The Enemies of Imagination: genre fiction and me

My introduction to the world of genre fiction – more precisely the interlinked territories science fiction, fantasy, and horror – happened consciously in the summer between third and fourth grade when I convinced my grandmother to buy me a Michael Moorcock book.  My parents had already wet my appetite for fantasy, having read Lewis and Tolkien to me at bed time since the first grade, and I finally wanted to read a fantasy novel for myself.  I ended up with Moorcock by chance: my grandmother was unwilling to buy me some of the more lurid looking novels on the bookstore shelves (so many novels with scantily clad men and women posing with trolls, dragons, or what-have-you), and the only thing that looked “appropriate” to her was an omnibus edition of Moorcock’s first Corum trilogy (The Swords of Corum).  Neither she nor I realized what I was reading until it was too late: my soon-to-be fourth grade self was inundated that summer with the height of violent, anti-Tolkien fantasy.  I recall reading Corum’s long awaited revenge on the man who had genocided his people in the last chapter, complete with the description of him “gurgling blood” when the protagonist shoved his sword into his throat.


Yep, this was the edition. Loaned it to someone in the first year of my undergrad and never got it back. Re-bought a used hardcover version, because I wanted to read it again, but still miss this one…

Hence my interest in the genre was marked by one of the more transgressive authors of the time.  Like any kid-turned-fanboy, I spent the next several years reading anything and everything written by, or connected to, Michael Moorcock… Which of course led to me discovering the Science Fiction “New Wave”, non-fiction articles where Moorcock celebrated Andrea Dworkin, anarchism, and the kind of genre fiction that intentionally rejected the conservative values (though not always completely, though often still ensconced within sword and sorcery conventions) of Tolkien and his derivatives.  Not that, as a kid, I didn’t enjoy that “more conventional” fantasy and science fiction as well, just that I was drawn more to the less accommodating authors, novels, stories.

Simultaneously, like so many other genre geeks, I found my way into the world of comics.  Here, also, I was helped along by my father who had been, during his childhood, an avid collector of Daredevil (he had, and still has, the first thirty issues – and yes, if you have to ask, he loved the recent Netflix adaptation) and let me and my brothers read his old comics.  Since it was the mid-1980s, and the comic world was exploding with indie creators, I ended up collecting (mainly through the influence of one of my best friend’s older brothers) Cerebus, Frank Miller and Alan Moore stuff, and other fringe comics.  Yeah, I still read the standard super hero fare but thank god for that friend’s older brothers who, when they were my age, collected all the stuff I might have otherwise collected but didn’t care for it anymore – they let me read all their stacks upon stacks of X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Justice League, Fantastic Four, etc. while convincing me to read “better” things.  Spiderman seemed less exciting when one of these brothers handed me an issue of Watchmen.  I didn’t really get it, mind you, and the fact that I thought Rorschach was awesome and dressed up like him (borrowed overcoat and fedora from dad, shitty homemade felt mask) for Halloween in grade six.

I mention the way I was introduced to this geek genre world mainly to explain how I understood these things, what I saw was valuable in books and comics from a young age up to the present, and thus how I learned to conceptualize the genre(s).  Drawn to the more “fringe” (but still massively influential) tendencies, I usually possessed less interest in those books that were more about world building and less about challenging conventions and values.  (Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that Dungeons & Dragons temporarily ruined me for a few years because it drew me into the world of TSR pulp, with its Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, which detracted from the better stuff I was reading.)  This was geek world before the internet (closest I got to that, back in the day, was Bulletin Boards, particularly the ones where we downloaded pirated software), and so never had anything to do with internet genre fandom.  Hence, when I first encountered the internet geek genre community, when I was an undergraduate with my genre tastes intact and my political values blossoming, I wanted nothing to do with it because it struck me as representing everything I had rarely found interesting since I read that Corum book.

For me, sci-fi/fantasy/horror [SFFH] and comic fandom best represented a genre that challenged conventional mores.  Tolkien derivatives, slasher horror, the boring kind of space operas, and mainstream superhero comics mainly represented things that were fun but not all that serious, nothing to defend rabidly if it came down to it.  Indeed, I was used to making caveats: “yeah I like science fiction, but really it’s good and you should check out The Dispossessed;” or “yeah that X-Men and Superman stuff is fun and all, but comics can be pretty cool – look at this issue of Cerebus: Church & State;” or “okay, Stephen King as a whole is kind of whatever, but The Gunslinger is awesome, and anyways Clive Barker is where it’s at.”

Point being, and most probably because of the first fantasy novel I read for myself, I was under the impression that the SFFH genre ought to be aimed at the more challenging avenues of imagining, that Tolkien was good for his time but his imitators were super boring, and that if you were “a real SFFH nerd” (I was too young, by the beginning of my undergrad, to know this was an “all true scotsman fallacy,” let alone that this fallacy, like so many fallacies, highly debatable) you’d care about the ways in which the genre(s) were pushing against convention, challenging thought, making you think about the world in non-conservative ways.  Maybe this was because I really took seriously the claims Moorcock and Ballard made about the “New Wave” movement, but I tended to mock people who didn’t like genre fiction as being “the enemy of imagination.”  Because that was what, in my mind, it was all about: imagination.

