The Great Debate
“The question of whether a certain story of imagination is a fantasy or a science fiction work would depend upon the device the author uses to explain his projected or unreal world. If he uses the gimmick or device of saying: ‘This is a logical or probable assumption based upon known science, which is going to develop from known science or from investigations of areas not yet quite explored but suspected,’ then one could call it science fiction. But if he asks the reader to suspend his disbelief simply because of the fun of it, in other words, just to say: ‘Here is a fairy tale I’m going to tell you,’ then it is fantasy. It could actually be the same story.”
Sam J. Lundwall
Down in the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café that is our literary salon, in this scene of zines and forums, conventions and clubs, there’s a Great Debate that kicks off every so often. The diversity of the clientele maps to a diversity of opinions — convictions, even — and few of these are as contentious as those addressing the differences or lack thereof between science fiction and fantasy. To be fair, the taxonomy of literary genres is a game that appeals to the geek in me as much as anyone, but the diversity we’re dealing with in the SF Café is obscured by the very word genre, its meaning muddled by a conflation of openly-defined aesthetic idioms with conventional forms that are closely-defined and marketing categories that are all but empty of definition.
There’s genre and there’s genre.
Across the city of Writing — and in the SF Café most of all perhaps — we’ve forgotten that the word genre derives from the Latin generis, meaning family, that if a genre is a family of fiction, then a work can be a member of that family by marriage or adoption as much as by birth. Aesthetic idioms are constantly reshaped by writers marrying one technique with another, adopting unfamiliar aims, methods born in other idioms entirely. This is genre as one big open clan. I’ve joked that being a “Celt” is actually fuck-all to do with birth; all you have to do is drink with a Celt, and that’s you initiated into the clan whether you like it or not. It’s like Richard Harris becoming Sioux in A Man Called Horse, only less painful than hanging by your nipples. (Although the hangover the next day…)
But then there’s genre. Buying into a bullshit of blood-lines, many are proud of the traits inherited with the tartan — so proud of their clan name they’ve forgotten that family can be openly defined, that the in-laws with different names are still family if we accept them as such. For certain feuding factions indeed that very notion is anathema. The clan name is everything, and a pox on any cur who slights it. Any pure-bred work of Science Fiction (or as they will call it, science fiction) is entirely unrelated, they’ll insist, to that damnable Fantasy (or as they will call it, fantasy). There’s Campbells and MacDonalds, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
But all we really have, others will say, is a tartan of a marketing category with an empty definition. The presentation of this stuff as a genre of Science Fiction is just bagpipes-and-haggis branding. In truth, it’s an open idiom, a genre of works which may be in various genres, an extended family of fictions better described as Hard SF, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Technothriller, and so on. Fantasy is in the same position, a tartan label slapped on a box containing the closely-defined forms of Epic Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, etc..
These are not subgenres, but genres in their own right, and the tartan labels that adorn these works are simply branding, their purpose to position a book in front of this audience or that. And, you know, they’ll say, that latter brand was only schismed off from Science Fiction in the 1970s, when Ballantine established their Adult Fantasy line to target the growing market for Tolkien, his direct ancestors and descendants. Look at all the works branded as either which ignore the constraints of genre altogether. Forget the clan names and tartan; the only sensible way to talk about science fiction or fantasy is as aesthetic idioms . If genre is a matter of familial relationships, what we have here is not two distinct clans with a feud going back longer than living memory. Science fiction is not Clan Campbell, fantasy is not Clan Macdonald, and the ghetto of Genre is not the blood-stained battleground of Glen Coe. The feud begins in 1971; before then science fiction and fantasy were happily married and raising kids together.
And hell, someone else will say, when you look at them as idioms, science fiction is really just a branch on the family tree of fantasy.
This is when the Great Debate inevitably kicks off.
A Shit Sandwich and a Diet Coke, Thanks.
