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The Limits of Wonder and Defining Speculative Fiction


Much as I love genre theory, I typically steer clear of taxonomic debates. I find that genre classification tends to put the cart before the horse, to be the critical equivalent of describing an engine in terms of its color. Most such debate reduces to a collection of observations that do little to advance our understanding of how narrative mechanisms actually function. Yet over the weekend, Ian Sales posted a thought-provoking essay which diverges from this general rule. Unlike most attempts at genre taxonomy, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction tries to be systematic and comprehensive, built from a set of first principles articulated in previous essays on wonder and the source of agency in SF/F. On balance, Sales’ focus and clarity of thought make his proposed definition that rare critical beast: a critically helpful taxonomic construct.

Unfortunately, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction is also flawed.

Where Do Definitions Come From?

There is much in Sales’ essay that I agree with, and I think the most important point he makes is this:

A useful definition has to describe something intrinsic to the text, not something extra-textual.

If a taxonomy is to be valid, true, and useful then it must emerge from the texts being analyzed. While I know some in the arts who look askance at the scientific method, basic logic suggests that a viable theory must be supported by repeatable observation.

If we wish to define a genre, we must point to the identifiable and unique features of that genre. Romance, for example, benefits from a beautifully succinct definition: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” One could likely come up with something just as elegant for mystery/crime or westerns.

But it is the broad, all-encompassing categories like speculative fiction and mainstream literature whose defining characteristics become harder to pin down, and that is because the reasons we enjoy them often occlude their underlying structures.

Dragons, aliens, magic, faster-than-light travel, etc. are extremely rare in mainstream literary fiction. When we read speculative fiction, they can offer us that pernicious “sense of wonder” which so often muddles critical analysis of the genre. On a superficial level, identifying speculative fiction by its devices has the simultaneous benefit of being easy and rarely incorrect. But it is a superficial and facile approach that fails to tell us anything about either how the narrative is constructed or how that construction contributes to its effects.

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Sales is right to point to the weakness of identifying genre based on the devices that appear in the text. Just because a book features dragons or elves does not mean it is fantasy (or rather, does not mean it isn’t science fiction).

Consider the science fictional treatment of dragons in both Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (which I discussed at greater length here) and Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, or Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance’s fantastical treatments of hard science in The Book of the New Sun and Tales of the Dying Earth, respectively. As these works make clear, genre taxonomy cannot be reduced to a checklist of tropes. How such devices are used in the text and their relationships with the narrative’s characters, plots, themes, and settings have a greater significance than the mere fact of their mention.

While Sales’ stated goal (to define speculative fiction using characteristics intrinsic to the text) is one with which I am in complete agreement, I fear that his definition falls wide of the mark. Of his two defining criteria (wonder and [the source of narrative] agency), fully one half is external to the text and based entirely on a reader’s subjective, individual experience of the narrative.

Critically Pernicious Wonder

“Sense of wonder” is a critically contentious term that seems to come in and out of vogue every generation. I personally subscribe to the belief that it does have critical value, but only insofar as one of several diagnostic tools. Its utility as a criterion for definition is limited by the fact that our mileage may vary.

Sales argues – in line with reasoning by Romanian SF critic Cornel Robu – that “wonder” is centrally concerned with scale, and that science fiction fosters a sense of wonder through the actualization of scale in the reader’s perception. To be clear, this is not a bad way of thinking about wonder. But it is a very specific, highly individual, and rather limited one.

In my own reading, I find that many concepts, images, devices, and even phrases can foster a sense of wonder. For me, it isn’t all about scale: It may also relate to emotional intimacy (e.g. John Crowley’s Little, Big), or spirituality (e.g. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience), or mathematical or rhetorical elegance (Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket and Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, respectively). Many have written about “wonder” as touching on the sublime, verging on the transcendent, or as enabling a reader’s conceptual breakthrough. As a concept, it has descriptive value. But its own definition is imprecise, and that very imprecision stems from the term’s innate subjectivity.

Wonder is a quality intrinsic to the reader’s experience, and not to the text.

As a result, an epistemological definition of speculative fiction that uses wonder as one of its two legs cannot stand. “Sense of wonder” is neither a quantifiable nor an independently repeatable observation that can be made for a given text. This weakness is further supported by Sales’ own (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) equation for quantifying wonder, which itself relies on four inputs which are personal to the reader and have nothing to do with the text in question.

