bear by san

May 2015

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bear by san

Some say the Devil is a walking man.

nihilistic_kid adds his usual layer of smart snark to the ongoing conversation about genre expectations.

truepenny's got a bit more on genre definitions.

To which I responded:

...my pocket definition of science fiction has nothing to do with science, or technology. I define it as "the literature of testing to destruction." Which neatly includes sociological science fiction--testing societies to destruction--and "if this goes on" stories as well as stories of advanced technology.

And you know, I still like that definition. For one thing, it firmly puts Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut in the us pile and Michael Crichton in the them pile, just the way we like it. And since it's all about sorting things into piles...

...oh, wait, no it's not.

I agree with truepenny in terms of the need for a vocabulary for critical discourse. I'm a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, and so I tend to look at things and go "Oh, that's X" and then have to come up with reasons to justify my snap judgement. The Cooler? Fantasy. Definitely. In a subtle underhanded American Magic Realism sort of way. Star Trek? Mostly not science fiction.

I tend to subscribe to papersky's definitional subsets: all fiction is fantasy, and it crunches down from there into smaller and smaller subsets--Science fiction is fantasy that plays by a number of generally accepted rules, and in which the fantastic tropes follow some clearly defined guidelines. (Alternate history is okay, time travel is okay, psionic powers are kind of iffy at best.) Mimetic fiction is science fiction that follows even tighter guidelines--the physical rules are exactly as they are on our earth, say, and everything is just like here, except maybe there's a big city on the east coast of the US somewhere between Washington and Boston in which there's a certain precinct with a red-haired cop in it....

Or a hotel in New Hampshire inhabited by a person in a bear suit. Whatever. You know what I mean.

So yeah, I can fliply say that there's no difference between SF and Fantasy, and what I mean by that is that there's no difference between red and orange. Or orange and yellow. But there is clearly a difference between yellow and red, right? So somewhere in the middle of orange, there must be a line you can draw and say "Everything to the right of this is red, and everything to the left is yellow."

Except you can't.

You can draw all the color charts you want, and you can establish what a 50% mix of red and yellow look like at any number of saturations, and it still doesn't matter. There will always be some things we can clearly identify as red (Robert Forward's Dragon's Egg, say, Christ imagery and all, doesn't have a hell of a lot of yellow in it) or yellow (Ummm...*pulls Mercedes Lackey out of a hat and dusts her off*) and yeah, there you go, there are clearly two different things.

The thing is, in real life, unlike in the human brain, categories aren't so tidy. The bleb and interfere, and nobody's going to look at that 50/50 mix and say "it's red!" unless they're pushing an agenda. It's orange, and they know it's orange.

I don't actually have a dog in this fight. I like science fiction and fantasy. I write both. I try to write both as literature (by which I mean, I take my writing seriously: I may in fact be a hack, but if I am, then I'm a hack who tries real goddamned hard to write the best books she can), and also as cracking good stories, because I do not think the two things are mutually exclusive. I see some cosmetic differences between the two, but I don't have a philosophy going of what SF or Fantasy ought to be, and left to my own devices, I generally refer to "SFF" or "speculative fiction."

It is indeed commercial fiction, and nihilistic_kid's comment that most of it is crap is taken under advisement. And frankly, I haven't got a thing to counter that with except Sturgeon's law and the fact that, like Ursula Le Guin, I love my ghetto. And I love its breadth and depth and quirkiness, and all the weird little corners it has, and I have absolutely no investment in saying science fiction should be this or should be that. I haven't got an ideology of speculative fiction; I'm happy to cast my net over the New Weird and the New Pulp and just about all the rest of it. And I love the ways it edges out into the mainstream unnoticed and then doesn't get called "science fiction" in much the same way that Joanna Russ talks about the suppression of women's writing, because if it's any good then it's not science fiction.

And yeah, you know, some of it is imperialist apologism, and so is some fantasy, and I'm interested in undermining those tropes and trying to say some interesting things about our cultural assumptions too. And I find fantasy and sf very useful for that, because they are so very flexible, and sometimes it's easier to talk about something if you can divorce yourself from reality a little.

