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.


Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I think the teleportation example you give pretty much nails down exactly where I disagree. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, where the teleportation (it's through time as well as space, but it's still teleportation) is by way of a device should, by that logic, feel more SF than Bester's The Stars My Destination, where the teleportation is dependent on the conscious will of an individual. Jaunting, as Bester depicts it, is a quasi-magical power that people develop or learn; it absolutely relies on the conscious intention of an individual practitioner, rather than an application of impersonal physical law. That might well lead one to say that TSMD is more Fantasy than SF, but I think to do so is, then, an act of definition, and one that's at odds with the common use of the term "SF". I mean, I think that most people will continue to call TSMD Science Fiction, regardless of the technomagic.

So... you do have the caveat that technological and magical can be mixed, that there's no sharp boundaries between the genres, and so on. Fair enough. But I basically read you as positing that, for all the mixing, these worldviews are still each at the core of their respective genres, that these worldviews are if not definitive then at least characteristic features of SF and Fantasy. No?

That's why the Bester example nails the problem for me. To me, TSMD is a core work of SF rather than a cross-genre hybrid. Hell, I'd describe it as a formative work, one which helped shape the field. I don't see Bester's treatment of jaunting as exceptional in its crossing the line between knowhow and houdou. Indeed, I think it fits neatly into a tradtion of the "next step in human evolution" ideas, whereby humans acquire quasi-magical powers on the path to transcendance. That's a trope which is at the very heart of the genre -- from the Star Child of 2001 through to every super-evolved "energy being" in every dodgy TV show.

Way I see it, there is a dual influence of Rationalism and Romanticism in the broad field of SF/F, and some distinct genres like Hard SF and High Fantasy do have a tendency towards one or the other. So the distinction you make is valid in some respects. But I think the prevalent -- the characteristic -- worldview of SF and Fantasy alike is actually a Modernist one which smashes those two Enlightenment aesthetics together. Its a worldview very much shaped by the age of mass-production and mass-communication, by the mechanised warfare and sweeping social changes of the early 20th Century, and so on. The human assumption of power over nature in the absence of God might be symbolised as magic or science; either way its about the power of knowledge. The Technomagical McGuffins, the Objects of Power generated from that wisdom, might be revered or feared, might save the world or destroy it; either way that Modern futureshock can be played out with either SF or Fantasy as the medium, in Orwell's 1984 or Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

Thank you for offering thoughtful disagreement instead of knee-jerk dismissal. I actually agree with almost everything you're saying.

I confess I haven't seen Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, but as for Bester's The Stars, My Destination, I definitely consider it SF.

Remember that quote from Sarah Monette: "It's an oversimplification to say that sf deals with the consequences of the Industrial Revolution while fantasy denies the Industrial Revolution ever took place." I think TSMD is quite firmly a post-Industrial Revolution novel, and one of the reasons is that it's all about mass production. Short-range jaunting has become a universal ability, and as such it has transformed society. At the end of the novel, Gully Foyle's newfound ability to perform long-range jaunts has the potential to similarly revolutionize society. This examination of the consequences of a new discovery is, I think, a very SFnal approach, and it's a result of the rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Regarding the fact that jaunting relies on conscious intention: yes, psi powers have been popular in SF for a very long time. People have been interested in psychic phenomena in the real world for a long time, too, and I think that this reflects a desire to live in a universe that recognizes intention, one that distinguishes between persons and mechanisms.

I'm probably asking for trouble by saying this, but let's assume a huge block of disclaimers before I posit that an underlying impulse beneath the ideas of magic and/or psychic powers is "wishing will make it so." I imagine that every single child on earth could arrive at this idea independently, so deeply is it grounded in human nature. That impulse didn't go away after the Industrial Revolution, nor is it absent from SF.

I think psi powers were most popular in SF when the investigation of psychic phenomena in the real world was at its peak of respectability (I think both have declined in recent years, but I'm willing to be corrected). I think the presence of psi powers in SF reflects the desire to reconcile two things: the obvious success of impersonal technology in our post-industrial world, and the desire to live in a universe that recognizes consciousness.

(Quantum mechanics is another avenue used -- both in SF and in the real world -- to grant consciousness special status.)

I think your ideas about Rationalism and Romanticism align roughly with my ideas about a technological worldview and a magical worldview. I personally have had bad luck using those terms in conversations about the genre, and so have been wary about using them, but now I'm having bad luck using my terms, too, so perhaps this will teach me to just say nothing.