An Alternative Definition of Speculative Fiction

However, Sales’ definition does have value. I particularly appreciate his insight into the source of narrative agency. I’ve been thinking about his breakdown for the last couple of days, and I think he makes an excellent point:

Science fiction and fantasy can be differentiated by the narrative text’s implied prime mover. Fantasy’s implicit prime mover is the author, while science fiction’s implicit prime mover is deterministic natural law (which is, admittedly, often conceived and communicated by the author).

Of course, the author in all cases has control over both the narrative and their fictional world. However, what Sales really highlights isn’t the question of how the story is imbued with narrative agency. Rather, it is the implied author’s relationship/attitude towards their fictional reality.

If the text communicates the implied author’s attitude as explicitly deterministic or naturalistic, then the work is likely to be science fictional. If the text communicates that attitude as either unexamined, theological (even given a fictional religion), or metaphysical, then the work is likely to be fantasy.

Such a characterization seems to be broadly consistent with Sales’ use of “agency”, yet such a distinction is useful inasmuch as it helps us to differentiate science fiction from fantasy. However, it does little to differentiate speculative fiction from other more mainstream genres.

A Definition of Speculative Fiction

Rather than utilize “wonder” as the definition’s second axis, I would instead suggest the centrality of the speculative/impossible to the plot. The more speculative the plot, the more likely a given work can be deemed speculative fiction. That seems somewhat tautological, but it allows us to neatly place any work of fiction along a spectrum of “speculation”.

This alternative definition seems to be less susceptible to edge cases than Sales’ original: By taking into account the totality of the implied author’s relationship to their fictional reality, works like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination can still be comfortably classified as science fiction despite their central speculative conceit going relatively unexamined. At the same time, by exploring the speculative elements’ relationship to the plot (as opposed, for example, to the theme) we can differentiate works of magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude from secondary world fantasies like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

This lets us construct several precise definitions actually based on characteristics that are observable within the text:

  1. Speculative fiction is fiction where speculative elements (i.e. devices of the fantastic, scientific extrapolation, impossible conceits, etc.) are central to the narrative’s plot specifically, irrespective of their relationship to either theme or character.
  2. Fantasy is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is unexamined, theological, or metaphysical in nature. A fantasy’s implied author accepts the fictional reality without necessarily trying to explain it.
  3. Science fiction is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is deterministic or naturalistic. A science fiction’s implied author assumes and communicates an explicable fictional reality.

By focusing on the relationship of a narrative’s speculative elements to its plot and the implied author’s attitude towards their fictional reality, we gain the ability to discuss the use of the fantastic and the speculative as metaphors and conceits, and to apply that discussion against narrative structure, techniques of characterization, and narrative subtext.

In other words, these definitions provide us with increased analytical clarity and precision – which is what definitions are meant to provide.

REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan


A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: February 5th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A scientific fantasy which strongly develops its narrator and world.

One of the most interesting themes I’ve found in science fiction is the genre’s complex relationship to science itself: most science fiction stories are simultaneously promoters of science and cautionary tales, warning us of discovery’s ethical dangerous. This makes for an interesting and powerful theme to explore, what with humanity’s unbridled capacity for discovery. But for all of its power, it is a theme which fantasy addresses all too rarely, which is why it was such a delight to recently read Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent.

I grew up on scientist adventurers: Verne’s Professor Arronax (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Doyle’s Professor Challenger (The Lost World), and Wells’ The Time Traveler (The Time Machine) all thrilled with the promise and possibilities reason could bring. These characters practiced and preached a set of positivist values, an Enlightenment tradition untrammeled by the softer complexities of Romanticism. And when a few years later I discovered the history of science, in particular through works like C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, and Farley Mowat’s Woman in the Mists I could see how real scientists worked and struggled to fit such values into a more complex world than the fictional.

For all of the positivist values promoted through the works of early science fiction, most of those books derive their conflict from the tension between their characters’ full-throated devotion to positivist principles and the subtler risks – ethical, philosophical, and existential – which science exposes us to. Verne’s Nemo – and his mad political philosophy – is an ethical exploration of the militaristic consequences of science, of technology’s capacity for both good and evil. The dismissal of Challenger and Summerlee’s findings in The Lost World explores how society treats discoveries which fly in the face of accepted wisdom, a social statement on public attitudes to science if ever there was one. And Wells’ The Time Machine is nothing if not a commentary on man’s self-destructive tendencies, offset by the Time Traveler’s genius invention of the time machine itself and his yearning to explore.

