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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.

The Convergence of Utopia and Science Fiction


A couple of weeks ago – amidst all of the craziness involved with packing, moving, and unpacking – I managed to take a weekend and go up to Readercon in Burlington, MA. I’d been to Readercon two (more accurately, one and a half) times before, and every time, I find the panels thought-provoking (and the conversations between panels, at the bar, and at the parties hilarious and often thought-provoking, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

Readercon This year’s Readercon featured a theme that’s been on my mind of late: utopia. There were three or four program items dedicated to the subject, and I managed to get to almost all of them. While the discussions were all very interesting, I felt that they had danced around two ancillary questions which form the heart of my interest in the subject: What are the drivers of utopian thought? And what makes utopian fiction effective?

Where Does Utopia Come From?

Utopian fiction has a long history, but it’s become increasingly thin-on-the-ground (or the bookshelves) of late. Why? This is the kind of question we can come at from many angles, but to really do an effective job answering it, I think we need to understand how utopian fiction comes about. And here, I’m going to speculate widely, generally, and with any luck reasonably.

Utopian thought (and the fiction which explores it) is a consequence of humanity’s tendency towards systemic thought.

Our minds are pattern-matching machines: From the moment of birth (and possibly even before) our brains are assembling a complex collection of cause/effect responses. If I drop my Cheerios on the floor, mommy gets upset. If I pull the dog’s tail, the dog runs away. When we assemble a bunch of those cause/effect responses – and when we chain them together and interrelate them – an incredibly complex system emerges.

We interact with the world around us – with physical objects, with individuals, with organizations, with groups, and even with ourselves – based upon expectations borne of that complicated system. While the individual action might be simple (turn up the thermostat so that the room becomes warmer), it is predicated upon a complex set of imputed underlying (and inter-related) systems. So what does this have to do with utopia?

Utopian thought comes from an awareness (however flawed) of the systems shaping society. It stems from a philosophical tradition in which one can comfortably place Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Engels, Marx, Rand, and just about any individual who has ever had a political opinion. Utopian thought is a systemic “what if game: If we adjust the systems that shape our society, how will our society change?

This may seem like a simplistic characterization of utopian thought, and to some extent, that’s a fair criticism. But despite its simplicity, it remains precise. And that precision is what makes it helpful for exploring utopian thought’s evolution through the centuries, its relationship to science fiction, and its structural portrayal within fiction.

Our Changing Understanding of Societal Systems

Utopian thought is always grounded in the philosophical zeitgeist of its time. As our understanding of the systems underlying our society changes, so too do the structures and systems depicted in our utopias.

Utopias – like science fiction – are as much commentaries on their present as they are prescriptions for the future.

When Plato described his Republic, or when More’s traveler came upon his island, they were writing in their time and for their time. Their “ideal” societies were built upon their understanding of the systems underlying their contemporary society. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News from Nowhere are both rooted in the social, economic, and cultural debates of the rapidly-industrializing 19th century. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed cannot easily be divorced from the political and economic debates of the mid-20th. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man and Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton are products of the culturally tumultuous 1960-70’s.

Utopian works rely on a philosophical context shared between reader and author. To remove a utopian work from the philosophical context of its time is to reduce it to quaint over-simplicity (an easy critique to offer when looking backwards) or abstruse incomprehensibility (a hypothesized critique when looking forwards – I suspect Plato might have had difficulty grokking Trouble on Triton, for example).

This relationship between utopian thought and the philosophy of its day is, I think, the reason why we have seen relatively little utopian fiction since the 1980s. Before the ’80s, political philosophy, economics, and even psychology were often founded on reductionist principles (i.e. if we can break each system down into its elemental components, we can understand how those systems function). The past thirty years, however, have witnessed the burgeoning popularity of anti-reductionist “systems thought”, “complexity theory”, and “holistic approaches”.

Berlin Wall Tumbles To over-simplify: before the 1980s, it was reasonable for any one philosopher to articulate a “complete” political, social, or economic philosophy. Yes, that articulated philosophy would be flawed and overly simplistic (see Plato, Rand, Heinlein, Yefremov, etc.). But the practical applications (and limitations) of such articulations could be observed in the wild: Soviet Communism in the Eastern bloc, Maoist Communism in China, American Capitalist Democracy in the United States, and mildly-Socialist democracy of varying strains across much of Europe. But then the world changed in the 1980s: Soviet Communism unraveled, and Western society realized that our reductionist models had missed something (or many things).

Since the ‘80s, in every field of social science (including economics, history, sociology, psychology, etc.) we have come to embrace the idea of complex and irreducible systems. This has progressed in line with the increasing specialization of our education systems. For example, the average (educated!) person on the street is unlikely to be able to explain how money supply or the quantity theory of money works. And even amongst economists there is much debate about how various systems affect and shape the money supply, and how that money supply in turn affects and shapes society at large.

I’ve heard time and again folks say that the world has gotten more complex. That’s not true: The world has always been this complicated. But our awareness of the world’s complexity has increased substantially in the last century. As a result, we have shifted from a society which believed it could explain the world to a society which now recognizes its own inability to do so. As a result, our what-if scenarios (reliant as they are upon a shared understanding between reader and author) have grown more tentative.

That makes the creative challenge of producing effective utopian fiction harder. The audience comes to the text already predisposed to reject our utopia.

The Relationship between Utopia and Science Fiction

Several paragraphs ago, I offered a reasonably concise description of utopian thought, characterizing it as a systemic “what-if” scenario. If such a what-if game sounds suspiciously like a working definition of science fiction, well, there’s a good reason for that: Every work of utopian writing can be considered a work of science fiction. And the obverse likewise holds: Every work of science fiction can be considered a work of utopian thought.

I can imagine the complaints now: How can works like E.E. “Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Paulo Baciagalupi’s The Windup Girl, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games be credibly called utopian? They have very little in common, it might seem, to works like H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

But those differences are superficial at best: beneath the stories’ plot, underneath their characterization, and independent of their narrative structure lies an underlying question (what if) which is central to the vast majority (though not all) of science fiction. The differences? Those are differences in expression, differences in technique, differences in the method by which the author’s conjectures are explored. From a philosophical perspective, those are differences in aesthetic.

The Changing Aesthetics of Utopia

When I look at the evolution of utopian fiction, I see a path of convergence. By today’s aesthetic standards, the “classics” of utopian fiction can be considered dull at best, and didactic at worst. A “perfect society devoid of conflict makes plotting difficult. A society which assumes the uniformity of the human condition either a priori or as a consequence of society’s perfection makes characterization tough. By the aesthetic standards of the 19th century, the philosophical question of “what if” alone may have been enough to support a novel-length work.

By our aesthetic standards today? We demand more: tension; conflict; drama. We want pathos in addition to our logos. Utopian fiction’s gradual evolution throughout the twentieth century has marked the gradual shift to more emotive expressions: compare the conflict in H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia to that of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and then that to the conflict in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. One could plot a timeline of explicitly utopian fiction based upon the reader’s emotional proximity to the characters, and those character’s explicit articulation of philosophical conjecture.

The commercial and aesthetic requirement that fiction must feature conflict and drama stands in tension with that fiction’s ability to examine social, economic, or political philosophy. The closer our gaze is focused on the characters, the more oblique becomes the presentation of philosophical conjecture.

Where the philosophical conjecture is viewed head-on, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, we are left with a dystopian work (or in Le Guin’s case, a heavily ambiguous one). The conflict stems from the philosophy, and the “perfect” world is shown to the reader to be so flawed as to fail in its stated goal. This is, of course, a valid and powerful technique in both utopian thought and in science fiction. “It will fail” is a reasonable response to the question of “what if”.

However, in works where the utopian philosophy is presented obliquely – implied through what goes unstated or otherwise baked into the world-building – we can still identify fascinating utopian themes. Whether that’s in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, or Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy we can identify strains of utopian conjecture and examination. They are explored – typically – between the lines, sometimes closer to the story’s surface and other times buried a little more deeply. It works, however, because it is baked into the story’s underlying world-building using the techniques of the science fiction genre.

