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Ruv Draba
12-30-2007, 10:22 PM
(Hi. I'm Ruv and I'm new. One of the things that excited me about the Cooler is that it had its very own place to discuss critical theory, and people who seemed to be interested in that specifically. As a genre writer and compulsive tinkerer, I'd like to use this forum to air some thinking I've been doing about genre signatures. Prior to posting I searched this forum for discussions about the critical significance of 'genre' but found none. Please yell though if this has come up before, or if I'm approaching it the wrong way for the forum.

What follows is a bit 'essayish'. I did it that way to help order my thoughts. Please don't feel obliged to respond in the same way.)

Does fiction naturally fall into genres, or are genres simply a marketing invention? I think that the answer is a bit of both.

Good literature stands on its own, even if it's genre literature. Readers don't need to be steeped in a tradition of detective fiction to enjoy the tales of Sherlock Holmes, or in a tradition of science fiction to enjoy The Time Machine. So from a reader's perspective if genres didn't exist -- if books were shelved by author alone, say -- we might hardly notice. Having read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to death, we'd just stroll back into the book-store and ask "Do you have any authors who write like him?" "Oh, sure. Have you tried Agatha Christie? She's got a detective too."

But from a critical perspective, fiction tracks human concerns and interests -- and these run in threads. Give us rapidly changing technology and we'll want to speculate about it: Is it safe? What might it do tomorrow? Give us knowledge of horrific crimes and we'll naturally want to ask: Why would someone do that? Just how bad do people get anyway, and what can society do about it?

If genre has a meaning beyond merely marketing then I think it's in collecting aligned sets of questions and ways to answer them: in bundling together similar reflections on our society, our world, our relationships, ourselves; and subject-specific tools for exploring or presenting those reflections.

Time for an example.

What makes Sherlock Holmes stories detective stories is not simply that they have a detective, but that the detective detects and the story principally follows that. Many other kinds of literature have detectives too. We can see them in romances, horror stories, fantasy stories and science fiction stories. But what makes detective genre stories distinct from these is that the detectives dig through the malicious, cruel, unfair stuff in society, and we as readers race alongside them. It's that combination of concern and approach to exploring which defines the genre. Not the concerns alone, nor the approach alone - but the intersection of the two.

So from a critical perspective, a genre is not so much a marketing bucket as a knot in a spider's web of human thought -- a knot at which many interesting works collect. And that's important, because when we know that a work is a genre piece we can immediately compare it to the classics of the genre and ask questions like: Does the story explore anything new? Does it explore things in a new way?

If genres give us a frame of reference for critique, then conversely as writers they also help to give us a frame of reference for design. It's not a frame that we must use, but it can be handy to have it.

But that leads me to the question underpinning this post: If genres are defined (or collect) at some common junction of topic and approach, then what defines that junction?

My answer is to try to find a genre 'signature': some sort of fingerprint that keeps reappearing no matter who wrote the story, or what's in it. Such a signature (if it exists) should surely be found in the classics of the genre, and spill over to the other works that the classics influenced. A genre signature is really a signature of classic genre works.

A detective genre story will have crime of some sort, and a detective to investigate it. But the crime might be a felony, a misdemeanour or merely a personal betrayal. The detective might be a public servant, a private investigator or just an interested bystander. If we pull it apart we start to find a distinctive "Detective Story" signature -- some combintion of topic and approach that separates detective genre stories from other literature with crime or a detective in it. Thinking about classics in detective literature, this is the sort of signature I came up with:

Betrayal: There's a crime or at least some sort of social betrayal that is the principal concern of the story. There's a stake in the betrayal; it's not simply trivial
Investigation: There are major characters who investigate it, and the investigation is their principal concern
Clues: During the investigation there are frequent clues, hypotheses and speculations that tease the reader about the motivations or means or methods of the betrayal
Insights: Along the way, insights are revealed about people and the reasons that they betray
Consequences: When the betrayer is discovered, the story's concern shifts to consequences - whether there are any; whether they accrue to the right person and whether they're the right consequences.The attaction of finding a signature like this is that as new genre authors, we can write to the signature and hopefully avoid a tyro's mistakes - without slavishly copying some genre master. As critics helping genre writers, we can pull it apart by signature - picking up more of theme and treatment, and not simply basic critique of character, setting, plot, dialogue and narrative.

But how do you know if a genre signature is the right one to use? How do you know if it's too prescriptive or not prescriptive enough?

I would suggest the following criteria:

Focus: All the classics of the genre should trivially match the signature, while stories not in the genre should fail to completely match the signature
Appropriateness What's memorable about the classics should lie somewhere on key elements of the signature, to help with critical comparison. (Holmes for instance, is memorable for seizing on the faintest clues while Columbo is memorable for the way he conducts his investigations and Marlow is memorable for his insights.)
Robustness: You have some confidence that if you wrote a story to the signature, you would produce a recognisably genre story -- even if you interpreted the signature in interesting or unusual waysThe signature I did for a detective story might meet these criteria or not. I haven't read all the detective classics, but it seems to fit the ones I have: from gritty crime stories to cozies. But one can always improve and refine a signature with experience.

I've had a play with signatures for some other genres, and have produced some initial ideas that I might put up later. But meanwhile...

What do you think? Is it worth trying to find genre signatures? Is it worth having good ones? Are they potentially useful to you as a writer or as a critic? Have you seen other signatures that may be useful, or do you have any yourself?

Hope this may be of interest.

ColoradoGuy
12-31-2007, 02:56 AM
Hi Ruv, and welcome to AW. You raise some interesting questions. The genre question is flogged regularly over in the novels forum (usually in a tiresome genre good, genre bad dualism), but the issues you raise certainly belong here in this room.

I think genres of one form or another are nearly inevitable, in the sense that any popular book, or series of books, is bound to produce imitators. Those imitators naturally analyze and search for the essential components of the successful book they are copying, and over time those agreed-upon components become the genre. Popular genres persist and adapt to new ways: Pilgrims' Progress, for example, morphs into our current, standard fantasy quest tale. Medieval saints' lives become paranormal love stories.

For me the fun starts when authors take those genre conventions and bend or even upend them in various ways. They may honor the forms and mock them at the same time, and they trust their audience to know the formula sufficiently well for them to follow what is going on.

Ruv Draba
12-31-2007, 07:30 AM
I think genres of one form or another are nearly inevitable, in the sense that any popular book, or series of books, is bound to produce imitators.

I agree. Imitation is definitely a mechanism for propagating genre; arguably you don't have a genre until you have imitators. Writers often write what they like to read. But I think that's almost an end-point of genre. Once the casual fan-fiction looks almost as good as the classics, you know that the genre's very well explored.

But when genres are forming or transforming I think you have something different. Writers borrow treatments from one another to deal with new concerns, or tackle the same concerns with very different treatments. Or take the same concerns and parallel treatments to make different points. When that's occurring, I think that the genre is still growing. Perhaps this links into what you mentioned about upending convention.


For me the fun starts when authors take those genre conventions and bend or even upend them in various ways.
Yes - even old genres can be refreshed in this way.

For instance, the TV detective series has been around since the forties and has established some winning formulas, yet it still continues to mutate. Old conventions (e.g. the hero gets beaten up six times in an episode, catches the perp, gets the girl and restores order) have been overturned. In a modern TV detective series likeThe Shield (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0286486/), say, a single fight can produce maiming or mutilation for a main character; the detectives often are the perps; the romances are tenuous and often dangerous; consequences are far from predictable or just; and social order teeters on a knife-edge and sometimes collapses.

Nonetheless, though the conventions have changed significantly over the years, I think that the same genre signature applies as well to Sherlock Holmes as The Shield.

It was my own desire to upend convention without breaking the delicate balance of genre that led me this far. My hope is that a signature captures the "good" in the genre, while allowing innovation and freshness. If it can help me, it might help others.

That's not to say that writers won't want to break a signature too -- or that in breaking it, they won't come up with something new and good. But if your aim is genre freshness rather than new genre or non-genre, then my hope is that a solid genre signature could be a handy thing.

JBI
01-02-2008, 11:54 PM
Hmm, this appears to be somewhat on the structural approach to this sort of thing; I tend to agree in some areas, yet completely contrast with your views in others.

For instance, you imply that the books are designed to probe certain knots, but I would argue that the original work that started the genre, or subgenre did, but not the derivative.

There are multiple layers; first the movement, where certain aspects of language and focus center, I.E. romanticism, realism, naturalism, then modernism, and finally postmodernism. Each movement is lead by Neitzschic supermen who start the trend and change what follows. For romanticism I think it would be Goethe's Werther that is the principle foundation block, Realism Balzac's Human Comedy series, Naturalism clearly is built upon the blocks Zola laid in his series, and modernism by the works of Joyce, Proust, Woolf, and finally the final kick off, Faulkner. All the contemporary or transition authors in between built on what came before, and probed with the same style.

The second layer is the form. Essay, tragedy, comedy, tragi-comedy, short story, poem or novel, each form, or semi-form, such as prose-poem, or verse novel, or thesis, have their own supermen, and their own emerging techniques and characteristics. The language, style, and direction these forms take are all created by supermen. Montaigne built the essay, Cervantes built the novel, etc.


On the third layer there are the emerging genre writers. Each genre is built upon a foundation created by a superman, and the direction a genre moves in is decided by another superman. Romance roots itself in medieval times, but the modern design comes from Jane Austen. All Romance genre authors have by some degree been influenced by her work, even if they haven't read her.

The genre forms from copycats, and changes by copycats who try to change. The more drastic the change, the more desire for someone to be a superman, or affectiveness of a superman there is.

The reader who reads only within a genre is someone who doesn't wish to branch out. He/she prefers to stick to a foundation, because of fear or attachment. In terms of structure, all sub-genres of genres have their own monoconstruct, where the author only has to plug in different names, descriptions, and arrangements. Thereby, people will see West Side Story even though they know that it is a Shakespeare rip off. They will settle with what is known, and what they know works.

Of course, the Jung type will go into more depth of the rationale behind this, but one can only decide whether or not to follow or to create. The markets will always label, as a means of selling to those who only read that which is familiar.

Ruv Draba
01-04-2008, 05:38 PM
Hmm, this appears to be somewhat on the structural approach to this sort of thing
Yes, I assumed that the form was principally shorts through to novels, and that aesthetics are free to change as we like. The rest is concern and treatment - which I think you've called "structure".

Genres do rely heavily on borrowed forms, and are influenced by the aesthetics of the day. But they also span forms, aesthetics and literary ideologies. By way of example, there is fantasy poetry, shorts, essays, novels, graphic novels etc... On the aesthetic/ideological side, SF, Fantasy and Crime genres have survived the transition from modernism to postmodernism quite well.

So if we want to be practical more than philosophical, I believe (or hope at least) that we can limit the discussion of forms to just those we want to write in, and let the aesthetics be whatever we want, and still maybe have a meaningful discussion about genre signature for that form.


Each genre is built upon a foundation created by a superman, and the direction a genre moves in is decided by another superman.
Not always supermen. Sometimes, they're founded by trolls! Many genres get off to a very shaky and quite ugly start, but get cleaned up incrementally over time. And some genres (e.g. the 'Sword and Planet' subgenre) just never seem to mature.

More broadly, I'm reluctant to accept the Neitzschian superman explanation for every major literary movement, or innovation in form. Aside from being innately suspicious of idolisation, I'd then be obliged to accept a Neitzschian superman theory of infomercials and hula-hoops, too. ;)


For instance, you imply that the books are designed to probe certain knots, but I would argue that the original work that started the genre, or subgenre did, but not the derivative.
The really enduring concerns seem to accommodate a lot of probing - and maybe it's not answers but perspectives we seek anyway. We poke at some issues over multiple generations and we're often no closer to definitive conclusion - yet authors still produce new insights. I love Austen's novels, but I don't believe that at the age of twenty-one, she gets the first or the last word on romantic comedy for instance. :)


The genre forms from copycats,
Yes, but in the same sense that nations are built by followers (though leaders often take the credit).


one can only decide whether or not to follow or to create. The markets will always label, as a means of selling to those who only read that which is familiar.
Or.. you can enjoy the familiar alongside the unfamiliar too. If I eat muesli in the mornings, it doesn't preclude me from eating a witchetty-grub filo pastry at lunch.

I think this last point has moved to the "genre is a thing of scorn" argument, which I understand gets a flogging elsewhere. Since this thread is about working with genres, I believe it's off-topic for the thread, so I'll leave it there.

Thanks for your thoughts, JBI. I found the aesthetics comments especially interesting and thought-provoking.

JBI
01-05-2008, 10:11 AM
When I said structural, I was commenting on your approach as seen in comparison to the structuralist school of critical theory, (particularly Northrop Frye).

Ruv Draba
01-06-2008, 09:58 AM
When I said structural, I was commenting on your approach as seen in comparison to the structuralist school of critical theory, (particularly Northrop Frye).

I had a dig to look at what you meant, and then discovered that it was something I recognised anyway... But it's not quite the angle I'm coming from.

As a jumping off point, let me take your excellent West Side Story = Romeo and Juliet example.

The plots of these two tales are virtually identical, and even the settings have a lot in common. As you cited, JBI, the structuralists argued that West Side Story is an identical story to Romeo and Juliet because it's essentially the same plot.

Well, it is a virtually identical story, but I think it takes more than plot to cause this to happen. I think it's also the themes and the way they're revealed through the characters that need to be the same. In other words: it's the through-lines, not jut the plot.

If the structuralists were right, it'd be hard to write new short stories nowadays - because all the plots that could fit in 5K words say, have been largely done to death. But short stories are still going strong - and I think that's because you can run different themes through very similar plots.

Here's an illustration. (Minor spoiler warning)

If we carve up a typical Chandler detective story like The High Window into major through-lines we might get a set like this:

Detective is hired to investigate a missing rare coin
Perpetrator struggles to evade detection and consequence
Rich family manipulates detective to deflect attention from other, scandalous matters
As relationships and deceit complicate matters, detective struggles to separate the perps from the victims, and pick a moral sideI've separated these through-lines into two complementary pairs. The first is a highly objective pair, and it's this pair that most accurately captures the high level plot. It's all about the what and the who and the where and the how. It's generic, fact-based investigation around a missing McGuffin and the staple of detective stories since Conan Doyle.

The second pair is far more subjective - it's about the who, the why and the so what. It holds the bulk of the aesthetic appreciation of the story. It carries Chandler's signature themes and displays his character concepts in their best light. It's his interpretation of the subjective through-lines that gives us the grimy, cynical moral crusader that has seen so much imitation. (The subjective through-lines themselves aren't his signature - but they carry his signature story aesthetic.)

All through-lines contribute to the plot, but only the objective through-lines are explicated in the blurb; the subjective through-lines are merely hinted at - and that's because summary seldom does them justice. Here's the blurb from the back of my copy of The High Window:
Mrs Elizabeth Bright Murdoch wanted to hire a reliable detective to find a rare coin she had lost. She knew who had stolen it, but [...] wanted to keep the information a purely family matter.

To my mind, a key differentiator between crime fiction classics and the mediocre stuff is not what's in the objective through-lines, but what's in the subjective ones. Just about any published detective story gets the objective plot right - and there aren't really too many objective plots in crime fiction. But the mediocre detective stories tend to complicate objective through-lines while ignoring the subjective ones. Classic crime fiction offers a compelling moral aesthetic; mediocre crime fiction simply portrays a sleuth solving a problem. (It's the desire to differentiate on the superficial that produces the bizarre, overcomplicated "locked room" murders that keep appearing.)

What's interesting to me is that the moral aesthetic changes over time, and from author to author. Conan Doyle, Christie, Chandler, Hammet, each used very similar objective plots, but carved out their own niche on the subjective side. That tradition still continues strongly today. We haven't run out of insights to reveal about morality and society, nor new ways to present them.

This is why I believe you can play in a genre and adhere to a signature while still innovating.

Hope this might be useful.

-- Ruv (from somewhere at the interface of structure and aesthetics)

Dawnstorm
01-06-2008, 05:46 PM
I notice that you're placing your smaple signature into plot. But that's not the only area inhabited by genre. This is problematic, because (a) genres aren't mutually exclusive, and (b) some stories (especially short stories) might not have a plot at all (like Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens", for example).

For example, I remember a story I read in Alien shores, called "Mnemonic Plague" (by Bill Dodds). In it, the plot is a straightforward detective plot. Investigate a murderer, etc. It ends with the classic Agatha Christie standoff (suspects in a room, including the murderer...). The twist is that the detective is an alien, investigating on a planet where the people have a hard time keeping track of facts, and to boot annual Fith season strikes soon (which means that pretty much all memories are in danger of being erased). After half the story, the detective finds out the locals use names (nicknames); he has two names, one of which belongs most likely to the victim, the other to the murderer.

In this story, the detective-genre resides in plot, whereas the SF-genre resides in the setting. They co-inhabit the story, so to say.

So if you want to make genre analysis comprehensive, I'd suggest to create a signature for all aspects of story writing (including formal stuff: the science fiction pastoral stream-of-consciousness comedy, hehe). You'd then be able to point out what elements correlate with what set of expectation, and what elements are ambiguous between specifiable genres.

***

Also, I don't think genre is a marketing invention; rather - like so often - marketing takes advantage of the existance of genre. They're taking off from another approach, the social one, which includes writing, reading and publishing communities (and movements), as well as the worship of literary heroes. Things like: SF started to become self-conscious in the pulps (Gernsback), had lots of fun there (Campbell etc.), then tried to join the mainstream while not giving up the fun (New Wave/New Weird/Now What), etc. If you then take an innocent signature approach and use the terms the communities use, you risk offending them (see the Atwood debacle in SF: Handmaid's Tale isn't SF --[SF fandom is already tired of defending their beloved genre against Academic Ridicule]--> She is one of them!).

Ruv Draba
01-07-2008, 01:57 AM
I notice that you're placing your smaple signature into plot. But that's not the only area inhabited by genre.

Hi Dawnstorm,

I place genre into two key areas: the concerns of the writing, and how those concerns are explored. It's when these two areas come together in a particular way that I think we have genre.

For instance, I can't think of a classic SF tale that doesn't leverage people interacting with technology or frontiers. By technology I mean "methods and systems" rather than just physical machinery. By frontiers I mean "places or states that people haven't mastered". I consider these to be the signature concerns of the SF genre - both "soft" SF and "hard" SF.

The other part of genre is how the concerns are explored. Here I'm less interested in setting and plot than through-lines and themes: how characters interact with the events of the world, and what this demonstrates thematically. So in short, I don't believe that there are SF plots; I believe that there are SF treatments and themes about SF concerns.

The signature of SF exposition for me is a logical, rational, methodical through-line that leads the audience along. Other things may be happening too (e.g. characters being emotional, intuitive, dealing with the world symbolically), but that logical, rational analytic through-line seems needed to anchor a story in the SF genre. It doesn't just ornament the story; it's not an afterthought; it carries some strong thematic impact relating to the area of concern.

Those two signature elements seem to come together in all the SF classics I can think of, from the hard to the soft. More than that, I think classic SF tales distinguish themselves by innovating in one or both of these elements. Let me pick a few examples...

Niven's/Pournelle's Footfall: What happens when sentient elephants conquer humanity? It's a frontier concern: humanity trying to establish itself as an independent race in an opportunistic universe that's done it all before. The exposition leans heavily on a through-line that requires humanity to analyse (i.e. explore rationally rather than intuitively) how the conquering race thinks.

Bradbury's Farenheit 451: What happens in a world where books are banned? This is actually a technology concern: to what extent do we need books as a technology for critical thought? The consequences of having/not having critical thought are explored in a methodical, analytic manner.

Scott's Blade Runner: At what point do intelligent constructs have souls? A technological/sociological concern, but explored rationally by example and counter-example, like a debate. "Have you ever taken the Voigt-Kampff test?" "Have you ever retired a human by mistake?"

So I don't believe that signature resides in plot. In fact, I'd strongly suggest that we look away from plot and setting for genre signature - I think it's misleading (for the reasons you cite, and others below). I'm suggesting that we look at concern and exposition (especially themes and throughlines) instead.


(a) genres aren't mutually exclusive.

Genres can overlap on domains of concern (for instance, SF and technothrillers are happy to write about nukes and bioweapons), and on exposition (e.g. crime and SF both enjoy rational, analytic investigations), but they seldom overlap on both at once. SF has detectives, and detective stories can have technology, but what they explore is quite different. For example:

SF genre: Is this technology safe? How does it work? Can it be controlled? How does it change us? What does it tell us about ourselves? In the classic SF stories I believe you can find a through-line in which the technology is explored from either a consumer/victim's or technician's perspective.

Detective genre: Where is the edge of justice and social order, and how does this technology change that? To what depraved or culpable uses can this technology be put? What sort of person would be most likely to exploit it? How can their own natures be turned against them? In the classic detective stories I believe you can find a through-line in which the technology is explored from a social observer or judge's perspective.

There's some overlap there, but it's very slim. Gattaca (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119177/), for instance, has characteristics of both a detective and a SF story but in the end leans far more on the "consumer of technology" side than the "investigator for justice" side. Most of the time-cop stories do the same. Once they introduce cool technology, authors tend to play with it and lose the compassionate distance that the detective genre needs.


some stories (especially short stories) might not have a plot at all (like Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens", for example)
"Kew gardens (http://www.online-literature.com/virginia_woolf/862/)" still has through-lines and themes though - so if we suspected that it's a genre work (it's not), we could check its concerns, and see if there were any genre signature in its through-lines.

For example, I remember a story I read in Alien shores, called "Mnemonic Plague" (by Bill Dodds). In it, the plot is a straightforward detective plot. Investigate a murderer, etc. It ends with the classic Agatha Christie standoff (suspects in a room, including the murderer...). The twist is that the detective is an alien, investigating on a planet where the people have a hard time keeping track of facts, and to boot annual Fith season strikes soon (which means that pretty much all memories are in danger of being erased). After half the story, the detective finds out the locals use names (nicknames); he has two names, one of which belongs most likely to the victim, the other to the murderer.
I don't think I've read this one, so I'm just using your account. But this story has concerns linking both technology and frontiers; but the key perspective seems to be that of consumer/victim of the aliens' approach to memory - the social order imperative seems just an excuse to investigate this. :)

Also, I don't think genre is a marketing invention; rather - like so often - marketing takes advantage of the existance of genre.
I think it's a bit of both. On the one hand, people are interested in particular concerns, and certain concerns lend themselves well to particular kinds of treatments - so genres form whether the marketers label them so or not.

On the other hand, marketing is also notorious for creating artificial and baseless distinctions, and rebranding without real differentiation -- all to manipulate perception. To me "Paranormal romance" seems likely to be one of these. What romance is not at heart fantastical? What exploration of the paranormal does not have romantic resonance? I haven't done it yet, but I suspect that if we dig into concerns and through-lines in this "new genre" we will find a slew of romances that happen to involve a ghost or a vampire or such, and a smaller number of gothic creepies using love as a jumping-off point (as gothic creepies frequently do).

If you then take an innocent signature approach and use the terms the communities use, you risk offending them
A signature approach sits somewhere between prescription and description, so people who hate all prescription may find excuse for offence, and people whose genre preconceptions don't meet the descriptions may get offended too.

That's too bad. The acid test for critique is not 'Do I like it?' but 'Is this useful?' The most useful critiques are often the ones that challenge us (though alas, the reverse isn't always true! :tongue) If we were afraid of offending, we could never critique usefully at all.

Here's an example that challenges some people: if you look at my SF genre signature, Anne McCaffrey's Pern stories don't meet it.

Sure, Pern has a futuristic, alien setting. In that setting is a frontier concern (the nearby Thread planet), so potentially it's SF. But the through-lines are not grounded in analysis, rationality or method. They're in fact exclusively romantic through-lines (in a "small r" romance sense). Moreover, the ostensible concern (getting rid of Thread), is seldom the actual concern of any individual novel. It's just background in the same way that the American Civil War is background to Gone with the Wind. Finally, the ins and outs of key new technologies and frontiers (the dragon race, Thread itself, chewing stone to make fire, and teleporting between) are not explored rationally and systematically - only symbolically and haphazardly.

Pern does however meet my Fantasy genre signature (which I haven't listed here yet). Does that mean Pern "is" Fantasy and not SF? I personally think it is, but who cares? Pern contains classic tales, but classic of which genre depends on how you define genre.

From a critical perspective I think the genre signature approach tells you something important though: if you try and compare Pern to Farenheit 451 or Footfall or The Dispossessed (just to fit in a female SF author), then on the basis of concerns and through-lines it won't come close to fitting. But put it beside the fantasy of Robin Hobb, Janny Wurts or Robert Jordan, and you can find a lot to compare and contrast.