I dunno. I don't really have a thesis statement here, or anything to prove. But man, I think--science fiction writer, fantasy writer, fantasist, whatever you want to call him--Theodore Sturgeon could write. And if you say well, there was only one of him, I refer you to Ms. Russ's book. And Ursula Le Guin. Who can also, dare I say it, write.

Send in the talking bunnies, man.

Comments

And I find fantasy and sf very useful for that, because they are so very flexible, and sometimes it's easier to talk about something if you can divorce yourself from reality a little.

Yes.

I write specfic because I am not, in any way, a cool enough writer to talk about colonialism in its historical context. Or racism. Or sexism. Or rape. Or love. I'm just not. I guess because I mostly don't want to talk about these things exactly the same way the conversations generally go in contemporary and historically set fiction.

I don't much talk about the science in my SF, or the magic in my fantasy. The stories I write, and the ones I enjoy reading, aren't about the science, or about the magic... the vast majority of what's written in either genre/sub-genre/marketing category isn't, so far as I can tell.

I'm not well equipped to join in the great hunt for differentiation either -- hey, Jodi wrote 'tessering!' in her comments for Middlemost :o) I think she noticed the SFnal bits in my fairy tale.
Yeah. I love that, in Carnival, I can take race and earth colonialism completely out of the picture--completely out of the equation--so that I can talk about discrimination and so forth cut clear of baggage.
*bows*

The way you look at things is supercool. Mellow, useful, perceptive, nice. This bit in particular:
"I try to write both as literature (by which I mean, I take my writing seriously: I may in fact be a hack, but if I am, then I'm a hack who tries real goddamned hard to write the best books she can), and also as cracking good stories, because I do not think the two things are mutually exclusive."

Totally! Follow your bliss; do your best; love the skin your in, etc, etc, feel the secret power of my insipid cliche no jitsu! And grinning scarfed Doctor. ^_^
*g* Exactly.

I dunno about mellow, but I try.
*you're
On a not entirely unrelated note, I just finished reading Worldwire.
About 30 minutes ago. Having received it in a box from Amazon sometime in the afternoon, though I couldn't really get too far into it until after work.

Wow.

Incroyable

The world _definately_ needs Bears (books by).

HLC
Thank you! I'm really glad it worked for you. (I'm doing a happy satisfied reader dance now.)
*de-lurking just to be jealous*

I'm beyond envious. Amazon says my copy won't arrive till January.
What? DARN THEM!
Yes, indeed. But I'm in Ireland, alas, and we must resign ourselves to such trans-Atlantic delays. And, even more unfortunately, no bookshop in Dublin professes themselves able to order it in for me. In fact, they were disconcertingly certain that they wouldn't be able to order it.

I restrained myself from a response of the foul-tempered variety. Just.

Sigh. I would buy two copies in order to have one sooner, but it seems that even this line of action is denied me. Alas.
Oh man. How unfair.

Yep.

Incidentally, thank you for recommending that I contact Interzone through their message boards about my subscription. It worked, so at least I'll have something to console me during the wait. :-)
Oh, yay. Good news.
Thank you, Elizabeth. Just, thank you.
;-) We try.
i'm someplace between "It's all rock and roll to me" (Ian Scholes) and "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture (Frank Zappa)...The stuff i write is more like chinese novels, i never know when some god will show up and change the rules. And why rules? James Bond books are more fantastic than the later Terry Prachett police procedurals...if you havent noticed, the magic has almost vanished, and he is doing multi racial explorations of the impact of tech on medevial cultures. With lots of making fun of vampires...

I just finished writing an Alt/history that i expected to be a typical male chested browbeater with satire, like a cheezy Connecticut Yankee, but it refused to be anything but a straight anti-victorian adventure with cossacks on motorcycles. A great surprize to every one involved. Especially to the cast in the "real" universe, patiently waiting off stage.

bottom line. every book is it's own universe. EB is very good at what she does and breaks lots of rules. So is Barbra Hambley, and Jack Vance and Sven Hassel and Leslie Charteris and Thorne Smith and you know...Make your own damn list. And tell Amazon to send my copy of Worldwired.
You know, I think Cossacks on motorcycles are a fine thing.

And yeah, you bring up an interesting point--the books have their own damned ideas about what they want to be.