Utopian Fiction Looking Forward

Contemporary utopian fiction has fully converged with science fiction, to the point where separating the two has become all but impossible. One can make the argument that this discussion is tautological navel-gazing, or as relevant to contemporary writing as asking how many angels can dance on the period at the end of this sentence. I disagree.

Like any branch of either philosophy or writing, utopian fiction is subject to the pressures of its society. In this case, under aesthetic pressure, utopian fiction has had to embrace narrative conflict. This has happened in parallel with society’s rejection of reductionist socioeconomic philosophies, and this societal acknowledgment of nuance has forced a further narrowing of the narrative’s focus to individuals within a hypothetical society. The surrounding society may be idealized, or have utopian elements, yet the lives of the individuals living within it may still be conflicted. Today’s science fiction and utopian thought have both rejected narratives of simplicity.

The mechanism that enables utopian thought (what-if style conjecture) is the same that enables science fiction’s world-building. If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it stands to reason that it is – in fact – a duck. Can we have science fiction that isn’t utopian? Or can we have a utopia which isn’t science fictional? Given the above, I am hard-pressed to think of examples.

Philosophical travelogues with thin characterization and prescriptive didacticism are passé by today’s standards. But the deep and philosophically relevant questions that utopian fiction has traditionally explored can still be examined. But this creates a two-fold challenge: On the one hand, we must consider the complex systems underlying our fictional societies and the relationships therein, while at the same time considering how those systems will affect individuals within those societies on emotional, functional, and even spiritual levels.

Where those systems fail, it is far easier to shift the story into dystopia, to derive narrative tension from those failures.

A far more difficult trick is to show those systems as functional, while still featuring emotionally resonant narrative tension.

A Rant on Exclusion and Genre Pedantry


The other day, I read a fascinating (and wonderfully titled) essay by Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director for Gollancz, wherein he discusses speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream literary fiction. At first, the thought of yet another volley in the interminable genre wars made me groan. But the essay – and some of the ensuing discussion in the comments – did make me think, and those thoughts have gradually grown into a rant. While Simon’s essay raises excellent questions about genre awards, I’m more inclined to rant wonder about Simon’s main point: why do speculative fiction fans bristle at the prospect of non-SF writers employing speculative devices?

The “War” is Over. We Won.

I think it is fair to say that speculative fiction has essentially won the culture wars. The devices and conventions of science fiction and fantasy have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity that couldn’t have been imagined eighty years ago. They dominate both the big and small screen, form the core of the console gaming market, and feature prominently on literary bestseller lists (whether under the aegis of an SF/F imprint or not). The fact that Samuel Delany’s “About 5,750 Words” could benefit from some updating is, I think, a testament to the success of speculative fiction’s penetration into the cultural mainstream.

Yet for some reason, when authors who do not self-identify as science fiction writers (or as fantasy writers) make use of science fictional/fantastical devices, we’re quick to look down our noses at them. We argue that they “appropriate” devices from “our” genre, that they perpetuate genre elitism, that they are ignorant of speculative fiction’s traditions, etc.

To quote Damon Knight: So what?

The first of these claims is meaningless, the second is laughably ironic, and the third is simply irrelevant.

Appropriation of Genre Devices as the Cornerstone of Literature

Appropriation of devices, structures, and conventions is the foundation of literature. Writers have been stealing each others’ tricks ever since the second story was told around a campfire. What would James Joyce’s Ulysses be without Homer’s The Odyssey? Oh, dear, I am sorry: I forget so often that it isn’t worth reading if it doesn’t have a spaceship on the spine. Ahem. Let me use a different example: would we have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings without William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, or H. Rider Haggard’s She? Or would Robert A. Heinlein have written The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress without the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Would Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey have been possible without the influence of Jane Austen?

To criticize the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenger, etc. for “appropriating” speculative devices is petty. Who cares if their stories feature tropes more commonly published by genre imprints? One can make the equally meaningless claim that science fiction has been “appropriating” characterization from mainstream literary fiction. Literature is always in conversation with all of the literature that came before it: every story incorporates elements from other stories, puts those elements together in new and interesting combinations, and thus gives future writers something else to appropriate. That’s the way all literature works, whether inside or outside of speculative fiction.

The Snobbery of Pedantry

When we claim that writers like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy perpetuate the snobbish genre divide, really it’s just the pot calling the kettle black. So Atwood thinks of science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”. Why should such a reductive classification bother us?

There are as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction consumers, and their attitude towards the genre ranges from uncritical boosterism to generalized dismissal. Like Kipling’s tribal lays, all of those definitions – and yes, including Atwood’s – are right. Such definitions are ontological and fluid; they are a subjective amalgam of what Brian Stableford calls “fuzzy sets”.

And there is nothing to be done about them.

Yet when we get sniffy about how one or another “authority” defines our genre, all we’re really doing is throwing a pedantic temper tantrum. If we claim that Only Our definition is Right and Proper, or if we claim that Your Definition is Wrong and Evil, we are engaging in the same exclusionary discrimination that our own beloved genre has been subject to for so long. When really, that classification isn’t solely up to us.

Works get classified into genres at many stages: Their authors can self-identify with a particular literary tradition while writing the damn thing. Agents (or the authors themselves) can submit the book to a particular genre imprint. The imprint can decide the book aligns well with its category/aesthetic/list. The art management team can select a cover that adheres to a particular subset of genre aesthetics/conventions. The bookstore can shelve it in a specific section. And finally, and most importantly, the consumer crafts their own opinion as to how they think of a given book.

Atwood’s definition, my definition, and your definition are but a few of the many voices in this process. One hundred years from now, a literary critic will be able to better judge the genre classification of The Handmaid’s Tale. History, context, and critical distance will all help. But, for the time being, should we wash our hands of the brilliant thematic explorations of Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale or The Time Traveler’s Wife because their authors’ definitions of genre differ from our own?

The Sin of Ignorance

Likewise, when did ignorance become a cardinal sin? As writers, we’re all guilty of a bit of hubris. We all think we’ve done something neat, something cool, something interesting. Sometimes, we even think we’re the first ones to do it. And every now and again, we’re right. But more often than not, we’re wrong. Ignorance is a common characteristic amongst our species, I’m afraid, and wearing the badge of genre is no defense against it.

So why should ignorance of genre traditions, of the myriad ways in which genre devices have been employed previously, condemn a writer? Mary Doria Russell’s ignorance of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience when writing The Sparrow does nothing to detract from the latter’s beauty or power. To generally condemn a writer – regardless of the genre they identify with – for their ignorance strikes me as arbitrary, and perhaps more importantly, as critically vapid.

It is critically interesting to compare Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even David Brin’s The Postman. Such an examination is specific, and can be critically meaningful. It can give us insight into meaning, metaphor, aesthetics, and structure. In such a comparison, McCarthy may even be deemed to be unoriginal, or uninteresting, or dull (I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but critics’ opinions will vary). Such an analysis would be critically valid, a meaningful contribution to the exploration of literature. But to generalize McCarthy as ignorant of the post-apocalyptic tradition and on that basis to dismiss his work? What does that add to the critical conversation? Nothing useful. Nothing interesting.

Genre is Not a Badge

Genre is not a badge of honor, and I say that knowing full well that I could not and would not divorce myself from my genre roots (heck, my blog’s title is a riff off of Dunsany’s classic The King of Elfland’s Daughter – I’m wedded pretty tightly to speculative fiction). Genre is “merely” a collection of aesthetic, structural, and cultural characteristics which make one creative work resemble another. Genre does not have to convey membership in any kind of subculture, although it often does. If creators wish to self-identify with a subculture or if creators, agents, publishers, or readers wish to specifically position their works within a genre, that is all to the good. They are not wrong to do so, and why should we be so churlish as to reject them for not wearing the “right” clothes?

