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Posts tagged ‘Greg Egan’

The Limits of Wonder and Defining Speculative Fiction


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

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

Where Do Definitions Come From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

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

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

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

Critically Pernicious Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

An Alternative Definition of Speculative Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

A Definition of Speculative Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan


Title: The Clockwork Rocket
Author: Greg Egan
Pub Date: June 21, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An extremely detailed exercise in scientific world-building, though skimpy on character engagement.

Before I get into reviewing Greg Egan’s new book The Clockwork Rocket, I feel I must offer a disclaimer: I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician. The fact that I need to preface a discussion of the book with such a disclaimer should already tell you a lot about it. The Clockwork Rocket is hard science fiction, an impressive exercise in rationalist world-building that posits a universe whose physics differs significantly from our own. And while the book wins my applause for its science and world-building, I’m afraid the characters left a little to be desired.

The Clockwork Rocket follows the character of Yalda, a non-human female who lives on a planet quite unlike the Earth we know. She comes from a rural farming backwater, where few people are literate (despite the fact that her species can naturally manipulate their bodies’ shape and structure with enough precision to form symbols on their skin).

From the start of the book, Yalda is set apart from her neighbors. Unlike most of her siblings and cousins, she is introduced as a child who is discriminated against due to her lack of a predetermined mate and her large size. Using a child perspective character to gradually introduce the reader to some pretty complicated world-building is an old trick, but Egan pulls it off reasonably well. As Yalda learns about the physics of her world, we learn alongside her. When she becomes a teacher, we learn along with her students. The book is structured such that each chapter represents a particular event in her life, with jumps of indeterminate time between them – sometimes spanning days, other times entire years. We get to follow Yalda as she leaves the family farm, and begins to get a proper university education…still subject to her society’s discrimination and social expectation that females should be content to die giving birth to their children.

By the end of the first several pages, we are absolutely certain that we are not in Kansas anymore. If the structure introduces a problem, it is that there is a colossal amount of world-building to communicate. How much world-building would that be? Well, over on his web site Egan has posted over 80,000 words (that is not a typo) of notes on the physics and math alone. They are a thing of beauty. He’s even got cool tutorial videos! However, the strategy employed and the density of the world-building both lead the first half of the book to consist of little other than one scientist explaining something to another scientist (with copious diagrams and some explanation of formula). While the explanations are intellectually interesting, the lack of emotional tension and density of the scientific material may be off-putting to some readers.

From a plotting standpoint, two basic tensions are introduced. First, Yalda’s species has an interesting reproductive cycle. Females die giving birth, and if they delay reproduction for too long they risk involuntary parthenogenesis. This creates an interesting dynamic between the genders of her species, and leads to some thematic tension. Because she lacks a mate, Yalda is under particular pressure by the establishment of her society. As an independent thinker who aggressively seeks education and rejects the standard female role in her society, she challenges that establishment, and of course that establishment pushes back. It was refreshing to see that throughout the book, Yalda at no point needs to be rescued by a man. I can respect a hard SF story that puts a female scientist in jeopardy and doesn’t have her rely on an alpha male to save her.

The second tension is an impending apocalypse caused by two universes (with different rules of physics) colliding. As they collide, Yalda’s world is in danger of being destroyed. As a theoretical physicist and the discoverer of her universe’s flavor of relativity, Yalda is at the heart of her species’ efforts to save themselves. Their solution – to build a rocket ship that can be taken out of time, filled with top scientists, and then re-inserted into their timeline when the scientists’ descendents have figured out a solution – is ingenious. It is really cool that Egan’s alternative rules of physics make this plausible.

World-building vs Emotional Engagement in The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket: Intensity of Reading Experience

One would think that both the societal pressure and the risk of apocalypse would lend Yalda’s story a degree of emotional tension, but unfortunately whatever tension is produced gets subsumed by the sheer volume of diagrams and scientific explanations. The physics are fascinating – but I found that I didn’t quite care about the character as much as I would have liked to. This is especially a problem for the first half of the book, where the reader’s learning curve is very high. Once we’re grounded in the physics, the character and her problems become more engaging. But two hundred pages of world-building is a lot to plow through before we can really start investing in our perspective character. The Clockwork Rocket is not unique in this issue: much hard SF shares this problem (Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic Red Mars comes to mind). While readers used to hard SF who enjoy the intellectual challenge may enjoy this, it is not for everyone.

Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket is particularly interesting when compared to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Like Egan, Yu posits a universe with rules of physics entirely different from our own. But Yu’s book focuses on the internal and emotional experience of his everyman character. It is through his character that we understand Yu’s world-building. Egan’s strategy is to focus on the world-building first, and then have the character follow. These two different approaches yield very different reading experiences.

Ultimately, I found The Clockwork Rocket reasonably satisfying. But that satisfaction was very cerebral: the book resonated intellectually with me in the same way that a particularly neat thought experiment might. Fans of hard SF will love the complexity, rigor, and comprehensiveness of Egan’s world building. However, now that Egan’s universe is introduced and his characters are left in a fairly interesting situation, I hope the next book focuses more on the characters and less on the physics. The physics are great – but alone they can’t really carry the story.

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