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Theodora Goss
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 04:29 am:   

The PMLA, or Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, is sent to all members of the MLA, which include professors and graduate students of English literature. I wouldn't bring such a specialized publication up here, except that I recently received a PMLA special issue on, yes, science fiction.

The strange thing is that the special issue includes essays by writers I respect that aren't, well, all that satisfying. (Including one by Samuel Delaney on Joanna Russ, although I once had the priviledge of moderating Delaney and he's one of my personal writing gods.) The exception is an essay by Margaret Atwood that I loved.

But what I want to write about is part of an essay by Brian Aldiss, as follows:

"The Lord of the Rings opened the floodgates to a tidal wave of fantasy worlds, where a single idea could be stretched to six or more novels of a series. Science fiction as such was melting into various subgenres: fantasy, romance, horror, medieval. Someone let in the dragons, the fairies, the wizards. Well, it's easier stuff to write than anything particularly intellectual. 'Goodbye, cruel world, I'm off to join the circus . . .' was the song of the day. It is now possible to make a living from writing in these fustian categories."

He goes on, about a page later, to talk about what makes a story "good":

"A story may give us knowledge or fresh perception. Science fiction does not infallibly give us knowledge, for often it is based on an assumption contrary to what is known. But it can thereby occasionally give us a perception by which to conduct our lives. However, this seems to rule out fantasy and horror from the possibility of goodness. Much fantasy depends on the assumption that one group of beings is totally good and another, opposing, totally evil, and hocus pocus with rings or a grail or crowns or lakes or virginity is involved; seldom, if ever, is this found in actual experience. [ . . .] Another false belief is that magic works, when in fact it does not. Swords never turn blue in the presence of orcs. Much horror depends on the dead returning physically to vex the living--another misrepresentation of reality. It is undeniable that such stories may entertain some of us, but probably only the idle or immature."

Now my question is, are these assumptions even worth disagreeing with? I mean, they seem to me so false, such a misunderstanding not only of fantasy but also of fiction, which is all, at its most basic, untrue, a lie, something that never happened (or it would be not fiction but fact). But this is what's being said, by a master in his field, to professors and graduate students.

At the end of the essay, Aldiss writes, "Writers achieve contentment only if they are truthful and create stories that they deeply hope will contribute to the wisdom and happiness-in-reflection of others," which seems to me a lovely piece of wishful thinking. And at the very end, Aldiss seems to renounce his connection with a genre that has become degenerate, writing, "No longer am I content to be labeled merely a sci-fi writer."

It's the "merely" that gets me.

But in all this, one lovely moment demonstrates the power of writing to make what is unreal, real. It's the sentence, "Swords never turn blue in the presence of orcs." Which, stucturally, assumes the existence of orcs to refute an aspect of that existence, the blue-turning swords.

(Makes me want to write, "Maybe not the orcs you know, Mr. Aldiss. But in my experience . . .")

Sign me, one of the idle and immature . . .
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Melissa Mead
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 06:40 am:   

I think he did miss the whole point. That's why it's called "fantasy" and "fiction."

The point of Fantasy isn't whether there ARE dragons or glowing swords. It's to reach the part of our minds that "dwell in possibility" and symbolism. Readers who feed their souls with heroes who don't run when the dragon roars fire, or who recognize the princess in the dress of a milkmaid, will have that example to draw on when confronted with a "real" world where dragonish people bluster and imtimidate, or where the kindest,most thoughtful person you meet in a day might be the woman over there scrubbing the toilet.

Strange, to hear of a writer who doesn't recognize the power of symbols, imagery and dreams to "give us a perception by which to conduct our lives."
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Richard Parks
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 03:05 pm:   

I've seen this attitude so often that I've come to think of it rather more like being colorblind. I used to be a paint chemist and one of my duties was to administer a standard color perception test to applicants who wanted to be batch shaders, the people who physically adjusted batches of paint to the right color. When I graphed the results there'd often be big spikes showing multiple errors in certain areas of the spectrum. They literally could not distinguish colors in the affected range though their color matching skills outside that range could be excellent.

