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The Order of the Blue Flower by Hal Duncan – Notes from New Sodom

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.

A Scanner Darkly

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.


Camp Consolation

“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.

The Echoes of Faith

“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.

A Romance with Reason

“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.”

-New Scientist

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.

This Improper Conjuring

“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.

The Impossible Blue

“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.


  1. I agree with your general take on fantasy and sf here, but I wonder if you could elaborate on what you mean by Romanticism? When I see the term, and specifically when I see it capitalised, I think of, well, the Romantics: Blake, Shelley, Coleridge … these writers don’t seem to have much in common with Romanticism as you’re talking about it here. In fact, you mention “the grand lineage of [the latter-day Romantics’] cult — Macdonald, Tennyson, Macpherson, Spenser, Mallory, Geoffrey of Monmouth”, neatly skipping over the actual Romantic period (well, touching on it with Macpherson, I suppose). Frankly, I’m not sure what those writers have in common, other than dealing with settings or plot elements that much later would come to be said to be fantasy. You do mention Novalis, Goethe, and others elsewhere (though Goethe’s an ambiguous Romantic, if that), but I still don’t recognise Romanticism as I understand it in the way you use the word.

    I’d also argue that the influence on “fantasy” that you ascribe to Tolkien would be more accurately ascribed to the perception of Tolkien (the paper copy of the blue flower, I suppose). Which is a pedantic distinction to make on one level, but I think does actually go to the core of what you’re talking about here. I don’t think Tolkien could be described as a Romantic (although, again, I suppose it depends on how you define Romanticism); but I think it’s a common misreading of his work to do so.

    Quibbling aside, good essay!

  2. Such a wonderful essay, Hal. Truly amazing in its composition too. jv

  3. Matthew: To clarify, I’m not pointing at those writers as Romanticism, but rather as a lineage pointed at by the latter-day Romantics — part true, part false. There’s a whole other essay in and of itself in this, but briefly… condensing it all horrendously… I think one can talk about Late Romanticism in the medievalist & celtic twilight iconography going back through Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1856-85), Macdonald’s Phantastes (1858), the Pre-Raphaelites first exhibition (1850).

    This takes us back to the official Romanticism we class as such — Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819), Shelley’s Alastor (1816), Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18), Scott’s Ivanhoe (1818), Coleridge & Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The last of these is a start-point if we treat Romanticism as a genre of English poetry, but I think the term is as useful, if not more so, as a label for a broader aesthetic, a discourse even. The aesthetic of Romanticism continues past that period and arguably begins before it.

    So if we open our perspective, we start to see also Gothic & Proto-Romantic literature — Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) (in the preface to the second edition of which Walpole casts his work as a blend of old and new romance), Macpherson The Works of Ossian (1765), Joseph Warton “The Enthusiast”(1744). This takes us back to the Gothic Revival beginning in the 1740s. What all these works share is an aesthetic of passion versus reason, one which is born in and binds together the sublime, the grotesque and the idyllic. It’s an aesthetic of the sensational that’s wired into the romance form itself. It can even be abstracted to the architectural.

    One can set this against a rival aesthetic, where realism, rationalism and classicism are bound together in what might be broadly termed an aesthetic of the intellectual: the Neoclassicism of David’s Oath of the Horatii (1785); Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy (est. 1768) (Burke said of Reynolds: “To be such a painter, he was a profound and penetrating Philosopher.” Reynolds said of the French aristocracy, fallen to the revolution: “They neglected Trade & substantial Manufacture.”) We can read Samuel Johnson’s characterisation of the grandiose folly of Charles XII of Sweden in “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749) — “Think Nothing gain’d, he cries, till nought remain, / On Moscow’s Walls till Gothic Standards fly, / And all be Mine beneath the Polar Sky.” — as a critique of that Romanticist aesthetic made before it was named as such.

    I guess what I’m saying is that in strict terms, where Romanticism is taken as the movement(s), the genre(s), it’s fair to cast it as a response to the Enlightenment — Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) — but I’d argue that the conflict of discourses here is a Culture Wars going back to Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605-1615), a direct satirical response to Amadis de Gaul (1508) and other such chivalric romance. It wouldn’t really be correct to say that Cervantes is attacking Romanticism, because Romanticism doesn’t exist yet, but he’s attacking the aesthetic which very much *does* exist.