SF fandom is already tired of defending their beloved genre against Academic Ridicule
That's not one for me. A classic is a classic, whether it appears in (or seeds) a genre, or not. What makes it a classic is its originality and timeless impact.

Hope there may be some use here, Dawnstorm.

Dawnstorm
01-07-2008, 04:40 PM
I place genre into two key areas: the concerns of the writing, and how those concerns are explored. It's when these two areas come together in a particular way that I think we have genre.

Well, if I had read your replies in this thread more carefully (I was going mainly on your original post) my post would have looked a lot differently.


For instance, I can't think of a classic SF tale that doesn't leverage people interacting with technology or frontiers. By technology I mean "methods and systems" rather than just physical machinery. By frontiers I mean "places or states that people haven't mastered". I consider these to be the signature concerns of the SF genre - both "soft" SF and "hard" SF.

You'll have to be more precise. Else I'll find a way to apply this to D.H. Lawrence's coalminer community stories, or George Elliot's Middlemarch (which contains new medical methods from the capital that aren't accepted by the rural population at large).


So in short, I don't believe that there are SF plots; I believe that there are SF treatments and themes about SF concerns.

Whereas I believe that the only thing about SF that is unique is "setting", i.e. the world we're living in contains at least one alteration.

A story about a lab assistant who works in cancer research and whose mother has a malign tumor and doesn't take well to treatment is not SF. Add a new disease to the roster of diseases we actually have and use that instead of cancer, and you have a SF story, because - as you say later, I think - the change takes over.


The signature of SF exposition for me is a logical, rational, methodical through-line that leads the audience along. Other things may be happening too (e.g. characters being emotional, intuitive, dealing with the world symbolically), but that logical, rational analytic through-line seems needed to anchor a story in the SF genre. It doesn't just ornament the story; it's not an afterthought; it carries some strong thematic impact relating to the area of concern.

That one works better, I think, than the technology/frontier distinction above. Still, the cancer story above could easily be written with a grounding in rationality. It could explore frontiers and technology. And it still wouldn't be science fiction.

What I'm arguing is that you can tell *any* story, *any* way you want to within or whithout a SF setting. I'm arguing that it's the setting-change that makes the difference, at that the rationality/frontier/technology stuff relates to the setting change and nothing else. Everything else is incidental.

This is why I accept the Pern novels as SF, while at the same time realising that the SF-elements are being downplayed as far as the dragons are concerned. [The problem, then, would be where we place imaginary societies. The obvious candidate would be "Utopian fiction", but there would have to be a distinction between the "ideal-place" and the "other-place".]


Niven's/Pournelle's Footfall: What happens when sentient elephants conquer humanity? It's a frontier concern: humanity trying to establish itself as an independent race in an opportunistic universe that's done it all before. The exposition leans heavily on a through-line that requires humanity to analyse (i.e. explore rationally rather than intuitively) how the conquering race thinks.

Everything you say here falls back on one thing: sentient elephants. Now, sentient elephants, by themselves, don't make a story SF. The things you said are important, but - and this is my hypothesis - only in relation to the sentient elephants. (Does it explore the concept of "sentience" through "other"? Does it posit the elephants as alien, making the story a "communication puzzle"? I can imagine may SF-takes on this.)


Bradbury's Farenheit 451: What happens in a world where books are banned? This is actually a technology concern: to what extent do we need books as a technology for critical thought? The consequences of having/not having critical thought are explored in a methodical, analytic manner.

Now, this is where my take on genre forces to me abandon the idea that Fahrenheit is SF. I'd have to establish the independent genre of Utopian fiction, and place it there. (Now where I would I put Swift's Gulliver?)

Yes, "books" are a technology; but they're an existing technology. If I accept that argument, I'd have to accept the above story about cancer research as SF, too. What makes Fahrenheit different is an alternate social structure.

And this is also, why I understand why Atwood is saying that Handmaid's Tale isn't SF. (Though she's been saying it again about Oryx and Crake, which I don't find plausible at all.)


Scott's Blade Runner: At what point do intelligent constructs have souls? A technological/sociological concern, but explored rationally by example and counter-example, like a debate. "Have you ever taken the Voigt-Kampff test?" "Have you ever retired a human by mistake?"

Nothing to add. :)


So I don't believe that signature resides in plot. In fact, I'd strongly suggest that we look away from plot and setting for genre signature - I think it's misleading (for the reasons you cite, and others below). I'm suggesting that we look at concern and exposition (especially themes and throughlines) instead.

Whereas I think that genre does reside in these things, because the concerns aren't unique without these recognisible structures to support them. (Summary of above; more below.)


Genres can overlap on domains of concern (for instance, SF and technothrillers are happy to write about nukes and bioweapons), and on exposition (e.g. crime and SF both enjoy rational, analytic investigations), but they seldom overlap on both at once. SF has detectives, and detective stories can have technology, but what they explore is quite different. For example:

Well, my hypothesis (which admittedly I haven't thought through well enough) is that SF and detective stories can easily overlap, because what distinguishes detective stories resides in plot, whereas what distinguishes SF resides in setting. SF and Fantasy have a harder time overlapping, because they both dominate setting (it's still not impossible; anime tends to do this often enough). Finally, to the extent that SF and Fantasy are set in imaginary societies they always overlap with Utopian fiction.

Determining a genre then is an exercise in figuring out what element dominates. (And only then do we get into matters of "concern". I don't think that technology, frontier and rational presentation are unique to SF, but I must admit that I don't currently have any clear examples at hand. Scar Tissue (http://www.amazon.com/Scar-Tissue-Michael-Ignatieff/dp/0374254281) but it's probably not a perfect fit; I'd have to read it again.]


SF genre: Is this technology safe? How does it work? Can it be controlled? How does it change us? What does it tell us about ourselves? In the classic SF stories I believe you can find a through-line in which the technology is explored from either a consumer/victim's or technician's perspective.

Detective genre: Where is the edge of justice and social order, and how does this technology change that? To what depraved or culpable uses can this technology be put? What sort of person would be most likely to exploit it? How can their own natures be turned against them? In the classic detective stories I believe you can find a through-line in which the technology is explored from a social observer or judge's perspective.

I remember a short story by Greg Egan, "Cocoon". In it, a homosexual detective is hired to investigate a case of industrial espionage involving a highly marketable cure for homosexuality. Reading what you've written above, it's pretty much both; but - ironically - the scenes with the boyfriend, i.e. the scenes that involve the least modification, would be the SF part, whereas the social commentry, "Who uses the tech to what end?" would be the detective part.

But this doesn't work out, for me. For the "depraved uses" stuff you don't even need a detective. You can tell the story from the point of view of the perpetrator (e.g. Frankenstein). I guess, I don't find the distinction very clear.


There's some overlap there, but it's very slim. Gattaca (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119177/), for instance, has characteristics of both a detective and a SF story but in the end leans far more on the "consumer of technology" side than the "investigator for justice" side. Most of the time-cop stories do the same. Once they introduce cool technology, authors tend to play with it and lose the compassionate distance that the detective genre needs.

"Compassionate distance"?

Gattaca reminds me more of scam-movies such as The Sting than of detective movies, to be honest. A better example, IMO, would be Dark City (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118929/). It's much harder to draw the line, there. (And there's the scene where *****major spoiler***** the detective floats into space. Without both genres the scene is significantly weakened.)


"Kew gardens (http://www.online-literature.com/virginia_woolf/862/)" still has through-lines and themes though - so if we suspected that it's a genre work (it's not), we could check its concerns, and see if there were any genre signature in its through-lines.

This is where your conception of genre and mine differ, it seems. To me every story can be ascribed a genre. I really don't know what "Kew Gardens" would fall into - I'm not a genre specialist - but it would be setting and motif-driven, I think, and William Gibson's Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City would also fall into it. Or not. Heh.


I don't think I've read this one, so I'm just using your account. But this story has concerns linking both technology and frontiers; but the key perspective seems to be that of consumer/victim of the aliens' approach to memory - the social order imperative seems just an excuse to investigate this. :)

I agree to an extent, but I'd argue that both genres, here, are an excuse for a moment of whimsy. Metafictional fun with two genres. And the last line is a pun, answering a thankyou: "Forget it." What really dominates is humour.


I think it's a bit of both. On the one hand, people are interested in particular concerns, and certain concerns lend themselves well to particular kinds of treatments - so genres form whether the marketers label them so or not.

Well, to put in the plainest words possible, genres form because:

- Writers read books
- Readers read books
- Editors read books
- Marketing folks and Accountants don't read books

Kidding aside, you're talking about different things when you're talking about marketing categories, reception history and movements, or academic/descriptive categories. (We are talking about the latter, I think. Here I was just pointing out - needlessly I might add ;) - that if you apply an academic/descriptive approach, you're going to piss off communities who invest genre terminology (social group stuff) with identity.


On the other hand, marketing is also notorious for creating artificial and baseless distinctions, and rebranding without real differentiation -- all to manipulate perception. To me "Paranormal romance" seems likely to be one of these. What romance is not at heart fantastical? What exploration of the paranormal does not have romantic resonance? I haven't done it yet, but I suspect that if we dig into concerns and through-lines in this "new genre" we will find a slew of romances that happen to involve a ghost or a vampire or such, and a smaller number of gothic creepies using love as a jumping-off point (as gothic creepies frequently do).

It's all about approach, isn't it? Different initial expectations change the response to the story, and different genre marketing changes initial expectations. This may be why Jonathan Strange hasn't been published in a fantasy imprint. This is the self-conscious aspect of genre: who is conscious of genre?

Magical Realism, anyone? Try to unravel that gordian knot. (And don't use a sword. ;) )


A signature approach sits somewhere between prescription and description, so people who hate all prescription may find excuse for offence, and people whose genre preconceptions don't meet the descriptions may get offended too.

I was talking about the Atwood-debacle. Atwood claimed Handmaid's Tale wasn't SF, and the SF community hasn't recovered since. It's probably why Atwood continues to be made fun of in David Langford's genre column, Ansible. This has little to do with prescription, I think. It's foremost a thing about being taking seriously. These are identity issues, I think.


That's too bad. The acid test for critique is not 'Do I like it?' but 'Is this useful?' The most useful critiques are often the ones that challenge us (though alas, the reverse isn't always true! :tongue) If we were afraid of offending, we could never critique usefully at all.

Yes, but to be helpful you'll have to be understood. It doesn't help when all you have in common with the people who listen to you is the term "genre". I was off-topicly warning about misunderstandings.


Pern does however meet my Fantasy genre signature (which I haven't listed here yet). Does that mean Pern "is" Fantasy and not SF? I personally think it is, but who cares? Pern contains classic tales, but classic of which genre depends on how you define genre.

Aye, it does. For my approach see above.


From a critical perspective I think the genre signature approach tells you something important though: if you try and compare Pern to Farenheit 451 or Footfall or The Dispossessed (just to fit in a female SF author), then on the basis of concerns and through-lines it won't come close to fitting. But put it beside the fantasy of Robin Hobb, Janny Wurts or Robert Jordan, and you can find a lot to compare and contrast.

Dune?


That's not one for me. A classic is a classic, whether it appears in (or seeds) a genre, or not. What makes it a classic is its originality and timeless impact.

Well, when I was at university, I never once encountered anyone who made fun of science fiction. There were courses. I suspect SF-fandom is a bit paranoid, when it comes to the words, "This is not SF." They'll immediately think it's a disparaging remark. Or, worse, a marketing remark, calculated to appeal to a disparaging sentiment. Lots of bad blood, based on misunderstanding. Enraged readers, exhausted author.

I guess I felt the need to add that, because genre terminology tends to trigger disproportional emotional responses. Another example would be the "debate" between Jeff Vandermeer and Scott Bakker about whether to use the term "Fantasy" of "magic realism". (here (http://vanderworld.blogspot.com/2006/03/truth-politics-sword-fights-and-bakker.html); History here (http://www.emcit.com/emcit125.php#Politics) and here (http://www.emcit.com/emcit127.php#Politics)).

Sometimes people get overly attached to labels. This is just a caveat, not part of the discussion proper.


Hope there may be some use here, Dawnstorm.

It's definitely an interesting discussion. :)

Ruv Draba
01-08-2008, 10:12 AM
Well, if I had read your replies in this thread more carefully (I was going mainly on your original post) my post would have looked a lot differently.

I liked the comments in your reply. I don't agree with all of them, but all of them are thoughtful and thought-provoking. In the final analysis I don't care which view is right (or demonstrable): genre-via-setting or the way I've proposed; I'm far more interested in getting good genre stories out and (if I can), helping other writers to do the same

Having said that, I'll happily argue for the viewpoint I've put forward until I can see a better one. Hopefully, the discussion will produce more insight.

Here's some context.

For most of my reading life I saw genre much as you've described. To oversimplify and extend it: SF was about the setting; Fantasy was too. Horror was about the monsters, Suspense was about the plot, and Romance was about the situations. Whenever I described a genre story to a friend, or vice-versa, that's largely what we'd zoom in on.

That view served me very well through a couple of decades of reading, so it obviously I thought it had some merit. And this much at least is true: good fantasy and SF have good settings; bad settings mean bad fantasy and SF. Good horror has interesting monsters (if we take a broad enough view of what monstrosity means). Suspense has interesting plot twists. Romance has inventive situations.

But the reverse is not true. Even coupled with capable writing, an inventive fantasy setting does not make good fantasy. I believe that we're choking on mediocre fantasy with inventive settings. Likewise there's a tonne of mediocre horror with inventive monsters. There's plenty of twisty mystery/suspense stories that fail to grip, and plenty of trashy romance has inventive situations and pure cliche'd relationships.

Using these elements as signature, I concluded, is simply too coarse. And it's because the classics of the genre and the poor knock-offs that follow them both meet these individual genre criteria. Formulaic writers run these criteria to death. I tire of reading it, and I think that the market does too. I certainly don't want to write that way.

No design formula will ever produce good writing, but some frameworks (I believe) can produce good mental discipline, and help us avoid writing too much dross. What I value most in a fiction design framework is the questions it triggers. A good genre signature framework should help writers direct and focus their questions toward the soul of the genre, not simply the superficialities of the genre.

I believe that the soul resides in the core concerns of the genre, and the way the reader appreciates those concerns in the story. There's good stuff at the edges too of course, and good hybrid stuff beyond... but there is (or I think there is) something common about the genre classics that cleaves a genre unto them. They're not all disparate accidents. They touch us in a common place, in common ways.

Now down to the fine detail.

Me, saying that SF is about technology/frontiers and people explored in a sytematic, logical, analytic way

You'll have to be more precise. Else I'll find a way to apply this to D.H. Lawrence's coalminer community stories
I think it's precise enough already to separate Lawrence from Le Guin, say. :)

Lawrence is a sentimentalist. His through-lines develop and resolve through sentimentality. You can add Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens to the same camp -- they sometimes explored the new technology/people interface too. Kipling explored frontiers, but again, did it sentimentally. I don't think I've read Elliot's Middlemarch in its entirety, so I won't hazard a comment there.

But contrast these 19th century authors above with the likes of Wells or Verne. Their stories unfold like logic proofs: A therefore B therefore C. Unexpectedly, E - but that's because of D, and combined with C gives us F.

I feel fairly confident that my SF genre signature holds pretty well among the 19th century writers - but there might be some exception I haven't read, and some refinement needed.


Whereas I believe that the only thing about SF that is unique is "setting", i.e. the world we're living in contains at least one alteration.
One reason I'm very dissatisfied with the "setting" based definitions of SF (and similarly, fantasy) is just how easily you can pervert them. We already live in a world where truth is empirical and mutable. We don't know what's true in our world. We only know what we can demonstrate. So if I write about human clones today, and in 20 years they exist, does my writing cease to be SF? And when you try to distinguish 'science' from 'magic', it just becomes an ontological mess. Here's an illustration as to why:

Q: If you write a story set in the 20th century from the perspective of a cave man is it SF or Fantasy?
A: a) It's neither because the setting is reality, and cave-men are historical
b) It SF because the setting is science-based
c) It's fantasy because to the cave man 20th century technology is "science sufficiently advanced" as to be indistinguishable from magic
d) It's both
e) It depends on how the cave man got to be in the 20th century
f) It depends on the story concerns, and how you reveal them

My personal answer is f).

What I'm arguing is that you can tell *any* story, *any* way you want to within or whithout a SF setting. I'm arguing that it's the setting-change that makes the difference, at that the rationality/frontier/technology stuff relates to the setting change and nothing else. Everything else is incidental.

Well, if the marketers can label things however they want, then surely writers can too. :Shrug:But I feel that labelling something meaningfully should somehow be to do with the values in the work. Now I'm going to try and persuade you that you believe this too. :D

If SF is only about the setting, then surely you can write any good story in a good SF setting and get a good SF story. So take a classic like Emma say, and transplant it into Niven's Ringworld with minimal changes, then by your definition it becomes SF. Since Emma is a classic, and Ringworld is a classic SF setting - and there's no reason that a middle class girl couldn't live there, it should make classic SF, right? Ringworld won a Hugo and a Nebula. Could Emma's Ring (©, Ruv MMVIII) do the same?

If you don't believe that (and I sure don't) then why not? Well, for one thing, the Ringworld setting won't get much use. For another, any mention of it will probably detract from what Emma is really about (a comedy of manners to do with youth, romance and English propriety). For a third, the subtle social satire is probably going to be lost. And lastly, doesn't Science Fiction really mean "Fiction about Science"? Not simply "Science in Fiction?" And post-lastly, even if the plagiarism weren't noticed, I can imagine a bunch of SF readers who'd be seriously teed off :rant: and some SFWA members who'd be in hysterics. :roll:

Any consideration of SF genre must include the concerns of the story, I contend - not simply the setting. If the concerns are sciencey then that will appear in the setting anyway. And if they're not, then no amount of adding robots, rayguns and rockets to the setting will make it so.


This is why I accept the Pern novels as SF
Here's the sort of thing it would take to turn a Pern story into SF for me:

Build an economy that trades in dragon eggs
Have the dragons rebel against their slavery (they're "impressed" from infants, recall)
Run a selective breeding program to increase the number of fertile dragons
Try to force them to mature faster
Have the Weyrkeepers of one place or another assert martial law over a protected population, and rape the resources of that place for their own wealth
Have a war over control of the dragon-eggs as a strategic defence resource
Try and replace dragons with rock-crushing flame-spitting fixed artillery
Fund an investigation into toxins and repellants against Thread
Find ways to direct Thread against enemies
Harness dragons and other between travellers into both the economy and the military
Keep the above considerations as the central focus of the story, and push the "who's bonking whom" and "who's the most popular girl in the Weyr" stuff into the background.These are all natural, logical consequences of the Pern setting. They're also carefully avoided for what is essentially a sentimental/symbolic aesthetic. (But that's just what fantasy stories do.)



Everything you say here falls back on one thing: sentient elephants. Now, sentient elephants, by themselves, don't make a story SF.
Niven enjoys taking animals, making them sentient and then having humans try to deal with them as adversaries and competitors. Moties are just smart rabbits; Kzin are smart tigers etc... But I agree: it's not that which makes it SF. It's the frontier issue, explored logically.


Now, this is where my take on genre forces to me abandon the idea that Fahrenheit is SF.
And you might lose Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut maybe... and open the door to the "SF is not literature" silliness. :tongue


And this is also, why I understand why Atwood is saying that Handmaid's Tale isn't SF.
I haven't read it and can't comment. On the other hand, 2007 Nobel Lit Laureate Doris Lessing is proud to have written several SF books. :)


Whereas I think that genre does reside in these things, because the concerns aren't unique without these recognisible structures to support them.
As per an earlier post, I think it's the intersection of concerns and treatments that defines genre. You can't just look at concerns, because they overlap; treatments do too. You need to look at the pair of concerns and treatments together. If you do that then (say) Egan's Cocoon is definitely SF.


Kidding aside, you're talking about different things when you're talking about marketing categories, reception history and movements, or academic/descriptive categories. (We are talking about the latter, I think. Here I was just pointing out - needlessly I might add ;) - that if you apply an academic/descriptive approach, you're going to piss off communities who invest genre terminology (social group stuff) with identity.

Genres can be marketing labels, or critical structures or tribal colours. I'm only interested in the second. I leave the first to marketers and the third to frothing fans. :snoopy:


Magical Realism, anyone?
Try to unravel that gordian knot. (And don't use a sword. ;) )

...sits as fantasy under my fantasy genre signature which (since I haven't posted it here before) is something like "psychological/moral/societal concerns explored through symbolic development and resolution". (It's a broad signature; individual fantasy sub-genres get more detailed signatures. I can even tuck in lumps of Kafka as fantasy from this signature)


Dune?

It's possible to deliver more than one story inside a novel. It's even possible to tell more than one story concurrently in the same chapter. I think of Dune as being a SF arc binding a set of fantasy stories. By contrast, I think of Star Wars and most Space Operas as being pure fantasy.

The whole Pern corpus would almost classify as fantasy novels inside a SF arc, except that McCaffrey never actually tells the SF arc in the text - she does it with end-notes instead.

Dawnstorm
01-08-2008, 07:11 PM
I liked the comments in your reply. I don't agree with all of them, but all of them are thoughtful and thought-provoking. In the final analysis I don't care which view is right (or demonstrable): genre-via-setting or the way I've proposed; I'm far more interested in getting good genre stories out and (if I can), helping other writers to do the same

Pretty much the same, here. Although might strike "genre" from "getting good 'genre' stories out". I do have a slight preference for SF, but that's really not a coherent statement in any form.


Having said that, I'll happily argue for the viewpoint I've put forward until I can see a better one. Hopefully, the discussion will produce more insight.

Good, because I enjoy thinking about genre, and this thread is stimulating.


But the reverse is not true. Even coupled with capable writing, an inventive fantasy setting does not make good fantasy. I believe that we're choking on mediocre fantasy with inventive settings. Likewise there's a tonne of mediocre horror with inventive monsters. There's plenty of twisty mystery/suspense stories that fail to grip, and plenty of trashy romance has inventive situations and pure cliche'd relationships.

But genre is not a value judgment. How can I tell bad/derivative genre literature from good/fresh genre literature, if I can't compare them on the turf of genre.


Using these elements as signature, I concluded, is simply too coarse. And it's because the classics of the genre and the poor knock-offs that follow them both meet these individual genre criteria. Formulaic writers run these criteria to death. I tire of reading it, and I think that the market does too. I certainly don't want to write that way.

No design formula will ever produce good writing, but some frameworks (I believe) can produce good mental discipline, and help us avoid writing too much dross. What I value most in a fiction design framework is the questions it triggers. A good genre signature framework should help writers direct and focus their questions toward the soul of the genre, not simply the superficialities of the genre.

I do think I see where you come from now. Here's my take on the situation:

A formulaic writer, if clever enough, will be able to abuse your framework for a formula. Instead of re-inforcing any idea of "good genre", I'd de-emphasise the idea of genre. I'm rather sympathetic to the strain that expresses itself in SF as New Wave/New Weird/Now What? (To the more playful strands, at least.)

In fantasy, I keep hearing about the prominence of Tolkien. But personally I think Moorcock has infused the genre with much more vigor. More as an editor than as a writer.

In praxis, I much prefer such loose and playful approaches to genre than the re-defining methods. I'm thinking of Bruce Sterling's term Slipstream (http://www.lib.ru/STERLINGB/catscan05.txt), as an example. (But issues are not that clear cut in praxis; the New Weird appeared to be more openly into genre politics than say the New Wave.)


I believe that the soul resides in the core concerns of the genre, and the way the reader appreciates those concerns in the story. There's good stuff at the edges too of course, and good hybrid stuff beyond... but there is (or I think there is) something common about the genre classics that cleaves a genre unto them. They're not all disparate accidents. They touch us in a common place, in common ways.

I do think I understand what you mean, here. If I may use a metaphor:

Your signature sounds a lot like a gravity centre. I guess I'm afraid that if you start with a sun you end with a black hole.



I think it's precise enough already to separate Lawrence from Le Guin, say. :)

Lawrence is a sentimentalist. His through-lines develop and resolve through sentimentality. You can add Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens to the same camp -- they sometimes explored the new technology/people interface too. Kipling explored frontiers, but again, did it sentimentally. I don't think I've read Elliot's Middlemarch in its entirety, so I won't hazard a comment there.

I probably agree about Lawrence (certainly Dickens; have read to little Hardy, but he's on my list).

Eliot, I feel, stands out. She's got a standard omniscient narrator, and keeps talking about her characters in affectionate terms, but this makes her sound a lot like an anthropologist. The doctor's story (Lydgate, I think, but it's been some time since I read it, so I might confuse the names) is a story that pits modern medical advances from London against the social prejudices of Middlemarch; the first patients he gets because some of the inhabitants don't like the old doctor. Eliot doesn't go into the science much, but it's a nice, ironically distant analysis of how improved methods don't matter one bit in Middlemarch.