(Anonymous)

Saw your reference to Ian Scholes and "Its all rock and roll to me". Was talking about him just the other day. Whatever happened to Ian and his commentary? Better news parody than John Steuart. Any idea whether he can be resurrected?

THANKS
"Some say the devil is a walking man," and the Walker is abroad. Still.

Have you read the story of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin? (Even if you haven't, I figure I'll just talk to the people here who have.) I read that as science fiction. Last year, before I got to the alternate history parts, I was reading it largely as fiction about science. (Which I adore. See also _The Steerswoman_ or _The Sand Reckoner_.) I was recommending it to my sweetie, advocating for it in terms of science fiction. "It's science fiction where the science is navigation, natural philosophy, and political science of 200 years ago. And the people are perfectly realistic geeks, just like the geeks I work with, doing cutting-edge science." And time passed, and one day it was 6:45 in the morning and I found myself giggling on the phone and trying to explain the incident with Jack disguised as a dancing bear.

That's when Stephen told me the story could not possibly be sf. It's fantasy to pretend a naval officer could dress in dead bear parts, and convince *anyone* he's a dancing bear, for a week. Therefore, a novel with the naval-officer-disguised-as-a-dancing-bear Major Plot Element was obviously fantasy, QED. That doesn't feel right, but it's hard to argue with.
Therefore, a novel with the naval-officer-disguised-as-a-dancing-bear Major Plot Element was obviously fantasy, QED. That doesn't feel right, but it's hard to argue with.

Plausibility and literature have never had more than a nodding acquaintance. *g*

It always amuses me when people just completely glide over the bits of my worldbuilding that I consider the biggest stretches, and trip on something else entirely....
Last time I checked the progress of the discussion on Jeff Vandermeer's blog, he'd raised the question: How is this useful to us?

In addition to Sturgeon's Law, Theodore Sturgeon also said, "Ask the next question," and I think that's it, in this case. pnh points out that as marketing categories, science fiction and fantasy are very useful indeed, since they keep us from trying to pick what we want to read out of a big pile of undifferentiated books in the middle of the bookstore floor.

We maybe ought to ask what we want the definitions of science fiction and fantasy to do, how we want them to work for us.

When we use them as marketing categories, we don't need to insist on things like "Science fiction is about humanity's interaction with technology." A book in which a Kansas farm kid discovers that the next-door farmer is an exiled alien is not about interaction with technology, but if you file it under science fiction, it will still find its audience with no more than the usual trouble. And it wouldn't really help much to create a new category called "First Contact/Non-Gadget."

Moreover, if we define science fiction as being about humanity's interaction with technology, that definition isn't going to have any effect on whether or how I write the Kansas farm kid book. So it's not relevant or useful to me as a writer.

It's a useful definition to a critic who's examining a certain subset of works in science fiction, but not to one who's discussing the entire field; it excludes my Kansas first-contact story, and thus would be shoddy scholarly methodology for the critic or student.

I think it's reasonable to say that we can have different definitions for science fiction and fantasy depending on what context we need them in--booksellers, writers, critics, and students may all end up with slightly different but still accurate spins on what the categories are. But I don't think we'll ever come up with useful distinctions between science fiction and fantasy until we determine what we need them for.
The problem is, everybody is using them for different things. As marketing categories, the Damon Knight definition works just fine. From truepenny's perspective asa genre theorist, she feels more comfortable with the framework. From the POV of an SF Supremacist (You know they're out there--their sacrament is Sensawunda and their cathechism is scientific rigor) it's important to prove that Science Fiction is better than that Nasty Fantasy. (Not that anybody in the current discussion is doing that.)

For me, they're handy rules of thumb to describe what I do for a living to the realtor at the sushi bar. *g*
Definitely, for some purposes one needs more framework. I just haven't seen a structure yet proposed that doesn't have a big hole out one side or another. Genre theorists and critics can't use busted or incomplete definitions of the field; if they do, they're going to produce the kind of analysis that someone else can take down in fifteen minutes just by saying, "Works X, Y, and Z don't fit any of your categories. How do you account for that?" And man, when that happens, that's just a helluva waste of work.

