The Ghost and the Golem – Notes from New Sodom

A Rejection of Definition

So Science Fiction is dead; but the death of Science Fiction is not the end of the story. Rather it’s the beginning of it. Torn apart in the struggles of its factions, deserted by the blood and breath of its most explorative writers, the carcass of that old Genre still sits in the SF Café, a leg here, an arm there, novitiates of this cult or that gnawing on its bones, sucking on what’s left of the marrow.

pkd

It’s a grisly scene, but if these devotees only looked around them they’d see the ghost that dwells in every corner of the diner. Everywhere in the SF Café you can still see the stains, still hear the echoes of that ghost — the closed definition reopened to a strange and subtle essence that defies all definitions — science fiction. And for all that its blood was spilled out, the dying breath of Science Fiction was guttered into a golem. The spelunkers of speculative fiction mining phosphorescent filth from the bowels of the city of Writing, the Sci-Fi freaks scraping kibble and kack that from the bins of decades-old shit sandwiches out back, we have built this thing to take its place.

This is the legacy of generations of writers who would rather tackle adult themes than pander to puerile power-fantasies, whose interests lie with the soft sciences and humanities as much as with the hard sciences and technology, for whom the fiction is always more important than either the fantasia or the futurology. It is also the legacy of those who simply don’t give a fuck about anything other than either fantasia or futurology. It is fiction in which the envelope has been pushed so far out, from ambition or expedience, that all the descriptions and definitions — Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Sci-Fi, even speculative fiction — can only be, at best, nominal labels. It is the fiction that abandons those labels for a negation of description, a rejection of definition — the acronym SF, which might mean any or all of those things.

Arguably, the term speculative fiction was, and still is, successful (to an extent) with those readers, writers, editors and publishers aware and accepting of the intrinsic diversity of the field, simply because it waves in the general direction of a meaning and, better still, abbreviates easily to SF. Hence it translates to the label of science fiction through that acronym, if and when required for the ease of communication; it is backwards compatible. That acronym reanimates the dead Science Fiction in the stains and echoes that pervade the SF Café. It binds it to the golem of speculative fiction and Sci-Fi all mashed together, this clay-made, uber-malleable monster of fictive clay. In it the dichotomy of Science Fiction and Fantasy is resolved into a unity utterly in contrast with the riven notion of Science Fantasy. We can even extend the F, echo it, to include the closed-definition Fantasy (and the openly-defined fantasy,) in SF/F, remove the dividing slash entirely in SFF, elide the one into the other as in SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

If we want to be all poncy and academic about it, we might even expand that acronym to structural fabulation.

This is the beauty of the SF acronym, in fact, the beauty of the SF Café, that it offers a neutral zone where all the factions can communicate even if they do so in the most argumentative fashion. And as abbreviations go, where Sci-Fi is cringe-inducingly cute and clever, SF is short and snappy, no nonsense, like the utilitarian acronyms of soldiers and businessmen.

That all the writers of a myriad modes and methods are grouped together as SF is an assertion of the indefinable nature of the field. Forget futurology. Forget the rationalist ideal of the logical. Forget the Romantic wonders of the Rocket Age. Forget the 60s and 70s fears of Future Catastrophe. Forget the counterculture of acid visions and sexual revolution. Forget every abandoned zeitgeist. Forget the codified conventions of the puerile pap. Forget the cobbled combinatory systems of plots and characters, settings and themes. Forget those illusions of SF as the innumerable permutations of an ever-changing set of tropes. Or remember them, but remember them all. This is a confusion of contradictions that can only be made sense of by cutting the Gordian Knot, by saying, like Norman Spinrad, that SF is whatever is sold as SF, or like Damon Knight, that it’s what we point to when we use the term.

Paring the label down to these two little figurae, we make it stand for whatever narratives we throw at it; we use the fiction to define the model. It allows for any narrative to be written as SF, because we are applying the label after the fact, saying: this is SF because it can be sold as SF, because it can be bought as SF — not just literally but conceptually, not just purchased but… admitted. In this vector of definition, in fact, the model becomes a method of reading a narrative, any narrative, as SF.

To take one example, we might use this as a way of interpreting THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH, look for a reading of the story as SF. This is a different thing altogether from laying claim to the work as an example of a genre; and it’s entirely possible; we can understand this Sumerian poem of a hero’s journey, in the context of its culture of origin, as embodying the cosmological conceits of his day, the speculations of the Bronze Age rather than the Rocket Age. We can read Enkidu, Humbaba and the scorpion-men as cryptids and sports. We can read the Cedar Forest, the Deluge and the Plant of Immortality as hypothetical exotica of terrestrial deep space. Adding this SFist reading methodology to the arsenal of Marxist and feminist readings might not be worthless; in so far as SF is rooted in fantasia and futurology, an SF reading of a narrative constitutes an interrogation of its dynamics of passion and reason.

The Form=Formulation Syllogism

But if this expulsion of meaning is a refusal of constraints, it also disacknowledges any distinction between genre as aesthetic idiom and Genre as conventional form and/or marketing category, collapsing them all together into this empty symbol of SF. It’s little wonder then that others who look at that vacuity see only a signpost to the market where it’s sold, see only the outer decor of the SF Café and its environs, the ghetto of Genre. In accepting that SF’s nature is that of a discrete sub-domain of Genre, in allowing SF to be treated as SF, we invite a logical extrapolation from the common understanding of how marketing categories function, how Genres work, the syllogistic a priori reasoning by which SF is rejected as sub-literate scribbling. The argument that damns us, this Form=Formulation Syllogism runs thus:

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

It should be obvious to any SF reader that this is a gross misrepresentation, but judging by some of the talk you hear down in the SF Café I’m not sure it is. So let’s spell it out point by point. This is the essence of the distinction between genre as aesthetic idiom and Genre as conventional form / marketing category:

1. Genre labels signal that a work conforms to a set of aesthetic criteria prescribed as Genre conventions.

No, there are works which get a Genre label without conforming to the conventions. THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER is neither a “let’s pretend” adventure nor a “what if” thought-experiment. It has next to nothing of Gernsback’s “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” in it, not in the sense of futurology and fantasia. It is not Campbellian Science Fiction by a long shot. And this is not to say that it merely stretches the conventions by applying the Paradigm Shift Caveat to excuse lack of rigour, or by directing its speculation towards the soft sciences. Where it breaks with tradition in utilising religious conceits — transmigration, visions in the irrational revelatory rather than rational predictive sense, etc. — it establishes a new set of aesthetic criteria by integrating those conceits into what is otherwise a work of contemporary realism.

The publication and reading of this work as SF simply expands the zone of indefinition, asserts that however we conceive of this Genre we must now allow for the incorporation of this type of novel. The Genre label signals only this then: that something about a work has been deemed sufficient justification for any adjustments to aesthetic criteria required to accomodate it under that label. Personally, I take this work as proof that sufficient justification may entail no more than a smidgeon of metaphysical strangeness and an author established within the field.