Sadly but predictably, in the past decade I’ve come to realize that geek genre fandom is also, on the whole, “the enemy of imagination.”  They might not be the enemies of imaginative world building, but so many of them – enthralled to bourgeois common sense – are the enemies of anything that challenges genre convention, sublimated and reified political/social values, even literary quality. That this geek genre fan community is opposed to thinking beyond the ossified conventions of their genre, beyond their most cherished authors, is pretty annoying considering that these genres were supposed to be about the limits of imagination in the first place.  I mean, let’s look at some of the more recent “controversies” that this disparate community-that-is-not-a-community has encountered.

First, there is the gaming of the 2015 Hugo Awards. Some reactionary dude-bros decided that the Hugos were getting too “political” and/or “literary” and created slates, that they got legions of organized internet fascists to vote in en masse, which is something even my fifth grade self (who barely understood feminism or anti-racism) would find weird.  I mean, these were appeals to go back to some golden age of the genre that never existed when Science Fiction and Fantasy were just about boy fun!  The claim was a denial of everything that had made me genre geek in the first place, was openly opposed to the imaginative potential of the genre, and legitimated the kind of books I found boring when I was ten.  Dude-bros!  I was reading Le Guin and Ballard before I was eleven and thinking this shit was the very definition of the genre.  Hell, I encountered Delany and Butler when I was twelve (though I did not, in the case of Delany, read Dhalgren until my MA – back then it was Nova and the Fall of the Towers trilogy), at the same time as I was reading some weird Charles Williams stuff I pulled of my uncle’s shelf.  Whatever genre past these assholes were appealing to was not a past I understood… and beyond that, their political imagination was both laughable and offensive.  No point in going into this fuckery further; N.K. Jemisin, who my fifth grade self would have also loved, summed up the poverty of their thought quite succinctly.

Secondly, there was that furor around the ways in which mainstream comics have been made more accessible for pre-teen girls.  You know, considering that this demographic makes up a possible 50% of the population that will purchase superhero comics it might be best to craft some title to them instead of horny pubescent boys?  Well fuck them for trespassing on our territory, internet geek fandom of post-20 basement dwelling man-children proclaimed, we want our superhero comics to have every woman character in porny clothing because that’s the way it’s been for a while.  For a population that thinks of itself as rather clever, they really did show the impoverishment of their imagination when they demonstrated that they were completely unaware that their love for these overtly hetero-male comic book conventions meant that they were now in the minority. The fact that there were now mainstream comics in the Marvel and DC universes aimed at girls meant that these comics were selling, better than some of the good old boy titles!  But since I wrote about this on my more popular blog, in connection to my daughter’s future, there’s no point in repeating myself here.

[Besides, as an aside, that part of me that found these superhero comics less interesting in grade school had to wonder “why do you even care?” If you really cared about comics you should care about the less corporate titles, or even those titles within the big industries of Marvel and DC that challenged, specifically in the time when I was getting into comics, these values.  Watchmen (which I use as an example because of its long popularity, because of its cult status, because of how this popularity and cult status was renewed by that god-awful movie adaptation) was important precisely because, in its own and limited way, it tried to challenge this kind of superhero bullshit… Are all you people like my sixth grade self and love Watchmen because you think Rorschach is awesome rather than, as was intended, the depiction of the kind of person who gets swept up in fascist politics?]

But, thirdly, this comic book conservatism finds an even more pernicious outlet in the boycott cults aimed at every movie adaptation that defies the 1950s values of serialized comic characters.  Like all the recent hate being directed at the upcoming Fantastic Four adaptation because the director had the audacity to cast an African American actor as Johnny Storm.  So much so that the director, after receiving a shitload of racist hate mail, bowed off of another high profile project. The same kind of racist “preservation of white characters” happened with the Thor movies as well, with the same people angry that Idris Elba was cast as a Norse god (though, as one of my friends and comrades jokingly pointed out, the racists should have been happy since Elba’s character was the Norse god version of a doorman), so this attack on Fantastic Four was predictable.  You’d think they would realize that this treatment of Fantastic Four can’t be any worse than the last version  – with the guy from Charmed playing Doom, and Captain America playing Johnny Storm (now that’s confusing for the Marvel Universe!) – which was only marginally better than that Roger Corman unreleased bootleg.  But these fans’ only problem real problem with the current iteration is that one of their beloved white characters is now black.  This shouldn’t even be seen as super transgressive after, you know, the Civil Rights movement: we’re talking about the lowest level of the political imaginary, and if they can’t get with that than they really are behind the times in term of cultural transformation.

Fourthly, due to the world of internet blogging, we have now reached a point where there are a few bloggers who possess the mental constitution (of 18!) to challenge the values of popular authors and novels.  These challenges are immediately met with trolling and an entire dedicated fanbase who feel personally violated when their favourite author, who really has nothing financially to lose, is being called to account for some of their problematic positions.  Like the Bakker debacle initiated by Requires Hate (who has now been viciously marginalized) where even the author, after his fans rallied to defend him, complained about how his sales were being hurt by a female blogger.  Or the critiques of Martin that are met with charges of “jealousy” on the part of fanboys who just can’t stand it when their fave author is being challenged. Debate, critique, challenge is considered anathema to this world of genre warriors who, for some reason, like to believe that they are somehow representing the most daring aspects of their chosen genre.  Yeah you’re defending Martin today, because Game of Thrones is on television and all and so you need to justify all the rapey-ness of it, but if you were around two decades ago you probably would be defending Dragons of Autumn Twilight or how Drizzt was fucking awesome in The Crystal Shard.

