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May 14, 2006

Map of Speculative Fiction


Michael Chabon sez:

Maybe, as I suggested above, the most useful way to think of the various literary genres is not as linked but discrete rooms in a house or red-lined sections in a bookstore, but as regions on a map, the map of fiction. I would put the country of romance at the center of this map, but as with all maps there is no real center, only a set of conventions. And as with the regions on a map, on the map of fiction there is overlap: sometimes it can be hard to say where science fiction shades unambiguously into fantasy, or horror into gothic romance, or mainstream, literary fiction, into any of its neighboring genres.
(thanks to Marrije for directing me here.)

A couple years ago I taught a couple of speculative fiction writing classes: one to adults and one to high-schoolers. My definition of "speculative fiction" (which broadly includes science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and supernatural horror) depended upon Darko Suvin's: that speculative fiction contains a "novum". Suvin's "novum" refers to the "new" element, the element of the world or the narrative that does not exist in consensus reality, or in the "realistic" world mimicked in "literary fiction", which I took to calling "mimetic fiction".

The novum can be something simple and singular, like the possibility of a ghost in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Or it can be complex and infuse the world, like the entirety of Tolkiens' Lord of the Rings, from the species of the protagonists to texture and objects and landscapes and languages of the world they live in.

To make this concept more clear, I created a diagram, which you see above. Please note that I created this merely to explain how the various speculative genres were (broadly) defined, not to recast the literary world with spec fic as its ruling perspective.

But the result, I think, is interesting. In dividing "speculative" from "mimetic" fiction, the one with a novum, the other without, I set up an artificial distinction that grouped the "realism" of literary fiction with the exaggerated, but nevertheless "realistic" (because they do not deal with nova) genre tropes of romance, mystery, thriller, western, etc. This in itself is pretty cool, because it forces literary fiction into bed with dirty genre (as if all characters thinking and speaking in poetic, revelatory, Joycean diction were "realistic" rather than generic.)

But more than this incidence of strange bedfellows, the diagram seperates fiction entirely according to type of content. If it deals with objects not of this world, on this map it is centered. If it deals with things herein findable, it is marginalized. "Meta" fiction, that which acknowledges a reality external to the fiction, is thrust entirely out of the diagram altogether.

It's a strange view, not the view of literature that a science fiction fan has. It's a very peculiarly biased academic view, created for a specific pedagogic purpose, and offering a terribly distorted vision of literature.

But then why "terribly" distorted? Why, in fiction, have we decided to privilege mimesis (such as it is) rather than untrammeled fantasy? Why in fiction, where virtue lies in untruth, or maybe unfact? Why isn't the diagram above true to our predominant literary view?

(cross-posted at atlas(t).)


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I embarked on a post graduate thesis in this area about ten years ago but bowed out of it before getting very far because i found I wanted to explore it through fiction rather than academic treatise. That and the fact that footnotes and references drove me bonkers.

I did however spend a bit of time exploring the difference between fantasy and memesis and the history of fantasy. Of the few books I found at the time that covered the subject, probably the clearest and most helpful from an academic viewpoint was by Kathyrn Hume, Entitled I think Fantasy and Memesis. By now I am sure dozens of PHDs papers has been published exploring this theme and probably quite a few books.

In the novel I wrote instead of the thesis, there was a scene where the protagnoist, a fallen fantasy hero, grown up from teenage years in our own modern world, has become an artist. He hides the paintings he has created of his experiences in what was to him the very real fantasy world, fearing that it will reveal his true nature.

However he shows them to the main female character as an act of confession when they grow close. All she sees are silly paintings of fantastic landscapes, battles and horrors. Have I become intimate with a man who just escaping from the world, a fantasy nut, she wonders? She does not realise they are the real experiences of a man rather than hopeful aspirations and eogistic delusions.

This for me is an important point. We only react to fantasy as a legitimate form of expression because it is identified with a departure from the world of our experience, rathher than an expression of our experience of that world.

Part of the question a writer faces is what language do you, and can you, use to explore what you feel. It is more or less legitimate to tell a realistic story and through it catalogue your sense perceptions and character traits in the hope of mapping your self like a circuit diagram, or is it more or less legitimate to dramatise the themes and currents of your being through a play that reflects them as they seem to you rather than dictated by common sense. Or is it something in between.