I don't doubt your concept is precise enough; but your representation of it isn't. If I look at the SF I've read, I'm not sure what to make of "rational representation". What you've said below about Pern helps me understand a bit, but it also throws me back to setting/plot. If you're not describing the how, your "rational representation" is vague; if you do describe it, it's too restrictive. What I'm looking for is the balance.


But contrast these 19th century authors above with the likes of Wells or Verne. Their stories unfold like logic proofs: A therefore B therefore C. Unexpectedly, E - but that's because of D, and combined with C gives us F.

See, this is what I don't quite see yet. Also, intuitively I'd say it puts me at disadvantage looking at Japanese SF, who do not share western Greek culture roots to the extent that we do. If my approach presents you with an ontological nightmare, yours presents me with a hermeneutic one.

See where I fail to log on?


One reason I'm very dissatisfied with the "setting" based definitions of SF (and similarly, fantasy) is just how easily you can pervert them. We already live in a world where truth is empirical and mutable. We don't know what's true in our world. We only know what we can demonstrate. So if I write about human clones today, and in 20 years they exist, does my writing cease to be SF? And when you try to distinguish 'science' from 'magic', it just becomes an ontological mess. Here's an illustration as to why:

This may explain why lately SF seems to bleed over into different markets including mainstream more and more. I also think that the genre publications are becoming more and more genre conscious (In two anthologies I've bought recently I noticed three metafictional stories, clearly riffing off of classics. I'm not talking about subtle echoes. I'm talking about stories like "I, Row Boat" by Doctrow, or a story where the main character is a parody of Phillip K Dick the man, and SF writing is metafictional plot element . I can't recall the third.) I don't actually trust myself on this trend; I'm out of the short story market (I'm Austrian and imports have become very hard to get in recent years) and I may misremember the meta-fiction ratio.

Your response seems to be: safe it by giving writers a cause. Mine seems to be, well, pity, but time to let it go. I will find the same stuff elsewhere.


[B]Q: If you write a story set in the 20th century from the perspective of a cave man is it SF or Fantasy?
A: a) It's neither because the setting is reality, and cave-men are historical
b) It SF because the setting is science-based
c) It's fantasy because to the cave man 20th century technology is "science sufficiently advanced" as to be indistinguishable from magic
d) It's both
e) It depends on how the cave man got to be in the 20th century
f) It depends on the story concerns, and how you reveal them

My personal answer is f).

I might pick f), too, as soon as I figure out the framework to interprete the question. But I'd also point out that you're asking this question about a caveman in the 20th Century. The question is fine-tuning; the setting-modification precedes it. The further down the tree you step, the fuzzier the distinction lines.


If SF is only about the setting, then surely you can write any good story in a good SF setting and get a good SF story. So take a classic like Emma say, and transplant it into Niven's Ringworld with minimal changes, then by your definition it becomes SF. Since Emma is a classic, and Ringworld is a classic SF setting - and there's no reason that a middle class girl couldn't live there, it should make classic SF, right? Ringworld won a Hugo and a Nebula. Could Emma's Ring (©, Ruv MMVIII) do the same?

If you don't believe that (and I sure don't) then why not?

That's actually a very intriguing concept. You make want to try that. (I won't; I don't love Austen enough, and I've only ever read one short story by Niven, which wasn't Ringworld.)

You see, if the setting change is well worked out, the term "minimal changes" becomes problematic. Setting labours on all levels, which is not the same as saying that a SF author has to pay attention to all levels (which is my caveat about your Pern comments; they're valid but not compelling to me). But if you're playing the transpositioning game, you're basically exploring romance in an alien setting. The transposition itself re-contextualises. My intuition is that - if well done - minimal changes have a maximal effect.



Well, for one thing, the Ringworld setting won't get much use.

No? You mean the setting won't impact things such as dialogue? You think romance transposes so easily? The setting is omnipresent. If it isn't, you didn't utilise the setting. [Since the story exists in another setting already, the transposition topicalises the changes, so that I'm less willing to forgive oversights.]


For another, any mention of it will probably detract from what Emma is really about (a comedy of manners to do with youth, romance and English propriety).

Really? I'd argue it will abandon Victorian England. Ringworld has no "manners" (in the literary term)?


For a third, the subtle social satire is probably going to be lost.

Check. (Unless you're going the metafictional-convolutions path, but that's messing with yet another genre...)


And lastly, doesn't Science Fiction really mean "Fiction about Science"? Not simply "Science in Fiction?"

It might also mean "Fiction through science" or "fictive science". See, to transpose Emma to Ringworld you'd need methodologies not unlike those you find in sociology. (People may argue about the scientificness of the social sciences, I agree.)

Stylistically, you're fronting the setting. (Reception would be different, depending on whether you know Emma or not.)


And post-lastly, even if the plagiarism weren't noticed, I can imagine a bunch of SF readers who'd be seriously teed off :rant: and some SFWA members who'd be in hysterics. :roll:

But it's not plagiarism. What about Brian Aldiss' Frankenstein Unbound, Dr Moreau's Other Island etc.? Or the current Rhett (I think this includes retelling of at least parts of Gone with the Wind.)

Plagiarism is taking Emma and crossing out the author's name.




These are all natural, logical consequences of the Pern setting. They're also carefully avoided for what is essentially a sentimental/symbolic aesthetic. (But that's just what [I]fantasy stories do.)

This distinction reminds me a lot of the literary distinction between novel & romance (not the kissy genre; the term Wells had in mind when he talked about his "scientific romances"). Am I on the right track (at least when distinguishing between SF & F)?


And you might lose Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut maybe... and open the door to the "SF is not literature" silliness. :tongue

Well, I could claim Orwell for Newspeak, and Huxley for genetics. (But I do realise that I confront you with an ontological nightmare, doing this. Hehe) I don't recall anything of that kind in Fahrenheit. The book seemed to me - dare I say it? - rather sentimental.


I haven't read it and can't comment. On the other hand, 2007 Nobel Lit Laureate Doris Lessing is proud to have written several SF books. :)

Yup, and sometimes she focusses on the setting at the expanse of character. Something she hasn't done in, say, The Golden Notebook. (I read two or three of her Canopus books, and one of the Dann books. I'm currently eyeing The Cleft. And won't worry about the SF/F distinction if I get around to reading it. ;) )


As per an earlier post, I think it's the intersection of concerns and treatments that defines genre. You can't just look at concerns, because they overlap; treatments do too. You need to look at the pair of concerns and treatments together. If you do that then (say) Egan's Cocoon is definitely SF.

I realise that. I still maintain that if I write a novel about cancer-research (well-researched) and present it rationally, it wouldn't be science fiction, although it might appeal to the same demographic. I do realise how dodgy this is: the character finds a cure near the end --> SF; the character doesn't --> not SF. It's not especially satisfying. But I need to do this, as your signature approach presents me with - so far - insurmountable hermeneutic problems.


Genres can be marketing labels, or critical structures or tribal colours. I'm only interested in the second. I leave the first to marketers and the third to frothing fans. :snoopy:

But when you're talking about the state of genre and being tired of reading derivative stuff you're overstepping the genre.



It's possible to deliver more than one story inside a novel. It's even possible to tell more than one story concurrently in the same chapter. I think of Dune as being a SF arc binding a set of fantasy stories. By contrast, I think of Star Wars and most Space Operas as being pure fantasy.

But to me SF doesn't even require story. Focussing on setting allows me to draw comparisons between novels and documentaries such as The Future is Wild (Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_future_is_wild), official page (http://www.thefutureiswild.com/)).

I don't have the time to go into Star Wars no. The heading would be "Why I don't buy the Midi-somethings".


The whole Pern corpus would almost classify as fantasy novels inside a SF arc, except that McCaffrey never actually tells the SF arc in the text - she does it with end-notes instead.

I can live with that. ;)

Out of time. See ya.

Ruv Draba
01-09-2008, 04:12 PM
I'm afraid that the responses might get somewhat bitsy, Dawnstorm. Apologies in advance if I lose the thread.


genre is not a value judgment. How can I tell bad/derivative genre literature from good/fresh genre literature, if I can't compare them on the turf of genre.

You can and should compare a genre work to its genre context. A genre signature is a short-cut to help you do that. It's not an alternative to good genre knowledge, but a way to quickly bring that knowledge to bear.

For example, my horror genre signature makes a list of key things that I think all our horror classics have (or at least the ones I've read and can remember). Namely:

A through-line in which the familiar or the trusted is perverted, inverted or exaggerated to the point of menace and/or revulsion
A through-line in which someone is either seduced or engulfed by danger (i.e. they don't seek the danger)
A through-line in which someone is helpless and dependent
A through-line driven by suspense, with a growing sense of doom
Vivid imagery and stark contrasts
Unpredictability in some or all of the through-lines aboveVery often, formulaic and derivative approaches to horror go for cliché in 1, skip 2 and 3, manipulate 4 through linguistic tricks instead of character arcs, overload 5, and thereby damage 6. If you know that a horror story isn't scary, my horror signature may help you work out why it isn't. (And on the other hand, if a story is scary but doesn't match this signature, then maybe the signature needs an update).


A formulaic writer, if clever enough, will be able to abuse your framework for a formula.
My issue isn't whether a writer is using a formula to write - why should I care? It's whether the writer is using a bad formula to write.

Recall that my signature is made up of two things: a domain of concern, and a way of treating it.

Our means for critiquing each part are different. When we critique concern we can ask: is this a new concern, or is it a new perspective on an existing concern? We can also ask questions like: is this a concern that interests us? Why or why not?

When we critique treatment we can ask: are all of the signature elements there that we expected? Do they work together or do they compete? Does this particular assemblage address the original concern and satisfy our reasons for being concerned?

Once a work has been subjected to that sort of critique (plus the usual syntactic stuff) I think you've critted it pretty darn thoroughly.


Instead of re-inforcing any idea of "good genre", I'd de-emphasise the idea of genre.
That's a valid choice for writing, but it dodges any sense of discipline when you're critting genre works.

I'm rather sympathetic to the strain that expresses itself in SF as New Wave/New Weird/Now What? (To the more playful strands, at least.)
I'm a fan of China Miéville's myself - exactly because of the playfulness you mention. But his fiction reads best (I feel) if you imagine Miéville reading it to you. He's teasing you. You know he wants to tease you, and if you're a genre-geek, you may well enjoy the teasing. (Miéville's exactly the kind of fellow who'd enjoy taking one of my signatures, twisting the hell out of it and handing it back.)

But exactly for that reason if you had to pick a domain of concern for his fiction you might quite understandably pick something like "the reader's attitude to genre". (As you mention later, it is very genre-political). It doesn't compare to F/SF "classic" genre works on criteria of either setting or plot, and in my opinion it doesn't compare on domain of concern either. I class it in a separate genre, just as you can class dadaist or surrealist literatures as their own genres.


In fantasy, I keep hearing about the prominence of Tolkien.Speaking of Miéville, I read a quote attributed to him in which Tolkien was called "a wen on the arse of fantasy literature". I can't help but enjoy such a statement.

I wouldn't go that far, but I find Tolkien's fantasy screamingly sentimental (as indeed is the fantasy of his buddy CS Lewis). There are many successors who were able to bring smarts as well as feeling to fantasy - among which I'd have to include Moorcock, Vance, Zelazny, Wolfe and Le Guin. (And there are plenty of romantacists who are trying to drag fantasy back to sheer sentimentality again - but I'll rant on that another day.)


Your signature sounds a lot like a gravity centre.
In the Newtonian sense that the impact of a body acts through its centre of mass... my use of signature is meant to capture the "centre of mass" through which genre classics impact us. You can then use that as a frame of reference to help understand and interpret the impact of other things that either look (or purport to look or try to look) like a genre classic.

But don't blame my signature that writing clusters around notional centres of mass. I didn't cause that, and I neither advocate it nor lament it; I'm merely observing that it does.


I don't doubt your concept is precise enough; but your representation of it isn't. If I look at the SF I've read, I'm not sure what to make of "rational representation". Culturally we have absorbed certain principles of rationality, including these:

We can understand complex things by dividing them into parts
Things tend to behave the same way unless their circumstances change
Cause and effect are consistent
Over a long enough time, an object's behaviour will reveal its nature
Form follows function
Occam's razor improves understanding
What I perceive, can also be perceived by others
The act of considering something does not change it
Left untended, things gradually get worse
Unchecked, life is selfish
Everything has a rational explanationThese sorts of principles are used in science (and math, engineering and philosophy). They also deeply underpin SF and mystery/suspense stories. Very few stories in these genres break any of these principles -- and if they do, it beomes a mystery to be puzzled and explained away.

However, in romance, fantasy and horror genres, these principles are either reversed, replaced or perverted (not all of them or all the time, but every romance, fantasy or horror story I can think of messes with at least some of these principles).

Pern breaks or ignores several of these principles, and never acknowledges this fact, or explains why.


I'd say it puts me at disadvantage looking at Japanese SF, who do not share western Greek culture roots to the extent that we do.
Genre is a cultural term. There's no reason that it must apply to literature from outside a culture.

That said, every culture seems to have fantasy. But not every culture has SF, romance or suspense as we understand such things.

If my approach presents you with an ontological nightmare, yours presents me with a hermeneutic one.
I probably didn't create that - at least, not from the context of lit outside our broad cultural confines. :) If we can't fully appreciate foreign lit from our own cultural context, then there's no reason to imagine that genre categorisations should be any easier.

See where I fail to log on?
Yes, but I decline to take responsibility for being unable to classify Manga according to Western genres. :D

Reads and notes your comments on markets, but declines to reply cos individual actions need not make any sense in an economy, and therefore collective actions won't always either.


This distinction reminds me a lot of the literary distinction between novel & romance (not the kissy genre; the term Wells had in mind when he talked about his "scientific romances"). Am I on the right track (at least when distinguishing between SF & F)?
If you're thinking about different concerns and different treatments (and if Wells was), then we might be on the same page here.


I don't recall anything of that kind in Fahrenheit. The book seemed to me - dare I say it? - rather sentimental.
Ha! Agreed! I'd forgotten that! On the one hand, it's obsessed with technological detail. On the other hand, it uses none of that detail to drive through its major thematic points. (And as an experiment, replace the Firemen with orcs, and the books with scrolls, and see how easily it becomes an epic fantasy tale.)


I still maintain that if I write a novel about cancer-research (well-researched) and present it rationally, it wouldn't be science fiction, although it might appeal to the same demographic.
Well, it could be a technothriller too - or one of those John Grisham legal suspense novels.

It's getting late, so I'll have a think on that and get back to you.

Dawnstorm
01-09-2008, 08:05 PM
I'm afraid that the responses might get somewhat bitsy, Dawnstorm. Apologies in advance if I lose the thread.

No, no. That's what I hoped for. It helps me understand better. :)


You can and should compare a genre work to its genre context. A genre signature is a short-cut to help you do that. It's not an alternative to good genre knowledge, but a way to quickly bring that knowledge to bear.

For example, my horror genre signature makes a list of key things that I think all our horror classics have (or at least the ones I've read and can remember). Namely:
A through-line in which the familiar or the trusted is perverted, inverted or exaggerated to the point of menace and/or revulsion
A through-line in which someone is either seduced or engulfed by danger (i.e. they don't seek the danger)
A through-line in which someone is helpless and dependent
A through-line driven by suspense, with a growing sense of doom
Vivid imagery and stark contrasts
Unpredictability in some or all of the through-lines aboveVery often, formulaic and derivative approaches to horror go for cliché in 1, skip 2 and 3, manipulate 4 through linguistic tricks instead of character arcs, overload 5, and thereby damage 6. If you know that a horror story isn't scary, my horror signature may help you work out why it isn't. (And on the other hand, if a story is scary but doesn't match this signature, then maybe the signature needs an update).

This makes sense, mostly. A clarification story question (behold a strange typo):

How do we frame this claim: "A horror story is scary." Above it seems to function as a corrective to the formulated signature. Does the sentence fall under concern? Execution? Is it an extra-thereotical assumption, taken for granted?

The problem I'm having right now is that I can't see myself taking the same approach to determine whether a story belongs to a story genre, and then also to determine whether it works within a genre.

On the other hand, I could compare various fits. So, if people market Star Wars as SF, but it doesn't measure up to what you expect from SF, the observation that Star Wars measures up better to what you expect from fantasy may save your viewing pleasure.

I do think I start to understand, now. Am I getting close?


Recall that my signature is made up of two things: a domain of concern, and a way of treating it.

Our means for critiquing each part are different. When we critique concern we can ask: is this a new concern, or is it a new perspective on an existing concern? We can also ask questions like: is this a concern that interests us? Why or why not?

When we critique treatment we can ask: are all of the signature elements there that we expected? Do they work together or do they compete? Does this particular assemblage address the original concern and satisfy our reasons for being concerned?

Once a work has been subjected to that sort of critique (plus the usual syntactic stuff) I think you've critted it pretty darn thoroughly.

I still think we'd need to address how we determine whether a genre signature is relevant in the first place. Does the gnere label on the cover change the way we read the text?

I remember Samuel Delany talking in an interview (in the 70ies or 80ies; I wish I still had the reference, but that's buried in a library far away from where I'm now) about how to classify Kafka's Metamorphosis. He pretty much demonstrated two different readings of the same text, one of which resulted in fantasy, the other in science fiction. The difference resided in the questions you brought to the text, not in the text itself.

So, I guess what I'm ultimately wondering is: Is there a text-independent component to deciding what genre a given text is?


That's a valid choice for writing, but it dodges any sense of discipline when you're critting genre works.

Fair enough.


I'm a fan of China Miéville's myself - exactly because of the playfulness you mention. But his fiction reads best (I feel) if you imagine Miéville reading it to you. He's teasing you. You know he wants to tease you, and if you're a genre-geek, you may well enjoy the teasing. (Miéville's exactly the kind of fellow who'd enjoy taking one of my signatures, twisting the hell out of it and handing it back.)

But exactly for that reason if you had to pick a domain of concern for his fiction you might quite understandably pick something like "the reader's attitude to genre". (As you mention later, it is very genre-political). It doesn't compare to F/SF "classic" genre works on criteria of either setting or plot, and in my opinion it doesn't compare on domain of concern either. I class it in a separate genre, just as you can class dadaist or surrealist literatures as their own genres.

I'll have to think that through; I'm getting dizzy here. I'm now reminded of Brecht's "epic theatre", but instead of sensory deprevation, there's sensory overload. Instead of getting rid of ornament, it's showing them off. I'm also wondering whether there isn't an underlying concern of "unrooting ideology"? Is it a coincidence that these sort of meta-genre theory goes hand in hand with socialist ciriticism?


Speaking of Miéville, I read a quote attributed to him in which Tolkien was called "a wen on the arse of fantasy literature". I can't help but enjoy such a statement.

I wouldn't go that far, but I find Tolkien's fantasy screamingly sentimental (as indeed is the fantasy of his buddy CS Lewis). There are many successors who were able to bring smarts as well as feeling to fantasy - among which I'd have to include Moorcock, Vance, Zelazny, Wolfe and Le Guin. (And there are plenty of romantacists who are trying to drag fantasy back to sheer sentimentality again - but I'll rant on that another day.)

Hehe.


But don't blame my signature that writing clusters around notional centres of mass. I didn't cause that, and I neither advocate it nor lament it; I'm merely observing that it does.

What I'm wondering is how much "genre", viewed like that, is basically a set of self-fulfilling prophecy. You get what you expect, and if you don't get it, it could have been better.


Culturally we have absorbed certain principles of rationality, including these:

[snip]

These sorts of principles are used in science (and math, engineering and philosophy). They also deeply underpin SF and mystery/suspense stories. Very few stories in these genres break any of these principles -- and if they do, it beomes a mystery to be puzzled and explained away.

This last sentence pretty much addresses Lem, or Lafferty, I feel. (Notice how I'm beginning to think more than type? Good for me, but for the thread? ;) )


However, in romance, fantasy and horror genres, these principles are either reversed, replaced or perverted (not all of them or all the time, but every romance, fantasy or horror story I can think of messes with at least some of these principles).

Pern breaks or ignores several of these principles, and never acknowledges this fact, or explains why.

From memory, I'd argue for the "ignore" part (but it's been years since I read them), which may be where we differ. You seem to take absence of rationality as an argument against SF, whereas I'd take presence of rationality as an argument for SF. (I'm notorious for letting unmarked stuff stand without a default.)


Genre is a cultural term. There's no reason that it must apply to literature from outside a culture.

That said, every culture seems to have fantasy. But not every culture has SF, romance or suspense as we understand such things.

I probably didn't create that - at least, not from the context of lit outside our broad cultural confines. :) If we can't fully appreciate foreign lit from our own cultural context, then there's no reason to imagine that genre categorisations should be any easier.

And yet a setting-approach (or a trope-approach, or a plot-approach) may help with discussing cultural differences within a genre framework.


Yes, but I decline to take responsibility for being unable to classify Manga according to Western genres. :D

Tsk. Dodging responsibility. Those wily genre theorists. ;)


If you're thinking about different concerns and different treatments (and if Wells was), then we might be on the same page here.

Well, the traditional notion is that the "novel" is a rational enquire into the "here and now", whereas the romance is a fanciful venture into the "wherever, but not here". It may be very British distinction. For Wells it must have been an oxymoron: science would have looked incompatible with "romance".


Ha! Agreed! I'd forgotten that! On the one hand, it's obsessed with technological detail. On the other hand, it uses none of that detail to drive through its major thematic points. (And as an experiment, replace the Firemen with orcs, and the books with scrolls, and see how easily it becomes an epic fantasy tale.)

I think I may have been expressing myself in your terms concerning Fahrenheit without noticing. You're creeping in sideways.

Ruv Draba
01-10-2008, 01:49 AM
How do we frame this claim: "A horror story is scary." Above it seems to function as a corrective to the formulated signature. Does the sentence fall under concern? Execution? Is it an extra-thereotical assumption, taken for granted?

The problem I'm having right now is that I can't see myself taking the same approach to determine whether a story belongs to a story, and then also to determine whether it works within a genre.

Ah, let me fill in a critical bit of the reasoning which I keep overlooking.

I'm asserting that over time, a culture's concerns tend to cluster, and writers find tight, effective, synergistic aesthetics and methods for dealing with each cluster of concerns. Initially, a "genre" is just visible in the concern itself - which you can find salted in tropes of setting, plot, character. But over time, as treatment methods shake out, a genre gets characteristic treatments too -- these are especially visible in the commonality in its classics.

Those treatments aren't accidental or arbitrary. They're a reflection on how our culture thinks and reasons about particular concerns. If we're writing in an area of established concern, we ignore these lessons learned at our own risk.

Epistemologically, I don't care what genre a piece of literature "is". That's arbitrary; we can classify lit however we like.

But practically I need to know how best to crit it - especially, how to enhance its impact, crystallise its message, deliver the strongest, most focused punch I can for the idea. The knowledge-base for that is grounded in our cultural experience of how other authors have dealt with similar concerns - and what's had the greatest impact.

And (I assert) some of that knowledge can be condensed into genre signatures that help you recognise that a piece isn't simply writing about a genre concern - it's doing so using genre methods -- and then help give you some advice on how to improve it.

Example:

As I recall it, Bradbury's Farenheit 451 offers a passionate and largely symbolic argument for the importance of literature. Book-stores everywhere park it on SF shelves, and they're welcome to do that; I don't care. (I normally buy books by author, not genre labels anyway.)

But if you were in Bradbury's crit group when he subbed this novel, and you had some genre signatures handy, it might help you make the following sorts of comments (mild spoiler warning):



Ruv's retrospective advice to Bradbury on Farenheit 451 (pls remind me to invoice him for it!)
Ray, it feels like you're straddling two horses here, and they're pulling in different directions. On the one hand, this story starts off as rational social commentary: what would society be like if we didn't have books? It looks like it sets out to make the case that fictional literature has more perceptual power than (say) the oral tradition found in TV and cinema, and that without this power, society risks losing something critical. So far so good.

But it never really makes that case. Your MC starts off believing that novels are evil - so presumably he already accepts the premise that they're powerful (powerless things don't scare us). Moreover, he flips attitude on books on whim and by the time he finds a subculture who agrees with him, they look like a bunch of escapist sentimentalists - they have no economic or social impact at all. Your story starts rationally and ends sentimentally - without ever justifying why it does that. I think your through-lines are breaking in some places, and your themes are falling over.

If you want to make the rational case, I think you may need to do one of two things: 1) either show society in melt-down for lack of literature and make your MC a pig-ignorant champion of society's destruction. Make it a tragedy. Write a 1984 or a Brave New World, Bradbury-style; or 2) Show how having learned to appreciate literature, the MC develops perceptions not available to society, and can use those to solve social problems. Make him a visionary hero; a revolutionary. Show him being effective with what he knows.