In any case, the world of the geek genre is not how I imagined it would be when I saw myself as part of this world, back in the days before internet fandom.  It probably never was how I imagined it; there’s no point in appealing to a past-perfect (as reactionaries like Vox Day do) that never existed.  Rather, the development of this genre community on the internet in the past decade and a half has taught me that there really is no commonly understood genre, that the dominant community assembled around this genre is far from thoughtful, and that even SFFH fans are, on the whole, the enemies of imagination.


17 responses to “The Enemies of Imagination: genre fiction and me

  1. My gateway to reading was the Bobbsey twins. Then it was Andre Norton. One of the first SF paperbacks I ever bought was Catseye, which Google tells me was 1961. I suppose in literary terms the damage is so long-standing it is no doubt irreversible. I mention this so you’ll understand the compulsion to disagree?

    The Watchmen adaptation isn’t a bad adaptation. It’s an adaptation that exposes flaws in the original by magnifying it, like an enlarged photo exposing pores in a face. Alan Moore may have consciously meant that Rorschach was not supposed to be a hero but writing him as both the culminating sacrifice and the final winner versus the moronic Ozymandias says no.

    As to Moorcock, I can only say that coming to Moorcock as an adult leaves an entirely different impression. His most popular creation Elric to my eye seems to be a fetishization of heroism, violence and amorality vastly more appropriate to a fascist aesthetic than Tolkien at his worst. I found most of Moorcock to be unreadable. “Jerry Cornelius” was never his most popular work but since Moorcock himself apparently kept re-writing Cornelius into interminable series and tie-ins, it’s hard to know what that’s about, except you are supposed to buy more books.

    But enough of the quibbles? There were two points that might be worth pursuing. First, the custom of critically approaching certain works as “SFFH” might be confusing a marketing approach with genuine understanding? Some people don’t like fantastic things in their stories, others do. “SFFH” does nicely catch the difference in sales.

    But in literary terms, it seems to me that SF is technically almost identical to historical fiction, not fantasy or horror. The decisions that SF writer makes to achieve SF’s pseudorealism are the same kinds the historical fiction writer makes. Do aliens and mediaeval serfs talk like people now, to be accessible, or do they talk like someone different? Both SF writers and historical fiction writers even have the choice to make of whether they are going to write a genre story, like romance or mystery or horror or Western or family saga.

    Second, perhaps more important for people with a particular interest in politics, there is the difficulty posed by insisting on the “SFFH” spectrum or mash up or whatever you might call this. The fantastic elements here are conceived more or less as arbitrary conceits indulged for the genre experience. But in mythology, there is some mixture of imaginative play and some mixture of real belief. Maybe it’s only the common people who are expected to believe, as is probably the case for The Book of Mormon. Maybe it is expected that it is only dramatizing higher truths about reality, like The Lord of the Flies or 1984. But SF in this sense of new mythology is I think rather different from fantasy. And I suggest that misreading SF and fantasy and horror as somehow all blended is very misleading in analyzing such influential works as Atlas Shrugged, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, the wisdom of Lazarus Long, Dianetics.

    Steven Johnson

  2. First of all, I agree that Elric is not a great meter for politics. But, to be fair, most of Moorcock’s sword and sorcery pulp was written to make a living, back in the day when you could make a living from writing pulp, and even he said it was never meant to be serious. His serious works, such as the Second Ether trilogy, Gloriana, Mother London, Behold the Man, Breakfast in the Ruins, etc. are quite different from his “fun” books. Still, once the entire Eternal Champion thing as a whole finishes Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, etc. are all dead and even the balance is destroyed, and the world no longer needs heroes (final sequence at the end of the Castle Brass collection, the second Hawkmoon series, ends precisely with this “end of the eternal champion” coda). Not perfect, but still it was within the realm of pulp fantasy which, again, was written to make a buck. More importantly, Moorcock’s time editing New Worlds and creating the New Wave movement was a serious controversy with the old conservative folks in SF.

    I disagree with you about SF being more like historical fiction. Nor is it simply a “marketing” ploy to put them together: there is a deep affinity with these “genres” which are now called such (and often kept in separate categories, rather than blended together, by marketing) for annoying reasons. Not that this really matters, but Science Fiction has a very long connection with Fantasy and Horror. This goes back to the invention of the genre in weird fiction, or before that Frankenstein. If this isn’t apparent with “traditional space opera” science fiction of the kind Asimov and Campbell wanted to promote, then this demonstrates again why the New Wave intervention was so important. The recent stuff in the genre that I think is good (and that the “Puppies” conservatives were reacting against) just naturally blends these genres together. Which is why people talk about “speculative fiction”. Some of the most openly progressive writers have blended all three of these genres, including multiple sub-genres, such as Mieville and his Bas-Lag work. There’s also been a lot of progressive writing on this (such as the Red Planets collection) that suggests good reason why these genres have developed together.

    Yeah, somewhere SF might connect with Historical Fiction but then fantasy also tries to sometimes replicate the mores of Historical Fiction, etc. Truth is, the whole genre distinction is crap but it is one that is applied primarily to SF, Fantasy, and Horror which are often grouped together. These might be social constructions, but that’s the point: how they have been historically constructed.

