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Notes on genre: the genealogy of sci-fi and fantasy

February 1, 2014

This post follows up on my post last week about the ontology of the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. I ended that post suggesting that the two genres are inextricably linked, both emerging out of the Enlightenment and Romanticism and concerning themselves with similar subject matter: the gap between objective and subjective, mechanical and organic, etc.

But wait: wasn’t there science fiction and/or fantasy prior to the 18th century?

No. At least, no more than there were novels prior to the 17th century. Perhaps there were, in a sense; there were certainly precursors of the novel; and now is not the time to go into the differences between them and the novel proper. Let’s just take for granted that not until the 17th or 18th century did there emerge a genre of prose narrative for which the guiding question was not r(X): “What would X do and say?”, X being a character from history or myth; but rather n(X): “What is it like to be someone who finds himself X?”, X being a real world situation. From r(Lancelot) we get Le Morte d’Arthur, which, though it includes magic, has little to do with modern fantasy novels; from n(shipwrecked on a desert island) we get Robinson Crusoe, which, though it contains no technological speculation, is quite close to the science fiction genre.

Note that the mainstream literary novel tends to follow the template n(in an ordinary situation). Sometimes we get n(shipwrecked on a desert island), but more often n(in need of a husband in middle-class Napoleonic era England), which of course yields Pride and Prejudice. The exact definition of “ordinary” is unclear; it can’t be “average,” since most novels aren’t about average people, exactly, nor can it be “exemplary,” since novels can certainly be about people in situations you shouldn’t want to be in. X including complex erotic entanglements, normal, so long as it’s not emotionally indulgent; active political involvement, fine, so long as it’s not actually about governance; violent crime, acceptable, but risky: you could wind up writing a genre novel. These conventions arose gradually over the course of the 18th and 19th century, and even now aren’t fixed, but I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to summarize them thus: we will now ask questions that are not philosophical, but rather social.

But some novels reject this; and, for whatever reason, many (though not all) of those that have rejected it have been “genre” novels. Genres can be defined as subsets of the set of all novels; detective stories are all n(someone has died), and horror stories are all h(something horrible is happening). These genres were both invented by Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote mid-19th century, and who did not see himself as a realist novelist, but as a writer of “romance” (though his works can’t be understood except as descended from the novel form). Both raise the same sorts of questions: what can we know? what does it mean? And, obviously, both are genres that have had a life of their own, outside of sci-fi and fantasy. But don’t fear; we’re drawing closer to our target.

Historical fiction and adventure fiction both share a crucial feature of sci-fi and fantasy, namely, that the novelistic premise has two terms. The former follows the formula h(X,Y)=n(X, in a time when Y), while the latter follows the formula a(X,Y)=n(X, in a place where Y). These are perhaps even more fertile ground for “romance,” for the presence of the second term forces the writer to be self-conscious about his artifice, and “romance” here (referring as it does to Shakespeare’s later plays) means reflecting on the structure of narrative itself, in particular, on what narrative has to do with the objectively possible and what it has to do with our desire for subjective meaningfulness. Consider, in this light, two books written by contemporaries of Poe who shared his dislike for realism and preference for “romance”: The Scarlet Letter results from h(having committed adultery, Puritan New England), and Moby-Dick results from a(caught up in a quest for vengeance, on a whaling vessel).

Of course, not all historical or adventure novels are relevant to this story about the genealogy of sci-fi and fantasy. There’s one way of understanding the temporal/spatial difference, which we might call literal, such that we’re interested in the other time as predecessor of ours, or the other place as a certain distance from ours; this renders the other time or place, not ordinary, but not entirely out of the ordinary. For example, Middlemarch (set 40 years before the book was published). But this is not what Hawthorne and Melville did. Instead, they made their times and places related to our ordinary world symbolically: Puritan New England and the Pequod don’t interact with 19th-century America, but are allegories for it–in a way not immediately obvious. As such, these books immediately raise two questions: how does the reality portrayed fit together? how does it tell us about our reality?

Yet something is still missing. That something we might call the false supposition (hence science fiction and fantasy): the genre f(X,Y)=n(X, in a world where Y), with such ur-examples as f(resurrects dead tissue, that’s possible)=Frankenstein, and f(journeys to the center of the earth, that’s possible)=Journey to the Center of the Earth. “A world where that’s possible” is, of course, not a world that differs from our own by very much, and Mary Shelley and Jules Verne probably didn’t understand themselves to be writing fiction of the impossible; they didn’t think they were so different from Daniel Defoe writing Robinson Crusoe. But once people realized that this is what they had done, the “in a world where” clause began to grow more elaborate; we begin to see differences of time, place, and possibility; and interest grows in the very idea of an imagined world, rather than just imagined things in the world. Imaginary worlds are interesting: how do they work? (sci-fi.) What do they mean? (fantasy.) Unfortunately they also cause a number of problems, most importantly, they’re never as different from our own as we want them to be. After all, it would be impossible for us to understand something completely alien to us.

All these strands converge in the 20th century, and the modern sci-fi and fantasy genres are born. The novel, that is, a narrative of what is it like to be the main character; plus a polemical resistance to “ordinary” novels, that is, novels about society, and an insistence on metaphysics and ethics; plus a self-conscious artistry regarding how narrative deals with the gap between objective and subjective reality; plus an allegorical relationship between the narrative and our own reality; plus the logic of the alternate world imagined as entirely distinct from our own; equals science fiction and fantasy.

What I find fascinating is that this genealogy, though targeted mostly as someone like Ray Bradbury, also quite accurately describes J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, even though he read very little modern literature and detested Shakespeare for failing to be adequately fantastical. (At least, he said that about Macbeth; I don’t know his opinion of the later plays.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Hurst permalink
    February 2, 2014 6:49 am

    Wow! This was really well-written. I enjoyed your use of formulas to compare all of these different authors and their works. (I’m just spinning from the amount of research this probably required!)


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