“I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
Across the city of Writing, there are a lot of cafés and bistros, each with its own menu but all serving sandwiches and soda. Downtown in the ghetto of Genre or uptown in the chi-chi neighbourhood known as Literature, there are joints where the food is bought in ready-made from The Shit Sandwich Company, and behind the counter is a squirt-gun dispensing Coca Cola, Fanta or Sprite. Dr Pepper? Irn Bru? Maybe, maybe not. But you can guarantee the most populist tastes are catered for in these joints, that the most generic product is on offer. And many are happy with that; all they want is their local greasy spoon with the juke box they know off by heart, or the franchise with free Wi-Fi and coffee that’s the same in every outlet. The sign outside is the genre label, the promise of what you want, how you want it, every time, in the same way and in the same place — and for many that doesn’t mean a wholemeal bagel and a fruit smoothy or any such frou-frou crap; it means a Shit Sandwich and a Diet Coke, thanks.
And yet… the SF Café has Shit Sandwiches and Diet Coke on tap like all the rest, but it also (again like all the rest) has its own menu of hamburgers and hot dogs, fresh off the hot plate from the fry cook in back. And a fridge stocked full of all those weird soft drinks you’ve never heard of. We got Shinola Cola that you won’t get anywhere else. (It tastes a little strange at first, but a few cans and you’re hooked.) That’s because a marketing category offers more than is promised by the label, those red and white signs for Coca-Cola and the Shit Sandwich Company that adorn the front. As a marketing category it’ll stock whatever the fuck it can sell to its punters. And even if most punters want a genre, “more of the same,” there’s always some who want “something different,” want the wider menu of a genre as an openly-defined idiom rather than a closely-defined form.
The menu in the SF Café tells an interesting tale. See, regardless of what some punters might maintain, the SF Café was always under joint ownership. Old Man Campbell never ran the place on his own. Those who remember far enough back can still recall an old guy you’d see pottering around, name of George MacDonald. Some would say he was the senior partner, others that he was just hired help, but whatever his role in things he stamped his mark on the menu, made sure that the SF Café was serving the chicken nuggets of fantasy right from the start, as well as the hamburgers of science fiction. A nasty rumour surfaces from time to time, that he’s that McDonald, the clown who ripped the soul out of soul food, made it junk-food, fast-food, a factory-line product of sugar, salt and fat, identical in every franchise around the world. Pabulum for those with the taste-buds of a child. The quote from him above may go some way to explaining the source of this rumour and the subsequent attempt by one faction of patrons at the SF Café to assert their superiority of taste.
Science Fiction is not Fantasy, they say. It’s not for the child-like, never mind for children. No, Science Fiction is for the adolescent at least.
Welcome to the clan gathering at the SF Café. The feuds are great fun.
The Campbells and MacDonalds of science fiction and fantasy have been intermarried and interbred from the get-go, fucking and fighting, coming together at the SF Café’s drunken wakes and weddings, bickering over who belongs where and who doesn’t. Resentments bubble. Alliances are made and broken. Curmudgeons insult their second cousins. Black sheep flirt across the barricades. But for all the broadsides and backstabbing, the talk of this side of the family and that, the gene pool is too mixed to talk about different genres on any level other than loyalty. Genres? We can talk about Space Opera, Technothriller, Epic Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, the Campbells of the West Side, the MacDonalds of the Left Bank, and vice versa. There are the Three Sisters over here: Aunties Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. There are the Twins over there: Cousins Lieber and Howard. And there’s Crazy Uncle Lovecraft in the corner (the corner that doesn’t look… quite right). But many of us these days are bastards and step-kids, our lineages too mixed-up for us to give a fuck about some old fart’s obdurate insistence on a dichotomy that just doesn’t exist:
Science Fiction is not Fantasy?
Yeah, whatever. I’m more interested in the naked lunch that is the buffet.
A Really Big House
“‘The Carrick,’ ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ and ‘The Metamorphosis’: all three are commonly called fantasies. From my point of view, any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual. But when people call these three stories fantasies, they merely imply that the stories depart in their subject matter from what is commonly called reality.”
-Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures
Definitions of fantasy, like those of science fiction, come in three flavours — empty, open and closed. The quote from Nabokov above is misleading as regards his own contrast of fantasy and reality, but it’ll serve as a pointer to the first two. In the empty definition, fantasy is just imagination, story as extended fancy; all fiction is fantasy. This is not a terribly useful definition though, not when we use the term fantastic to mean that which is strange, bizarre in form or appearance. Where we say something is fantastic we mean that it is unrealistic, based on or existing only in extravagant fancy. We may even mean that it is wondrously so, to be marveled at. Since not all fiction is fantastic in this sense, an open definition seems more apt: fantasy is fiction which uses the fantastic. It departs from “what is commonly called reality.”
This open definition slides towards closure though, as the bounds of reality mark out a limit of fancy’s extravagance between based on and existing only in, where the unrealistic fractures into the improbable and the impossible. The nature of the fantastic, some will insist, is that it transgresses the laws of nature, is impossible, magical in the sense of metaphysical. The notion of the marvelous closes the definition further, specifying a distinctly positive tinge to our incredulity, not just awe but a wonder that implies desire, magical in the sense of delightful. While many of those in the SF Café shrug this off, drinking Kafka as their coffee, taking their fantasy bitter and black, there are those for whom the definition is and must be closed. There is no such fantasy. Either because they revere it or revile it, they acknowledge only Fantasy, that genre where the conventions of metaphysical agency and wondrous wish-fulfilment are essential, the conventional form with all its stereotypes of secondary worlds and heroic quests.
All too often there’s a scent of abjection when it’s a Science Fiction loyalist asserting a closed definition of fantasy, a sense that by defining these generic elements as Fantasy it is easier to banish them from Science Fiction. Because it’s not like science fiction was ever… you know… born from the frickin pulps.
Fuck that shit. Don’t be pissing on my Flash Gordon roots, motherfucker.
There is a neatness to the pairing of Fantasy and Horror as literatures of desire and fear. And the notion that science fiction deals with hypothetical improbabilities while fantasy deals with metaphysical impossibilities is one you’ll hear from many corners of the SF Café. But it’s not so easy as that; it never is with a genre. No, many works in the openly-defined aesthetic idiom of fantasy have zero interest in wish-fulfillment or the iconography of magic, scoff at the constraints of Fantasy. Meanwhile, delightful wonder abounds within Science Fiction, a direct inheritance of Gernsback’s “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Even the blithe assertion that science fiction deals with science while fantasy deals with magic is called into question by a glance at the shelves, where we see Herbert’s DUNE labelled as Science Fiction and Peake’s TITUS GROAN labelled as Fantasy. Isn’t the former chock full of magic — priests and prophecies, monsters and messiahs, a drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future. And what is the most fantastical idea in the latter? What magic does it contain?
A really big house.
That Tasty Tang of Boot Polish
The glib differentiations don’t hold up to scrutiny. If we contrast the extremes of Hard SF and Epic Fantasy, obviously there’s a polarity between these two aged maiden aunts of the family, these grande dames who think everything revolves around them; but to try and apply this science/magic divide as a basis for taxonomy across the board is futile. Science fiction long since assimilated the notion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, while fantasy long since assimilated the notion that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Writers on this side of the schismed family or that write the stories they want to, quite often treating the two as entirely interchangeable.
Even the Science Fiction of a Campbellian closed definition is deeply complexified by sense-of-wonder and futureshock so that the most rigorous futurology can be at once fantastic and/or horrific. Which is to say that the work itself may be, functionally speaking, both science fiction and fantasy, or both science fiction and horror, or all three. Ray Bradbury’s entire ouvre exemplifies the crumbling of Science Fiction into the open interplay of science fiction, fantasy and horror. With stories like “The Veldt”, for example, one is forced to ask: Is this science fiction, fantasy, horror… or all of the above?
And do we actually give a shit, given that it’s a fucking immense story?