Now, colorblindness is a fairly common condition, but it tends to be specific. Mostly in the red/green or blue/violet areas. Likewise some people just don't "get" fantasy in much the same way some people don't "get" fiction of any kind (Those are the ones who say, "But it's all made up. It's all lies. Who wants to read lies?"). It's not so much that they miss the point but they can't even conceive that a point exists. They don't see what we see, and trying to explain it to them is like trying to explain red to a person blind from birth. There's just no common frame of reference.
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Melissa Mead
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 03:55 pm:   

That's fascinating. My grandpa's red/green colorblind, but he's aware of it. I take it the applicants weren't aware of their "blind spots?"
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Richard Parks
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 06:04 pm:   

Sometimes they suspected, but as often as not they didn't. Also, it usually wasn't a case of being totally blind across the entire range of a color. Often the problem was in such a very narrow range within red/green or blue/violet that it never would have been an issue except in a special instance such as color matching.
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JV
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 06:30 pm:   

"Writers achieve contentment only if they are truthful and create stories that they deeply hope will contribute to the wisdom and happiness-in-reflection of others," writes Aldiss.

This is a little too close to the idea of moral fiction, perhaps.

I personally don't think fiction or fantasy fiction has any responsibility to be wise or to cause happiness or any other damn fool thing. Can you imagine Franz Kafka's reaction to such an idea?

Mostly, though, I just think Aldiss doesn't read much anymore, or he'd understand just how broad and deep the "fantasy" field is right now.

As for distancing himself from SF--I think any writer has the right to define themselves as whatever they like. If they do so in a way that begins to seem hypocritical, though, then they can't complain if they come in for criticism.

JeffV
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Byron Bailey
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 07:22 pm:   

"Writers achieve contentment only if they are truthful and create stories that they deeply hope will contribute to the wisdom and happiness-in-reflection of others," writes Aldiss.
* * *
That idea that literature has to somehow reflect "truth" goes back at least to Plato who banished the poet from the idealized city due to his theory of forms where poetry was a reflection of a relection of truth and therefore immoral. Fantasy which wasn't even a reflection of a reflection but simply made up could only be downright heinous in Plato's view. The reasoning (if you want to call it that) says that science fiction because it's still an extrapolation of a shadow of a shadow of truth is inherently superior to fantasy because fantasy isn't even a shadow of a shadow. It's made up. Even in SF, we never seem to be able to escape Plato's influence. Personally, I hate Plato's guts.
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 09:13 pm:   

I don't usually use internet abreviations, but LOL to Byron's post! I think Aldiss' position is also based on an eighteenth-century assumpion that truth is ultimately knowable, which I don't want to mock because it's just such a lovely idea, and gosh darn it, wouldn't it be nice if it were so? But even science has been telling us, lately, that it isn't.

One of the most interesting articles I read recently, during the morning torture that is clicking through the online NY Times, had to do with how we filter the outside world in order to make sense of it, and how not being able to filter the world creates--is it a kind of autism? Some sort of brain disorder. In a sense, we fictionalize the world all the time, pick and choose among a potential dissonance of details to create a continuous narrative. Or that's one idea.

Richard's example is a really elegant demonstration, I think, that "truth" looks different to different people.

(Wouldn't it be interesting to write a story from the perspective of a person who can't choose among details, who has to perceive everything? The trick would be to somehow convey a narrative through those details. Has anyone done this? I know Borges has given us "Funes, the Memorious," which uses this idea, but it's written from an observer's perspective.)
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Saturday, June 26, 2004 - 09:15 pm:   

P.S. Forgive my cynicism, but I'm thinking that at least some writers achieve contentment by paying the electric bill on time. It least, it gives me a warm glow of satisfaction . . .
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Sunday, June 27, 2004 - 07:42 am:   

Aldis might have a sliver of a point if SF's record for actual prescience was anything other than laughable. People can point to the few novels that talked about the fall of the Soviet Union or the similarities between cell phones and Star Trek communicators all they like, but even the most cursory look at the actual developments versus the SFnal "predictions" shows that they have almost nothing in common.

It's 2004, when the was the last time you shot someone in a squalid Bangkok alley order to get an extra four megs of memory for your laptop?
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Tamar
Posted on Sunday, June 27, 2004 - 11:00 am:   

(Wouldn't it be interesting to write a story from the perspective of a person who can't choose among details, who has to perceive everything? The trick would be to somehow convey a narrative through those details. Has anyone done this? I know Borges has given us "Funes, the Memorious," which uses this idea, but it's written from an observer's perspective.)