I continue to write fantasy, although I have recently worked with a literary writer in collaboration on a novel, and we had many discussions about the subject, partly as a way of getting to know our two very different visions and modes of imagination.

One of the things that has become very apparent to me about fantasy, is that it is very much about things we feel, or hope for, or fear, or a map of ourselves, projected into a landscape with a fairly coherent logic. Landcape seems to me a crucial concept when it comes to fantasy writing.

Instead of subconcious fears or anxieties, or spiritual hopes and investigations alluded to in the minds of characters as they ponder between stark, mundane experiences in an oridinary world, we see those same themes and emotions crystallised into an environment, a culture, a mythos, a legend, and a narrative, or journey, in particular a guest for resolution of tensions and discovery of insight and understanding behind the confusion.

Something that would certainly help strengthen fantasy as a form, to my mind, is the possibiltiy that metaphysics is to fantasy, as science is to science fiction, a form far more legitimised in the general literary imagination, probably because it seems to deal with plausible possibilities.

Little in fantasy to my mind seems to deal with how the reality of a fantastic world works, and how it relates to human experience. I don't mean endless details about magic systems here, but thinking about the logic of an unreality in such a way that it can be grasped by a reader and related to questions of who they are.

A good example of this, I think, is the work of the fantasy writer Robin Hobbs, who in her Assassin books, has two magics. The Wit and the Skill. The wit being a commoners magic, to do with bonding with animals, and thus very much about emphasising with people and creatures and forming relatinoships, and the skill, an exclusive regal magic to do with telephatic manuplation, knowing things about distant locations and by an large a magic of ego and power.

This is nothing desperately complex,, but it done well and reasonate with the reader own experiences. The writer manages to create a metaphysical coherence in the unreality that is rooted in our everyday experience and in the extremes of our character.

In many respects, I think fantasy is a form of writing that increasing looks very well suited for the world many of us actually experience.

We do not mediate our selves and our experiences with a simple set of accepted ideas and experience, like church and field and village. We live in a world where we are constantly surrounded by multiple visions of ourselves, or hoped for selves, or feared for selves within advertising, popular culture and other media.

In a sense, we are all trying to make a journey in a world of unreality, trying to make sense of that landscape of experience and perception so different from the mundane things we see around us - and discover patterns, logic, themes and quests and destinations that give us meaning and a coherent sense of it being a landscape we can see, understand and successfully past through, be it day to day, or through a life time.

Fantasy has some growing up to do as a literature in my mind, too much of it has been inspired not by genuine curiousity about the world and ways of exploring it,and projecting our experience of it, but by lazy and often quite unimaginative derivative homage to famliar forms. Not to say there is not some great stuff out there. But like any cultural form of expression, it needs to become an accepted part of the language of who we are before some of the best practioners will fight to speak with it gravity and conviction.

Fantasy has some growing up to do as a literature in my mind, too much of it has been inspired not by genuine curiousity about the world and ways of exploring it,and projecting our experience of it, but by lazy and often quite unimaginative derivative homage to famliar forms.

kev, i think you're right both about fantasy landscapes being psychological ones, and about the above, that a lot of fantasy is only the landscape of what one has read before.

basically, i agree with everything you're saying. speculative fiction needs more geniuses, and more articulate advocates in mainstream literature. but i think things are already starting to change. with magazines like mcsweeney's freely publishing literary sf and fantasy, and with writers like george saunders and jonathan lethem and aimee bender and haruki murakami appearing in the new yorker and being reviewed in the new york times, i think the bending of mimesis is becoming more acceptable.

people are still saying stupid things like "that's not really sci fi because it's good", though. very annoying.

It's interesting, but it doesn't say very much. It tells you nothing about links between books based on their themes, for example (a much better way to find connections between "genre" and "literary mainstream" stuff). It also means you have to define every book as just one thing, when most good books aren't just one thing. Also, metafiction doesn't exist as a circle unto itself.


Re this:

"Fantasy has some growing up to do as a literature in my mind, too much of it has been inspired not by genuine curiousity about the world and ways of exploring it,and projecting our experience of it, but by lazy and often quite unimaginative derivative homage to famliar forms. Not to say there is not some great stuff out there. But like any cultural form of expression, it needs to become an accepted part of the language of who we are before some of the best practioners will fight to speak with it gravity and conviction."

This, too me, shows an ignorance of what's out there right now.


