the real Tibet.
There is no Ying Ko, only Cranston the colonial exoticist, the Westerner dressed in silks, his own mind the first he learns to cloud, shrouding reality in an illusion of the Mystic Orient. He is a tourist perhaps, a travel writer of the sort Segalen calls pseudo-Exots precisely for their shrouding of reality. There is no Ying Ko, only a guilty dream of the crimelord excesses Cranston must not desire, atrocities which as a colonial exoticist he is party to; the figment of Ying Ko is the monstrum Cranston cannot face — the fact he’s facilitating the very real Butchers of Lhasa with every rendering of East Asia as Mystic Orient.
There is no Mystic Oriental, only Cranston’s stance which casts a tulku in some real-word temple as Mystic Oriental, a stance which is born from the projection of “decadence” onto the foreign, which simply flips the valuation so this becomes an ethereal “sophistication.” It’s a parallel to the inversion by which the Mandingo becomes the Magic Negro, “depravity” becoming earthy “savagery.” In both, it is just that Romanticism has revalued the characteristics of Shadow, of Other, as mystical wisdom rather than monstrous vice, a quality to revere not revile. The monstra have been inverted to numina — wondrous in their not-Us wisdom, that which should be.
Such figurae speak of a recognition of the Shadow — literally a re-cognition: becoming aware of that internal Other again; rethinking one’s stance to it. In the true origin of The Shadow, where Cranston the colonial exoticist dreams the tulku a Mystic Oriental, he is glimpsing the golden glow of firelight upon a fencepost, changing his stance. In the true origin of The Shadow, Cranston learns nothing from the foreign, is only prompted by his own fakery of it to turn and see the point and power of that familiar internal Other: a stance that embraces the Shadow is one that dances with it, deals with it; in place of the expiation required by denial, by the dread of desire itself, there is resolution as that libidinous undermind lets us lead, in exchange for the capacity to overthrow moral dicta that are fucked-up.
In the true origin of The Shadow, Cranston the colonial exoticist would only dream a tulku leading him to a mirror, showing him the face of Ying Ko as the Shadow denied, that face transforming under the very action of the gaze to the Shadow accepted — a visage half-hidden in scarf and slouch hat because it is the potential to be anyone. The piercing eyes and beak nose, the frisson of monstrum to the hero himself — the pulp icon Cranston becomes carries a deep truth in its bare essentials. To dance and deal with the Shadow is an alliance of Self and Other incompatible with the stance of community solidarity that denies the Shadow as not-Us. The very naming of Cranston’s altar ego speaks to the fact that any resolution with the Shadow can only be union with it, alienating I from Us. The Self joins the Other in its outcast status, becomes a creature of darkness even as hero.
There’s a profound capacity in that, where expiation narrative is transformed to resolution narrative. The very exoticism that casts the tulku as Mystic Oriential should now empower our Cranston to cease the projection of Other onto the foreign. Turned inward to a union with the monstrum dancing round the campfire, to become The Shadow, our Cranston may now look out to that dark forest of fenceposts with a whole new stance, seeing where it is his own shadow being cast upon the reality, filtering that out, seeing the foreign for what it is. He may find a stance to the foreign that is not a stance to the Other but simply to… the actual alterity. Rather than learn to cloud men’s minds, he might learn to clear his own.
This is where the true appetence for alterity almost begins then, in the desire to become alterior.
Almost, I stress.
“The Inhuman: its real name is the Other. It thus becomes not a god, but an action inherent in thought… To imagine as a function of the adverse.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
To admit of the potential to work through one’s stance(s) thus is not to assume success. The very fact we must construct this true origin of The Shadow reminds us that the movie does not. The alliance of Self and Other is incomplete here, the union a halfway compromise in which dread still casts the (psychological) Shadow as a distinct beast within — Ying Ko, the Butcher of Lhasa — in which denial persists. And so the projection outward persists, the monstrum displaced into the figure of Khan, the barbarian. The stance to the foreign remains a stance to the Other.
Khan’s entry into the narrative is most significant here. Cranston sits in a leather armchair, glass of brandy in his hand, before an open fire — the Western plutocrat par excellence. He dozes off into a nightmare of flames billowing out from the hearth, forming a face — something’s coming, he says. Cut to the New York Museum of Natural History and the arrival of a solid silver sarcophagus, shipped from Tibet, an inscription in Latin (of all languages) revealing it to be that of Genghis Khan. Soon strange noises from within will be drawing a disconcerted security guard to it, gun in hand. Soon its latches will be rattling, clattering open and shut, the guard in a flap as to how to deal. Soon it will be bursting open, Shiwan Khan emerging, the monstrum who will make that security guard his first victim.
This is the return of the repressed, as blatant as might be, collective guilt tearing the veil between conscious and unconscious, rendering symbols of the crime itself a portal out of which the demon erupts — not as an avenger, of course, but as a cipher of our sin given the victim’s shape in a neurotic shifting of blame. The movie might have set Cranston against a real Ying Ko, the Othered Self (The Shadow) against its actual antithesis, the Other as Un-Self (Ying Ko). But, no, sadly if this Shadow knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men, it’s rather in denial of which men’s hearts we’re really dealing with.
And even a successful resolution narrative would bear scrutiny for the impact of such exoticism upon the foreign. Even if the narrative finds, in the alliance of Self and Other, a means to resolve our abjecting stance to the foreign as Other, to reconfigure that as an honest stance to the foreign as alterior, we’re dealing with exoticism as a process that will likely reach that stance via the numina of Mystic Orientals and suchlike. Which is to say, if abjection must be worked through to get to the point where we can see the foreign as it is, narratives which are engaged in working it through will still be employing fakeries of the foreign. Stances we learn to the foreign will still be stances to the roles they’re made to play in personal psychodramas, and just because that role isn’t monstrum anymore, that doesn’t make it all peachy. Stereotypes, clichés, the figurae of Mystic Orientals may well be more insidious; by revering rather than reviling, these fakeries present themselves as positive, but to fetishise is still to dehumanise.
And it is not just the foreign who are affected, but also all those who should and would be familiar were it not that they share markers of the foreign. In a stance of abjection which sets the foreign as Other, gazing out at that dark forest of fenceposts, we see, in our peripheral vision, members of our own community who have some marker of alterity — skin colour, say — that they share with Them. If we are defining personal and community Self in opposition to a foreign as Other, with those markers of alterity as signifiers of Otherness, this will lead to denial of familiarity to members of our community bearing those markers.
We glimpse something in the corner of our vision, to left or right. Is that a fencepost? Is that the Other encroaching on our campfire? We must step back, consolidate the defence! And so those who are familiar but alterior by dint of some marker signifying “foreign” are left in a wider circle as the community closes ranks to set them there, the shadows of the Un-Self being projected onto them too. So, even in those narratives that seek to work through this abjection, we find not just the foreign as Other but the familiar as Other too. That Mystic Oriental can as easily be an Asian-American as a tulku of Tibet. The nearest we get to a real character may well be in stereotypes such as the comic coward, where the hostile stance to the abject is dropped as they are blatantly rendered weaker and submissive, passively compliant or actively loyal. As with Roy in The Shadow, as with reality, even to get that level of acceptance may require an eschewal of as many markers of alterity as can be forsaken, a flensing of distinct lifestyle — dutiful assimilation.
“Only those with a strong individuality can fully appreciate the wonderful sensation of feeling both what they are and what they are not.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
Still, maybe that alliance of Self and Other does offer a path to an exoticism that begins on the far side of the resolution narrative, in a queering of the Self that overthrows the relationship between foreign and familiar, allows us to see alterity for the first time — not a fakery of the foreign but the foreign as it is — by situating alterity first and foremost within oneself.
What do I mean by a queering of the Self? Not a sexual queering obviously. Rather I would reconstruct the notion of the queer as encompassing all forms of alterity that render a familiar individual Other in relation to the community Self. Racism, homophobia, ableism, misogyny and so on are not disjunct issues; these are all forms of abjection of the queer as constructed in terms of race, sexual orientation, ability, gender, etc., all aimed at the definition of an Us, a (normative) community Self that is evermade white, straight, able-bodied, male, etc.. What we are dealing with in all these instances is a xenophobia that needs no foreign object, bootstrapping it into existence by defining the familiar as such. The queer is the familiar rendered foreign.
(Note 1: different markers map to different meanings, different stances to the different abject groups, so this is not to collapse these issues, only to collate them.)
(Note 2: that women are queer in this model regardless of the basic reality of a typically bi-gendered species only speaks to the artifice of normativity, how little it has to do with what is prevalent or even with what is, in normativity’s beloved rhetoric, “natural.”)
That the alterity may take any form, that the familiar is being rendered foreign — this is why we can speak not just of the queer as object but of queering as action. And in understanding what this consists of at root — the distinction of individuals from the community Self, their definition as Other in relation to that Us — we can set this as distinct from the projection of Shadow: the queer need not be abject.
There are the queer who are rendered such by abjection, those left standing on the margins as the community closes ranks, stranded between familiar and foreign, cast as both and neither, all too aware of the stances of deep suspicion that now include them. But there are also the queer who have shifted stance, broken from the circle to turn inward, face the Shadow — face all the dancers round the campfire who cast their shadows out upon the foreign.
I could throw in a little Jung, but we don’t really need his grand, dry terms here — differentiation; integration: individuation — just one word: resolution. All senses apply: as a blur resolves into imagery, as tensions are resolved into stability, as the resolve of agency emerges, as one becomes an agent, resolute — this is the resolution I mean, by which the familiar queer themselves simply by recognising the part of Us denied as not-Us. The alienation of I from Us entailed in that act is as much a definition of identity by negation as that which defines Us in terms of Them.
This alienation is not a stance of rebellion, I add. One might imagine that individualist a circle of one around their own firebrand, abjuring their familiar community as foreign, recasting it as the Other that defines their Self, but this is a Romantic dream of agency as grandiose heroics — a hubris I scent in Segalen’s notion of the exote, to be honest, where he lauds the exote’s strength of character. This is not what it is to be queer. Rather one must imagine a continued recognition of the familiar as familiar that sets the self-queered as Other to their own community. In figurative terms, they have simply entered, as the familiar rendered foreign, the same borderland between campfire and forest as those of us rendered queer by abjection.
This is the foundation of Segalen’s exoticism, if that alterity can be maintained even as one engages with the actual foreign.
“I would have done well to avoid such a dangerous word, such an ambiguous word. Should I forge another?… I preferred to take up the challenge and to keep what still seemed fundamentally good about this word despite its sullying; but in doing so I tried first to delouse it, and in the harshest fashion, so as to return to it, along with its former value, all the primacy of its initial flavour.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
The root failure of the colonial exoticism that renders the term, as Segalen describes it, a “bloated and compromised word, abused, ready to explode, to burst, empty itself of everything,” is written in the stereotype of the Ugly American Tourist — who’s actually little to do with the US and everything to do with the Us. That tourist is never a foreign visitor in a community familiar to itself; they remain always the familiar (to themselves) on an excursion through a foreign community. In a weekend city break, a fortnight, the months-long sojourn of a gap year student’s latter-day Grand Tour — Varanasi, Angkor Wat and so on — the depth of immersion is irrelevant if the traveller remains, in their heart, one of Us adrift among Them. Everywhere they go, they are carrying their own fakery to cloud their own minds, whether with monstra and numina or simply with an inside-out view of the actual relationship between stranger and community.
To be an exote one must be the Other, one of Them adrift among (an) Us. If that is possible… one may well be caught up in touristic awe at the monstra and numina of a culture — a Jewish cemetery in Krakow, an Aztec temple in Mexico — but maybe we can experience these as alterities within the familiar we are foreign to rather than of the foreign. Maybe rather than taking these as bold unfamiliarities that signify just how Other the foreign is they might prime us to look for alterities in the familiar we are queer to. So Harry Harootunian, in his foreword to Segalen speaks of how by “bringing the mystery once associated with an elsewhere back to one’s own time and place, his essay prefigured the later surrealist discovery of mystery in the everyday.”
The exote relishes the moments where familiarity reminds them they are foreign. How strange it is: that I wouldn’t normally kiss a man on the cheek in greeting.; that I wouldn’t normally change my greeting with the time of day; that I would normally wear shorts in a sauna that would normally not be mixed. The alterity is not in the French, the Mexicans, the Finnish, but in me, the exote. And for the exote, where the familiar they’re foreign to recalls the familiar they’re queer to, those moments are not shocking discoveries that They are like Us — by Cock, they’re not wholly freakish! Rather the slight skewing of the reflection, the subtle difference that may be simply context, serves to render fresh the feature of the familiar we’re queer to. It is not that one sits drinking with Finns and thinks, Cock Almighty, these foreigners are as sworn to revelry as the Scots! It’s that a customary “Cheers!” ceases to be empty routine when it is voiced as “Kippis!”
That’s the appetence for alterity I’m talking of here, my take on Segalen’s project to rebuild the whole notion of exoticism. Whether it’s a realistic aim, I don’t know, but it seems, to me, an enterprise in line with the very nature of strange fiction. Even in its boldest fakery of chimera and arcana that fiction aims for deeper honesty, is not bound to lie. If any mode of fiction aims to render the familiar fresh by casting it in unfamiliar forms it is this idiom. It may be no small order to do so from a starting point in which one is oneself the Other, but I don’t think the project is wholly insane. And fuck it, if this foray towards a new exoticism is ultimately a dead-end, maybe it at least maps out some of the dangers of the old more clearly. At the end of the day, I just think that there’s more to the appeal of difference than shallow spectacle, more than a desire doomed to be fetishistic, a colonial romance with the lurid variety of the Other.
An appetence for alterity, as I say. Maybe it’s a strange way of looking at it — queer, even. But maybe that’s the point.
Miso Soup at Midnight
It’s night in the city of Writing. A librarian sits in the SF Café, looking out on the ghetto of Genre. The whole place has become a little chi-chi over the years, beatnik artists moving in above the brothels and the crack dens. Might almost forget it’s the ghetto, if that avant garde street theatre troupe out on Mass Market Square didn’t blend in with the hookers and hustlers, make it all look like just one big sensual experience for sale. And whenever she swings by the Bistro de Critique, friends shudder at where she hangs: that dive? The librarian takes this in her stride. There’s no point whining about your area being badmouthed when your next door neighbour runs a crack house and, well, you do like a bit of a puff on the old hash pipe now and then.
A status update scrolls across the lenses of her mayashades: epistemic modality detected — is not happening. Curious. This is meant to be non-fiction, she knows, reportage. She can suspend her disbelief, pretend an epistemic modality of is happening is at play here — just like she would with any fictive narrative in present tense — but it’s unsettling to realise she’s just a figurative device. But so it goes.
So it goes indeed. Fact is, Genre is a dirty and disreputable part of town but it’s that way for a reason, and at the end of the day, the librarian kinda likes it. This is a place where freaks and weirdos feel at home. The bars here are more fun. The rent is cheap. And Mass Market Square is infinitely more dynamic, exciting, and relevant than the uptown galleries full of middle-class bores clinking champagne glasses and droning on about how jejune the latest wunderkind is really, darling, just so trite, really, overhyped. There’s a trade-off between the social stigma and squalid trappings of the Genre ghetto and the freedom that it gives to work outside the tight-ass strictures of “proper literature” which generally also means the tight-ass strictures of contemporary realism.
Besides, a change is in the air.
She looks out at the Kipple Foodstuff Factory that dominates the skyline, but sees also, through her mayashades, hints of a future screamed of by a time-traveler in the Bistro de Critique — the fallen walls of the ghetto, gourmet guerrillas from the slums pouring out into the city. And beyond maybe.
As a traveler once, she remembers walking into a Japanese restaurant in a little town in North Carolina. Cool, she thought. Japanese: miso soup; tempura; ramen; noodles hot and spicy; tang-rich food to make your taste buds tingle. But no. No miso soup on the menu here. Swear to Cunt what you had was:
Beef in soy sauce with rice.
Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Chicken in soy sauce with rice.
Beef & Chicken in soy sauce with rice.
Prawns & Beef in soy sauce with rice.
Chicken & Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Or, hey, wow, the Special…
Beef & Chicken & Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Here now, in a booth of the SF Café, she sips the miso soup she couldn’t get that day. The exact miso soup she couldn’t get that day. It’s a quirk, you see, a little rupture in the mimetic weft of her mundane narrative, the stream of stuff that she’s pretending is happening. This now… this is an event that could not be happening. Fuck the epistemic modality; this is alethic modality we’re talking now, not factuality but possibility.
She could be sitting in a booth, looking out a window, but to be sipping the actual miso soup she couldn’t get that day, here now at midnight in the SF Café… that’s an impossibility of level… what? She’s not sure if it’s known history, known science, the laws of nature, or the strictures of logic itself that have been ripped apart to drag that miso soup out from the nowhere to the here now.
Frankly, she doesn’t give a fuck what level impossibility it is though. She’s got miso soup at midnight and it’s fucking tasty.
We imagine genres as delimited by formal constraints — like the sonnet’s fourteen lines and volta. This need not equate to formulation any more than Oulipo constraints do, but we can’t deny it does. As the librarian looks out on the Kipple Foodstuff Factory, she’s looking at the impact of mass-production in the 20th century, the pulp boom that was built on formulation. All of the genres boxed and shipped as category fiction did become codified with constraints of form by which more of the same could be churned out, schlockburgers made to recipe from Soylent Brown.
(Soylent Brown? It ain’t people, but it comes from them.)
Still, from the start there was an insatiable demand for ongoing detournement, soon even the bricolage of tropes stolen from Western, Noir, Romance, and who knows what else, the result a hydra-headed hybrid of formulae — the collage, homage, pastiche and parody cooked up by the likes of Farmer and Moorcock, yes? We imagine this to be what makes the menu in the SF Café so peachy keen: New Wave Chilli; Cyberpunk Pad Thai; New Weird Rogan Josh; New Space Opera Bolognaise. We imagine it’s the ceaseless recombination of recipes.
The librarian glances at the menu on the window that don’t have none of them fancy foreign words. All it says is:
1) SF Special Hamburger (However You Want It)
2) Fantasy Special Fried Chicken (Just How You Ask)
The librarian can’t remember if she ordered the miso soup she couldn’t get that day in North Carolina as a Number One or a Number Two. It doesn’t really matter to her, not half as much as the local rag’s food critic at the next booth over, who just described his Coq au Vin as “transcending the genre.”
Every time we use the phrase “transcends the genre,” she knows, we surrender to the corollary of positing genre on formal constraints — that our fiction essentially made to formulae must become other than itself to become good. We invite the literati of the Bistro de Critique to sneer, as if we were poets touting our sonnets as “genre poetry,” trite doggerel made to the fourteen lines and one volta formula unless — aha! — one sonnet throws off its shackles, transcends those constraints, becomes great. It is a vacuous valorisation of novelty over substance to imagine a missing line or an extra volta is what makes a sonnet great. It’s also wrong, an insult to the genre that fails to understand — to write a sonnet should be to eschew formulation anyway.