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' by Mark Haddon is written from the point of view of a 16-year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome. It doesn't work entirely in the way you're suggesting, Theodora, but it comes close, and is an amazing piece of empathetic writing. It did put me in mind of poor Funes.

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Theodora Goss
Posted on Tuesday, June 29, 2004 - 02:57 am:   

Thanks, Tamar! I'll look for Haddon's story. It sounds fascinating.
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Luke Taylor
Posted on Thursday, July 15, 2004 - 03:55 pm:   

Religion, it has dominating our culture for millennia, ruling our thoughts, or minds, our lives. I have no reason to respect much of it; I respect the individual for their morals, which should be innate. But still religion is the ultimate fantasy, men who walk on water and rise from the dead in three says from their death, a chariot built in flame controlling the light from the heavens, a cycle of life which we must escape as all it brings is pain, a god with eight arms, a being half man, half dog. All fantasy to one in search of reason and truth, but they have rocked the world, it has stopped world powers, sent men to their deaths, led millions to better lives, and millions to inescapable prejudice. Religion, a lie to some, yet something so powerful without it we might still use stone to plow our fields. Fantasy and religion are nothing but a pursuit of truth as is all literature, art, and music. Something inescapable, something far from tangible yet I feel it course through my veins.
Fantasy, there only for amusement? It can be, but then again, so is fact there many a time to amuse us, and each time I understand just that much more.
Metaphor makes the reader think understand a truer meaning, fantasy at its heart is a metaphor. We can learn so much about the light from the dark, so much about this world from that, if we do not see some semblance in the two worlds, then the fantasy isnít good fantasy.
But to one effect he is correct, fantasy is currently stagnant, we need someone to bring forth Greek fantasy into fantasy mainstream, or Eastern culture. Both diamonds staring us in the face, which few seem to touch. There are others as well, so many more, we must leave the bubble, we must, and is that not what fantasy is about to some respect, leaving the norm behind?
If he had argued fantasy had changed to a more meaningless state in some cases I would be tempted to agree, but not the way you make it sound like he meant, Dora.
I have a book to recommend to you, though much of it I am sure you already know. It is about how to write science fiction and fantasy, and it makes my case without meaning to, far better than I do. (As far as the second paragraph and reference to reality)
I donít have it here at my dads, but it is by a very good author and the book is very good, even just to see how he thinks about science fiction and fantasy.
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Friday, July 16, 2004 - 09:44 pm:   

Luke!

Great to see you on this message board. I'm out of town for a few days and checking in only briefly, from a VERY SLOW computer, so can't write effectively. But I'll be back soon . . . :-)

Books I took with me on my trip: Patricia McKillip's In the Forests of Serre, Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer, and a collection of Lord Dunsany--fantasy all. And Where the Wild Things Are, also fantasy, but not for me exactly . . .
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - 09:00 pm:   

"Metaphor makes the reader think understand a truer meaning, fantasy at its heart is a metaphor."

Agreed, in general. Though I realize this is a retro way of thinking about it, since the postmodernists have done damage to our notion that there is a reality out there that we can know. But I for one agree that fantasy, like all literature, is either a search for some sort of truth about our existence, or (and the postmodernists would like this statement better) a construction of it. Because we as human beings are constantly seeking meaning. In a sense, we can't live without it, unless we are very strong or German philosophers. (I'm currently reading Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, in which he talks about the essential absurdity of human existence. So much of it resonates as absolutely accurate, and yet it's tough reading.) I was going to write, then erased but will now rewrite, that we are meaning-machines. And fantasy is a way of seeking or generating meaning, that differs in its techniques from realism.

"But to one effect he is correct, fantasy is currently stagnant, we need someone to bring forth Greek fantasy into fantasy mainstream, or Eastern culture. Both diamonds staring us in the face, which few seem to touch. There are others as well, so many more, we must leave the bubble, we must, and is that not what fantasy is about to some respect, leaving the norm behind? "

Agreed that it would be nice if fantasy used a wider range of cultural material. I think you see that among the better and more innovative writers, and perhaps more often in short stories. The room with the contemporary fantasy shelves currently has a sleeping baby in it, or I would try to see if I had some novels to recommend.

"I have a book to recommend to you, though much of it I am sure you already know. It is about how to write science fiction and fantasy, and it makes my case without meaning to, far better than I do. (As far as the second paragraph and reference to reality)"

Do send me the title! Always welcome here: new books, new cats. Although the apartment is being taken over by both.

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