I thank heaven that I'm at the end of the production line where I don't need anything more rigorous than the pointing-and-saying method. But I still get snarly when people propose distinctions between the categories that leave out, not just my work, but the work of dozens of other authors playing with the same ideas.

Your color-wheel analogy is excellent--part of what makes me most frustrated about this discussion is the insistence on either/or, the demand for polarized thinking on the subject. (Some of the debate threatens to descend to, "Arrgh! You got science fiction in my fantasy!" "Eeuw! You got your fantasy in my science fiction!")

Why does this bug me so? No one is proposing a ban on publishing or selling any work that doesn't fit one of the flawed definitions. This will have no effect on my daily life. But, but, but...when someone proposes an unrealistically limited definition of sf or fantasy, it suggests to me that either they haven't read the good works that challenge the genre's assumptions, or they've closed their minds to the possibilites inherent in the genre. (Okay, or they maybe just forgot a couple of works. I can accept that.) And I don't want to believe either of those things about these smart genre readers who are proposing definitions.
But, but, but...when someone proposes an unrealistically limited definition of sf or fantasy, it suggests to me that either they haven't read the good works that challenge the genre's assumptions, or they've closed their minds to the possibilites inherent in the genre.

I suspect it's more that SFF is this great, sprawling mess that doesn't fit conveniently into definitions, so every definition winds up being a bit procrustean. It's not "the literature of ideas," and even my definition--"the literature of testing to destruction" isn't quite encompassing enough, because it leaves out all sorts of things, and frankly, a good deal of litfic is engaged in testing *people* to destruction.
Oh, and crikey, I've run on horribly. Apologies for eating the comments page. I'll stop now.
Bah. We're here to talk.
As someone who is a reader not a writer. There are two genres so that the potential reader can guess as to the likelihood of a book appealing ;p I read both Sci Fi and Fantasy. I used to read primarily SF, I now read primarily Fantasy. They are reasonably useful distinctions to me, even if the categorization is mostly in my own mind (I still think Anne McCaffrey writes Fantasy, even though she swears she writes SF). To me, most (not all, admittedly) of SF emphasizes the world over the characters – the science, the machines, those interesting aliens over there, that war (if militaristic), that computer network (if cyber punk) and so on while fantasy emphasizes the individual and their role in society more. And of course, there are some simple things – if it involves aliens, machines and computers, it’s going to sound rather SF to me. If it involves magic, psionics, and talking dragons/horses/giant cats I’m going to think of it as fantasy. So, yeah, like Bear said, there’s a big squishy middle area where it’s hard to tell them apart. But from my point of view, I like to have the two genres at least quasi defined so I can browse by what I’m in the mood for :o
*g* That's where the marketing categories come in handy.

Although a bunch of us are getting our girl cooties all over science fiction now. We're so bad.
/q Although a bunch of us are getting our girl cooties all over science
fiction now. We're so bad. /eq

You know, that's an interesting point. Do I mostly read fantasy because I mostly read women authors? Or do I mostly read women authors because I mostly read fantasy? /ponders

This is just the sort of conversation that makes me want to embrace the term "speculative fiction;" these labels are really just too much work.
Er, I had a good response to this. But it got long. Basically I think both science fiction and fantasy are about reader expectations and escapism, but they're escapes in different directions: one out, one in. But saying things so concisely is against my basic nature *grin* so there's a long ramble about the whole thing here.

This is what happens when I'm trying to avoid actual writing....
;-)
*running along breathless behind the other kids*

Hey, I wanna play, too!. You win, of course, "testing to destruction" is perfect. But since it's a writer's definition (d'uh!) - and deals with what the writer puts in rather than what the reader finds - here's my best shot: The difference between fantasy and science fiction lies not in what happens, but in precise nature of the suspension of disbelief asked of the reader. SF tells you that in certain circumstances, the laws of nature could operate in certain way, and invites you to set aside your disbelief; fantasy concedes that the laws of nature do not operate in a certain way, and invites you to imagine how it might be if they did: the unnatural, or supernatural. The otherness of the unreal is essential to fantasy, the extraordinariness of the real is essential to SF..

Memo to self: when you write the next stage of this one (I've been busy), quote the Aubrey / Maturin post above.