From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes"
Subject: (urth) Generic Considerations Date: Tue, 22 Apr 2003 12:26:31 -0700 Fair warning: This is going to be boring to about 50% of listmembers; contains a lot of stuff that some of you have seen before, either from me or from outside reading; and I don't guarantee any explicitly Lupine content at all. >I find this thread to be of particular interest. I cannot and will not >purport to be an expert in 'SF', but the above comments from you both have >given me pause for thought last coupla days, roughly to the effect of what >_is_ science fiction, anyway? and also: >I would tentatively suggest that much of Mr. Burroughs's (William Seward >henceforth unless stipulated otherwise) work could be called SF I reply: There are a lot of definitions of SF which depend on content, such as those you mention; all of these seem flawed. Often I use Damon Knight's ostensive definition ("Science fiction is what I'm pointing at when I say 'science fiction'"), but that's ... well, not a joke, certainly, but not actually very useful. I regard "SF" as a multivalent and multiordinal term, depending on whether one uses it in the context of reading, writing, publishing, marketing, sales, etc., but for critical purposes, I find the following useful, if a tad verbose: SF is a fuzzily-bounded collection of texts generated by an equally fuzzily-bounded collection of writers, operating in an ongoing dialogue and a developoing tradition, and using a common set of "thematic" and rhetorical tropes. [For the purpose of this discussion I'm using the word "thematic" rather more broadly than is normally its proper range, mostly because I can't recall offhand the correct term for what I want -- the set of codes and devices which deal with the literal "content" (plot, landscape, etc.) of a story. "Hermeneutic" seems wrong here.] As such, SF neither existed before Hugo Gernsback gave it a name (originally "scientifiction," or STF) and a home (THE ELECTRIC EXPERIMENTER, then AMAZING STORIES and apres ca, la deluge), nor did it spring suddenly to existence from the brain of Gernsback; what he named and located was a tradition and dialog that had already begun to develop in a number of writers. By thus naming and locating it, he partially-separated it from the larger tradition and dialogue of mainstream/mimetic/mundane fiction, which I will refer to as MF; this separation however occurred as part of a larger commercial/artistic movement in which quite a few such namings-and- locatings similarly took place, caused by/causing the explosion of the generic pulp fiction marketplace. (SF may not be, as some critics have suggested, the "last" of the pulp-derived genres to gain a name and a home, but it was certainly quite late in the game.) SF, a knowably-small "pool" of writers and texts, was thus enabled to develop its own concerns and its own ways of addressing those concerns. SF _apparently_ begins as simple adventure fiction with exotic locales; however, it also begins with an editorial mandate to educate. While it never did really fulfill (and rarely tried to) Gernsback's prescription for educating its readers about science, the presence of that prescription exerted from the first a kind of pressure on its writers to address something more than, as the classic anthology title puts it, adventures in space and time. None of which is to claim that all, or even much, early generic SF was ambitious or even intersting. Much of it was written by career pulp writers who were interested in it only as another market for penny-a-word adventure dreck. However, even "before the Golden Age," SF also attracted writers who perceived it as possessing possibilities beyond exotic adventure, and who saw in it the chance to write something impossible in MF or the other pulp genres. Crude as their early productions were, writers like Leinster, Williamson, and most especially Stanley G. Weinbaum actively sought to _do something_ with SF. Delany has written extensively on the linguistic possibilities of SF -- how SF writers write sentences that have meanings utterly different from what they might have in an MF text ("He turned on his left side"; "Her world exploded") as well as sentences which simply make no sense in an MF text ("The door deliquesced"; "I spent a year working the monopole magnet mines in the second asteroid belt of 61 Cygni"). This is is also (of course) true at the level of scenes and stories - indeed, SF began with these larger blocks of the unique and worked only gradually toward the rhetoric of style, the ability to pack a sentence. Consider again "The door deliquesced." This sentence, from Delany's novel STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND sets itself explicitly in dialogue with the famous (at least, in-genre) sentence, "The door dilated," from Heinlein's novel BEYOND THIS HORIZON. Heinlein's sentence has been analyzed at length by a number of critics as a remarkable example of STFnal rhetoric: in three words, for the reader willing and able to do the work to decode it, it implies not only the visual image of a door constructed as an iris, but a discourse on the engineering and construction solutions necessary to make such doors part of an ordinary home. Somewhat less clear is a discourse on the kind of society that finds dilating doors more desireable than hinged: are they more secure? do they keep out pollution better? what are the economic implications? etc. The point of all of which, of course, is that _none_ of these discourses are explicit in the text. They