Or if you don't want to make the rational case but just the sentimental or symbolic case, why not tell this as a fairy tale? Make the books come alive. Have them speak of their passions and dreams for us. Make them become our mentors and guides physically as well as figuratively. Show them honouring the great labours it took to create them. Make them quirky, interesting, playful. Show just how much care and insight is killed whenever a book is burned, and show just how much ignorant brutality this requires. Make us want to make friends with these wonderful creatures, to defend and protect and cherish them. You almost, almost did this at the end of your novel - but you presented your "living books" as passive, introverted, rote-driven pedants, not thinkers, visionaries and advocates. In the final analysis, you failed to show why they had any social value.
(Disclaimer: In fairness to Ray, Farenheit 451 first appeared in 1951. It would have been very hard to work out SF/Fantasy signatures back then - they were still being pioneered! Hindsight makes sages of us all.)

The problem I'm having right now is that I can't see myself taking the same approach to determine whether a story belongs to a [genre], and then also to determine whether it works within a genre.
Sometimes writers see themselves as entertainers. For them, genre may be a target: "I want to write good space opera; I'm just not sure how to do it". For such writers a genre signature helps you design something space-operatic and gives you a frame for critiquing whether it's a good example of the genre, and how it might become a more effective example.

Sometimes writers seem themselves as architects of thought. When they write genre it's because the genre offers them a convenient toolkit for developing and exposing an idea. For them, a genre signature lets them quickly determine if a particular genre is the right vehicle. It also helps them play with the edges of genre - adding or subtracting elements, or applying them in new ways to produce something different.

Sometimes writers see themselves as adventurers. They let their imagination and sense of fun drive the story along, and then may have to come back and refocus it. For such writers, it might be handy to have some genre signatures to compare to. "Oh wow - this is almost a detective story! If I just added this, and shifted that, I could sell it to a mystery market."

I'm not advocating that signatures should be used in a particular way. All I'm advocating is that if you're flirting with genre for any reason, you should know what the classics of the genre have in common. A "signature" (once it's perfected) is meant to just be a convenient distillation of that.


On the other hand, I could compare various fits. So, if people market Star Wars as SF, but it doesn't measure up to what you expect from SF, the observation that Star Wars measures up better to what you expect from fantasy may save your viewing pleasure.
I don't know that genre signatures have anything to offer readers who don't also aspire to write or critique. If you're browsing books on a shelf, you probably don't need to think about through-lines. Author, coupled with setting, plot and character are sufficient to peg whether you're likely to enjoy a work.

I still think we'd need to address how we determine whether a genre signature is relevant in the first place. Does the genre label on the cover change the way we read the text?Probably not, unless you're in a hurry in an airport bookstore. :tongue
Genre signatures are for writers and critics - not your average punter. My first reading of Farenheit 451 was in my teens. I picked it up from my High School library shelf because I recognised Bradbury's name from various F&SF anthologies. My High School arranged its shelves by author, but would put coloured stickers on the spines to indicate genre. F/SF got a yellow sticker.

We'd started to study novels in class, so I already knew that sometimes stories weren't just to entertain - they could also provoke, persuade or inform.

I recall being entranced by Bradbury's idea that firemen could burn books, but feeling vaguely cheated by the ending. It made me feel good - it's a moderately happy ending - but intellectually it bothered me: so what's the point?

A knowledge of through-lines and genre signatures wouldn't have helped me feel any better about that work as a reader: after all, I'd already spent the time to read it, hadn't I? And having been poked to think about the merit of novels, I could form my own view on that - as Bradbury probably wanted.

But as a writer I can now say: "Well, this is probably what Bradbury was trying to do here, and this is how he might have done it better."


I remember Samuel Delany talking in an interview (in the 70ies or 80ies; I wish I still had the reference, but that's buried in a library far away from where I'm now) about how to classify Kafka's Metamorphosis. He pretty much demonstrated two different readings of the same text, one of which resulted in fantasy, the other in science fiction. The difference resided in the questions you brought to the text, not in the text itself.
In my third year of high school, (SF geek that I was) I once took the position that Picnic at Hanging Rock is really a SF story -- it's just that the alien abduction which had obviously occurred in the plot, is never revealed. :D

I haven't read Delany's analysis of The Metamorphosis, but I know from personal experience that rational dissection of stories about emotions and relationships can produce some very bizarre but apparently self-consistent results.

Samsa's transformation to insect has a purely symbolic role in the story, and doesn't admit much rational investigation. To me, that screams "fantasy" - but that doesn't stop a rationalist from trying to make sense of it in SF terms.

What I'm wondering is how much "genre", viewed like that, is basically a set of self-fulfilling prophecy. You get what you expect, and if you don't get it, it could have been better.
This doesn't happen if you commit to being an advocate for the author and the work - not for the genre, the market or the particular critical tools you use.


a setting-approach (or a trope-approach, or a plot-approach) may help with discussing cultural differences within a genre framework.
I agree. That's where our appreciation of genres begins.


Well, the traditional notion is that the "novel" is a rational enquire into the "here and now", whereas the romance is a fanciful venture into the "wherever, but not here". It may be very British distinction.

It looks like one of those convenient modernistic simplifications to me. "There's reality, and then there's fluff." :)

Novels can inform, provoke, persuade and entertain, and that's been true since the 18th century at least. When you're informing, you need something like realism, naturalism or some clever metaphor to deliver your info. When you're provoking, you need cognitive dissonance (logical, symbolic, emotional) to bug your reader with. When you're persuading you need to build logical, symbolic or emotional tension against your point, then discharge it. And when you're entertaining, you need surprise. All of those techniques have been in novels for at least two centuries.

Since novels can do more than one thing, you're free to mix these techniques and balance them. For this reason, I think Wells' analysis is quite superficial - and maybe even outright wrong.

I think I may have been expressing myself in your terms concerning Fahrenheit without noticing. You're creeping in sideways.
i'm in ur base, killin ur d00dz.:hat:

Ruv Draba
01-10-2008, 05:07 AM
(Unrelenting, the dawg continues to worry at the half-buried bone)



I realise that. I still maintain that if I write a novel about cancer-research (well-researched) and present it rationally, it wouldn't be science fiction, although it might appeal to the same demographic. I do realise how dodgy this is: the character finds a cure near the end --> SF; the character doesn't --> not SF. It's not especially satisfying. But I need to do this, as your signature approach presents me with - so far - insurmountable hermeneutic problems.
Let's forget my signature as a recognition tool for a minute. Instead, let me try and design a cancer-research story as something that we'd both be happy to recognise as SF. Let me further do it without making it a futuristic setting. And let me use my SF signature as a tool to help focus and assist design - so that I don't stray into technothriller or "patent suspense" fiction (does such a thing exist?)

(What follows is just my own design process. It'll be riddled with assumptions and beliefs that I'm not going to defend here. Happy to discuss them elsewhere though.)

I want to write a SF story about cancer research. My signature tells me that I'll be concerned with the technology of cancer (e.g. how and why cancer occurs, and what we can do about it), but I also need to think about this from a people perspective. To reach my target audience, I need to think about why they'd care and how they presently appreciate the disease. Further, to get published in my target market (Dawnstorm's Bumper Biotechnology Biannual), I need to use a fairly contemporary setting.

Cancer as a scientific study: (I didn't research specifically for this exercise; it's just what I think I know about cancer. Source: random dimly-remembered readings). I've underlined key thoughts that might be useful for my story.

Cancers occur when cellular replication gets confused and cells mutate. Cancerous cells can replicate without bound, but lose their original function. Our bodies aren't terribly good at producing immunity to our own cells, so once cancers start it often requires external intervention to stop them.

Cancers are bad for us because they can interfere with the function of critical organs and systems. They do this by obstructing or pressing on organs, by depriving them of nutrients, and by creating lesions or other nasty effects that make us vulnerable to disease.

Cancers tend to occur more as we age, and that's partly because of increased exposure to mutagens - but it may also be due ageing effects themselves. Our cells get worse at replication as we age. Our organs and immuno-systems also get weaker, more vulnerable and less effective.

Cancers can actually take a long time to become dangerous to us - or even be detectable. The doubling time of breast cancer cells means that women can have breast cancer for 8-10 years before it's even detected. In prostate cancer, more men die with prostate cancer than from it because it appears so late in life and (in many cases) has a slow doubling time.

Environment plays a factor in cancer risk, and heredity does too. But even if you controlled both these things, I don't believe you would eradicate cancer in the same way that you can eradicate (say) polio.

Cancer from a people perspective: (Source: my personal perceptions as a social observer). Again, key thoughts underlined.

Cancer is scary to us because it's our own body being either incompetent or malicious. Unlike many diseases, it can appear spontaneously -- apparently without rhyme or reason. This makes us revert to mediaeval thinking that we've somehow done something immoral to deserve it.

When we suffer cancer, we sometimes like to imagine that it's for a purpose: to teach us to appreciate our lives more, or to live more cleanly, or think kinder thoughts.

Because cancers increase with age, they're also a symbol to us of our inevitable age and decrepitude. There are many tragic cases where young people suffer cancers but it's easy for our society to dismiss those as "congenital weakness" or signs of parental neglect. But when we think of cancer in ourselves, we think of it appearing in our declining years.

Because cancer operates against us from the inside, it's easy to think of it as a form of cellular terrorism. It looks just like terrorism looks: senseless, malicious, abrupt, pernicious and destructive.

This gives me a bunch of ideas for potential cancer stories. By picking ideas from each of the science and people elements and joining them, I might try and write about any of the following:

A "cure" for cancer that just protects critical organs, allowing the cancer to continue to grow unabated
A society that tries to eradicate cancer by controlling environment and heredity - but at what cost?
An inexpensive cure for cancer that is also (inadvertantly) a cure for ageing too
A clinical method of accelerating cancer doubling that inadvertantly becomes a terrorist weapon
A "proven" link between human immorality and cancer - but the proof is ambiguous
A religion or ideology that promotes inocculation with cancer to improve appreciation of lifeThese aren't stories - they're just story ideas. All of these have "science and people" elements as per my SF signature. All of them lend themselves immediately to SF treatment in a contemporaneous setting - you just need to work out how to tell it. (I can expand one as a further exercise if there's interest.) Only two of them (#3, #4) look to me like they might become a technothriller story - and I think you could write them either way. Focus on individual consumer/victim perspective and you'd get SF. Focus on social order and disruption and make a mystery of it and you'd get technothriller.

#6 could make a fine detective story, but you could write it as SF too. Again, it depends on whether you focus on the consumer/victim or social order/justice angle.

#1, #5, #6 could make good horror stories, if you emphasise the perversity of the idea -- and find a way to seduce/engulf a main character in the perversity so that it's helpless and out of control. But you'd be working the symbolic/emotional side of things more heavily than for a SF, technothriller or detective story.

What I think I've demonstrated here is that if you take an interesting science topic and join it (as per my signature) with a people angle - focusing particularly on the consumer/victim side... and then give it a rational treatment, you can get a quite decent SF story - maybe not a Nebula-winner, but workable. Not only that, but the amount of speculative invention required is tiny. You don't have to invent space-ships, ray-guns or new species to write good SF: just a simple coupling of ideas that are already in our world.

This article took me 30 mins to write. But if you know your domain reasonably well (i.e., you have reasonable casual readings about science, and make social observations as a background professional activity), you can do it on a notepad in five. Speaking personally, if I'd tried to think up a cancer story without a SF genre signature to help, I'd almost certainly have thought up either a weepy or a technothriller. (And even more likely, I wouldn't have tried in the first place.)

My conclusion: genre signatures help us write good genre by helping us focus on what works, and how best to reveal it.

Dawnstorm
01-10-2008, 04:28 PM
Ah, let me fill in a critical bit of the reasoning which I keep overlooking.

I'm asserting that over time, a culture's concerns tend to cluster, and writers find tight, effective, synergistic aesthetics and methods for dealing with each cluster of concerns. Initially, a "genre" is just visible in the concern itself - which you can find salted in tropes of setting, plot, character. But over time, as treatment methods shake out, a genre gets characteristic treatments too -- these are especially visible in the commonality in its classics.

Those treatments aren't accidental or arbitrary. They're a reflection on how our culture thinks and reasons about particular concerns.

What I take from this (correct me if I'm wrong):

1. Genre is culturally specific. You could colour-code a map for genre and ask why SF thrived in, say, America, Britain, and Eastern Europe, but not so much in, say, Italy (despite Leonardo DaVinci et al.).

2. Talking about a book in terms of genre, then, means locating in a social context, and viewing it as a response to a specific set of circumstance.

3. Talking about a book in terms of genre, is also talking about it in terms of a literary tradition. This is significant because the way literary production worked out in a socio-economic context is not inevitable. The tradition builds up expectation in writers, readers and critics alike. You're writing to a millieu; you can't start over - you and your audience are tainted by what has come before.

4. Rather than a genre-approach that's based on a formalism, the signature-approach assumes a shared context between story and criticism, writer and critic, such that, in the spirit of pragmaticism, we can rely on intuition to make the decision whether the story is at fault or the signature needs updating. That is because the concerns that inform the genre also inform your daily life. This would be why you can say:


If we're writing in an area of established concern, we ignore these lessons learned at our own risk.

Epistemologically, I don't care what genre a piece of literature "is". That's arbitrary; we can classify lit however we like.That's interesting because most of the literature about SF (I haven't read much about genre criticism as such) never gets beyond trying to establish what SF even is. (This may be because of a lack of distance: the genrefication isn't finished yet; but I'm not sure.)

This brings me back to an earlier post: if, epistemologically, you don't care what genre a piece of literature "is", than what did you mean by your claim that "Kew Gardens" (Woolf) is not genre?

Mind you, I like the approach. Both your critique of Fahrenheit and your cancer-story-improvisation are very interesting demonstrations of application. I don't have the time to go into that indepth (the cancer-post took you half an hour? Would have taken me one and a half. I'm slow.), so you'll have to make do with a couple of ad-hoc comments:

- What if I read Fahrenheit as a book about stigma, and our protagonist is a book-fetishist in denial? Is this incompatible with a genre approach?

- What if I use the cancer-research-process rather than cancer itself as the spring board? The real-life context that goes into hypothesis creation, statistic modelling etc. Correlating the ostentive objectivity of science with private-life events? This would certainly a concern of science and people, and you could well portray it quite rationally, never losing sight of the theme. Would such a story be plyable to the approach?


I'm not advocating that signatures should be used in a particular way. All I'm advocating is that if you're flirting with genre for any reason, you should know what the classics of the genre have in common. A "signature" (once it's perfected) is meant to just be a convenient distillation of that.Yup, it's a tool to be used.


I don't know that genre signatures have anything to offer readers who don't also aspire to write or critique. If you're browsing books on a shelf, you probably don't need to think about through-lines. Author, coupled with setting, plot and character are sufficient to peg whether you're likely to enjoy a work.It may point a reader to what they've missed and give them a better approach to the text. Criticism at university has occasionally helped me appreciate a book more. I may have gotten better at writing, too, but that's primarily a function of becoming a better reader. (Even if I crit a story online, I view it primarily as an exercise in learning to read. In other words, my staple approach is preserve what's on the page as much as possible. Which is - of course - rather vague.)


Probably not, unless you're in a hurry in an airport bookstore. :tongueI can't help thinking that expectations change how I approach the book in the first place. And genre contributes to expectations.

I remember a friend opening my eyes to Wallace & Grommit. I think what had happened was that - because of the clay - I associated these with some type of annoying five-minute-films I saw as a kid, and that element made the clay stuff prominent. I just found the animation ugly. I literally couldn't watch it. I still don't like the way it looks, but I learned to focus on expressivity. Now, the friend was studying - how to translate this (I'm Austrian, with German being my mother tongue) - to be a teacher and her subject was "art": painting, drawing, sculpting. But it's not a theoretical subject; it's practical. Kids get to paint, draw, sculpt in school, and she's been learning to hold this class. Well, she liked Wallace & Grommit.

So what happened was that I re-contextualised the animation with what I knew about her tastes. What a world of a difference it made. I can still bring myself to dislike Wallace & Grommit, because the things I disliked (basically the animation-style aesthetics) are still there, and I still don't like them.

Now this may just be a case of breaking prejudice, but I don't think so. I think different approaches can literally change what you perceive. Selective intention, interpretation.

It's from such a perspective that I look at genre. But that's rather hard to explain, and it doesn't make 100 % sense to me even as I type it.


In my third year of high school, (SF geek that I was) I once took the position that Picnic at Hanging Rock is really a SF story -- it's just that the alien abduction which had obviously occurred in the plot, is never revealed. :DIs that the one where a schoolgirl disappears? Peter Weir made a film of it?


I haven't read Delany's analysis of The Metamorphosis, but I know from personal experience that rational dissection of stories about emotions and relationships can produce some very bizarre but apparently self-consistent results.

Samsa's transformation to insect has a purely symbolic role in the story, and doesn't admit much rational investigation. To me, that screams "fantasy" - but that doesn't stop a rationalist from trying to make sense of it in SF terms.I don't remember much of it, and - considering that it was a pre-internet interview, I think - it wouldn't have been too elaborate (probably no more than a paragraph for two approaches).

I actually remember trying out both readings, and they did work. (Both readings, though, might have been besides the point according to the through-line model. I really wish I could remember it better.)


This doesn't happen if you commit to being an advocate for the author and the work - not for the genre, the market or the particular critical tools you use.Probably not.



It looks like one of those convenient modernistic simplifications to me. "There's reality, and then there's fluff." :)That's because I've always thought it was a simplification. Which probably means I never understood it properly. And what I did understand I simplified. ;)

Anyway, it's not a modernistic concept. I'm not sure how far back the distinction goes. But I do know that Sidney's Arcadia was referred to as a pastoral romance, and that was 1590.


Novels can inform, provoke, persuade and entertain, and that's been true since the 18th century at least. When you're informing, you need something like realism, naturalism or some clever metaphor to deliver your info. When you're provoking, you need cognitive dissonance (logical, symbolic, emotional) to bug your reader with. When you're persuading you need to build logical, symbolic or emotional tension against your point, then discharge it. And when you're entertaining, you need surprise. All of those techniques have been in novels for at least two centuries.

Since novels can do more than one thing, you're free to mix these techniques and balance them. For this reason, I think Wells' analysis is quite superficial - and maybe even outright wrong.I don't recall what Wells himself said about this. He wasn't a genre theorist. My guess is he just used a term that made sense to him. The "oxymoron" part was purely speculation on my part, and now that think on it, it's probably wrong. If you're writing about time-machines and invisible men, you're writing romances. Wells may not have reflected much on that. From Wells' point of view (the way terminology was used back then) it was probably not a remarkable term.

Anyway, as you can see, I'm not an expert on the way Brits used the terms outside of criticism in the early 1900s. Neither am I an expert on the difference between "novel" and "romance" in criticism. It's quite complex and contains a lot of marketing-stuff that includes biographies ("personal histories") and histories ("public histories") and "romances". The novel as the genre category that's pretty much taken over all longer prose didn't establish itself until the 18th century, I think. In the 19th Century, when Sir Walter Scott published Ivanhoe and called it a romance the distinction was clearly a literary one. It's not a novel; it's a romance.

It seems to me that taking for granted that there's a difference between Fantasy and SF has much in common with making a distinction between novels and romances. (SF:Fantasy = Novel:Romance; I doubt that anyone forced to make the analogy would reverse this. I don't doubt that plenty would resist making the analogy in the first place.)

In the end it comes down to "What is plausible?" So, whether you're arguing "really happened vs. ivented", or "realist vs. fanciful", or "rational vs. sentimental", I keep having the same, hard-to-articulate problem, and it's part hermeneutic and part epistemological. How do we establish the difference?

The current rationalist diversion tactics would probably "brain scans" (there! unravel the the meta-claims in that one. I'm dizzy now. :e2hammer:)

Ruv Draba
01-11-2008, 01:51 AM
What I take from this (correct me if I'm wrong):
1. Genre is culturally specific. You could colour-code a map for genre and ask why SF thrived in, say, America, Britain, and Eastern Europe, but not so much in, say, Italy (despite Leonardo DaVinci et al.).
Yes.

Concerns are likely to span cultures, because concerns probably arise from comparable social circumstances, basic human needs, and continuing change. Every culture I know of has tales of love and spooky tales, and tales of brave adventure under adverse circumstance, tales of people finding wonderous tools etc... we're concerned about similar things.

The treatments of those concerns can differ markedly though. For instance, many Japanese stories link technology with social order; Japanese stories also love taking fantastical departures with technology, and personifying it (which we only see in a few non-Japanese subgenres like Cyberpunk).

2. Talking about a book in terms of genre, then, means locating in a social context, and viewing it as a response to a specific set of circumstance.
Yes. I call these "concerns" -- they're more a response to recurrent circumstances than to a one-off event. We'll be concerned about love. We'll always tell stories about justice and social order. And while ever our technologies are changing, we're going to worry about that.

It's when we start finding common ways to tell tales about our concerns that I think genre appears.


3. Talking about a book in terms of genre, is also talking about it in terms of a literary tradition. This is significant because the way literary production worked out in a socio-economic context is not inevitable. The tradition builds up expectation in writers, readers and critics alike. You're writing to a millieu; you can't start over - you and your audience are tainted by what has come before.
Yes again, but it's a bit subtle.

JBI argued earlier that genre proceeds by copying. While that's true, it can also develop independently in many respects and still result in a quite coherent body of work.

For any culture I believe there are "sweet spots" of literary craft -- ways to break and tell a story that have near instant impact and recognition because of our common cultural context. That includes a language of symbols, but it also includes ways to handle through-lines, say, that suit the cultural values and expectations. Different concerns lend themselves to different treatments in a culture.

Authors can find these "sweet spots" independently because they reside in the values of the culture. Once they're proven, other authors will use them of course. So a literary tradition builds. But it's not an arbitrary tradition born of blindly imitating and random chance. It's actually a reflection of how the culture thinks, values and appreciates its concerns.

It's also true that literature changes its culture. But I don't believe that a culture changes overnight just so it can appreciate the literature it has. Iinstead I think that some stories become popular fairly quickly - sometimes for quite superficial reasons - then work a slower, more long-lasting change as people think about them more. I'd put stories like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Stoker's Dracula, HG Wells' The War of the Worlds, Orwell's 1984, Heller's Catch-22 in this category. They have instant appeal, but raise some profound questions for generations to ponder.


4. Rather than a genre-approach that's based on a formalism, the signature-approach assumes a shared context between story and criticism, writer and critic, such that, in the spirit of pragmaticism, we can rely on intuition to make the decision whether the story is at fault or the signature needs updating. That is because the concerns that inform the genre also inform your daily life.
Yes! Fiction is a communication from the culture to itself. As members of our culture we can all ask questions like: Does the concern of this story concern us as a culture? If it does concern us, is the story effective in exploring those concerns in a way that hooks into the way this culture thinks? If it's not, is that because it's offering a new and better way to think about the concern, or is it simply that the author doesn't understand how to treat these concerns effectively in this culture?

A signature is simply a pragmatic code that shows "proven sweet spots" for exploring a concern in a culture. We can use it in design or not, as we choose. And signature recognition is a simplified way of assessing likely cultural recognition that the concern is being explored in a way we'll understand.


That's interesting because most of the literature about SF (I haven't read much about genre criticism as such) never gets beyond trying to establish what SF even is. (This may be because of a lack of distance: the genrefication isn't finished yet; but I'm not sure.)
I don't know whether genrefication can "finish". It can innovate and consolidate. Concerns will evolve, and that evolution may create need for new treatments -- and open opportunities to discover them.

The "is/isn't" question doesn't really say much about genre, but it does say a lot about what "tribe" we think we belong to. :) People who love neither fantasy nor SF often see them as almost identical: "imaginative ramblings". People who love both frequently distinguish them according to the values they think these genres represent.


This brings me back to an earlier post: if, epistemologically, you don't care what genre a piece of literature "is", than what did you mean by your claim that "Kew Gardens" (Woolf) is not genre?
I meant that if a reader from our culture unfamiliar with Kew Gardens read it, they would very likely form the view that it was about anxiety, relationships and flowers, and nothing to do with science or science fiction. I made the pronouncement not to you, who've read it and therefore have your own views, but to others who may not. But I also made it in the blithe confidence that you wouldn't argue that it was SF. :tongue


What if I read Fahrenheit as a book about stigma, and our protagonist is a book-fetishist in denial? Is this incompatible with a genre approach?
A book can have deep personal relevance in addition to its cultural relevance. There might be a character or a situation, or an observation of such personal impact that it overshadows anything else we see in the book.