2. These conventions are designed for producing works of a certain stereotypical Genre form.

No, for every reader there’s a personal set of constraints and characteristics they see as sufficient justification to label a work SF. When that reader is also a writer, they may well set out to write a work that reads as SF to them by treating those as a set of aesthetic criteria. While some of these are commercially standardised so that stereotypical Genre forms can be produced to order, but many are not. Some are no more than… the 2D outline of a work’s base, so to speak, with its greater structure entirely freeform. Still others do little more than describe the general contours of the broad terrain on which the work is to be formed.

Compare, in poetry: the conventions of the stereotypical Limerick as a Genre, fun but formulaic; the constraints and characteristics of the sonnet as a genre, based on a shape of fourteen lines and a volta but on any subject, in any tone; and the wildly notional aesthetic criteria of the poem, any work within that vast domain. Similarly, in SF, we have: the conventions of the stereotypical Cyberpunk story, as it stands now; the much wider range of constraints and characteristics back when the genre of cyberpunk was exemplified by the MIRRORSHADES anthology; and the wildly notional aesthetic criteria of SF in general.

Delany’s DHALGREN is not a product of conventions designed for producing works of a certain stereotypical Post-Apocalypse SF form. The ruined cityscape and social collapse of Bellona that lead us to label it post-apocalyptic fiction are at most the contours of its foundation and arguably no more than the gradiant of the territory it inhabits.

3. Genre forms have inherent flaws due to their commercial imperatives and counter-literary value-systems.

This means precisely nothing if the marketing category maps to an aesthetic idiom rather than a conventional form. If a lack of thematic depth is inherent in the form of the Limerick, this is irrelevant as a critique of poetry. If a lack of thematic depth is inherent in the form of the stereotypical Cyberpunk, story this is irrelevant as a critique of SF. So the formulation of Genres leads to works produced to fit standardised aesthetic criteria (e.g. plot-structure, worldscape development and futurological novelty). So commercial imperatives may pressure for a neglect of non-required features such as depth of character and theme, may even embody a counter-literary value-system, preferencing crudely bodged prose that “doesn’t get in the way of the plot” over “style” that foregrounds its own craftedness. Applying only to the Genres contained within the genre’s broad terrain, this is exactly as irrelevant as a critique of SF as a critique of poetry based on the flaws of the Limerick.

4. Works conforming to those conventions will have those flaws.

Again this now means nothing. Works fitting the aesthetic criteria that define the sonnet as a genre need only fourteen lines and a volte. Formulation of a stereotypical Shakespearian Love Sonnets might lead to flaws of neglect (e.g. a lack of originality) and counter-literary value-systems (e.g. saccharine romantic sentiments), but the genre of the sonnet is distinguishable from this Genre precisely by its opposition to formulation, its literary imperatives to exceed minimum requirements, to build a multi-dimensional structure upon that outlined base. Formulation of a stereotypical Cyberpunk within SF may lead to flaws of neglect or counter-literary value-systems, but SF is distinguishable as a genre precisely by its opposition to formulation.

There are many Genres within SF, and many exhibit the flaws that go with formulation: concerns with plot and worldscape built from futurology and fantasia overshadow concerns with character and theme; complexity and subtlety is deprecated as “pretension”. An assertion that SF necessarily has these flaws because it is a Genre are like an assertion that poetry necessarily has the flaws of the stereotypical Shakespearean Love Sonnet, articulating only the ignorance and presumption of the speaker.

5. Works published with Genre labels will have those flaws.

The application of an ignorant and presumptious judgement on the basis of marketing category is not only false and misrepresentative; it’s superficial, quite literally judging a book by its cover (the image, the imprint, the copy and blurbs, the label on the back), reducing a work to the brand image. Countless works within the genre of SF disprove that judgement by counter-example, works by writers such as Aldiss, Ballard, Bradbury, Bester, Butler, Cherryh, Clarke, Delany, Disch, Dick, Ellison, Farmer, Gibson, Harrison, Heinlein, Hopkinson, Jakubowski, Keyes, Le Guin, Lem, Moorcock, Niven, Norton, Orwell, Priest, Russ, Ryman, Spinrad, Sladek, Tiptree, Vinge, Willis, Zelazny.

Not that we really need to list these; the Form=Formulation Syllogism is demonstrably flawed on every count, largely because it fails to differentiate genres from Genres, assuming a universal process of formulation when the reality is the familial development we find as aesthetic criteria are simply adjusted in order to accommodate THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER or whatever work is married into the clan, taking this nominal label as its name.

Transcending the Genre

Sadly, in our own conflations and confusions we invite these misperceptions by accepting the framework of logic in which “genre” means an aesthetic territory of formulation (as in “genre work”) rather than an aesthetic idiom (as in “the genre of a work”). This ghetto of Genre we ally ourselves with is defined precisely as the region where marketing categories and conventional forms collude to insist on formulation, in contrast to “non-genre” where they do not. Genre fiction versus non-genre fiction? All fiction is in a genre, even if that genre is only the novel or the short story.

When we talk of works as “transcending the genre”, position them as exceptional rather than exemplary, we tacitly accept: that the Genre label indicates some set of aesthetic criteria shared by Genre narratives, sought after by a certain target market; that the commercial impetus of those criteria constrain the form at a deeper level than the constraints of a sonnet, create a limitation of quality; that a narrative needs to circumvent those demands of form not by ignoring them (because then the narrative would cease to be Genre) but by some shift into a more elevated sphere of abstract action. We accept that the idiom we signify with the Genre label is a stereotypical Genre form that has to be transcended in this way.

If transcendence is our metaphor then truly SF is an incorporeal spectre, a ghost, slipped free of the flesh and bone forms long ago.

Of course, the fuzziness of the whole notion is expedient, allowing us to wave a hand towards the aesthetic idiom(s) we like, in the form of a shelf labeled SF, referring to this as genre, while simultaneously waving away the conventional forms we hate, happily referring to these as generic. When an outsider challenges us on this slapdash clumping of works, we might be able to articulate that SF as a marketing label is bound to a set of aesthetic criteria too diverse to pin down with precision, diverse enough that they allow for a “literary SF” with its definition lost somewhere among all the arguments. What we generally fail to articulate is that SF is not a Genre at all, but rather a vast high-level genre made up of myriad idioms and forms, a dynamic family of genres and Genres, the most ambitious and innovative craft wed to and at war with the most formulated and derivative crap.

So it goes.

The ghost haunts the café, animates the lumbering golem of the field in its physical form. The name is sustained in our speech, the inchoate idea reiterated in every sibilant and fricative utterance of SF, because it offers a subtle strand of identity even in its indefinition; it is enough for us, as a community of fiction readers, writers, editors and critics to congregate around. In the spectral apparition and the material shape there is enough rough semblance of Genre that these monsters might frighten the citizenry if they stepped out into the city at large; and both are bound to the SF Café by their shared history anyway, by their loyalty to a beloved heritage. And as long as the SF Café is sustainable as a commercial enterprise, as long as it keeps drawing in the punters with the promise of pulp thrills and spills, the promise of exciting entertainments, of Genre, the ghost and the golem have a home.