This is how genre becomes a dirty word, indeed, how it comes to carry the stench of puked up schlockburgers, overflowing the gutters, filthing the sidewalks, trodden underfoot and carried everywhere we walk. How can we bitch about the snootcockers of the Bistro de Critique when we ourselves laud our exemplary works as rising on adamantium pinions, unchained from the Augean mire we’ve made. Behold the dark horse, loosed from stables of writers shitting!
For the love of Cock, she thinks, we hail the works of Aeschylus and Euripedes as Greek Tragedy. We don’t extol them as transcending genre, as if to write a Greek Tragedy back in the day would obviously have been derivative hackwork.
To understand what’s actually going on in any idiom, any genre, we need to turn this model inside out. Forget the notion of genres as delimited by formal constraints. The constraints are techniques. With a volta this is obvious, but even the number of lines is not a limitation; it is a technique of economy and of structural patternings — two sevens, two sixes and a two, three fours and a two, four threes and a two. Those techniques are core components, conceits around which individual works develop an entirely original articulation, not boundaries on what that articulation can be.
You can make anything with the core components used in the SF Café — those quirks. They are no more than a breach of the ongoing possibility of the narrative, after all, the injection of an alethic modality of could not happen. That is the technique at play in the SF Café’s cooking, the secret ingredient that could be anything that could not be — by history, science, laws of nature, rules of logic.
No, there are no constraints on what you can do with the alethic quirk, only tribes of taste — look, see them now, as the librarian turns her head — raging for burgers only in the booths, fried chicken only at the tables, tribes of taste raging for proper burgers, proper fried chicken, tribes of taste raging against each other and against the chefs, with the insufferable petulance of the entitled. We do have our favourite recipes and the right, we think, to expunge all else from our café. We are a plethora of follies, not least in the fervour with which we howl injustice that the sating of our demands for “more of the same” should lead to derision.
Still, as the turf wars of the clans carry on, the librarian wouldn’t give it up for the world. She has the miso soup she couldn’t get that day. She might wonder why the chef doesn’t head uptown to the district of Literature, but she asked him fifteen minutes ago and he simply smiled.
— The secret cuisine, he said.
So she’d ordered a Number One or a Number Two. It doesn’t really matter because she didn’t even specify how she wanted it, just gave a shrug: surprise me. And so, five minutes ago, he came out with the miso soup.
Truth is, the ghetto of Genre, every dive bar and greasy spoon in the neighourhood itself, is a substrate that nurtures truly refusenik writers too. Sure there are those who sneer at miso soup. What the fuck, they say, is miso anyway? Some kind of animal? But they do buy a lot of burgers. So publishers piggy-back off the sales of formula fare to support the secret cuisine that is the true heart of every genre. They know the demand for works which treat a technique as core component, as mere conceit around which the articulation is developed, prized precisely for its originality.
To deny this is simply ignorance of the historical reality and of the underlying mechanisms by which literature evolves. It’s an ignorance born of blind desire among the tribes of taste. Among the literati it’s born of the fact that when they do come slumming in the ghetto and end up in the SF Café, they see a menu of hamburger and fried chicken, and a host of culinary clansmen fighting over it, wordspittle flying at how the enemy’s recipes are all schlock. And maybe while they’re there, they’ll turn to see the chef bring out a bowl of miso soup to the woman sat looking out the window at the Kipple Foodstuff Factory, and a plate of Coq au Vin to the man with the notebook at the table.
— This transcends the genre, they’ll hear him say.
This is why the cuisine is secret.
That menu promising SF Special Hamburger (However You Want It) doesn’t help. Miso soup is not hamburger whether it’s served in a fancy uptown Japanese restaurant or in the SF Café. It’s not Hamburger, Hamburger/Frankfurter, New Grill, Burgerpunk, Hamfurter or Flipgrease. It’s fucking miso soup. And the literati slumming it in the SF Café, watching the librarian sip her miso soup, they’ve seen it served as miso soup in that fancy new Japanese joint, Pomo, in the uptown district of Literature. They know it ain’t a fucking burger. Must be a little quality cuisine slipped in, or some sly sleight-of-hand disguising of the dreck. They speak of miso soup served by some uptown chef, food critics raving of Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO. Which definitely isn’t burger, they say a little too loud.
The atmosphere in SF Café flips in an instant. It irks that they deny this is a burger. It irks that Ishiguro must have tasted the miso soup here, reconstructed the recipe. It irks that he failed to properly follow the formal constraints. It irks that Ishiguro gets kudos where our chefs don’t. It irks that he didn’t come from the ghetto of Genre, didn’t sprout from the cracks in the literary sidewalk, struggle up out of gutters thick with filth. It irks that he didn’t learn his craft in Mass Market Square, hasn’t paid his dues. And now he’s out there making miso soup just like our boys, denying that it’s hamburger and getting lauded by the critics. How come he gets the kudos and our chefs don’t?
The simple answer: because he didn’t call it fucking hamburger.
The complex answer: this is not about burgers and recipes, constraints and kudos, struggles and dues; or it is in a way, but at the heart of it, where it matters, it’s really about the secret cuisine, about the quirks that you can do anything with, that anyone, anywhere, anywhen can do anything with.
The librarian remembers the Great Eggs Benedict Scandal which made this clear to her — Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 versus Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD. Back while the New Wave writers were learning to read, never mind write, Bradbury was chef at the SF Café, serving up his own secret cuisine while the place was still as greasy spoon as they come. So one day a customer comes in and takes a seat at one of the tables. She’s in her usual booth, not far away, can’t help but hear when he asks for a burger… maybe sort of like that eggs-over-easy malarkey but… not quite… something different. Surprise me, he says.
So out comes Bradbury with Eggs Benedict to put the fancy bistros uptown to shame, beats Huxley’s hands-down, everyone agrees, as they all come to try it over the next few weeks. But does he get kudos for it in the Writing City Journal’s food column? Does the SF Café get kudos for this dazzling dish of dystopia? Or do those bastards at the Bistro de Critique just ignore this instant classic, keep blathering on about Huxley, even denying that when he does Burger a la Eggs Benedict, it’s actually burger. In the Temple of Academia, rituals are enacted in celebration of Saint Huxley, but Bradbury…?
The architect Francois Truffaut just built a motherfucking monument to his dish, the librarian remembers reading in the paper one day, as she sat in the SF Café, listening to the kvetching. A skyscraper in midtown.
Still, around her the culinary clansmen raged of the literati’s unjust hatred of all burgers… and raged of the literati’s love for this Huxley’s burger. They raged that the twisted literati turned a blind eye to the bacon and relish of Huxley’s burger, had no idea of the greater glory of the bacon and relish in Bradbury’s.
One slumming literati frowned, perplexed. Bradbury’s dish is great, for sure, but it’s Eggs Benedict, not burger. Burgers have ground beef in them.
The clansmen howled! The bistro bastard was insisting it’s all formulation. Every clansman knew you could have eggburger! Couldn’t he see the bacon and relish that prove there’s more to burger than mere formulae! See?! See the Hollandaise relish?!
But the librarian, she knew. This Burger a la Eggs Benedict, this dystopic dish, it wasn’t ground beef. It was eggs, and not just any old eggs — the eggs of a cockatrice from the next century. Like Huxley’s were the eggs of a harpy from a next century two steps to the right. And it was that special ingredient that really mattered, the thing that could not be, not here and now.
And should not be, she realised.
She looked down at the Eggs Benedict on her plate. Her mayashades scrolled instant analyses, coded in glyphs of light, across the lenses: negative boulomaic modality (translation: desireability) detected — should not be; negative deontic modality (translation: duty) detected — should not be; positive alethic modality (translation: possibility) detected — would be if; impossibility + contingency > possibility.
This is dystopia, she realised, as the quirk of a monstrous egg that could not be unpacked to contingencies that meant it could be if, if, if… not here and now, but one day. Wireframe edge detection traced the substructure of narrative logic, the dynamics blossoming from a single conceit. No recipe, no formulae, just… a core component around which articulation unfolded by the deep drive of narrative itself, in an articulation original and unconstrained.
She saw the quirk at the heart of it, the egg wireframed to abstraction: flense specificity; abstract to base form. Neither cockatrice nor harpy egg, origin unknown, nature unknown, the ovoid collapsed to sphere, the sphere collapsed to singularity, a point of pure potential from which anything impossible could hatch. It hatched.
— You see the secret cuisine? said the chef at her side as the true form of the alethic quirk fillsed her vision — novum, erratum, chimera, sutura.
— Why the fuck do we call this burger? she said.
— Eggs Benedict?! some clansmen snarled. Who the fuck is called Benedict anyway? Faggot intellectuals, that’s who! Ben maybe, but fucking Benedict? That’s a name for traitors and Catholics. It’s just a fuckin hamburger.
— Ah, said the librarian.
The librarian gazes out the window. The shadow of the Kipple Foodstuff Factory still hangs over us, but at least we know it’s there. Truth is, the junk fiction is everywhere. The Mob makes every eatery in the city carry those KFF schlockburgers. Truth is, the Bistro de Critique carries them too. So it goes.
We call it all burger, wonder why it gets no respect, when even before the New Wave broke the “boundaries of genre,” chefs like Bradbury were cooking whatever the fuck they wanted to. Truth is, the Mob sends goons round every other day to strong arm our boys into hackwork. We’re just lucky some goons love them Eggs Benedict, shrug as we serve them up: guess we all like a little something different now and then; just… keep it on the QT, call it burger, don’t make out that you ain’t scum like us. Besides, the Boss Man hangs in the Bistro de Critique, and it’s important to him that he’s got “class.”
But the secret cuisine can’t hep but evolve. The more the tribes of taste try to impose their formulae, the more the result is simply dialectics — thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Change. So food fads come and go in the SF Café — New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Weird — the menu changing with the times, each new fry-cook doing brave new things with a million variants of burger and fried chicken, crafting bizarre creations of fusion cuisine, adding a signature dish wholly original, unique, exquisitely crafted from raw conceit. Detournement. Bricolage. Quirks.
At some time in the past — nobody knows when — a secret society was formed, a League of Fusion Fry-Cooks, dedicated to the art of fast food haute cuisine, sharing recipes and raw ingedients, tricks and techniques, their motto Miso Soup for the Soul. They have plans to storm the Bistro de Critique, it’s said, schemes the librarian knows will one day come to fruition… if the tales of a traveller in time are true. The project is graffitied across the ghetto of Genre, written in invisible ink right here, if you only read between the lines. Yes, they walk amongst us in the streets, meet in the back-alleys. They wear harlequin masks and dance to disguise themselves as street performers. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe I am.
Out on the streeets of the ghetto, a masked harlequin (maybe you, maybe me) walks by, in their hand a Molotov cocktail of mixed metaphors — fry-cooks and fusion cuisine, schlockburgers and cafés, ghosts and golems. This is the strategy of our strange fictions, quirk upon quirk, conceit upon conceit, extended and involuted till they all shear off from a simple coherent sense, the vehicle of metaphor unmoored from its tenor, defying reduction to mere allegory. This is how we see the world through our mayashades: a quirk with a cosmos of chaos inside, all that could not be.
The librarian takes another scan of her surroundings, orients herself from another angle of vision. She’s out on the street now. This could not be, but if you can sip the miso soup you couldn’t get that day in North Carolina, you can do anything.
The librarian taps a smoke off Kid Pulp, offers a light.
Kid Pulp is working the same corner as per usual, busking and hustling, offering wild songs and ten dollar blowjobs, dancing in a red leather miniskirt or denim cut-offs, selling limber feats as pole dance peep shows improvised with lampposts and blindfolds. The strumpet stripling slinks round a pimp, a bookstore buyer in fur coat and gold rings, diamonds in his grin bought with monies made by mining star dreck. Prissy passers-by who took a wrong turn from uptown gasp as punters splash out cash for the harlequin’s masque, a Pornographia dell’Arte that might well end in blood and tears instead of spunk these days.
This is the vision through the librarian’s mayashades, of course, filtered through the figurative, view skewed towards the sordid. It’s how society sees the sensational, painted lurid by the streetlight’s glow, painted lurid with boulomaic and deontic modalities, quirks of desire and duty. We seldom see what is, too busy projecting onto it what should be and what should not be.
Kid Pulp, fully paid-up member of the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks, will have none of that should not be. Kid Pulp was suckled at the paps of a harlot dam known as Romance, does not deny her. No defensive twitch when this harlot/hustler’s heritage is thrown back in Kid Pulp’s face by those brought up on the right side of the tracks. No shame, no sham of fierce certainty that Kid Pulp is not that kind of girl. No shoving that honest working girl into a closet, starving Momma to a skeleton. A whirl, a twirl, and the sparkly logo on Kid Pulp’s crop top comes clear, the brand name of SF.
Dressed in such gaudy duds of glossy packaging, Kid Pulp figures, why get your knickers in a twist when the literati sneer? The sideshow sells well when it’s painted pretty colours and comes cheap on the street-corners, so we shill ourselves as Sci-Fi, wear the label in a wild and willing deal with the devil. Through the single-setting mayashades that most don’t even know they’re wearing, it sure looks like we’re just following the family trade (rough trade, that is,) as we stand out there beneath the streetlight, touting cheap thrills to sad johns.
— Show you a good time, if ya want it, honey. A tasty treat. Fresh, juicy meat.
It all began, you know, with self-righteous prigs reviling whores and faggots, proles and primitives, as slave to base sensation. With Romance as an unmarried mother, whore with a bastard in her hysterical womb, kicked out, no mercy but the workhouse or the madhouse. (It would be nice if a less sexist figuration of Romance could be found here, but it would be a denial of the semiotics at play, which is sexist; the discourse of the sensational is inextricable from the discourse of the hysterical.) Her recent history is starvation and desparation, the brothel trucks and army whorehouses of the Culture Wars. Kid Pulp was born of the Joy Division of fiction, and I don’t mean the fucking band.
Kid Pulp is not a hooker/hustler because of some moral degeneracy, is not fallen, just a fall guy. Bastard offspring of Romance and Frankenstein’s monster, Kid Pulp grew up hustling that sweet ass, knows it’s hard to scrape a living any other way, knows other ways are more degrading in the end. The propriety of polite company finds quirks a little uncouth, see, the cocks and cunts of narrative. The sensational is the sexual, shockingly gauche. The secret cuisine is a naked lunch to the petit-bourgeoisie: genre fiction; pulp fiction; penny dreadfuls; dime novels; sensation novels; Gothic; Romance. The Pornographia dell’Arte is a pandering Grand Guignol of all emotions.
So Kid Pulp got real, faced the facts. You made your bed, says Kid Pulp, now you’ve got to spread your legs on it, bite the pillow and think of England. Kid Pulp is Babylon and Sodom, our Woman of the Ghetto, our Boy for Sale. Elsewhen, Kid Pulp would have been a faggot whore priestess prince black madonna in scarlet and purple drag, offering entry into sacred mysteries of flesh and spirit, eros and logos. Elsewhen, Kid Pulp would have been none of this, more than the idealised and demonised metaphors emergent from a history of abstraction and abjection. So those snooty literati see a slapper in these Bacchic revels? So fuck? Deal with it.
Kudos comes at a price, Kid Pulp knows: ditch the mini-skirt and cut-offs, move uptown; or join the fucking revolution.
In the Bistro de Critique, Orwell and Huxley serve dystopia, a taster of the secret cuisine that remains unseen. They’re spared the sneers, suited up in pinstripes — no red leather miniskirts or denim cut-offs here. No turning tricks each night, sating sense-of-wonder-lust, ten dollars a pop. No formulae here for churning out potboilers by the pound. No pimps hawking hackwork product in Mass Market Square. They are members of the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks — they and others like them; but these chefs of the quirk were spared that whole grotesque and glittering scene, the garish spectacle of sensation that turned Sci-Fi into a slight.
Brooding in the ghetto for nigh on half a century, bitter at the literati, clansmen stalk the dark. Beware, the unwitting wanderer from uptown who says the wrong thing in the ghetto. The tribes of taste are seasoned warriors of the flame, and they know insult when they hear it.
They howl at midnight on the streets of Genre. The works they love are reviled while worthy (wearisome) “mainstream” fiction garners all accolades, as if the idiom of the ascetic were the only way to tell the truth. Worse, much of it is no longer “mainstream,” not mundane but strange, miso soup for the soul. Still, the literati laud Ishiguro’s dish by its supposed distinction from SF, constructing the root cause of failure ultimately, in any novel, as not eschewing the essential nature of one’s genre. As if to work in an idiom other than the ascetic could only mean to be bound by formal constraints. As if they are still working in the idiom of the ascetic simply by not being trite. The writers themselves speak in these terms. The secret cuisine is so secret even some of its greatest chefs don’t know they’re practising it, don’t know it exists, how it works. And so they buy into that same grand folly, abjuring the very idioms their best works are in. With this, they win the kudos of the literati, lose out on all the infamy and fun.
— No SF novel ever won the Booker, growls a prowling clansman on his way into the SF Café.
The librarian swings a shotgun from inside her longcoat, blasts the bullshit axiom from the air. Screw the Booker, she thinks. She’d rather have a hookah.
She stands in the doorway of the SF Café, past and future glimmering in her mayashades. She sees Kid Pulp working uptown in the theatres, other harlot/hustler harlequins crashing gallery openings and cocktail parties, noising up the regulars at the Bistro de Critique, hustling a little ass now and then to pay the rent, or dancing — prancing, entrancing maniacs blowing flutes instead of johns. For all the abjurations, every Ishiguro is another sleeper agent of the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks slipped in to open up the bistro’s back door, let the slumdogs in, slavering and savage.
But that’s tomorrow. She looks round, sees them here now, more and more by the day, her fellow agents, talking the Pornographia dell’Arte in the SF Café or on some corner of Mass Market Square. They talk of the kudos and cash success stories of 20th Century literature, the canon of writers that includes Joyce alongside Hemmingway, Faulkner alongside Steinbeck, writers such as Rushdie, Bulgakov, Carter, Calvino, Marquez, Pynchon, Vonnegut, and so on. They talk of modern classics that don’t sit any better in the contemporary realist’s tower block than in the SF flophouse. They talk of that scene, the flavours of the month, the lists and prizes, the slow assimilation of contemporary realism, its descent into formulation. They know formulation when they see it, living in the ghetto. They talk of a spotlight wearing thin for the idiom of the ascetic. Kelly Link was in Time Magazine a whiles back, they say, Top Five Books of the Year.
Change is in the air. There are always choices, chances.
The secret cuisine cannot be contained.
The librarian heads out across Mass Market Square, towards the subway, checking in with the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks over her aether uplink, telling them all about the Bistro de Critique’s strange visitor from twenty years into tomorrow, how he told of a Dynamism sweeping in to overturn the tables. Her contact listens with great interest.
Here is a secret of the secret cuisine. The “mainstream” of literature is only what is in the main stream, and this is not the contemporary realism of the kitchen sink. That idiom had a brief boom in the 1960s, as angry young men roared for realism in the name of relevance, no frills, no nonsense. It was an egalitarian agenda, born in a backlash against elitist artifices of the modernists, eschewing the strange and sensationalist quirks, seeing deceit in all conceit — but in an honest and passionate dream of telling stories of the common man for the common man. They saw the unreal as irrelevant, the fantastic as mere fancy; they could not parse the strange to its meaning.