When that happens, we'll tend to view the book in very personal terms. We may forget that great lumps of our culture don't share those particular concerns. We may replace our cultural appreciation with personal appreciation. If we know we're doing that, we can try and shift our head and get perspective again.

But more broadly, our culture isn't unitary anyway. We have sub-cultures and counter-cultures and ratbags. The same thing can happen to groups that happen to individuals. They'll find some specific relevance to their factional concerns, and treat this as the primary concern of the story. I've seen people use Ursula K. Le Guin's The Disposessed as a political manifesto, for instance.

It's fine to do that, but it's also worthwhile to realise that across the culture as a whole, the perception may be different.

Back to SF: I hold that technology concerns are cultural concerns, and not simply a personal concern of mine, or a specific concern of any subculture I may belong to. So in putting together a SF signature, I have tried to faithfully represent the culture on this. Other members of the culture are welcome to disagree, of course. But the key to holding that discussion effectively is to first abandon any personal, subcultural or counter-cultural agendas we may hold. Cultures form because people can set aside their differences. To discuss matters at a cultural level, participants must do the same. (I mean this to apply to our hypothetical examples - this discussion itself is going fine, I think.)


What if I use the cancer-research-process rather than cancer itself as the spring board?
It might work, or it might not. I'd suggest that key to making a SF story of it is to work on the relevance of the process to people - especially from a consumer/victim story. So here's a quick attempt to break it down (without doing any additional research).



Process:
Cancer research takes a long time. There's theory and synthesis and laboratory testing and animal trials and clinical trials and eventually some treatment may come to the market. Even then, it's monitored.

Like a lot of medical research, cancer research works with populations and stats, rather than focusing on an individual and his condition. That can make it seem immensely inhuman to a desperate sufferer -- you're just a number. Researchers want the process to succeed -- they're not so concerned about how it goes for you.

Like many aggressive medical treatments, cancer treatments often have adverse effects. In other words: treatments sometimes make people worse, not better. On a statistical basis, the over-all population benefits, but some individuals are better off not having some treatments.

There are codes of ethics associated with medical research. Especially, a critical code is that of informed consent. You need to know and agree that you're part of an experiment. You need to be informed of what the adverse effects and risks might be. That said, human trials often use a double-blind mechanism whereby some participants are not given the treatment, and don't know that they're not given it. (I have a dim recollection that SF writer Greg Egan wrote a short on this)

People:
We have conflicting wants with medical research. We want it to be on the market quickly, and we want it to be absolutely safe.

The more desperate we are for relief and cures the more willing we are to take risks with our health. But we're often not capable of knowing if we're getting any better - especially if our condition is already deteriorating. Are we deteriorating slower or faster? We can't tell.

On a people side, placebo effects can be very powerful - especially with respect to our perception of symptoms, and our engagement to fighting disease. There's some research to show that antiplacebo effects can be powerful too.

Researchers are often desperate to see conclusive results. A commitment on a single avenue of research is fundamentally an act of faith - faith that it will yield good results, and that it will do so before some other approach solves the problem. Since research can take years of a scientist's life and cost millions of dollars, it's a matter of collective faith, not just individual faith.

Picking pairs from the technology and people perspectives again, this suggests the following sorts of ideas:

A researcher's clinical cancer trials are producing brilliant results - but only when he prays
A husband and wife who both suffer cancer take part in a double-blind human trial (I'm fairly sure that I've read one where twins with a heinous disease were put in the same position) - but who has the placebo?
A researcher with a strong line on a cancer cure can't get funding - and so decides on his own clinical trials
A researcher discovers that a company is using an antiplacebo effect to exaggerate trial results#1 and #2 look made for SF. #3, #4 could be mystery, technothriller or perhaps SF with some effort.

In general, SF tends to prefer stories about tools and products rather than methods. Methods tend to lead us into the police/medical procedurals, mystery and detective stories. But still, it dug up a couple of decent SF ideas.


It may point a reader to what they've missed and give them a better approach to the text. Criticism at university has occasionally helped me appreciate a book more. I may have gotten better at writing, too, but that's primarily a function of becoming a better reader.
Heck yes! If you understand why stories work and don't, you write better. Reading is way faster than writing. It's often cheaper to learn from the mistakes of others than make your own. :)


I can't help thinking that expectations change how I approach the book in the first place. And genre contributes to expectations.
Some writers start off knowing that they want to write a genre piece, and trying to figure out what. Others want to run with an idea or explore a theme... they may use genre if it helps.

I do a bit of both. Often when I write for "fun" I'll pick a genre to write in. The fun arises from trying to innovate inside some structure - a bit like playing TheatreSports or a similar dramatic game where the "rules" are fixed but the content is free to vary.

At other times I'll have an idea or a perception I want to explore. At those times the idea comes first. I'll accept a genre constraint if I think it will help, but if it doesn't I'll work up a non-genre approach.



Now this may just be a case of breaking prejudice, but I don't think so. I think different approaches can literally change what you perceive. Selective intention, interpretation.
Living in Australia as I do, we try to find as many was as we can of laughing at English people. Since much of the humour of Wallace and Grommit arises from an English animator satirising Englishness, Australians appreciate it very much. The "ugliness" in the animation (bulging eyes, big teeth etc...) enhances our appreciation - not because English people have bulging eyes and big teeth, but because the startled, strained emotions caricature the character's inner conflicts.

But if you're not predisposed to laughing at satire on Englishness then it could easily look just like poor aesthetics. I think we're back to culture here.

Thinking of Kafka again, Europe has whole strains of fantasy that one hardly ever sees in the US, Britain or Australia. I believe that these do safely fall into an over-arching fantasy genre (I more than suspect that fantasy is a common human genre rather than simply being confined to one culture), but form subgenres of their own.

ColoradoGuy
01-11-2008, 04:01 AM
I just want to say that I trust others are enjoying this discussion as much as I am. You two are having a dialogue in the best humanist tradition--reasoned, clear, calm. Too often posters don't really read what others are saying; you guys carefully respond to each other, and I appreciate that.

I wish I had something to add, but not being much of a genre reader myself, I don't. You two got any friends you could bring by?

Ruv Draba
01-11-2008, 08:52 AM
I just want to say that I trust others are enjoying this discussion as much as I am. You two are having a dialogue in the best humanist tradition--reasoned, clear, calm. Too often posters don't really read what others are saying; you guys carefully respond to each other, and I appreciate that.
Ah - music to my ears!

CG, I fled to the Cooler from a genre-specific forum (which I shall leave nameless) exactly because I couldn't have such conversations there. For one thing, there weren't enough people interested in critique theory to hold the discussion. For another, punters simply didn't have the right approach to kicking ideas around in a scholarly sort of fashion, and the moderation wasn't focused on ensuring that they did.

This conversation is a delight, and I'm grateful to Dawnstorm and JBI for both the quality and the erudition of their contributions. Much respect! :thankyou:

I also appreciate that you made this comment, CG. Moderation is mostly about interventions on bad behaviour. Mod encouragement for good behaviour goes a very long way toward building trust and good community.


I wish I had something to add, but not being much of a genre reader myself, I don't. You two got any friends you could bring by?
I wish! I have plenty of friends who write, and plenty of friends who like abstraction, but none in the intersection, and I don't know many folk at the Cooler just yet.

Dawnstorm
01-11-2008, 01:28 PM
Concerns are likely to span cultures, because concerns probably arise from comparable social circumstances, basic human needs, and continuing change. Every culture I know of has tales of love and spooky tales, and tales of brave adventure under adverse circumstance, tales of people finding wonderous tools etc... we're concerned about similar things.

The treatments of those concerns can differ markedly though. For instance, many Japanese stories link technology with social order; Japanese stories also love taking fantastical departures with technology, and personifying it (which we only see in a few non-Japanese subgenres like Cyberpunk).[quote]

So, basically, concerns are the uniting factor (by type), while the treatments are the discriminating factors as far as culture is concerned. This may well explain why cross-cultural imitation often doesn't work out properly. For example, I found the Hollywood re-make of Ring to be rather fragmented: there's the story about the video and the story about the girl, but they don't come together, for me. I'd blame the different attitudes towards technology (and perhaps a not-so-strict differentiation between old and new tech; ray guns and swords, so to speak).

[quote]JBI argued earlier that genre proceeds by copying. While that's true, it can also develop independently in many respects and still result in a quite coherent body of work. [...]

What I had in mind was an interpretative framework. Once you know something you can't un-know it. A favourite pastime of genre theorists is the game "spot the ancestor". For fantasy, the current mainstream sacrifices at the altar of Tolkien while the resistance marches with Peake on the banner. Very traditional. I wonder what happened to Howard, who was a very important ancestor in the eighties. You occasionally hear about Lieber and Dunsay. It's an identity game. And to the extent that you derive your genre identity from any given ancestor, the imitation becomes a deliberate move.

But there's something to be said about pervasive influence. Once deliberation fades, the question becomes what are you imitating? What set Tolkien apart from the fantasy of his contemporaries, I'd argue, was the appendix. Less the history stuff (which is still narritive), but more the language stuff. An etymology of Hobbit? A made up history for a made up word? World-building wasn't the same afterwards.

But Tolkien was a linguist. What this boils down to is: Writers have hobbies. Or: Scholars write fiction. You may have wanted to do something similar anyway, or Tolkien could have given you an idea. The point is that once you know that Tolkien has done it, you cannot do something similar innocently. Not anymore.

This is what "literary tradition" means. Classics can provide the model, but more often they're the image on the coat of arms we choose to bear (if we do at all).


It's also true that literature changes its culture. But I don't believe that a culture changes overnight just so it can appreciate the literature it has. Iinstead I think that some stories become popular fairly quickly - sometimes for quite superficial reasons - then work a slower, more long-lasting change as people think about them more. I'd put stories like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Stoker's Dracula, HG Wells' The War of the Worlds, Orwell's 1984, Heller's Catch-22 in this category. They have instant appeal, but raise some profound questions for generations to ponder.

I have troubles thinking like that because literature is culture. The very fact that I can sit down and write fiction is culture. It's very hard to separate cause and effect. (In sociological suicide research, there's something called the "Werther effect" - after Göthe's epistolary novel that is said to have triggered suicides in a similar manner as it was described in the novel. You should see the discussion of the statistics involved. Cause, trigger, hidden variables...)


I don't know whether genrefication can "finish". It can innovate and consolidate. Concerns will evolve, and that evolution may create need for new treatments -- and open opportunities to discover them.

Well, I don't think there's any teleological principle at work in genre, so "finished" may be a strong word. But genres fizzle out. How many pastoral poems are written today? It's easier to classify when you have it all before you.


The "is/isn't" question doesn't really say much about genre, but it does say a lot about what "tribe" we think we belong to. :) People who love neither fantasy nor SF often see them as almost identical: "imaginative ramblings". People who love both frequently distinguish them according to the values they think these genres represent.

But if genre is cultural then tribal behaviour is at the heart of genre. The is/isn't debate is one of its motors. Especially when viewed from the PoV of writers and genre critics. (Even this discussion is part of that, but once I start to think like this...)


I meant that if a reader from our culture unfamiliar with Kew Gardens read it, they would very likely form the view that it was about anxiety, relationships and flowers, and nothing to do with science or science fiction. I made the pronouncement not to you, who've read it and therefore have your own views, but to others who may not. But I also made it in the blithe confidence that you wouldn't argue that it was SF. :tongue

Ah, a misunderstanding. I thought this was a general statement, that "Kew Gardens" was a story of a type that somehow manages to be immune to genrefication. Which would have made me wonder what we're actually talking about. (For the record, I would have troubles placing the story within a genre at a moments notice, but I'm sure someone else has done that for me.)


A book can have deep personal relevance in addition to its cultural relevance. There might be a character or a situation, or an observation of such personal impact that it overshadows anything else we see in the book.

When that happens, we'll tend to view the book in very personal terms. We may forget that great lumps of our culture don't share those particular concerns. We may replace our cultural appreciation with personal appreciation. If we know we're doing that, we can try and shift our head and get perspective again.

I'm still trying to work out how this is relevant to what I said and how what I said is relevant to your sample critique of Fahrenheit. I'll come back to this later, if I don't forget. I think the basic drive of my quip (it wasn't much more, really) was: if neither the sentimental nor the rational approach make for a good book, perhaps there's a different approach that makes for a more interesting read. This isn't primarily a genre question; but it is a question about when genre-expectations start to curb the enjoyment of the actual text on the actual page.

I'm not sure Mr Bradbury would appreciate my reading, but that's not my point.


But more broadly, our culture isn't unitary anyway. We have sub-cultures and counter-cultures and ratbags. The same thing can happen to groups that happen to individuals. They'll find some specific relevance to their factional concerns, and treat this as the primary concern of the story. I've seen people use Ursula K. Le Guin's The Disposessed as a political manifesto, for instance.

It's fine to do that, but it's also worthwhile to realise that across the culture as a whole, the perception may be different.

I once read, and I wish I could recall where, that any reading is valid if they can make a case for it, but if we start to notice that the same critic applies the same reading to a diversity of texts, we're going to suspect it's not really about the texts at all. This doesn't make the reading invalid, but it has an impact on how we view the critic.


Back to SF: I hold that technology concerns are cultural concerns, and not simply a personal concern of mine, or a specific concern of any subculture I may belong to. So in putting together a SF signature, I have tried to faithfully represent the culture on this. Other members of the culture are welcome to disagree, of course. But the key to holding that discussion effectively is to first abandon any personal, subcultural or counter-cultural agendas we may hold. Cultures form because people can set aside their differences. To discuss matters at a cultural level, participants must do the same. (I mean this to apply to our hypothetical examples - this discussion itself is going fine, I think.)

That's very difficult to talk about for me. For one thing, it raises questions of how institutionalised genre differs from the critical concept, and whether genre criticisism is part of the instutionalisation process or merely an interacting institution (much theorising happens in genre conventions; this discussion takes part on a board which has a genre sub-board, but since SF is really only the topic here because I'm not overly familiar with detective fiction, which you started on, it's not appropriate there, and since the drive is "academic" it does fit here, but... um... see?)

***

Out of time. I hope to be back later.


You two got any friends you could bring by?

I wish. I'm training a rusted muscle here (talk about mixed metaphors). This discussion is very, very helpful to me. Thanks to RD for an excellent thread.

And thanks for the encouragement. In recent years I've pretty much devolved into a "rules? bah humbug" web presence. The crank on the sidelines.

Dawnstorm
01-11-2008, 05:34 PM
#1 and #2 look made for SF. #3, #4 could be mystery, technothriller or perhaps SF with some effort.

It's fascinating to watch you seed stories. :)

It's seeing the dividing lines between technothrillers and SF that causes me trouble, still. (Would be interesting to look at Michael Crichton in that respect; didn't read too much of him, so I can't really.) Remember that in my way of viewing thing, there is no conflict between mystery and SF because mystery primarily unwinds on plot, whereas SF inhabits setting. These are not separate. In one story we have both elements.

So if I frame the story of Galileo Galilei as a techno thriller, focussing on the telescope, then am I not automatically triggering "historical fiction"? For example, I'll be called on historical inaccuracies. It's a balancing act between making the actual events more - ahem - interesting, and getting the facts "right".

So what do we do then? Decide in favour of one or the other? Run two profiles and stare at them until they click?

Would this be similar to the story-within-arc idea you introduced with Dune? The same? If not what are the differences?


In general, SF tends to prefer stories about tools and products rather than methods. Methods tend to lead us into the police/medical procedurals, mystery and detective stories. But still, it dug up a couple of decent SF ideas.

Not sure. Example:

Would you say time-machine stories are about the change a time-machine brings?

Wells' Time Machine pretty much plays on the dystopian approach, but the time-machine itself is merely a framing device, like the arctic explorer in Frankenstein. It's a future history; a dystopia of the classical sort (unlike 1984, or Brave New World, we have the traveller who tells the tale), but displacing it through time rather than place (as he did in Moreau). The effect is historicity. Inviting the reader to reflect on how history happens. There's a story in the dark (with flashes given on the way to the future). This is very much a process, though the eye watching is moral, rather than disengaged (a scientific ideal).

Moorcock's Behold the Man on the other hand is pretty much all about the process. Karl Glogauer sets out in his time machine to prove that Jesus Christ is nothing more than a Jungian archetype. And succeeds in a way, though Jung's theory isn't proven at all (in a typical time-machine twist).

I find SF does look rationality into the eye on occasion, exposing how much logic relies on premises.


Heck yes! If you understand why stories work and don't, you write better. Reading is way faster than writing. It's often cheaper to learn from the mistakes of others than make your own. :)

Actually, I thught of learning from my reading mistakes. See what it is I'm taking for granted. I suppose it depends whether you use genre classification to counter or support your intuitions.


Some writers start off knowing that they want to write a genre piece, and trying to figure out what. Others want to run with an idea or explore a theme... they may use genre if it helps.

I do a bit of both. Often when I write for "fun" I'll pick a genre to write in. The fun arises from trying to innovate inside some structure - a bit like playing TheatreSports or a similar dramatic game where the "rules" are fixed but the content is free to vary.

At other times I'll have an idea or a perception I want to explore. At those times the idea comes first. I'll accept a genre constraint if I think it will help, but if it doesn't I'll work up a non-genre approach.

My current WiP has a mage and surgeon in a musueum staring at a dragon skeleton and wondering if it is a fake, and if it isn't if the beast could really have flown as the stories suggest. I call this project "fantasy", because it has magic, but this scene really sums up my attitude to the story. I have no idea how to properly frame this in genre terms.

I'm not looking forward to summarising the story.


Living in Australia as I do, we try to find as many was as we can of laughing at English people. Since much of the humour of Wallace and Grommit arises from an English animator satirising Englishness, Australians appreciate it very much. The "ugliness" in the animation (bulging eyes, big teeth etc...) enhances our appreciation - not because English people have bulging eyes and big teeth, but because the startled, strained emotions caricature the character's inner conflicts.

But if you're not predisposed to laughing at satire on Englishness then it could easily look just like poor aesthetics. I think we're back to culture here.

Quite possible. I have this working assumption that there's always something I'm missing. This is good for reading, but it doesn't give me much confidence when critiquing. Heh.


Thinking of Kafka again, Europe has whole strains of fantasy that one hardly ever sees in the US, Britain or Australia. I believe that these do safely fall into an over-arching fantasy genre (I more than suspect that fantasy is a common human genre rather than simply being confined to one culture), but form subgenres of their own.

Again, possible. When I did a superficial online research on the South American "Magic Realism" movement I was surprised to find how many of them cited Kafka as an ancestor (remember the "spot the ancestor" game?) I also remember viewing The Metamorphosis in a different light, after reading about shaman transformations and the correlating world-view. Re-contextualisations can be powerful. This is why I wonder whether genre isn't primarily a reception concept.

Fantasy in particular. I wonder whether there's something vacuous about images. We all have two legs and two arms, unlike beetles. This difference is pretty universal. But beyond that?

Btw, the Kafke + magic realism revelation came at a time where I was still wondering about someone else's comment about the Jewish cultural echoes in Kafka's work (I can immediately see the obsession with law and patriarchy and Word). None of these things had occurred to me before. Rather I was thinking about Kafka in terms of Austrian beaurocracy.

Fantasy does seem to have a vague formulaic nature, to be filled by readers.

Ruv Draba
01-11-2008, 06:06 PM
So, basically, concerns are the uniting factor (by type), while the treatments are the discriminating factors as far as culture is concerned.
I think so.


This may well explain why cross-cultural imitation often doesn't work out properly. For example, I found the Hollywood re-make of Ring to be rather fragmented: there's the story about the video and the story about the girl, but they don't come together, for me.
This happens so often on Hollywood remakes of Asian and Euro cinema. They take the concern, the characters and the plot, then futz with the through-lines - typically to make American audiences cheer and feel good. In doing so, they lose a lot of the original perspective that made the story worth seeing.


What I had in mind was an interpretative framework. Once you know something you can't un-know it.I noted that but didn't bite at it in my last post. If you chase that rabbit too far down the hole you may get a silly conclusion like this: writers, to be wholly original, shouldn't read (You probably know writers who believe this; I know a few). :Headbang:

Skilled critics can shift perspective to ignore literary influence; skilled writers can do this too. Coupled with good discipline, knowledge creates choices; it doesn't take them away.

But... lacking skill, writers often emulate treatments -- a bit like copying another writer's "voice". That would be fine if they had the right themes to justify the treatment they choose. Often they don't even have that.

Hypothetical example: Roy Batty in Blade Runner has a quite moving final scene. What makes it moving is not the setting, or the dialogue or the action - but that it culminates three key through-lines (Dekhard's hunt, the "are replicants people", and "replicants want to live" through-lines) - and brings together the themes associated with them (job vs compassion, function vs soul, duration of life vs quality of life). Graft that scene onto a story without those themes, and it will never have the same impact - no matter how many doves you add. :)


I wonder what happened to Howard, who was a very important ancestor in the eighties.If you mean Robert E Howard, I have been reading him extensively lately along with one of his ancestors - the little known Harold Lamb - and Leiber, Zelazny, Moorcock, etc... because I could still see carpet by my bedside.

I must have read millions of words of Sword and Sorcery classics since around November last year, just trying to get a feel for what the S&S masters were doing and how. I put together a Sword and Sorcery subgenre signature which I might include if there's interest, or if it's relevant.

I reckon that S&S has fallen away in favour of a more relationship-driven/romantic fantasy in recent decades. The fantasy of the 90s and later typically has deeper characters, more complexity to relationships but often lacks the mood and punch of the S&S that preceded it.


What set Tolkien apart from the fantasy of his contemporaries, I'd argue, was the appendix.
There weren't many contemporaries, I suppose. CS Lewis was in Tolkien's coterie and the two are different in many respects.

Tolkien chose to write about social concerns; Lewis chose to write about moral and religious concerns. Tolkien used a prose saga sort of treatment; Lewis chose allegorical fables of a more Aesopian sort. Tolkien drew on pre-mediaeval pagan symbols; Lewis drew on mediaeval Christian symbols. Tolkien polished his language and settings to an unsurpassed level; Lewis honed his symbols.

Successors to each have borrowed bits of their approach, but few have made exactly the same design decisions that either Tolkien or Lewis did - or treated the same concerns.

The point is that once you know that Tolkien has done it, you cannot do something similar innocently. Not anymore.Well, that's a strange choice of words! If the opposite of innocence is guilt, then of what offense is a writer guilty if some element of treatment resembles or derives from that of another author?

Reading, maybe. :eek:


literature is culture.I like Holly Lisle's description of culture. Paraphrased, it's a community of people sharing common ground, born of a shared philosophy, adhering to specific goals, requiring the setting aside of differences, demanding a sacrifice from each member, so that the members can work together to propagate the whole beyond their own lifetimes.
That's a sociological view rather than an artistic one, but I believe that the arts have a key role in creating common language, reflecting on shared philosophy, propagating shared values, helping to identify and resolve differences, inspiring commitment and sacrifice, and creating a common vision for the culture. In short, they're critical. Lose the arts and the culture falls apart.

But at core I see the arts as reflective and communicative tools. I don't believe that literature is the culture any more than a photograph is the person or the fossil is the dinosaur. An individual piece of literature is a record of some thought. But of course if you have the whole corpus of a culture's literature then you (should) have a very deep and broad sociological record - depending on their literacy and who controls their publication.


But genres fizzle out. How many pastoral poems are written today? It's easier to classify when you have it all before you.Actually, I think that plenty of pastoral poems are written still by amateur poets - they're the sort of poems you can find in family albums out in rural Australia for instance. It's just that few are sold. Pastoral concerns may have receded to the province of pastoralists and "tree change" retirees; in the main I think we've replaced pastoralism with environmentalism, and environmentalist poets may prefer other treatments.

Whether that's a "failure" of the pastoral poetry genre or a transmutation, I don't know. Vested interests might tell you one thing or the other. But surely a poem like Hopkins' Binsey Poplars (1879) still has resonance to the environmentalists today, even if they'd pick a different treatment:


My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
(Or could a modern rapper with environmental concerns quote a passage like that to a break-beat, largely unchanged?)

But if genre is cultural then tribal behaviour is at the heart of genre.
In a qualified way, I agree. We will of course form tribes around cultural artefacts and claim those symbols for our use. But appropriation signifies appreciation -- not necessarily critical understanding. And while subcultures should claim artefacts for their use, I argue against them claiming sole use.

I think the basic drive of my quip (it wasn't much more, really) was: if neither the sentimental nor the rational approach make for a good book, perhaps there's a different approach that makes for a more interesting read.
I tend to view exploration of a concern as being either rational or emotional or symbolic... I suppose that I could add "sensory" to that list too though I haven't thought about it deeply.

