The Ghost and the Golem – Notes from New Sodom

A Rejection of Definition

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.

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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.

The Form=Formulation Syllogism

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:

  1. Genre labels signal that a work conforms to a set of aesthetic criteria prescribed as Genre conventions;
  2. These conventions are designed for producing works of a certain stereotypical Genre form;
  3. Genre forms have inherent flaws due to their commercial imperatives and counter-literary value-systems;
  4. Therefore: works conforming to those conventions will have those flaws;
  5. Therefore: works published with Genre labels will have those flaws.

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.

Transcending the Genre

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.

The Model and the Machine

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.

Genre and the Generic

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.

A Fabulous Formless Starkness

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.