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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" 
Subject: Re: (urth) Re: Generic Considerations
Date: Wed, 23 Apr 2003 12:05:42 -0700

My reply to Pa.Nutria, I hope, answered Mike Sakesegawa's question,
and some of ArchD'Ikon Zibethicus' also. But Zibethicus asks other
questions I want to address.

Usual warnings apply in the usual way. Yes, there is Lupine content
somewhere below. 8*)

>I understand your initial working definition of SF to be, effectively, 
>bounded by Gernsback and the didactic urge, and to have evolved into a 
>'genre' where it is possible to take linguistic and thematic ventures not 
>usually found in MF - to adopt your term.

H'mmm. With a repeated insistance that the "bounding" is fuzzy, yes.

>The example of the deliquescing/dilating door is a useful one for 
>understanding how the language and concepts of SF differ from those of MF.  
>It would appear, from what I understand you to be saying, that the casual 
>assumption that the door dilates without the necessity for invoking the 
>Expository Lump is, in itself, one of the major achievements of SF as you 
>have defined it.  Do I understand you rightly?

At a first approximation. The point here is somewhat more though;
it's that the writers of SF have come to assume readers of SF,
readers schooled in decoding and unpacking a sentence like "The
door dilated," who will recognize the _implied_ Expository Lump.

(There's an interesting trick some writers, faced with the necessity
of an EL, sometimes pull: They have one character begin to expose the
matter. The character is then interrupted by another, who says, "Don't
insult my intelligence! I know perfectly well that ..." and continues
the exposition. I regard this as an excessively cute wink to the
reader, the writer intruding on his text and saying, "Look, I know
this is an annoying hunk of exposition, bear with me, okay?" The late
Isaac Asimov did this kind of thing far too much.)

>I do remain confused, however, regarding the dichotomy between MF's 
>subjectivity and SF's objectivity...I am currently leafing randomly through 
>'Nova Express' in pursuit of an understanding of the distinction...

Well, it's been a while since I've read Burroughs, but ... I think
it's fair to say that, for example, his Venusian jungles are not
really about Venusian jungles at all (and in fact frequently get
bleshed with South American jungles); they're about the experience
of being in a certain condition that the heat and wet and danger of
the jungle represents. Burroughs' early novels are, first and
foremost, "about" a highly subjective matter indeed: the Condition
of Absolute Need. Addiction in its broadest sense (where addiction
to drugs is only one example).


>>This implies a limitation to the possible/potential value of SF per se 
>>which I categorically reject.
>I'm sorry; that was not at all what I was trying to suggest.  Personally, I 
>incline more to Ballard's view that SF is actually "the main literary 
>tradition of the 20th century" (intro. to 'Crash' again), not to mention 
>the 21st century...but, again, this is a question of just how the 
>'tradition' is to be defined.

You know, my edition of "Crash" doesn't seem to have that intro.
I bought it a looooong time ago. It must have been added in later
(possibly post-Cronenberg?) editions.

>Mr. Wolfe's work is a shining instance of the strength and power of 
>SF...provided one concedes its membership of the category...

See the other message.

>>However, I certainly agree that a work can be both SF and something other 
>>than SF.
>Now, you see, I would have to suggest that BotNS, for instance, is in this 
>category - one reason being the 'subjectivity' of Severian's examination of 
>his inner being, and its depicted development and growth, throughout the 

Well, yes. As I said, I don't intend the subject/object thing as an
absolute, but as a pointer regarding how the text is most "usefully"
read. Note that even when we talk about Severian's personality we're
inclined to talk about objective matters in relation to it: how the
Hieros (and others?) manipulate spacetime to shape him, for example.
In SF, the psyche itself often becomes an object, and projects itself
into the "objective" world of the text via "psi" powers and the like.

>>The sentence discussed in detail above is one example.

>Yes, but could one not, perhaps, equally say that a sentence such as: "It 
>was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen[,]" 
>was achieving a similar effect of displacement through a similar device?

Yes. One could and I would. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, though not actually
written in the SF domain*, is clearly written by someone who has at
least paid attention to the questions SF asks, and strives to perform
some of the same tasks. If some of it is a tad clumsy -- Orwell does
indeed stop the book to exposit at times -- nonetheless it's a
remarkable production, written before the Campbell-Heinlein had
really taken off in the domains of SF proper. Then, NINETEEN EIGHTY-
FOUR is also very much concerned with objective, "outer" things --
it isn't really about Winston Smith; it's about Ingsoc, its primary
areas of concern are socioeconomic.

* Incidentally, the fact that an "outsider" had written this text
  created a kind of resentment among some SF purists. A good, and
  somewhat funny, attempt to prove that NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR is not
  good SF at all can be found in ASIMOV ON SCIENCE FICTION.