I think that such pedantic rejection of fiction with speculative elements is short-sighted, silly, and at its heart, useless. It does nothing to broaden the popularity of speculative fiction, nothing to educate the broader public about speculative fiction’s history or aesthetics. If anything, it further solidifies long-standing cultural prejudices on both sides of the genre divide.

Writers who publish mainstream literary fiction – but do so with speculative elements – want the same things as self-proclaimed genre writers: They want to sell books. They want to exert an influence – however small – on the dialogue of letters. They want to affect readers, whether to “merely” entertain them (no mean feat) or to change their worldview. They’re all pulling in the same direction we are.

Mainstream literary fiction audiences are different from speculative fiction audiences. There is some degree of overlap, but there are enough readers in each camp who are ignorant of the other. Publishing – and the culture it speaks to and grows from – is not a zero-sum game. We gain nothing by treading on our colleagues’ heads. Instead, both speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction benefit when we celebrate one another’s strengths, when we cross-promote to our respective audiences, when we educate one another’s audiences about the strengths of distinct literary traditions.

I am willing to bet that plenty of magical realists would love to read before the kind of crowd found at even a small genre con. And I am equally certain that plenty of speculative fiction authors would love to get critical attention from the likes of the New York Times Book Review, or the Booker Prize judges.

We should not be ashamed of our relatives in other genres, no more than they should be ashamed of us. I am buoyed by the fact that while I often see speculative fiction lovers grumble about the literary fiction camp, our prizes – in particular the Clarke and the Nebula – tend to be more open-minded. I think we could do with more of such openness, and that both genres could benefit from a greater degree of cross-pollination, for it is that cross-pollination that lies at the heart of creative progress. Speculative fiction has been trapped in an echo chamber for many, many years.

Now that we have the opportunity to branch out, why not do so?

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.

The Anatomy and Value of Fictional Violence


Two months ago, Sherwood Smith and Steve Gould both urged me to read Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, and I am quite glad that I took their advice. The Sharpe stories are historical fiction, set during the Napoleonic wars and featuring the adventures of a British Rifleman Richard Sharpe. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the series at this point, but the books have made me wonder about the uses and techniques of violence in fiction. And since the genre I write most in (fantasy and science fiction) often features some level of violence, the question is philosophically and practically pretty relevant to me.

The Purpose of Fictional Violence

Like everything else in fiction, violence is a tool through which we can manipulate the reader’s emotional, mental, and physiological state. Most stories will use it as an accelerant: throw in a fight scene to boost the reader’s heartbeat, menace the hero to ratchet up tension, describe a murder in detail to make the reader uncomfortable. There is a natural sympathetic response when we read violence: our neurons fire in the same sensory areas as the hero’s, our heart rate goes up, our muscles tense. This is natural, and is part of the process by which we draw the reader into the story.

But violence can serve as more than an accelerant. Depending on how violent action is portrayed, we can use it to slow the story’s pace. Cornwell shows us – in scene after scene – how the butchery of war becomes a hard, bitter slog. He takes multiple paragraphs to describe a movement that would take seconds in reality, stretching the reader’s perception of time. And then he does it again. And again. And again, desensitizing us to the horrors of war just as if we were there fighting it.

In many stories, violence is the knife-edge on which the stakes balance. Conflict, and the themes it explores, are crystallized through violent action. A battle makes the political or philosophical conflict concrete, personalizes it, reduces it to an accessible or understandable simulacrum. A fight brings the emotional consequences home to the reader by playing on their sensory perceptions. While not all stories need violence to do so, violent action does make the stakes real in a way that reasoned discourse cannot.

So how does the tool work?

The Components of Fictional Violence

Focus

I keep returning to the Scribblies’ dictum that POV fixes everything, and that’s for damn good reason. The most important component in fictional violence is point-of-view, and more specifically the focus which that POV imbues.

Effective violence relies on the intersection of the reader’s imagination with their sensory perception of the events portrayed in the story. The reader might never have been in battle, but their imagination can supply the smell of smoke, the sound of screams, and the coppery taste of blood. The choice of how to direct the reader’s attention, which details to supply them with, which senses to evoke is one that relies on POV and focus.

Consider a bare-knuckles boxing match told from three different perspectives: one is a technical blow-by-blow in a newspaper article, the other is a sports announcer sitting ringside, and the third is one of the fighters (forgive me for the crudity of these experiments – I just want to illustrate a point):

Newspaper Article
Mondelo countered Flannery’s jab with a hard right hook, and Flannery went down for the count.
Sportscaster
Like a cat, Flannery shoots a right jab. But Mondelo just takes it! Takes it on the cheek, and doesn’t even blink. Mondelo’s right hooks around, moving like a meat hammer. Spins the Irishman clean around. He’s stumbling. He’s stepping away. Mondelo’s not touching him – he ain’t moving. The crowd’s screaming, going wild for Mondelo to finish up. Flannery folds up. The ref goes down. Mondelo’s just standing there. And that’s the count! Flannery is out!
Boxer
Flannery moved so fast, Mondelo never even saw the jab. It was like he’d blinked, just the one surprised blink, and then the blood streamed down his cheek like a salty tear. But his fist was already moving, and from this distance there was no way even fast Flannery could recover. Mondelo’s right crashed into his jaw, and though he couldn’t hear the Mick’s teeth crunch above the crowd’s screams, he felt them crumble up his hand and through his wrist, past his elbow and all the way to where his own face throbbed. Flannery spun around, flecks of bone and blood staining the ref’s shirt. Mondelo didn’t move. Let him go down, he thought. Let him go down, I don’t have another one like that. He couldn’t loosen his fist, like all of his bloodied knuckles had been fused together. Please, God, let him go down. The ring shuddered as the Irishman hit the mat. Below the haze, Mondelo could see the ref counting. The crowd was screaming. And his fist still wouldn’t open.

Each of these – admittedly rough – passages describes the same violent events, but the sensory details provided in each vary tremendously. It is the POV that informs which sensory details receive the focus, and it is in turn the focus which affects the reader.

Cornwell’s Sharpe series is told from a nearly omniscient point-of-view, which gives him the ability to narrow and widen his focus throughout the unfolding action of a particular battle. At one point, he might be giving us the view from ten thousand feet, describing the movements of entire companies on the field of battle. And in the next paragraph, he may have zoomed in to show us the brutal disembowelment of a cavalry man on the line. Consider the following (from Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles):

Those Riflemen began to fall. The centre of the square soon became a charnel house of wounded men, of blood, screams and hopeless prayer. The rain was stinging harder, wetting the rifle pans, but enough black powder fired to spit bullets at the enemy who, crouched in the grass, made small and elusive targets.

The two mounted squadrons had wheeled away to the west, and now reformed. They would charge along the line of the road, and the frozen steel of their heavy straight swords would burn like fire when it cut home. Except, so long as the Riflemen stayed together, and so long as their unbroken ranks bristled with the pale blades, the horsemen could not hurt them. But the enemy carbines were taking a fearful toll. And when enough Riflemen had fallen the cavalry charge would split the weakened square with the ease of a sword shattering a rotten apple.

Dunnett knew it, and he looked for salvation. He saw it in the low cloud which misted the hillside just two hundred yards to the north. If the greenjackets could climb into the obscuring shroud of those clouds, they would be safe. He hesitated over the decision. A Sergeant fell back into the square, killed clean by a ball through his brain. A Rifleman screamed as a bullet struck his lower belly. Another, shot in the foot, checked his sob of pain as he methodically loaded his weapon.

As the above passage shows, the omniscient POV gives Cornwell great descriptive flexibility, as it allows him to communicate information which his protagonist (Richard Sharpe) does not necessarily have. But while an omniscient POV maximizes our flexibility of focus, it carries with a trade-off in the other essential component of effective violence: the level of emotional engagement.