    So the reference to the “grand lineage” is deliberately… ambiguous. One can trace that aesthetic back into and beyond the Renaissance via Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-96), Mallory Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (1220s), Chrétien de Troyes’s various Arthurian tales (1170-90), all the way back to Geoffrey of Monmouth. But that action of tracing entails a characteristically Romantic fabrication of heritage. But then from Geoffrey on, those writers are themselves fabricating their heritage, turning the Early Medieval into a Western European “age of heroes” to replace the classical Matter of Rome. Which is where Tolkien explicitly renders himself Romantic, by the way, as I see it, in his stated purpose of creating a mythology for England — curiously dismissing the Matter of Britain which is exactly that.

    I’m not sure if that answers the question, but maybe it sketches in the wider discourse I’m suggesting.

  4. A link wasn’t provided, but a little Googling found a copy of the original New Scientist editorial. That was in 2005, but since it was resurrected here and now, some quotes with commentary here and now. Pardon the length, but thoroughness is desirable.

    “Science is indeed the faith, system, theory, methodology – choose your own term – that sustains liberal democratic secularism.”

    I can see having different opinions about whether “science” sustains “liberal democratic secularism,” instead of the other way round. And I can see having different opinions about whether the good society is adequately described by the phrase “liberal democratic secularism.” But no one can honestly say theory (explanation,) methodology (way of finding explanations,) and system (set of explanatory principles and outline of their application,) are equivalent to faith. Taking things on faith is the opposite of accepting an explanation. Belief may follow examination of evidence, but it is not the explanation, the way the explanation is found or the way the explanation fits into a picture of the world. The words belief and faith overlap in meaning but that does not make beliefs founded on scientific evidence a faith.

    “So the secularist may reply to the fundamentalist: ‘I do indeed have a faith but, unlike yours, it works and gets better all the time.'”

    Religious believers usually tell us that their faith works fine, but the Godless world the secularists are making, doesn’t. The subtle suggestion that the enlightened readers agree that science works and religion doesn’t is all very flattering, but evades the issue of how one decides what we mean when we say that science works. The editorial’s assumption is that science does not work in the sense of discovering knowledge. The unpleasant corollary, that religion does, or at least might, is tacitly dismissed as an unfitting thought for the enlightened reader. Flattering as that may be to the reader, it is not an argument. Editorials especially should at least try to make an argument, instead of cozily admitting the reader to the inner circle of higher (but still common sensical) minds. How generalization from experience is to be equated with religious belief may be commonplace bigotry, but it still needs justification.

    “At this point the secularist/scientist would be well advised to shut up, because almost anything he says to strengthen his position will topple him over into a fundamentalism of his own. For there is a scientific fundamentalism, too, and it is, in its way, just as dangerous as the religious version.”

    How could anyone who reads this think said secularists and scientists have taken a position? They declare they think science works, the religious declare religion works. At this point, the two camps merely have different taste in results. How does it follow the secularists and scientists are not to be so rude as to criticize someone else’s taste? As for the assertion that there is a scientific fundamentalism, this directly contradicts the preceding articles in the series, that make a reasonable initial case that fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity (meaning such things as a secular society.) The notion that scientific fundamentalism is an emotional reaction to the threat of science, the faith of the liberal democratic secularists, has a certain droll humor. An editorial that so forthrightly ignores the magazine’s own evidence insults our intelligence.

    “The fatal extrapolation to make from this position is that it must, therefore, potentially be omnicompetent and omniscient. Scientific fundamentalism is the belief that the world is accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason.”

    Rephrasing in positive terms, this guy is saying: The fact that science has previously worked can only be reasonably extrapolated as the conclusion that science is necessarily limited in scope and power. It is not at all clear how omnicompetence comes in, except that the author wants it to. All this is not only illogical but ignores the history of scientific progress. The next sentence on superficial reading seems to clarify the meaning of the first sentence. However, this sentence puffs up the notion that science has no limits in principle to the assurance that science says there are no limits. Not only is the separate question of the powers of science (technology) again somehow dragged in, but it too gets inflated into a claim that nature is “ultimately” controllable. This doesn’t really make any sense, not even grammatically, but it does make scientists seem megalomaniacal.