(Their attitude is not entirely unfamiliar. We have our own realists, our own rationalists, down in the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café, dug into their little corner, behind a barricade of tables, muttering darkly about the death of Science Fiction.)
It had a brief boom in the 1960s, this idiom of the ascetic, this genre, but it never made the mainstream, which is and always will be populist, commercial… Genre. The League of Fusion Fry-Cooks have more than a little sympathy for those angry young men, and a smart of sadness that they failed to see the Molotov cocktail in the quirk… more so that their battleground could only be lost to the bourgeois. Because they had walked away from the mainstream in the abrogation of quirks, diverted into the sidestream of “proper literature” where taste becomes a class marker, where appreciation serves to signify status, where that sidestream is therefore reduced to a water feature in the Gardens of Literature.
It was never about the mainstream, but about the manners of the Bistro de Critique, what was a la mode today, what was “proper.” Three hundred years ago or so, two oppositional aesthetics were well-matched in their struggle for legitimacy as they clashed head-to-head. Romantic and Realist genres were the tribes of taste among the middle-class and middle-brow, back in the day, constructing modernity in a dialectics not unlike that to be found today in the SF Café. Oh, but one aesthetic was that of the vulgar proles and of “women’s fiction.”
It was infantile, unsophisticated, this aesthetic of mere storytelling, fanciful as folklore and fable, primitive as the superstitions of the savages. It was then — and remains now — the mainstream that feeds the bulk of water fountains across the city of Writing, but this very fact was enough to damn it in the end. A true gentleman — not a vulgar prole, not a hysterical woman, not a child, not a savage — surely knew that these gushing fountains of quirk were… unseemly. Only in the Gardens of Literature might one find that shallow birdbath with a china cup from which to sip the refined liquidity of edifying art. Why, one could see just how refined it was, absent those quirks!
It was inevitable that the petit-bourgeois would latch on to the legitimacy of egalitarianism to justify what is really a scorn of the popular. Mass Market Square. The Pornographia dell’Arte. This is what they really hate, the impropriety of it all. The bourgeois were only too happy to co-opt contemporary realism, formulate and commercialise it with formal constraints on the acceptable use of quirks. Transform it to the faux reportage of the social observer, enlightened, educated, edified and edifying. So it became about the impropriety of the sensational, what art must not be if it was to be serious, worthy, intellectual. Some literati may be held accountable, but many were — and are — as much casualties of the Culture Wars as anyone; when one is raised within the rhetoric of abjection, it is often invisible, not least to those most privileged by it.
The abjection is unsustainable though; the impetus of art is always against propriety, and so the reactionaries will always be revealed, by their own words, as antagonists to art. They say the china cup is necessary, but every now and then a writer comes along to smash it with contempt, show it up for the genteel nonsense it is. And some literati nod appreciatively even as others slip a fresh cup back in place. They say the liquid in the birdbath must be pure, but every now and then a writer comes along to pour just a hint of quirk into it, maybe more than a hint. And after decades of art refined to bland banality, melodrama watered-down to mundane crises, trite epiphanies, some literati hail the tang of strange conceits even as others grumble at the taint. They say the flow of it all must be kept subtle, slow and delicate, never a spectacle. But writers who see how this is all in the name of etiquette and the status it affords will feel the heft of a sledgehammer in hand, and grin as they smash that decorative folly, let the fiction come fountaining forth in a great geyser. And if some literati flap their hands in outrage, others will dance barefoot in the mud.
And the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks will move among them, handing out hors-d’ouevres of pure quirk, peachy keen articulations conjured out of raw conceit, rich delicacies one cannot help acquire a taste for. Scotch eggs of a basilisk from a yesterday that never was. Whether they call it burger or fried chicken is irrelevant; it is the secret cuisine.
It may not remain secret for much longer.
In the Interests of Precision
This is not a review. If you want to know whether I think director Gareth Edwards’s debut feature Monsters is worth seeing, I do. Go see it. But this isn’t about how good I think it is, and why; it’s about what the film’s doing, how this strange fiction (the specific example and the form in general) works. Whether it works well or not, for you or me — I don’t give a shit. More than anything, I want to use it here to explore the sort of dynamics at play in strange fiction, because the movie addresses one aspect of that dynamics directly, proclaiming this in its very title. The film is about the device of the monstrum that drives many narratives, not least those we project onto reality.
The Leopardskin Print of Thrift Shop Drag
So here I am, after a dozen or so columns, sitting in the SF Café, drinking my black coffee and saying, f’r sure, no Science Fiction novel has ever won the Booker. Yeah? And? So? What? Has any Crime novel ever won the Booker? Has any Romance? Has any Western? Let’s simplify it: Has any work of extruded formulaic pabulum in any Genre you care to name ever won the Booker? Has any work in any Genre born of the fricking pulps, in any commercial marketing category specifically designed to target a niche with a promise of extruded formulaic pabulum ever won the Booker?
It’s fuck all to do with an antipathy to strange fiction — that fiction born in the breaches of reality, be it fantasia or futurology, (or both, or neither, for that matter.) MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN. Booker of Bookers. Join the dots. No, this is about junk fiction, about pulp fiction. So no novel with the tramp stamp of a Genre on its back ever won the Booker?
The high-brow, high-class literati of the Bistro de Critique aren’t about to invite a bunch of what appear to be crack-addled whores and hustlers in red leather miniskirts or denim cut-offs to their cocktail parties. Just cause we all know the ghetto chic stylings and those who wear them well enough to tell the bohos from the hobos, don’t expect the incogniscenti to. We see Tiptree-worthy transvestite performance artists; they see tramp-stamped tarts in the leopardskin print of thrift shop drag. They see the bad rep that the ghetto has for a reason — because business is done on the street corners, johns passing through in their cars, pulling over at a painted face — pancake makeup gaucher than a 70s cover illustration of Gully Foyle’s tattoos. You have to be a regular down here to know that the guy or gal leaning in the driver’s window, batting long black eyelashes as they barter, isn’t promising the sort of good time that a stranger might expect them to be.
— Best mindfuck you’ll ever have, baby, they’re saying.
In truth, as we know, they’re touting tickets for some whacked-out warehouse ninja gig with Warhol on the lightshow, D’Allesandro dancing, Old Bill Burroughs croaking his crazed junkie rap over the beats. They’re selling the address of a secret spectacle designed to blow your mind. But there’s no way to know that unless you hang down here by habit. If you’re just passing through, baby, all you see is another hustler climbing into some kerb-crawler’s car, being driven off towards a sordid handjob in an alley somewhere out of sight.
Another book with a spaceship or a dragon on the cover, bought and sold, a few bucks for a shallow buzz.
— Hey, big boy, the next streetwalker says to one passing incogniscenti. I’ll show you a good time.
— No thanks, says they with a discernible disdain and a wave of the hand. I don’t really like Sci-Fi.
We rile at their response, but that handwave of dismissal — I don’t really like Sci-Fi — that unconsidered condescension that sends many a genre bunny into waves of apoplexy is not hard to figure, really. What they’re saying is, I’m just not looking for a handjob. Skeezy strip joints, clip joints, lurid neon signs of dragons wrapped round dancing girls, cock rockets firing for the skies, the streets of Genre are a gauntlet of gaudy promises — CHEAP THRILLS! CHEAP THRILLS! CHEAP THRILLS! Come and get it, baby, every corner of the ghetto proclaims.
— No thanks, they say. I don’t really like Sci-Fi. I’m not looking for cheap thrills. And a penicillin shot.
Our faces burn, our fists clench, when those hoity toity literati cock their snoots and roll their eyes at our protests that this is arrant prejudice. Cheap thrills? And a penicillin shot? Fuck you, asswipe. But you know, we’re really sorta standing there, in our red leather miniskirt or our denim cut-offs, saying, Hey! I’m not a whore. I’m not a hustler. I’m a professional masseuse! We’re wearing our mother’s hip-hugging skirt, baby, our big brother’s butt-snuggling cut-offs, and half the time we are promising thrills, the sensationalism of sense-of-wonder, a fiction driven by the incredible, whether it’s dragons or Dyson Spheres. We are the slatternly faggot sons and legs-akimbo daughters of a whore slut mother called Pulp, hookers and hustlers just like Momma was. And it’s time we made our peace with that.
Sure, if we do pick up some incogniscenti on some metaphoric corner, when we get them back to our ghetto crib and that spectral slapper all too suddenly rears its head — Sci-Fi, you say? — well, we can shove it in the the closet, slam the door behind us, and shout over our hidden bitch-dam’s thumps and protests: It’s not Sci-Fi! It’s science fiction! It’s SF! It’s speculative fiction! We can be literary too, damn it! Don’t you oppress me with your elitism! They’re just gonna blink uncomfortably at our sudden irrational hostility, at our strange unfathomable defensiveness. At the really loud cry of, “I am Sci-Fi! Hear me roar!” coming from that closet behind us.
— So what’s with the crack-whore in the closet? they say.
— Not us, we say. We’re with Mary Shelley and Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and George Orwell. We’re a class act, baby. And it’s only ten bucks to go around the block with us. Just give us a try and you’ll see!
— A warehouse ninja gig thing, you say? A rave with performance art on the dance floor and a salon of literary discourse in the chill room?
— Totally! We just give our tickets to the guy in the sex shop, see, and he’ll let us in round back, past the toilets and the back-room poker game, downstairs to the basement dungeon and… why are you looking at me like that? Like I’m trying to finagle you into a clip joint?
And they back away slowly… baaaack away slowly.
__ Maybe we could just go for a burger? you shout after them. I know this great little joint called the SF Café.
Not that we can persuade them there either.
The Kipple Foodstuff Factory sits at the heart of the ghetto of Genre, spewing out noxious fumes from its blackened brick chimneys, spewing out poisonous effluvia into the river from its rusted iron waste-pipes, spewing out lorryloads of processed and packaged foodstuffs to be delivered to every café, bar and diner in the ghetto. Built in the first half of the twentieth century, it introduced the city to the very idea of junk food. Burgers, fried chicken, fish-n-chips, kebabs, you name it, the KFF created an entire industry in its boom; and it’s still churning out its own brand of schlock, though it’s been in competition now for over half a century with the countless cooks (and capitalists) who, as employees, tweaked its recipes (and recipes for success) until the shoddiness was just too much and they just had to strike out on their own.
You can get a far better burger than a KFF schlockburger these days, from any number of soul food entrepeneurs. It’s hard to get worse. The Kipple Foodstuff Factory gets its raw resources from the city dump and the sewers, essentially reconstituting shit into schlock, a sort of pseudo-meat one step away from Soylent Green. (And the right colour for it, to the extent that KFF Burgers were affectionately dubbed “boogers” at the gastronaut conventions of the 1950s, a monicker that spread to burgers in general and has persisted to this very day in public parlance.) But the Mob seems to have a thing for KFF products, rich as they are in crack cocaine, and nobody in the restaurant business wants to piss off the Mob, so the owners of eateries across the city serve those KFF schlock products, regardless of the fact that they have zero nutritional value and highly variable toxicity levels; hey, if it keeps the Mob happy…
As loathe as we might be to admit it, they serve those boogers in the SF Café, and people buy them by the shitload, the glopping gruel of extruded pulp, thickened to solidity with gosh-wow technotoys and adolescent geekwank, pure formula fare. That’s not all that’s on the menu, of course, not by any means. The fry cooks down here in the ghetto of Genre are every bit as skilled as many a master chef in the uptown bistros of Literature. From the basic ingredients through to the methods of preparation, their cuisine has little in common with the dreck of mass-extruded KFF products, even though they share a menu. You won’t find those production-line values here, no design-by-committee-and-focus-group, no franchise formulation. The best and the brightest — even the middling and mediocre — are often working without a recipe, or at very least playing fast and loose with various recipes, getting creative with the classics.
There are real burgers here too then, burgers that are made by hand — made to a recipe as old as the hills, for sure, and hardly haute cuisine, but an honest kind of junk food that puts the extruded KFF shit to shame even when we’re talking patties of the crudest kind, adventures in space shaped by subtexts of neo-fascist wish-fulfillment, cleverly-crafted thought experiments revealing only some poor scribbler’s utter incomprehension of human behaviour. Asimov’s cardboard characters. Heinlein’s descent into didactic drivel. We’re not talking Michelin stars, baby. But at its best, this is our soul food. It’s seldom just a burger, really. It’s a cheese’n’bacon-burger or a chilliburger. Pepper and onions ground in with the beef. Big chunks of jalapeno in the chilli. Refried beans on the side. It’s a burger with an extra kick, an extra tang that grabs you by the taste buds, tells you someone actually put a bit of effort into making this hit the spot.
There’s even some crazy fusion going on in the SF Café kitchen, real cordon bleu cuisine that in a different context might be labelled “culinary cooking” (like, yanno, “literary fiction.”) In the SF Café you’ll find tropes filched from Fantasy, Horror, Western, Noir, you name it, all cooked up daily, just as fresh and just as spicy as the Postmodern Chilli of the Bistro de Critique. The chefs in both kitchens apply the same grab-bag approach to writing, where anything and everything might be thrown into the mix. Hell, the ingredients of that Postmodern Chilli — nanotech, spaceships, remote viewing, future dystopias, Lovecraftian gods, Sumerian mythology, climate change, robots, aliens, hard-bitten detectives, historical characters, and so on — arguably they learned that shit from us. We cannibalise the bona fide pulp fiction of every fucking Genre around. SF as it stands now is a crazy cuisine of countless forms and flavours.
Down at the greasy spoon SF Café there’s lots of tasty fast food on the menu then. Soul food or savoury food or speculative fusion — it has a lot of names. The KFF boogers are sold as take-out from a little window in the front, but walk inside the door and you’ll be hard-pushed to find a single patron eating that crap. We all know better. True, you’ll find a whole fucking lot of them eating traditional burgers rather than steak tartare, but that’s hardly surprising. And the tournado rossini can hardly be called unpopular. That’s the stuff we really rate, of course, not junk food at all, but the fine fare we just know the literati of the Bistro de Critique would be jealous of… if they would ever deign to taste it.
Still, it’s little wonder those incogniscenti are resistant when we try to coax them down to the SF Café, tempt them with the treats in store; cause there’s a motherfucking massive KFF franchise sign in neon outside, lit up night and day. And it’s little wonder our insistence on the glories of the menu doesn’t shatter the shackles of prejudice and lead naysayers out into the light; cause in our insistence that there’s Sci-Fi and there’s proper SF, that there’s boogers and proper burgers, somewhere along the way, somehow, it seems we’ve become… a little over-zealous in abjuring the soul food with the schlock. Cause God forbid anyone confuse what we call SF, what we call burgers, with the junk it was born from and still shares a menu with.
— Come on in, baby, we tell the incogniscenti. This is a proper burger joint, the real deal.
— No, thanks, they say. I don’t really like boogers.
— Don’t call them boogers, we bristle. They’re burgers.
— Sorry, they say. I know you take your boogers really seriously, but —
— Burgers! Boogers and burgers are totally different things.
— Whatever. Look, I don’t really eat junk food at all. I like culinary cooking.
— But proper burgers aren’t junk food. They’re nothing like that shit the Mob goes for. Hell, they’re more real food than that hoity toity culinary cooking. Fucking vegetarian tosh. But burgers… I mean, come on, look at that. Doesn’t it look tasty?
— Uh, sure, but that’s steak tartare. I thought you said this was a burger joint?
— Steak tartare’s just a fancy way of pretending what you like isn’t really burger! But it is. See the red meat? See? Burger!
— It’s raw. Boogers are cooked.
— Burgers! And they don’t have to be cooked. The chefs in the SF Café long since moved on from that fry cook junk food stuff. That’s, like, trad burger, Golden Age burger, genre burger. The New Wave totally opened everything up; and we’re still finding new ways to make burgers. Look at this! Appetising, right?
— Yes, but that’s paté.
— And this.
— That’s tournado rossini. Looks nice.
— And this.
— That’s chilli con carne. Sure, I like a good chilli, but that’s just… food. It’s not a burger.
— But it’s all red meat! So it’s all burgers! Or what are you trying to say: if it’s a burger, it can’t be good; if it’s good, it can’t be a burger?
— No, I’m saying it’s fricking crazy to call a bowl of chilli a booger.
— Whatever! Look, culinary cooking isn’t limited to that cheap ketchup and fries approach, but a burger is a patty in a bun. With ketchup and fries. I’m not saying there’s no skill involved in that, but it’s hardly Cuisine. That’s basically all there is to them. Like those.
— Oh, for fuck’s sake! Those aren’t proper burgers at all. Dude, those are boogers. Typical! You think that’s what all burgers are like cause that’s what fricking Planet Hollywood sells as burgers. But that patty-in-a-bun junk food bullshit has nothing to do with actual burgers. Planet Hollywood is, like, decades behind the SF Café. Our burgers aren’t limited to — what?
— The fuck are you on? Look, that is steak tartare. Those are burgers.
— No, they’re boogers. That‘s a burger. You just won’t accept that burgers can be every bit as good as culinary cooking.
— Bollocks to this. You’re nuts. I’m out of here.
— Go on then. But you can’t dismiss all burgers as boogers if you’re not even going to try a proper burger.
— It’s steak tartare!
And off they go, backing away slowly, looking past us at the chimneys of the Kipple Foodstuff Factory that tower over the skyline of the ghetto, wondering what crazy-inducing chemicals they spew into the air here.
Of course, not all burgers are schlockburgers. We know that all too well in the SF Café. We’ve moved on from the days when the clientele and cooks lacked a sophisticated palate, when it was ketchup and fries with everything because that’s what you do when you’re cooking for kids. But the whole burger/booger distinction is just kinda cracked. All those “It’s not Sci-Fi! It’s SF!” remonstrations just sound sorta nuts, all the more so when we’re disowning the soul food with the junk food, all of it, as ersatz boogers, in flagrant denial of the fact our Golden Age SF was born from exactly that. Or when blind loyalty to the tribe has us proclaiming steak tartare a type of burger, scorning the incogniscenti whose rampant elitism must be what leads them to deny the true nature of raw mince, veil it with some fancy-ass name.
And of course, these days you’ll find burgers on the menu in a lot of uptown restaurants, not seen, in that context, as junk food, but still basically burgers. Down in the SF Café, we discuss examples of uptown’s “culinary cooking” — dishes by Attwood or Roth, say. We bitch of how these are blatantly burgers, just like ours — but not so good, we say often, as attempts to reinvent the wheel, hamstrung by ignorance of our conventions, the proper way to make a burger. Sometimes we make sense, sometimes not: that dystopian dish, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, for sure, that’s ground beef in a patty, flame-grilled and served on a bun; the beef stew of THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is not a burger by any stretch of the imagining though, except in the whacky zeal of true believers who’ve seen stew served as burger over and over again in the SF Café, yeah? And besides it has red meat in it, so it must be so. Even if the meat is actually fricking venison.