Rational: using the sorts of principles that underpinned the philosophy of ancient Greece, and which I mentioned some posts back

Emotional: using appeals to sentiment, our social instincts and desires, our personal drives and impulses

Symbolic: using existing associations in our mind (e.g. road signifies a journey, or balloon signifies imagination). Really, I think that this is just an indirect way to get our rational or emotional minds working

Sensory: I think it's there; I just haven't thought much about it.


I once read, and I wish I could recall where, that any reading is valid if they can make a case for it,
That may be true in the same sense that any scientific theory is valid if one can demonstrate it empirically.

But notwithstanding that, some theories are stronger than others - better predictors and easier to use. If I see only one through-line in a story, and you see mine plus three more - and can show them to me - then while my reading may be valid, I'd be silly to insist that it's as useful as yours.


And thanks for the encouragement. In recent years I've pretty much devolved into a "rules? bah humbug" web presence. The crank on the sidelines.
I'm presently basking in the free "esteem" I've received simply for signing up here (it says "Esteemed new member" above my avatar). But I dread that as I post more, my esteem shall wane - and with it my enthusiasm - until I become a "bored fanatic". :ROFL:

Ruv Draba
01-12-2008, 01:24 AM
It's fascinating to watch you seed stories. :)
Was it Samuel Johnson who said Only a blockhead writes, except for money? Please remind me to invoice you. :D


if I frame the story of Galileo Galilei as a techno thriller, focussing on the telescope, then am I not automatically triggering "historical fiction"? For example, I'll be called on historical inaccuracies.

Not necessarily. Look at Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle stories. They're historical, highly researched with great verisimilitude - focusing on people like Isaac Newton and Ada Lovelace.

They're also quite unfactual with respect to certain technologies and their social impacts, but unless you do thorough historical research, you can't see the seams.

Rather than call them historical fiction and then criticise Stephenson's failure to work with the precise technologies of the day our culture has done (I believe) the right thing and called it a new subgenre: Steampunk. It's historical SF with a focus on giving technology a strong historical aesthetic.

So what do we do then? Decide in favour of one or the other? Run two profiles and stare at them until they click?
In the case of Steampunk, it's clearly a subgenre in my view. It has the same signature as its "parent" genre SF, but has additional signature elements.

However, it's clearly not a subgenre of historical fiction, because it removes or weakens signature elements of historical fiction, rather than adding to them. (In historical fiction to mess with the setting is a no-no).


Would you say time-machine stories are about the change a time-machine brings?
Recall that I described SF concerns as being technology/frontier vs people concerns. In SF, Time-machine stories (time travel stories really) are normally about frontiers more than the technology itself.

When we travel into the future, the frontier we face is consequence. We bring our chickens home to roost sooner. When we travel into the past, the frontier is ignorance. We force ourselves to face just how little we knew - and perhaps force our past selves to swallow a large lump of insight.

Both fantasy and SF use the time-travel premise. SF tends to use it to make us face consequence; fantasy often uses it to help us escape consequence. In the same way, SF time-travel makes us confront ignorance, Fantasy frequently helps us deny or avoid ignorance.

I'm not suggesting here that SF is 'realistic' while Fantasy is 'escapist' - but the 'logical/rational' approach of SF often leads us to unpleasant and inevitable results, whereas the symbolic/emotional to fantasy can lead us anywhere (what is horror but twisted fantasy).


Wells' Time Machine pretty much plays on the dystopian approach, but the time-machine itself is merely a framing device, like the arctic explorer in Frankenstein.
Yes. Wells presents us with (as he sees it) a logical extrapolation of modern (for his day) trends - in other words, consequence.

By contrast, Julian May's Pleiocene Exiles series used that technique of McCaffrey's - start with a SFish premise (a logical extrapolation of existing technologies) and then construct fantasy stories inside it.


My current WiP has a mage and surgeon in a musueum staring at a dragon skeleton and wondering if it is a fake, and if it isn't if the beast could really have flown as the stories suggest. I call this project "fantasy", because it has magic, but this scene really sums up my attitude to the story. I have no idea how to properly frame this in genre terms.
If I were critting that story I'd likely offer the following suggestions and provocations (depending on what else is happening in the story):

For genre purposes, forget the term "dragon". It's a winged saurian that your characters may "call" dragon. It may or may not have abilities that people find hard to explain. It doesn't matter whether your characters call that "magic" or "an anomaly".

If the existence of this creature works a symbolic change on the major characters and/or their world then consider it fantasy, whether or not there's "magic" per se. Your work will likely be appreciated by the elegance of your symbolism and its relevance to moral, psychological and societal concerns -- these are fantasy appreciations. By all means use scientific terminology as much as you like, but write it as a fantasy and you'll get a better outcome.

If the existence of this creature leads your characters into a rational investigation that overturns some assumption, or reveals some logical but unexpected insight then consider it SF. Your work will likely be appreciated for its exploration of a frontier, the degree of surprise you bring in doing so and the elegant reasoning by which you brought that about. Use magical terms all you like in-story; it won't matter.

Of course, there might be other things happening in the story that would make me think differently.

I'm not looking forward to summarising the story.
If it's a short, you're welcome to PM it to me - or send me the outline. I'll send you a Ruv-approved log-line right back. :) One benefit of having crisp genre signatures to work with is that you can zoom in on a clear log-line almost instantly - if it adheres to a signature.


Re-contextualisations can be powerful. This is why I wonder whether genre isn't primarily a reception concept.
If genre is a cultural construct then it's also a psychological construct. But since the author resides in some culture (I mean psychologically and sociologically rather than merely geographically) then it makes as much sense to talk about it at the writing end as the reading end.


Fantasy in particular. I wonder whether there's something vacuous about images. We all have two legs and two arms, unlike beetles. This difference is pretty universal. But beyond that?
I personally believe that fantasy is probably an artifact of dream-reasoning that we happen to apply in conscious life. The reason that fantasy is virtually ubiquitous to human cultures, I believe, is that we all dream. Even more interestingly, many fantasy symbols are either common across human cultures, or have recognisable cognates.



Fantasy does seem to have a vague formulaic nature, to be filled by readers.
The 'formula' in fantasy typically resides in its symbolic palette and its through-lines. Work from the middle of the palette - with symbols deeply rooted in our culture - and you get the fantasy of Tolkien, Lewis and many others. Work from the edges of the palette - twisting the symbols and ascribing new and unusual significance - and you get the fantasy of Lewis Caroll or Robert Holdstock.

In the through-lines you get classic formulae like the "hero's journey (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey)". That journey may or may not be embedded in objective plot - it may simply be a through-line.

For this reason, you can write any character or plot into fantasy, and put fantasy in any setting. It's the through-lines and the symbols that readers pay attention to - even when they don't necessarily think of things in that way.

Dawnstorm
01-12-2008, 04:57 AM
I noted that but didn't bite at it in my last post. If you chase that rabbit too far down the hole you may get a silly conclusion like this: writers, to be wholly original, shouldn't read (You probably know writers who believe this; I know a few). :Headbang:

Chase further, and you'd have to decide as a toddler to spend your life in a deprivation tank. I've seen that sentiment, but can't think of a particular person who holds it. Personally, I think that's a misguided notion of what originality means, and an underestimation as to the number of places where you encounter "story".

The flipside is how terribly hard it is to fake an "unknown manuscript" from one of the classics.


Skilled critics can shift perspective to ignore literary influence; skilled writers can do this too. Coupled with good discipline, knowledge creates choices; it doesn't take them away.

Definitely. Every piece of knowledge of pre-existing creativity output is both restricting and enabling. The thing is: if you're aiming for ignorance in your chosen field of writing, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage by not being able to predict your readers response at all. (That's not to say that the ignorance approach can't produce interesting results. But it's a shot in the dark. <-- cliché)


If you mean Robert E Howard, I have been reading him extensively lately along with one of his ancestors - the little known Harold Lamb - and Leiber, Zelazny, Moorcock, etc... because I could still see carpet by my bedside.

Yes, him.


I must have read millions of words of Sword and Sorcery classics since around November last year, just trying to get a feel for what the S&S masters were doing and how. I put together a Sword and Sorcery subgenre signature which I might include if there's interest, or if it's relevant.

I reckon that S&S has fallen away in favour of a more relationship-driven/romantic fantasy in recent decades. The fantasy of the 90s and later typically has deeper characters, more complexity to relationships but often lacks the mood and punch of the S&S that preceded it.

I get the impression from what people say, but I'm not really up to date. I haven't read too much fantasy in the first place, and hardly any of the newer authors.


There weren't many contemporaries, I suppose. CS Lewis was in Tolkien's coterie and the two are different in many respects.

Tolkien chose to write about social concerns; Lewis chose to write about moral and religious concerns. Tolkien used a prose saga sort of treatment; Lewis chose allegorical fables of a more Aesopian sort. Tolkien drew on pre-mediaeval pagan symbols; Lewis drew on mediaeval Christian symbols. Tolkien polished his language and settings to an unsurpassed level; Lewis honed his symbols.

Successors to each have borrowed bits of their approach, but few have made exactly the same design decisions that either Tolkien or Lewis did - or treated the same concerns.

I wonder why I made that claim [that only the appendix sets Tolkien apart from his contemporaries]. I think it's an automated defense mechanism to the over-estimation of Tolkien's influence on the genre that's so rampant among his admirers.

I'd consider Peake a contemporary writer, for example. But even comparing the two is rather hard. I think I made a strange claim. *Shrug*


Well, that's a strange choice of words! If the opposite of innocence is guilt, then of what offense is a writer guilty if some element of treatment resembles or derives from that of another author?

Reading, maybe. :eek:

Hey, I used "tainted" before, and you didn't comment. :tongue

I used "innocent" as a synonym for "naive", here. For example, I found the fantasy elements in Harry Potter had a certain charm, because they were "untainted" by the larger genre. Rowlings style reminded me a lot more of those British boarding school stories (like A Little Princess (http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext94/lprss11.txt)). There was a comment that she didn't realise she was writing fantasy, which Pratchett made fun of. But I kind of see that, certainly in her earlier books.


But at core I see the arts as reflective and communicative tools. I don't believe that literature is the culture any more than a photograph is the person or the fossil is the dinosaur. An individual piece of literature is a record of some thought. But of course if you have the whole corpus of a culture's literature then you (should) have a very deep and broad sociological record - depending on their literacy and who controls their publication.

I'm not exactly sure what you thought I was saying. I do not suggest, of course, that the arts are all there is to culture. That would be silly. On the other hand I don't agree that literature:culture = photograph:person.

Literature, whether it's written, read, or talked about is cultural activity, much like cooking a meal, visiting your neighbours, walking past strangers in the street instead of greeting them, and going to the toilet in your coffee break.

So rather than saying 1984 caused cultural changes, I'd say it was part of cultural changes. Triggering, preventing, reinforcing behaviour. But neither reading nor writing the book happened in a vacuum. I find it very hard to separate cause from effect here, to the point of chicken-egg dilemma.


Actually, I think that plenty of pastoral poems are written still by amateur poets - they're the sort of poems you can find in family albums out in rural Australia for instance. It's just that few are sold. Pastoral concerns may have receded to the province of pastoralists and "tree change" retirees; in the main I think we've replaced pastoralism with environmentalism, and environmentalist poets may prefer other treatments.

Interesting. I'm surprised that pastoral poetry comes from rural areas. The genre pretty much thrived on ignorance of manure, and an idealisation to the point of Elysium. Perhaps my definition's too narrow? I think I'm becoming confused as to how far cultural specifics go into the establishment of genre.


(Or could a modern rapper with environmental concerns quote a passage like that to a break-beat, largely unchanged?)

Heh, that could be interesting.


In a qualified way, I agree. We will of course form tribes around cultural artefacts and claim those symbols for our use. But appropriation signifies appreciation -- not necessarily critical understanding. And while subcultures should claim artefacts for their use, I argue against them claiming sole use.

Well, there's a difference between carrying the banner and actual production. You'll sail past the radar of tribal wrath if you avoid loaded terms (such as genre names). It is more complicated.


Rational: using the sorts of principles that underpinned the philosophy of ancient Greece, and which I mentioned some posts back

Emotional: using appeals to sentiment, our social instincts and desires, our personal drives and impulses

Symbolic: using existing associations in our mind (e.g. road signifies a journey, or balloon signifies imagination). Really, I think that this is just an indirect way to get our rational or emotional minds working

Sensory: I think it's there; I just haven't thought much about it.

To me, this reads like a two-dimensional grid with four types:

rational-symbolic (e.g. allegory); rational-sensory (e.g. objectivism); emotional-symbolic (e.g. expressionism); emotional-sensory (e.g. impressionism).

Ad hoc, I have trouble making sense of "rational-emotional", or "symbolic-sensory".

I like typologies. Heh.


That may be true in the same sense that any scientific theory is valid if one can demonstrate it empirically.

But notwithstanding that, some theories are stronger than others - better predictors and easier to use. If I see only one through-line in a story, and you see mine plus three more - and can show them to me - then while my reading may be valid, I'd be silly to insist that it's as useful as yours.

I agree, but you've torn the quote apart only commenting on the first half. The point is something along the line of separating the message from it's intent. (I really wish I had quote, or remember where to find it; it was interesting.)


I'm presently basking in the free "esteem" I've received simply for signing up here (it says "Esteemed new member" above my avatar). But I dread that as I post more, my esteem shall wane - and with it my enthusiasm - until I become a "bored fanatic". :ROFL:

Only one way to find out. ;) // You like puns? /// ... ////


Was it Samuel Johnson who said Only a blockhead writes, except for money? Please remind me to invoice you. :D

If you remind me to give you a false address.


However, it's clearly not a subgenre of historical fiction, because it removes or weakens signature elements of historical fiction, rather than adding to them. (In historical fiction to mess with the setting is a no-no).

This is pure theory, now:

If a sub-genre adds to the super-genre, but has commonalities with another genre (from which it takes away), it should be possible to have a hybrid genre that takes away from both genres in such a way that what remains makes sense in its own right.

Highly abstract (no examples), but does that make any sense?


Recall that I described SF concerns as being technology/frontier vs people concerns. In SF, Time-machine stories (time travel stories really) are normally about frontiers more than the technology itself.

I did forget the frontier part. Point taken.


Of course, there might be other things happening in the story that would make me think differently.

Thanks for the suggestions. I do mainly think of it as fantasy. I think the symbolic content dominates, but the rational insight is there, too, to an extent. The point is that the skeleton is anatomically strange; a four limbed vertebrate with an additional set of wings (I'll have to work on the description some more in the edit to create a plausible implausibility...) Before writing the scene I looked at lizard skeletons, bat skeletons and insect wing diagrams a lot. The scene still looks better on the drawing board, but I'm not worrying about that now.

Lots of other things happen. This scene is basically laying the ground work for a couple of themes.


If it's a short, you're welcome to PM it to me - or send me the outline. I'll send you a Ruv-approved log-line right back. :)

Thanks for the offer, but it's anything but short (around 130k words and growing), and it's not done. I don't have an outline, although I know pretty much where I'm going with it. Writing it down would help, but not before I finish draft 1. The time I spend writing an outline I could spend writing a scene; writing-wise I jump from scene to scene (along a loose plan; less loose now that it's in the last third).

The real work comes with the editing.


One benefit of having crisp genre signatures to work with is that you can zoom in on a clear log-line almost instantly - if it adheres to a signature.

Thinking of both your genre signature approach and my WiP at the same must have made my brain crash. I've been staring at the screen for ten minutes says the clock.


I personally believe that fantasy is probably an artifact of dream-reasoning that we happen to apply in conscious life. The reason that fantasy is virtually ubiquitous to human cultures, I believe, is that we all dream.

Dream reasoning?


The 'formula' in fantasy typically resides in its symbolic palette and its through-lines. Work from the middle of the palette - with symbols deeply rooted in our culture - and you get the fantasy of Tolkien, Lewis and many others. Work from the edges of the palette - twisting the symbols and ascribing new and unusual significance - and you get the fantasy of Lewis Caroll or Robert Holdstock.

I was actually thinking of the symbolic palette only, here. The symbols aren't especially specific. "Rooted in a culture" to me means mainly recognition value and a predictable response. But even if you take that away, fantasy seems to have the power to fascinate. Perhaps because much relies on visuals.

But you're right in that this may not be true for all sorts of fantasy. (I'm too tired to think, now. This post has taken me three hours.)

ColoradoGuy
01-12-2008, 09:36 PM
I'm not much of a Sci/Fi and fantasy reader, although I long ago read some of the canonical works such as LOTR, Narnia, Foundation, Bradbury, and a few others. I wonder the extent to which what you guys are discussing is unique characteristic of those genres. What I mean is that SF in particular seems, to an outsider like me, to bring with it an extraordinarily high dose of reader response theory. I've posted about this before (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=51318), but both fan-fiction and all those conventions encourage readers to adopt the elements of the stories, modify them at will (but always within the unspoken boundaries of the genre, of course), and make the characters part of the readers' own inner worlds (and outer worlds, too, if sales of Spock ears can be trusted). The original author really isn't in charge any more--the texts belong to the readers.

I just don't see a similar devotion among, say, romance or mystery genre readers to their respective texts. Other genres have their own expected plot and language conventions, but it's not the same. SF/fantasy readers can be amazingly devoted both to the outer trappings of the text and to the kinds of inner meanings you two are discussing. These enthusiasts resemble Talmudic scholars in the way they search out meanings and layer gloss upon gloss over the text.

So my question is: do you think there is something special about fantasy or science fiction (calling all Jungians!) that makes those genres fulfill some special human need? Where else can the non-religious find such accessible parables, quest tales, and even explanations?

HeronW
01-12-2008, 09:54 PM
Fiction relies on drama, drama is based on conflict and that just goes two ways, the person vs the self, the person vs the outside. This moseys off to whatever; western, horror, historical, romance, etc. We write from experience which is layered, what we hear/see direct or indirect with TV, the web, newspapers etc. dropping in another thread. Originality comes from us as the origin no matter if the tale's based at a ranch or a castle or a spaceship. How do we make it our own? Turn-of-the-century diary-type novels like Dracula were all the rage, though writing the diary has been around much longer, you needn't even read one to write one.

Ruv Draba
01-13-2008, 12:57 AM
I wonder the extent to which what you guys are discussing is unique characteristic of those genres.

[...]
So my question is: do you think there is something special about fantasy or science fiction (calling all Jungians!) that makes those genres fulfill some special human need? Where else can the non-religious find such accessible parables, quest tales, and even explanations?

I think you raised two questions, CG:

To what extent "genre theory" might just apply to the genres the correspondents know and love (as opposed to those we don't)
Why SF enthusiasts are such screaming geeks about their literary genreMy interests are much broader than SF/Fantasy. Indeed, for over a decade I'd turned my back on both genres in disgust. (I still have allergies in these genres; I've grown awful picky in my old age). On the genre side, I read mystery/suspense, horror, western and will even read the occasional romance. On the non-genre fiction side I read lots of stuff, but there's a lot of Ian McEwan, Tim Winton and Nick Earles on the shelves at home alongside Pinter, Brecht and Beckett.

To answer the first question then, my take on genres is grounded in the genres I read -- which is most of 'em. I just happen to be using Fantasy/SF examples with Dawnstorm because it's common ground. (Dawnstorm clearly reads more widely too.)

To try and answer the second question, I'd like to reverse it. If you were an utter geek for whom the world was largely a puzzle to be solved - for whom reality is merely a convenient test-bed for theory; if the ultimate test you could apply to any thought is "does it work"; if in addition you're introverted and so abstracted that you only feel comfortable relating to other people when there's a proxy between you (a toy, a concept or a pair of spock ears); and if you read genre -- then what genre would you most read? :)

Not to say that all readers of SF are geeks, nor that all geeks are geeks in this way... but I think that tinkerers in the abstract and impersonal are often drawn to SF because its exploration of the world resembles how they like to think.

If I wanted to overstretch the case, I could take the Myers-Briggs theory of personality types (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-briggs) (which is often used to match people to career enjoyment) and try and apply it to genre too. In particular the Keirsian "temperament" (http://www.personalitypage.com/four-temps.html) version of this might have bearing.

I'm not going to claim that it's a perfect fit but suffice to say that in my science career I met a lot of INTJ (http://www.personalitypage.com/INTJ.html), INTP (http://www.personalitypage.com/INTP.html), ISTJ (http://www.personalitypage.com/ISTJ.html)personality types, and they flocked to SF -- and so did many people who weren't scientists, but probably should have been. When I first encountered fantasy writers en masse (online, as I shun conventions) there were far more INFJ (http://www.personalitypage.com/INFJ.html)and INFP (http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP.html)types than I'd ever found in one place before in my life.

My family however, who are full of "SJ" personality types (ISFJ (http://www.personalitypage.com/ISFJ.html), ESFP (http://www.personalitypage.com/ESFP.html)etc..) are all devotees of mysteries and romances. My father, who was strongly ESTP (http://www.personalitypage.com/ESTP.html), loved a Western.

Might there be something in this? You be the judge. :)

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 01:39 AM
What I mean is that SF in particular seems, to an outsider like me, to bring with it an extraordinarily high dose of reader response theory. I've posted about this before (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=51318), but both fan-fiction and all those conventions encourage readers to adopt the elements of the stories, modify them at will (but always within the unspoken boundaries of the genre, of course), and make the characters part of the readers' own inner worlds (and outer worlds, too, if sales of Spock ears can be trusted). The original author really isn't in charge any more--the texts belong to the readers.

[Off-topic: Interesting thread about fan fic as reader response. I always thought fanfic was a type of feedback, more creative than your usual I like it, or "oh no, I don't want him to die!" I like fanfic, though I never wrote any and didn't read much.]

I think it may have something to do with a unique combination of iconicity and freedom. Take Star Trek: you don't have to be Spock; you can be a Vulcan. SF/F builds entire worlds of which only a very small portion is in the text. Once you've worked your way through a book or story, you'll be unwilling to just abandon the world.

Let's say you have orcs, and they're hairy all over. They come to live in a big city. Are their orcish hairdressers? In the text, such issues may be:

(a) a plot-point
(b) mentioned in a single sentence, off-hand, on page 37
(c) ignored altogher

The most suggestive is (b). An hairdresser for orcs is going to have an attention factor that is far beyond the importance of the text. The only thing it does for the text is make the world a bit more real. But this has consequences, both economic and social.

Mention a hairdresser in any other sort of text, and nobody will waste a second thought on it. (Of course, if you mentioned a hairdresser for ethnic minorities...)

The thing is: go to a Star Trek convention, and everyone dresses up as Spock. You'll soon feel silly. But if everyone makes up their own character... (Notice how most Star Trek races are humanoid with a single distinctive feature.)

Similarly, Harry Potter offers the house system with coats of arms as distinctive features (and pointy hats and brooms for that exotic touch).

You have a very open-ended, yet at heart simple pattern to wear your "tribal colours".

But it's not necessarily just dressing up. An amazing number of people actually learn Klingon. I wouldn't be surprised to find more people may speak Klingon than Esperanto (though I don't have the numbers).

The thing is that you have a degree of freedom when dealing with the setting that you don't have when you're dealing with characters alone. Some people may be shy to touch a text, but they be less shy to partake of the world that gives context to the text.

It's like you get your own do-it-yourself adventure kit. (Often literally; many worlds come with a role playing system, now.)

Another side-effect of secondary world SF/F is that the world is too big for a single author to explore. Part of the genre-idea is that the worlds should be accepted as "real" by the reader. This has the implication that the potential for association is potentially unlimited. Just imagine how many stories have been written about real-life Earth. There's no reason that fictional settings can't be as complex. (I suppose fanfiction based on setting-extrapolation without any of the original characters is rarer, but I do think it exists.)


I just don't see a similar devotion among, say, romance or mystery genre readers to their respective texts. Other genres have their own expected plot and language conventions, but it's not the same. SF/fantasy readers can be amazingly devoted both to the outer trappings of the text and to the kinds of inner meanings you two are discussing. These enthusiasts resemble Talmudic scholars in the way they search out meanings and layer gloss upon gloss over the text.

Well, I do think there was (is?) quite the Sherlock Holmes cult...

Right now, SF/F does seem to be extremely popular, but it could be that the fan-markets are just more organised, with conventions, fan-clubs, role-playing games (shops organise get-togethers) etc. It could also be a more visible "geek-factor". Most of these aspects, I suppose, are social.


So my question is: do you think there is something special about fantasy or science fiction (calling all Jungians!) that makes those genres fulfill some special human need? Where else can the non-religious find such accessible parables, quest tales, and even explanations?

I'd like to say no, here, but then there's this (http://www.jedichurch.com/). Jedi Religion complete with demographics and moral polls. I'm not sure how to few this. Somewhere between serious and a joke?