No. The buffet at this clan gathering is a crawling chaos of pilfered tropes and techniques, shared plot structures and character types. Cowboys in space or knights fighting dragons! Dragons in space or cowboys fighting knights! The Shit Sandwiches munched down on both sides of the family have more in common than they have to distinguish them, heroic wankfests filled with Objects of Power, Grand Devices of technological magics, every FTL drive a mass-produced metaphysical causation engine, every wormhole a Clutean portal. The Shinola Cola passed out on both sides also has much in common too — using those Grand Devices as metaphors rather than just MacGuffins, extrapolating that Big Idea into novel narratives of worldscape, plot and themes, drawing 3D characters who interact with that worldscape and with each other on a deeper level than The Boy Hero’s Never-Ending Journey. If the glamour of incredibility can be seductive, if the formulae of plot offer easy options, and if these lead to different levels of aesthetic and ethical engagement, the difference is not between Science Fiction and Fantasy but between genre and genre.
You get different flavours of ice cream in your Shinola Cola Floats, but it’s that tasty tang of boot polish that makes them all so moreish.
Still, we do like our feuds. So we obscure this in every assertion of the science/magic dichotomy, each assertion fuelling the eternal argument partly because it carries or is percieved to carry an implicit judgement: that fiction utilising the former is intrinsically rational (intellectualist and critical) while fiction utilising the latter is intrinsically romantic (sensationalist and uncritical).
Cause, you know, magic is for children.
A Model of Magic
Let’s define magic. In essence, magic is metaphysical causality, a circumvention of the laws of nature; it’s cause-and-effect working outwith the temporal protocols of the cosmos. It is the activity and it is the capacity for that activity invested in any of the following: a system of forces; a location or state through which that system of forces can be accessed; an object (agent or artifact) charged with or tapping into that system of forces. By this simple definition time-travel and FTL are magical.
But Ted Chiang has pointed to a key distinction between science and magic: the former is reproducable industrially, on a mass scale, while the latter is not. Generally, in fact, magic is the preserve of a select elite of exceptional individuals, so much so that it’s often a signifier of their selection by the ultimate magic of the divine, a signifier of their destiny. Unpacking this and looking across the field of fiction though, we can say that human application of magic is located on a spectrum of methods of production that runs thus:
facility (gift) | art (talent)| craft (skill) | technique (process)
In any given work, the rarity of magic is largely a product of where it is placed on this spectrum. Magic may be presented as a facility, a gift that only the exceptional have; it may be presented as an art that only the exceptional will have a talent for, but that is learned almost as much as it is innate; it may be presented as a craft, a skill that comes naturally to some, but that’s more learned than innate and therefore open to use by anyone; it may be presented as a technique, a process which can be reproduced industrially because it is abstracted to mechanistic procedures.
The last presentation of magic is rare, used largely as a deliberate subversion of conventions., so Chiang’s distinction seems fair at first sight. What is science, after all, but the system of abstraction by which craft is transformed to technique, process identified in skill and therefore rendered reproducable, open to industrialisation? But if so, DUNE is utilising magic rather than science: the Guild navigators circumvent the temporal protocols of the cosmos; they travel through large distances of space in shorter periods of time than are allowable by those protocols; their manipulation of time and space is a craft, signified as such by the term guild (a pre-industrial organisation of skilled tradesmen); all of this is achieved only by means of a mental state bought on by melange; the procedure cannot be mechanised, reproduced industrially.
Similarly, note that in the TV series ANDROMEDA for a ship to travel through the slipstream (FTL) it requires a human pilot, because even machines with a fully-sentient AI are not capable of navigating this (magical) location/state. Note that jaunting, in Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION is a skill (craft) that pretty much everyone can learn but that jaunting through space is a talent (art) that only Gully Foyle has achieved. Note that at the end of the book he considers teaching this ability to humanity (transforming the talent to a skill, distributing it as he does PyrE) but has not yet begun this task. Note that either way jaunting is an essentially human capacity, not open to mechanisation.
All of this invites a simple question: What if the non-reproducable nature of magic is a ramification of it being a semiotic phenomenon, the skill an emergent feature of language and consciousness, not mechanised because it is a matter of agency?
