Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Personal Templates

In what most of you probably hope will be the last of my posts about speculative fiction genres, I venture into minefield-strewn territory.  Attempting to clearly distinguish fantasy from science fiction has resulted in countless internet flame-wars and convention rumbles:

 The delineation has always seemed fairly obvious to me and, this being the internet, I must be right and anyone who disagrees with me must be horribly, hurtingly wrong.

I define science fiction quite simply as any speculative story that obeys the natural laws of the universe and whose premise is at least hypothetically possible.  Therefore, such tropes as time travel, and interstellar space flight, while not practically possible might become so with the discovery of as-yet-unknown maths.  The multiple spacial dimensions described by String Theory, for example might allow for things that are impossible according to Newtonian mechanics or Relativity.  When known laws are broken, science fiction stories are obliged to explain how and why by coming up with plausible explanations.

Fantasy, on the other hand, freely violates natural law and invokes magic as a causative agent (notwithstanding Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic), which requires little further justification.  As long as the rules of the fantasy milieu are internally consistent, you can do just about anything you want, and the readers will buy into the premise.

So, according to the Robsonian Paradigm, simply setting a story in the future and with advanced technology doesn't make it science fiction.  Star Wars is an excellent example of a fantasy adventure in space.  It completely ignores the rules of physics: blasters go 'pew' in a vacuum, space ships are driven like racing cars, and parsecs are units of time instead of units of distance (though this last owes more to ignorance than intent, I think).  Furthermore, it makes free use of magic - The Force.

Likewise, Dune ventures into fantasy territory with its spice-fueled magic.  Dune could easily be rewritten as a traditional sword & sorcery fantasy novel without missing a beat.  It is simply a fantasy novel set in the distant future.

Star Trek straddles the fence between fantasy and science fiction.  However, the shakier elements of Star Trek probably owe more to a limited budget and interference by network executives than by Gene Roddenberry's intent, and intent is important so I think we can safely nudge Trek into the science fiction camp.

Despite the ambiguity of the fantasy and science fiction sub-genres they are a useful construct because, if you adopt my definitions, they let the reader know what they are in for. And as similar as the two genres may appear, many people love science fiction but hate fantasy, and vice versa.

They also allow us to use horror (which I discarded, in my previous post, as both as a genre and as a useful label), as a template applied to fictional genres.  This template, which I call 'dark fiction' is one in which the examination of fear is central to the story, which may fit into any fiction genre.  Thus we can have dark literature such as Heart of Darkness, which lacks any speculative elements, dark science fiction, which explores the terrors of the unknown (e.g. Alien), and dark fantasy, which contains supernatural elements that defy the known laws of nature (the vast majority of 'horror' novels).  You can apply the 'dark' template to anything - even romance (what is scarier than love?).

This brings me, at long last, to the point of the last couple of posts: constructing a frame of reference to discuss the sort of stories - dark fiction, all - that I write.  Over the years I've written stories of myriad genres: fantasy, science fiction, and non-speculative contemporary literature, but all of them have shared in common the theme of the dark nature of humanity.  I pick at humanity's scabby soul.  I pick at it until it bleeds.  I can't help myself.  I don't think I could refrain from morbidity if I tried; fortunately, I don't much want to.

Making this connection, identifying what all of my stories have had in common, was a fairly recent revelation and has led me further down the path to 'finding my voice' as a writer.  This is something that eluded me for years, but by understanding what, why, and how I write has enabled me to consciously apply the 'dark' template, the template of my personality, to my stories, which has greatly improved the quality of my writing.

I think we've all, some time or other, been told something repeatedly without really 'getting it' until the 'aha' moment when we finally truly understood.  There is a world of difference between knowing something and knowing it.  Writers are always told that they need to find 'their voice,' but not how to do it.  This is because finding your voice basically comes down to letting your personality show in your prose.  How we do this differs for each person, so it is really a personal voyage of discovery.  But when you do find your voice, it becomes like a template - a stamp that marks everything you write, whatever the genre, and makes it uniquely yours. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Help Name the Moons of Jupiter

Two previously unknown moons of Jupiter have recently been discovered, and the public is being offered the chance to vote on names for them.  The names must be from Greek or Roman mythology and not already taken by other planets or moons.

I voted for Hecate and Thanatos, and if you'd like to cast your vote to help determine names for the new moons, you can do so here:  Polls will be open until 25 February 2013.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Horror! The Horror!

Of all the terms used to categorize fiction, the one I most despise is horror.  I dislike it even more than literary fiction, and literature, which are completely meaningless terms because, since all stories are comprised of words they are all works of literary fiction, and anything that is written is, by definition, literature.  As bad as they are, though, horror is worse.

What's my problem with horror?  It is a loaded term that can't deliver what it promises.  The word horror is defined as a feeling of intense fear and loathing, so unless a horror story actually evokes these feelings, it fails.  By claiming to write horror, we're setting ourselves up for failure if we don't actually scare anyone - and that's something that is frightfully hard to do.