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2008, 01:56 AM
Well, I do think there was (is?) quite the Sherlock Holmes cult...
True. How could I have forgotten the Baker Street Irregulars? The college I went to owns the original manuscript of The Second Stain, and one of my collegues wrote an essay (that got him into the Irregulars) about the sinister implications of how the last pages of the manuscript are written in a different hand than Conan Doyle's. He told me more that a few of the Irregulars are fanatically serious about Holmesian things. The Holmes Canon does have, like SF, an aspect of world-building.

. . . Jedi Religion . . . Somewhere between serious and a joke?
Like life, I suppose.

Ruv Draba
01-13-2008, 02:08 AM
I used "innocent" as a synonym for "naive", here. For example, I found the fantasy elements in Harry Potter had a certain charm, because they were "untainted" by the larger genre. Rowlings style reminded me a lot more of those British boarding school stories
I agree with you about early 20th century British boarding school feel to Rowling's tales. But there was a lot of fantasy marketed at British boarding school kids in the early 20th century - it just didn't make its way into Boys Own so much. I think Potter derives from that tradition (or has reinvented it). Certainly there wasn't much there I hadn't seen before - but I inherited a bunch of such stuff as a kid.


Literature, whether it's written, read, or talked about is cultural activity, much like cooking a meal, visiting your neighbours, walking past strangers in the street instead of greeting them, and going to the toilet in your coffee break. [...]

So rather than saying 1984 caused cultural changes, I'd say it was part of cultural changes. Triggering, preventing, reinforcing behaviour. But neither reading nor writing the book happened in a vacuum. I find it very hard to separate cause from effect here, to the point of chicken-egg dilemma.
What's important about literature as a cultural activity is that it's a recorded and re-distributed artefact. This gives it a cultural power far beyond how we walk the dog, say. It can react to cultural change (and does, in the way it records and reflects them), but because of its reach and persistence, is also a strong vehicle for initiating and propagating change. If this weren't true (or we didn't believe it to be true), regressive governments wouldn't seek to control literature at times.


Interesting. I'm surprised that pastoral poetry comes from rural areas. The genre pretty much thrived on ignorance of manure, and an idealisation to the point of Elysium.In Australia it's popular for retiring Baby Boomers to start hobby farms - grow alpacas, raise a handful of thoroughbreds, grow grapes or plant truffles. The more "serious" pastoral concerns tend to be large impersonal corporations these days, and they don't write much poetry. But in between the two are multigenerational family businesses, and I think they have quite a bit of concern and sentiment to write about - as indeed do the hobby farmers.

But I'd agree, that rarified sentimental idolisation of English pastorality isn't quite the same in a place like Australia where the flies buzz, the wimmin cuss and wild dogs kill sheep. We have our own laconic version of the pastoral poem that's around 150 years old and still going strong. It was this version I was thinking of, rather than its "parent" genre.



To me, this reads like a two-dimensional grid with four types:
rational-symbolic (e.g. allegory); rational-sensory (e.g. objectivism); emotional-symbolic (e.g. expressionism); emotional-sensory (e.g. impressionism).

Ad hoc, I have trouble making sense of "rational-emotional", or "symbolic-sensory".
That is really interesting, Dawnstorm! I'm going to want to think about that a lot. Thank you!

(Parenthetically, Myers-Briggs proponents would tell you that rational/emotional and symbolic/sensate are complementary functional pairs -- while we do one, we are not normally doing the other.)


// You like puns? /// ... ////
As a dog likes trees.



This is pure theory, now:

If a sub-genre adds to the super-genre, but has commonalities with another genre (from which it takes away), it should be possible to have a hybrid genre that takes away from both genres in such a way that what remains makes sense in its own right.
Yes, but this also highlights a possible reason why so very few hybrids have the same impact as their sires and dams...

If you accept the premise that a genre appears because we have a concern and a cultural way of thinking about it, then if you start to mess with the treatment you may lose resonance with the way that people think.

Something I've noticed with genre signatures is that key elements all reinforce one another. Remove one element, and you don't just lost a bit of the aesthetic - the integrity of the treatment as a whole weakens. For instance, here's my sig for Sword and Sorcery:

A major through-line with a growing sense of doom
A major through-line in which a character solves problems in a ruthless fashion (by wit or brawn -- I call this the 'sword' through-line)
A major through-line in which symbols of tainted morality, twisted psychology or corrupt society dominate (I call this the 'sorcery' through-line, though magic may not be involved)
A major through-line with headlong pace
Beautiful, hideous, poignant or bizarre imagery to enhance the aboveIf you remove any of these, you remove support and resonance with the others. So for instance the "sword and planet" subgenre (of which Edgar Rice Burroughs was a pioneer) replaces "growing doom" with "continuous peril", and "tainted morality" with "barbaric savagery". The concern shifts from moral issues to more practical ones - and it loses resonance to boot.


Dream reasoning?
Dreams are remarkable. We sometimes awaken from dreams with great insights -- even though the dreams themselves did not deliver those specific insights. Somehow, our ability to operate with symbol (especially symbol that has both conceptual and emotional resonance) creates a sort of reasoning of its own.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2008, 02:26 AM
Dreams are remarkable. We sometimes awaken from dreams with great insights -- even though the dreams themselves did not deliver those specific insights. Somehow, our ability to operate with symbol (especially symbol that has both conceptual and emotional resonance) creates a sort of reasoning of its own.
Jungians--an endangered species, but one worthy of protecting.

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 03:14 AM
I agree with you about early 20th century British boarding school feel to Rowling's tales. But there was a lot of fantasy marketed at British boarding school kids in the early 20th century - it just didn't make its way into Boys Own so much. I think Potter derives from that tradition (or has reinvented it). Certainly there wasn't much there I hadn't seen before - but I inherited a bunch of such stuff as a kid.

That makes sense. Now that you mention it, I do think I saw a British TV-series as a kid (in the 70ies) about a magic school. Focussing on two girls. Not sure, it's very hazy.

(I found the fantasy in Harry Potter had a very folksy feel to it; and a lot sounded like British whimsy, like the Whomping Willow. But then that's about what I'd expect without checking from a turn-of-the-century fantasy targeted at school children, too.)


What's important about literature as a cultural activity is that it's a recorded and re-distributed artefact. This gives it a cultural power far beyond how we walk the dog, say. It can react to cultural change (and does, in the way it records and reflects them), but because of its reach and persistence, is also a strong vehicle for initiating and propagating change. If this weren't true (or we didn't believe it to be true), regressive governments wouldn't seek to control literature at times.

True.


In Australia it's popular for retiring Baby Boomers to start hobby farms - grow alpacas, raise a handful of thoroughbreds, grow grapes or plant truffles. The more "serious" pastoral concerns tend to be large impersonal corporations these days, and they don't write much poetry. But in between the two are multigenerational family businesses, and I think they have quite a bit of concern and sentiment to write about - as indeed do the hobby farmers.

But I'd agree, that rarified sentimental idolisation of English pastorality isn't quite the same in a place like Australia where the flies buzz, the wimmin cuss and wild dogs kill sheep. We have our own laconic version of the pastoral poem that's around 150 years old and still going strong. It was this version I was thinking of, rather than its "parent" genre.

"Pastoral poetry" is a bit of an ironic title, viewed like that. I was talking 16th/17th century mostly. I'm no expert on the literacy rate among farmers. If they wrote poetry at all, I suppose they'd have written it in the winter, when they weren't all that busy. And I somehow doubt they would have written about raking hay and stuff.

So the last thing you'd have found in pastoral poetry would be pastoral concerns. Spenser's "Shepeardes Calender" (http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/shepheard.html), for example, would have been - at best - trite to an actual shepard (except for the warm cosy feeling of being recognised in poetry, perhaps. Perhaps.)

I tried to find a couple of Australian Pastoral Poems, which sound interesting to me. I found out that the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation funds a prize for pastoral poems. I found an interesting article about the importance of parrots in Australian poetry. But apart from the occasional excerpt, I couldn't find a single poem. Do you have a link, or a name, or a publication I could look for?


Yes, but this also highlights a possible reason why so very few hybrids have the same impact as their sires and dams...

If you accept the premise that a genre appears because we have a concern and a cultural way of thinking about it, then if you start to mess with the treatment you may lose resonance with the way that people think.

I'm going to have to think about this. Maybe if I found an example...


Something I've noticed with genre signatures is that key elements all reinforce one another. Remove one element, and you don't just lost a bit of the aesthetic - the integrity of the treatment as a whole weakens. For instance, here's my sig for Sword and Sorcery:
A major through-line with a growing sense of doom
A major through-line in which a character solves problems in a ruthless fashion (by wit or brawn -- I call this the 'sword' through-line)
A major through-line in which symbols of tainted morality, twisted psychology or corrupt society dominate (I call this the 'sorcery' through-line, though magic may not be involved)
A major through-line with headlong pace
Beautiful, hideous, poignant or bizarre imagery to enhance the aboveIf you remove any of these, you remove support and resonance with the others. So for instance the "sword and planet" subgenre (of which Edgar Rice Burroughs was a pioneer) replaces "growing doom" with "continuous peril", and "tainted morality" with "barbaric savagery". The concern shifts from moral issues to more practical ones - and it loses resonance to boot.

I wonder. I haven't read a single Burroughs (they're all availble on Project Gutenberg, so I might easily check them out one day), but I do know that Moorcock cites him as a major early influence (he was editing a Tarzan comic, and he has own brand of Mars stories - not recommendable). I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that Moorcock grew up in WWII London? Craters, continuous peril, barbaric savagery... ;) I don't know. But again resonance would depend on background, no?

Or if this is a weakening of synergy you're describing, how would that work?


Dreams are remarkable. We sometimes awaken from dreams with great insights -- even though the dreams themselves did not deliver those specific insights. Somehow, our ability to operate with symbol (especially symbol that has both conceptual and emotional resonance) creates a sort of reasoning of its own.

Interesting. I never thought much about dreams, probably because I remember very few dreams, myself. Have to pay more attention. I did notice a few "dream-threads" around these boards lately.

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 03:28 AM
Originality comes from us as the origin no matter if the tale's based at a ranch or a castle or a spaceship.

Clarification question:

Would you agree to this: "All fiction has a modicum of uniqueness, because people are unique."

(As to the diaries being popular, I think this goes back to the beginnings of the novel. Most narrators back then had a story-teller's voice. The limited point of views didn't start appearing till near the end of the nineteenth century [I think]. So if you wanted to hide the narrator and give the reader the feeling on eaves-dropping on the characters you'd use letters and diaries. I think that the use of diaries and letters in fiction was quite the oposite of "expressing yourself". It was hiding yourself behind the story in an age that didn't know 3rd limited.)


Like life, I suppose.

Very much so. Hehe.

Shweta
01-13-2008, 03:44 AM
Interesting reading, and I haven't actually gotten all the way through it, but I'd like to throw in a couple thoughts anyway. Really they all lead from the first.

1) It's possible that what we call any given genre is several knots in the web of human thought, that seem in some way to cluster together, so we draw a circle around them. This is how I see it. (Well, I also see it as a conversation, but that's another thing)

1b) This explains why some work is just unclassifiable as any one genre, and also how new sub-genres and genres come into being. Someone pokes at a different knot in the cluster, other people go "ooh" and congregate there, and poof, subgenre. The rise of fairy-tale retellings in the last 15 years is a good example of this in fantasy.

2) I really like the throughline idea; but I do think that genres have setting, plot, and characterization aspects too, all clustered together; partly because these are arguably one sort of throughline question. "What is that world like" and "What would it be like to be in that sequence of events" and "What is it like to be that kind of person" are all types of knot in the weave, I think. They're not the only ones, of course.

I'd also argue that a lot of classic SF pretends rationalism but is highly Age-of-Enlightenment sentimental. And would you really call, say, William Gibson or Cory Doctorow's work logical? It seems to me these guys do interesting things by skewing our notion of what is normal. The act of reading is a mindtrip, not a logic puzzle. Still SF.

2b) I want to throw in some examples of stories and ask how you guys would classify them. Because I would classify them as being in two genres at once, or at least of not having the standard throughlines of any one genre.

Sharon Shinn, Jenna Starborn. This is basically "Jane Eyre in Space", and it's awesome. The setting is SF, while the plot, some of the characterization, the language use, is all reminiscent of Jane Eyre. Some of the rationale is different, because of the setting causing changes (there's an excellent reason Mr. Rochester cannot divorce his mad wife, for example).

And it's not a copy. If anything, apart from being a fun "How is she going to do that" book, it's commentary, I think, on both SF and gothic fiction.

Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint. Sure, we can call it fantasy, but there isn't a drop of magic in the book, nor are there most of what we'd have called the trappings of fantasy before the book existed. There's magic in the world, but it's irrelevant to this book and only shows up in later writing (at least, by my reading, though Ellen said something that made me wonder if it's implied in Swordspoint...)

Now, the book itself spawned a number of urban-setting quest-free political fantasies, jokingly dubbed "mannerpunk", but what was it when it was written?

Ursula Le Guin, The Telling. This is a Hain novel, and has all the SF trappings of the others, and it's deeply concerned with an alien civilization. But its concern and throughline is... I'd say mystical. Is it still SF? I'd say hell yes, but would you?

3) Are you guys familiar with the interstitial arts (http://www.interstitialarts.org/wordpress/?p=10) stuff? One of the things they question is this monolithic idea of genre.

Shweta
01-13-2008, 03:55 AM
I agree there's a lot of bad writing out there, and I agree that sf/f seems to gather people who want something to be obsessive about. But I bet I could lure you back over if you gave me a chance, Ruv, because there's also a lot of exciting and interesting work in the genres outside the classics.

It's also work that sort of challenges your theory, I think, or at least suggests the presence of multiple knots -- because I do think the people who are doing interesting work are splitting off from the vision/throughline/core of the classics.

Also:
I was reading Sara Donatti's blog for a bit. She's a historical/romance writer who... at once point defended someone's right to dislike a Diana Galbadon book. And she got reamed for it by frothing-at-the-mouth Galbadon fans.

So the scary-fandom is not just SF/F, so there! :tongue

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2008, 04:09 AM
So the scary-fandom is not just SF/F, so there! :tongue
Except for the Vulcan ears thing.

Ruv Draba
01-13-2008, 04:26 AM
Jungians--an endangered species, but one worthy of protecting.

JBI ran that one by me too, CG, and nobody ever has before. I've never thought of myself as a Jungian. It smacks of tree-hugging and leaf-chewing to me. I certainly don't think of myself as atavistic or a museum-piece. The last place I'd like to live would be on a Jungian preserve, ogled by postmodern postfreudian tourists. :e2photo::e2sling:

I'm driven by pragma and lured by holes. I also have a penchant for finding new uses for worn-out thought (which in an era of recycling and reuse occasionally makes me feel virtuous). In that respect I think I might accept some of Jung's premises and some conclusions, though from a more pragmatic and less mystical perspective -- and only because they may be useful in helping to fill in some gaping holes. Please understand though, that these are just tools, and not 'isms' for me.

Let me sketch an edifice in a fairly ad-hoc fashion.

Observation: our rational brains don't make most of our decisions, and we're quite poor at adhering to the rational decisions that we make whenever they come into conflict with our emotions.
Observation: we are very good at producing post-hoc justifications for what we do -- even when what we do is clearly against our individual and collective interests.
Observation: the whole of the human gene pool is 98% identical. Despite our own ability to observe difference, we are genetically more alike with one another than are fruit-flies.
Observation: as our genetic and biological architectures do not greatly differ, neither do the fundamentals of our needs (I'm thinking Maslow here), our development or our socialisation. The differences we call values which underpin our morality, customs and traditions do not greatly influence our social functions (the functions of "mother", "father", "headman", "priest" etc... are almost identical everywhere) -- they do however, greatly influence how we express and communicate within those functions, and our individual and collective aspirations
Inference: we rely more than we realise on socialised thought to help us make reliable decisions in a complex and ambiguous world. As evidence, the significance of "momentum" in elections; the existence of "movements" in arts; the psychology of riots; the prevalence of superstition; the way that marketing operates; the pathology of fads and crazes
Support: the existence of mirror neurons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neurons) in human brains, and their likely role in both learning and empathy.
Inference: our belief in self-interested opportunism driving most of our actions is already sinking, and may be beyond recovery. We want to believe this because we're so hooked on the cult of the individual. But individuals are all buying Nikes and Priuses and watching summer blockbusters and recycling but not reducing consumption. We normally want to save a drowning man; but if he squawks long enough and won't help himself, sometimes you just want to sit on his head.
:e2fish::e2drown::e2fish:Speculations:

From our common social functions, cognitive codes called archetypes emerge
From our common needs and similar environments, common dream symbols emerge -- these dream symbols vary when the environment does
We're extremely good at observing and reflecting human behaviour (including our own) but we have little conscious time to interpret it because we're so busy doing other things. Dreams give us the opportunity to collect, process and review trends and patterns in our experiences both from an individual and "collective cultural" perspectives
Perhaps some genres perform a similar function in our waking moments - and this helps explain the "dreamlike" quality that appears in so many genre works.
Non-genre literature can sometimes do the same dreamish thing, but also does other things
Some genre literature does too
Possible opportunity to hook in Dawnstorm's link between Myers-Briggs functional types (rational/feeling, symbolic/sensate) and aesthetic movements here.
We depend heavily upon others to build and sustain our moral fortitude, our vision, our faith and our courage. So we rely on our culture to exchange not just information, but influence. Perhaps contrary to common thought, we don't just accept cultural influence as a price on our individuality for the goods and services we receive -- perhaps we seek it to help keep ourselves functional and sane.

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 04:46 AM
1) It's possible that what we call any given genre is several knots in the web of human thought, that seem in some way to cluster together, so we draw a circle around them. This is how I see it. (Well, I also see it as a conversation, but that's another thing)

1b) This explains why some work is just unclassifiable as any one genre, and also how new sub-genres and genres come into being. Someone pokes at a different knot in the cluster, other people go "ooh" and congregate there, and poof, subgenre. The rise of fairy-tale retellings in the last 15 years is a good example of this in fantasy.

The cognitive approach to genre. "Shine your torch a bit more to the left. I think I saw something sparkling in the shadows."

If we're using a spatial metaphor, I'd assume more something like a rubics cube, or a puzzle ball; you can try and get something from the other end of the continuum, but some places are harder to reach, and every movement you make affects the system.


2) I really like the throughline idea; but I do think that genres have setting, plot, and characterization aspects too, all clustered together; partly because these are arguably one sort of throughline question. "What is that world like" and "What would it be like to be in that sequence of events" and "What is it like to be that kind of person" are all types of knot in the weave, I think. They're not the only ones, of course.

I'd expect questions like "what is the world like?" to fall under treatments, mostly, but it's not my theory. I'm testing my understanding.


I'd also argue that a lot of classic SF pretends rationalism but is highly Age-of-Enlightenment sentimental. And would you really call, say, William Gibson or Cory Doctorow's work logical? It seems to me these guys do interesting things by skewing our notion of what is normal. The act of reading is a mindtrip, not a logic puzzle. Still SF.

I'm still not so sure on the rationality-side, either, especially considering the singularity stuff. Machine intelligence beyond human understanding is not tractable to human understanding. Doctrow in particular is a good example.

What connects Cyberpunk with the Singularity stuff is the question of machine sentience. And since we don't understand consciousness except from an experiential point-of-view...

But this is where I'm still having troubles with the signature-appraoch. It works as a critical tool, but if you place it in an academic context, I'm not sure whether I'm working with a definition or a typology. If it's not a definition, we'd need one for SF that is independent of the signature approach, to keep it from being circular.

***

I actually have this theory that some SF is a reaction to the restrictions of the scientific method. In SF I can think about machine consciousness or many-world theory without the need for operational definitions because I'm shamelessly faking the data from the metaphors inherent in the hypotheses. This would explain some cyberpunk (a lot of these folks were mathematicians or programmers) and, perhaps, singularity SF.



Sharon Shinn, Jenna Starborn. This is basically "Jane Eyre in Space", and it's awesome. The setting is SF, while the plot, some of the characterization, the language use, is all reminiscent of Jane Eyre. Some of the rationale is different, because of the setting causing changes (there's an excellent reason Mr. Rochester cannot divorce his mad wife, for example).

And it's not a copy. If anything, apart from being a fun "How is she going to do that" book, it's commentary, I think, on both SF and gothic fiction.

Sounds fine to me. (My own approach, the "loaded area" approach, sets the hybrid as the default, anyway. We just don't speak of hybrids if one element is dominant. To my mind most horror falls either into SF, fantasy or thriller, with some being domestic tragedies.)


Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint. Sure, we can call it fantasy, but there isn't a drop of magic in the book, nor are there most of what we'd have called the trappings of fantasy before the book existed. There's magic in the world, but it's irrelevant to this book and only shows up in later writing (at least, by my reading, though Ellen said something that made me wonder if it's implied in Swordspoint...)

Now, the book itself spawned a number of urban-setting quest-free political fantasies, jokingly dubbed "mannerpunk", but what was it when it was written?

Well, the "alternate world" appraoch is a staple of both fantasy and SF. If we're looking backwards (as "sword" in the title suggests) we're more likely to think "fantasy". [Peake's Gormenghast trilogy is generally considered a genre classic [at the very least by the New Wave and follow ups], and all there is is a huge castle and people with telling names.]


Ursula Le Guin, The Telling. This is a Hain novel, and has all the SF trappings of the others, and it's deeply concerned with an alien civilization. But its concern and throughline is... I'd say mystical. Is it still SF? I'd say hell yes, but would you?

Probably, but I'd have to read it.


3) Are you guys familiar with the interstitial arts (http://www.interstitialarts.org/wordpress/?p=10) stuff? One of the things they question is this monolithic idea of genre.

I've heard of it, but I'm not familiar with it. I've looked at the site, and it's not a surprise to find Nightshade books affiliated with them. Also, apparantly, Vandermeer has an article there. I like the inclusiveness of it all. Not only writing.

Shweta
01-13-2008, 04:49 AM
Interesting thoughts here. ETA: This was a response to Ruv, I cross-posted with Dawnstorm

Counter-thoughts:

There are very few genre writers I think get that dreamlike quality. One is Patricia McKillip. I find her writing quite hallucinogenic (I am inferring, never having taken hallucinogens). Some of the magical realists get it, I guess, but I more feel like they are writing about dreams than writing dreams.

So while many use non-literal imagery (I think in fantasy, science fiction, and some others), I would really wonder whether they're serving a dream-like purpose.

Though, I was at a literature/cognitive science conference where a keynote speaker suggested that all effective fiction functions by inducing a hypnagogic state (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypnagogia).

Shweta
01-13-2008, 04:54 AM
Dawnstorm, I think we're mostly in agreement.

Especially since I see tying knots in a web as affecting the web :)

Swordspoint is... arguably backward-looking, in that the setting is pseudohistorical, but it was also challenging a great deal about actually backward-looking fiction.
I dunno. This is where I head into genre-as-conversation.

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 05:02 AM
Especially since I see tying knots in a web as affecting the web :)

Ah, so it's not just circling stuff. (For some reason I picture the Gordian Knot, now. ;) )


Swordspoint is... arguably backward-looking, in that the setting is pseudohistorical, but it was also challenging a great deal about actually backward-looking fiction.
I dunno. This is where I head into genre-as-conversation.

I hear people say similar things about Mary Gentle's Ash - A Secret History. I'll have to clarify: To me talking about F&SF topicalises setting; so when I say "backward looking" it's a simple setting thing. Pretty much like Discworld, where Pratchett re-appropriates such things as movies or super market trollies into a "backwards setting"

Genre is very often self-conscious. Looking backwards settingwise, to me, isn't the same as nostalgia (though it can be).

Shweta
01-13-2008, 05:07 AM
Right.

I do disagree with you on that point, though, because I think genres are a (fuzzy-edged) combination of setting, style, story type, driving questions, and ... feel, which I cannot characterize right.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2008, 05:10 AM
Circling around the notion of dream archetypes, and literary ones too, I suppose, is the problem of how the brain remembers things, particularly experiences. From my favorite wise neurologist, Oliver Sacks, comes this tidbit (from The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat):

Experience is not possible until it is organised iconically; action is not possible unless it is organised iconically. The brain's record of everything - everything alive - must be iconic. This is the final form of the brain's record, even though the preliminary form may be computational or programmatic. The final form of cerebral representation must be, or allow, "art" - the artful scenery and melody of experience and action.

Shweta
01-13-2008, 06:54 AM
Certainly brain maps preserve visual/auditory structure. I guess that makes them iconic :)

And Bartlett's old study shows that we remember stories in a form that's consistent with our cultural models. Make them approach archetypes, if you will...
At this point I'm just babbling.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2008, 07:37 AM
At this point I'm just babbling.
No, silly--you're getting in touch with your inner archetypes. Which could be babble, I suppose.