An agent dealing with a world of signs has four key abilities: reception; perception; conception; inception. To be a semiotic agent one must be able to receive stimuli, perceive those stimuli as signifiers, conceive what is signified (i.e. process sensation into thought), and initiate action (i.e. act on thought rather automatic response). Magic is almost invariably presented in these terms, as a semiotic interaction with reality, a reading of its language and a (re)writing of its text through the application of that language. Words and gestures. Symbolic rituals. Magic is a hacking of reality, and that’s why it’s a craft, a skill. To mechanically reproduce it would mean building machines that replicate semiotic agency — AIs. In Asimov’s “Let There Be Light” this is exactly what happens. The end-product of AI technological development achieves the ultimate magic of godhood. It cracks the code of reality, and starts everything running again by calling the function that is the title of the story.
If such semiotic agency is considered limited to humans or similarly living entities, is this a fanciful worldview, or just a healthy skepticism about hard AI? Isn’t ANDROMEDA saying precisely that the ship’s AI is lacking the requisite semiotic flexibility? Certainly, magic often goes hand-in-hand with talk of spirits and souls, but is this religion or is it fiction? Does using magic in a story make one a priest, painting semiotic agency as the product of some metaphysical enspiriting that only humans have? Or might a writer simply be using magic and soul as conceits, tools for talking about semiotic agency itself? Trust me, when I describe someone as having “spirit,” this does not mean I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Magic is characterised as a semiotic skill because it is symbolic of semiotic skill itself — a metaphor of the power of language, of consciousness. The use of “spirit” as a metaphor for semiotic agency that goes with it is so profoundly resonant if we take it figuratively and so profoundly religous if we take it literally, it’s no wonder that magic pervades Science Fiction even as it’s abjected as Fantasy. It’s no wonder that the magic of Bester’s jaunting goes hand-in-hand with the Promethean fire of PyrE, an enervated and explosive substance triggered by thought, a blatant concretion of the metaphor of semiosis-as-power. It’s no wonder that some will insist, till they’re blue in the face, that DUNE is not “proper” Science Fiction, no, not with all that metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, all that magic.
Some get that it’s a metaphor, doofus; but some just ain’t got no poetry in their soul.
The Aesthetics of Old Maids
“SF is about confronting the strange in order to understand it and push the boundaries back but fantasy is either about enjoying the experience of strangeness (as in M John Harrison’s Virconium books) or bludgeoning it into submission in favour of a frequently politically dubious status quo (in the case of epic fantasy).”
- Johnathan McCalmont, Notes from the Geek Show
These sort of assertions as to what the two genres of science fiction and fantasy are “about” are unsustainable even as broad generalisations. Countless works of science fiction are deeply reactionary in their response to the strange, heroic adventures in which the aliens serve exactly the same purpose as Tolkien’s orcs. Countless works of fantasy, conversely, use the strange precisely to conceptualise what lies beyond our understanding. It is deeply problematic to view the Viriconium books as ultimately sensationalist pleasures when Harrison’s fiction is so clearly designed to disrupt and defy any attempt at passive immersion, to refuse the comfort of givens, to continually force the reader to face the unknown in the text and deal with it.) Hell, it is quite simply complacent to privilege science fiction in this way, as the more serious and committed form, boldly pushing forward to challenge the unknown and find answers (as opposed to, say, consciously or unconsciously manifesting knee-jerk right-wing American paranoia over enemies within and/or without — c.f. THE PUPPET MASTERS), while presenting fantasy as a reactionary enforcer of the social order (as opposed to, say, a cutting critique of the early 20th century class system and the impact upon it of populist but essentially totalitarian ideologies — c.f. TITUS GROAN).
But, OK. Suppose we strip away the shit and the shinola. Suppose we strip away all the clunk-click assemblage of cliches, the adolescent fantasies based on technomagical MacGuffins. Suppose we put to one side all that slippery stream of stuff that runs from Ray Bradbury through the writers of the New Wave and right up to Kelly Link. Suppose we forget for a second that the vast majority of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror shit is, to all intents and purposes, simply product, while the shinola is, to all intents and purposes, simply fiction. Suppose we forget that for a moment.