Emotional Context

Violence without emotional context is useless. By giving the reader an understanding of the character’s perception of the violence, and of the character’s investment in its outcome, we make it possible for the reader to have an emotional response. The emotional context for violence is an amalgamation of everything we have learned about the characters involved, and about our perceptions of those characters.

Obituaries – which as a matter of taste and human decency, rarely depict violence – are a great example of this principle at work. The purpose of an obituary is to communicate that a person has died. But that could be communicated in one sentence: “Person X died yesterday.” Or, if we wanted to provide more factual detail, we might say “Person X died in a car crash yesterday.” But that’s not how obits are structured. They give us the facts, but they also humanize the person involved. They imply an emotional context for the event, at the least by mentioning the survivors.

Emotional context works the same way in violence. Violence where the characters lack an emotional stake fails to move the reader. It makes the violence clinical, which at times might be the point (a lot of serial killer thrillers do this), where the absence of emotional context itself becomes its own equivalent.

However, there is a difference between painstakingly writing a scene of emotionless, clinical violence (as in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter), and writing one where the emotional context is haphazard. This is one of the complaints I tend to have about some gritty fantasy, in particular some of Joe Abercombie’s or K.J. Parker’s work.

While technically their portrayals of violence are fine, that violence is frequently devoid of emotional investment. The point-of-view is close, developing an expectation that the focus and depiction of violence will be visceral to the characters involved. But when that portrayal lacks an emotional dimension: the characters are often shown to have emotions, but those emotions somehow vanish when the violence begins. When those perspective characters’ emotions are kept at arms’ length, the reader’s emotions are likewise held at bay, weakening the effect the violence can otherwise produce.

Language and Violence

The language which we use to portray violence also carries significant impact. Historical fiction, quasi-historical fantasy, contemporary fantasy, and science fiction all feature technologies with which most readers are not fluent. But the use of technical terminology, of the correct terms for particular objects or maneuvers, can help establish the world-building of the story (see my earlier discussion of how Ian Fleming and John le Carré use these science fictional techniques).

The sentence, paragraph, and chapter structures can similarly affect the pacing of the action, and likewise manipulate the reader’s focus. Staccato sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters accelerate the pace. When the emotional stakes are established, when the reader is invested, the accelerating pace increases the reader’s tension.

The words used to describe the violence, with their sound, their rhythm, and the emotions they evoke in the reader likewise affect the reader’s response. To describe a sword wound as “gaping” or “weeping” produces a different response in the reader, and this type of response can be played with to good effect.

In Cornwell, the descriptions of violence are visceral: when focused closely, Cornwell describes the wounds inflicted in graphic terms. But for his protagonist, battle is just another day at the office. Richard Sharpe remains emotionally invested in the violence, but there is a purposeful disconnect between his ruthlessness in battle and the graphic way in which Cornwell describes the horrors of war. Sharpe laments the ugliness of war, but he also revels in it. As he says time and time again, it is the only job he was ever good at.

On the Absence of Violence

But not all books – and certainly not all genre books – need violence to be successful. One of my favorites, John Crowley’s Little, Big is pretty much devoid of violence. Violence can by its very nature either by physical (as it tends to be in much fantasy), emotional (as it tends to be in much romance), or philosophical (as it often is in much 19th century literature). But as far as I can see, the tools by which those different kinds of violence are established, and the uses to which we put them, are consistent.

Whether the violence involves a broadsword, a ray gun, or cutting repartée, the tools for its depiction remain the same. And that’s because it is not violence that affects the reader, but rather the way in which that violence gets presented.

What is Science Fiction for?


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No matter how many times the community debates science fiction’s viability, direction, and future, a fundamental question goes unasked: What is the purpose of science fiction? The answer to that question is at the heart of every (often recurring) debate about the genre, yet I have rarely seen it asked directly. Consider:

Quality: Genre vs. Literary Fiction Science Fiction’s Exhaustion Award Criteria

These are just the most recent paroxysms of genre self-confidence that I can recall from the past year. And in most cases, the resulting discussion is necessary for the continued health of literature (and of our genre, in particular – see my earlier thoughts on that front here and here). But in each discussion, the debaters speak from a particular perspective, heavily informed by their underlying and unarticulated perception of science fiction’s purpose. It is the implicit background which every one of us takes for granted, but which leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and grossly divergent conclusions.

The Amorphous Purpose: A Definition

(NOTE: I would love to see a story entitled “The Amorphous Porpoise”. Just saying.)

The purpose of a genre is – by its very nature – protean. It is an amalgamation of methods, effects, and consequences within literature and society. If the concept appears fuzzy and imprecise, there’s a good reason for that: It is. Like so much critical discussion, it is a philosophical abstraction. We cannot apply it to any particular title, nor even to a particular series. To be meaningful, it must be broad enough to contain contradictions, and resilient enough to withstand them.

Despite its imprecision, genre’s purpose remains a powerful critical tool. When Damon Knight says that “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”, he relies on the particular mix of methods, effects, and consequences of a given story to group it with other stories of similar purpose. Conceptually, it is similar to Brian Attebery’s “fuzzy set” of genre markers, but its value goes beyond the merely taxonomic: genre’s purpose contextualizes the stories within the genre, and thus creates a framework for our interpretations and responses.

When Christopher Priest laments the nominee slate for the Clarke Award, or when Paul Kincaid observes the “exhaustion” of science fiction in the Best-of anthologies, their concerns can be reframed in terms of genre’s purpose. Between the lines, they each suggest an indistinct and idealized vision of science fiction. Neither offers a clear prescription, but it is clear that they have set their own bars on the basis of some criteria, whether articulated or not. If we reframe their arguments (hopefully without doing damage to their intentions), we find that Priest observes that the Clarke Award does not reward the fiction he believes aligns best with science fiction’s purpose. Paul Kincaid believes that much of contemporary science fiction aligns with an outmoded purpose, which may no longer be culturally relevant.

In both cases, they leave the purpose of science fiction implicit and unarticulated, which I think does their core arguments a disservice. I think a debate about the purpose of science fiction and its role within literature and society is an interesting and valuable one, from which interesting ideas about writing and genre can both flow.

On the Constitution of Purpose

I think of genre purpose as having three components. There may be more, particularly since this is still a concept I’m trying to wrap my head around. But in general, a genre’s purpose is the combination of its:

Methods
These are the techniques, conventions, and devices which are employed in stories ascribed to a particular genre. They are directly observable within the text, no one story will ever use all of them, and any one story may specifically reject or subvert one or more of them.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Scientific plausibility
  • Fictive Neology
  • The Novum
  • Rational actors/consequences
  • Naturalistic prose
  • Reliable narrators
  • Unreliable narrators
  • The imagined future
  • Interstellar travel
  • Intelligent alien life
  • Sentient artificial life

Effects
These are the emotional and mental responses produced in the individual reader as a direct result of the genre’s methods. They are not observed within the text, but are observed within its individual readers. Certain effects may be generalizable across an audience, but because no two readers experience a story in the same way, the effects are never universal for any story. The effects can likewise be directed, e.g. “fear of science” or “fear of government”, etc.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Escape
  • Entertainment
  • Imaginitive speculation
  • Wish fulfillment
  • Ethical Uncertainty
  • Sadness
  • Horror
  • Terror
  • Optimism
  • Ambition
  • Transcendence
  • Affirmation
  • Curiosity
  • Rumination
  • Satisfaction

Consequences
These are the cultural reactions that a genre produces. They may be expressed outside of the literary sphere, for example in education, cultural sensibilities, or public mores. They may also be expressed within future texts, as a response to or expansion/subversion of the genre’s purpose.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Fleeting enjoyment
  • Scientific/technological development
  • Changed social acceptance/rejection/prejudice
  • Perceptions of government power
  • Perceptions of civic responsibility
  • Perceptions of civil rights/roles
  • Adjusted conceptions of justice
  • Adjusted aesthetic sensibilities
  • Adjustments in personal priorities

I believe that all fantastic genres (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), and possibly all literature shares the majority of their effects and consequences, but that they rely on different methods to do so. I imagine – and I hope – that there are people who disagree with this, as their thoughts might provide fascinating insights into the purpose of literature and art.