  3. Perhaps I’ve just read too little genre fiction, but I know very, very few examples of a successful blending of fantasy and SF. To me, the classic example of blending fantasy and SF, the supernatural and something fantastic yet somehow natural, is the sudden advent of God at the end of the story. In movie examples, Knowing is far more typical than Star Wars. Those writers who like to talk of “speculative fiction” seem to me to be like actors talking about their “process.” If it works for them, great, but I’ve never found what they said to be useful in understanding anything. But then, I don’t actually believe in Clarke’s Law, so perhaps my cracker barrel philosophy misleads me?

    But let me clarify one thing: When I say historical fiction and science fiction are technically the same, I mean no more than they have exactly the same tension between accuracy and story. (Except that in historical fiction you wouldn’t have some authors boasting of their indifference to history.) Perhaps this seems like no big thing to you, but to me this seems enormous. Going back to movie examples, ignoring this tension is like saying there’s no real difference between Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind as opposed to Glory or Lincoln, except that most people would agree the former are much more entertaining as well as artistically superior.

    I’m afraid I’m a little lost at the notion fantasy’s faux-mediaevalism replicates the mores of Historical Fiction. Steam punk’s adoration of the nineteenth century British Empire really does seem to me to be premised on the notion that anything can happen in history, which seems very anti-scientific (anti-materialist) to me. Perhaps it’s my politics but that seems wrong.

    Lastly,try as I might, I’m not getting the notion that fantasy and SF and horror were historically related. There is indeed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but I’m afraid I’m convinced that reading Frankenstein as a horror novel is to misread it. (Ever more so since I’ve been reading Volney’s Ruins of Empires!) And there’s Poe, but aside from the question of whether he’s that influential in the emergence of SF, it seems likely enough to me that his mystery stories share as much in whatever influence he has on SF. From what I know, the man to look at for the confluence of horror and the supernatural is Monk Lewis.

    Again, this is not any kind of personal quarrelsomeness but fannish ob-com.

    PS I tried to read Mieville once, Embassytown. It was written as I recall in a first person voice, with an extremely elegant style. It was carefully evocative with spare but angular description; marvelously oblique in dialogue; precise in vocabulary; cunningly withholding events and reactions to maintain narrative flow. It was in short a bravura performance from a highly literate, natively talented writer who was supposed to be a STEM type who was having serious problems with his artsy SO because he didn’t get this stuff. I found I couldn’t believe a word on the page, and therefore couldn’t finish.

    Steven Johnson

  4. I think we’re dealing with a problem of definitions that is contributing to confusion. Hence, when you make comments about what “fantasy” is, and then refer only to a popular sub-genre of fantasy, or say that Frankenstein isn’t “horror”, but then do not say why this might be the case, it seems (to be at least) that we might be dealing with a simple difference in what we take to mean by these labels. On the one hand this isn’t surprising since these labels were made up, as you noted earlier, in the interest of market classification. On the other hand, despite such classification, they have indeed accumulated a history of meaning. While I think that genre classifications should disappear altogether, they still exist and they have been stamped with particular meanings.

    Thus, if we are to avoid subjectivist errors in a literary theory of genre I think it is important to take into account the way that theorists of these genres, as well as the history of writers who have perceived different variants of these genres, have understood them to mean… This is the perspective I come from, and I have always felt that it was important to understand the particular concerns of “fantasy” or “science fiction” or “horror” in the way these literatures have developed, and taken on these labels, over the past century. There is a wealth of critical literature and debates within this literature about this, and this forms the background of what I was trying to say. It is also, on a related but tangental note, why I prefer the term “speculative fiction” which is a label that indicates how I, and those who prefer this label, see all three categories (along with others, such as magic realism) as interrelated.

    In this context, then, a few things become apparent. First of all, your claim that Frankenstein is somehow unrelated to what would be understood as the genre of “horror” is somewhat senseless since this is not how Mary Shelley understood it at the time and, more importantly, you do not provide a working definition of what is meant by “horror”. The DNA of what would become the horror genre is the ghost story and Frankenstein was written *as* a ghost story, as part of a challenge that Byron gave his fellow romantics to write a modern [well, modern for the time] ghost story––Mary Shelley being one of the few who completed this challenge. Frankenstein indeed focuses on what is considered the primary focuses of what would become the genre: the horrific (i.e. the body assembled from corpses), the terrifying (i.e. the simulated life in conflict, and spilling over, the life of the simulator). At the same time it’s the first story of artificial intelligence, and is utterly fantastic in that it plugs into the Prometheus myth.

    Beyond Frankenstein, what else can we see as the paradigmatic horror story? Most would point to either Poe or Shirley Jackson’s *The Haunting of Hill House* (1959) which locates the element of horror and fear in the unknown, a house that functions as the metaphor of insanity. There are already fantastic elements in Jackson’s work…

    Moreover, your understanding of fantasy seems limited to the [admittedly popular] subgenre of epic fantasy, and maybe even sword and sorcery. What about all that fantasy that was not derivative of either Tolkien or Howard? That which deals with the impossible, the fictionally magical, the mythic-made-real? I don’t think it’s anti-materialist to recognize the value in this literature because the best authors never believed that the fantastic elements they were describing were real; these were understood to be chimerical, fictitious creations that also possessed a metaphorical dimension that could explain this world. Some of the more interesting contemporary examples function as interior critiques of other fantasies, such as the whole grimdark phenomenon (best typified by Abercrombie) that was aimed at demonstrating the limits of “high fantasy” (that is, the Tolkien-esque style of fantasy) and pointing out its reactionary qualities. Of course, this subgenre also has its problems, but then there are other traditions. Sofia Samatar, who won a World Fantasy Award with *A Stranger in Olondria*, completely rejects the epic/high fantasy style of writing but still produces a fantastic world and is consistent in her world-building. Outside of world-building we have people like Jeff Vandermeer and Cat Valente who, along with so many others, are producing fantasies that function in defiance of the more mainstream ossifications of the genre.