There are two oppositional aesthetics in the field, both products of the Enlightenment and each associated with one side or the other in its most specialised form — the rationalism associated with Science Fiction and the romanticism associated with Fantasy — indexed by the words hard and high (or epic). Hard SF and Epic Fantasy — both of these forms have been conventionalised, proscribed and prescribed, such that they constitute valid genres in a way that science fiction and fantasy do not.
Those two grande dames do make a lot of noise, and people do listen to them. If they don’t and can’t circumscribe science fiction and fantasy, readers and writers do perceive them as the centres of their respective genres, in a sort of “fuzzy set” model where both science fiction and fantasy lack clear boundaries but each congregates around a different centre. Within that big ongoing drunken wedding party of this great divided clan, the two of them sit there, Old Granny Campbell and Great Aunt MacDonald, holding court at separate tables, their arms folded, their gazes severe, each with quite distinct notions of how things should be done. Use your head, m’boy! says one. No, says the other, it’s the heart that matters! Even if most of the field is intermarried, interbred, even if many of us don’t really give a damn about those dotty old maids with their outmoded ideas on science and magic, they that us young’uns must pick sides.
Bollocks to that.
The division is there, yes. And the aesthetics those old maids have aligned themselves with are written deep enough in our culture that the field can’t help but be affected by the real centuries-old rift — that between rationalism and romanticism. But that dichotomy is artificial and obsolete, has been from the start. So one group sit at the booths in the SF Café and the other sits at the tables, one comes and leaves through the Nth Street door while the other enters and exits through the door onto Avenue X. Who gives a fuck? That sign that used to read the The Science Fiction Café and Bar? You know, they tried out a few variants before they settled on that: The Fantasy and Science Fiction Diner; The Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Bistro; The Weird Fiction Greasy Spoon; The Café Fantastique; The Science Fiction / Fantasy Snack Shack.
A Thoroughly Modern Molly
The real division is that between the Romantic and the Neo-Classical movements in painting, that schism in post-Renaissance art, that sifting of the aesthetic techniques of broad-brushed Rembrandts and tight-lined Raphaels, of airy Titians and earthy Brueghels, these techniques born from a new world of new technologies and new politics — oil-based paints, burgermeister patrons, a world where even if the subjects weren’t new — Vermeer painting a cleaning lady — the approaches were. This schism resulted in Jacques-Louis David on the one hand and Eugène Delacroix on the other, in Neo-Classicism with its emphasis on the ordered and Romanticism with its emphasis on the sublime. It is this same division that, in Science Fiction / Fantasy gives us the conflicting emphases on futurology and fantasia, the aesthetic of the logical and aesthetic of the sublime.
In writing, that Romantic idealisation of the sublime gives us the archetypal flights of fancy, rakish wanderers, rebel poets and all the epic wildernesses we will eventually see in (High) Fantasy, while the Neo-Classical idealisation of order gives us the novel as social study, as empirical observation, and all the rationalist restraint we will eventually see in (Hard) Science Fiction. Passion and Reason — the prevailing themes of the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution. Both Delacroix and David painted scenes from the French Revolution — Liberty Leading The Troops, and The Death of Marat. These paintings illustrate the difference of the two aesthetics rather neatly.
There was a third aesthetic however that developed in the dialogue between these — the modernism or modernity of Caravaggio, who was fusing Romantic chiaroscuro and Neo-Classical formality long before these terms were even in use, who painted sublimely ordered scenes, who used a dead whore dragged from the river as his Magdalene, thieves and peasants for his saints. His work is fiercely passionate and and coldly reasoned all at once. A pretty boy Bacchus, in a Caravaggio painting, is at once the Greek god himself and an urban hustler from the streets. Caravaggio plays the sublime and the logical off against each other. He renders the wild passion of a decapitation in the most coolly ordered composition.
