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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" 
Subject: Re: (urth) Generic Considerations
Date: Wed, 23 Apr 2003 10:42:32 -0700

Fair warnings as before.

Pa.N. rephrases:

>Let me rephrase the question: A difference between a fictive universe that 
>the author intends to correspond to the real world, and a fictive universe 
>that introduces things that are not at present in the real world -- as the 
>author understands the real world.

Well, though I still wish to avoide the "real" question, I at least
have some clue as to how to approach this. Further, I think I can
mention Wolfe at least once in the process.

Short answer: I regard the difference as one of degree but note
that an accumulation of small quantitative differences can be
qualitatively transformative.

Long answer: I will, for the sake of argument, rephrase the question
slightly more: instead of "things that are not in the real world,"
let us speak of "_types of_ things that are (or may not be) at
present, or in the past, in the real world." The purpose here is to
avoid excessive reduction; looking at GWTW again, Tara and Scarlett
O'Hara are obviously "things that are not in the real world," but it
can reasonably be claimed that they are _types_ of things that were,
in the past, in the real world: the Southern Plantation and the
Feisty Southern Belle With Serious Neurotic Twitches.

Over against that we can put ... well ... THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN,
which contains all sorts of types of things that don't exist and
probably never will, from the analeptic alzabo to Baldanders.

One's MF. One's SF (or "science fantasy," anyway). No argument,
here. BOOK is a pretty extreme case, but it makes the point well.

I suggest, though, that the difference, what makes one MF and one
SF, is less in the "content" -- i.e., the words of the text -- than
it is in the way the words are read, in a Borgesian
Pierre-Menard-ish way.

Let me borrow from Delany again.

Suppose you're reading an anthology of "the modern short story"
and you come across a text that begins: "One morning, Gregor
Samsa awoke from troubled dreams to find that he had become a
giant insect."

[Note: I'm writing at work and don't have the text to hand. This
is a (hopefully reasonable) paraphrase. And, yes, I know it's
not a short story. This is for purposes of demonstration.]

How do you, reading an MF text, decode this? Most likely, as a
metaphor, a comment on alienation, disfiguring disease, etc. As
a reader of MF, you will ask questions about the
_subject-oriented_ aspects of Samsa's metamorphosis: what it
_means_ to him, what in his situation this represents, how it
feels, how others respond to him, etc. To do otherwise is to miss
the point of the MF text. Your reasonable expectation is that the
author will, in the course of the text, explore these
subject-oriented questions.

Now, suppose the next book you pick up is a collection of SF
stories. Remarkably, in this anthology, you also come across a
text that begins: "One morning, Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled
dreams to find that he had become a giant insect."

How do you, reading an SF text, decode this? Most likely, by
inquiring into the causes and consequences of the transformation.
As a reader of SF, you will ask questions about the
_object-oriented_ aspects of Samsa's metamorphosis: how it came
about, how he can survive under the circumstances (square-cube law
and all that, y'know), the socioeconomic impact of a giant,
sentient insect upon society, etc. To do otherwise is to miss the
point of an SF text. Your reasonable expectation is that the
author will, in the course of the text, answer at least _some_ of
these object-oriented questions.

Note that these are generalizations. The SF writer can in fact
explore the subject-oriented questions as well. The MF writer
might offer causal mechanisms or consider consequences. (Genre is
after all a non-exclusive adjective, not an exclusive and
pigeonholing noun). But in each case, that isn't the _expectation_:
if they're neglected or passed over lightly, the reader does not
feel cheated.

"Passed over lightly": Consider Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s STFnal
mechanisms as an example of object-oriented concerns in MF, and
the millimeter-thin "characterization" efforts of Arthur C. Clarke
as an example of subject-oriented concerns in SF. Neither writer is
the worse for their shallow and silly answers to questions that are,
finally, not the questions their texts are concerned with.

But if a writer chooses to neglect the concerns that are proper to
the genre in which she presents her text, woe, woe, nine times woe
unto her! A writer who wrote an SF text that began with a
transformation like Samsa's and did _not_ explore the question of
how it happened -- mind you, she needn't answer the question*, but
she _must_ attend to it -- will earn the just wrath of her readers.

* SF is full of unexplained wonders; perhaps the most blatant
  example would be RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA, a text which is firmly
  STFnal despite its ultimate failure to explain much of anything,
  because it's deeply concerned with the questions it fails to

  At this point someone will bring up Michael Bishop's "Rogue
  Tomato." Pfui. That's a romp, and a grand one, but is _not_
  SF. Stuff just happens. (I mean, for Pete's sake ... Birds flying
  in the vacuum of space ...)

Which brings us, by a commodious vicus of ricorulation, to Wolfe.

Wolfe, I suggest, is not only firmly but fussily in the STFnal
tradition in most of his work, and especially the SUN sequence. While
the texts in question are rich in their coverage of the characters'
subjective lives, they are ultimately object-oriented; they take
place in a universe where the "meaning" of things and events is the
events themselves, and not how they serve to reflect and comment on
the characters' psyches. Further, when presenting what I,
subjectively, regard as plainly miraculous, Wolfe seems to take a
special glee in providing an out -- in giving or hinting at a
"scientific," object-oriented explanation for the events.

Then there's the question of narrative reliability. Of course this
a question of subject, but does not in itself make the text subject-
oriented. The concerns of the text are still in the realm of the
object: what happened, why, what are the (physical, socioeconomic)
consequences. That Wolfe _also_ explores the realm of the subject
(that is, the events _mean_ something to and about the characters)
does not change or detract from this: it makes Wolfe a richer writer,
one whose SF is also something else ... but still SF.

(Here we get into theology, btw; I don't want to drag this out in
detail, because this _isn't_ a religion list: but it can reasonably
be taken that God is pure subject, and over against God we are all
objects; the play of subject/object in Wolfe thus becomes very complex

H'mmm. One last attempt to clarify this subject/object thing and I'll
quit. By saying a text is "oriented" toward one or other side of this
(highly permeable) bar, I'm asking what it interrogates -- rather,
what the reader interrogates, what questions the reader reasonably
asks of the text to produce a rich and interesting reading. Asking
about the mechanism by which Gregor Samsa is turned into a giant
blattidaean is approximately as valid as asking why Typhon is such
a bastard. You can ask, but the text won't respond. In both cases,
the real concerns of the text are elsewhere. Kafka is concerned with
Samsa as a subject, and the text repays questions on that level.
Wolfe is concerned with Typhon as an objective presence in Severian's
world, and the text repays questions on _that_ level.

Which is, finally, why readers schooled in the classics of MF find
some of SF's finest texts "impoverished": they ask the wrong questions
of the text and are unhappy when the questions go unanswered.


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