Not that this makes Attwood or Roth SF writers, mind. In the SF café they’re seen as outsiders, part-timers. Up in the Bistro de Critique, meanwhile, the very suggestion would be laughed off as a blatant attempt to appropriate the cream of culinary cooking for the sake of prestige. As another grab by those ghetto-born geeks with hard-ons for the future, pointing at Wells or Verne, Shelley or Orwell, say, instead of shoddy 1930s magazines that might as well have been called Awesome Wank Fantasies. As if you could call Orwell’s dystopia a burger when he’s tackling the 20th Century head-on, reimagining Stalinism and fascism from his direct experience of it during the Spanish Civil War, not telling some Boy’s Own Adventure of battling squids in space. These are sophisticated chefs, not fry cooks of junk fiction, dishing out burger novels full of fat and sugar and salt and artificial flavourings, all crafted in absolute obeisance to a traditional recipe! What next? Is Kafka a Horror writer just like H.P. Lovecraft, just exactly like H.P. Lovecraft, because THE TRIAL is dripping with fear and paranoia, its main character pitted against profoundly disturbing irrational forces?
It’s hard enough to get the incogniscenti to see past the absence of ketchup and fries with something like Attwood’s work, the fact that it’s not handed to you by a spotty adolescent who needs to learn some hard truths about personal hygiene — to persuade them that actually this isn’t how most burgers are served in the SF Café. It’s hard enough to sell them on the truth that extra ingredients of good prose and characterisation can render a work “culinary cooking” by their standards and not stop it being a fucking burger. It’s not going to get any easier if we ourselves shroud the whole discourse in an artificed dichotomy of burgers and boogers.
Especially not when we’re pointing at steak tartare as an example of good burger. Or when we ourselves are ignoring the cheese, the bacon, the chilli, the jalapenos, the refried beans, etc., on the patties of ground beef that remind us just a little too much of our pulp roots; when we’re so desperate to highlight the steak tartare we’ll happily find some spurious rationale to sweep aside all the pulp, all the junk — the soul fiction with the schlock fiction — in a distinction between burgers and boogers that defies all logic.
— It’s not Sci-Fi, we insist, It’s SF.
Every time you say that a Venusian Slime Boy dies, you know.
We’ve had our backs to the closet door too long, running that bullshit mantra over and over in our minds: Oh, that’s not proper science fiction; that’s the schlock of Sci-Fi; that’s half Fantasy, half Hollywood hokum, half whatever — half something else that any fool can see is not the True Face of our valid literary form, said True Face being all serious and shit, all furrowed brows and bearded pondering. If it’s not good, it’s not SF, we might as well be saying. What kind of sneering elitist are you, disdaining our genre on account of all this schlock that doesn’t count, no sir, not one bit?
Which is a killer strategy, of course, an awesome way to persuade the incogniscenti that we’re not crazed hokum junkies, high on hackwork, trying to pimp our addled euphoria to anyone who passes. Yeah, vehement denial that we’ve got anything to do with the crack whore in the closet. Bitter accusations of snootcocking snipewankery when they point out that crack whore in the closet. Offended outrage when they assume the mindfuck we’re touting is a cheap handjob, just because we’re, like, standing on a street corner dressed exactly like the crack whore in the closet. And because our first words to a prospective customer just happen to be “Hey, big boy.”
Some of that good old-fashioned ghetto attitude — yeah, that’ll totally persuade them that not every honking big sign for a massage parlour means what they think it does in this part of town.
Fuck that shit. Let’s open up the closet, let the whore slut mother out. Let’s all of us go on the Jerry Springer Show — My Mother Is A Slut And So Am I. We’ll throw a few chairs around, get weepy and maudlin, and have done with it once and for all. There’s nothing wrong with pulp as pulp, no proper way to do fiction in this postmodernity, no need to scorn sweet Genre‘s entertainments just because they might be dodgy art by some uptight arsewipe’s Victorian value system. So they might be hokum at the best, hackwork at worst? Escapist pandering? So fuck? What are we, Puritans, disdaining pleasure for its own sake? Bollocks to that. Screw the sentiments of Cervantes’s Quixote quoted at the start. I love the junk fiction I grew up on, pornography of wonder that it was. I love my slutty slapper of a harlot mother, cause ya know, she does give real good head. A million teenage boys will testify to that.
But let’s not bullshit the bullshitters.
When the incogniscenti back away, saying they don’t like Sci-Fi, it’s the formulaic junk of pulp that they’re rejecting. And if SF always expands, for them, to schlock fiction, if they don’t get the wacky way that we abjure the strange tautology (to them) of “formulaic genre fiction,” the way we point them at an utterly implausible oxymoron (to them) of “literary genre fiction,” if we lose them in our rookery of overloaded terms, it is in part because we’re shrouding sense in daft denials, disacknowledgements of where we came from, where we are now, what is and always will be going on down in the ghetto.
We wouldn’t be here without pulp, without the schlock we’re all too keen to point away from when it comes to lineage. If the True Face of SF is all furrowed brows and bearded pondering, it also has a rather lurid shade of lipstick, not to mention metallic eyeshadow that makes early Bowie look subtle. Why shouldn’t it? Strange fiction is queer fiction, kids. Fuck literanormativity.
So, yes, our slut mother, Pulp, is a crack whore who gives blowjobs for ten dollars a pop. Or maybe Pulp is the pimp as our Old Man, the patriarchal ponce of pleasure selling the Muse’s pretty mouth. That’s what Genre is, what it does. It gets down on its knees, unzips your fly and uses all the sensual skills of its slick tongue to give you a few minutes of loveless but ecstatic pleasure. And there’s a lot of that in us, Pulp’s brood of hopped-up hustlers and hookers. Oh, there’s also a whole lot more, another sire or dam — a Frankenstein’s monster of a father, or another mother in Modernity — but our cribs are here in the ghetto of Genre.
So the literati of the Bistro de Critique dismiss the fiction of that whole domain, that “genre fiction,” out of hand, can’t see all the shinola for the shit. So when you show those self-same literati some shinola ripped out of that context, then they’ll laud it to the heavens. So they’ll blithely then dismiss all claims that it belongs with junk as junk, because, well, it’s not junk but genius. That ain’t prejudice; it’s just that half the time the discourse is completely fucked by our sophistic double-thinks, schizo denials of the stark reality.
Generic fiction sucks as art by most standards. Pulp fiction, junk fiction, sucks as art. It may not suck at all as what it is. Rather than mere extruded product it may well be damn fine handicraft, simple but solid, substantial in its own way. It might be soul fiction that’s full of fat and salt and stuff that just ain’t good for you but that tastes fucking delicious. But as literature designed to give us a quick fix of formulaic figuration, nothing more, it sucks as art. Fiction that does not suck as art, does not suck as art because no matter what tropes and techniques it shares with that pulp fiction, it doesn’t gain its primary power from their familiarity; we might well get a similar high from similar ingredients, but we’ll also get fucked up in a whole other way, from a deeper weirdness than wonder. It is not just a derivative retread of hoary conventions made to fill a hole. It is not recycled pabulum, commercial dross designed to satisfy an appetite for escape. It’s not just that pornography of wonder, that loveless pleasuring…
— Hey baby, me show you good time! Ten dollah, suckee suckee.
— Oh, baby. You make me feel so good.
But that reality makes it a little awkward when you’re living deep in the ghetto of Genre, when you’ve grown up loving soul fiction but the whole discourse says that pulp is — can only be — a schlock fiction every artist should abjure in shame; so our distinctions between “literary genre fiction” and “formulaic genre fiction,” between SF and Sci-Fi, emerge as a desperate misdirection from the overwhelming predominance of that sensationalist hokum:
— Don’t look at the slut behind the curtain fellating the fourteen year old boy. Look over here, look! Look at the dancing fingers!
Fuck that shit. The only distinction worth making is between the grifters who play the shell game of formula fiction, taking cash from the punters for a moment’s thrill without even a hint of handicraft in their hackwork, and the grafters whose writing actually has an ounce of creative effort, even if it’s all put into the purest and most pandering pulp. The grafters may not be making great art by most standards, the handjob of hokum they’re offering may be shallow and loveless, but it’s only the formulaic pap that’s truly without substance, not just loveless but gutless, spineless, soulless. Fuck that Kipple Foodstuff Factory schlock. Fuck it with a pointy stick cause it’s too stinky to touch.
But when it comes to pulp fiction in general, fuck any bullshit preciousness that would lead us to abjure its lusty excesses. So it’s got a bad rep, and for some damn good reasons. Deal with it. If it means a cocked snoot or two, that goes with the territory of whoring the strange, hustling wonders. Paraliterature isn’t meant to be prim and proper.
Respect is for schoolmarms and church ministers, baby. This is New Sodom, not New Sunday School.
Those Rocket Age Rhapsodies, Those Information Era Operas
“No SF novel ever won the Booker.”
Somebody, Somewhere, Somewhen
If’ you hang out long enough down in the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café, eventually you’ll hear this axiom, or an axiom like it, muttered with a certain tone of harumph, a petulance in proportion to the wounded pride. Maybe you’ll say it yourself, sullen in your sense of injustice, disregard; I know I have.
And whenever it’s spoken, that truism will likely spark a little to-and-fro on the exclusion of SF from the modern canon. There is, after all, an absenting in the absence, an active excision; the ghetto of Genre is a territory of the abject, an enclosure for the refused, that paraliterary pulp exiled from Literature — despite the fact that literature means only that which has been written — delimited as Genre — despite the fact that every work of literature sits within some genre or other.
But the question is: What are we going to point to as the stuff that should have won the Booker, the works of SF that prove to the outside world how good SF can be? Looking at our heritage of Asimov, Bester, Clarke and so on, would any of it actually rate that laurel if the prize had existed back in the day? Of the writers working since 1969, the year the Booker was born, how many of them can we imagine on the shortlist? Dick? Ellison? Farmer? Gibson? Heinlein? I love the work of Philip K Dick — great ideas — but maybe the pills and booze had an impact on his prose because it just ain’t that sparkly. Ellison’s power was always as a short story writer. Farmer, Gibson, Heinlein… we can go through the alphabet, and here and there a few names might jump out, but even with my own nomination, as a disciple at the altar of Delany, I’d actually be pointing at works like DHALGREN or the Nevèrÿon books — works which will only invite the old, “Yes, but that’s not really SF,” from insiders and outsiders alike.
The questions is: Once we scrap the crap of badly-written adventure stories, techno-thrillers, thought-experiments — the sensationalist or intellectualist lettuce for the genre bunnies, all too often potboiled to pulp — just what novels do we have that deserve the Booker, what writers of the required level of literary merit that inarguably classify as SF?
The responses range from the blinkered to the blind, from the faith of those who’d argue Heinlein was as good as Hemingway to the heresy of those who’d argue William Burroughs was as much SF as Edgar Rice Burroughs. So the boundary debates begin. When we say SF do we mean Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Sci-Fi or what? Do we mean any weird-ass, experimentalist, non-mimetic mind-fuck novel which was sold as SF? If that mind-fuck novel wasn’t sold as SF but might have been, does it prove SF can cut it with the big boys if it wants to, or is it just proof that the label damns us to the literati, that SF won’t get the kudos if it doesn’t disclaim its nature, cough a phrase like speculative fiction up its sleeve? These are the questions that genre bunnies obsess over. (Clearly I’m included in that category.)
And from the boundary disputes come the land-grabs, the fingers pointed to claim everything from Orwell back to Wells and beyond, through Shelley and Swift to Shakespeare. From Huxley to Homer. It’s quite understandable when SF fans feel they’re expected to provide examples of SF with literary chops, works up to the quality of the “classics from the history of literature,” an over-riding taxonomic level that includes everything from THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH onwards. When you’re working on that scale, putting the David of a few decades of SF up against the Goliath of all acknowledged literary masterworks, well, David’s going to reach for a big-ass stone, even if he has to stretch pretty far. But this strategy only brings the argument down at the first hurdle, if one is facing some straw literati to whom these embryonic SF works are, at best, precursors to or influences upon the Genre of Science Fiction. Such fingerpointing says nothing for the works born in the modern era’s genre ghetto, those Rocket Age rhapsodies, those Information Era operas of futurology and fantasia.
And it’s all about them and a very contemporary action of canonisation by award. It’s all about the Booker and the Bistro de Critique where that’s something of a big deal.
We need to focus in then. What we forget in these debates driven by defensiveness is that the period from Huxley back to Homer is out of bounds anyway: if it’s a valid comparison we want, and precursors and influences are to be excluded for SF, since SF didn’t exist before Day Zero, we have to scratch all the classics from before Day Zero also; these are inadmissible as non-SF by the same logic; the taxonomic distinction didn’t exist. Where “literary fiction” is set against “genre fiction” both have burned their bridges to the past, set themselves as things of that so 20th Century dichotomy. Like the genre bunnies of Contemporary Realism have any more claim to Shelley, Swift or Shakespeare than us? Get real, realistas.
It is as if a Genre of Fantasy Drama had come into existence over the last decade or so — with ANGELS IN AMERICA, say, as its precursor, its prime influence. It would be absurd to ask fans of this idiom to provide examples measuring up to a millennia-long heritage of “literary drama” classics like PROMETHEUS BOUND. To expect them not to simply point at PROMETHEUS BOUND… or ANGELS IN AMERICA indeed. Still, in ten years of that commercial Genre maybe nothing would have won the Pulitzer. The bright lights, big bucks, Broadway productions might have garnered Tonys as they sold shitloads of tickets to punters looking for a little extra sparkle in their spectacle, but of course we’re talking largely commercial drama here, more CATS than THE CRUCIBLE. So no FD play ever won the Pulitzer, genre bunnies might mutter. No shit, the straw literati might say in return.
In the SF Café, as we kvetch about the latest longlist or laurel-winner, at some point, eventually, the underlying assumption that empowers our sense of grievance will surface: the certainty of SF’s unwarranted marginalisation. This lack of respect has nothing to do with merit, we’re sure, and everything to do with the prejudices of the prize-givers, the elitism of the literary establishment, those to whom “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” are entirely different entities… and never the twain shall meet. The ones who’d say, in that elsewhen, that neither ANGELS IN AMERICA nor PROMETHEUS BOUND should really be considered works of Fantasy Drama.
Weirdly, we buy into the idea that it’s all about the realism and unrealism; we buy into the divide that sets Contemporary Realism as the paragon of the literary, imagining that the non-mimetic is what the straw literati hate. We bemoan the dearth of imagination in this dreary stuff, the way the dreaded literary establishment reviles our strange fictions for the strangeness. Pah! Those mundanes think only kitchen-sink realism deserves respect! If an SF novel ever did win the Booker, we’re sure, those bastards at the Bistro de Critique would just say, well, that’s not SF. Poor us. Poor little genre bunnies.
Ah, but wait, someone might say. That was then and this is now. If from Huxley back to Homer is of no consequence here, the mere fifty or so years since then is hardly more than… a parochial school prize-giving. An end of term assembly at which — oh noes — the emo kid never gets to give a speech as dux. So fuck?
A paltry half-century of realism being the bees’ knees? All that proves is that the chic clique kids of the Bistro de Critique do actually change their tastes over time. So a certain label is out this season. That only makes it more likely that the flightiness of fashion will return us to that vast heritage stretching back from Huxley to Homer — to homunculi, to Hamlet’s spectral sire, to Yahoos and Houyhnhnm.
Let’s take a step outside the ghetto of Genre entirely, take the underground a few dozen streets uptown and a score or so years into the future.
The Bistro de Critique sits in the uptown district of Literature, just round the corner from the Temple of Academia with its ivory towers and quiet cloisters. It’s been there for a long time, centuries rather than decades, a bastion of intellectualism. The arguments and affectations of its patrons down the years have formed the discourse through which the notion of a canon has been defined — this pantheon of recognised classics — amid the cocktail party chatter of book launches and literary festivals, the bluster and bile of reviews and scuttlebutt.
Fashions have come and gone in the Bistro de Critique. Rationalist and romanticist aesthetics have been adopted and abandoned, replaced by (post)modernist flavours of the month. In the 20th Century the Bistro de Critique was the stomping ground where philosophers of fiction formulated the systematic approaches of New Criticism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, et al., these Genres of thought constituting the literary establishment that’s always been the bugbear of the SF Café genre bunnies.
There is no conspiracy of malice, of course, and never has been, most of the slights and injustices we suffer born of ignorance more than intention. In our talk of literary elites we fabricate coteries of sophisticates, sneering and scheming, working magics over the middle-brow to sustain their power; but this is not how establishments work. The privilege and prejudice permeates the systems of articulation, the ideologies and the institutions, the Genres of thought. There are no individual enemies to point to as the templars of this literary establishment, no secret sect of scornful powermongers, but there is nonetheless an organisation in the system itself, an emergent enterprise with principles, strategies and tactics that include the negation and marginalisation of a certain class of fiction, the proletariat of pulp.
Or at least that used to be the case. This is the future, after all.
This is twenty years into tomorrow, and the Bistro de Critique has changed. A new critique has swept aside the Old Guard, declared an end to the Culture Wars, a critique we’ll call, in the spirit of futurological fancy, Dynamism. To sum it up in the crudest way possible, Dynamism is a critique focused on the suspension-of-disbelief as a base-line of balance in the reading experience, and on the disruption of that equilibrium as the fundamental and formative force within narrative. When we read, our suspension-of-disbelief is a pretense that the events recounted did happen, but what makes that reading an experience of narrative is when an event is introduced that fucks with this base-line modality, an event that should not, would not, maybe even could not happen. Taking its lead from Todorov’s theory of narrative equilibrium, expanding the notion of subjunctivity advanced by Delany in his essay, “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words”, Dynamism roots the very essence of fiction in the onward impetus born of the tensions such modalities constitute.
Comedy and tragedy can be understood as playing with — no, driven by — the modalities of should and would. The strange fiction genres are all about the could, while the “realist” genres predicate themselves on the absence of that strangeness — a denial that renders the latter inherently flattened in that dimension, incapable of the dynamics generated by such disruptions of credibility. More fool them. For sure, such flat fiction can be affectively engaging, supremely so, but like poetry stripped of metaphor, like a rock band playing unplugged, it has essentially limited itself. All it takes is an understanding of how narrative really works in terms of these modalities, and the straw literati’s scorn of the strange becomes a risible pretension, an intellectualism that is not at all as savvy as it postures.
In later columns I hope to expand on how that hypothetical critique might look, delve into the details of this so-called Dynamism, but for now let’s just take it as an imaginative conceit: that over the next twenty or so years, criticism actually comes to focus on the buttons pushed in narrative, on how a fiction is more than just some thick mimetic weft we trudge through, how it is powered by the warp of should not, would not, could not. Imagine that as this Dynamism repostulates narrative as a visceral rather than cerebral experience, it reinstates the sensational at the heart of reading, rejects the anodyne model of fiction as mere observation regurgitated and recombined. It overthrows the middle-class and middle-brow valuations and valorisations of an obsolete 20th century aesthetic that privileges faux reportage over honest figuration.
