I’ve been noodling for a while now with the idea of writing a series of small essays for my website about various genre definitions and how I feel about them — their pros, their cons, their applications, etc. Since Rob Sawyer has started a minor internet dust-up with some recent comments of his on the subject, I thought this seemed a good time to address one of them.
We’ll start with this statement:
Fantasy and SF, on the other hand, are diametrically opposed: one is reasoned, careful extrapolation of things that really could happen; the other, by definition, deals with things that never could happen.
Delany has done a finer-grained version of this in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I’ll quote at length because I think any attempt at summary would end up being nearly as long:
Subjunctivity is the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between (to borrow Saussure’s term for ‘word’:) sound-image and sound-image. Suppose a series of words is presented to us as a piece of reportage. A blanket indicative tension informs the whole series: this happened. That is the particular level of subjunctivity at which journalism takes place. Any word, even the metaphorical ones, must go straight back to a real object, or a real thought on the part of the reporter.
The subjunctivity level for a series of words labeled naturalistic fiction is defined by: could have happened. Note that the level of subjunctivity makes certain dictates and allows certain freedoms as to what word can follow another. Consider this word series: “For one second, as she stood alone on the desert, her world shattered and she watched the fragments bury themselves in the dunes.” This is practically meaningless at the subjuntive level of reportage. But it might be a perfectly adequate, if not brilliant, word series for a piece of naturalistic fiction.
Fantasy takes the subjunctivity of naturalistic fiction and throws it into reverse. At the appearance of elves, witches, or magic in a non-metaphorical position, or at some correction of image too bizarre to be explained by other than the super-natural, the level of subjunctivity becomes: could not have happened. And immediately it informs all the words in the series. No matter how naturalistic the setting, once the witch has taken off on her broomstick, the most realistic of trees, cats, night clouds, or the moon behind them become infected with this reverse subjunctivity.
But when spaceships, ray guns, or more accurately any correction of images that indicates the future appears in a series of words and marks it as s-f, the subjunctivity level is changed once more: These objects, these convolutions of objects into situations and events, are blanketly defined by: have not happened.
Events that have not happened are very different from the fictional events that could have happened, or the fantastic events that could not have happened.
Events that have not happened include several sub-categories. These sub-categories describe the sub-categories of s-f. Events that have not happened include those events that might happen: these are your technological and sociological predictive tales. Another category includes events that will not happen: these are your science-fantasy stories. They include events that have not happened yet (Can you hear the implied tone of warning?): there are your cautionary dystopias, Brave New World and 1984. Were English a language with a more detailed tense system, it would be easier to see that events that have not happened include past events as well as future ones. Events that have not happened in the past compose that s-f specialty, the parallel-world story, whose outstanding example is Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle.
It’s a nice system, and has its virtues; it draws our attention to the ways in which we view plausibility, and how the events of the story relate to the world we live in. My issue with this approach, though, can be summed up thusly: Sorry, but I’m an anthropologist.
Take that masterpiece of badly-crafted, morally suspect apocalyptic fiction: the Left Behind series. Fantasy, or not?
Depends on who you ask.
I’d call it fantasy, though I don’t particularly want to claim it as genre kin. To my way of thinking, the Rapture is a magical event, at least taken in a broad sense where I’m not attempting to distinguish between religion and non-religious magic. But the point is, I don’t believe the Rapture is going to happen, though it’s an interesting idea that deserves good books exploring its morally problematic meaning and consequences. A whole lot of people in America, however, would disagree with me. To them, not only could it happen, it will happen. Whose subjunctive is it, anyway?
The people I hear espousing this model of viewing genres seem to be operating from the viewpoint of Western rational science. They, and their ideology, are the arbiters of what could and could not happen. But this privileges a certain point of view and makes it difficult, in my opinion, to write fairly about settings which don’t operate in a framework of Western rational science, about people for whom the boundaries of possible and not possible are in different places. Also, it glosses over disagreements within the community of people who supposedly agree on how the world does and could operate; one scientist may think terraforming or FTL flight is possible, while another believes they will always stay science fictional dreams. And how many times has science changed its mind on what can and cannot be done? I read an article the other day about Cold War experiments in grafting the head of one dog onto the shoulder of another, for crying out loud. Does that mean Cerberus suddenly leaves the realm of fantasy and moves into science fiction?
People are having fun today pointing out the relative possibility and impossibility of various fantasy and science fiction stories, showing where they cross these supposed boundaries between them. That’s a valid criticism, too, but not one I’m as interested in. The things I’ve talked about here are my real problems with this approach to those things we call genres.
So, there you have it: the first installment of all the definitions of fantasy I don’t like. You, gentle reader, can help the series continue: what are other definitions I could take on? Todorov comes to mind, as does Suvin (who’s out to define SF, really, but touches on fantasy in passing), Attebery — actually, I kind of like his approach; maybe I’ll rename the series — who else? I have no delusion of ever finding The One True Perspective, but useful things sometimes emerge out of chewing on a variety of different, differently flawed perspectives.