I love and am loyal to that home myself — it’s been fucking good to me — but I think it’s always worth being aware of the double-thinks we apply, as when we talk of transcending the genre. The relationship between genre and Genre is a weird balance of symbiosis and mutual parasitism, and it seems to me that our unadmitted recognition of that only leads to bitching about lack of respect on the one hand while, on the other, extolling works with a phrase that damns SF as derivative in its essence. The deal with the devil doesn’t seem… well, that big a deal to me any more. Commercial pressures toward formulation have a corrosive effect on literary quality; but the market for the most conventional forms subsidises the most literate and ambitious aesthetic idioms — works that might well be unpublishable outside the ghetto, without the security of a guaranteed market. The literary imperatives of the whole aesthetic idiom degrade the efficiency of formulaic products with their narrowly-defined utilitarian function as entertainment; but the continual influx of originality counteracts the Law of Diminishing Returns in a set of SFnal Genres where “more of the same” paradoxically means more novelty.

The ghost and the golem could not survive without the SF Café, but without them the SF Café would quickly become an empty shell.

The Model and the Machine

A moment. Ghosts, golems — these metaphysical tropes of fantasy are incongruous in a study of SF surely. Ah, well, let’s just employ the Paradigm Shift Caveat here. Let’s hypothesize that the parapsychologists are right, that in the future our empirical observations of some truly strange phenomena forces a radical revision of our physics. No ectoplasm here though, no spiritualist mumbo-jumbo of the soul as some aetheric substance. We’ll call it the Quantum Interconnectedness Principle, say that reality is information and the universe a hologram, that every fragmentary particle of our cosmos contains an image of the whole implicate order, the urgrund.

In the SF Café every patron wears mayashades that reconstruct the urgrund from the fragment-forms immediately perceptible. In part a forensic analysis of reality, in part a data-mining of the urgrund, what is offered is, in essence, a heads-up display of information we could not otherwise have access to. Gaze into the eyes of another patron and the mayashades scroll their thoughts across your vision. Gaze out of the window and the mayashades flash glimpses of the future on the streets outside — a joy-rider ploughing his car into a bus-stop queue you might be standing in five minutes from now. That sort of information is useful, after all; if we had not (hypothetically) developed the technology to access and utilise it we might even (hypothetically) have evolved a natural capacity, some sort of Externalised Simulatory Processing of the world we have to live in, some sort of… “ESP”.

Phil Dick sits in a corner, his mayashades on the blink, showing him the SF Café as a tavern in AD 70, a secret community of Christians hiding from the Roman Empire; his mayashades are communicating an analysis of society in metaphoric form, the ghetto of Genre as the Black Iron Prison of the Gnostics. They flash words in koinos Greek across his vision, a language he cannot know but which these wondrous gadgets can use freely in their access to that urgrund. They offer him a reinterpretation of the world in which he is not Phil the SF writer but Thomas the early Christian. This is not a transmigration of souls, but rather reincarnation as retro-incarnation, as a downloading of the data that defined a long-dead psyche, a simulation of another’s memories.

The ghost of SF is no supernatural spirit, just the simulacrum of an essence, the abstract agency we glimpse as we gaze round the SF Café with our mayashades scanning for hidden meaning, a wireframe model reconstructed in a purely virtual medium. As for the golem? Let’s make the monster a machine, a robot made of muck instead of metal. We’ll say its clay is carbon, the grey goo of nanotech devices, millions of miniscule mechanisms fused into one lumpen mass, given identity in the name projected onto it, SF as its logos and its logic.

Hey presto! Magic becomes science. Fantasy becomes SF.

For the benefit of this who care about that shit, you know.

Genre and the Generic

It’s not that hard to see SF’s relationship with Genre, I think, to critique it with clarity and objectivity, picking out juvenile tropes and themes from adult treatments — as Spinrad does, say, in his classic “Emperor Of Everything” article, showing Bester’s smart and mature inversion of the heroic rags-to-riches power fantasy in THE STARS MY DESTINATION. But resisting critical analyses that recognise the aesthetic idiom for what it is makes it easier to excuse generic twaddle such as The Matrix or Independence Day, to forget why these are twaddle because, well, they’re enjoyable twaddle. Both are juvenile. Both are formulaic. Both are Genre in precisely the way that the Form=Formulation Syllogism damns it. We only need to compare them to, say, Gibson’s NEUROMANCER or Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH — to pick two works that are hardly lacking in the good old-fashioned plot-driven dynamics of the thriller or action/adventure genres they inhabit — to judge them pretty much derivative hokum. But if we like these two movies and hate another two — Minority Report or War of the Worlds — we can simply wave our hands, say that the former are genre, the latter generic.

This distinction between genre and generic is a wonderfully expedient sophistry. Both “genre fiction,” as we all too often use the term, and generic fiction are defined by the familiarity of their forms; more, they are fictions which exploit that familiarity. What they offer the reader, we say, what the reader requires of them, is a narrative composed of conventional elements — plots and characters, settings and themes. There may be originality in the treatment, but too much originality, not enough familiarity, and that novel ceases to be generic; it ceases to be genre. Or at least, this is the conventional wisdom — that it’s all a matter of conventions. The marketing categories have become ghettoised as Genre because the Genres bound to them exist to be generic in this way, to provide the reader with “more of the same”, all gathered together in one place, under a certain branding.

But, of course, what we have is all this fiction gathered together under that branding, the works that we love because they’re genre but not generic. And the ones we hate because they’re generic, reviling them even to the extent sometimes of denying that they’re really SF, refusing to recognise them as being valid examples of the genre on the basis that they’re too generic. In contrast to the canon of definitive works that we describe as transcending the genre.

Run that by me again?

Personally, I think I’d like to see the word “genre” die if it’s going to be overloaded with meanings and skewed to double-thinking purposes. Even Campbellian Science Fiction might be best not considered a Genre if that’s going to tangle us up in the morass of genre and the generic. Its key stricture of futurology works more like the arbitrary constraint of an Oulipo writer than the conventions of form that mark out fiction as generic. Where Gernsback’s definition sets out distinctly standardised aesthetic criteria in requiring the plot structures of Romantic adventure, Campbell’s allows for entirely non-generic plot-structures as long as the fiction employs this strange Oulipo-style constraint of grounding its fantasia in futurology.

And as for the ghost and the golem, the model and the machine, the stuff that’s out there now? As for SF, or speculative fiction, or whatever you want to call it? Construct the narrative with MacGuffin devices and stock plots, and the SF novel or story may become generic, as much SF undeniably is. There is a mode of Epic SF which all too closely parallels Epic Fantasy with its exotic settings, noble heroes, quests as archetypal psychodrama, more Joseph Campbell than John W. Campbell. But SF as a whole, which delights in offering unfamiliar forms… is it really generic enough that we’re happy to call it a “genre,” when to do so is inevitably to call it Genre — cause it’s not like the bolding and capitalisation I’m using here works in speech? Bearing in mind that every time we dismiss some formulaic dreck as generic or extoll the latest masterpiece with the rhetoric of transcendence we’re reifying the notion of genre at the heart of the Form=Formulation Syllogism?

Fuck, if only “aesthetic idiom” didn’t sound so damn poncy.