The Evolving Purpose of Genre

When each of us thinks of a literary tradition – be it science fiction, biography, or mystery – we value different methods, effects, and consequences differently. This is partially a consequence of our individual tastes, and partially the result of our philosophical values. Genre’s purpose – in its abstract philosophical sense – does not have intentionality. But when we begin to discuss a genre’s purpose, each of us prioritizes certain methods, effects, and consequences over others, and this gives genre’s purpose a directionality.

The cycles we see in science fiction – whether it was the gradual move away from scientific romance conventions in the pulp era, or the New Wave’s focus on the sociological, or cyberpunk’s psychosocial aesthetics – are a consequence of genre’s constantly-evolving purposes, which in turn are an emergent property of our consumption of media and our experiences of daily life. The sometimes acrimonious divide between “hard” and “soft” SF merely reflects differences in our community’s priorities, tastes, and philosophical values.

Our individual values, and the intentions they lend to our perception of genre, inform everything we do when it comes to genre. When we write genre fiction, we (hopefully) write what we think it should be, applying and communicating our values. When we review genre fiction, we express how an author’s work is executed relative to our individual conception of the genre’s purpose: did the story successfully align with what we want from the genre? When we criticize genre fiction, we generalize across multiple stories to either gain insight into how genre’s methods, effects, and consequences interrelate or to articulate our generalized desires about the genre.

Perhaps, rather than rehashing the perennial “genre is exhausted/dying/dead” debate it would be helpful to take a step back, and articulate what we think genre should be, and start from there. There will be plenty of disagreements if we do: this is actually pretty complex philosophy, and it has flummoxed much smarter people than me. I suspect that for many of us, it is easier to express our values through our fiction than it is to spell them out. But I think as a community, it is a discussion worth having nevertheless.

But if we want to advance our understanding of the art form, and if we want to advance the quality (howsoever it gets defined) of that art form, shouldn’t we at some point spell out where we want it go?

Why Do Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction?


I’ve written before about the relationship between spy fiction and science fiction, but after recently re-reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, the relationship is even further solidified in my mind. While Fleming and Le Carré provide good examples of using world-building and neologism in an otherwise realistic environment, Clancy wrestles with the tension between scientific accuracy and the narrative’s accessibility in the same way that hard science fiction authors do.

The more I thought about this fact, the more I realized that techno-thrillers (whether espionage-focused or not) are absolutely science fictional. But that begs a basic question: why do Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc. regularly hit the top of the bestseller charts, while more fantastic titles tend to rank lower?

I think the reason is twofold: on the one hand, thrillers have largely avoided the critical condemnation that has afflicted science fiction for much of its history, and on the other hand, I believe that thrillers place a higher priority on emotional accessibility than science fiction does.

Thrillers and Science Fiction: Two Genres, Both Alike in Narrative Devices

I’ve written before about how espionage fiction incorporates cognitive estrangement and jargon into its world-building, but the thriller genre uses many more science fictional devices. Techno-thrillers in particular throw a tremendous amount of technical detail at the reader, asking them to understand submarine naval engineering (Tom Clancy), microbiology (Michael Crichton), or encryption (Neal Stephenson). The fact that much of the science fiction community claims two of those three authors as “its own” should give some indication of the porous borders separating the two categories.

Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, for example, is brimming with highly detailed explanations of submarine propulsion and sonar systems. With relatively little modification – merely by changing a few words here and there in the text – it could easily be recast as a novel about starships.

The technical detail that techno-thrillers utilize serves a similar purpose to the technical detail included in much hard science fiction: it provides some measure of cognitive estrangement for the reader, signalling that the text necessitates a different set of reading protocols than a mainstream realistic novel. It can also serve as a fig-leaf in the quest for verisimilitude: a profusion of technical details may obscure the blatant implausibility of the story’s technological conceit, for example. And thematically, the technology or its consequences may well be the point (whether metaphorical or not) of the story.

In this, thrillers and science fiction are very similar. However, when we consider the two genres’ histories, their paths begin to diverge.

The Shared Roots of Thrillers and Science Fiction

DISCLAIMER: I’m not really a genre historian, and so this is a broad and sweeping set of generalizations that might not stand up to closer scrutiny. If you know of anything to either support or demolish my theory, please comment and let me know!

While both thrillers and science fiction can trace putative roots back to myth, I think that for all practical purposes both genres really got their start in the 19th century. “Sensational” stories like The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables were published alongside scientific romances like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or gothic fictions like Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

The two categories shared many of the same narrative devices, and many of the same narrative structures. They both belonged to a macro-class of fiction that one could justly call “adventure fiction”, and which also included the mystery (as pioneered by Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle), the adventure (as executed by H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson), and later the western (Karl May, Owen Wister, and Zane Grey).

All of these siblings found a popular home in short fiction magazines, particularly in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. And all were – initially – derided by critics as popular literature of an escapist (at best) or immoral (at worst) bent. But then in the 1920s and 1930s, something changed.

Mysteries and thrillers – particularly spy fiction – began to focus inward on the character, and on the character’s emotions and attitudes. Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout for mysteries, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene for espionage, Joseph Conrad (again) and Damon Runyon for adventure – suddenly the focus of their stories had shifted inward onto the character and onto the emotional journey the story took the reader on.

At the same time, Gernsbackian “scientifiction” shifted early science fiction in the exact opposite direction. Where crime, adventure, and espionage writing prioritized the philosophical and emotional exploration of character, science fiction pointedly shifted it outwards onto the larger-scale extrapolation of technological consequences.

The critics in the 1940s – 1980s preferred the new-found inward focus of mysteries and thrillers to the outward focus of pulp-era science fiction. The critics prioritized that exploration of morality and character which early science fiction didn’t focus on. And it was those critical opinions in the 1940s – 1980s that discredited science fiction as “trash” literature in the popular imagination.

A Question of Priorities: Differences Between Thrillers and Science Fiction

The consequences of that shifting focus can still be seen in the genre today. Readers – and editors, publishers, and critics – have certain expectations of thrillers and certain expectations of science fiction.

Thrillers, as the name suggests, thrill. They get our hearts pumping and our fingers flipping pages. We engage emotionally and intellectually with the adventure and the characters. If a thriller fails to develop that intense edge-of-your-seat engagement with its reader, then it fails as a thriller: it disqualifies itself from its own category (like a category romance with no romance).

Though science fiction – and even hard science fiction – have focused increasingly on character, emotion, and moral philosophy in the last fifty years, as a genre we continue to prioritize high-concepts over visceral excitement. We look for the cool novum or the intriguing concept, and feel that the story’s underlying conceits are valuable in and of themselves. If the story is exciting, too, then that’s a bonus. In order to be published, a science fiction story does not need (nor is harmed by) the emotional intensity of a thriller. This is not a criticism, nor is it a complaint. It is merely my observation of priorities in the speculative fiction community.

If science fiction is a genre of ideas, then thrillers are a genre of tension. And even if Tom Clancy includes pages and pages of prose describing the detailed engineering of a submarine propulsion system, that technical detail is in service to the tension of the story, and only works insofar as it helps to contextualize or heighten that tension.

Why Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction

So given all this, why then do thrillers outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? First, I think that the critical condemnation heaped upon science fiction for much of the 20th century cannot be overstated. Mysteries and espionage in particular have gotten much critical love over the years, while science fiction has only relatively recently come in out of the critical cold.

This critical condemnation inculcates – and has inculcated – several generations of readers against science fiction. It is not that these readers reject science fictional narrative devices – they merely reject the category that explicitly contains them. Label those same narrative techniques as a “thriller” and they’ll buy the hardcover.