    Thus, the way in which the genre merger functions, in the best cases, does not do so in the way you implied which misunderstands what the fantasy genre is. Instead of being about the fantastic in general, you assume it’s about what Mieville once called “feudalism lite” and you get your story of some supernatural solution to scientific problematic. Rather, we find more complex narratives. Like M. John Harrison’s 1970s *Viriconium* sequence which reads as sword and sorcery but turns out to be a weird science fiction when the world is revealed as a post-apocalypse where humans have mistaken science for magic. Or Nnedi Okorafor’s complex, anti-eurocentric *Who Fears Death* (which also won a World Fantasy Award) that is unclear whether we are witnessing the supernatural or a post-apocalyptic Africa so far in the future that the categories of natural and supernatural have been destroyed by a far-future armageddon that catapulted humanity back into barbarism with the remains of a misunderstood civilization.

    In this context I’m somewhat unclear as to why you disliked Mieville’s *Embassytown* which I, along with most fantasy and sci-fi critics, thought was brilliant. (Also loved it as a philosopher who spent a significant part of his training dealing with philosophy of language.) Your excuse as for why you didn’t like it seems to mimic precisely the arguments given by the reactionaries who gamed the Hugos: too literary, too artsy, let’s go back to the days in which science fiction was “fun”. You basically replicated the same statements made by the “Puppies” who were out-and-out reactionaries.

    Larger point being, I think your understanding of what is meant by these genres (and it is unfortunate, I admit, that they are genres) is hampered by a subjectivism that doesn’t take into account the modern emergence of what is now called fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. The fact that most of the interesting authors in these genres have been more-and-more breaking down the distinctions between them (and finding it easier to do so than making their work so-called “non-genre”) demonstrates the ways in which they are related. The attempt to preserve some sort of stodgy “science fiction” that does not intersect with fantasy and horror is associated, these days, with the most conservative aspects of genre fiction––again, those authors and critics who attempted to seize control of the Hugos, and made racist, sexist, and homophobic comments in the process. At the very least you should try to think through the ways in which your thoughts about genre fiction overlap with the assertions of these reactionaries.

  5. You cite many works that I haven’t read. As I grow older, I find that more and more fiction reads like old fiction I’ve already read, or “interior critiques of other fantasies,” so I read less and less. For that reason alone it is unlikely that I will embark upon a massive reading program to catch up on the trendy.

    And I’m afraid this is particularly true given that two of your three recommended examples, M. John Harrison and Nnedi Okorafor are based on the notion that science is indistinguishable from magic, if it’s just wild enough, even though I specifically warned I don’t believe this would be true.

    I’m afraid I really think that once you have a life experience in which adherence to natural laws, personally and socially, results in changes in nature, you have learned something that can’t be unlearned. Ever after such knowledge, willful efforts at “belief” in God and personal immortality bear a taint of bad conscience. I believe that the people who really cannot conceive a difference between natural and supernatural don’t have (or wish to deny) any materialist conception of reality.

    It is rather too neat to claim “fantasy’ is a genre that wants to avoid nature, in favor of elaborated day dreams. But, the critical claim that there isn’t any real difference, therefore fiction can use the fantastic without regard to stylistic considerations, such as SF’s false realism? How conveniently this lessens the writers’ and critics’ burden.

    Or, given the assumption the social world is just a fortuitous collection of personal conflicts and battling narratives (nothing like laws of motion of society or outmoded relations of production, no imperialism, no hegemony,) that, in short, the secret of life is that “Shit happens….then the meaningless eruption of the fantastic is just as valid a portrayal of life as any, and far more valid than some boring shit deluded into thinking the world is intelligible? I’m afraid that seems more like capitalist realism with a colorful veneer. (Perhaps I’ve been unfortunate in my limited reading of Jeff Vandermeer stories, but I wasn’t sure he wrote anything but “Shit happens and you die.”)

    And on a stylistic note, a mode of fiction that supposes its fantastic elements are somehow natural (usually because it’s future technology but it need not even be explained, merely assumed as a literary convention,) just isn’t the same as a mode in which the fantastic is a breakdown in the previous natural order. There are no rules that can’t be broken in literature and drama, but by and large it isn’t a good idea to mix two opposites. Advocating stories composed of alternating prose paragraphs and poems to break down false distinctions between genres, would just be weird. Randomly mixing the opposite approaches to the fantastic seems to me very much like randomly changing tense and person, one paragraph first person present, another third person past, with the occasional second person future thrown in.

    Again, I’m not meaning anything personal against you by disagreeing with your taste. I wish you could have returned the favor. If you are unclear as to why I couldn’t read Embassytown, you can’t really know that it “really seems to precisely mimic” Sad Puppies. My problem with reading Embassytown was exactly the same problem that someone listening to an accomplished elite orator pretend to be a common man of the people in a bravura speech: It was phony and it couldn’t be believed. The only Sad Puppy I’ve read a word of is John Wright and I couldn’t finish any of that. But what I’ve read of them tells me that inability to suspend disbelief is not any part of their critique of anything.