Thing is, if we examine other marketing categories — Crime, Western, Romance — it seems SF is not alone in being essentially an openly defined aesthetic idiom damned by the formulation it’s inextricably bound to. Crime, for one, is in a similar position to SF, with as much originality twisting and tearing at its orthodoxy of familiar tropes and tricks. All these marketing categories have their deconstructions and subversions, parodies and pastiches, reinventions and restorations, non-generic works that might be better understood as Anti-Genre in so far as their categorical imperative is to bring something new into the family, to force the adjustment of aesthetic criteria required to accommodate them and thereby counteract the impulse to formulation. It’s the paradox of the ghetto of Genre, that the canonical works are exemplary because they are exceptional, not just another iteration of THE MACGUFFIN DEVICE, but rather, like THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER, freaks and sports.

A Fabulous Formless Starkness

But holding fast under a flag of pedantry in which genre means simply family, trying to unravel the conflations of aesthetic idiom, conventional forms and marketing categories that make the word, in a phrase like “genre fiction” synonymous with formulaic, seems to be pissing in the wind. For all that the term genre might be applied to an aesthetic idiom as openly defined as the novel, for all that it may be applied, as a label slapped on a book shelf, to a marketing category that amounts to little more than “that stuff over there, that stuff I’m pointing to,” I’m not sure we can redeem it from the abjection by which it is applied to that which is most commercially conventional and conventionally commercial, that which is Genre rather than Literature. So fuck it.

From here on in, in these columns, when I talk of SF, I’m talking of a field and the various forces that comprise it. I’m talking of SF as a mode of fiction, an approach in fiction, a telling of tall tales with strange elements, where those elements are integral to the dynamics of the story, where the process of the story is generated from the strangeness of the idea, where the story is an event enacting strangeness. This is SF not as a singular form but as, at best, a loose federation of forms, a field so diverse that you can throw a hundred different definitions at it and none of them will stick. All genre definitions will fail, I think, because they attempt to describe the field as this form or that, and all those forms are actually, I’d argue — even the most conventional — better understood as forces, the illusion of delimitation (in terms of plot and character, setting and theme) ultimately a trick of perspective, these types and tropes of “genres” and “subgenres” mere snapshots of whorls in cigarette smoke, emergent from and embedded in a wider process: carving the fabulous in the reader’s mind in an experience as sharply-defined as the “genre” is inchoate. This is SF as a fabulous formless starkness of effect(s), bound only to an acronym that acknowledges its own emptiness of meaning in its rejection of specificity.

If the field is as definitionally circular as Spinrad’s statement asserts it to be, this seems only right; the empty signifier of SF is far more apt as a label than science fiction. As Cheney said in his Strange Horizons article, quoted in the first of these columns, the genre of science fiction no longer exists. As we have declared right here, Science Fiction is dead.

SF, on the other hand, seems to be alive and well — for a ghost.

Or maybe it’s not a ghost at all. Maybe that simulacrum of an essence we see as we gaze through our mayashades at the SF Café, that wireframe model of an abstract agency… maybe it really only wore the skin of Science Fiction the same way it now wears the golem’s clay. Maybe it was there all the time, this field of forces, and simply took that form as a response to the time and place.

But that’s a topic for another column.

Author: Hal Duncan

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.

18 thoughts on “The Ghost and the Golem – Notes from New Sodom”

  1. Literary value systems commit to notions of human nature; an eternal human condition; the impenetrability or outright meaningless of nature; the irrelevance of history; the rejection of a future different from today; the role of individual inadequacies as the cause of human misery; the superiority of some people and their standards and sensitivities over others; the insistence that prose constitutes meaning in a meaningless world and therefore must be itself the object of esthetic interest (instead of a means.) Etc.

    These commitments express themselves in masked form as disdain for history; disinterest in the future; distaste for nature as anything other than a visceral experience or symbolic expression of human emotion; commitment to absurdist views of nature and society; the insistence that only depth of character is relevant, the insistence that only prose displaying the proper commitment to itself as an esthetic experience can constitute successful imposition of meaning on a meaningless world.

    Of course we all live in a world where the past still has effects; where the future will be different; where nature and society actually do make sense; where we deal everyday with people whose characters we don’t know a thing about because what matters is their social role; where the content of what is said and written is just as important as how it is written, because prose can’t make untrue things real, no matter how pretty it is.

    In other words, literary value systems are ideological. The dismissive categorization of one element of science fiction as futurology expresses the total adherence to the basic reactionary viewpoint disguised as a literary value system. The uncritical insistence that science fiction, fantasy and modern absurdism in its various incarnations can all be lumped together merely expresses a wish to expunge the “futurology.” Need I add that the “fantasia” is a dismissive way of berating the masses for their lowerclass hopes and fears?

    There is the insistence that only the retrograde are still chewing over the obsolete distinctions. Simultaneously there is the insistence the true artists have found the true faith and have transcended the tiresome futurology. If the victory is already won, why beat a dead horse? Because ideological indoctrination demands repetition, an enemy and self-congratulation.

    Or, to make it really simple, think of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Mr. Moore congratulates himself (and those sensitive and smart and with it enough to follow,) for deconstructing fantasia. He doesn’t notice that elementary physics will deconstruct comic books far more effectively than his story does. His acceptance of nonsense physics is also acceptance of fantasia, despite himself and undercuts his intended aim. Following the literary value system, disdaining “futurology” misled him.

  2. And here I thought “futurology” lent the notion of extrapolation more respect by implying a coherent system of thought, an attempt to develop consistent and comprehensive views of scientific developments and their impact on the future as a whole, as opposed to the potential focus, in a term like “plausible scientific speculation” on individual and specifically technological innovations. And that it had a nice alliteration with “fantasia,” which seems a rather apt term for the progeny of Gernsback’s “charming romance,” denoting the articulation of hopes and fears in a fiction that allows itself to cut loose from reality — except of course where it remains grounded in futurology. The use of the latter — “fantasia” — as a descriptor for such fiction is no more derogatory, I’ll add, than the use of “paean” or “panegyric” to denote the articulation of respect and reverence in an utterance (spoken or written) that allows itself to cut loose from the prosaic.

    Please to read again my explicit contention that SF’s uber-Rationalist strains are not somehow “less valid” than the “literary” SF that takes a more (post)Modernist approach: “Even Campbellian Science Fiction might be best not considered a Genre if that’s going to tangle us up in the morass of genre and the generic. Its key stricture of futurology works more like the arbitrary constraint of an Oulipo writer than the conventions of form that mark out fiction as generic. Where Gernsback’s definition sets out distinctly standardised aesthetic criteria in requiring the plot structures of Romantic adventure, Campbell’s allows for entirely non-generic plot-structures as long as the fiction employs this strange Oulipo-style constraint of grounding its fantasia in futurology.”

    I’ll happily acknowledge my own stance — that both uber-Rationalist and uber-Romanticist aesthetics are now reactionary forces in the discourse, 19th century ideologies entrenched against the 20th century synthesis of the two that constitutes modernity and (post)Modernism. In asserting this perspective, exploring it, describing the transformation of aesthetics within the field as I see it, this is not flogging a dead horse, but rather attempting to carry out an autopsy on it.

