Sunday, 26 June 2011

Deep thought not Friday

It's been another long time since we had one of these posts. The subject today is less obviously epistemological and there's optional reading too.

- That David Brin article; several of us responded.
- JB's review of Tron: Legacy, seeing it differently.

The question then. Can we define science fiction and fantasy so as to clearly separate them? If not, how might the continuum be visualised?


Jedediah said...

I don't think so. Unless we narrow down both definitions very much and then we leave a lot of books out in the cold that can be considered classics of both genres.

There will always be authors who come down right between both genres. As a librarian, they give me a headache, but there are no absolute genre definitions. It doesn'rt stop with fantasy/scifi - try defining crime novel / horror / thriller.

I've always been a fan of the definition made by Norman Spinrad: Science fiction is anything published as science fiction. or by Damon Knight Science fiction is [or means] what we point to when we say it Wikipedia (of course) has a number of other definitions by authors

James S said...

I'm so glad you asked this, it's a really interesting question. Essentially I agree with Jedediah.

Truthfully, I don't think we can clearly separate them. They seem to me like arbitrary critical divisions that arose at a particular time in the history of western literature, and they've largely outlived their usefulness as terms of demarcation. We can maybe still use them meaningfully, but it's getting harder and harder to do so. Most people I think would have to put this question in the same category as "what is art?" or "what is a good action", i.e. the answer is "I know it when I see it."

The reason the terms even exist at all is because it's easier for critics and fans to get hold of something if it seems to them to fit into a category. Critics create genres to label works that don't fit into existing ones, and then artists deliberately make works to fit into those new genres. Or publishers jam ill-fitting works into the closest genre.

The situation we have now is one where writers are deliberately mashing up closely-related (or even previously opposing) genres because that's how novelty emerges in our culture today. We see everything through genre-spectacles. Our artists create through them. This makes it harder to differentiate between once-simple genre lines. In the 19th century it would be easy to say what science fiction was: Jules Verne. Nowadays, not so easy.

OK, that was a pretty pretentious I know, but what I'm trying to say, simply, is that science fiction and fantasy have never been anything other than publisher's labels that mediocre writers have constrained themselves within.

By trying to deliberately write sci-fi or fantasy, you have to first decide what you think that means, and with a whole bunch of different creative people coming to different conclusions, and every new work adding to the pot, the terms get so thin diluted that we see them for the illusions they are. We can't grab onto a meaningful distinction because there isn't one, and never really was. People just liked Tolkien's writing, or Verne's writing, and they liked inventing terms to describe it. And then other, crappier writers wanted to copy it.

So how would the science fiction/fantasy continuum look? Like a big, watery soup with chunks of previous works floating in it.

Porky said...

Some of the definitions at Wikipedia are interesting, but far more interesting are your responses. I was wondering whether anyone would try an all-encompassing definition here, but you're clearly too smart.

Core definitions seem possible, and some of the Wiki list do a fair job of being that, say Kim Stanley Robinson's. The trouble is, many if not all could also apply to what we commonly understand as fantasy.

Personally I feel more and more it simply may not be possible to create any definition which wouldn't quickly be proven too limiting. The approach of knowing what it is when we see it seems a good one, assuming we even need to know.

Because for me you also expose the whole idea of terms as nothing more than an increasingly less useful shorthand, maybe a challenge to the creative to defy, at worst a restriction on imaginations. It seems to me that as long as accept the existence of even broadly recognisable categories we may well be reacting to them to some degree. This isn't necessarily a bad thing of course, but it might be acting as an attractive force and limiting us in going out deeper into the unknown.

I liked the term 'speculative' for a while, as a catch-all, but of course all fiction is speculative by it's nature. That said, it's still the best and most encouraging label I can find.

The discussion has me thinking of W G Sebald, and the idea of an intimate understanding between giver and receiver, subject to the same limits all communication has, the apparent impossibility of knowing all or even anything with a certainty. We've covered that theme here before, quite possibly more than once.