Furthermore, I suspect that for many readers thrillers are more accessible than much hard science fiction. Thrillers prioritize character and the reader’s emotional journey over science and philosophy. This makes the story more accessible, and anecdotally, I know many thriller readers who gloss over the techno-babble to get to the action (loosely defined).

Technology is rarely the focus of even the most technical of techno-thrillers. Cool Science for the sake of Cool Science is almost non-existent in the thriller genre. Instead, the genre focuses on the application of Cool Science rather than its explication

And finally, thrillers are typically either set contemporaneously to their reader’s experience, or close enough in time that the technology in use seems more plausible. I know just as much about submarine propulsion as I do about starship propulsion (which is not much). But the imaginative effort I must make to understand Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October is far lesser than that which I must make for Peter Watts’ Starfish. Both may be (and are) well-executed and rewarding stories, but the level of effort needed to earn that reward is markedly different.

In other words, thrillers outsell hard science fiction because as a genre they are historically less stigmatised, more emotionally focused, and feature technology that is easier for readers to internalize.

A Future Recombinant of Thrillers and Science Fiction?

Given all of this, and given society’s increasing familiarity with science fictional devices, what does the future hold for both genres? Personally, I think we will see certain branches of science fiction increasingly resemble the thriller genre.

Science fiction – even “hard” science fiction – has been shifting its focus inward for the past fifty years, and this is an ongoing process that is nowhere near complete (if such a process can ever actually be completed). Many notable authors in the genre – William Gibson, Tim Powers, Ian McDonald – write stories that could easily be published either as thriller or as science fiction. And some authors, like Mira Grant in her Newsflesh trilogy, take the strengths of both genres and integrate them so seamlessly as to approach perfection.

I’d like to see more of that. And I’d also like to know what you think. Why do you think thrillers regularly outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? And what are the implications for either genre?

On Where Genres Come From and How to Stitch Them Together


Victor Frankenstein had it easy. He had to muck about with viscera and body parts, and though the result was an eight-foot tall, sallow-skinned monster, at least human anatomy provided him with a map to follow. Writers don’t have such guidelines: the scope, direction, and style of our art is only constrained by the scope, direction, and style of our imaginations. And while such a wide-skyed vista might be freeing, our desire to navigate its uncharted expanse is precisely why we create genres.

Mommy, Where Do Genres Come From?

Most of what I’ve read about genres centers on three concerns:

1. Taxonomy What [set of] characteristics determine membership within a particular genre?
2. Interpretation How does a title’s membership within a genre affect the way it is interpreted?
3. Historical Application How do a critic’s views on genre taxonomy and interpretation work when applied retroactively to works that predate them? or When did a genre begin?

All three are interesting concerns, but they fail to address a fourth question that is – to me – just as interesting: for what purpose and by what process are genres created? To say that genres are created by booksellers or by readers puts the cart before the horse: a book has to be written before it can either be shelved somewhere or read. And this suggests to me that writers are the creators of genre: we develop genre as the scaffolding on which to assemble our stories. They are the blueprint that we use to stitch our monsters together.

Why Genre is Helpful to Writers

It is rather silly to look at a piece of writing – any writing – in isolation. All writing, all art, is in dialog with the writing, art, and culture which preceded it. Sometimes, that dialog may be overt and the writer conscious of it. Other times, that dialog may be inadvertent: a consequence of the writer’s subconscious interpretation of and response to their own idiosyncratic stimuli. But communication requires a shared substrate to be functional, and all writing uses words to produce its artistic effects. Our words are the cells in Frankenstein’s monster.

When we assemble those words into particular narrative constructs, when we structure our story in certain ways, we are building the muscles, sinews, and bones of our creation. These components, taken together, constitute the morphology of our story and help to guide the reader’s experience along the route our artistic vision demands. In that, the conventions of genre are a helpful shorthand, a finely-balanced compass that gets the reader to our destination.

Different genres have different strengths: thrillers get the blood pumping, category romance provides an escapist catharsis (note, that’s not a pejorative!), realistic literary fiction excels at intellectual exploration, science fiction produces a sense of wonder, etc. These are the responses that different narrative conventions evoke in the reader. When we understand how the text produces such responses, then we can begin to understand the art of storytelling.

And when we write, we apply – either knowingly or not – the tools and techniques that we have learned from other stories. We might say “That’s a cool trick – let’s play with that” or we might say “That’s an overplayed cliche – let’s subvert it”, but in each case we utilize our inspirations in our own work.

When one of us applies a particular technique, it is an individual act. But when enough of us use the same tool, our individual applications rapidly accrete to create a convention. When enough such conventions have accreted, then we look around and find that we have created a genre, or a style, or an artistic movement. And eventually, these conventions become tropes at which point their subversion becomes another convention, and the cycle repeats. In other words, genre is an emergent property of the act of writing.

Hybrid Monsters: How to Merge Genres

Much as I love readers, much as I respect booksellers, at a general level this process has nothing to do with either: it has everything to do with how writers experience stories and respond to them in our own work. But when we look at individual stories, at a particular writer’s specific application of a set of techniques, the (unknown and unknowable) reader’s experience becomes relevant. Will they be able to interpret it? And will they be able to enjoy it? The answers to these questions are, alas, never discrete. They are always found somewhere on a continuum that varies across readers, from one story to the next, and that are changeable in time. That’s why applying conventions from one genre alongside those from another can both be incredibly rewarding, and incredibly risky.

When done well, our words serve double (or triple) duty, eliciting the responses familiar from each of the genres we endeavor to blend. Consider John Crowley’s Little, Big or Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy: on the one hand, each story clearly employs the narrative conventions of disparate traditions of fantasy (interstitial/wainscot fantasy in one case, and secondary-world fantasy in the other). And yet both incorporate stylistic techniques more common to mainstream literary fiction.

When done poorly, the result is a story that is impossible to interpret or that fails to satisfy its audience. In one sense, this ties to the concept of the author’s contract with their reader: the reader goes into the story with a particular set of expectations, and if the story neither conforms to those expectations nor distracts the reader sufficiently to change them, then the reader will be dissatisfied. One example that comes to mind is the criticism often leveled against Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which in its attempt at existential philosophy broke with the prevailing thematic conventions established by the television series that preceded it while maintaining its aesthetic and structural conventions.

So what, then, is the trick to merging genres? I think the answer is to focus on the core of each genre. Though the creation of genre is an accretive process, at the heart of every genre there lies a kernel of convention so intrinsic to that genre’s function as to be indelible. That kernel is the core of the genre, what makes that genre distinct from its siblings. More often than not, that kernel even forms the root of the genre’s name: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, realism, etc.

The narrative devices that comprise the conventions of each genre contribute – in some fashion – to that kernel of genre truth. Identifying what that kernel is, and then determining particular narrative techniques that contribute to it gives us techniques that can be ported across genre lines.

For example: looking for a faster pace and heightened tension in your fantasy? Many commercial thrillers use short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences, and cliffhanger chapter-endings to contribute to that effect. Looking for a hint of the numinous in your realistic novel? The language of realized metaphor found in fantasy and myth might be just the ticket.

Though these are just two simple examples, the same principle can be adopted at all levels of storytelling: linguistic, structural, thematic, emotional, etc. So long as we focus on techniques that contribute to the genre’s core, I believe those techniques will play well outside of their “original” genre.

Maps Are Not the Journey

While genre conventions provide us with techniques and guidelines for how those techniques interact, they are no substitute for skillful storytelling. I do not advocate turning to genre conventions as a “paint-by-the-numbers” guidebook for aspiring writers. If that’s all you want, then I urge you to check out Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook (which, incidentally, is a fascinating morphological study of classic pulp plots – an interesting theoretical read in its own right, even if one doesn’t take its prescriptions to heart).

No amount of theory can make up for poor execution. The quality of our execution comes from a variety of factors, not least being our own creativity, the vibrancy of our imaginative vision, and our ability to communicate that vision to our audience. Without the skillful application of whatever genre-derived techniques we employ, we risk stories far less interesting than Victor Frankenstein’s eight-foot tall, yellow-skinned monster (though, to be fair, writing stories that interesting is hard!).