    The point being, of course, to try and develop an understanding of mammalian anatomy in general, rather than simply insisting that there’s Equine and there’s Bovine and never the twain shall meet.

  3. Actually, I should add that “fantasia” also neatly signals that development out of the structural constraints of the romance idiom — i.e. in terms of narrative grammar, generic plot-structures — in its intentional resonance with / reference to that style of musical composition that developed out of improvisation. The Wikipedia entry on “Fantasia (music)” might give you a better sense of why I use this specific term.

  4. Comparing futurology to the “arbitrary constraint of an Oulipo writer” makes the real viewpoint very clear.

    On the other hand, capitalization and/or bolding (or neither,) of words like genre does nothing to make things clear. Science fiction, like historical fiction, is not a genre in the same way as a mystery story or a spy story or a romance or a Western. A so called critic who vehemently insists that considerations of fidelity to historical fact are childishly irrelevant to understanding the esthetics of historical fiction is an obscurantist. Historical fiction that falsifies the history projects an ideology, in the pejorative sense of the term. Or the transparency of the historical trappings asks the question of, why pretend it’s the past in the first place?

    Similarly, a critic who insists that the science in science fiction (which is no more a science textbook than historical fiction is a historical text!) is irrelevant obscures the way that dismissal of science is a key step in admitting adolescent daydreams, a problem that has dogged science fiction.It’s true that many will rant about said daydreams. That’s like telling kids they can do whatever they want, then laughing at them for wanting to be rock stars before they’ve learned to play guitar. There is a sly kind of meanness at work here. Or, as in lots of historical fictions, promoting an ideology by presenting it untested by commonsense or simple reality. (Military SF or the absurd libertarian futures should come to mind here.)

    Criticism, including criticism of genres, is inseparable from criticism of society. The criticism of escapism in litereature is part and parcel of the criticism of religion. Historically, art has been one of the greatest exponents of religion, giving it an illusion of depth. Genuine criticism has a lot more to do than promote a modernism/post-modernism emptied of any cultural meaning. That too is obscurantism.

  5. Comparing futurology to the “arbitrary constraint of an Oulipo writer” makes the real viewpoint very clear.

    Yes, it makes it very clear that I think a high level of technical skill and mental agility is required for such a writer to meet the challenge they set for themself, comparable to that required to, for example, write an entire novel without using the letter ‘e’. It makes it very clear that I think the use of futurology as a formal constraint is comparable to other such profoundly intellectual and ambitious enterprises, utilising the sort of cerebral dexterity you find in Italo Calvino; where much creative writing employs craft skills and methods of abstraction so habitual that the whole process of creation often feels intuitive, this approach basically rules out disengaging that part of the intellect that plays Sudoku or works through mathematical proofs in a highly conscious way. It makes it very clear that I consider this type of formal constraint qualitatively different from those which bind a work into a genre in the “conventional form” sense, predisposed to formulation. It makes it very clear that I consider this approach to have no negative impact whatsoever in terms of pressuring for generic/formulaic product, because we’re not dealing with standardised aesthetic criteria here (in terms of plot-structure, character, etc.,) but with a different set of formal constraints for each work — i.e. futurological conceits are, like constraints in Oulipo works, selected entirely at the discretion of the writer rather than imposed by tradition, and working them results in a unique construction (both process and product) in each text.

    The “real viewpoint” you are projecting into that comparison is a spurious fabrication on your part.

    On the other hand, capitalization and/or bolding (or neither,) of words like genre does nothing to make things clear.

    Of course, I’ve explicitly acknowledged the impracticality of such strategies outwith this column, their usage here as simply my personal mark-up, as pointers to the reader indicating how exactly I’m employing these terms. But maybe I’m overestimating the average reader’s capacity to recognise basic semantic signals. Are they really that opaque?

    There is a clear semantic distinction, for example, between proper nouns and noun phrases: the difference between a nominal label and a descriptor. In English, this is conventionally signaled by capitalisation. This principle leads to the application of capitalisation as signifier of essentialist discourse, of the treatment of entity as identity. Again, this is conventional; you’ll find the import of this articulated quite cogently wherever group identity is a crucial factor in the discourse — c.f. “Black” versus “black” or “Queer” versus “queer” — or in critiques of the sort of historical rhetorics that gave us “Man” versus “men” (and the use of “Man” for a humanity which includes women is a key consideration in such essentialising labels). It seems to me the average reader will get this given the informal usage of such a convention in talking about “Very Important Things” or “Sekrit Projekts,” etc., that they’ll pick up on the conventional signal.

    While bolding plays with the convention of emphasising keywords in a text, it is admittedly adopted here for other, more idiosyncratic reasons, used in place of the small caps or alternative font I’d prefer as marker of the brand name function the nominal label is performing. With this, then, there’s an attempt to signal the sort of semantic difference that exists between “apple” and “Apple,” the way a term may work as a stamp rather than… a signpost, so to speak. This may be a less transparent strategy, but again I don’t think it’s that difficult for the average reader to follow.

    Similarly, a critic who insists that the science in science fiction (which is no more a science textbook than historical fiction is a historical text!) is irrelevant…

    But this is a straw man because I’m not talking about science fiction. I’m talking about SF and speculative fiction here, and at most touching upon Science Fiction, which I’ve said from the first column is a distinct thing. With futurology as a definitive characteristic. Which is to say science. But apparently even to talk about the wider territories of category fiction as a whole or the vast field of fiction which is marked out simply by the fact that it utilises the strange, well, in your book that…

    …obscures the way that dismissal of science is a key step in admitting adolescent daydreams, a problem that has dogged science fiction.

    And we come again to your personal bete noire. Really, you’ve made your views on this abundantly clear. I think for my part, I’ve made it equally clear that I trace this problem to the romance idiom, a basic feature of Gernsbackian scientifiction carried through into Campbellian Science Fiction. But if you understood the Oulipo comparison above, you’d understand that this refutes a whole mass of critics who characterise the field as a mode of romance with escapism essentially wired-in. And if you understood why I use “fantasia” you’d understand exactly how I think that formative influence was counteracted.

    You are instead, however, locking in on a point that is not even touched on in this particular column: that such counteractive strategies could not and did not wholly succeed even where science was not dismissed. Which is to say, the approach that entails working a futurological conceit, while it does not bind the work into conventional romance strictures, does not create a magical barrier that keeps escapism out; the dismissal of science is not a necessary step in facilitating escapism. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that futurology can and does collude with that which you revile, legitimising those adolescent daydreams, while the working of other types of conceits may — but equally well may not — actively invite escapism, dependent on entirely other factors than the dismissal of science. But there is a key word in that sentence: elsewhere.

    You are (yet again) responding to an argument as to particular forces at play within the field — in this case, conventionality, the standardisation and formulation of aesthetic criteria, versus the integrative paradigm exemplified in the Card quote, or in the Knight and Spinrad comments referenced — with an argument on a completely different subject:

    The criticism of escapism in literature is part and parcel of the criticism of religion.