When this hypothetical Dynamism hit the Bistro de Critique, we must imagine, it shattered any illusion of a divide between Genre and Literature.
It had to happen. For years, the distinctly literary approach of many writers in the ghetto wasn’t just inviting comparisons with their forebears and contemporaries in the uptown district of Literature; it was demanding it. A critic could hardly help but see the influence of Vladimir Nabokov in the work of Jeff VanderMeer, say, or of Franz Kafka in the work of Jeffrey Ford. The walls of the ghetto slowly weakened as writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathon Lethem tunneled under them to pass freely back and forth; and eventually those walls came crashing down, a brave new world emerging from the ruins, a world foreshadowed by the placement of Kelly Link’s MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS at #3 in Time Magazine’s Top Five Books of 2005, alongside Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and E.L. Doctorow. In this new day and age it was inevitable that deserving works of SF would finally catch the eyes of the literary establishment.
As far back as 2008, in fact, an article in the Times Online set out the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. It was the sort of utterly subjective list which says more about the people who put it together than anything else, but I recall it struck me as kind of interesting for that reason. If the Times doesn’t count as literary establishment, after all, what does? Whether we agree or disagree personally with the names on it, this is a list of the most laudable, not in the sense of the most objectively worthy, but in the sense of the most feasibly lauded, of those who the compilers feel secure in placing on their little pedestals.
In the Bistro de Critique that list might have passed without much notice, but I remember laying it out on the counter of the SF Café, and grinning to myself. Looking at this list, you see, you have a handful of poets:
1. Philip Larkin
4. Ted Hughes
23. Penelope Fitzgerald
31. Derek Walcott
36. Geoffrey Hill
39. George Mackay Brown
47. Alice Oswald
48. Benjamin Zephaniah
You also have a couple of non-fiction writers:
40. A. J. P. Taylor
41. Isaiah Berlin
You have a grand total of ten writers who have worked solely within the genre(s) of realism, contemporary or otherwise:
7. V. S. Naipaul
12. Iris Murdoch
20. Anthony Powell
21. Alan Sillitoe
25. Barbara Pym
30. John Fowles
33. Anita Brookner
37. Hanif Kureishi
45. Colin Thubron
46. Bruce Chatwin
You have two writers who’ve worked in the popular genre of the spy novel:
14. Ian Fleming
22. John Le Carré
Of the rest, well, we’ll separate out the writers who’ve played around with historical and prehistorical fiction, because while these could be seen as artificially constructed elsewhens comparable to those of fantasy or alternate history, they’re more exotic than fantastic, strictly speaking, and we wouldn’t want to push a point. So:
3. William Golding
26. Beryl Bainbridge
49. Rosemary Sutcliff
Then, however, you have a whole bunch of fiction writers, all of whom have, at some point in their career, written works which utilise the strange — SFnal or fantastic conceits, disruptions of credibility, the modality of could not happen. Some writers have worked with a sort of slipstream blend of naturalism and the unreal, some have only written one or two works utilising a speculative conceit of some description, and some are best described as magic realists (or even Magic Realists, if we want to consider the approach a closely-defineable, marketable category.) But more than a few have written SF, fantasy or horror — and in the outright Genre usages of those terms):
2. George Orwell
5. Doris Lessing
6. J. R. R. Tolkien
8. Muriel Spark
9. Kingsley Amis
10. Angela Carter
11. C. S. Lewis
13. Salman Rushdie
15. Jan Morris
16. Roald Dahl
17. Anthony Burgess
18. Mervyn Peake
19. Martin Amis
24. Philippa Pearce
27. J. G. Ballard
28. Alan Garner
29. Alasdair Gray
32. Kazuo Ishiguro
34. A. S. Byatt
35. Ian McEwan
38. Iain Banks
42. J. K. Rowling
43. Philip Pullman
44. Julian Barnes
50. Michael Moorcock
That’s twenty-five of the Times Online’s fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Which is to say fifty percent. As opposed to ten dyed-in-the-wool realists. Which is to say twenty percent, over that last half-century and a bit — where of all time periods we should expect to see the mimeticists privileged over purveyors of the strange, of the SFnal and the fantastic.
Ah, yes. I still remember thinking wryly of how this was at odds with the ghetto mentality of us genre bunnies: yeah, that damned mainstream with its literary establishment, always pissing on our genre cause they’re, like, mundanes, so boring, so banal. All they’ll ever take seriously is that dreary, dull, depressing Contemporary Realism stuff… Yeah!
Even as far back as 2008 the writing was on the wall, the names of twenty-five bona fide writers of strange fiction scribbled in black ink graffiti on a stall in the toilets of the Bistro de Critique. This was the shape of things to come.
Depending on when this is posted, this year’s Booker may be just announced or just about to be. In the SF Café, I’m expecting some more of the same old same old, mutterings about the absence of “genre fiction” from the shortlist. But this is what’s happening right now in the Bistro de Critique:
In the Bistro de Critique, the Last Realist comes staggering out of that toilet stall, disheveled and haggard, eyes wild with visions of the future he’s a fugitive from, visions of geeks and freaks lauded for writing tales of singularities and superheroes, visions of the untermensch pouring out of the ghetto of Genre, storming the Bistro de Critique.
There’s a Reign of Terror coming! he cries. Well, a Reign of Horror, strictly speaking… and Fantasy, and that sodding freaking Science Fiction too. An Unholy Trinity of the Unreal. Oh, they don’t always call it that — they’re fucking sneaky that way — but it’s… it’s… genre fiction!
We just didn’t see it coming, he yammers. I mean, no SF novel ever won the Booker.
He looks down, kicks his heels.
I mean, OK, sure, Rushdie got the Booker of Bookers with MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, and maybe that’s not SF but it’s a work of fantasy, I guess. And, OK, sure, we teach Spenser and Milton, Shakespeare and Blake in the Temple of Academia. And, OK, sure, we always had a lot of time for Kathy Acker, Mikhail Bulgakov, Angela Carter, and… well, too many to mention, really.
He coughs nervously.
But that’s not the point. Thing is, the question was never whether any SF novel deserved to win the Booker, as much as it was whether any novel that deserved the Booker was really SF. Like, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN may be a work of fantasy, but it ain’t Fantasy, see? You and I know that; that’s literary fiction. Hell, even the genre bunnies got that; why else would they talk about “literary fantasy” or “literary SF”? As if those weren’t oxymorons!
He slumps in a chair now, head in hands.
It used to be so simple. We had them in their place with the whole “literary/genre” thing. Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, Blake — when they tried to co-opt the canon to their cause we just laughed, said they were just appropriating ancestors for a spurious validation. And as for Acker, Bulgakov and Carter, they aren’t genre writers, we said. If they aren’t generic, how can they be “genre”?
But everything changes, he tells the gathered literati. In the Bistro de Critique of twenty years into tomorrow, he’s now the only one left still scorning the grand claims of all the genre bunnies, insisting that it was the realism in the magic realism that made these works great, that MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN may be fantastical but it’s not really fantasy; that no SF novel will ever win the Booker, and for good reason; that THE ROAD winning the Pulitzer doesn’t count. Oh, but he should have seen it coming.
Am I too late? he says. What year is it? Have they given the fucking Nobel to Doris Lessing yet?
In a corner of the Bistro de Critique sits a spy — one of us. In another timestream just a step to the left, she might be a bookshop assistant arguing the merits of a counterfactual category of Combat Fiction. Here in this elsewhen, she’s a librarian with a taste for good SF, listening to the time traveler’s tale with wry interest, with a sad smile.
Oh, yeah, baby, she thinks. You should have known. Didn’t Moorcock get the Guardian Prize for one of the Cornelius books? And can’t we geeks and freaks happily claim the Cornelius Quartet as bona-fide, honest-to-God SF? Moorcock is ours, a Grand Master of the SFWA, no less. He’s written New Wave SF and Swords & Sorcery, and even Contemporary Realist novels like MOTHER LONDON that put your shit to shame, motherfucker. He’s a one-man goddamn emporium of literary experiments, but one thing we know for sure: he’s one of us, a genre bunny. And while Moorcock and others like him have published straight-up balls-to-the-wall pulp fiction, Moorcock and others like him have also created masterpieces that — to use the fucking tired old fucking phrase — transcend the genre.
To the librarian that phrase is articulated with an irony that inverts the implicit admission of limitations, revealing a deeper truth: that over twenty years ago we realised it wasn’t about rising above the boundaries but about tunneling under them, burrowing down through the bowels of the city, wiring ourselves into its nervous system. In this era of SF defined in negative space, redefined by every act of indefinition that comes when we slap that nominal label on whatever we can sell as SF, to transcend the Genre means to expand the idiom.
Not that you’d know this from the talk in the ghetto, where those deep tunnels under the SF Café have become a haven from the genrephobes, a safe and cosy Watership Down warren for the genre bunnies. We poke our noses out, sniff the air and the merest scent of fox or farmer in the air sends us scurrying back to safety. We peer out of the rabbit hole, peek between the blades of grass, but we’re blinded by this myxomatosis rife within our warren, spread by our living in such close proximity, a disease of timidity that leaves us sightless and frothing at the mouth, twitching in delirium, whimpering about the lack of respect given to SF, how those howwible elitists at the Bistwo de Cwitique don’t wike us.
The librarian has the same sad smile whenever she sits in the SF Café, listening to that kvetching. Mostly, she’d rather be there than in the Bistro de Critique, but whenever award season comes around, man, the genre bunnies do tend to get agitated. Like they’re out to get us, all those straw literati, the farmers and the foxes of the self-defeating fantasies that keep us cosily in our little burrow. It’s a cold, hard world out there. And we don’t deserve it, you see. We’ve shown them how good SF can be, how cute and fluffy and eminently likeable we are, and they still don’t wike widdle us. They must be nasty, cruel, vicious. Oh, yes. Foxes and farmers bad, rabbits good. SF community good, literary establishment BAD.
Lemme just load up my flamethrower here, and put it in the hands of our librarian. Don’t worry; we’re torching the Bistro de Critique as well. Let the whole sorry shithouse go up in flames, I say.
So no SF novel ever won the Booker. So fuck? Screw the Booker; awards don’t mean shit. What we’re really talking about here is kudos, the currency passed back and forth in every conversation at the Bistro de Critique. That’s what we really want, the kudos that we feel our favoured works are due. Bookers and Nobels are only indexes of that literary credit. Strip away the talk of canons. Focus on valid comparisons within the timescale of SF — the last fifty years or so. As a measure of the modern classic, then let’s take a little work of absurdist comedy offering a depth of character and theme that makes most SF books look like the teenage wank-fantasy of a Hollywood schlockbuster charlatan… and that makes most mainstream books look like the mid-life crisis of an under-aspiring MFA tutor. Let’s take Heller’s CATCH-22 as an example.
We don’t want the Booker. We want the due respect that would be given freely to our equivalent of CATCH-22, if our Genre of Science Fiction was as counterfactual as Combat Fiction, our exemplary works of SF published without the damning label. Or at least, that’s what my figurative librarian wants. She happens to think DALGHREN is one of the seminal works of the 20th century, period, that if it wasn’t for the stigma of “genre fiction” that goes with the SF label it would be recognised as such. That if CATCH-22 had been sold as Combat Fiction it might easily have suffered the same disregard.
The comparison is more than apt. The central idea of Heller’s novel is, after all, a sort of speculative fiction, an invention of bureaucracy rather than technology, but a “what if” scenario nonetheless and, like an SF speculation, a structural element of plot and theme. What if there was an absurd regulation that put all soldiers in the double-bind of a no-win situation, a rule that any soldier seeking exemption from combat on the grounds of insanity must be, by definition, sane and therefore not exemptable?
With this crystal concept at its core CATCH-22 throws its main protagonist, Yossarian, into the horrific fantasia of World War II, the dystopia of humanity’s inhumanity extrapolated from that rule. The rule changes throughout the book, becomes more general. Eventually we come face to face with it in its most sinister form, when the US army closes down a brothel, taking the prostitutes away and validating all of this by reference to Catch-22. What law justifies their action? Catch-22. Don’t they have to show this law, to prove it exists? No, the law says they don’t have to. And which law is that? Why, Catch-22, of course. The core concept here is as fantastic as a fair whack of Kafka.
For all its non-linear construction, CATCH-22 is an utterly accessible book, using humour the way SF uses strangeness, to give the reader a pleasure they wouldn’t find in many dreary realist tomes. It dances, it plays, it gives the reader a ludic inroad to its thematic kernel, all the while developing it to intrigue us, horrify us, point us back at the reality being satirised, re-presented in an imaginative transformation. It shows us the unreal so that we see the real within it. Not unlike SF.
A work which is both a commercial and a critical success, garnering as much cash as kudos. A popular work but not a populist one. A book which has achieved some degree of cult status and which should therefore, if we genre bunnies are right in our myopia of incipient myxomatosis, be excluded from the canon because of that cult status. The literary establishment don’t like cult books, we think, because they are their own cult, worshipping at the kitchen sink, allowing no other gods before them but the One True God of Realism. So why does CATCH-22 stand as one of the 20th Century greats when so many of our great works lie neglected at the bottom of the rabbit warren under the SF Café? Because it’s not lumbered with the label Combat Fiction?
The prize-givings and prattle in the Bistro de Critique don’t matter a fuck if that’s the way it is. So some fucktarded phonies there — those straw literati who may or may not be the big dealio we make them out to be — bind our strange fictions in our very own Catch-22: if it’s SF, it can’t be good; if it’s good, it can’t be SF. Feh.
Dude, these motherfuckers can be torched with the flick of a finger.
The Catch-22 that gives Heller’s novel its name is a conceit. Not in the Petrarchan / John Donne / Metaphysical poet sense, but analogous to such, a suppositional fancy adopted for the sake of its figurative import. What exactly do I mean by conceit? Here’s one definition:
“An extended metaphor. Popular during the Renaissance and typical of John Donne or John Milton. Unlike allegory, which tends to have one-to-one correspondences, a conceit typically takes one subject and explores the metaphoric possibilities in the qualities associated with that subject.”
Silvae Rhetoricae (http://rhetoric.byu.edu/)
But this definition doesn’t quite tell the whole story in its characterisation of the conceit as metaphor-writ-large. Looking at the definition of the word outside the realms of rhetoric, gives us a richer picture of its webwork of associations. So, from Dictionary.com we get a wider-ranging set of meanings, in which conceit means: a favorable and especially unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth; an ingenious or witty turn of phrase or thought; a fanciful poetic image, especially an elaborate or exaggerated comparison; a poem or passage consisting of such an image; the result of intellectual activity; a thought or an opinion; a fanciful thought or idea; a fancy article; a knickknack; an extravagant, fanciful, and elaborate construction or structure.
Discarding the primary meaning of pride, paring away the redundancies, and splicing and dicing the attributes into a semblance of order, what we arrive at is the idea of a conceit as: an elaborate (fancy, extravagant, exaggerated) and fanciful (intellectual, ingenious, witty) construction or structure (turn-of-phrase, passage, poem) based on an idea (poetic image, thought, opinion, comparison). It all sounds rather fluffed-up, rather flouncy. Lurking somewhere in the connotations of those terms there’s hints of flippancy, of being too clever for one’s own good, of needless complexity. A conceit is an idea with an inflated ego, whimsy masquerading as the grandiose.
A fancified, fanciful fancy.
The futurological and cosmological suppositions which underpin SF (e.g. Bester’s PyrE) are conceits adopted for the sake of a good story (i.e. as MacGuffins) and/or to make a point by concretising and extending a metaphor or metonym (as Bester’s PyrE concretises what it signifies — power), representing the impact of (the vehicle of) the conceit on characters and worldscapes, rendering it both plot device and locus of theme. For many, the use of a fantastic conceit is sufficient to render a work fantasy. For many, the use of a fantastic conceit based on arguable supposition is sufficient to render a work SF.
If we accept the absurd regulation at the heart of it as an arguable supposition, CATCH-22 is not just a good comparison to SF. It is SF. The conceit may be legal rather than technological, but so fuck? How many dystopias are based more on hypotheticals born of sociology and psychology than anything else? It’s not a question of whether there are SF novels that measure up to CATCH-22. The works of Ballard, Burroughs, Vonnegut — surely there’s a list as long as my arm of books with power and insight and ambition to match Heller’s. Hell, there’s just CATCH-22 itself, if we want to look at it that way. Of course, if you have a problem seeing CATCH-22 as a work of sociological SF, maybe you feel the same with Ballard, Burroughs, Vonnegut. No matter. I’m always happy to point to pulp Modernists like Bester who used their conceits in a more populist way. With only the odd James Joyce reference and typographical experimentalism.
The point? Twenty years from now, I reckon, the Bistro de Critique will have been rebuilt on the charred ruins of a discourse razed by the recognition that conceits are, you know, actually a fucking effective tool for a writer. Twenty years from now, I reckon, what’s been going on in SF for the last fifty years will be blindingly obvious. Forget all those labels we use to obscure the emptiness of that signifier, SF, in an illusion of diverse “sub-genres” — Alternate History, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Steampunk. These are scribbles on sticky labels patched together with Sellotape to cover up the fragmentation of a field of countless forms, a confusion of comedies, tragedies, satires, adventures, parables, allegories.
So over the last half-century and a bit we’ve gathered together the good, the bad and the ugly of this… strange fiction into a cosy warren called SF, into a construction so complicated, so many tunnels burrowing this way and that, the cellar of the SF Café long since collapsed into one big hole in the ground, an empty space where meaning used to be. The ghost of SF howls in that abyss. The golem of speculative fiction stands on the edge, looking down into it, giggling insanely at the senselessness. At this… conglomeration of disparate works lumped together on the spurious basis that, well, there’s something about them all we like. It has these “speculative elements.” Like poetry using metaphors instead of eschewing it. Like a rock band using amps rather than deliberately going acoustic.
So that field is characterised by the use of these fancified, fanciful fancies — these conceits. Twenty years from now, I reckon, scorning it for that will look like cocking a snoot at a rock band for using amps.
The truth is, there’s already plenty of strange fiction out there getting the kudos — like Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN winning the Booker of Bookers. McCarthy’s THE ROAD winning the Pullitzer. It’s just that the absence of the label means these works aren’t punted down into that rabbit hole of pulp, hidden in the darks of paraliterature. It’s just they don’t languish in our little warren of a marketing niche. It’s just that a writer has to eschew the stigma of category fiction if they want a shot at the dicky-bow ceremony with champagne and hors d’ouvres; they gotta ditch the emo makeup if they want to be made dux. No shit. Does it matter? If that Times Online list is anything to go by, they can just do whatever the fuck they want, and when the dust has settled, likely as not, they’ll be valued for what they are anyway.
In the meantime…?
In the SF Café, the day after the time traveler’s arrival at the Bistro de Critique, our librarian sits with her comrades, playing devil’s advocate, as they bitch about not getting invites to the uptown cocktail parties. What do they expect, after all? There’s a whole lot of dross in the darks of the warren that is Genre.
