17 June 2005

A Footnote to an Echo

Waggish is writing a series of posts about concepts of genre and quality, thinking out loud about a distinction between exceptional and exemplary genres:
So, we have two rough categories for placing tight genre product: first, exemplary genres, where the best work represents the ideal summation of what all the genre product aims at, and second, exceptional genres, where the best work stands out because of its departure from the genre's standards.

...in the exemplary case, the best work does not emerge from particular talents but across the board, while in the exceptional case, it is the peculiarities of individual creators that give the best work its shape and form. Indeed, it's the issues of shape and form themselves that seem to determine whether genres can succeed on their own merits, or whether they require the intervention of a particular individual to bring their own idiosyncrasies to mediocre requirements.
These ideas grew out of posts on, first, film comedies of the 1930s, then science fiction. I have only superficial knowledge of the first, but somewhat better knowledge of the second, so will focus on what Waggish has to say about that.

Waggish sees genre science fiction as exceptional rather than exemplary, an evaluation that is nearly self-evident. It was, after all, a science fiction writer who came up with Sturgeon's Law -- an exemplary genre would be one that defied that law. There have been exemplary moments, though: SF short fiction in the 1980s seems to me to be one, particularly the fiction published by Ellen Datlow at Omni and the stories in Asimov's in the first four or five years of Gardner Dozois's editorship (c. 1986-1991).

But the really interesting point Waggish makes isn't so much tied to the basic delineation of exemplary vs. exceptional as to what it means for the genre as a whole: the writers who have the most staying power are the writers who subvert genre tropes rather than exemplify them. Examples don't have to come from trend-bucking young turks, either, as Waggish shows:
A good example of the back and forth around the ideas of this genre is in Richard Harter's analysis of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations." I think the story and its theme--nature's uncaring hand--is trite, and could be easily used to condemn the impoverishment of ideas in the genre. But what interests me here is the fact that the story is defined in relation to its variation from the norm. Unlike most genre sf stories, the heroine dies. Unlike most stories, there is no hope. Unlike most of the stories, morality doesn't determine the outcome. The prestige of the story is defined in terms of its variation from the norm, which is implicitly condemned.
Such pushing against the established norms of the genre has characterized the most praised SF stories since Hugo Gernsback quantified what was and wasn't acceptable "scientifiction" for Amazing Stories. The stories John Campbell wrote as Don A. Stuart stunned readers by employing "poetic" moods and styles in magazines mostly devoted to the pulpiest of space adventures; Asimov's robot stories were deliberately set up to subvert the idea of the Frankenstein-type rampaging monster created by mad scientists; Ray Bradbury eschewed science altogether and wrote weird, imagistic parables using the props of science and science fiction. The editors who are best remembered from the earlier years of SF -- Campbell at Astounding and Unknown, H.L. Gold at Galaxy, Boucher and McComas at F&SF, Michael Moorcock at New Worlds, Judith Merrill with the Best SF collections, Harlan Ellison with Dangerous Visions -- are remembered because they tried to get writers to do something that was different from the norm, rather than an exemplary version of it.

Where are we now, though? Is science fiction a footnote to its own echo? Perhaps we're entering a phase where the ideas and models of the previous SF become a kind of mythos from which writers can build endless contemporary variations, the way some fantasy writers keep rewriting the myths of various cultures. This also gives an answer to the question of what science fiction will become when non-SF writers freely use ideas and techniques previously the property of SF writers, as seems to be the current trend with much contemporary fiction -- science fiction's last remaining definition is fiction that builds from the ideas and templates of previous science fiction. This seems more like a recipe for a feedback loop than for valuable and vital literature, but the writer who draws from sources other than science fiction's past now runs the danger of writing something that is simply fiction rather than science fiction.

3 comments:

  1. I think sf seen from outside is certainly an exceptional genre, but I think sf seen from inside might be an exemplary genre. At least, sf seen by me might be an exemplary genre, because to me a default characteristic of sf is 'pushes the boundaries', or it should be. The good stuff is the sf that lives up to my hopes for the genre; if for a non-sf reader it exceeds their expectations, that's all to the good.

    -- Niall

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  2. Could somebody keep a running list of the norms of the genre, so I can defy them point-by-point? I'm too lazy to actually read widely in the field.

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  3. Niall: It depends how you define it from inside the field -- do you include all the media tie-in books, too? I was thinking of it as whatever you'd find in the average chain bookstore, or even, for that matter, the average SF specialty store.

    This, of course, is also based on accepting the idea of a genre being either exceptional or exemplary, and SF being a genre. I thought it was an interesting thought-experiment for a moment, but I don't think it can be carried too far.

    David: You're just a lazy bum and don't deserve our handouts! Get a job! (He says with love.)

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