Sunday, December 11, 2005

Good reading

British playwrite Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize Speech is a wonderful thing. From how he writes to the state of the world.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Rain Taxi Ebay Auction

A charity auction benefitting the wonderful, nonprofit review magazine, Rain Taxi, is going on at Ebay from December 5-12. The auction features books and more from authors such as Stephen Dixon, Kelly Link, and Paul Auster.

Here's a link to the auction

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Let's Try This Again

Since my previous post seems to have been widely misinterpreted, I figured I'd try to restate my argument more clearly.

First of all, I'm NOT trying to offer a definition of science fiction or a definition of fantasy. To explain what I am trying to do, let me offer an example, one which I hope will work better than the "magical radio" example of my previous post.

Imagine a story in which teleportation is available in the form of teleport booths, where anyone can walk up, dial up a destination, and go. Now imagine a story in which teleportation is available only in the presence of a certain individual, who exerts his/her will to make it happen.

To me, based on these admittedly scant descriptions, the first story feels more like science fiction, while the second feels more like fantasy. If you don't perceive this difference between the two stories, or if you do perceive this difference but couldn't care less about it (both of which I consider perfectly legitimate reactions), then I advise you to stop reading this post right now, lest it piss you off.

For those who are still with me, the rest of this post (along with my previous post) is my attempt to articulate what I think underlies my perception of a difference between the two stories.

So, why does one story feel like SF while the other feels like fantasy? It's not a matter of what can or can't happen according to known physical laws; we can stipulate that teleportation is impossible in either form depicted, and still perceive a difference. Is it the year in which the story is set? I'd say no, because this difference persists even if both stories are set in the present day. Does it depend on how detailed an explanation is offered? Again I'd say no, because this difference persists even if no further explanation is offered in either story.

I submit that we perceive a difference in the stories because in the former, the phenomenon of teleportation appears to be an application of impersonal physical laws, while the in latter, the phenomenon of teleportation relies on the conscious intention of an individual practitioner. For the sake of brevity if nothing else, we can refer to the first as a technological form of teleportation and the second as a magical form of teleportation.

Let me talk for a minute about technology and magic as thus distinguished. Does we live in a universe that permits only technology and excludes magic? Jeff VanderMeer seems certain that we do, and I tend to agree, but that assertion is not actually a requirement for the argument I'm trying to make.

I think it's fair to say that in the past, more people believed that the universe permitted magic than believe it today. Many factors contributed to this shift in opinion, and one of them was industrialization. Certain phenomena turned out to be reliably repeatable, and as it happened, these were ones that did not rely on the conscious intention of a practitioner. The synthesis of, say, nitric acid turned out to be easily repeatable. By contrast, the transmutation of base metal into gold, which was often said to rely on spiritual purity as much as laboratory technique, was not easily repeatable. It's likely that people were never able to do it at all, but even if they were, the spiritual requirement meant that they weren't able to repeat it reliably.

I think the spread of mass production contributed to a decrease in the belief that conscious intention could play a role in physical phenomena. Are we better off because of it? I don't know. Maybe we'd be better off if more people believed in magic, and/or if the universe actually supported magic. Technology certainly has its downsides, but love it or hate it, technology plays a bigger role in the modern view of the universe than it did in the past, and magic plays a smaller one.

Now, what about fiction that depicts these two types of phenomena? Do I think fiction depicting technology is superior to fiction depicting magic? No. Do I think that a sharp boundary can be drawn between the two? No.

I think we perceive a difference between fiction with a technological worldview and fiction with a magical worldview, not just because of the history of SF/F as subgenres, but also because of the history of our relationship with technology and magic themselves.

I have no problem if writers want to mix technological and magical worldviews in their work, or if they want to keep them separate. I think good artistic effects can be achieved with either approach; bad ones, too. But let me suggest that awareness of the difference between these two worldviews can be useful, because it can help us as readers to understand our reactions to a work, and as writers to make deliberate choices in our writing.

If this post seems nonsensical to you, I apologize for wasting your time. However, if you feel compelled to respond to this post, I hope that you will try to respond to the argument I am trying to make, and not to other arguments that this may remind you of.