Hell, she says, we recognise the formulaic product for what it is, every time we segregate it out in an argument with an outsider, every time they dismiss the whole field with a reference to some heinous example of Hollywood wank and we shake our heads. No, we say, that’s not proper science fiction. That’s Sci-Fi. Do you seriously think they’re ever going to get that?
We can’t ignore the gaping disjunction between the formulaic product with its cardboard characters and prefab plots, between the potboiled pulp and the solid SF, the works that take genre by the balls, squeeze hard and say, “We play by my rules.” We talk proudly of “genre fiction,” but where we diss the formula fare as “generic,” we’re tacitly acknowledging that the good stuff is good because it treats Genre as its bitch. It takes a sledgehammer to the formulae, tears pulp into bits, chews it up, spews it out in huge spitballs to be sculpted into extraordinary forms. And we’re acknowledging that the bad stuff doesn’t. Then we’re surprised that shilling shit with our shinola gives us a bad rep.
We live in the ghetto of pulp fiction, but disown it even as we do, playing the same game as our high-brow, high-society nemeses of the Bistro de Critique, with our very own version of their Catch-22, an irrational “We-like-it-so-it-must-be-SF” rule. They say, if it’s SF, it must be bad; if it’s good, it’s not SF. We say the same of Sci-Fi; it’s just that where it meets our standards of quality control we use the phrase “proper science fiction” instead of “proper literary fiction.” Every movie or TV show we dismiss as Sci-Fi — is that really so different from some straw literati insisting that William Burroughs was a Beatnik writing experimental fiction rather than some Science Fiction scribbler? We can bitch about Atwood denying that she writes science fiction, but is this really that different from an SF writer insisting that what they write isn’t “Sci-Fi”?
So no SF novel has ever won the Booker, says the librarian. So innumerable works of SF that stand on a par with CATCH-22 fail to garner the kudos they deserve because they’re tainted by the stigma of Genre. So maybe it’s time for us to reverse the polarities, think the unthinkable, speak the unspeakable, say: They’re right, you know. Genre equals generic equals formulation. So maybe we shouldn’t call it genre. Maybe we shouldn’t call it SF. If the label is empty, do we need it?
If the great works of SF are lumped in with crud that shares, at most, some superficial features with it, in the same way that a John Wayne flick shares shares superficial features with CATCH-22, it’s no surprise it doesn’t get the plaudits. Maybe it’s time we stopped burrowing down to hide the best of SF in the bunny warren of tunnels under the SF Café. Maybe the day’s coming when those strange fictions can just stand upright, walk out across the field and be met with dropped jaws and awed silence. Foxes turn tail and run. Farmers piss their pants in fear: My God, that book walks on its hind legs; that ain’t like no bunny I’ve ever seen!
I mean, we can bitch about the Booker and the Bistro de Critique, but it don’t mean squat if we’re doing it from our hidey-holes, safe and sound in the delusion that we are and will ever be this little paraliterary thing called “genre fiction.” A “genre fiction” marked out by the fact it uses one particular tool — the conceit — marked out by the fact that it doesn’t limit itself by excluding that tool, the way the genre of Contemporary Realism does. I gotta say, I’m not seeing that strange-fictional approach as in the weaker position here, binding itself with injunctions against this technique, that approach, narrowing its scope with every strategy it rejects. Far as I can see, the SF I’m talking about doesn’t essentially reject any strategy. Like a lot of those works in the period stretching back from Huxley to Homer, I reckon, it doesn’t see any fucking reason to.
Which seems a fairly natural approach to me, I gotta say. I mean, how exactly does using every fucking tool in the box not constitute the default condition of fiction? So we’ve had some fifty-odd years in which the realistas kept their shell game going, more or less, doing their best to sell the absence of the strange in their fiction as a marker of their serious chops. Meh. Give it a few decades and we’ll see how the kitchen sink holds up against a fiction as fucked-up as our reality.
Bollocks to the bunny warren, says our librarian. The ghetto is our past, but the whole fucking city is our future.
I’m not sure I’m the most logical person to invite to speak at an arts festival in Tallinn on the theme of “Would you love a robot?” But the invite came in, and I’m game for anything, so what the fuck, I figured; I’m sure I can think of something to say. And never one to let my opinionation dissipate into the ether, I thought I might as well share it with you all too.
The SF Café is a curious place. Take a wrong turn when you step inside the door, and you can find yourself not where you expected at all. Or rather, not when you expected to be.
You walk into the SF Café, and mostly you’re reckoning on seeing the shape of things to come — twenty minutes into the future, twenty years or twenty millennia — but there’s a corner of the SF Café that’s not the future at all. Take a step to the left, as the door swings shut behind you with a ting of the bell, and you may well find yourself in a today or yesterday where it’s not the science that’s strange but the history. This is the SF not of Suvin’s novum but of comparable errata, quirks of difference like the holes in your New Yorker’s Swiss Cheese, points of divergence and the oddities of a world evolved from them. You look around the café, find the posters of 1950s Sci-Fi flicks are gone, replaced by images of Confederate victories and Nazi triumphs. Where the salt cellars on the formica tables were once sleek chrome rocket-shapes, now they’re khaki and bulbous… grenades. What the fuck?
You step back out the door, gaze around. The downtown ghetto of Genre seems unchanged, but now when you turn and look up, you see the proof of your shift sideways across the timestreams: where the sign above the door should read The SF Café, now you’re standing before The Combat Fiction Bar & Grill. A parallel reality. An alternate history. And now, as you shrug and head inside, curious to explore this half-familiar elsewhen, the air shimmers around you; a jukebox comes alive with the sound of Swing. It’s bang in the middle of the 20th Century, and the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill has just opened for business.
Out of the pulp fiction boom, a new Genre has emerged, focused on warfare like that erupting in Europe even now. It comes from the industry of dime novels and magazines — Nick Carter Stories, Flying Aces, Marvel Tales, Buffalo Bill Weekly — draws on a 1920s/1930s recipe of hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths as perfected in the Boy’s Own adventure. Without its American flavour it might not be so very different from the even earlier tales of Haggard and Buchan, except that in the hands of a few editors, in the magazines and publishing imprints that they run, a more solid shape has been given, with something of a novel twist to it.
Where it might be just one more in the stable of Street & Smith’s pulp publications, under the editorship of John W. Macdonald, Astounding Stories in particular is bringing a level of rationalism to this mode of Industrial Age Romance. Clear guidelines demand a sharp focus on plausibility: weaponry must work the way it works in reality; strategies must be authentic; the combat must be extrapolated with rigour. And so a whole new Genre is born — inheriting from its romantic forebears but essentially Modern in its fusion of plot dynamics and intellectual mechanics.
Macdonald names it Combat Fiction.
As this Genre matures, that rationalist bent takes its effect. As a new generation of writers enters the field, many turn a cold eye on the sensationalist fluff that is their roots. Oh, they devoured the pulps as kids and they retain a deep love of the boldness to be found there, the sheer vigour of stories driven by peril; but as adults they now appreciate more mature themes. For them, the crass and pandering jingoism is something to be subverted. For them, warfare is not merely a backdrop for heroic adventure stories; rather it is an intrinsic element of plot and theme through which to explore the human condition. The 20th Century is a century of combat, after all. What other Genre is better equipped to address the big philosophical questions of life and death, of what it is to be a human in this world of war? Writing in response to what has gone before, working with the accrued toolkit of tropes or simply with the substrate of war-as-metaphor or war-as-backdrop, this new generation begins to explore these ideas in greater depth, find new angles. Those who are conversant with the Genre are increasingly aware of its potential, keen to exploit it.
Certainly, the pulp roots show through. The commercial impetus of the Genre is evident. Some Combat Fiction readers will buy any old shit as long as you slap a cigar-chomping sergeant on the cover — they want more of the same — and there are plenty ready to serve that up. But that dedicated readership offers a ready-made market for literate — even experimental — works dealing with war. Some readers have read all the permutations of the Combat Fiction novel, even the gritty realist ones, and they’re bored now — they want something original, something novel, something different. So, publishers can take risks on unconventional works which might otherwise fail to reach an audience; the uncritical fans of Genre supports the innovations of a non-generic aesthetic idiom — not Combat Fiction but simply combat fiction… the fiction of combat.
So, one writer called Alfred Bester, in his seminal novel, THE WARS MY DESTINATION, boldly flies his modernist colours in typographic trickery. In the opening pages of the book, he proclaims where he’s coming from in no uncertain terms, with the rhyme quoted above, directly based on a similar rhyme from James Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The marketing of these works as Combat Fiction places them below the radar of many middle-brow readers. They look at Astounding Stories and they see only another Boys’ Own pulp. Little wonder — it’s sold as a Boys’ Own pulp, with covers of All-American GIs socking Nazis, storming bunkers, stopping tanks in their tracks with a well-aimed grenade. And amongst its siblings, there might be a subtler title like The Magazine of Espionage and Combat Fiction here and there, (espionage being a bedfellow of combat fiction from its earliest days,) but it’s mostly Bloody Battle Tales and Glory and Heroic War Stories.
And more than anything, the public perception of Combat Fiction is shaped by John Wayne movies, where hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths are still the order of the day. Not familiar with the written form, but seeing the lurid covers and sensational titles, they imagine all Combat Fiction to be written at that intellectual level; that’s how it presents itself. They’d only have to read THE NAKED AND THE DEAD to realise this perception was bollocks, but unfortunately, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is on sale from one of the most successful Combat Fiction imprints, with a brauny GI on the cover, cigar clenched in his gritted teeth. It’s selling shit-loads, but not to those who look at that cover and think “John Wayne movie”.
(In another parallel reality, by the way, just another half-step to the left, Mailer’s novel is sold without the label, and is as widely regarded as a 20th century classic as it is in our reality. It’s not really regarded as Combat Fiction at all, in fact, much to the chagrin of the patrons of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. This is just literary snobbery, they say. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is clearly Combat Fiction, clearly of the same Genre as BIGGLES DEFIES THE SWASTIKA and 300 — and THE ILIAD, no less! But that’s another fold. In this one, those patrons need not worry; here, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is where it belongs, shelved in Combat Fiction.)
Mailer’s novel is only the first of many to meet this fate. One day, a young writer called Joseph Heller sends his novel, CATCH-22 to an editor, and the editor finds himself in a quandary. It’s obvious from the first few pages of the manuscript that this is about warfare. But it’s also obvious that this is a literary masterpiece. To a public who thinks Combat Fiction means “John Wayne movies,” this non-linear, absurdist narrative might well be seen simply as what it is — a great work of fiction. To some reactionary fans of Combat Fiction, indeed, it might be too flagrant a breach of their expectations. But then again, to a public who thinks Combat Fiction means “John Wayne movies,” the first hint of a WW2 setting might be enough to turn them off. And to the progressive fans of Combat Fiction, this will be exactly what they’re clamouring for.
Marketed as General Fiction, it might stand a better chance of critical and commercial success. But its unconventional nature makes it a risky proposition. Maybe readers unfamiliar with Combat Fiction won’t understand it. Maybe readers wary of Combat Fiction won’t be open enough to understand it. Will they just see a confusion of conventions — brothels and bombing runs — and a silliness they can’t make sense of, lacking the protocols of combat fiction? Will they simply be alienated by the strangeness of it all?
And there is this ready-made market for Combat Fiction. There are the fans who will buy it simply because there’s an airstrip being blown up on the cover. There are a lot of them. And there are a whole lot of the others too, the ones crying out for a work just like this. The non-linear absurdism is a unique selling-point for them. This is an original take on the established tropes if ever there was one, a work which pushes the boundaries of Combat Fiction further than ever before. Within the genre, the editor is convinced, this will win instant renown.
And he’s right. Whole generations of readers too young for it now, readers who haven’t yet graduated to the mature works, readers who haven’t yet been born, will one day buy CATCH-22 as part of the Combat Fiction Masterworks series.
This is the death knell for such books, of course, in terms of wider recognition — to be shelved in a section of the bookstore that many readers simply will not think to browse. They don’t particularly dislike John Wayne movies, those readers, but they’re not fans of them, so why should they bother with that Combat Fiction section? If such a book gets reviewed it’s in the Combat Fiction magazines. It may be hailed as a classic by the patrons of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill, but when they try to persuade genrephobes of its value they’re met with arched eyebrows of doubt.
Their skeptical friend lowers the copy of NEUROMANCER he happens to be reading.
(He sighs. He’s only just finished arguing with a Crime Fiction fan that NEUROMANCER is not, as they were insisting, “really Crime Fiction” simply because it has criminals in it. In this fold, it should be noted, where fantasy is the third mask between tragedy and comedy, and where Marquezian magical realism has its bedfellow in Orwellian speculative realism, there is no question of such features rendering a work “genre fiction.” Still, those Crime Fiction fans will insist on laying claim to literature like NEUROMANCER that explores the noir idiom as part of its dystopian approach.)
He looks at the copy of CATCH-22 that’s being waved in front of him.
But that’s Combat Fiction, he says. That’s just formulaic dreck, isn’t it? All hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths.
The Combat Fiction fan tries; they really do. They list Combat Fiction works, detail their merits, insisting that the field is not intrinsically formulaic. The genrephobe is dubious that any Genre novel could really achieve the profundity of a Nobel prize winner, or stand the test of time, or satisfy a number of vague criteria of literary quality, that it could really be that good. The fan points to THE NAKED AND THE DEAD as proof. But the title doesn’t ring any bells to the genrephobe. Eventually the Combat Fiction fan must point outside the Genre simply to find something the genrephobe has read. So they point to Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, a recognised classic. This is dismissed as at most an influence on Combat Fiction, a taproot text, not an actual work of Combat Fiction.
Finally the genrephobe is persuaded, against their will, to give CATCH-22 a go; he’ll find it funny, honestly. He approaches the book with skepticism, expecting something like that John Wayne movie he caught on the TV the other day. It immediately becomes apparent that this is not THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA, and by fuck, it turns out that he loves it. The blend of tragedy and comedy, the fragmented narrative, the dark humanism, the core conceit extrapolated not unlike the speculative realism that is their normal taste. An ambitious book like this is not really Combat Fiction at all. No, it belongs with FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, not WHERE EAGLES DARE.
When he returns it to the fan, he happily confesses his appreciation, oblivious of the dark look flashing across the fan’s face when he praises it as “not really Combat Fiction“. The exasperated fan is just about to hit their clueless friend upside the head when another mate happens by. one of two things happens. Also a patron of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill, but with more conventional tastes, Philadelphia Stein — Philly for short — can’t help but clock the book he hated. It’s “not proper” Combat Fiction as far as he’s concerned, not like Alistair Maclean’s 1957 classic, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Or Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal work from just two years later, STARSHIP TROOPERS. Now, that’s proper Combat Fiction.
As the two fans argue over what is and what isn’t Combat Fiction, the genrephobe turns the copy of CATCH-22 over in his hands. On the back of it, a blurb proclaims of how this work “transcends the genre”. Well, he thinks, it certainly breaks the boundaries that stretch from THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA all the way to THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.
So it goes.
What is and what isn’t Combat Fiction? It’s an argument that begins with Catch-22, if not before, and slowly comes to consume the discourse. With Vietnam and the sexual revolution as a backdrop, the 60s and 70s see a renaissance in Combat Fiction, much of it socio-political and experimental, treating the fractured world of war as a reflection of the confusing (post)modern condition. Dubbed the New Wave, some writers in this mode become uncomfortable with the very label Combat Fiction. Many works of Combat Fiction now deal with guerrilla warfare, terrorism, the Holocaust, the Cold War, civil unrest, psychological warfare, inner city gang culture, drug wars, even disputes between neighbours or the “war of the sexes.” Some of it is so abstract in its connection with war that confrontational fiction might be more accurate a term. It’s not combat that’s makes this fiction what it is so much as it’s the “confrontational element.” Though coined by Heinlein, that term is taken up by writers like Ellison, like the cohort of Young Turks who appear in his seminal anthology, PERILOUS VISIONS.
Many fans of Golden Age Combat Fiction consider these writers of the New Wave to be “not real” Combat Fiction. Where is the solid grounding in actual warfare here? they say. Where is the rigour in weaponry and tactics? Hell, where’s the damn story? Give me FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE any day.
Meanwhile, the fan who sees this strange modern idiom as a battlefield of any and all literary techniques and tactics, a free-for-all where the rules of engagement have long since been lost, can hardly mention Combat Fiction to a hardcore genrephobe without facing a dismissive sneer and a reference to those WAR TREK fans who go to conventions dressed up as Spock, in their khaki WAR TREK uniforms, with their papier-mache helmets, and toy rifles. It doesn’t help that, in their uncritical love for all things Combat Fiction, those with the most devotion refer to the Genre by the cute and clever moniker of Com-Fi (pronounced “comfy” by those in the know these days.) It’s hardly a damning indictment — a charge of enthusiasm to the point of silliness — but these strange subcultural shenanigans turn the brand image of Combat Fiction into a barricade.
The situation isn’t helped when a young director named George Lucas, in homage to the G.I. Joe comics he loved as a kid, makes a puerile but rollicking piece of hokum called WAR STARS. John Wayne movies are out of fashion now, so Combat Fiction isn’t a box office draw any more, but WAR STARS is a surprise smash hit. Kids and adults around the world fall in love with it, and it changes the face of cinema, ushering in a new era of blockbusters, many of which have strong elements of Combat Fiction, but few of which have the depth of the written form. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS is no 2001: A SPACE ILIAD. Most of the those who lap up this Com-Fi would not class themselves as fans. While arching their eyebrows at the fans, indeed, they feel no shame at enjoying this cinematic junk food, because they don’t take it seriously, treat it on the level it essentially belongs, as a frippery. With disdain or disregard, they’ll tell the proselytising fan, they don’t mind spending a few hours on a flick like WAR STARS, but if they’re going to read a book they prefer something substantial.
But WAR STARS, some fans of the written form begin to declare, isn’t really Combat Fiction. With its plot revolving around stolen plans, the infiltration of an enemy base, and the rescue of a captive agent of a resistance movement, it’s clearly Espionage. Which is not a good thing, as far as they’re concerned. The cult of Fleming has exploded by now, and the 1970s sees a glut of derivatives, often hugely successful; most follow such a rigid formula in their tales of James Bond clones on missions to uncover and foil the Evil Genius’s plans for world domination that the term “espionage” becomes synonymous with sub-Fleming wank fantasy. Puerile wish-fulfillment, scorn the hardcore Combat Fiction devotees, hardly wrong but turning a blind eye to the subtleties of Le Carre and Greene in the idiom they abject, and to the testosterone-fueled power-tripping in their own backyard, in writers like Maclean. No, Espionage is the enemy. For some fans, anything from Perilous Visions to War Stars might be the enemy.
Genrephobes, knowing nothing of this territorial squabble and seeing no sense in the distinctions being made… nod and smile.
So it goes.