    I am not interested in pandering to your zealous desire to expound (yet again) on religion versus science, escapism versus rationalism. That is not the topic of this column. If you are not going to address the actual substance of the argument, you are merely proselytising for your own agenda. You do so explicitly:

    Genuine criticism has a lot more to do than promote a modernism/post-modernism emptied of any cultural meaning.

    This is an assertion of your belief as to the foundations of legitimate critique. You are entitled to this opinion. I am entitled to disagree and to approach these columns from my own position. (Or rather to agree but see it as entirely misunderstanding my approach to imagine this is my aim.) If you disagree so fundamentally and so vehemently with the very positioning of the text, (or rather, the positioning you project onto it,) such that you have no regard for the substance of the text, do feel free to not read the columns. Objections on the basis of projected ideology, crowbarring the debate round to you pontificating on the way “genuine criticism” should be conducted… this is simply bad form.

    If you simply cannot resist the urge to read critique that is anathema to you and to make this ideological disagreement known, by all means stake your own position out elsewhere and preach it to your heart’s content, brother. If you cannot resist the impulse to make it known here a simple statement upfront will suffice, something along the lines of “You are not addressing the key issue of religious self-delusion versus scientific rationalism, which renders your entire system of thought spurious and pernicious to me.” This would be vastly preferable to the persistent attempts to redirect discussion to that point via responses to assertions and assumptions you are simply projecting onto me. I’m more than happy to engage in debate, civilised or heated, but I’d ask you to respect Grice’s Maxims of relevance as a bare minimum and address the subject of the column.

    That subject is not the role of science fiction and/or science fiction critique in defending the culture against religious self-delusion.

  6. Your assumption that the science in science fiction is as arbitrary as the self chosen conventions of an Oulipo poet does indeed show your real viewpoint. You can admire the technical virtuosity of both? Fine. It’s still irrelevant to your dismissal of futurology as arbitrary.

    Talking about “the wider territories of category fiction as a whole”—What could that possibly mean? Your bolds and caps are not helping keep track as you switch meanings for genre, from basic form like novel or short story; type of story like war novel or rags to riches; synonym for generic or formulaic; esthetic idiom. About the only meaning I can guess at is that you’re wanting to uphold literary value standards against formula fiction. That take us right back to my original comment.

    Also, while you can write “the vast field of fiction which is marked out simply by the fact that it utilizes the strange,” but you can’t make it mean anything. I can talk about the vast field of cars marked out simply by the fact they use blue in their color scheme and make as much sense. You have assumed a conclusion, that there is a meaningful sense in which use of the strange marks a “field.” That’s so general there’s not much to say that some people enjoy the strange for itself and others reject it as nonsense. When you remember that notions of strange depend so strongly on the individual readers knowledge and experience, that says very little indeed.

    The vague notion that it’s all the same, except some is formula and some upholds literary value systems, does not actually make an argument. It’s just an extended bleat that marketing categories are useful for making a sale to the publisher but limiting sales to customers.

    Trying to bring the discussion down to a real subject, like SF, is not bringing up a straw man. It would be much easier to keep discussion on your chosen ground if you actually had ground to stand on. Anybody can change the subject if you don’t actually have one. Card’s definition of SF relies on reading the mind of the author, or sworn testimony. Spinrad’s definition reduces SF to a marketing category, which is fine for going into a book store to buy books but isn’t for critical discussion. Or worse, factoids, like deciding Year of the Flood was discreetly marketed to SF buffs as well as general audiences. But citing Knight’s definition when you don’t actually condescend to point takes some gall.

    The claim that dismissal of science is not a necessary step in reducing SF to adolescent fantasy is wrong. It is not a sufficient step, nor unique to adolescent fantasy, but there are no works of SF that are attentive to the science that don’t have to fudge it to support day dreams. Besides, isn’t thinking reality is irrelevant pretty much the difference between day dreams and hopes or plans?

    My first post was very much about the article, and quite upfront about rejecting a key premise. Why you would want to go off into what you think I think of what you think about the virtuosity of Oulipo poets, and what you think of my form instead of answering the arguments, I’m not quite certain. But if you reject criticism of the premises as valid arguments, why not be upfront and say so?

  7. What kind of self-indulgence is enough? Do you feel more important being deliberately obfuscatory while running on in sentences that are too long but what the fuck let’s see how long we can make them anyway? I don’t even pretend to understand the full works of Wittgenstein, but one thing I do take along is his assertion that what can be said should be said clearly. Who the hell are you writing for anyway? Even if there’s a message in the prolixity of your message itself it is still too opaque for consumption by anyone other than those of your own ilk anyway. In that case what was your purpose in writing it other than to address the choir? You certainly are making it difficult to care about what you say.
    Respectfully,
    Dan Nelson

  8. S. Johnson: Reread what I said:

    “Its key stricture of futurology works more like the arbitrary constraint of an Oulipo writer than the conventions of form that mark out fiction as generic.”

    Note: “works,” “more like” and “than”.

    I’m talking about how three different types of limitations set upon a text play out in the writing. Conventions of form (like those found in romance — the 18th century type, not Harlequin Romance) are basically a standardisation of aesthetic criteria which allows for a level of formulation. The end result? Formula product. I’m saying that in Science Fiction the stricture of futurology does not have that effect. Rather it has an effect like arbitrarily setting an Oulipo constraint. I’m not saying that the particular futurological conceits are arbitrarily selected. I’m definitely not saying that the process of extrapolation into a worldscape and plot — the futorology as a process — is arbitrary. Just that the process of working the futurological conceit gives us a non-generic artifact each time.

    A better example than excising ‘e’ might be basing the narrative on a chess match. There’s a whole underlying set of rules to chess. The Oulipo writer would have to work at all times within the rules of the game. They couldn’t just have a bishop make a knight’s move, couldn’t just stick a piece back on the board after it was taken. This would be a breach of the rules of the game. While the constraint is arbitrary, that doesn’t mean the work itself is a surrender to caprice in which anything goes, in which anything can be done on sheer whim. I don’t think that’s too bad a comparison for fiction taking its potential moves from the domain of science rather than chess, playing by that set of rules.

    Even on the level of selection, there’s a whole history of particular games involving named strategies and maneouvres that might have inspired that Oulipo writer. They might be fascinated by the great games, by the style of some new player with a whole new set of strategies. They might take some novel opening gambit from a recent match between Grand Masters as a start-point and build their game — and the novel — around that. So even though the constraint is arbitrary, at its very core the work may be a deeply considered response to what’s going on in the field of chess. Likewise, the Science Fiction writer may be far from arbitrary in their selection of the specific conceit(s) they extrapolate from.

    The point of the “arbitrary” is simply that the challenge is self-chosen by the writer. By choosing that challenge they may be limiting themself to a process of writing that in no uncertain terms *rules out* the sort of… fanciful invention you seem to think I’m dismissing futurology as. But they are not coming into a pre-existing tradition of tropes and plot-structures that they have to conform to.