    To put it another way, the author erects a straw man. In fact, as is well known, scientists have historically tended to limit themselves to the measurable, even to the point of positivism. The positivist tendency has had repeated embarrassments when it turned out that all sorts of things turned out after all to be measurable. Author Appleyard may want to associate himself with Auguste Comte in declaring something forever inaccessible to science, despite seeing sun and stars. Why, unless he has lived his entire life under a rock?

    “This is a profoundly unscientific idea. It is neither provable nor refutable. Obviously it is a leap of faith to insist that human reason is capable of fully understanding the world. We seem to have some access to its workings, but it would be wildly premature to believe that the human brain is capable of comprehending all reality. The idea that it is up to such a task is an arguable hypothesis based on a very optimistic view of human rationality, but that is all.”

    I suppose we could generously claim Mr. Appleyard is an unskilled writer who hasn’t mastered pronoun reference. Do “This” and “it” refer to the potentiallly unlimited achievements of science and technology or to the necessarily unlimited achievements of future science and technology? Eristically, it is convenient to muddle the pronouns, because the first is a reasonable position held by many while the second is an extreme claim held by…who again? The notion that modern science is “some access” to the world’s workings is a sly way of belittling science’s accomplishments. Scientists and people interested in science are already quite absorbed in problems due to science already being far beyond “the” human brain. There is already too much information for one person to absorb, too many problems inaccessible to commonsense intuition determinate but still unpredictable, situations still amenable only to statistical methods of analysis, on and on.

    Further, the qualification that we merely “seem” to have some understanding is quite remarkable. Raising the bar for science’s success to include “all” reality suggests that Mr. Appleyard will not accept that science is really knowledge unless it can take the place of the Calvinist God, who predetermines everything.

    Most importantly, the man is completely wrong when he claims that science bases its claims to knowledge on the validity of human reason. Even if one agreed that human reason is invalid, science is based on the notion that the universe is intelligible, potentially accessible to reason and manipulable, because it is a coherent whole. It is up to Mr. Appleyard and his fellow occultists to explain how a lawless universe keeps on being so regular. Whether he wants to admit it or not (or even realizes it or not,) Appleyard is as one with those cranks who mutter about quantum mechanics when they want to “explain” ESP or God or whatever. People may want to object to the claims there is a real universe and that it is lawful as metaphysical (ontological I think is the precise term,) and therefore not science. A philosopher expressed the notion first, ergo it is wrong. It should be obvious that argument is the genetic fallacy. The implication that imagination, speculation, has no role in scientific investigation is philistine

    “We know – or should know – that all contemporary science will be modified or overthrown by the science of the future. This is not to take the postmodern view that science is just one interpretation of the world among many others. Rather, it is simply to say that the scientific truth of one era may later come to be seen as no more than a rough approximation.”

    This is just militant ignorance. What fool really expects the Copernican theory to be overthrown? I suppose there are some vague, uncomprehended notions about Newton and Einstein’s theories of gravitation wandering the fog in this guy’s brain. At least, that’s the one the cranks usually fixate upon. Newton explicitly declared that he framed no hypotheses about how gravitation worked. The assumption of absolute time was noted in his own time as dubious. Thus, when Einstein does frame hypoetheses which expelled the notion of absolute time, he was not modifying or overthrowing Newton in the sense Appleyard implies. The happy confirmation that general relativity can be approximated by Newton’s theory was so happy precisely because Newton’s results could not be dismissed as an inadequate conception. Inasmuch as Newton/Einstein are the classic example of this supposed truth, isn’t it long past time taking this nonsense seriously?

    “So there is a clear logical and equally clear practical and historical objection to what I have called scientific fundamentalism.”

    If you’ve paid attention, this is simply not true. This asks the question, what is this editorial really about?

    “That scientific fundamentalism is dangerous should be evident to any serious thinker looking back on the 20th century. Fascism was an anti-Enlightenment creed, but its most lethal expression in Nazism was founded on science. Hitler’s Mein Kampf leaned on the biology of Ernst Haeckel, which, at the time, was perfectly respectable. Communism, an ideology that sprang directly from the scientific Enlightenment, was based on Marx’s conviction that a science of history had been discovered. The slaughter of the Jews, Stalin’s massacres and Mao’s deliberate starving of millions were all executed by people persuaded they were justified by scientific insights.”