At risk of sounding pretentious myself - and I don't think there has been any pretentiousness in the comments so far - by this I mean that fiction can be understood as a faltering attempt at interpretation and presentation, and that approaches to it on all sides are helped by recognition of a framework.

Use of genre markers is one way to bypass that problem of fundamental nature, leaving the existential questions aside and getting on with the ostensible story. Mixing and matching genre markers arguably makes the whole more challenging for everyone, but still keeps things on relatively stable territory.

I like the watery soup image. Maybe ice cream, melting around the edges, but with icy chunks here and there? Maybe also it comes down in part to how we visualise the multiverse or polycosmos idea?

James S said...

I've never heard of Sebald, but he sounds like my sort of writer.

I'd agree that recognition of a framework helps with communication, but I fear that the situation we have now, with our over-saturation of and emphasis on genres, has made fundamental nature as you call it almost inaccessible.

The vast majority of genre fiction and popular art I think is not even communication any more -it doesn't use a recognizable framework to try to communicate the ineffable. It simply shows the framework, as if it's enough to say "look at my genre markers. Now you know you're reading sci-fi (or horror, or mystery, or whatever). That's what you came for isn't it?"

I really feel as though the eternal mash-ups and mutations of genre markers (hey, I like that term) have actually become the content, as authors try desperately to escape the language they were given. The only way to escape it really is to refuse to use it at all, or to use in a way that subverts it's orthodox meaning. Like Twilight subverted the Vampire trope. Those books may be crappy teenage wish-fulfilment, but I think the real reason they're so successful is because they have no respect for the genres they sample, so they actually seem new to people. Unlike a masterfully written steampunk-fantasy-gothic-vampire-epic which respects it roots too much and simply mashes them together well. Only a few people like books like that. They bore everyone else because they present no content, only genre markers cleverly intertwined.

Just as there's a limit to how deeply you can use language to talk about itself, you can't really use a genre to escape itself I think.

James S said...

PS You'll probably get some extra hits now because I said the magic T-word :D

Porky said...

You've got me thinking now - maybe I need a Twilight post with a liberal hearthtrob name-dropping? Maybe we all do? I'm only half joking too. Could bring new eyes to our way of doing things.

I think you're very right on the rest of it too. Refusal and subversion seem two reasonable responses to the state of fiction at the moment, but refusal most of all for the idea you mention of genre being unable to escape itself.

We've been here before too, re next year's words, but the concept is still alluring, maybe even more so.

Jedediah said...

Re: Twilight: I've always wanted to make a post titled "Great Tits!" with some bird photos, just to see what happens :)

Genre markers (you're right, it's a great word) can be useful, but if they stand in the way of your story, then get rid of them. Many authors don't seem to be able to do that and reading their books is like looking at a colour by numbers-painting, It does look good and a lot of work went in there, but it's not something that sets my brain no fire like a van Gogh does or like Terry Pratchett does (someone with very little respect for genre markers and conventions in general).

Porky said...

I'm always happy to have my brain set on fire. The great blogging that goes on helps, but it's still too rare a thing.

You might want to check out what The Happy Whisk gets up to with her post titles. The first shocker was a simple misspelling, and the most recent have been in earnest, but she's good at having fun with our expectations.

Jennie said...

Now you all have given me an idea for a new writing prompt:

Myth-marked Merchandising:

Write a poem or piece of fiction that is *not* a vampire or werewolf piece that uses at least seven of the following words or phrases (bonus points for using all of them):

new moon
breaking dawn

Porky said...

I'll certainly give that a go.

James S said...

Me too. Should we post them on our own blogs or overrun Porky's Expanse with not-Twilight ramblings?

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

There's a place at Nine Worlds, Ten-thousand Things that you can link to them at, or post them. Of course, Porky is welcome to the traffic too. Crosslinks are good!

Porky said...

Jennie's is the place. I'll get a very fair share when I post my piece - with all those magic words.