  9. Talking about “the wider territories of category fiction as a whole”—What could that possibly mean?

    Fiction marketed under genre labels other than “general fiction”. This gets lumped together as category fiction. I’m interested in the way the terms “genre fiction” or simply “genre” have become signifiers of this grouping, and the way this mass noun, “genre,” is set in opposition to the mass noun, “literature.”

  10. You have assumed a conclusion, that there is a meaningful sense in which use of the strange marks a “field.”

    Technically, the strange, as I’m using the term, can be characterised quite precisely in terms of the subjunctivity level of a sentence. The theory is not really suited to expounding in an informal column, but see Delany’s “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words” for the basic root of it, then factor in the philosophical distinctions between levels of possibility. According to the most rigorous levels of possibility, even Delany’s characterisation of s-f (which he expands to “speculative fiction”) actually takes on a subjunctivity level of “could not happen”. What I mean by “strange fiction” is any fiction which does that.

  11. The vague notion that it’s all the same, except some is formula and some upholds literary value systems, does not actually make an argument.

    I’m not characterising it as “all the same”. I’m characterising it as “a field so diverse that you can throw a hundred different definitions at it and none of them will stick.” The simple fact is that we’re stuck dealing with a field of works all grouped together under the same label but so radically different in nature that writers like Card, Spinrad and Knight all basically just point the label at itself in circular definitions that leave it up to the writer, the publisher or the reader to decide. Talking of which:

    But citing Knight’s definition when you don’t actually condescend to point takes some gall.

    I point at THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER and DHALGREN. These are works that stretch any closed definition near to breaking point if not beyond, I’d say — though the former more so than the latter. Result?

    “The Genre label signals only this then: that something about a work has been deemed sufficient justification for any adjustments to aesthetic criteria required to accommodate it under that label. Personally, I take this work as proof that sufficient justification may entail no more than a smidgeon of metaphysical strangeness and an author established within the field.”

    But the real argument is about how this reality contradicts the assumption that works published as category fiction will most likely be formulated product.

  12. The claim that dismissal of science is not a necessary step in reducing SF to adolescent fantasy is wrong. It is not a sufficient step, nor unique to adolescent fantasy, but there are no works of SF that are attentive to the science that don’t have to fudge it to support day dreams.

    Nonsense. However perfectly rigorous the science underlying a MacGuffin, by using it as a pure plot device, one can indulge in the most blatant acts of wish-fulfillment, the brave hero carrying out awesome feats of daring and ingenuity in order to defeat the villain, save the day and win the foxy lady. Michael Crichton probably does fudge the science (don’t know; never read him) but assuming one could rework Jurassic Park so the recreation of dinosaurs was scientifically sound, that conceit can still be used as the MacGuffin in the exact same tale of derring-do, pandering to our daydreams of adventure.

  13. My first post was very much about the article, and quite upfront about rejecting a key premise. Why you would want to go off into what you think I think of what you think about the virtuosity of Oulipo poets, and what you think of my form instead of answering the arguments, I’m not quite certain.

    Your first post does criticise me for my “uncritical insistence that science fiction, fantasy and modern absurdism in its various incarnations can all be lumped together.” This is a misunderstanding of my key premise. Actually I’m saying they are all lumped together, practically speaking, under the label of SF. While this is not entirely useful on a critical level, it’s something we have to deal with, and it does have the happy result of putting the lie to the Form=Formulation Syllogism.

    If we want to break that amorphous amalgam apart again, rather than fall back on the discourse of conventional forms, I think it’s preferable to identify the discrete forces at play. In doing so, I do think we can arrive at a model which grounds all these disparate works in a shared literary technique — shifting subjunctivity — but the details of this allow for a high degree of variation and specialisation, for quite distinct modes.

    Way back in the comments thread of a previous column (in which you were heavily engaged) I made this clear:

    Down the line, I want to get into the nuts and bolts of how I do see all those “sub”genres allying with each other, or opposing each other, because of very real differences, the way we end up with a sort of phase-space of multiple dimensions of potential literary strategies that different readers automatically (and decisively) parse into zones of sf and fantasy, to actually tackle that “I know it when I see it” spidey-sense.

    Given this, your reiterated rejection of any model which doesn’t recognise the essential and absolute opposition of science fiction and fantasy as forms is simply an argument that it’s wrong to clear the deck and start again from first principles, in an attempt to build an alternative model. This where I see you as really criticising the positioning rather than the premise, making an ideological argument that I simply must not take a starting position outside the conventional taxonomy. Hence the comment about mammalian anatomy versus equine and bovine.

    You’ve yet to produce a substantive argument to back up this criticism of my approach that doesn’t come down to religion versus science, and indeed, in your accusation of disdain and a covert agenda to “expunge” the futurology, you pretty much cut to the chase and make it about the enemy ideology you project onto me. Since your characterisation of this is based on a gross misunderstanding of how I’m using the terms “futurology” and “fantasia” this is what I’ve been endeavouring to explain. I’m happy to do so, to clarify that I have no interest in expunging science fiction as you see it, and am rather simply striving to rearticulate and recontextualise it.

    We end up at tediously detailed explication of a single Oulipo comparison because you simply will not accept a simple clarification that this is not intended as a “sly” and “mean” attack on a particular mode of writing.

    I tell you explicitly that I think of futurology as “a coherent system of thought, an attempt to develop consistent and comprehensive views of scientific developments and their impact on the future as a whole, as opposed to the potential focus, in a term like “plausible scientific speculation” on individual and specifically technological innovations” and you insist that the Oulipo comparison reveals my “true” feelings.

    I tell you explicitly that the comparison is with “profoundly intellectual and ambitious enterprises, utilising the sort of cerebral dexterity you find in Italo Calvino; where much creative writing employs craft skills and methods of abstraction so habitual that the whole process of creation often feels intuitive, this approach basically rules out disengaging that part of the intellect that plays Sudoku or works through mathematical proofs in a highly conscious way,” and you insist that “really” I’m saying the science is arbitrary.

    I’ve now given you the chess analogy, in the vain hope that this will get it through to you, but I seriously doubt that this will be of any more use. Feel free to prove me wrong.

  14. Good point. Thank you. Too bad you don’t want to write for a wider audience, though, because what you say has points of interest at times, and I think there is far too much meaningless crap put out and you are not writing meaninglessly. But you are of course correct that it was me that decided to attempt to decode your prolix perspicacity. Thank you.
    Respectfully,
    Dan Nelson

  15. Dan: OK, the less snarky response, since you’ve dialled back the somewhat flamey rhetoric…

    “Do you feel more important being deliberately obfuscatory while running on in sentences that are too long but what the fuck let’s see how long we can make them anyway?” is kind of a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” question. “Do you feel more important beating your wife while swaggering about and shouting at the kids so much they shit themself?” I can answer, no, it does not make me feel more important; none of what I write is about such wankery — it’s performative, sure, but done for an audience of whoever clicks with it. But really, that accepts the implicit assumptions that I’m being deliberately obfuscatory in sentences that are way too long. Like, to answer, “No, beating my wife does *not* make me feel more important,” is to accept the latent accusation of wife-beating.