exfoliate as the reader considers the implication of the sentence, which is casually placed in the middle of a longer scene. Harlan Ellison, commenting on this sentence, summed it up simply: "By God, now I _knew_ I was in the future." Now, Delany's sentence, which also implies a similar set of visual imagery and technological and socioeconomic discourses, also operates at the metatextual level to place both his door and the society in which it operates into contrast with Heinlein's. It isn't necessary to know that, or to have read Heinlein, to enjoy STARS IN MY POCKETS...; it is, however, necessary to know how to decode a sentence like "The door deliquesced" -- a skill which not all readers possess; it must be learned, in much the same way one must learn the skills involved in reading poetry or any other genre with its own special tropes. Heinlein is neither the originary point (obviously) nor the terminal point (thank God) of STFnal rhetoric. He is, however, its first master; he invented or developed most of the tropes by which modern SF signifies its fictive landscapes. John Campbell encouraged this and encouraged other writers to learn from Heinlein's writing. Prior to the advent of Heinlein in Campbell's ASTOUNDING, the tropes of SF were crude beyond belief -- to accomplish what "The door dilated" accomplishes, a typical SF writer would bring the story to a screeching halt while he described the functioning in excruciating detail, following which either the author or a scientist "character" might discourse at length on the engineering and socioeconomic background of the dilating door: the dreaded Expository Lump, also known as the "As you doubtless know, Smithers" speech. One aspect of STFnal rhetoric is a kind of literalness not available in MF -- the sentences cited above provide excellent examples; the person who "turned on his left side" is transformed, by being in an SF text, from a guy rolling over in bed to a cyborg, robot, or android activating some of his body's circuitry. The woman whose world "exploded" is turned from a romance heroine who's just got some bad news to, well, Princess Leia: someone who owns a world and watches it destroyed. ("No! Basketball is a peaceful planet!") Admittedly, this is still probably bad news... Which brings us back, at long last, to William S. Burroughs. Are books like NOVA EXPRESS "SF?" This is where I value the fuzziness I insisted on in my "definition." Burroughs clearly does _not_ operate in the generic dialogue and tradition of SF. Nonetheless, he clearly _does_ use _some_ of the "thematic" and rhetorical tropes of SF to address his own concerns, which are _not_ typically those of SF. The tropes he borrows tend to be pre-Heinlein: in fact, he seems to write a more sophisticated prose using the primitive tropes of an Edgar Rice Burroughs. There are several implications here, but perhaps the most important is that Wm. Burroughs does not use the literalized rhetoric of modern SF. Nor, I hasten to point out, does he fall back into the realm of hazy metaphor. The rhetoric of MF uses a lot of discursive energy describing subjectivity: emotions, mental states, etc., all of which propels and enables the use of the "her world exploded"-type metaphor. My point here is not pejorative; a good MF writer would use a fresh metaphor, but it would still be a metaphor and would still express subjective states. SF by contrast stresses objectivity, thus the "literalness" of much SF rhetoric. Again, this is not pejorative; the objectivity drives the possibility of a vast (possibly metaphoric) dialogue between an imagined world and the "real" world, in which the differance of the two drives an interrogation of the latter -- why are things the way they are? What are the implications? The non-STFnal SF of Burroughs simply _does not_ take advantage of that possibility. The subject is still primary, but it is externalized and literalized in the horrific worlds he describes. Somewhere in there I hope I've answered the questions and comments I'm nominally replying to! A few other of your comments and questions, answered in far less agonizing detail: >(In fact, it just occurred to me, by the above definition Ambrose Bierce's >'The Damned Thing' could also be defined as an SF story, as could many >others not normally included in this canon.) Bierce is often cited as a generic ancestor of SF, though on a very different trajectory from, say, Verne, Wells, or (ER)Burroughs -- rather, along a trajectory paralleling that of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. >And, if Burroughs is not a SF writer in these terms, is this being said >because his work also attempts to meet other objectives? And, if so, it is >possible for a work to be SF but also _more_ than SF? This implies a limitation to the possible/potential value of SF per se which I categorically reject. However, I certainly agree that a work can be both SF and something other than SF. > >In fact, (WSB)'s SF owes more to Edgar Rice Burroughs than to >modern SF, > >Oh, to be sure! But if the images are employed by a 'modern' writer such >as WSB in a different context, might they not take on a contemporary value >of their own? Clearly they do. The point, however, was that ERB -- though some of his works had content of a sort which would come to be part of SF -- was not an SF writer as such. His early work is closely ancestral to SF, but after SF-as-such appeared in the world, he continued on his own way and pretty much ignored the developing dialog and tradition that defines the genre _as_ a (critical or