It is not the quality of the map – nor even that of the roads – that determines the quality of the journey. It is the skill of the navigator.

“Science Fiction” and Literature – or Thoughts on Delany and the Plurality of Interprative Processes


NOTE: Once again, I apologize for posting this a bit later than usual. I’m abroad for only one more week, though, and then we’re back to our regular Tuesday schedule.

I’ve long believed that Samuel Delany is one of the sharpest, most insightful, and most comprehensive critics in the field of science fiction/fantasy criticism. His non-fiction – from The Jewel-Hinged Jaw to About Writing or Starboard Wine and beyond – are a master-class in exploring the ways in which fantastic literature functions, and I freely admit that a lot of my own thinking is based on insights I eagerly cribbed from his work. But that being said, I think his theories on the relationship between science fiction and literature are due for a re-examination.

In “About 5,750 Words”, Delany draws a very distinct line between how readers interpret science fictional texts and how they interpret mundane texts. His argument is extremely fine-grained, focusing on the words and sentence constructions that are employed in both fictional forms. But he presupposes a certain sequential process by which readers interpret each: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.”

Delany’s micro-focus doesn’t work for everyone, and some very smart people have criticised his fixation on sequential reading. They argue that not everyone interprets prose sequentially, that the process may be more fluid than the step-by-step plodding that Delany describes. And to be fair, they are correct: the process isn’t necessarily sequential. But those who focus on Delany’s sequence often miss a simple fact: he uses sequence as a pedagogical tool, a way to illustrate his broader underlying argument for which sequence is actually almost irrelevant.

The Idea of Differing Interpretative Skill-sets

One of Delany’s core points (which he highlights in essay after essay) is that readers of science fiction apply a different set of skills to reading science fiction texts than readers of mundane fiction apply to the reading of mundane texts. He goes on to use this distinction to explain why some readers of mundane fiction find themselves categorically unable to read/interpret/understand/enjoy science fiction.

In his compelling examples, he points out that sentences composed entirely of individually intelligible words (such as “The red sun was high, the blue low.” or Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”) become meaningless if read as naturalistic prose. He argues that a certain imaginative leap must be made, an extension or expansion of our imaginative capacity, to consider events, objects, and actors that do not yet exist and possibly cannot exist. This, he claims, is a process alien to the experience of nnaturalistic fiction.

I am sympathetic to this distinction. I think that for many years, and for many readers, this was exactly the case. But cultural capabilities, and their distribution throughout the population, is not static. And Delany himself realized this fact in his essay “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ – or The Conscience of the King” (you can find it in Starboard Wine).

There, he explores the question of whether literature will subsume science fiction or whether science fiction will subsume literature. And he makes a very compelling case for the encouragement of a pluarility in the methods of literary interpretation. Though he does so relying on Foucault’s exploration of the author, Delany readily admits that as only one way of looking at the interpretative process of literary criticism. Yet nevertheless, readers are vast and contain multitudes: just as a plurality of interprative modes exist among readers collectively and individually, so too does such a plurality exist among critics and authors.

He makes the case that skill-sets evolve and change, which naturally makes me wonder about how those skill-sets have changed in the reading public since “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'” was first presented thirty three years ago.

Evidence for the Merging of “Science Fictional” and “Mundane” Interprative Processes

Looking at what is being published and analyzed today, I believe that the interpretative processes for science fiction and mundane fiction are merging. This starts with the writer, who weaves in structures modeled after mundane fiction into their fatastical yarns (consider the best works of John Crowley or Tim Powers) or who weaves in science fictional elements into an otherwise naturalistic novel (the whole “magical realist” movement, for example).

To make such novels work, the writer must internalize and integrate the structures and conventions of stylistically and structurally disparate genres: if that isn’t a plurality of interprative modes, I don’t know what is. In many ways, this is a creative process that Delany himself talks about in “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” (in About Writing). It is an interstitial and conversational act which purposefully interlocks the building blocks of narrative like jigsaw pieces. Only this is a puzzle with no edges: those are cut by the reader, who bounds his interpretation using his own subjective experiences and interprative processes.

Yet the economics of book publishing don’t lie (in the longterm): if readers could not employ a plurality of interprative modes, then they would not buy books which rely on it, and so publishers wouldn’t sell them, editors wouldn’t buy them, and writers wouldn’t write them. However much artists might cringe at the sharp palm of the invisible hand, it does provide some insight into both the state and direction of literary culture.

Possible Reasons for Increased Interprative Plurality

So why now, after close to a hundred years of “modern” science fiction, do we see science fictional texts coming in out of the critical cold? What drives this increase in interprative plurality? I think the answer lies in pop culture.

Though I might be misremembering (since I’m currently in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel and don’t have my books close to hand), I believe Kingsley Amis wrote in The James Bond Dossier that popular literature should be judged as significant literature precisely because of its very popularity. The popularity of any individual or class of work might not translate into “classic” status (whatever that means), but it nevertheless engages in a dialog with the art and culture that preceded it and the art and culture that will follow. Pop culture is a window into the values and priorities and concerns of the culture that consumes it.

And for the past two generations, pop culture has increasingly been adopting the devices and concommitant interprative techniques native to science fiction. Whether it is Star Wars, any of the successive incarnations of Star Trek, the science fictional music of Rush (which, to be fair, I don’t particularly care for), or the near-universal and growing interest in super-heroes doesn’t matter: the net result is that as a society our imaginative vocabulary is increasing.

When Delany first wrote “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'”, he included an example sentence: “Then her world exploded.” Back in 1979, a relatively limited population might have had the cultural vocabulary to interpret that sentence plurally as metaphor and/or literal event. But since then, at least two generations (and soon three) have grown up having seen Alderaan scattered across the stars. Don’t believe me? Check out this three year old exclaiming how “They blowed up Princess Leia’s planet!” Our parents and grandparents do not necessarily have the same interpretative facility, as their formative cultural touchstones were perforce different.

Though one might get fancy and call this an increase in the plurality of interprative processes, I actually think that its foundation is deeper and more basic: it is an increase in our cultural vocabulary, which is itself the ontology that underlies our interpretations. Ray guns, space ships, spells – these are no longer exotica. In the west (and in much of the rest of the world as well), they have become part of our cultural lexicon.

And writers across all genres are benefiting, as it offers them more space to play in. It increases the size of the board, and gives them new puzzle pieces with which they can construct new dreams. But nevertheless, there remains and always will remain a farther frontier.

The New, The Weird, and the Unknown

Even if the “meat and potatoes” of science fictional narrative have been incorporated into our literary vocabulary, science fictional narrative is no more static than the culture which creates it. People continue to write, and so they continue to innovative stylistically and thematically.

While “spaceships” and “parallel worlds” and “time travel” and “alternate history” might be reasonably understandable and familiar even to mundane readers, there remain authors who stylistically carve new pathways into the narrower science fictional vocabulary.

Authors in the New Weird, for example, titillate and enthrall with their twisted and unusual constructs, coupled with stylistic flourishes that often draw from more poetic or literary roots than mundane readers might expect. But because of their strangeness, that crucial “weirdness”, their interpretation relies on a vocabulary that many mundane readers will simply lack. Time travel they might grok, and even grok they might grok, but human/insect hybrids? For the moment, those may be a bridge too far for many.

The same difficulty holds true in “harder” (as in more science-laden, not necessarily more challenging) science fiction texts: the stylistic techniques employed by writers like Peter Watts or Greg Egan push the boundaries of science fiction’s own vocabulary. Is it any wonder, then, that readers not quite fluent in that vocabulary would have difficulty enjoying them?