    As for misreading Frankenstein as a horror story? Almost every adaptation of the novel shares your reading of it as a horror story, and almost every adaptation sensibly drops the modern Prometheus. And so far from Mary Shelley being the founder of the horror story, I’m afraid I put more stock on William Beckford, Monk Lewis, Mrs. Radcliffe, Poe as the great progenitors of the horror story. Frankenstein should be read as a novel by the daughter of the author of Caleb Williams. Also, as you are trained as a philosopher, surely you have some familiarity with Volney’s Ruins of Empire. When the creature cites this as one of the books that taught him, it carried a whole freight of implications wholly incompatible with a simple horror story interpretation, regardless of how the story started. If you saw a movie adaptation where the creature announced that he learned from Anti-Duhring, would you fancy you were watching a horror movie?

    Incidentally, I am a great fan of some fantasy. Lord Dunsany and Flan O’Brien I suppose are my most literary favorites, but I very much liked T.H. White, Susanna Clarke, Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt, LOTR. I think that most have hidden reactionary aspects that for my taste are made up by other more accessible virtues.

  6. I apologize if you think that I meant something “personal” against you in my last comment, but this strikes me as a misreading of what I was actually saying. For one thing, I never thought you meant anything “personal” against me, but for another (most importantly) if I came across as surly it is because your comments, from the get-go, have frustrated me greatly: not because you have a different taste in literature but, from the way I’ve read your comments, it seems as if you’ve elevated your taste to the level of a political critique. In doing so, if you have tended to ignore many of my arguments, and every one of your comments has been filled with red herring fallacies. So it’s hard for me not to be frustrated when it seems like you are doing this, weighing down a blog that was meant to be fun with the kind of comments that wasted a lot of my time on the other blog. I know that you’re not intending to do this, and maybe this is a problem with the medium, but it is quite frustrating. Some examples:

    1) I talked about the problem of definitions, indicating that there was literature around this, and you mentioned this in passing in two sentences and then red herringed it with a straw person understanding of what people like Jeff Vandermeer are doing.

    2) You seem to have a complete misapprehension about why authors like Harrison and Okorafor have narratives where science is misunderstood as supernatural. In a far future after an apocalypse where there is the residue of science, would not people who have no scientific training––who have been thrown back into a previous mode of production––only understand the material through mystified categories? How is this not materialist? Indeed, this is precisely how people understood nature itself before scientific demystification. Imagining a period where science itself becomes mystified is not only a materialist conceit but it is a good metaphor for the way science is mystified by the bourgeoisie even now.

    3) Your comment about the dropping of the subtitle from Frankenstein in movie adaptations as being some evidence that reading it as “horror” is wrong. This is not a valid counter-argument because it does not respond to what I said. Nor does the recognition of that subtitle explain how Frankenstein does not possess horror elements. Horror too can draw from mythology, as can every genre, and there are multiple examples of the Promethean myth being used in horror (and some of the worst examples of horror)… but I don’t find it always helpful in excavating the influence of mythology on fiction because this has the danger of leading to some kind of Campbell-Jung reading of literature.

    4) My comment about the Puppies was not about the people nominated but about the people, Torgersen and Day, who organized the slates. Torgersen made numerous pronouncements about how Science Fiction had been bogged down by literary artifice and it was time to go back to an honest and “fun” style of science fiction. And outside of this, I have always been deeply suspicious of critiques of literature that complain about literary artifice, i.e. it is “too literary.” Maybe this was not your intent, but it strikes me as anti-intellectual.

    All in all I get that you don’t find these genres to be your favourite, aside from the ones you indicated that you enjoyed reading, but what I’m trying to say is that the reason these genres have been treated as interrelated is because there is a literary history of treating them as such. Hence the attempt of more modern writers to use the term “speculative fiction” to get away from genre boundaries of this kind of literature that often deals with (in all three instances) speculating beyond the possible. And yes, genre barriers are garbage to begin with but they still exist. This has nothing to do with my taste (I like a lot of stupid things, I don’t like things that I probably should, and even some of the examples I’ve cited are not ones I’ve particularly enjoyed), or does it have to do with the claim that the more progressive elements of genre fiction are perfectly materialist (if my qualification for good literature was literature that demonstrates perfect ideology then I’d be stuck with a lot of boring and tepid stuff), but only that: a) the genres have always contained a progressive dimension, and some of the key moments in the development of these genres have been when these more progressive and forward-thinking writers pushed the genre forward; and, in terms of this comment string, b) there is an historical/literary reason these three genres have been treated, by the authors in these genres, as interrelated. Beyond that, often what we enjoy reading, just like what we enjoy eating, does break down to subjective enjoyment.

  7. I heartily agree with you on point a in your last paragraph. I disagree on the facts in point b in reference to the past. I’ve really tried to take your arguments seriously but they mostly have referred to things I haven’t read.
    The things I do know of either don’t support your argument or equally support the association of, say, SF and mystery. I haven’t been ignoring them but trying to keep from dreary detailed argument. Your point (rephrasing) about how my political frustrations are jaundicing my fictional reading? May be. I certainly read much less fiction than decades ago. (By the way, neither Jemisin nor Harrison are in our public library but Okorafor is, and I’ve put in for interlibrary loan. Looking forward to it!) Everything below is just completism, sorry, I can’t seem to help myself. Feel free to ignore!