A thoroughly modern molly, Caravaggio in his work embodies the rescaling that was going on, the re-evaluation of God and Nature and Humanity’s relationship to them both. He is the first modern(ist) painter, quite distinct from his Renaissance forebears in the sheer humanism of his work, and never surrendering to the idealisations that set the Romantics and the Neo-Classicists at each others’ throats. He leaves it to the Romantics to blather on about the importance of bold colour over clean line, leaves it to the Neo-Classicists to witter on about the value of clean line over bold colour. Passion versus Reason — the world of Western Art spends centuries bickering over which is better, centuries of Royal Academies and revolutionary outsiders, of worthy high art and vulgar low art, of intellectualist Literature and sensationalist Genre… and somewhere along the way that hoary old argument of Reason / Passion ends up in Science Fiction / Fantasy. As if that’s all there is. As if there’s scientifically rigorous rationalism or weirdly wild romanticism. And ne’er the twain shall meet.
Fuck that shit, says Caravaggio.
The Fantasy of Genre, The Science of Fiction
There is a shared methodology in much strange fiction, whatever name it goes by, an approach shaped by a shared aesthetic, neither romanticism nor rationalism but something more akin to the modernism of Caravaggio, reacting to the modern world, portraying humanity’s relationship with “God” and “Nature” in a way that, when it works, plays the sublime grandeur of one off against the logical restraint of the other, and in doing so results in something neither could achieve alone. Neither science fiction nor fantasy — no matter what those old maids would have you believe — has ever been so pure in its devotion to those antithetical aesthetics. The rationalism of Wells is counterpointed by the romanticism of Verne. In the Gernsback-Campbell era when Science Fiction was born, those two aesthetics were always as much in collaboration as they were in conflict, romantic adventures fleshed with rationalist science, futurology as the source of fantasia. The dynamic power of the fiction resides in the interaction.
The distinction that drives the Great Debate is an illusion, an artificial dichotomy based more on claims of allegiance than on actual practice. Two subsets of the field live by their grande dame’s rhetoric, creating works that do exemplify the warring aesthetics of rationalism and romanticism. But if you look around the drunken wedding party, ignore the two old maids sitting in their corners, that dusty old duality looks largely irrelevant. Perhaps it is only in that shattering crack of lightning which splits the genre that the true nature of the hideous creation is revealed. And it is not Science Fiction. Science Fiction is dead. This is the Frankenstein’s monster of science fiction / fantasy, a patchwork of dead genres, of the cannibalised cadavers of Romanticism and Rationalism, torn apart and stitched back together, a glorious, monstrous marriage of meat machines. It’s a riven thing — we could hardly expect two or three hundred years of division between Romanticism and Rationalism to be healed in a few decades — but it is a thing.
That thing is, in essense, modernism. We might brand it Pulp Modernism — cheap, populist, balls-to-the-wall modernism, out to entertain more than an elite of aesthetes and intellectuals, but still modernism. It uses mimesis on the one hand, semiosis on the other, rationalising magic and romanticising science, combining the strange and the mundane, constantly experimenting with literary elements. The integrity we project on it, the unity we impose upon it with our so-well-formed definitions, is only that of a family which, in truth, extends as far as we decide it does. There is no genre of Fantasy, only the fantasy of genre. This isn’t the fiction of science; it’s the science of fiction. What we have is one confused clusterfuck of conventional forms ripped apart and rebuilt as an aesthetic idiom, a mode of fiction in which we take conceits, fantastic ideas, and put them to the test with literature as the laboratory.
When the results are good, right enough, we do have a tendency to go into mass production mode, churning out low-quality copies from the cheapest of materials, for a market of consumers who’ll love our new toys for a day or two before abandoning them in favour of the next shiny gadget. There’s an upside to that: that Big Corporate Structure keeps the R & D department going, so to speak, the vast market for commercial product supporting the smaller market for high-end fiction in this pulp modernist mode. But there’s a down-side: the commercialisation results in one key drawback, in the depth to which such works become bound to, sold as, and ultimately misunderstood as genre, as this schismed, schizoid Science Fiction / Fantasy, at odds with itself. And arguing in the ghetto creole of Genre, where aesthetic idiom is conflated with conventional form and marketing category, we buy into that, swallow it hook, line and sinker.
And the Great Debate rages on, food fights becoming flame wars, immolating meaning in a holocaust of definitions.
Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at www.halduncan.com.