I do have a question for you: when you said that TSMD is a core work of SF rather than a cross-genre hybrid, what did you mean by "SF" and by "cross-genre"? It seems to me that the fact that this statement seems meaningful suggests that there is some utility in retaining the idea of SF as a genre. How would you rephrase that statement using only the terms that you feel are clearly defined, like Modernism or Space Opera?

I once read an essay about the assertion that Chaucer was the first Modernist writer, and whether this rendered the term "Modernism" meaningless. I think that no matter what vocabulary one uses, there will always be exceptions and counterexamples, but that doesn't mean that the vocabulary has to be thrown out.

12:53 AM  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

When you said that TSMD is a core work of SF rather than a cross-genre hybrid, what did you mean by "SF" and by "cross-genre"? It seems to me that the fact that this statement seems meaningful suggests that there is some utility in retaining the idea of SF as a genre. How would you rephrase that statement using only the terms that you feel are clearly defined, like Modernism or Space Opera?

To me "cross-genre" is actually an often erroneous term in SF/F, assuming as it does the primary discreteness of SF and Fantasy. The implication is that you have distinct languages, to use a metaphor, and that fusing those results in a sort of Creole, a work which "contains" some of the grammar and lexicon of one, some of the grammar and lexicon of the other. I think you could possibly apply this at the level of works where two more discretely identifiable genres, such as Space Opera and Epic Fantasy are combined in just such a manner. Science Fantasy, I'd say, is the label we've come to stick on just such a hybridisation, and Dune or the Pern books might be good examples of that genre.

"SF", however, has never been a singular, discrete genre a la Space Opera, to my mind, nor has Fantasy. One has to look at the field of SF/F as a confused mix of fantastic genres in a constant process of hybridisation, with the "cross-genre" works as much the rule as the exception. Bradbury, Delany, Ellison, Dick, Zelazny -- many writers not only work in various genres, they work across those genres. I think "The Veldt", for example, is a work that reads as Science Fiction and as Fantasy and as Horror. Do we refer to this as "cross-genre", or do we just say, fuck it, and call it SF. I think the historical and present use of the term "SF" allows us to do the latter.

The term SF has lost its science-oriented specificity because of the overwhelming mass of "cross-genre" works that have deeply been formative, I think; the term refers as often as not to "what I point to when I say SF". SF has become interchangeable in that sense with SF/F for many people, a shorthand way of referring to a complex field. It's partly in that sense that I see TSMD as a core work -- at the heart of a broad field which includes Silverberg's The Book of Skulls, Dick's Valis or Delany's Dhalgren, or Bradbury's "The Veldt" -- works where the "science" in Science Fiction feels somewhat strange as a descriptor and where the science-oriented definitions of that term seem somewhat inadequate. In that sense, I guess I might expand the acronym to "Speculative Fiction" as the all-encompassing blanket phrase.

In the linguistic metaphor, I guess I'm saying that the Creole "SF" is the dominant lingua franca and has been for some time. While various of the original languages still exist, some of them quite pure (e.g. Hard SF and High Fantasy) "Science Fiction" and "Fantasy" were always really more families -- Germanic or Romance -- rather than individual languages in their own right. A good way to see it, maybe, would be to say that with "SF" I don't mean it to equal Science Fiction any more than English equals Germanic or even, more specifially Anglo-Saxon. The influence of French, Latin, Greek and Norse have changed the English language so radically that such usage seems inaccurate. Ditto with the SF born out of that mid-20th Century melee.

You could theoretically try and taxonomise these genres and align each of them with one of two poles -- SF and Fantasy -- or somewhere in between. And this hierarchical division of Speculative Fiction into SF and Fantasy (and Horror, we should probably add, as a third fuzzy set) seems quite common these days. However, I think this is basically like taking variant dialects of English and saying this one is Romance because it has a lot of French influence and this one is Germanic because it retains a lot of Anglo-Saxon features. English has developed its own grammar and lexicon quite distinct from its origins, and in the same way, I think the dominant and dynamic Creole which is SF or SF/F has developed its own characteristics quite distinct from its roots in the various genres we might segregate out as Science Fiction and Fantasy.

For me, the thing is, this whole approach involves a confusion of process and product, and if we look at it from another angle entirely I think we can actually come up with a much more accurate model of what's going on. So. If we forget about the results and look at the approach...