    As for the literature on definitions, I’m familiar with it, which is why I’m sticking to my minimalist definition of SF as stories with something fantastic (impossible or impossible to know or made up,) that is purportedly natural in a fictional universe that relates organically to our own. And fantasy treats its fantastic element as something disconnected from our world, or invasive, or supernatural and otherwise inexplicable, whenever it is about this world at all. Both have ancient roots in the romance, a genre where distinctions between possible and impossible were more or less irrelevant to the mass audience, given the impoverished understanding prevalent in the culture. Horror of course is a story aimed at producing an emotional effect, of, unsurprisingly, horror, fear, revulsion, existential dread. Some horror contains a fantastic element but much does not and doesn’t get marketed with fantastic horror. Neither fantasy nor SF are genres in the sense that they have a particular form like poetry, nor a particular narrative goal, like finding out in mysteries. As for the literature on definitions, I find it is only elaborate but dubious definitions that can somehow blend all these things together. Further, it is not a bit obvious how this minimalist definition can be wrong or misleading.

    1) Well, as I said I’ve only got a limited sampling of Jeff Vandermeer (three or four stories, “The Bear” being the most vivid.) But I’m afraid I’ve accurately described that little bit.

    2.) Nobody’s materialism is perfect, given the imperfection of knowledge. But if people two thousand years ago, like the Hippocratic physicians and Thucydides and Aristotle could start grasping the notion that whole areas of nature and society behaved in ways that were in some sense intelligible, causal, rooted in time and place and material being, not as in myth, ritual and magic, then some in post-apocalypse should too, especially since they would have memories to help them. Which is why I tend to think of that kind of post-apocalypticism as a fantasy of forgetting the disenchantment of the world. But as I noted above, I will look at what Okorafor for one is really up to.

    3.) All those people who dropped the subtitle also dropped the theme. They read it as a horror story, falsely. It’s a proto-SF novel with a horror story framework. There’s a reason why horror story readings (as all those movie adaptations are) ditch most of the novel. I can’t help but feel that to argue I’m wrong on this is to argue they’re right. I can’t see how that’s a red herring. Charles Williams’ weird stuff is just as much a horror novel as Mary Shelley.

    4.) I love literary artifice. Who could enjoy Flan O’Brien or Jasper Fforde if they didn’t! I just couldn’t believe the narrator of Embassytown, which was an insuperable obstacle to the willing suspension of disbelief required for a novel not written in a playful tone.

    • I’m not going to argue too much further since this is taking the discussion quite far from the terrain demarcated by the post. The only thing I will complain about here is your point (3) where again I feel you are missing the point: I don’t give a shit about how Frankenstein has been adapted into film. I don’t think this has anything to do with dropping with the subtitle, nor does it say anything interesting about horror or sci-fi: all it means is that film adaptations can make very terrible horror and/or sci-fi versions of books. These adaptations were far from interesting in either the horror or science fiction aspects, though the Branagh one was somewhat interesting (though that ET/Michelangelo moment was annoying), but otherwise I would say this has nothing to do with dropping of the subtitle or even a complicity with horror since even a proper horror reading would: i) have no problem with a Promethean reading (some of the best horror is quite happy with the Promethean due to the Luciferian connection); ii) actually make it horrific, which no Frankenstein adaptation so far has really been. I don’t think horror is about producing simply the affect of dread, though this is a part of it, but in locating the horrific, the dreadful, in life itself: it possesses both a progressive and reactionary aspect––we can see these things in complete tension with Lovecraft, though the latter usually tends to win out.

      My other quibble has to do with your mention of Aristotle. His Poetics, as extremely out of date as they are, do form a guide post of what I was trying to say. Yes, there is something in all these things that are “rooted in material being” and this has been my entire point. But you only get there by figuring out what the material point is of doing fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc., and what are the concerns of these genres. Once you figure that out, you can chart the idealist and materialist manifestations.

  8. When I was much younger, I got into speculative fiction through the commercialize world of YA fiction, though I never attached myself to a “fandom” in the way that seems to have become usual. But in late adolescence, I had a traumatic introduction to the world of “adult” fantasy that, I think, contributed to me just leaving fiction behind for years and years until just the last couple of months.

    The book is that old bête noire, the Prince of Nothing Trilogy. I read the first two of the books, what I took to be a fantastic retelling of the First Crusade when I read them in high school. I don’t remember them well enough to evaluate whether that was a good assessment for not. Regardless, I was fairly shaken by reading them to the point of not wanting to read the last one despite being interested in the outcome of the story threads. I couldn’t even articulate why the bleak violence stuck in my throat so, but I didn’t read much fantasy after that, other than Miéville who remained a lone outlier for a long time.

    Over the years of my “drought,” I was looking from the outside at these spec. fiction communities with a mix of bemusement and horror because I saw so many of my worst qualities flowing like lifeblood in them. Paranoia, entitlement, an unhealthy fascination with the apocalyptic and conspiratorial, a willingness to dismiss reason and politics in the vain pursuit of a “pure land” of easy pleasures. Not so much “escapism” as finding false refuges from a world that they felt was running away with their lunch money. Though I’m sad I missed so much time to read good books, the glint of good luck in that was that I missed the boat to fandom.