    And so we find out: New Scientist is against the Enlightenment because it leads to Communism! Nazism wasn’t based on science, but on anti-Communism, traditional anti-Semitism, revanchism, Bismarckian statism, nationalism, and, oh yes, Satan via the paganism and occultism of the Thule Society. Whatever Hitler said in Mein Kampf, before I take it seriously, show me some reason to think he was being honest and show me some reason to think that people actually paid attention to the book, rather than their Lutheran pastor, who usually thought Hitler the best Catholic politician in Germany. Since Stalin’s massacres included the majority of the Communist Party leadership, all claims of continuity are false. The allegation that Mao deliberately starved millions seems to be original to Appleyard’s particular rightwing sect. He would have been much more prudent to claim Khrushchev deliberately disrupted the Chinese economy and starved millions. All this psychotic drivel is like the claims that pagan decadence led to the fall of the Roman Empire; that Katrina was God’s punishment on the sinners of New Orleans; that homosexuality causes earthquakes. (I originally wrote, that teaching evolution leads to Nazism. Then I remembered that Appleyard actually did claim this!) There is no point in speculating on the particular mental deficiencies or moral defects that cause someone to peddle this filth.

    “Of course, it might be said this was bad science. But that is no more of an excuse than saying the Spanish Inquisition was bad religion.”

    This is so wrong it exceeds my capacity to express amazement. Just like evolutionary psychology today, would-be scientific racism was demonstrably bad science. The scientists who blithely accepted the orginal scientific racism justified their acceptance by limiting their science to confirming cherished prejudices, rather than following scientific logic and evidence to the end. Just as Appleyard limits science so that it can’t pronounce on human affairs, they limited science to confirming their equally cherished prejudices about the inequality of races. Arbitrarily limiting science was no excuse for scientific racism, and it’s no excuse for Appleyard’s reactionary politics.

    What Appleyard and his cothinkers refuse to accept is that there is no valid criticism of any religion on religious grounds: That’s why there is not one theological fact established after thousands of years. The supposed crimes of the Spanish Inquisition were justified by theology. Religion does not progress to a more complete understanding of the truth, because nothing in religion corresponds to anything in reality. You can only reject the religion, either for another religion like Protestantism or Islam, or for the generalization of experience that shows there is no room in the world for the supernatural. That is to say, science.

    “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, it is 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 modern science at all was because of the direction these disciplines took in the course of the Renaissance. That these values worked so triumphantly in science is unarguable; that they have failed to work anywhere else is equally unarguable. The brief period of calm we currently enjoy in the west floats on the usual sea of war and genocide.”

    Magic is a discipline? An interesting use of the word. If one can say that the vague notion of God the King decreeing the Laws of Nature, as an earthly king makes laws for his subjects qualifies as theology, then one has pretty much exhausted the contributions of theology to science. The theologicans who contributed to science’s conceptual foundations did so when confronting the challenges of secular philosophy. And those challenges were ultimately supported by the crudely material value of technology. Most scientists were believers to some degree or other (which is still true,) but it is precisely those smuggled in prejudices that motivated the worst abuses of science. Even worse for Appleyard and his ilk, some of the values that led to science’s success include materialism, including the reality of the world; its lawfulness; the impossibility of the supernatural; the potential intelligibility of nature. Appleyard omits these because he wishes to attack them. Why he neglects to note the role of technological progress and economic development is mystifying, though it generally fits with his obscurantist agenda. Lastly, genocide is not usual.

    “The human world is very different from the one seen through the telescope or in the test tube. To say it would be nice if it wasn’t is to say nothing. To say it should be and we can make it so is downright sinister – fundamentalist, in fact. But that is precisely what many scientistic thinkers, dazzled by the success of science, have been saying. The human world is perverse, complex, violent and utterly indecipherable. There is no science of history and no technology that will save us from the future. Scientific fundamentalism deludes us with dreams of competence; it expects too much of this world, just as religious fundamentalism expects too much of the next.”

    Cui bono? The idea that the social order just happens, and “we” can’t do anything about it, benefits some people greatly. On one level, this editorial is just another marketing ploy, saying New Scientist is free of any ideas that might offend religious people. On another, it contributes to the attack on enlightenment the other articles profess to oppose.

  5. I just want to say that this is one of the best and most intelligent responses to something I’ve seen in a comment. I hope you write for a living or as a major hobby.

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