Sunday, December 04, 2005

I Never Bought the Notion of Dune As Science Fiction Either

Hal Duncan, he of InfernoKrusher fame, has weighed in on the latest definitional tempest in a teapot (brief recap: Chiang started it, VanderMeer, Morgan, Mamatas and probably a whole bunch of others have responded). The entire post is worth reading, but I'm particularly fond of this:
If a genre -- like, you know, from generis -- is a "family" of fiction then, really, we're not talking about two inbred clans with long-standing feuds who'd slaughter any man, woman or dog who even dared to suggest there might be shared blood between them. Science Fiction as Clan Campbell! Fantasy as Clan Macdonald! The genre as the blood-stained battleground of Glen Coe! And never the twain shall meet.

Fuck that shit.

The families have been intermarried from the Year Dot, fucking and fighting for centuries, coming together at weddings and funerals only to split and feud over insignificant insults, slight differences of opinion blown up out of all proportion. Some of that family have married into money. Others live in penury. Resentments bubble. Alliances are made and broken. Drunken uncles insult their next of kin. Black sheep are ostracised. But for all the bickering and backstabbing, the talk of this side of the family and that side of the family, the gene pool is too mixed, I'd say to talk about SF and Fantasy as different forms, different genres, in an analytically rigorous way. Formally, we can talk about Space Opera, Technothriller, Epic Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery, because these are qualitatively distinct; but if SF includes Dune and Fantasy includes Gormenghast... I mean, where's the magic in Gormenghast, and isn't Dune chock full of it? Priests and prophecies. A drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future. Monsters and messiahs. And what's the most fantastical idea in Gormenghast? A really big house.
Back when it was still a separate blog, I got into a slightly heated discussion on Electrolite when I maintained that the Harry Potter books were not, in any meaningful way, fantasy. I also went on to assert that I've always thought television shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape made more sense when you thought of them as fantasy rather than science fiction. I've been wondering for a while if I'd like to wade back into the definitional morass on this blog, but I think Hal has made the point rather definitively, at least in this incarnation of the discussion. And really, when The Baroque Cycle starts winning science fiction awards, isn't it time to admit the profound subjectivity of all these labels?

6 comments:

Graham Sleight said...

Or, to disagree slightly (I think), perhaps it's time to take on board Chip Delany's point, relayed by PNH in the Electrolite thread: that definitional arguments are *always* going to end up in a morass of boundary cases, and that description rather than definition is the way to go. Genres can, as HD says, interbreed in ways that species never can, and taking an either-or approach to a book like _Vellum_ will end up being reductive.

Pigeonhed said...

Some time back I speculated on the Harry Potter series ultimate conclusion -- Harry discovers Hermione is really his sister, she falls in love with Ron, and in the finla fac-off Harry meets Voldemort who reveals: 'I'm your father Harry'

Ted said...

I remember the essay in which Delany made that point, and I thought I was trying to engage in description rather than definition. Given my recent experience, I now feel that it's hard to even attempt description in an online forum without attracting the attention of someone looking to fight over definitions.

Graham Sleight said...

Ted, I thought you were trying to engage in description - arguing for a distinction which allowed room for ambivalence and boundary cases. (And a distinction which I need to think about some more, hence my not having posted on it, but which strikes me right now as very interesting indeed.) The question of why people took it as an attempt to define a line on the sand, or an algorithm to separate sf wheat from fantasy chaff, is separate - and I can see why you feel that some people have misprisioned what you said. I suppose what the debate has persuaded me of is the need for a critical language that doesn't stop at one kind of characterisation for a different work: Perdido Street Station can have a science fiction outlook in a fantasy-flavoured world and a horror-driven plot, and we don't need to assign it one generic identity over the others.

Rich said...

A classic lumper-splitter argument. There's fish, there's fowl, then there are flying fish and diving birds. The only real way that it makes a difference is when the marketing of a book gets in the way (such as when a bookstore tries to decide where to shelve the boundary cases).

As for my view, let me quote Chairman Mao: "Let a thousand flowers bloom!"

Helen Louise said...

Just had a look at your post on why Harry Potter isn't fantasy. Would have to say I (mostly) agree, and think that if the film makers realised this we might actually get a good movie out of Order of the Phoenix (I was really disappointed by Goblet, I'm sure if I hadn't read the book I would have found it extremely forgettable, despite the pretty special effects). I think the main problem is when people start applying common motifs of either genre as defining motifs of the genre. So Star Wars has space ships and technology, but 'science fiction' is a silly term for it. It's pretty much set "once upon a time" and has magic... it's a sort of fairy tale, really. On the other hand I read a fantasy/mystery story recently in which the 'magic' angle was described so coldly and with a complete lack of whimsy that it might as well have been "science fiction".

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