Thursday, April 17, 2008

Etymological space

My friend Suetekh once told me that she collects definitions of science fiction. Ones where Star Wars isn’t allowed, or that start with Frankestein, Poe or the Iliad. Ones that try to draw a line between sf and fantasy or sf and magic realism. Ones that try to impose some moral purpose on stories, underlining science, speculation or gedankenexperiment. Ones that even have the balls to argue sf is everything, and all other writing merely its sub-genres.

We laughed. We had more cake. We went on to talk about the mad-looking things that live at the bottom of oceans.

I must admit, I was never very bothered by any of that definitions stuff. Sure, it helps to be able to ring-fence an area that you’re writing or talking about, but there’s a fundamental difference between something being about rockets and it being any good or interesting. Too often definitions are merely a territorial marker, the definer staking a claim to the kind of stuff he likes, as a tiger might mark a tree.

In my own recent researches, I’ve noticed all kinds of effort to define the sub-genres of sf, or even to explain – as if to a sick relative – that they’re not sub-genres at all.

The main one is what we call the “what if” sorts of story, set in worlds where Hitler wins the Second World War or where Martin Luther ended up Pope. Just as with sci-fi, there’s those who argue that this isn’t just about coming up with wheezes for good and strange stories. Oh no, they say, if Winston Churchill was writing this kind of thing, it’s got to be serious, academic history.

But what are these kinds of stories called?

Those who call it “alternate history” need to look in a dictionary. Alternate means “every other”. “Alternative history” is better, but still carries a sense that there’s only one possible other option.

“Counterfactual” makes me think “lie”. “Parallel universe” misses the point that most of these kinds of stories include a revelation about where their history diverged from our own. In geometry, parallels don’t ever meet. (Hence the title of “Parallel Lives”; people who are not as close as they seem, so that [Spoiler] falls through the cracks.)

I quite like “allohistory” – meaning “other” in the same way as “allegory”. But people don’t use this very often, and can look puzzled if you do. Ho hum.

Another common term is “utopia”, which literally means “no place” and tends to describe any fictional ideal – do you see what Doctor Who did there? The saint who coined the term in 1516 meant an island of sunshine and sheep, and generally people know what you mean. But what about something like Nineteen Eighty-Four which is evidently the opposite? Or that staple of science fiction, where what seems to be an island of sunshine and sheep turns out to be all monstrous?

These are surely two different things; the state that’s in no way a utopia, and the state that says it is and yet is not. I’ve seen critics carefully define these two terms from each other, labelling them “dystopia” as opposed to “anti-utopia”. The trouble is, different critics apply the labels different ways round.

There are also different kinds of utopia: heterotopia, extropia, techno-utopia. It all gets rather fiddly.

Tom Moylan’s “Demand the Impossible” also argues that utopias can’t be fixed points; that in fact they breakdown if they ever stop striving to be better. What he calls a “critical utopia” is continually self-assessing, asking difficult questions. I argued in Foundation a long time ago that that’s exactly what happens in Iain M Banks’s Culture stories, since we usually see the utopian Culture through the eyes of someone off-message.

Utopia is, then, the journey not the destination. It is the aspiration to make better worlds, the methodology, processess, questions. Literally, it is the state of being, not the place.


Rob Stradling said...

I think it helps to make certain general distinctions. I like to keep a mental discontinuity between "hard" SF - i.e. disciplined theoretical, ethical or sociological extrapolation from REAL science - from "fantasy" SF, which includes anything that uses FTL, teleport, or any other maguffin that would be dead nice but just ain't real. The latter needs to tell some kind of story beyond its fantastical setting, whereas the former can be for its own sake.


Nimbos said...

Um - divergent universes. How about that?

0tralala said...

Rob said:
the former can be for its own sake.

I don't wholly agree. But I'm going to have to think about exactly why. Dammit.

Divergent universes.
Tend to mean ones where the laws of physics are different, rather than historical events.

SK said...

I think you're getting too hung up on trying to decompose phrasal units into their constituent words. Everybody knows what 'alternate history' means, just like everybody knows what the idiom 'red herring' means: the fact that if you try to make sense out of it by combining its individual words is neither here nor there, and is not in fact the way we use language (unless we're trying to make a joke by pointing out the discrepancy between the individual words and the meaning of the compound phrase or, less admirably, attempting to demonstrate pedantic superiority).

Anyway: Some alternative history books are sci-fi, and some aren't. 'The Man in the High Castle' is, 'Fatherland' isn't. This is because genre isn't about the subject (there's no checklist 'if it contains these things it must be sci-fi' -- which is where most of these attempted definitions start and why they fail) but about how the subject is approached.

You could write a story about a man and a woman in love on a spaceship and, depending on the approach you take, it could be sit squarely in the sci-fi genre, squarely in the romance genre, or in that grey area between genres. Just having a spaceship in it doesn't make it sci-fi, any more than having a man and a woman in love makes it a romance: it's all about approach.

0tralala said...

Everybody knows what 'alternate history' means just like everybody knows what the idiom 'red herring' means

Do they really? I think it means a plot device in mysteries, something to distract the reader from the real solution. But the Wikipedia list of examples of red herrings includes stuff that’s just untrue or rumour.

And people don’t agree about the definitions of alternative history, just as they don’t agree about the definitions of science fiction. So any discussion of these things needs to define its terms of reference. It’s not pedantic, it’s first principles.

It’s important to think about the words we use because that’s how we unpack our presumptions and are more precise. Is an alternative history different from a parallel universe? Does Pullman’s His Dark Materials count as alternative history? Lyra’s Oxford is clearly just a branch away from our own – it’s not another world like Narnia.

Does alternative history have to include a Jonbar point (sometimes called a Jonbar hinge?) A recent essay by Edward James in the BSFA’s magazine argued that the detective game of sussing out the moment where history diverged is one of the great pleasures of the genre. But there’s plenty of examples in the genre that don’t do that. Does that mean they’re not alternative history, or that they’re not very good? Or is it just that the detective game thing is an added bonus?

Anyway: Some alternative history books are sci-fi, and some aren't. 'The Man in the High Castle' is, 'Fatherland' isn't.

Says you. I know people who don’t think “The Man…” is science fiction at all because it all depends on the magic of I-Ching. “Fatherland”, though, is about a man questing for truth and discovery in the historical record – an arts and humanities version of science fictions traditional physics hero.

Just having a spaceship in it doesn't make it sci-fi, any more than having a man and a woman in love makes it a romance: it's all about approach.

I don’t agree. I think many people would think it science fiction just because of the spaceship. And this is the point; the term means different things to different people. They (we) classify genre by ring fencing what we do or don’t like: fans say “that’s not science fiction” to mean “that’s not something I like”. And non-fans can dismiss anything with a spaceship, whatever the approach an author takes, because they “don’t read science fiction”.

I think the definitions say less about the work and more about our own individual tastes and prejudice.