Yet, culture rolls on. Literary vocabularies shift and share, and I believe that some of what is strange and difficult today will gradually find its way into popular culture, and from there it will enrich the broadly-held cultural vocabulary, and as a consequence the multiplicity of our interprative processes will increase. At the same time, other elements of our cultural vocabulary will fade out of use, leading to a further decrease (Delany offers a great example of this in the added dimension offered to Shakespeare by a familiarity with 16th century Warwickshire slang).

Such has been the history of our cultural development, I think. And such – broadly and with enough remove – has been the history of literary criticism. Is there any reason to suppose that would change?

The Uses and Value of Realism in Speculative Fiction


I’ve just gotten back, having spent a wonderful long weekend at Readercon, where it was great to see old friends and meet new ones. Alas, my brain is too full of valuable insights to really do a single comprehensive con write-up. Instead, I’m going to write about something that came out of one of the many panels I attended: how realism can be valuable to speculative fiction.

Judging solely by the panel title and description, this was an issue that I expected one panel in particular to explore. Alas, I found that it bogged down in a discussion of the value of fictional memoirs versus true memoirs, and thus didn’t really explore the question I had hoped it would. But with a long drive home from Boston on Sunday evening, I had a lot of time to think about it myself. And I’m curious to know what everyone else thinks of these ideas.

The Aesthetic Purpose of Fiction

To be effective, fiction must communicate or reveal something true. That truth is a slippery concept, precisely because fiction by definition is so patently false. In this case, that truth is not necessarily factual (such-and-such happened), but is rather more nebulous and insightful (such-and-such could have happened). The particular action in those sentences may itself be event-oriented (such as a sequence of actions), or it can be character-oriented and thus speak to the inner experience of either specific individuals or to a more general community. In either case, effective fiction must communicate or reveal some truth about the human experience, either as lived, imagined, or perceived by its readers.

We use resonance to gauge a fiction’s truthiness, which is why the experience and appreciation of fiction is so subjective. Our response to the truth in a particular work of fiction is informed by our past life experiences, our previous reading, and by our neurophysiology (which itself has roots in our genetics). Your mileage may vary, and our tastes and appreciation may differ.

But if the aesthetic purpose of fiction is to communicate or reveal some deeper truth, then how do we accomplish that? What are the techniques that we use to produce resonance in the reader? Answering that question gets us to the heart of the aesthetic debates that over the years have given rise to so many aesthetic “movements”.

Realism Is Not Real

Where I think the Readercon panel got side-tracked lies in a – perhaps subtle – realization about the concept of realism: realism need not be factually true. It must instead give the appearance of utter plausibility. As a philosophical movement with its roots in the 19th century, realism lauded the portrayal of the plausible and valorized the inclusion of extensive detail and minutia to heighten the verisimilitude of the text. In other words: realism need not be real, but it needs to give a convincing portrayal of reality.

The realist movement was itself a response to the more fantastical romantic era, and rejected the latter’s heavy-handed symbolism and implausible adventures. When we think of classically realist works, the kind that get thrust upon us in school, there are no works of speculative fiction on the list. Instead, we get the likes of Eliot, or Dostoyevsky, or Balzac: authors who specialize in the portrayal of the mundane and quotidian.

With this historical baggage, it is understandable why a term like “realism” might be a dirty word to some who write in genre: after all, many of us (myself included) trace a direct line of descent from the romantics to contemporary speculative fiction, and the realists were at the opposite end of the scale to our illustrious artistic ancestors.

And yet, we actually rely on their techniques to tell our fantastical stories.

Superficially, Realism is the Lens Through Which We Relate to the Fantastic

Speculative fiction relies upon the fantastic, the unreal, to tell its stories. We use dragons and faster than light space travel to entertain and actualize the metaphors we employ to communicate our deeper truths. Our job is to make the implausible and the imaginary real to our readers. And we use the expository techniques of realism to achieve this. If we were to take our imagined constructs, unpack their underlying metaphors, and explicitly discuss them in our stories, they would cease to be stories: they would become philosophical tracts (and those don’t tend to be as popular with readers, alas).

Rather than write such tracts, we carefully describe our dragons or spaceships (or dragons on spaceships) using realistic terms. We need that degree of realism to relate to the text, to understand it, and to internalize it at any number of levels. On the purely descriptive level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical looks so that we can imagine the story’s action. On the deeper philosophical level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical works so that we can better internalize the story’s subtext. I might not need to know a dragon’s place in a secondary world’s ecology, but if the author hasn’t at least considered it, then the verisimilitude of the text will be damaged, and I will find the story less engaging (perhaps fatally).

These are the techniques which realism applies, and they are an incredibly useful tool that authors of the fantastic can gain deep insight from. Want a model for portraying an oppressive urban environment where the individual is subsumed by the city? Check out some Dostoyevsky. His descriptive methods – perhaps modified somewhat for contemporary stylistic sensibilities – can be applied to any secondary world or primary world urban fantasy, and work wonders. While I haven’t seen China Miéville reference Dostoyevsky specifically, I would be greatly surprised if the latter did not influence the former’s Bas Lag novels.

Similar lessons can be learned from more contemporary authors, who while likely eschewing the realist label, tend to write mimetic, mainstream literary fiction. I have, for example, often heard that the difference between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction is that the former prioritizes characters, while the latter prioritizes plot. And while I am sympathetic to this statement, I see no earthly reason why speculative fiction cannot do a better job with character by adopting the techniques of mainstream literary fiction.

But a more difficult question, perhaps, goes below the superficial level of verisimilitude in our prose: does the philosophical aesthetic of realism have value for those of us writing in the speculative vein?

Daily Life Aboard a Spaceship: Real Realism in Speculative Fiction

The realists’ true contribution to art, I believe, isn’t their prose techniques or expository methods. Instead, I think their true innovation lies in their focus on the quotidian aspects of daily life. This especially relates to the classic realists with which I am most familiar: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Crane, etc.

By focusing on the mundane (I use that term advisedly, more to come in a second!) aspects of daily life, the realists were able to address a different underlying truth than their romantic predecessors. These were not, as in so much of the romantics’ work, aspirational truths. Instead, they were observational ones about the lives of regular, otherwise unremarkable, people. This is a truth that has tremendous value, and it is a truth which quite frankly I often find lacking in a genre which tends towards larger-than-life heroes.

I think this lack of quotidian speculative fiction has its roots in two issues: none of us has ever lived aboard an interstellar starship, or had to defend a village from dragon attack (…or had to defend a space ship from an advancing fleet of space dragons). As a consequence, we must imagine the fantastical environment in which a character’s daily life unfolds before we can imagine that daily life. This produces at least two levels at which we must imagine, and thus two levels of remove from our own experiences. It is difficult (though I suspect not impossible) to make a story engaging enough for the reader to do that work.

I also suspect that there is philosophical opposition to this aesthetic amongst speculative fiction readers. Many (myself included) like our fiction to be fun and exciting. Many don’t consider Middlemarch or Anna Karenina a fun read. Much as I might disagree, I can acknowledge the point: we often read speculative fiction to distract ourselves from quotidian life, so why should we subject ourselves to more of the same in our fiction?

The Future of the Quotidian Fantastic?

A topic that came up now and again at Readercon was the Mundane SF movement, which strives for greater realism in science fiction. But much as I am sympathetic to the values of the Mundane SF movement, I suspect that by focusing on the realism of the science fictional elements themselves, its stories often miss the bigger, more important picture: the deeper truths that lie below the surface of our daily existence. That was realism’s true innovation, and its lasting contribution to literature. Across the aisle in fantasy, I find that the magical realism movement (which itself often gets categorized as “literary fiction”) does a better job of this.

I believe that quotidian speculative fiction has its place in the genre. And that is precisely because it speaks to different truths than most speculative fiction: it speaks to the little heroisms of daily life, and to the practical challenges that arise from our human and social natures. These are not greater truths, nor are they more important, or even more relevant than those which speculative fiction most commonly explores. But they are categorically different, and so require different techniques to realize. And models for those techniques, I think, can best be found in realist fiction, and its mainstream literary descendents.

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