    So, OK, the thing is, I don’t see the sentences as that long or the column as that opaque, but then maybe I’m just comfortable with articulation that takes quite a few turns as it goes: if, and, then, but, while, so. And admittedly some of the key terms (e.g. “abjection”) are probably not in everyone’s everyday vocabulary. See my comments to S. Johnson about why I use terms like “futurology” or “fantasia” though. If I use a word that looks poncy it’s a safe bet I’m using it for a reason, likely because a more familiar word wouldn’t carry the precise meaning I want. Hell, it might be wholly ambiguous. A word that might seem clearer to you could unfortunately mean something quite different to another reader. I mean, a large part of the thrust of this column is about how the word “genre” means “formula fiction” to one set of readers, while another set of readers entirely know fine well that that’s a bogus judgement. But even they/we tend to use the term in a way that conflates conventional forms of fiction (written to standardised aesthetic criteria) with marketing categories. And actually those conflations make the subject a pretty fucking gnarly one to try and make sense of. It’s hard not to be confusing when you’re trying to show how the “simple” way of thinking about the field is actually a lid on a whole can of wriggly, wriggly worms.

    Still, could I or should I try and explain a notion like abjection every time I use it in a column, so’s I’m not alienating someone who reads that word and thinks WTF?! because they’re not familiar with it? That’d be pretty much every other column. Hell, as this series goes on, since the columns follow on from one another in certain respects, I’d end up not having space to say anything new. So sometimes I’m banking on the reader being caught up on the groundwork I’ve laid in previous columns or, in the age of Wikipedia simply looking up a concept like “abjection”. That’s what I’d do, after all. Yeah, it’s asking the reader to engage a bit, be a little more active, but I prefer to assume the best rather than the worst. I take it as read that they’re either up to speed with the ideas I’m kicking about or willing to catch up. The alternative would be, I think, patronising them, holding their hands and leading them along like children, saying “mind the step,” and “wait at the crossing” and so on.

    And, hey, there’s a comments section right here. Anything that’s unclear, I’m happy to clarify to the best of my abilities. I don’t respond well if my motives are impugned, cause flat insults don’t merit real consideration, but it’s as easy to type “What the fuck do you mean by [X]?” as it is to type “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

  16. Apparently, “sly” and “mean” got on your nerves. I withdraw those words. To rephrase, a neophyte writer who actually tried following these ideas would probably end up writing junk, and still get blasted.

    As for Oulipo, which had nothing to do with sly and mean anyhow, the constraints on the futurologist are external, not self-chosen. That is the opposite of Oulipo. Further, expostion in futurology should take into account common knowledge, including in previous works of futurology. As in, you don’t keep explaining how rockets work because people mostly have read SF, even if they don’t read engineering. This concern with given traditions seems like genre fiction concerns with inherited tropes etc. Mainstream writers who insist on reinventing the wheel themselves usually can’t do it all very well.

    There is no marketing field that combines SF, fantasy and modernist/pomo/absurdist/etc. As for literary criticism, there are authors whose works of fantasy are acceptable and even analyzed, such as Henry James or John Collier or Roald Dahl, even figures such as Thorne Smith or Robert Nathan. There are no SF works acceptable as literary beside 1984. The only one that even comes remotely close is Brave New World. Even such figures as Poe, Twain, Jack London, H.G. Wells and Gore Vidal are downgraded for writing SF. No, I haven’t made an extensive argument for denying such a field exists somewhere (a Platoic realm of Forms?) Yours is the extreme claim that should be justified. So I think, anyhow.

    We don’t need to imagine a scientifically sound Jurassic Park. The works of Jules Verne are quite sufficient. Frankly, I think Verne fudged the science in Journey to the Center of the Earth every bit as much as Wells ever did. And I think he fudged it in Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea and the Robur stories. Even if you disagree, I am unrepentant because Nemo and Robur at their fruitiest are still not the stuff of such dreams as provoked Norman Spinrad to write The Iron Dream. Those guys were in E.E. “Doc” Smith and Edmond Hamilton and A.E. Van Vogt and such.
    I still think fudging the science is a necessary step in really unleashing your inner adolescent. The literary value system rejects all adventure stories, not just adolescent ones, but I reject the literary value as ideological.

    The Card definition is unworkable. Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal and Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy can swear they’re not writing SF, but the critical standards specific to SF still apply to their SF works. (Those of us who reject the literay value system still have standards.) The Spinrad definition turns everything into marketing, which is great when I go to the bookstore, except when stuff like Dhalgren and Transmigration of Timothy Archer turn up. As it happened, I found Dhalgren an absorbing work that constituted my first big experience of modernist/postmodernist/absurdist fiction. But fictionalizing real people and blending jargon from a private SF mythology was uncomfortable. It was a mixture of apologetics, slander, fraud, the point was uncertain.

    If things go according to plan, I’m done here.

  17. The rules of chess are external. The Oulipo writer has chosen to work within those rules. Likewise the futurological writer has chosen to work within the rules of futurology. Likewise the rules of chess are largely known, so the Oulipo writer doesn’t have to explain what a knight is, how it moves. Now mostly, I’d say, you don’t keep explaining how rockets work because the futurology is moving with the times; it’s some new development that has to be explained. We’re in the Information Age now rather than the Rocket Age, and that’s reflected in the fiction. But I do agree that there’s tradition at work here. As such I agree with this completely:

    “This concern with given traditions seems like genre fiction concerns with inherited tropes etc.”

    Though the operative word is “seems” to my mind. It’s not the same thing, doesn’t work the same way, as an actual concern with inherited tropes. (Which is also present in the diverse field, but not, as some seem to think, an over-riding force that pressures everything towards derivative product.)

    There is no marketing field that combines SF, fantasy and modernist/pomo/absurdist/etc… Yours is the extreme claim that should be justified.

    On my book shelf, at a glance, labeled as science fiction:

    Kim Newman, THE NIGHT MAYOR
    Mark Jacobson, GOJIRO
    Robert Silverberg, THE BOOK OF SKULLS
    Samuel R. Delany, DHALGREN
    Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Barsoom books.
    Philip K. Dick, too many to name.
    Philip Jose Farmer, RIVERWORLD AND OTHER STORIES (containing, for example, “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod”)

    I don’t really accept that there’s a literary value system. There are many, including those which you yourself would apply as critical standards to SF. That’s a literary value system by definition. One of these has laid claim to the label “literary” and I don’t really dispute your characterisation of it. I think that claim is utterly illegitimate though. Actually I’d say the co-opting of “literary” in that way goes hand-in-hand with the abjection of “genre,” and has a lot to do with the sniffiness you mention regarding Poe, Twain, London, etc.. That “literary literature” (as tautological as “male men” but as loaded as “masculine men”) is what’s left after you abject out all those adventure stories and thrillers and love stories as “genre”. I’m with you in rejecting it, but we clearly differ on what sort of daydreams we consider pernicious. You don’t have to fudge science to make your villain a predatory faggot kiddy-fiddler like the Baron Harkonnen. I think there’s something *profoundly* adolescent and dangerously so in adventure stories that pander to desires and fears in certain ways having nothing to do with science.

Comments are closed.