writerly) genre. To be influenced by ERB, then, is not to be influenced by SF at all. >>but even he uses the strategic-deployment-of-details riffs Heinlein >> >pioneered (especially, but not solely, in NOVA EXPRESS). >I'm afraid I haven't read enough Heinlein to really understand what you >mean by this pioneering. The sentence discussed in detail above is one example. Another much-discussed example is a trick Heinlein pulled several times, but most notably in STARSHIP TROOPERS: his first-person narrator does not mention his own racial/ethnic history for a long time; the reader is, therefore, likely to assume that Johnny is the typical white hero of an SF adventure novel. Something like 3/4 of the way through the book, he briefly mentions, in passing, the dark color of his skin. Delany (himself black) describes in several places the shock he felt as a young man, realizing that, for several hundred pages, he's been mentally living in a society where the color of one's skin is so socially unimportant that it needn't be mentioned. (A decade later, Delany was told by an editor at Bantam that he couldn't _possibly_ get away with not mentioning in the first few pages of his novel DHALGREN that the protagonist was not white... some things just don't change.) >Well, sieur, you may very well be right - I've disqualified myself already >from passing specific judgement - but, surely, by the same standard, the >invention of another world to comment on this one (Ballard's words, BTW) is >hardly original to Mr. Heinlein, is it? That was precisely _not_ my point; the contrast between the worlds of Le Guin's novel is very much her own. It is the way in which the societies of the world are made real that she borrows from the SF tradition-and-dialogue. >>Ballard is the toughest one, because so much of his SF is in a deliberate >>rejection of Campbell-Heinlein SF/F; > >I would guess, once again, that it might be more of a matter of an >expansion beyond these parameters rather than a rejection of them per se; I agree with this ... What I had in mind was not that Ballard rejects Campbell-Heinlein SF per se so much as its governing values. He definitely participates, at least through the mid-'70s, in the ongoing dialogue. [...] >I do agree with your contention that Ballard has used rhetorical and >thematic devices which were employed by Heinlein and his contemporaries, >especially in his earlier work, as you say...although ultimately to a very >different end. (I find it interesting, BTW, that Ballard's status as an SF >writer seems to be unquestioned, in contrast to that of WSB.) Ballard is, almost, the inverse of Burroughs. Where Burroughs drives the subject into the objective, Ballard objectifies the subject, treating "mental states," "emotions," etc., as proper objects of scientific or pseudo-scientific examination; the subjective as such disappears in Ballard's rhetoric. This, I suggest, represents in essence an intensification and repurposeing of the techniques of Campbell-Heinlein STFnal rhetoric. >General remarks: firstly, I do apologise to any Heinlein fans whose >feathers or feelers I may have ruffled. I am sure that he deserves his >stature, but unfortunately, I didn't read much Golden Age stuff in my >vanished youth, "The Golden Age of science fiction is 13." -- Isaac Asimov >and the passage in 'Stranger' I've cited has pretty much put me off >re-examining him for the present. Somewhat akin, in my opinion, to giving up on Tolkien because of "Yrch!" cried Legolas, falling into his own tongue. But as you say: Vita brevis. If you don't derive pleasure from RAH, don't waste your time reading him. >Re. Manson, please forgive my offhand remarks if they caused offense; >nevertheless, I am a trifle confused about your correction. I was under >the impression that Mr. Manson had read 'Stranger' well before his release >from Terminal Island in 1967. Many people are. After the murders, this rumor went around. Heinlein was very upset by it, and had his attorney look into the matter. The attorney found (or Heinlein claims he did, cf. GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE) that Manson had never in fact read STRANGER. Some rumors are very persistent. >At any rate, as I already observed, he was well-misversed enough in the >text to name his son Michael Valentine Manson...or are you saying that >this did not happen? > Never having read a biography of Manson I have no idea what he named any children he may have fathered, or why, and so would not be so bold as to make that particular statement. >...the abuse is suggestive, given the nature of the text...it was also >alleged that the Family referred to some of their murders as >'discorporations', despite their all-too-tangible and messy nature... Not sure what it's "suggestive" of; even if Manson did in fact treat STRANGER as an inspirational text, the only thing this suggests to me is that a lunatic can find support for what he wants to do anyway in pretty much anything. My own religious tradition includes a shameful series of events called "the Inquisition," propelled by people who took the good news of Love and used it as an excuse to act on their hate. >PS: _Every SF writer?_ >Lem? Lem clearly writes outside the dialog/tradition I'm speaking of, and in fact criticizes it as-a-whole (excepting, for reasons he makes clear in a few essays, Philip K. Dick). >The Russians? Ditto ditto. --Blattid _________________________________________________________________ Add photos to your e-mail with MSN 8. Get 2 months FREE*. http://join.msn.com/?page=features/featuredemail --