    • Well it’s probably good you missed “the boat to fandom”! As for Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy, I understand your reaction. On the one hand it possessed a progressive dimension in that it called into question many of the tropes of high fantasy––yes, in some ways it was an interesting critique of “Crusade” elements in the genre. At the same time, Bakker was not progressive enough: i) on the one hand he recognized and problematized some of the problems of high fantasy triumphalism that reinscribed a fantastic version of European hegemony; ii) on the other hand he reified all of the problems assuming he was being critical: male power as normative, female victimhood as natural, etc. It should be no surprise that, a few years back, the once infamous “Requires Hate” blog (which had its own identity politics problems) caused a bit of a furor in fandom for attacking Bakker by calling his trilogy “Prince of Rape” and causing him to respond to her attacks with more and more mansplaining. Sadly, the author of that blog ended up being attacked by fandom in general, even the so-called critical fandom, to the point that one of her attackers got nominated for a Hugo simply because they wrote some bullshit attack piece on Requires Hate so-called “abuse”… But I digress.

      The point here is that there was an entire subgenre called “grimdark” that identified itself as being the gritty other to the kind of Tolkien-esque high fantasy but, at the same time, often ended up reinscribing the very problems it sought to critique: it made them more “gritty” and “real” but never really criticized them in the way they should have been criticized. Abercrombie might have made a better contribution than Bakker (or even Martin) by intentionally attacking the very narrative of Tolkien, but even he has his problems. And Bakker, in real life, has some weird fidelity to a “blind brain” conception of the philosophy of mind that he’s beginning to sound like one of the worst kind of New Atheists who is more of a reactionary with their atheism than a progressive.

      Even still, there are entire geographies of so-called genre fiction that defy these easy variants of fantasy, science fiction, etc. Forget the Bakkers and Martins and even Abercrombies: look at Kameron Hurley’s *Mirror Empire* as an example of a feminist “grimdark” (she also wrote a pretty compelling, and equally gritty, science fiction trilogy). Or sidestep all of this to look at some of the folks who have been nominated and/or have been winning the awards that the whole Puppies slates have found reprehnsible: Nnedi Okorafor’s *Who Fears Death*, N.K. Jemisin’s *The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms* (and Vox Day, one of slate gamers of the Hugos called Jemisin a “savage” mainly because she was an African American), Cat Valente’s work in general, and most recently Sofia Samatar’s *A Stranger In Olondria* which was so fucking brilliant in world-building, literary quality, and politics that you know it deserves the award that it got.

      But yeah, our worst qualities do flow through those communities as they flow through any internet community. The worst qualities of leftism, sadly, flow through the internet left community to the point that I think that the majority of internet lefties are either the worst form of anti-communist anarchist or the worst form of tanky communist––both are idealist, in their own special ways, but both are defined by a complete dislocation of reality.

      • I’m in frequent contact with the so-called tumblr left and I would say that there is a great deal of aestheticization of politics going on there. It produces an unhealthy and blinkered view of politics in the worst case. Of course, I’ve also me some valued acquaintances through that channel, so the experience is not entirely worthless.

        On a similar topic, I somehow recall that nerds and other cultures that were classic outcasts when put against the athletic/jock mode of masculinity were optimistic that the “revenge of the nerds” culturally would have positive repercussions in culture at large. I think at this point we can say that that has not happened.

  9. By a coincidence, this appeared recently:

    The respect commonly accorded to the writers might make it a little more interesting than the average newspaper article. Ann Leckie’s observation that Clarke’s “indistinguishable from magic” depends upon the personal viewpoint, therefore it is true for some people now, is particularly provocative, i thought. Also, Robinson’s citation of Hume’s is/ought distinction raises interesting questions.

  10. And this has appeared even more recently:

    It may be even more interesting given Ken MacLeod self-identifies as a leftist.

  11. I used to read sf-f pretty indiscriminately, but lately I’ve found it a lot harder to find anything to read when I’m winnowing through a used book store, just because I’ve come to realize how reactionary or boring a lot of the genre is. Which is really disappointing, since sf at least has a reputation for imagination and social/scientific speculation. I think at least part of this is large parts of the genre are just aping the aesthetics of the better parts (especially an issue in cyberpunk and steampunk) without realizing the ways in which the original works were interesting.

    You might be interested in Rosemary Kilstein’s “Steerswoman” series. It’s fantasy that quickly becomes sci-fi in a very natural way, and the series thus far has an interesting conflict based on democratization of knowledge vs. technocratic control. Plus it’s fantasy without glorification of a feudal system, which is a huge relief.

  12. Thanks for reminding me of the “Steerswoman” series. I read the first one close to when it was released, back when I was an elementary school kid trawling the pulp shelves of my local library for fun reads, but never anything beyond this first one. I should reread it and the rest of the series!

  13. The author’s recovered her rights to the books from the publisher, and is putting them out on Smashwords. Up to book 4 of 6. I particularly like the way that she handles the dramatic tension of the protagonists’ discoveries about their setting in a way that allows the reader to feel clever, but doesn’t end up making you frustrated with the characters for not figuring it out themselves.

  14. Liu Xicin’s Three Body Problem won the Hugo. Perhaps it’s not your thing, but maybe people would like your take on it.

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