There's an expansion of that SF acronym that was advanced in the 70's, I think, which I'm rather fond of -- Structural Fabulation. As I understand it, this refers to a literary approach which takes a metaphor and makes it concrete, extending it out through the body of the story or novel. I think that's a technique at the heart of fantastic fiction, common to the work published as SF, Fantasy and Horror and usually there in the work published as General Fiction which SF readers pick up on and recognise as "SFnal" regardless of the labelling. I think there's an accuracy and utility in that term, and I think it applies to that broad field of SF which includes Valis and Dhalgren, where definitions involving science just aren't as relevant.

Part of what interests me about it is that some of the power of the more science-oriented SF is elucidated, for me, by understanding that this approach could or could not involve grounding the metaphoric conceit which underpins the work in plausible scientific speculation, resulting in that more specific form of SF we call Science Fiction. At the same time, though the emotive import of the metaphor is quite distinct. If, for instance, that emotive import is profoundly horrific then you can end up with a work which is as much Horror as SF. I think there's a case to be made that Gormenghast is in fact fairly plausible science in its conceit of the "big house" -- its not so far from the sort of conceit Ballard would use, for instance -- but its a different focus in the way that conceit is applied which leads us to label Peake's work Fantasy rather than SF. This also allows us to factor in works such as The Man In The High Castle, which substitutes history for science; it's not SF as Science Fiction, but it is very much SF as Structural Fabulation. Zelazny's Roadmarks is another example -- it's generally seen as SF but you could argue that the conceit of all roads being connected by forgotten side-roads is more metaphysical than scientific.

Going back to "The Veldt", I think this is a prime example of Structural Fabulation where its the treatment of conceit that makes this Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. It's based on a plausible scientific speculation -- the holoroom thing -- but as the conceit is developed the ground shifts, developing it into a fantastical -- i.e. reality-breaching -- device and finally into a horrific denouement. I don't think it ceases to be Science Fiction when the fantasy kicks in; it just becomes fantasy and horror in addition to that. Similarly, I think TSMD is still SF despite the fact that jaunting is, surely I'd say, in breach of all sorts of laws of physics. It's the central conceit that makes it SF to me, in the wider sense, rather than the scientific speculation which I find utterly implausible and which should, therefore, theoretically exclude it from the narrow science-based definitions of SF.

So, to rephrase the statement, I'd say TSMD is a core work of SF as Structural Fabulation, along with many other such core works which don't actually fit those science-oriented definitions of Science Fiction. If there's a utility in retaining the term SF -- other than as an expedient marketing label -- I think it rests in applying it to the process rather than the product. Looking at SF as a technique rather than a genre.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

Many years ago I tried reading Scholes' book Structural Fabulation, but couldn't get into it. My recollection is that it depended heavily on his previous work on structuralism, which I was unfamiliar with. As a result, I don't feel really comfortable commenting on structural fabulation as a way of looking at SF.

I'm fine with looking at SF as a technique, too. I've occasionally thought about the ways that both SF and fantasy employ the modes of naturalism and expressionism, and how those differ from the ways other forms of fiction employ those modes, but I haven't reached any firm conclusions. (I also like the idea of SF as a megatext, or a conversation between texts. I think a lot of different approaches have something to offer.)

I agree that SF does not need to be science-oriented, which is why I said in my teleportation example that a SFnal feeling can persist even if we stipulate that teleportation is impossible. I think that the attitude I'm trying to describe -- the assumption that newly discovered wonders can be mass produced -- explains why many works feel SFnal even though they rely on such impossibilities. (Repeat of disclaimer: I'm not saying that this describes all SF.)

I'd argue that the beginning of "The Veldt" feels like SF, not because there's any scientific basis for such detailed simulations as the nursery provides, but because the nursery is depicted as a mechanical product, something manufactured the same way a television is manufactured. The story doesn't actually become more impossible when weird stuff happens later on. What changes is that the feel of the impossibilities; whereas the earlier ones felt technological, the latter ones feel magical.

And, as I said, I think good artistic effects can be achieved by mixing technological and magical worldviews in a single work. (I should have emphasized this more in my original post.) "The Veldt" is an example of this mixing; in fact, I think it relies on the reader distinguishing between the two of them. I'm not suggesting that we classify "The Veldt" as purely one thing or another; I'm just trying to explain why the beginning of that story feels different from the end.

4:13 AM  
Blogger Avi said...

A magical practice, such as Abulafian permutations, can be performed without the intent to affect the physical world. In fact Abulafia enjoins the practitioner to perform the meditations with pure intent (white magic) though there may be side effects upon the real world (black magic).
In any case the primary aim of such 'white' magic is the transformation of the practitioner's consciousness, not amassing power or influence upon the external world.

12:47 AM  

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