Such an exploration of reason, such an application of rational thought, is often inimical to much fantasy. So much of the genre relies on the irrational that it is easy to get uncomfortable when put beneath the magnifying glass. Fantasy generally explores different themes, leaving an exploration of science to science fiction. Some fantasists – notably Patricia C. Wrede in her Frontier Magic trilogy, Michael A. Stackpole in his Crown Colonies trilogy, and much in the steampunk vein – have incorporated such scientific themes, but their approaches tend to use science as a device for getting characters into trouble. Science is not the heart of the story: war or some other life-or-death struggle divorced from science provides the conflict. While such stories may be exciting, I usually find myself disappointed that the science gets short shrift.

But Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons keeps the science front-and-center, and builds tension and conflict naturally from that core. The way in which she achieves this effect is particularly interesting because it is simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than I would have expected. The obviousness stems from the book’s historical models: while it is a secondary fantasy, it is structured along the lines of the memoirs and stories of late Victorian (British) natural philosophers.

I am amazed that I don’t see this approach more frequently in fantasy. For 18th and 19th century readers in the Western world, journeys into Africa or South America would have been the equivalent of a secondary-world fantasy. Their settings and the cultures encountered would have been so alien as to be unrecognizable. They would have to establish and contextualize the strange environment, to explain its characteristics in both sensual and intellectual modes. In other words, the historical models for A Natural History of Dragons would have relied on the same type of world-building as any fantasy.

The basic structure of the story traces a recognizable path: the narrator’s development of scientific fascination, her initial discoveries, youthful exuberance, and systematic maturation as those discoveries mount is a natural progression recognizable, I think, to any adult. Because the novel is set during a time when people are ignorant of dragons, the ignorance of broader society (and initially of the narrator) is shared with the reader. We learn about Brennan’s secondary-world along with our heroine as she and her colleagues make what might seem to be basic discoveries. This evokes the same sense of obviousness we get when we look back at the scientific discoveries of yesterday.

The more subtle key to the novel’s success is maturation. A Natural History of Dragons is presented as a memoir written by the now-elderly Lady Trent, a rather feisty and by implication controversial natural historian. In the hands of a weaker author, her anachronistic attitudes (for her time, which is plainly modeled on the 19th century as conveyed by both voice and details in the text) would have always been present. From childhood, she would have been confident of her abilities despite prejudices against her gender, she would have always been respectful of other cultures, would have naturally become the intellectual and moral center of any expedition she took part in despite the many cultural factors stacked against her, etc. She would have been a modern heroine inserted into a historical world, and would naturally have triumphed over historical backwardness. The world would revolve around her because she is Our Heroine, and so a special snowflake.

Brennan neatly avoids this trap, and by doing so makes the book a delight to read. Yes, our heroine is special. But this is a tale of her youth, before she became Lady Trent with the notoriety such a title suggests. The narrator shows herself to be merely one step out of alignment with the mores of her time both during her youth and presumably at the time when the memoir is written. By alluding to her earlier works, and repudiating the prejudices she espoused therein, the narrator simultaneously acknowledges the problematic tendencies of the source time period, and provides justification for the narrator’s anachronism. The narrator does not share the attitudes of the time period of which she is writing because she – and presumably much of her society – has matured in the intervening years. We can plainly see the distinction between the narrator and her younger self, and this serves to further ground us in the character and the world. Yet the whole structure is made even more plausible by showing us the seeds of the opinionated older narrator in the actions and words of her younger self. It is a very neat trick.

Brennan’s character is clearly of scientific mind, and the focus in much of the book is on the science itself. Initially, one can be forgiven for thinking it a tale of simple positivist boosterism: after all, so much of its historical roots were exactly that. But as the adventure ramps up, Brennan introduces suggestions of a flip side to scientific development and discovery. This squarely puts the novel in the conflicted tradition of Verne, Doyle, or Wells. Yet unlike these far earlier writers, Brennan neatly balances the science with an inner emotional journey that at times can be quite touching.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it is too short. Partly, this perception is a selfish one: I would have gladly spent more time in this world, with these characters, and with the voice in which the novel is written simply because of how much fun I had with it. But structurally, while the book works as a standalone novel, it did leave me wanting more.