This, too me, shows an ignorance of what's out there right now.

not to me. he didn't really display either knowledge or ignorance with that statement. it was so general as to be -- within the sf/f community at any rate -- almost meaningless. i think he covered his bases by saying "Not to say there is not some great stuff out there. But like any cultural form of expression, it needs to become an accepted part of the language..."

i really don't think it can be argued that fantasy is an accepted part of the mainstream literary language. and i really don't think it can be legitimately argued that "too much of (fantasy)" isn't derivative. too much of it is derivative. that doesn't mean that there isn't wonderful stuff out there. there's a lot of wonderful stuff out there. doesn't detract from the fact that too much crap is being produced and published. (and the same can be said for literary fiction.)

however, i do have to say that the "yes it is/no it isn't" argument over "is genre mostly crap or just a little bit crap?" is oldoldoldoldold. and it gets us exactly nowhere. how much of any given genre is crap and how much is "interesting" and how much is geeeeeeenius is a completely boring question.

chuck out a percentage, any percentage, and i'll just go ahead and agree with you, if, by doing so, we can move on to more interesting questions like:

* what ratio of genre tropes to literary tropes do you have to have in a piece of writing before it becomes irrevocably tainted? (chuck out a number, any number)

* how much and what kind of literariness do you have to have in a piece before you can get a macarthur?

* how much does your literary cred depend upon the winsomeness of your author photo?

* if a genre is subverted in a forest and no new yorker subscribers read it, did it really happen?

* will any of this matter in 100 years?

* show of hands: does michael chabon condition or just shampoo?

The old question, yes I hear you, a bit old and bit worn, no doubt but it is still getting asked out there and those echoes rebound off us all however well we are versed in the staleness of the kernel at the centre of the argument.

And thank you for rescuing me from my generalisations, you were perhaps a little too kind, but I guess you got the general direction I was going in. I belong to the "get something down or you will never actually post anything school" particulary as a dyslexic, and it gets me into trouble sometimes when I have not through the logic of my arguments through fully.

What interests me personally, at the end of the day, is what kind of self image do new writers, who find themselves attracted to fantasy, or have loved it growing up, have when they begin to put pen to paper.

This is surely a crucial question, for those of us who have made the journey through the ins and outs and ups and downs of what speculative fiction is and whether it is legitimate intellectually or creatively.

What happens when a new writer puts pen to paper, finds that fantasy or SF speaks to them as a vocabulary to express themselves, but comes across a teacher, or parent or friend or article in the newspaper, or whatever that does not understand or perhaps who is wary of why they are choosing that particular prism to focus the joy and hells of who they are.

At the same time. New writers, or inexperienced writers feeling a negative reaction from peers and elders I think will tend to be further attached to the form they love or feel an affinity for. Here is the difficulty. Because that form, while diverse and rich if you know where to look, is superficially very shallow in the popular imagination, and certainly not massively impressive in the books that get centre stage, and it can and probably does cause a kind of confusion.

Some will of course just do what they want to do, or through their own curiousity build an understanding of what they do and find their own sense of it regardless of what anyone else think. Some may not.

I recently posted on site of a professor who was approached by a student with a sword and sorcery novel and he was not sure how to help the student realise their vision. He simply did not feel comfortable with the imaginative vocabulary he was presented with. My own editor and mentor had the same problem, and I end up recommending and giving some books in the field to her to educate her in the language I was working with.

It would probably not have been the case if the student approach with a novel closer to Steinbeck or even Borges and Rushdie.

This is not the case with established literary forms, which have a canon, or a body of respected works, which the writer can turn to and say well, everyone loves that and thinks it is good, and I like it too.

You mention the need for more geniuses in speculative fiction, and hell, more would be most welcome. Figures respected beyond their field because of transcendent quality of human ingenuity or vision the debunkers cannot ignore, of course gives a great deal to any field by being who they are.

But perhaps what is needed in the meantime is more mentors and more teachers, who are willing to find someone trying to use a relatively new, exciting and high imaginative form of literature to ask questions about themselves and what they feel, and tell a story only they can in the way that suits their character using those forms.

kev: a-men.

I'm instantly reminded of the chart in Dead Poet's Society for measuring a poems greatness.

I suppose I could place the vast majority of books on this little map without too much trouble. But there's a lot of great books that aren't so easy to place. Do we rethink what those great books really are in light of this map? Or do we disregard the map?

I know what I'd rather do.

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