Blasphemous Geometries returns, ready to bask in your merciless indifference.
This month Jonathan McCalmont has been thinking about that perennial discussion that is mathematically certain to arise in any situation where three or more sf fans or critics are gathered – how do we define science fiction? Jonathan has decided that we should stop trying.
This month, I am turning my eye to that old fan favourite : the boundary dispute. Scientists have proved that 86.4% of all arguments in genre boil down to disagreements over what does and does not fit within a particular genre or subgenre. What begins as a description rapidly becomes a proscription and the second someone suggests that genre should be about something in particular, that proscription instantly becomes a doctrinal pointy stick with which to jab at other people.
If genre is a broad church it is only so as to allow more room for heretics. This is a column that will attempt to put an end to such venomous wastes of time by suggesting not only that we do not need a definition in order to discuss things in SF, but also that discussion might be more fruitful if we all felt free to create our own terminology.
The desire to define things is a product of one of the more interesting quirks of human neural architecture; the desire for abstraction. This desire expresses itself as a tendency to see the world not in terms of individuals but rather clumps of objects that share characteristics, and which can therefore be expected to behave in similar ways. This is a cunning evolutionary strategy that allows us to deal with the world without having to haul around wetware capable of formulating and storing completely separate understandings of every individual thing we encounter.
Of course, this is in fact a double-edged sword: the quirk that gives us racism and denies us an experience of the world that is one of permanent wonder (“if you’ve seen one elephant playing the banjo, you’ve seen them all”) is also the quirk that gives us quantum physics and the theatrical farce (“My husband? In bed with the Bishop?”).
One product of this quirk whose benefits have long been over-stated has been the need to define what exactly constitutes science fiction. From Darko Suvin‘s “estrangement and cognition” to Damien Broderick‘s “metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics”, it has long been considered necessary to define SF before one can talk about it.
The SF critic and author Damon Knight tried to get away from the problem of definition by saying that “Science fiction is what we point at when we say, ‘This is science fiction’.” What he meant by this was that, even if we cannot satisfactorily define the essence of SF, we all know what it is when we see it. However, a different spin on this definition might be to suggest that the mere fact that someone is willing to label something as ‘science fiction’ is enough to make it worth thinking about as a piece of science fiction.
A notable example of this approach to SF is the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which every year elicits howls of protest from SF fans as its shortlist leaves off notable SF books in order to include works that might more easily be thought of as mainstream. Similarly, in 2007 the author and critic Adam Roberts released a history of SF that avoided giving a definition in favour of suggesting texts throughout history that might well have contributed to the evolution of the genre as we know it today.
In other words, Roberts and the Clarke Award do not give us a definition of SF. Instead, they simply point at works that interest them and say “this is SF”, inviting us to consider these works not as an attempt to encapsulate and define a genre, but rather as interesting ways of thinking about a genre whose limits are ultimately arbitrary.
Of course, if “science fiction” is ultimately an arbitrary term, then what of other SF labels?
According to Wikipedia, there is a genre called ‘dieselpunk’. However, you will not find a ‘dieselpunk’ manifesto, an anthology of stories or even a group of authors associated with the name, even though it currently generates over 20,000 hits. Dieselpunk exists because a number of people have decided to point at some films, games and design styles and call them ‘dieselpunk’. Indeed, some of the after-dinner entertainment at the 2008 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass included sitting around coming up with -punk subgenres. All of them are critical terms that could inspire a story or be slipped into a review or a critical essay.
Critical terms do not only exist to help us categorise things, they can also be used to cast new light on old favourites by suggesting that we reconsider a particular work in conjunction with other works that we might not previously have associated with it. For example, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) might be dismissed as needlessly fantastical if seen as a detective story, but if seen as a work of steampunk cinema, it takes on a whole new set of meanings – despite the fact that it is rather unlikely that the writer or director had even heard of the term at the time.
Genres are not just about books. They are also about people. The other way in which this free-flowing approach to labelling can be useful is in thinking of genres as creative communities.
The textbook example of this vision of genre is cyberpunk. ‘Cyberpunk’, initially at least, was defined by a group of authors with similar ideals and perspectives. It is only since then that we have come to associate the term with a collection of tropes such as cybernetics, virtual reality and apocalyptic, decaying cityscapes. The same was true of the New Wave authors whose tendency to be published in similar places and touch on similar themes resulted in their style acting like a sub-genre for authors who were not initially part of that creative community.
In some cases (such as Mundane SF) the creative communities even publish manifestos, staking out the territory they intend to work in and signalling to other authors that a creative community is being formed. Indeed, in some cases, the creation of the manifesto is the totality of the subgenre’s existence. Were someone to actually produce an Infernokrusher anthology, the joke would cease to be funny.
To think of a genre as a list of boxes to tick or a set of necessary and sufficient conditions is to stifle it both as a venue for creativity and as a useful critical tool. Language evolves constantly and the boundaries of genre are drafted and redrafted with each new publication. It is vital that our way of talking about SF reflects this fact.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]