>>Something like 3/4 of the way through the book, he briefly mentions, >in 
>>passing, the dark color of his skin.
>Interesting...I missed that the first time around...

Many do; it's very casual indeed.

>>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 
>Ah, I understand you now!  Thank you!  But am I to further understand that 
>(in saying that Le Guin "borrows from the SF tradition-and-dialogue") the 
>implication is that 'The Dispossessed' is _not_ an SF novel in your 
>opinion?  Or am I merely being obtuse again?

No, I wrote badly. I should have said that Le Guin uses the tools
of the SF t-and-d; THE DISPOSSESSED is very much part of that ongoing
conversation. (Delany -- who _will_ keep popping up in my discussions
of SF-as-genre -- deliberately set one of his novels in dialog with
THE DISPOSSESSED -- (TROUBLE ON) TRITON -- by giving it a subtitle
which reflects Le Guin's; though it was mostly-written before he had
read THE DISPOSSESSED, it addresses many of the same concerns, in a
radically different way, and so forms part of the same "thread.")

>>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.

>I _did_ quote Ballard's assertion that the task of the author has become 
>"to invent the reality".  To me, this really summarises one of the reasons 
>why I feel vaguely uncomfortable with the concept of SF as a 'genre' or 
>'school' or 'style' or other category of literature.  It would seem to me 
>that Ballard was both extremely astute and highly prophetic in making this 
>statement over thirty years ago.  We are now surrounded in our daily lives 
>by the effective impedimenta of what was once 'SF'; computers, spaceflight, 
>invasive monitoring for the dystopian-inclined...

Yes. While SF is not oracular, it is prophetic. That is, it does not
(except occasionally, and by accident) predict the specifics of the
future (_nobody_ predicted the PC revolution), but it does "speak
forth" the possibilities, probabilities, and dangers of the future.
In so doing, it addresses, not the future, but the here-and-now (and
-- if the writer is good or lucky -- the eternal. Books of the hour,
books for the ages). Every decade or so SF needs a kind of revolution,
because many of the futures it's been talking about are no longer
relevant to the present world-that-is-the-case.

>Speaking with my professed lack of expertise on the subject, might this not 
>possibly mean that the present day has become science-fictional in its 
>nature?  (I mean in the terms of the dilating door, so to speak...)

I suggest reading Thomas M. Disch's excellent (if kind of pissy)
nonfiction book THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF. He addresses this
question far better than I can in the space of an email.

>And cannot all contemporary MF literature be considered at least partly 
>science-fictional insofar as it deals with these developments?

Some does. Some doesn't. Romance novels, for example, generally
don't. Technothrillers -- what Crichton, really, writes -- generally
do. (An interesting read in this respect is Donna Harraway's essay
"A Manifesto for Cyborgs," in that it takes massive amounts of the
material of SF and repurposes it for the subject.)

>>If you don't derive pleasure from RAH, don't waste your time reading him.

>No, no: you have convinced me that I may be doing him an injustice.  I will 
>pencil something of his other than 'Stranger' into my 

H'mmm. Your choice. My own feeling is that you probably will have
the same experience; no writer is to everyone's taste, and RAH isn't
to a lot of people's.

To follow the argument I've been making, you'd be best off with his
SF of the '30s and '40s.

Given what I've gathered of your taste, though, I would expect that
you'd be most actually _enjoy_ (if you can get hold of it) the
paperback collection variously titled 6 X H or THE UNPLEASANT PROFESSION
OF JONATHAN HOAG. Failing that, its contents are, I believe, completely
encapsulated in the larger and more recent FANTASIES OF RAH.

>>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.
>What I meant was that it was suggestive, at least to me, that the book's 
>pernicious passages regarding sexuality as cited were unusually prone to 
>abuse - in the hands of, as you so rightly say, a lunatic or at least a 

OK, I can buy that. Power fantasies -- which STRANGER very much is
(at least at some levels) -- tend to attract such people.

>>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).
>Now I must confess my confusion again; are you saying that you consider Lem 
>to not be a SF writer in your definition of the term?

No, I'm not saying that, or not exactly. Back to the repeated use
of "fuzzily bounded" in my original definition. Lem's in the fuzzy
area. He has clearly read a lot of Anglo-American SF, and his
participation in the "dialog" is as a kind of iconoclast who doesn't
accept many of its terms.

>Looking at BotNS, [...] I would guess that the story could still be told if 
>much if not all of the actual advanced technology was omitted therefrom.

H'mmm. I don't think that _this_ story could be told, but a story that
was pretty similar at the level of plot could be told in a purely
fantastic realm, certainly. However, it would be very different indeed
in its (as you rightly observe) ontological concerns. Because it takes
place in a possible future of our world -- as Wolfe calls it, the
"do-nothing" future -- tBotNS exists in a particular kind of dialogic
tension _with_ our world.