Time passes. Down in the ghetto, in the Combat Fiction Bar & Grill, there’s unrest. One of the writers who’s pushed the boundaries the most, Kurt Vonnegut, author of the classic Combat Fiction novel, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, denies that his work is Genre in an attempt to escape the inexorable taint of formulaic shit that goes with the label Combat Fiction. Regardless of the blatant and direct tackling of the subject matter of Combat Fiction, he rejects the confines of a Genre dismissed by the general public as “John Wayne movies” and celebrated by many of its most ardent admirers on the basis of its “sense of glory.” A large proportion of fans who now vehemently reject Com-Fi as an implicitly derogatory term in favour of a less loaded CF — standing for combat fiction, confrontational fiction, or any number of alternatives — consider this a betrayal of the worst kind.
So it goes.
Time passes. Mainstream writers start turning their hand to combat fiction only to be regarded with extreme suspicion, if not outright hostility. Pat Barker’s REGENERATION, a novel set during World War One but taking place almost entirely in Craiglockhart War Hospital, is a point of controversy. For some fans, the problem is simply that Barker’s book is old hat, done before. If Barker were familiar with the genre she’d know that the War Hospital story was a hoary old cliche, done to death. For others, the problem is that Barker leaves the trenches in the background, which is utterly at odds with the conventions of this Genre of hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths. Barker, as a dabbling mainstream writer, doesn’t really understand the way Combat Fiction works, and so her novel doesn’t work as Combat Fiction. Barker compounds her crime by, in an interview, denying that she writes Combat Fiction, which she dismisses as “grunts with guns” stories. She accepts the label confrontational fiction, but few CF fans notice this.
So it goes.
Time passes. An Espionage series aimed at children and young adults — J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER books — takes hold in the public imagination. Adults who haven’t read a novel in years are suddenly obsessed with HARRY POTTER, with its secret weapons to be sought after, intrigues to be uncovered, plots to be foiled. People like reading about machinations, it seems, and given the choice between middle-class, middle-brow, mid-life crisis novels and books in which a trainee secret agent thwarts the schemes of the Evil Genius Voldemort, they’ll opt for the latter. Some of those writers who now treat Confrontational Fiction as an umbrella term for Combat Fiction and Espionage (“and stuff”) keep their fingers crossed that this will translate to an influx of new readers as fans of HARRY POTTER graduate to more mature works. Others simply see this as a mainstreaming of the confrontational genres in their most commercial and juvenile form, dubious that Rowling’s fans will really move on to Heller and the like.
So it goes.
In the uptown district of Literature, in some bistro where contemporary realism is the order of the day and critique is always on the menu, a discussion kicks off about this trend in reader tastes. A bookshop assistant who hangs out down in the Combat Fiction Bar & Grill from time to time tries to explain. She describes the simple desire of readers for something more heroic, and the expectations readers have of Genre fiction fulfilling that desire. She begins to speak of the thwarting of those expectations by fiction which does not, in fact, fulfill this desire — but this last point is lost amid the horrified cries of the middle-class and middle brow regulars of the bistro, busy bewailing the debased taste of adult readers who would lower themselves to reading Genre, denying point blank that any work of Combat Fiction could be more than formulaic dreck. To the bookshop assistant they seem driven by some bourgeois neurosis about genre cooties eating away at the foundations of civilisation.
The bookshop assistant, as a reader of cf — in lower case as a marker of mode rather than identity, not a brand label but a shorthand for an aesthetic idiom — is all too familiar with this prejudice, knows that argument is futile. She might point to everything from the ILIAD to WAR AND PEACE as examples of combat fiction, but the very idea will be dismissed as ludicrous; these aren’t Com-Fi. She knows that FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS will likewise be disregarded along with any work that wasn’t published in the actual marketing category. She knows that SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE will be classed as satire or postmodernism. And there’s no point even mentioning THE NAKED AND THE DEAD; this will be entirely unfamiliar, having been published under a Combat Fiction imprint, consigned to the ghetto of Genre. Why should anyone take her word that there are cf novels of the very highest calibre? With a mind already made up about Com-Fi and its freakish fans, why should anyone sift through the shit of that section in their local bookstore for the gems these crazies claim are hidden in the muck?
As a last resort, the bookshop assistant draws a wild comparison to fiction which focuses on, for example, science as a metaphor or backdrop rather than combat. Imagine, she says, a hypothetical and absurd new genre label… call it Science Fiction. And then she traces out a strange counterfactual scenario where such recognised modern classics as Delany’s DALGHREN, Lem’s SOLARIS, Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD, a whole host of modern classics, are all lumped together under an arbitrary marketing label. She conjures a pseudo-history of the world, a parallel timestream where — crazy as it may sound — these sort of books are considered “genre fiction.” If the course of events only played out a little differently, she says, you can see how a disjunct could exist between the reality of this field and the popular perception of it. Just as it does, she argues, for combat fiction. Or confrontational fiction, as she prefers to call it. Surely, she says, you can’t fail to see the absurdity of a prejudice dismissing these works simply because they’re “genre fiction,” where this “genre fiction” contains a novel like DHALGREN.
(She doesn’t stop to think before picking DALGHREN as an example. It’s so familiar in its renown that the very name of its apocalyptic city-setting, Bellona, has passed into common usage as a term for any catastrophic collapse from civilisation to senselessness. Bosnia was “a real Bellona.” Rwanda was “a real Bellona.” New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was “a real Bellona.”)
Trust me, she says. CATCH-22 is at least as good as that, to my mind, maybe even better. The only reason it’s not considered a modern classic is because it’s seen as Com-Fi, and Com-Fi is seen as hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths — all that John Wayne movie shit. But the real combat fiction that’s out there is about as far away from that as you can get. It’s not all plot-driven Boys’ Own adventures. It’s not all about weaponry and strategies. The characters and themes and prose can be way more important than any of that — and are in CATCH-22. If it wasn’t for the misperceptions surrounding that Combat Fiction label, CATCH-22 might be as much of a household name as DALGHREN is today.
The genrephobe remains unconvinced. The sort of breadth of definition she’s talking about would cover everything from the ILIAD to WAR AND PEACE, and that’s not a Genre just a gesture.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
So our bookstore assistant heads back to the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. She begins to wonder, on her way, how events might have played out for the field of confrontational fiction if the label had never been coined, if they just had “war novels” — like modernity novels, but focusing on combat rather than progress as their background and theme. She imagines a world where KELLY’S HEROES isn’t blithely lumped in with SCHINDLER’S LIST, or LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL with WHERE EAGLES DARE; where fans of John Wayne movies, Commando comics, Alistair Maclean novels and other such Combat Fiction don’t kvetch about some latter-day CATCH-22 not playing by the rules; where SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE doesn’t need to be validated with a tradition stretching back through Faulkner and Tolstoy and Shakespeare to the ILIAD itself; where there’s no bitter resentment of the lack of respect for “genre fiction” like THE NAKED AND THE DEAD or STARSHIP TROOPERS; no bitching about mainstream writers who deny their work is Combat Fiction when it’s set in a war hospital; no teacup tempests over how Combat Fiction is polluted by Intrigue; no cringing at the self-coined nickname of Com-Fi because that’s really just the movies and TV shows, which really just give confrontational fiction a bad rep.
It’s natural for her to think this way. Alternate History is part of the Genre, after all, with all its counterfactuals of Confederate victories and Nazi triumphs. She’s not that big on the whole GUNS OF THE SOUTH approach herself, but the sub-genre’s been a corner of CF from way back. She’s imagining a world where there’s no argument over whether or not Philip Roth’s THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is “really combat fiction,” just at the point where she pushes open the door of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. As she walks inside, takes a step to the left, she’s imagining a world where the lack of classifications means CATCH-22 isn’t “not really” Combat Fiction to either fan or genrephobe.
Because in her fold, there’s a double-bind of double-binds. As much as the genrephobes apply that notorious axiom — If it’s Combat Fiction, it can’t be good; if it’s good, it can’t be Combat Fiction — the fans have their own, it sometimes seems, those who’re looking for “more of the same” at least: if it’s “not really” Combat Fiction, it can’t be good, if it’s good, it can’t “not really” be Combat Fiction. That fan axiom is written into the very nature of Genre itself, the demand of readers for something that coheres as a Genre.
If it’s exceptional, it can’t be exemplary; if it’s exemplary, it can’t be exceptional.
It’s a real Catch-22, she thinks.
“If you go exploring in another culture only as a way of improving yourself and your work, that’s blatantly appropriative. Rose Fox, “A Whiff of Colonialism,” Publishers Weekly
Another day, another shitstorm in the SF Café. A couple of months back, some of you might recall, it was one Young Turk turned Old Guard with an ill-fated article on international SF, a Caesar of dubious pontification that met a Senate of aggravated responses. Others said all that has to be said about the article at the time, and it’s sorta blown over now, so I’m not going to add my dagger; but in a couple of the responses (or responses to responses,) as the entrails slipped to the ground, fingers were pointed and the dread words whispered: cultural appropriation. As in the quote above, the link was made.
“In fact, one good working definition of science fiction may be the literature which, growing with science and technology, evaluates it and relates it meaningfully to the rest of human existence.”
H. Bruce Franklin
When you watch enough of the daily dogfights down in the SF Café, you can get a bit jaded with it all. It’s science fiction versus Science Fiction versus Sci-Fi versus science fiction versus Fantasy versus fantasy — and all of these labels simply tags on one collar of a single Hydra-headed hound, our rabid Cerberus unbound, trying to rip its own throat(s) open. And all too often it’s the same fight underneath it all; clear away the rhetoric (e.g. “magic” and “science”) and what you find is Romanticism and Rationalism going at it yet again, the ideal of the sublime versus the ideal of the logical.
Was a time when they were partners, and they still tag team occasionally, to be sure, but the old alliance of fantasia and futurology, that Rationalist Romance of Science Fiction? Its spectre may still haunt our favourite… well, haunt, but the coherence of a Campbellian closed definition has been shattered. Where we might once have pinned the term science fiction to a conventional form in which fantasia and futurology were partners, the term now applies to a discourse far better characterised by the conflicts of these two than by their alliance. And the dialectic of Romanticism and Rationalism is so engrained in the discourse, in fact, we sometimes talk as if no other aesthetics even exist, as if there is only this binary choice: the sword or the spectacles.
The reality is far more gnarly though, because while Romanticism and Rationalism square up against each other in mutual hostility, each has… another opposite. Where one sets Passion against Reason, and the other sets Reason against Passion, there are aesthetics which refuse to play that game, twistier approaches, strategies that set reason against Reason, passion against Passion. Every so often those dogfights take an interesting turn when the aesthetic of the logical finds itself up against the aesthetic of the absurd, or the aesthetic of the sublime comes up against the aesthetic of the domestic, those two twisty aesthetics being basically the fifth columns of intellectualism and sensationalism, out to rip them apart from the inside.
The absurd is not the fantastic as many think of it, see; it’s not about the wow factor of the weird. Nor is the domestic about social realism as we might consider it, in terms of observational objectivity. The aesthetic of the absurd we find in Kafka or Pinter is not the sensationalism of the Romantics, but Rationalism turned against itself, a cold blooded murder/suicide of reason. No tawdry melodramas play in the operating theatre of cruelty; there are no frilly cuffs here, just surgical gloves. Where Romanticism wields the strange, the impossible, as a sword in a hero’s hand, for the surrealist it is a scalpel with which to dissect the psyche. Likewise, the aesthetic of the domestic we find in Dickens or Calvino is not the intellectualism of the Rationalist, but Romanticism turned against itself, a devouring of fancy, the impassioned assault on imaginative fripperies that begins where the soulful scribbler knows in their heart that what really matters is the cigarette in your hand, lit by a stranger outside a bar, or lit by a friend outside a funeral home.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as they say, and it’s no different here in the SF Café. Those dogfights sometimes take an interesting turn when the sword and the scalpel pair up against the spectacles, or the spectacles and cigarette piar up against the sword. To put a grossly superficial gloss on it, we could say that the two warring clans, the Campbells and the Macdonalds of Science Fiction and Fantasy, sometimes find strange bedfellows in the black sheep of each other’s families. The intellectualists find themselves fighting side-by-side with realists who might hold little faith in Reason, who might have little real respect for the mechanistic process of logic, but who despise the grandiose glamours for perverting honest passion. The sensationalists find themselves fighting back-to-back with surrealists who might hold little faith in Passion, who might have little actual interest in the emotional dynamics of the sublime, but who reject wholesale dogmatic meta-narratives that deny disorder rather than investigating it.
The point is, of course, for those who want to fit everything into a neat dichotomy of Reason versus Passion, these twistier aesthetics fuck with that, fighting on the wrong side goddamnit, ruining the taxonomic purity. In the SF Café, the cigarette is all about the sensation of smoking, not the science, and the scalpel is wielded by writers who believe in Godel, not gods.
But even that is, as I say, a grossly superficial gloss. If you look around the SF Café what you see is actually a whole lot of writers and readers with a cigarette in one hand and a scalpel in the other. Thing is, these two aesthetics are not opposed to each other, do not cast themselves as opponents locked in mortal combat. So with this writer the domestic becomes a key concern as they spurn the dishonest passion of Romanticism. So with that writer the absurd is employed to attack the inflexible unreason of Rationalism. Neither strategy entails a rejection of the other, so those two writers need not see each other as their hated foe. They may well be the same writer, the sort of obstinate, opinionated, downright thrawn motherfucker who looks at the aesthetic of the sublime and the aesthetic of the logical — and the whole tawdry turf war they’ve had going for two centuries or more — and sees them both as failing to do justice to the passion and the reason they idealise.
And that’s where it gets really interesting, I think.
It’s those thrawn motherfuckers I see when I look at science fiction. Sure, there’s the Campbellian closed definition of Science Fiction that was, in essence, a sort of Rationalist Romanticism. And now there’s the schism between those two aesthetics that plays out in endless teacup tempests where one is set against the other. But looking into that gaping rift reveals the true core of the field as pulp modernism, I think, even from its earliest days. In many of the canonical novels or short stories of this field of strange fictions, what we see is not futurological fantasia, not an adventure with the sublime bound within a logical rationale, but rather writers striving to balance the sublime with the domestic and/or to violate the logical with the absurd. I’m not talking about the New Wave here, mind — Ballard’s catastrophe worlds of banality riven by the irrational or Moorcock’s non-linear narratives of Jerry Cornelius degrading the hero to a spotty adolescent in a London flat. Not yet, at least. I’m talking about Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” published in 1950, a tale as domestic as you can get and one where the irrational irrupts out of a viewscreen with all the scientific rigor of Freddy Krueger. It eats the main characters.
Yes, down in the SF Café, in the ghetto of Genre, there is, always has been, and probably always will be an audience looking for “more of the same,” where “the same” is basically a Campbellian Science Fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But in this “literature of ideas”, born from the fusion of the intellectual and the sensational, futurology and fantasia, originality is an imperative that’s been countering formulation from the start, novel or stories prized for having their own killer concept as a Unique Selling Point. And that means — has always meant — a sort of evolutionary pressure for novels or stories in this idiom to offer not “more of the same” but “something different”, a pressure that doesn’t sit well with any closed definition.
For all the fiction designed to cosset the reader in conventions, that pressure within the field supported — if not demanded — a more exploratory fiction, one which sought to challenge the reader with subversions and outright breaches of those same conventions, which strove to serve as more than just consolatory fantasia and/or compelling futurology. The aesthetics of the domestic and of the absurd are only to be expected as emergent features of a genre focused on the sublime and the logical but one where “transcends the genre” has been code for “what we want to read” since forever. I seem to recall hearing somewhere that the cover of an early edition of Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN sports that plaudit in its copy. Or possibly THE STARS MY DESTINATION. Admittedly this is a titbit snatched from a faulty memory of a casual conversation that took place in the SF Café sometime… well, more than a minute ago. Anyway… over the decades, writers pushed the envelope continuously in a quest for novelty, carrying on into new territories, constantly challenging and overturning Genre cliches, turning their tricks to satire (c.f. Frederick Pohl & Cyril Kornbluth or John Sladek), to semiotics (Samuel R. Delany), to whatever idiosyncratic interest they wanted to explore.
For a prime example of how orthodox this unorthodoxy is, how inadequate a simple closed definition in terms of fantasia and futurology is, we need only look at the late fiction of Philip K Dick, where the domestic and the absurd are often far more important than any sense of either the sublime or the logical. Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke may have been the Big Three who ruled the pantheon of pros back in the day. Hell, even for a kid coming to science fiction in the early 80s it was those three who benchmarked my entry-level experience of the field — Asimov’s I, ROBOT the first proper sf novel I read, Heinlein the first writer I obsessively collected, Clarke’s 2061 the book that revealed to me the Law of Diminishing Returns. But Dick is the Dionysus to their Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, and it’s his wild rites many are pointing to when they talk about science fiction. See VALIS or THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER for science fiction which is neither Romanticist nor Rationalist at all, not remotely. On the back of my copy of VALIS, a simple quote from the book reads, “If I bring back the ashtray, can I have my prefrontal?” That’s the cigarette and the scalpel in action right there.
If this type of science fiction focuses on science, it is to use it as a metaphor, a mechanism through which to explore humanity and modernity. The questions that concerned Dick were not scientific but philosophical: what it is to be real; what it is to be human. Science, for Dick, is only one of the many forces which reshape the world into the strangeness of what might as well be a waking dream. While Thomas Disch was pointing accusingly at the fantasia of the futurology when he titled his book of essays on science fiction, THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF, we can point to Dick as an emblem of another sort of dreams we might be dealing with, in his 60s suburban worldscapes ruptured by psychotic breakdowns of reality itself. These aren’t fantasias of flight, but freaky visions of finding the kiosk you were buying a hot dog from replaced by a slip of paper with the word kiosk on it. Disch’s own “Descending” is a similar blend of the mundane and the irrational, as are many of Ellison’s short stories, “Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tik-Tok-Man,” for example, (and of course Bradbury’s,) but where a dedicated Science Fiction partisan might mutter about all those Twilight Zone style fictions being “really horror,” Dick’s fiction is as often as not more strange than uncanny, not frightening so much as just plain weird.
The point is, Dick’s animatronic presidents and AI suitcases, ersatz realities and government conspiracies are less about plausible wonders than they are about the paranoia and neurosis inspired by the late 20th century, the era of McCarthy and Nixon, the Communist Witch-Hunt and the Sexual Revolution, Vietnam and Watergate… and serious drugs of course. And he was far from alone, in the SF Café, in following the cultural shift from Rocket Age rapture through the Cuban Missile Crisis of the soul towards a Cold War detente of the banal and the bizarre. It was in this context, where the concerns were less the material aspects of technology and more the abstract potentials of modernity for good or ill — if not the strange actualities of modernity itself, the futureshock of living in the present — that the term speculative fiction began to be taken up.
Note the absence of capitals, by the way.