When was the last time you were truly scared by a horror novel or movie?  I'm often frightened by the news, but never by a work of fiction.  I was startled once, in 1979, while watching Ridley Scott's Alien in a darkened movie theatre.  The suspense of the movie made the jack-in-the-box scenes so effective that at one point I crushed my drink cup and spilled coke all over myself.

More recently, I was disturbed and mildly nauseated by a scene early in Brian Keene's outstanding zombie novel, The Rising.  I won't spoil the scene for anyone who hasn't read this, but I will say that it is no easy feat to gross me out.  During my undergraduate years, the fridge in the biology student lounge housed nearly as many dead pig foetuses as lunch bags and we often spent our lunch hours consuming the latter while studying the innards of the former.  Biology isn't a field for the squeamish.

These are the only two instances that I can recall a horror story eliciting an emotional response.  Nonetheless, I still enjoy the genre, so clearly the story doesn't actually succeed or fail based on its ability to horrify.  I don't read horror novels or watch movies to be scared - that's beyond their capacity to deliver.  So maybe horror is a label that needs to be discarded.

I think that horror is speculative fiction that explores the most visceral aspects of human psychology, making it one of the most important branches of literature for understanding who we are and what makes us tick.  We are the sum of our fears.  Horror fiction explores those fears and drags them screaming into the light where we can examine them like foetal pig guts at lunch time.

Horror is also problematic not only as a label, but as a distinct genre, because if you accept my definition of horror as fiction that explores fear then it crosses all genre boundaries.  Instead of asking ourselves, what is horror, we now have to ask, what isn't?  Many works that are generally regarded as 'literary fiction' can just as easily be labeled horror novels: William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, George Orwell's 1984, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange to name just a very few.

But horror literature extends much farther back than these; farther even than the gothic fiction that founded contemporary horror.  We can see horrific elements in Homer's Odyssey and all the way back to one of the earliest recorded works of fiction, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

You might even say that horror forms the foundation of all literature, and it is far too nebulous to be constrained by the pigeon-hole of a genre label.  We've been telling horror stories for as long as we've had speech, yet they still receive very little respect within the writing world and are judged primarily by the racks of tawdry mass-market paper-backs and hackneyed Hollywood productions.

It's long past time to ditch the label and embrace the ghosts that haunt us.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Fiction Genres: Useful Constructs or Meaningless Pigeonholes?

Humans have an instinctive need to categorize things into readily identifiable groups, probably owing to our inborn instinct for pattern recognition.  The ability to identify patterns is one of the pivotal adaptations in human evolution that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom; it is what allows us to predict future outcomes based on past events - in other words, it allows us to learn quickly and adapt to change.

Because this instinct is so deeply ingrained, we have the unfortunate habit of looking for patterns where none exist, leading us to frequently jump to unsubstantiated conclusions by mistaking cause and effect.  Scientists are taught early in their careers that correlation does not imply causation, but the instinct to quickly draw conclusions based on coincidences is a strong one, and it requires discipline to resist doing so.  The rest of us are usually not so rigorous, and journalists are especially guilty of leaping before they look for the sake of exciting or controversial headlines.

We've all seen news reports claiming that a new study has linked something absurd, like eating cheese or masturbating to internet porn, to cancer.  In most cases the study in question makes no such claim; it merely presented the data showing that, among the participants of the study, those who ate the most cheese, or looked at the most porn, also had a slightly elevated incidence of cancer.  But we look at this data and, particularly if we're looking for an attention-grabbing news story, jump to the unsupportable conclusion that one thing causes the other.

Likewise we have an insatiable need to categorize things into easily recognizable groups even if those categories are largely superficial and don't truly reflect reality.  Taxonomy, the science of classifying living things, attempts to organize nature in a manner that facilitates discussion.  We identify diagnostic morphological features that form the basis for a species, then group similar species into genera, similar genera in to families, and so on.  These taxonomic groups don't always accurately reflect nature, but the taxonomic hierarchy is a useful construct, nonetheless.

Fiction genres are also a useful construct; largely as a means for bookstore owners to organize books on their shelves and help customers find what they are looking for.  But to the author, genres and the implicit expectations associated with them can often be a frustrating constraint that artificially pigeonholes their work into a readily identifiable market.

Two very broad categories of fiction: 'literary' fiction (e.g. literature, realism, and postmodernism), and 'commercial' fiction (e.g. fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, romance) are loaded with implication from the outset: the former assumes the mantle of higher artistic and intellectual merit, while the latter is consigned to the role of light entertainment for the masses.  In truth the lines between genres are so blurred that the distinction is often difficult to make.  Even the dividing line between literary and commercial fiction can become obscured when authors use literary techniques to tell traditionally commercial stories.  Thus we can find literary fantasy adventures, for example, that defy any meaningful categorization.

In the next couple of posts I will examine the concept of horror as a genre, and how I choose to define and distinguish fantasy and science fiction.  I realize that I am treading upon a subject that has already been well-covered by more qualified writers; it isn't my intent to objectively define these categories, nor even to necessarily add anything new to the discussion.  What I hope to do is to explain my understanding of speculative fiction as it pertains to and influences the stories that I write and how I tell them.  And maybe, just maybe impose some order on the chaos of my mind.