I don’t know (read: my Google Fu was unable to determine) if A Natural History of Dragons is the start of a series or a stand-alone one-off. This is plainly a memoir of Lady Trent’s youth, and she explicitly references other (it seems wilder) adventures which follow. At the same time, the implicit risks of scientific discovery are brought to the fore near the story’s conclusion. They are not resolved or developed in any meaningful sense, but rather are addressed at best temporarily, which while satisfying in this one volume does beg for further development. Both of these facts suggest that more books may follow, and I for one would be very happy if they do.

(UPDATE: Today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers has a nice write-up of the book, where they mention that it is the first installment in a planned series.)

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the novel is a work of art in hardcover. I would recommend it on the strength of its design alone (with great deckled edges and a sepia-toned font which further evokes that Victorian sensibility), but for me, Todd Lockwood’s excellent illustrations seal the deal.

I strongly recommend A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent to anyone who has a taste for Victorian-inspired fiction, who loves the long age of discovery that spans from the Enlightenment through to the first World War, or who enjoys classic science fiction like Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, or H.G. Wells.

REVIEW: With Fate Conspire by Marie Brennan


Title: With Fate Conspire
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: August 30th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A risky undertaking that is more than half-successful.

A while back, I received a review copy of Marie Brennan’s With Fate Conspire, the fourth in her Onyx Court series. Now, let me start with a confession: before receiving my copy, I hadn’t read any of the earlier books. I know, I know – alternate/secret history set in various periods in London’s history? Liking historical fantasy as much as I do, one would think I had devoured this series from the first book up to now. But for whatever reason, I missed it until finding its fourth volume in the mailbox. Holding the book in my hand, I faced a choice: I could either catch up on the previous three books, or I could just dive into the fourth. Doing so would be a risk: would I miss vital backstory or world-building? I didn’t know. But I justified my decision with the fig leaf of “someone else might pick up the fourth book first, right?”

With Fate Conspire is set in an exceedingly well-researched late nineteenth century London. It features two primary viewpoint characters: the mortal Eliza O’Malley, a poor woman of Irish descent living in the London slums and Dead Rick, a faerie skriker (a Lancashire name for a lycanthropic faery who is an omen of death – more commonly known as a Black Dog) living in the Onyx Court’s Goblin Market. When we first meet Eliza, we quickly learn that she is desperately seeking a way to track down the faerie who kidnapped her lover seven years prior. When we first meet Dead Rick, we find him brutally forced to work as a slave, enforcer, and errand-boy for Nadrett, a criminal kingpin in the Goblin Market. Connecting both perspectives is the accelerating industrialization of London: the rise of iron-based industry and the development of the London Underground Railway are destroying the faerie city.

When we first meet both characters, they already have interesting pasts. Eliza’s lover was kidnapped by faeries and she foiled a faerie terrorist attack on the London underground. Dead Rick’s past is more mysterious, but it somehow put him at the mercy of Nadrett. At first, I assumed that these histories were the backstory that I had missed by not reading the earlier books. But then I realized that A Star Shall Fall is set more than a century before With Fate Conspire – which means that their backstories could not possibly have been in the pages I’d skipped.

When I picked up the fourth book in the series, I risked missing out on vital backstory. But writing the fourth book in the series, Brennan took a similar risk: she placed the moment of displacement – the point where Eliza and Dead Rick’s adventures start – off-screen. This is a particularly risky approach: by not allowing us to participate in her protagonists’ displacement, Brennan risks our investment in the characters and their world. I really enjoyed the structure and courage that this showed, but I found that the risk was only partially successful.

Dead Rick is modeled as a hero (see my post on A Theory of the Hero). We are shown his desperation to survive the Onyx Court’s imminent collapse, and his willingness to commit violence, but there remain lines he refuses to cross. He is a moral character, despite the self-loathing we see. He is an aspirational hero who wants to survive while still doing what he feels to be right. He may not always succeed, but he continues to aspire. He is used to show us the lawless underbelly of the Onyx Court, and the amoral brutality of some faeries. The challenges he face are existential: will Nadrett kill him? Will he survive the imminent destruction of the Onyx Court? Will he become like Nadrett to do so?

