Definitions of fantasy I don’t like, #1

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.

0 Responses to “Definitions of fantasy I don’t like, #1”

  1. akashiver

    Personally, I always liked the definition that fantasy was fiction that asked readers to believe in things mainstream culture told them weren’t true. Sure, it leaves out some groups, but it does draw attention to the necessity of a fantasy reader suspending disbelief. If you read Left Behind believing the Rapture will happen, it ain’t fantasy, in my opinion. If you read Left Behind not believing in the Rapture, but are willing to “believe” in it for the duration of the book, that’s fantasy.

    • laurelwen

      I think I like this one best of any that I have heard.

      That whole business with the subjunctivity…? What a load of tripe. Of course, I am a nonacademic speaking in an academically framed forum, but there are certainly people out there who believe that “fantasy” could be true, or is true, or will be true–just as much as people believe that SciFi could be true. The issue is that mainstream culture tells us these things cannot be true, ever, in any circumstance, so we’re all regarded as crazy mofos because we still believe it anyway. Ironically, this is how many of the people who believe in the Rapture are treated (though less so, because more people are Christians than are Fantasists–is that even a word?).

      Which then leads me down the tangent of what is truth, and isn’t good Art true, in that Keats way? And can we even point to something saying that is or isn’t true? But that’s for another day. I should probably shut up now.

  2. mindstalk

    Someone on Nicoll’s blog quoted Jack Williamson as saying “It’s all fantasy. Science fiction is fantasy you can convince yourself might happen.” Which gives room for the majority of ScF which to a more skeptical scientists couldn’t in fact happen.

    I don’t see how that Cold War experiment would make Cerberus in his context become science fiction; Cerberus wasn’t a three headed dog in a lab, but a three headed dog in Hades. Clearly fantasy to us, unless someone starts muttering about powerful aliens and underground caves. Whether Cerberus was fantasy to Homer, or to Virgil later, is another question.

    As for “privileging” science — well, yeah, most of the definers seem rooted in *science* fiction, which has always had pretensions of being informed by science and/or technology. I think it’s been noted that self-identified ScF snobs are the ones who care most about the F/ScF divide, as opposed to fantasy fans. Though I guess you’re talking about the non-F/F divide now.

  3. unforth

    I always think it’s a little silly to try to draw arbitrary distinctions between sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, and a few other related genres. (see what said…) Generally speaking, the lines are blurry. I dunno, I tend to think that any definition constructed primarily to divide the two is inherently flawed. And then toss in what you wrote, and…yeah. I dunno. I mean, there are older sci-fi stories that advances in science have proven impossible, but that doesn’t spontaneously render them “fantasy” to me…I think the relative problems here are why the two always get shelved together at the bookstore. 🙂

  4. diatryma

    I’m chewing on this a little too, though less on the ground between fantasy and science fiction than between SFF and… mainstream, I guess. One of the women in my writer’s group is writing what comes out being a mainstream story with heavy fantasy elements, or a fantasy story where my genre expectations are continually assaulted. Even her plans for the rest of the plot force me to confront my assumptions about what the book will be and what it will be like.

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