Ask anyone in the SF Café what science is, and many will tell you it’s a method, an approach, but just as many will, in all probability, describe it as products rather than process, as stuff. Maybe they’ll describe it as a domain of knowledge, as the facts and principles accrued within that domain. Maybe they’ll point to the theories and experiments, the sundry instances of the scientific method in action. Or maybe they’ll just hold up some technological doohickey forged in the application of those theoretical principles and experimental procedures. Hey, man, check out my new iRobot! Now that’s what I call science!
There’s always been a tendency for the science in Science Fiction to focus on the latter, on the gadgetry and gimcracks, but this is not really surprising. The futurological fantasias the label was slapped on were largely structured round conceits that this or that technical impossibility had been rendered possible in some fictive elsewhere and/or elsewhen, in Outer Space and/or the Future. The literary device that Darko Suvin terms the novum, the unit of novelty written into the narrative for the protagonist (and by proxy the reader) to confront, is essentially a fancy of a techne that does not exist, (not yet, not quite.) It is the imaginary technique which does what cannot actually be done, not here and now. It’s only natural for that mechanism to be figurated in the fiction as a mechanism in the concrete sense: where the impetus to Romantic adventure creates a pressure for that conceit to function as a MacGuffin, a Maltese Falcon style plot device, well, a physical object is much easier to fight over; and even where conceits were offered as more than just the basis of “let’s pretend” fun, where there’s an intellectual game of playing through the “what if” scenario in action, where working the conceit has become an end in and of itself, anchoring that conceit in an object offers the reader a focal point. The solidity of stuff is useful, and so writers of Science Fiction turned to robots and aliens the way another writer might turn to, say, cigarettes and scalpels.
Still, the substitution of speculative for science is more accurate even at this level, because the novum is not science, no more than the erratum of Alt History — the historical impossibility to science fiction’s technical impossibility — is history. Those two Genres are characterised by the liberties they take with the domains of knowledge they play around in. There is a historical fiction which does not emply errata, but this is a quite distinct idiom from that of alternate history. We can easily imagine a scientific fiction which does not employ nova, one which instead utilises actual science the way war fiction utilises war; but this just isn’t what we point to when we say science fiction. We’re not dealing with facts but with conceits. A cloned alien brain in a robotic body is not science but fancy, however arguable we consider its (meta)physical possibility. It’s a conjecture, a speculation that tickles our “Cool!” response precisely because it breaches the mundane reality of what is technically possible. Calling it speculative fiction makes more sense, right?
But the substitution of speculative for science also reflects a logical development of the novum itself, from the concrete to the abstract, from the mechanisms of unobtanium cogs, handwavium gears and spuriotronic circuits to the mechanisms of individuals and societies. The Campbellian closed definition of Science Fiction explicitly excluded “[s]ociology, psychology, and para-psychology” as “not true sciences”, but if the most instantly recogniseable nova of the fictions were (and probably always will be) physical objects — Heinlein’s dilating door, Bradbury’s nursery with viewscreens for walls — the writers were often just as interested in the invented social structures that went with them. The group marriages of THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, the “firemen” of FAHRENHEIT 451 — ironically, if science fiction can be said to actually use real science, it is the soft sciences it employs more than anything, attempting to apply real principles of psychology and sociology to model the impact of a conceit on humanity, how we could respond to what could not actually happen.
To talk of speculative fiction rather than science fiction is to shift the focus from the solidity of the stuff to the impact of that stuff on humanity, from the mechanics of gadgets and gimcracks to the dynamics of psyches and societies. If we might tend to think of science in terms of its products, speculation is explicitly a process, and so the word serves as a banner of intent. This is about working the conceit, it says. And again, it seems a natural evolution for this approach to turn inwards. Working the conceit had become a core concern of Science Fiction with its Rationalist hat on, and even with Campbell dismissing the soft sciences, the field was quite open to conceits wherein humanity was not just confronted with concrete nova but directly altered by them, not just biologically (Frederick Pohl’s MAN PLUS), but psychologically (Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN), intellectually (Daniel Keyes’s FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON), linguistically (Samuel R. Delany’s BABEL-17). Through conceits of biological evolution and chemical augmentation, writers side-stepped Campbell’s strictures (which weren’t exactly the Word of God anyway, not in a field where Horace Gold was publishing Bester’s tales of ESPers and jaunting,) and got their teeth into science as soft as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The questions being asked in those four books — all sitting on my shelf in the Gollancz Classics editions from the 80s as core members of the canon — are questions of identity, of the relationships of human beings to themselves, to each other, and to the world around them.
These are not “what if” stories but “what is” stories. What is reality? What is society? What is humanity?
And slowly but surely they approached the question, What is fiction?
“Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.”
In the SF Café, the beatniks had moved in, poncy artists and pretentious intellectuals, poets and (post)modernists, God bless em. The very sciences that Campbell excluded — sociology and psychology — were at the core of their interests. And when it came to literary aspirations, they saw no reason why science fiction should be any less innovative, any less rich than the mainstream in terms of style and form. It wasn’t just that they wanted all day breakfasts with eggs-over-easy instead of a burger and fries; they wanted Eggs Benedict. They didn’t want a Diet Coke; they wanted an espresso so black and so strong it blew the roof of your head off. Screw the sugar rush and the fatty satiation of comfort food; they wanted you to feel the jitters of a caffeine overload along with the exquisite tang of a perfect Hollandaise sauce. They refused to recognise (or recognised as irrelevant) the territorial politics of rival aesthetics. The sublime, the logical, the domestic, the absurd — these were just the salt, sweet, sour and bitter flavours to be thrown into the mix, and fuck any purist’s proscriptions and prescriptions that set one against another, forbid miscegenations. If fiction is food, they wanted to be eating and cooking the finest fusion cuisine.
One could say that in zeroing in on the desire for “something different”, on novelty as a key ingredient, these writers were simply reinventing the Genre of Science Fiction each time they “transcended” it, keeping the conventions under constant revision. One could equally say that they were creating exemplary (rather than exceptional) works within an idiom predicated on change by manifesting that change in the idiom itself, in an act of recursion. Either way, in a subculture of writers looking for that “something different,” it was only a matter of time before that search progressed to the next level, before those writers began to search for, find and offer “difference” in the very language and structure of the narrative itself.
So soon there was Delany’s DHALGREN, Moorcock’s CORNELIUS QUARTET, Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. There was Aldiss and Ballard and Crowley and Disch and Ellison and Farmer and so on, some more experimental than others, but all of them bringing their own new twists to the form — looped and fractured narrative, metafictional and intertextual narrative. It is difficult to think of a more (post)modern project in any of the arts than that of speculative fiction where it turns its gaze upon itself in this way. Genre is inherently self-aware in its impulse towards formulation, its recognition of story as the unifying agency of a narrative; it is continually exploring its own boundaries, reifying or reshaping them. But this speculative fiction was not simply self-aware but self-critical, analysing itself, re-evaluating the relationships between story and narrative, deconstructing and reconstructing its own nature from first principles.
The pastiche of Genre found in the work of Moorcock or Farmer is not simply referential play; it is speculation as to the nature of fiction itself. And without the cop-out of ironic distance, this (post)modernism spits on the high-art / low-art distinction with a sincerity few in the ivory towers ever really had the balls to emulate. Here, or in Delany’s THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION, we have a fiction which takes fiction as its experimental subject, its focus of conjecture. How, it asks, are we ourselves made by the stories we make, by the language in which those stories are told, the semiotics and semantics? This was fiction tearing itself apart to understand how it worked, how all narrative worked, including those narratives of identity we call human beings. If it inhabited worlds and cities shattered by catastrophes — real or imagined, Dresdens or Bellonas — no doubt much of this was a mark of the turbulent times the fiction was born in, but more than anything else this is, I think, a marker of… the alterior perspective at the heart of this fiction, a clearing away of artificed structures (which is to say strictures) in order to expose the dynamics of deeper connections.
In the SF Café, in the ghetto of Genre, in the City of Writing, a trap door had been discovered. In the cellar that it led to was a door, and beyond that door a system of secret tunnels — subways and sewer that led throughout the city and beyond it, across the nation of Art, around the entire world of Culture. Those who discovered those tunnels, who used them, realised that being part of a subculture did not simply mean being a member of some component culture within the system as a whole, a community sealed off by its boundaries of identity, walled-in within a ghetto. Rather a subculture was that which existed beneath the culture as a whole, permeating it as a mycelial network of interstices. That subculture might reflect the culture in negative (an oppositional counter-culture), as the sewers of Paris map precisely to the streets above, or it might be completely different (an entirely alternative culture), as the tube in London links the nodes of places in a pattern utterly unlike the streets above. Either way, the underground discovered by speculative fiction linked all the important points in this world of Culture into one big system that could be explored freely at this level without concern for the territorial politics at street-level.
The walls of the ghetto of Genre meant fuck all. A writer could go anywhere they fucking wanted, and they did. For the spelunkers of speculative fiction every corner of the city of Writing was fair game. And in those tunnels they found the power cables and gas pipes of words and images that linked it all, the linguistic innards of this living thing. They found kindred spirits in potholers who lived in the uptown district of Literature, the Burroughses and Burgesses who explored “our” terrain as we explored “theirs,” these gourmet chefs who were checking out the menu in the SF Café and going home to cook up their own fusion food in their own bistros, serving up a cold buffet of a naked lunch, duck a la clockwork orange. The writers of Genre shook hands with them in the urban netherworld, under the eldritch glow of biophosphorescent slime that seeped through cracks in ancient brick walls. Together they built mechanical minotaurs whose hollow roars echoed all through the underground, audible even on the surface to some passer-by standing near a ventilation shaft. The mushrooms that grew down there became a staple on the menu of the SF Café.
But if they wandered far and wide, the Young Turks of speculative fiction did keep returning to the SF Café to tell their tales. It was their home. In the Bistro de Critique, in the uptown district of Literature, stuffed shirts still baulked at the strangeness offered by those (post)modern compatriots, reviled it as obscene pornography or revered it as intellectual play, declawing it with concepts like “irony”, rendering it safe by herding it off towards the Temple of Academia. In the ghetto of Genre, the writers lived free of the constraints of decency and decorum. In the ghetto of Genre, anything goes, man. When you live in the gutter it doesn’t matter if you’re filthy.
In theory anyway.
It is ironic that where Heinlein’s coinage of the term speculative fiction was intended as a better specification of the form, a marker of the extrapolative rather than technological focus of the genre (i.e. requiring the act of extrapolation rather than the mere presence of science-based conceits and plot devices), it has been adopted largely as a descriptor for the field at its most inchoate, used as a default term for works defying easy categorisation within the tribalist rhetorics that stand in place of any coherent taxonomy. But in this explorative fiction-of-science, this experimental science-of-fiction, this innovative fiction-as-science, it seems apt as a reaction to the ossifying conflict of territorial nonsenses, as a rejection of the whole tired discourse of science fiction versus Science Fiction versus Sci-Fi versus science fiction versus Fantasy versus fantasy. It’s what the doohickey does that matters, not whether it comes under the heading of gadget or gimcrack.
Is it science fiction, fantasy or horror? someone asks a speculative fiction writer.
Well, yes, answers the speculative fiction writer.
For all that this answer is apparently unacceptable to some turf war partisans in the SF Café, it is largely their insistence on closed definitions of these idioms as Genres that makes it inevitable. Lurking in that label is a recognition that this fiction has, as far as many are concerned, stepped beyond the conventions of Science Fiction in a fundamental way. Aesthetically, the Young Turks of the New Wave were at odds with the most traditional aspects of the field and quite aware of it, as the title of Ellison’s DANGEROUS VISIONS anthologies makes clear. But rather than argue with the reactionary writers and readers still seeking to bind science fiction to the closed definition of Science Fiction, the radicals of the New Wave in the USA simply adopted Heinlein’s monicker and made it their own. And in so far as their chosen term has come to signify a broad genre of fantastic fictions, the superset, in fact, of all the inextricably interpenetrating fantastic genres, they have largely succeeded in establishing their less restrictive model.
Still, when I look back for a branch-point, I see a long history of narratives that had ceased to be futurological fantasias even long before the New Wave. I see writers offering novelty as a source of futureshock rather than sense-of-wonder, conjecturing on the basis of angst rather than argument; I see writers for whom the aesthetics of the sublime and the logical are largely irrelevant as they work on projects quite at odds with Romanticist and Rationalist agendas — Delany’s DHALGREN, Moorcock’s CORNELIUS QUARTET, Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. I see Zelazny’s ROADMARKS, Silverberg’s THE BOOK OF SKULLS. But when you’re faced with those who predicate Science Fiction on the abjection of Fantasy and/or Sci-Fi, to point to these sort of projects and their core qualities and say, this is science fiction, can be a fast route to a flamewar.
No, that’s “really” fantasy. No, that’s “really” horror.
It seldom seems worth arguing.
As I see it? The estrangement effect of the novum is powerful, and it is not limited to the dread or desire that might slide a story over some imaginary border, “out of” science fiction and “into” horror or fantasy. We’re talking about conceits that can provide the foundations for tragedy or comedy as easily as for a Romantic adventure or a Rationalist thought-experiment — or for the sort of satire that is both tragedy and comedy, as where the dark absurdities of Vonnegut’s CAT”S CRADLE belong with Heller’s CATCH-22 more than with Heinlein’s SPACE CADET or Asimov’s FOUNDATION. Where those nova function — as any conceit may — as the vehicles of metaphor and metonym, we begin to deal, in fact, with the figuration of modernity in all its strangeness. Whatever label we apply to this fiction, I see in it a staggering range of narrative grammars and an openness to using all the various flavours of conceits, not just technical and historical impossibilities but metaphysical and logical impossibilities too. If that flexibility isn’t allowed in your Science Fiction, well, maybe another name is a good idea.
Down in the SF Café, of course, this is when the double-bind of the territorial rhetoric kicks in. To many speculative fiction seems a coy and euphemistic evasion, a craven attempt to gain literary credibility by distancing one’s work from Genre… and hence a betrayal of one’s ghetto comrades in favour of the dreaded literary elite. In all honesty, this may not be entirely unfair; many of the more literate writers who adopted the label made no bones about the taint of trash that they were trying to escape, their disdain of the generic product that defines the field not just to the outside world but even in the community of uncritical devotees. Through the act of abstraction denoted, speculative fiction signifies an intellect and intellectualism divorced from the dirty physicality of science, from any slack-jawed wonder at gadgets and gimcracks. It claims a cerebral rather than visceral effect, adopts an attitude of aloofness to the very Genre it resides within. As much as it might denote the entire field of science fiction, fantasy and horror, it also connotes (or signals oneself to be a member of) a specific subset of that field — that which has “literary aspirations.”
But I can’t say this strikes me as a mortal sin. One thing to bear in mind, I’d say: this is not an act of abjection as that meted out to Fantasy and Sci-Fi. If there’s a rejection of that which is a part of oneself, a recoiling from the generic, it is not a marginalisation of that formulaic product as alterity, as other. On the contrary, this is a redefinition of self as alterity, as other. Rather than fight a losing struggle against commercialism and conservatism, rather than battle for the broken banner of science fiction, for the right to carry an empty label and claim proudly, we are it! while expelling the Enemy as something else, it seems to me that many of the New Wave and their inheritors, to all intents and purposes, simply shrugged and walked away. As a marker more of literary intent than of aesthetic form, the term speculative fiction was and is a disavowal of the dross, but this reunciation was and is more surrender than betrayal.
If anything it is the desolate retreat of the defeated in the face of intransigent animosity, the abandonment of science fiction to the reactionary. It is the slow trudge of the refugees of speculative fiction down into the tunnels beneath the city, leaving the SF Café to its taxonomic turf wars, surrendering it to that hoary spectre of Science Fiction that haunts it still, rattling the shackles of its closed definition angrily as the dogfights rage on.
So it goes, as a wise man once said.
The Autonomous Archipelago of Åthorland
It was Friday night in the city of Writing when the shit hit the fan. I didn’t make it down to the SF Café myself till Saturday afternoon or so, having been off at a gig that Friday night; so when I finally stumbled in, somewhat worse for wear, to grab my daily brunch of coffee and a cigarette over the Twitter Gazette, the kerfuffle was already in full swing. It’s war! people were saying. War! The neighbouring states of Amazonia and Macmilland have gone to war! Even the poor citizens of Åthorland have been dragged into it, much to their chagrin! Chagrined? They were downright pissed, those Åthorlanders. Since there’s a rather sizeable contingent of them who hang out at the SF Café, it was hard not to notice their impassioned speeches from their counter stool pulpits, the conversations going on in the booths.
THE INNER INHUMANITY
I’ve got a theory, one that’s been brewing for a while really, ever since I first read Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire and Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls. It’s one that’s been partly informed by my… exposure to the Twilight phenomenon, to the general prevalence of the vampire trope these days. And after coming across one of those internet kerfuffles over a recent article in Esquire by Stephen Marche that made a rough stab at advancing a similar idea (and largely got shot down in flames) I thought it might be a good time to get my teeth into it, so to speak.
I can’t tell you what age I was when I first read Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, And Gomorrah,” in a tattered second-hand copy of his collection, Driftglass. I have only the most random snippets of memories associated with my teen reading — a vague awareness that the first SF book I read was I, ROBOT, that I caught the bug with more Asimov, became a hardened fan with Heinlein and PKD, and an avid collector with the series of Gollancz Classics released in the 1980s.
I’m pretty sure that it was picking up Babel-17 and Nova as part of that series that turned me on to Delany.
“Don’t tell anybody, but science fiction no longer exists.”
Matthew Cheney, The Old Equations, Strange Horizons
Welcome to the SF Café, in the ghetto of Genre, in the city of Writing, in the Republic of Art. We call it the SF Café because only the letters S and F survive, but you can still see the full name today, The Science Fiction Café and Bar, traced in the grime, outlined in the negative shadow of those clean spaces left where the letters have fallen away.
Elitism, escapism, world-building, blah blah blah. I’ve had my head down in terms of forums and blog-brouhahs. There’s a lot of, um, passion being thrown about, which is a good thing — it’s nice to know people give a fuck — but to be honest, I think a lot of the argument involves people talking at cross-purposes, people defending something that they think others are attacking, attacking something that they think others are defending, people saying that they’re not attacking / defending something in the way that other people think they are, but actually attacking / defending something else entirely, something which is worth attacking / defending… as opposed to what other people “seem to be” defending / attacking and so on, and on, and on, and on, and ever on, like the last one million pages of climbing up a fucking mountain at the end of Tolkien’s Lordy-Lordy-Massuh-Ah’s-Ah-Gonna-Carry-You-Massuh-Frodo of the Rings.
In the uptown district of Literature and the midtown district of Mainstream, so the story goes, the high-brow and the mid-brow all turn their noses up when they glance downtown, in the direction of Genre. Fairy tales for children, they sneer. On the door of the Bistro de Critique there was for a good many years a sign that read, “No Genre allowed.” The nearest they ever got to a genre label is General Fiction — a term with an empty definition if ever there was one, catch-all for a host of idioms and idiosyncracies. No, genre fiction just isn’t de rigeur there, so the story goes. So, fuck em, we say. Fuck the mundanes of Mainstream, the elitists of Literature. We’re Genre and proud of it.