TBotNS takes place, actually, in a very specific kind of possible
future -- one that we might call "the mythic future" in the sense
that LORD OF THE RINGS and the Arthurian cycle take place in "the
mythic past," an ahistorical past whose relation to our present is
epistemic rather than ontic, if you follow me. So too with the SUN
future; we are, I believe, its "mythic past."

>Many of the concerns of the Book are philosophical and (pardon me) 
>ontological and theological and ethical; moreover, in one sense, the Book 
>could be argued to be founded on an illogical premise, inasmuch as 
>according to what is known of the theory of evolution, humanity might 
>reasonably be expected to have evolved into an entirely new species by the 
>time the Urth reached the age given in the Book (as Olaf Stapledon 
>suggested in his works).

Well, some species stay (at least roughly) the same for a longish
time: cockroaches (h'mm, the blattidae seem to be coming up in this
conversation today, don't they?), sharks, coelocanths, etc. In
addition, given the genetic engineering hinted at in some of the
rebuilt or recreated animals (arctothers, destriers, etc.), it's
clear that, for a long time, humanity in the SUN future had serious
control of genetics, which would in turn imply the ability to control
its own genetic destiny. Even in the decadent times of the Autarchy,
biological technology far beyond what we can do today is clearly
still possible to those with the will and the resources: viz.
Baldanders. And since this _is_, as just noted, Wolfe's conception
of the "do-nothing" future, it seems reasonable to supposse that
humanity, by and large, preserved its genetic identity rather than
mucking about with it or letting evolution have its way.

Conclusion: I don't think the premise in question is particularly
illogical, given the SUN world's deeper premises.

>Of course, Mr. Wolfe does take care to explain that the _animals_, at 
>least, are very different to those of our day, even where they perform 
>similar functions,

He also takes care to explain that many of them are human creations.
See above.

>and on considering this possibility in the light of your postings I can see 
>no very compelling reason to rule out the possibility that the 'humans' of 
>Severian's day are actually intended to be a different species to 

This is possible but kind of a "so what?" hypothesis. Since we have
no specific differences to point at, they're human enough for purposes
of psychological "identification" by the reader.

>provided we accept your theory that the inhabitants of the Jungle Garden 
>are actually contemporary residents of Nessus who have been 
>reprogrammed...as a theory, this only leaves Pa. Silk's sighting of the 
>original Palm Sunday during his enlightenment to be explained...but perhaps 
>the physical changes are not profoundly obvious, especially from a 

Not just Palm Sunday. Didn't he also see the Crucifixion?

Actually, the later SUN books might benefit from us supposing that
the "humans" aboard the Whorl (and possibly on Urth) have been
genetically engineered in a way that makes them more subject to
certain kinds of intrusion by dictators -- that would give us at
least a vague way of explaining the uploading/downloading of
personalities thorugh the eyes!

>At any rate, what I found when first reading BotNS was that I was 
>experiencing a suspension of disbelief...the work was not necessarily 
>scientifically convincing, but I was not reading it with those questions 
>uppermost in my mind.

H'mmm. Really? I found that in my first reading I was _fascinated_
by object-oriented questions, from the socioeconomics of the Guilds,
the Autarch, etc. -- regarding which, if I'm not mistaken, Wolfe
gives us a tantalizingly brief appendix, or maybe it was a chapter
in CASTLE OF THE OTTER? -- to the ...

Oh, hell. Here's a great example of the object level, and Wolfe's
use of STFnal language tricks: the Mountains. When Severian first
speaks of heading for "the mountains," most readers will visualize
something like the Andes, the Alps, or the Appalachians, no? Then
as we learn about the depleted nature of the Urth, and Severian
begins to travel away from Thrax, we have the image of these huge
trash heaps. Finally, we get to the true "Mountains," and they're
bluidy fookin great monumental sculptures. Gaaaah! The point here
is that we've been forced to radically revise our definition of
what the word "mountain" means in this culture twice.

>I find it interesting that the publicity for 'Shadow' attempts to liken it 
>to the Gormenghast trilogy, among other works, which was written by a poet 
>and artist who was not pursuing scientific authenticity as opposed to 
>suspension of disbelief.

(Why is scientific authenticity opposed to suspension of disbelief?
Scientific authenticity is, rather, a tool in service of suspension
of disbelief.)

I don't recall those comparisons, but it's an interesting pairing.
Both deal with decadant societies in vast crumbling edifices, where
one's role is predetermined from birth, and feature principal
characters who rebel against their roles. H'mmm.

>Forgive me for ranting.

Rant on, friend. This has been a most interesting conversation for
me also, and apparently for several others who've jumped in.


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