The portrayal of Dead Rick and faerie society were the high points of the book for me. First, I always enjoy well-drawn heroic characters. The challenges which Dead Rick faces are packed with drama. On an individual level, the unflinching depiction of Nadrett’s brutality and Dead Rick’s desperation make him particularly sympathetic: I cringed to see his experiences and wanted everything to work out for him. At the same time, his story becomes a microcosm of the Onyx Court’s story. Dead Rick’s experiences concretize the drama of the Onyx Court’s collapse by showing us the little guy’s perspective. Dead Rick is no chosen hero, capable of saving the Onyx Court from London’s industrialization. He can barely keep himself alive, let alone save the faerie city. But it is his courageous struggle against insurmountable challenges that makes his story a page turner. In Dead Rick’s case, Brennan was able to successfully skip his backstory: the sympathy he engenders, his emotional stakes, and his relationship to the Onyx Court’s broader struggle were enough to earn my investment.

By contrast, I found Eliza to be the far weaker character. If Dead Rick is defined by his rough moral code, then Eliza is defined by her obsession with tracking down Owen Darragh. This is not an existential challenge. The worst-case scenario for Eliza is that she never finds him. But because we did not get her backstory, we are not as invested in her quest as she is. Brennan tries to make Eliza sympathetic using tools parallel to those used for Dead Rick: Eliza is a poor costerwoman of Irish descent. Her experience of London is that of the down-trodden and the discriminated. While this works to make Eliza somewhat sympathetic, her story lacks the emotional tension of Dead Rick’s. The dilemmas she faces are not moral in nature: she rarely needs to choose between right and wrong, or the lesser of two evils. Short of killing innocents, she’s happy to cross almost any line in her quest. Her challenges are almost always tactical, and they fail to mirror or concretize those of broader mortal London.

In Eliza’s case, skipping of the backstory did the character a disservice. It made it impossible for me to really invest in Eliza’s travails. This problem is especially apparent when compared against Dead Rick’s storyline. Eliza’s difficulties and choices are inconsequential when set against Dead Rick’s primary problem (the catastrophic collapse of the Onyx Court).

That the faerie perspective is more compelling than the mortal one probably should not be a surprise. The Onyx Court is the primary constant throughout the (surprise surprise) Onyx Court series – which in and of itself is an interesting structural feature. Most contemporary fantasies that deal with the world of faerie tend to be either portal or intrusion stories where the focal lens is a human who finds themselves caught up in the magical world. In those stories where a human isn’t our lens, we often see through the eyes of a faery who – for all intents and purposes – tends to be indistinguishable from a super-powered mortal.

When writing a series, most authors take the safe approach of following one set of characters as they progress through events that can be encapsulated within a mortal lifetime. But Brennan takes a different path. Rather than give us characters to follow over the course of a single escalating adventure, she instead opens a window onto a particular time in the history of the eternal Onyx Court. The effect is like tuning into a long-running TV series mid-episode, mid-season. By nailing the faerie perspective – and lending it continuity throughout the series – Brennan is able to diminish the impact. Yet the relative weakness of her mortal character (Eliza) underlines the fact that the faeries – and how the Onyx Court deals with the challenges it faces – are the author’s primary concern. I am curious whether the mortal characters in the earlier books are as weak as Eliza.

Despite Eliza’s weakness, With Fate Conspire remains a very good book. Dead Rick’s story is – in my opinion – enough to carry it, and ultimately make it a satisfying experience. The world-building and research stand out for the level of detail and the skill with which they are woven into the story. The book’s pacing was fairly solid, providing moments of rising tension and breaths where I could assimilate the plentiful skulduggery and intrigue. Fans of “London Above / London Below” fiction along the lines of Kate Griffen’s Matthew Swift novels (see my earlier review), Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: A Novel, or China Miéville’s King Rat will likely enjoy With Fate Conspire, as will fans of painstakingly researched and imagined alternate/secret histories like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel, or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.

Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can offer is that after finishing With Fate Conspire, I went out and bought the preceding three volumes. Brennan took a significant risk structuring this book as she did, and while she may not have succeeded as well as I might have liked, neither did she fail. I applaud her courage, and her skill for getting it more than half right. I’m looking forward to the preceding three books.

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