Ruv Draba
01-13-2008, 02:47 PM
[Off-topic: Interesting thread about fan fic as reader response. I always thought fanfic was a type of feedback, more creative than your usual I like it, or "oh no, I don't want him to die!" I like fanfic, though I never wrote any and didn't read much.]For me, fanfic provides some great examples of why one shouldn't try to write genre from formula characters, settings and plots -- except for humour.

The humourous parodies and "what ifs" can be very funny, but the "serious" attempts are often just painful. Fans often get expert at reproducing setting, plots, characters and voice - but that only gives them the ability to play "doll's houses" with tropes. Good writing requires strong observation and something to say too -- and such skills are not learned by mimicking existing fiction.



The thing is: go to a Star Trek convention, and everyone dresses up as Spock. You'll soon feel silly. But if everyone makes up their own character...
It's not for me, but I see it as no different than the festive exuberance you might find at (say) a tomato festival, or bizarre hats at a race carnival.

But it's not necessarily just dressing up. An amazing number of people actually learn Klingon. I wouldn't be surprised to find more people may speak Klingon than Esperanto (though I don't have the numbers).
Again, not for me, but it seems no more silly than studying a racing form guide and placing bets on dogs or horses.


Right now, SF/F does seem to be extremely popular, but it could be that the fan-markets are just more organised, with conventions, fan-clubs, role-playing games (shops organise get-togethers) etc. It could also be a more visible "geek-factor". Most of these aspects, I suppose, are social.

Back to what I mentioned earlier: some people are really more comfortable relating to one another through a proxy activity. Some like the sensate, emotional and visceral pleasure of going to a sporting event. Others prefer the more cerebral, symbolic and wry pleasure of watching hobbits sing parodies of Bob Dylan songs. It might or might not increase their appreciation of Tolkien or Bob Dylan, but I think it does somehow increase their appreciation of one another. To push my sports analogy a little further, what I'm saying is that I don't think it's really the genre (or in sport, the rules of the game); I think it's the people. The genre is just the excuse. :D

Ruv Draba
01-13-2008, 03:46 PM
1) It's possible that what we call any given genre is several knots in the web of human thought, that seem in some way to cluster together, so we draw a circle around them. This is how I see it. (Well, I also see it as a conversation, but that's another thing)Hi Shweta,

I'm with you in both respects here. The concerns bunch and the treatments bunch too - they're not all the same concerns or exactly the same treatments. There's just enough affinity between them that they stick together. For example, mystery/suspense stories often have a lot to say about justice and social order. But an individual story may only talk about justice or only about social order. And (in the good ones) the treatment will reflect the concern.

I strongly feel that genre literature (and a lot of other literature too) is a conversation from the culture to itself. As another example, horror stories often strike me as a provocation to ourselves. For example, the famous line from When a Stranger Calls "Have you checked the children?" is a goad to us: are we taking our families for granted as we arrange them for our convenience; are we performing our social duties as parents as well as we ought?


1b) This explains why some work is just unclassifiable as any one genre, and also how new sub-genres and genres come into being.Concerns change as our circumstances do, and treatments evolve to reflect the concerns - and how we're thinking about things. Sometimes "dead" genres will resurface with new relevance and a spruced up style; at other times a new way of thinking finds relevance to tired old matters; at yet other times a new concern emerges that requires new treatments to express.


2) I really like the throughline idea; but I do think that genres have setting, plot, and characterization aspects too, all clustered together; They do, of course. Setting, plot and character are often the most instantly recogniseable genre elements.

But the salient parts of setting, plot and character (as opposed to the ornamentation) are typically caught in the major through-lines anyway. So we have a situation where through-lines predict S/P/C, but the reverse is not true - you often can't predict the key through-lines from S/P/C (especially in the classics). That's why I tend to focus on through-lines in preference.


I'd also argue that a lot of classic SF pretends rationalism but is highly Age-of-Enlightenment sentimental.I'd argue that you're right. In fact I'd go further and argue that it's a form of fantasy in a futuristic setting. Classic examples appear in stories of the form that "computers/robots/aliens become our friends and for the first time in our lonely species' existence, truly madly deeply understand and love us (and typically offer us eternal youth at about the same time)"


And would you really call, say, William Gibson or Cory Doctorow's work logical?I describe Gibson as a fantasist playing with technology; by contrast, Neal Stephenson who writes on similar subjects is a SF writer; I'll get back to you on Doctorow.


2b) I want to throw in some examples of stories and ask how you guys would classify them. Because I would classify them as being in two genres at once, or at least of not having the standard throughlines of any one genre.
I'm embarrassed to confess that you've mentioned three works I haven't read -- including probably one of the few Le Guins I haven't snatched up. Undaunted though, I have some broad and provisional comments to make based on what you've written:


Sharon Shinn, Jenna Starborn. This is basically "Jane Eyre in Space", and it's awesome.Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman, and the story you describe sounds like one too.A bildungsroman is usually a screaming clue that the genre is either fantasy or romance -- both genres use bildungsroman storylines with great frequency -- and virtually own that kind of story.

One of the things you may notice about bildungsroman storylines is that the setting only needs to do two things: provide a constant source of vexation for the MC, and serve up moody backdrops for character anguish. It doesn't matter where you set your bildungsroman story, as long as the setting does these things.

A second facet of bildungsroman stories is that the moral fibre of the MC and support characters is absolutely critical. So too is how they argue emotionally and symbolically with one another. You can't just toss any characters into the mix and get a good story, and they can't just say anything to one another any old way.

A third facet of bildungsromans is that rational argument doesn't hold sway for long. It's often used to confound or distract for a while -- then emotional and symbolic arguments reassert themselves.

Breaking it down like that, I'd argue that science probably hasn't much part to play in such a tale, except as a source of McGuffins and distractions. The domain of concern is probably morality and I'd guess that the treatment is likely to be emotional or symbolic (or a bit o' both). The setting may be pretty and clever, and sciency but I'd guess that it's unlikely to substantially affect the impact of the story, which I assume will hinge on the character interactions.

Depending on whether the story resolves principally by symbol or by emotion, I'd suggest that this is either a fantasy or a romance (respectively), that just happens to be in space.

Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint. Sure, we can call it fantasy, but there isn't a drop of magic in the book, nor are there most of what we'd have called the trappings of fantasy before the book existed.I'm sorry to say that I've read no Kushner at all, and have no insight on the way that she writes. However, there are many fantasy novels that don't require magic. What fantasy leans on most heavily is the use of symbol to explore and resolve moral and psychological concerns -- to the point where the symbology begins to dictate events . This occurs when there is magic (e.g. the beanstalk in Jack and the Beanstalk is entirely symbolic; the One Ring in Lord of the Rings is too.) It also occurs when there isn't magic -- e.g. Samsa's transformation into a gigantic insect in Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

Ursula Le Guin, The Telling. This is a Hain novel, and has all the SF trappings of the others, and it's deeply concerned with an alien civilization. But its concern and throughline is... I'd say mystical. Is it still SF? I'd say hell yes, but would you?
Le Guin is one of the few writers who crosses easily between fantasy treatments and SF treatements and demonstrates a really solid mastery of both. Most SF/F writers find their pace in only one or the other and then just play with settings. As I haven't read this installment of the Hainish Cycle, I can only guess, but since I've read virtually all the others I think it's a safe guess.

Le Guin's Hainish Cycle is sociological and anthropological study. Le Guin has been meticulous in documenting causes and following logical consequences in this cycle. That there's mysticism in the story doesn't bother me -- there's a touch of mysticism in The Word for World is Forest too -- and mysticism is an anthropological and sociological concern. It's all in how you explore it. I can't conceive that she'd vary her well-established treatment for The Telling -- and I will of course have to pick up a copy.

So my vote, sight unseen: it's SF.

3) Are you guys familiar with the interstitial arts (http://www.interstitialarts.org/wordpress/?p=10) stuff? One of the things they question is this monolithic idea of genre.Not by this name, but when I dug into your link I found the old favourites of metafiction, slipstream etc... I can only agree that if you define genre on setting, character and plot elements, you'll create great crevasses in your typology. But that must be (in part at least) because S/P/C are almost incidental to a story's concerns and impact. Define your genre more about concern and the approach to deliver impact and you might find that these "new genres" and "genreish nongenres" slot in much more easily.

So I suspect, at least.

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 05:25 PM
For me, fanfic provides some great examples of why one shouldn't try to write genre from formula characters, settings and plots -- except for humour.

The humourous parodies and "what ifs" can be very funny, but the "serious" attempts are often just painful. Fans often get expert at reproducing setting, plots, characters and voice - but that only gives them the ability to play "doll's houses" with tropes. Good writing requires strong observation and something to say too -- and such skills are not learned by mimicking existing fiction.

I agree, but fanfiction comes from fans, primarily, not writers. I don't think the primary aspect is to produce good writing; it's having fun with likeminded people - and from the PoV of the author an opportunity to see how your readership perceives what you've written.

When writers write "fanfiction" it tends to come out different. Jane Eyre --> The Wild Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys); Frankenstein --> Frankenstein Unbound (Brian Aldiss), Ivanhoe --> Rebecca and Rowena (Thackery)...

I'd never want to write fanfiction, but that's because I'm rather shy. I get a similar feeling from writing other people's characters I get when I have to make decisions for others. I hate that feeling.

I still think fanfic would be a very good source for feedback, if only because it allows you to see which tropes people play doll-house with.


It's not for me, but I see it as no different than the festive exuberance you might find at (say) a tomato festival, or bizarre hats at a race carnival.

Again, not for me, but it seems no more silly than studying a racing form guide and placing bets on dogs or horses.

I agree. Professional sports audiences, for example, aren't all that different. Neither are rennaisance fairs, for that matter. (I'm rather uncomfortable myself in streamlined crowds.)


Back to what I mentioned earlier: some people are really more comfortable relating to one another through a proxy activity. Some like the sensate, emotional and visceral pleasure of going to a sporting event. Others prefer the more cerebral, symbolic and wry pleasure of watching hobbits sing parodies of Bob Dylan songs. It might or might not increase their appreciation of Tolkien or Bob Dylan, but I think it does somehow increase their appreciation of one another. To push my sports analogy a little further, what I'm saying is that I don't think it's really the genre (or in sport, the rules of the game); I think it's the people. The genre is just the excuse. :D

I would agree. The question, though, is what about the genre provides the excuse?

***


I do disagree with you on that point, though, because I think genres are a (fuzzy-edged) combination of setting, style, story type, driving questions, and ... feel, which I cannot characterize right.

Well, to me the key questions about genre are:

1. If you know a story to be associated with a genre, what expectations do you have?

2. If you don't know the genre associated with a text, how do you realise what kind of story you are reading?

My hypothesis is that while there may be such a thing as, say, a SF-plot:

(a) it's presence is not required and
(b) it depends on the SF setting to be interpreted appropriately.

This goes back to something Ruv and I have talked about before: my approach confronts him with an ontological nightmare, whereas a through-line approach confronts me with a hermeneutic nightmare.

Now, and this is significant, to establish that a setting is a SF-setting I can't really appeal to the setting. This means that, even when claiming setting as a prime focus, setting is not enough to circumscribe the genre. You need ways to describe a SF setting, and this is where all the other elements come in.

So when I'm saying that SF emphasises setting I am talking about genre as an interpretative category to be applied to texts, rather than about stories that have been associated with the genre.

As an example, take Ruv's excellent analysis of the Jane-Eyre-in-Space story. My take would be that "bildungsroman" and "SF" are compatible, because the "Bildungsroman" inhabits primarily plot, whereas "SF" inhabits primarily setting. Now, these two approaches are at odds in the secondary features: the themes etc. that make a SF-setting a SF-setting are at odds with the features: the themes etc. that make a bildungsroman-plot a bildungroman-plot. Now, the genre battle is not fought at the "genre-centres", but rather at the "genre fringes". (On the other hand, if SF and fantasy co-inhabit a story, the tensions will be somewhat more problematic because both inhabit "setting". It's not a border-skirmish as much as it's a civil-war.)

Now, "genre focus" is not "story focus". Going back to the Pern-examples, I'd argue that the books are SF on strength of the setting, but that the "story" de-emphasises the setting because of character- and plotwise concerns. Now, these may be character- and plot-concerns that normally associated with fantasy rather than SF, but this doesn't make the story Fantasy. Rather, I'd plead "hidden variable"; a plot-dominated or character-dominated third genre that you're not going discover if you ask "SF or fantasy?" because both these genres inhabit setting.

So, from my perspective, it makes sense to talk about Travel-/exploration plots in a SF-setting (Doyle's Lost World, Well's Time Machine...). I predict that almost all plots that take place in a SF-setting we've seen elsewhere.

In practise, this approach is very complicated, because it's hard to establish "story focus", as well as trying to assess whether the "fringe-elements" support one genre or another. My approach is a close-reading approach, and it's strictly descriptive. This is: it's not going to suggest improvements. Ruv's approach is way better if that's what you're looking for. But my approach will describe the story itself as a meeting place for various gneres (depending on how detailed you are, and on how well read you are; I'm limited in that respect).

An example to follow.

Shweta
01-13-2008, 06:06 PM
I think my approach is somewhere in between each of yours.

I most definitely think of individual works in terms of which characteristics of which genre they exemplify, rather than as being works of one genre alone necessarily. And the stuff I love the most occupies those boundaries and cracks.
And for me that's a useful way of thinking about story and about ideas I want to explore.

On the other hand I'm really intrigued by the notion of central concerns/throughlines, and that plays into my other notion of genre as conversation.

I am not sure I really see these notions as necessarily being in conflict, because I think that different genres might have different ruling concerns, but they're all concerned with human life, so there's a lot of overlap; and individual works can very well have more than one driving concern/approach.

Not if they're genre-central, perhaps.

Of course, we're getting back into the ontological nightmare, but then I rather like ontological nightmares. The whole realm of human categorization is one :)

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 06:57 PM
I'll be talking about the opening of Ian MacDonald's story "The Djinn's Wife" and look at how this establishes genre. In this case, I'll ignore the title, because the first sentence pretty much elaborates on the title. Normally, the title is the place to start.

Once there was a woman in Delhi who married a Djinn.

The core statement is a repetition of the title "The Djinn's Wife". From the title we expect the story will about the woman, but also about the Djinn. Having her as the subject of the first sentence has us expect that (a) we get her story and (b) that we get her story because she married a Djinn.

Now much depends on how we look on Djinns. Do we think Djinns exist? If yes, do we think we can marry them? Are we led to expect a version of I Dream of Jeannie? A romantic comedy spiced up with a fantasy element?

Not really. Why not? It's the word-choice. "Once there was..." is reminiscent of "Once upon a time..." It's a fairy tale beginning. From what we know about fairy tales, we may expect a morality component to the story that we wouldn't find a romantic comedy (that we might expect if the words "marry" and "Djinn" trigger memories of that TV-series).

But that's not the end of it. We musn't ignore "Delhi". A real place. So now we're getting more specific. It's no longer just a fairy tale; it's a folk tale. As a reader I'll try to call up what I know about India and it's population. This gives me a point-of-view to approach the story with. Since I'm now thinking cultural, it may also ocurr to me to re-assess what "marriage" means in different cultures. I may, for example, remember news about a man being forced to marry a goat (http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article14249), as an example that - true or not - marrying non-human agents isn't such an absurdity as my initial reaction may have told me.
I may also be moved to think about the - er - less spiritual relationships between mortals and gods.

So right now I'm probably expecting a sort of folk tale. Plotwise I suspect that the story will not have a happy ending (as folk-tales that involve relationships with supernatural creatures rarely do). Okay, let's read on:

Before the water war, that was not such a strange thing:

Water war? Delhi was involved in a water war? When? I'll soon ascertain that there has been no "water war". In the text, however, it's a low-key allusion to something the fictive reader of the text is supposed to be able to make sense of. But I'm not that fictive reader, and I've never heard of a "water war". This topicalises setting with a vengeance. Compared to the ideal reader of the text, I'm at a disadvantage. So, to make sense of the story, I will have to pay closer attention to the story itself.

This approach to setting, off-hand remarks about things that the intended reader of the text is supposed to know but the real reader of the text cannot, is typical for the SF/F field. (The classical Utopias of More and Bacon topicalised setting in the text itself. The intended reader is supposed to be ignorant of the place you're about it. This is why the - comparatively more recent - dystopias of Orwell and Huxley lean towards SF/F. It posists a similar narrator-reader fiction under the surface.)

Now, we're not talking about a made-up world. I know Delhi exists. This makes me shift my expectations more in the direction of SF (whether the setting is future history or alternate history, both of which tend to be associated with SF rather than F - it's quite important to settle that question other than just in an assumption, but I don't have the time or space here, so you'll have to excuse me. I realise it's a bit of a weakpoint in this analysis.)

And now the word "Djinn" from the previous sentence gets re-framed. Djinn could be anything: a social position, an alien, a domesticated animal which is rumoured to be sentient... Whatever it is, though, it is bound to the Djinn-legendarium. Whatever it is, "Djinn" is a metaphor drawn from a specifiable cultural pool. The metaphor is thus bound to a specific fictional culture that is derived from specific non-fictional culture. (In fantasy, this could happen, but more likely a djinn would be a djinn, and the metaphor would be a function of the story itself rather than its setting. In SF it's still a metaphor, but it's filtered through setting and character first.)

Of course, the djinn might be just that: a djinn. We could then either have (a) a mythical being imported and made consistent with a SF setting, or (b) a setting where a SF setting is confronted with a "mysterious" element that challenges the scientific world-view - a threat, a puzzle, a refuge? (In a way this would be comparable to Guereschi's Don Camillo stories, which are primarily a humorous treatment of the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party, but have Don Camillo talk to and receive answers from Jesus.)

Now, go on to the "strange" comment. Apparantly this is "now" considered strange, or the comment would make little sense. But when is "now"? If we're talking about the future, "before the water war" would refer to the reader's "now", too, but we cannot be sure. This is where someone living in Delhi and myself have a drastically different reading experience. I'm ignorant of everyday culture in Delhi now. A Delhi resident will know better how to frame this, than I do. But - and this is significant - I will defer interpretative authority to the Delhi resident. I, personally, will read on and bear the "strange" comment in mind as a question I have to the text.

Okay, on with the text:

Delhi, split in two like a brain, has been the city of djinns from time before time.

Information, that's really just an elaboration of what has come before the colon. Notice how the sentence balances the mythic against the rational, though?

"City of djinns" and "from time before time" both re-inforce the folk-tale feeling (and strengthen the idea of myth as a power in everyday life). But the simile "split in two like a brain" comes from a different set of language. This is mingling the clinically detached view with the mythic view.

At that point we may wonder who the narrator is, and how s/he organises these ways of thinking for herself. (As you read on, you'll notice that the story is told in a third person mode with the narrator making no appearance, but the narration is interrupted with exposition that is heavy on narrator-intrusion. At the end of the story, you have a nice case-study for developing point-of-view terminology - the difference between thrid and first person narrators, [and through plot, too]; If I may go off on a tangent, I consider Ian MacDonald at his strongest in the shorter fiction, and apart from beautiful prose I find point-of-view being his major strength. The narrative situation is usually highly relevant to the story, something that I feel takes the backseat in his novels. [/tangent])

Out of time constraints I'm going to stop here. The thing is that, as you learn what the djinns are (and if you've read River of Gods it won't be hard to guess) the story approaches SF more and more, but the more you think about what they really are, the more you're driven back towards fantasy.

The word-tensions I tried to describe above flow throughout every text out there, but some are a lot "tamer" than others. It's highly complex, even if we - as I have done - ignore the fact that I know the author and that I've read the story in a SF-anthology, edited by Gardner Dozois who I also know as an editor. All these things weigh in with real life expectations.

It's a mess, but personally I do think that the distinctive features of SF (and of Fantasy, historic fiction, and utopian fiction) cluster around setting.

This approach, as I said in the other post, is markedly different from the "through-line" appraoch. It's less useful for picking out fault-lines, but if you're a more intuitive writer in the first place, it's like mapping out the domains through what you're paying attention to in the first place.

More general comments from me are based on the assumption that my categorising intuitions follow from a similar (but implicit rather than explicit) reading process. I'd describe any text not as genre so much than as a playground of various genre tensions.

ColoradoGuy
01-13-2008, 08:20 PM
I'd describe any text not as genre so much than as a playground of various genre tensions.
I like your nutshell a lot. For me it brings to mind a color analogy: some colors of the genre spectrum are purely primary (ROYGBIV), but others are blends of these in various proportions.

Dawnstorm
01-13-2008, 08:32 PM
I like your nutshell a lot. For me it brings to mind a color analogy: some colors of the genre spectrum are purely primary (ROYGBIV), but others are blends of these in various proportions.

That's a very nice visual analogy. :)


On the other hand I'm really intrigued by the notion of central concerns/throughlines, and that plays into my other notion of genre as conversation.

Could you expand on this? For example: Who's conversing with whom? (And how is this different from say "letters" as onversation; or fiction as conversation?)

Ruv Draba
01-14-2008, 01:29 AM
I agree, but fanfiction comes from fans, primarily, not writers. I don't think the primary aspect is to produce good writing; it's having fun with likeminded people - and from the PoV of the author an opportunity to see how your readership perceives what you've written.
I think you're right, Dawnstorm. It's a social activity.

I'd never want to write fanfiction, but that's because I'm rather shy.For me it's because it's the worst of both worlds: bad writing and bad socialising. I'd rather socialise in discussions like this - good ideas and nice people. :)


I still think fanfic would be a very good source for feedback, if only because it allows you to see which tropes people play doll-house with.From a critical perspective, I think that having someone else write a passage for a WIP can provide a lot of insight because it reflects what they're seeing. But a little of that goes a long way.

I agree. Professional sports audiences, for example, aren't all that different. Neither are rennaisance fairs, for that matter. (I'm rather uncomfortable myself in streamlined crowds.)I can enjoy a sports match if I'm with someone I like. I wouldn't go on my own though.


I would agree. The question, though, is what about the genre provides the excuse?Literally, I think it's just common interest combined with an opportunity to get festive. You can see the same with Rocky Horror devotees, Elvis impersonators, fans of flamboyant bands, car shows, dog shows, sports fans, and people who dress as pumpkins at pumpkin shows. (Maybe it's the folk who don't enjoy doing this who are unusual!)


Well, to me the key questions about genre are:

1. If you know a story to be associated with a genre, what expectations do you have?
When I first enjoyed genre fiction I used to look for "a similar experience to the last genre book I enjoyed". That's almost tantamount to "please tell me the same story again, but different" -- the sort of thing a kid might ask a parent reading to him in bed. :D

Nowadays, I'd phrase it differently: "Please tell me another story about a similar thing, and tell it a similar way." In other words: I liked what this story was about, and I liked how you told it.

(Of course, it's also good to have stories about different things, told in different ways. :) One can't just eat sausage in every meal.)



2. If you don't know the genre associated with a text, how do you realise what kind of story you are reading?
I think that doesn't matter. A good storyteller picks a good treatment for the concern, based on the audience. If you share culture with that storyteller then the chances are that the treatment will either make sense to you instantly, or in very short order. All that remains then is whether you share that concern - and the views of that concern that the storyteller seeks to share.

So you don't need to know that a good story is genre to appreciate it. And if it's not a good story then I question whether "knowing it's genre" makes it more appreciable.



My hypothesis is that while there may be such a thing as, say, a SF-plot:

(a) it's presence is not required and
(b) it depends on the SF setting to be interpreted appropriately.I'd agree with that, but say that this is true because SF through-lines shape plot and build on key elements of the SF setting, thereby anchoring them in the story. Those plot and setting elements that don't affect through-lines are mere ornamentation. (Have you ever read a SF story where the premise was just too big for the story? You often see these in mediocre SF shorts.)

Moreover, I'd argue that the setting alone is not sufficient to interpret the story "appropriately". It's actually the through-lines that guide this interpretation. It's our appreciation of consequence and reason in the through-lines that determines whether we appreciate the SF story as a whole.



Now, and this is significant, to establish that a setting is a SF-setting I can't really appeal to the setting. ("Yes, because it's in the through-lines", chimes in Ruv.)


My take would be that "bildungsroman" and "SF" are compatible, because the "Bildungsroman" inhabits primarily plot, whereas "SF" inhabits primarily setting.I certainly don't object to the notion of a "Jane Eyre in space". We have a whole sub-genre devoted to romance in space: it's called Space Opera and it's pure fantasy. The "SF setting" works well in this sub-genre because it creates a colourful, adventuresome environment; but it's equally true that you could transplant it into a magical or pseudohistorical adventure setting and all you'd need to change in the characters would be costuming, makeup and period lines. This is why, for instance, Kurasawa's Seven Samurai (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047478/) transplants so readily into The Magnificent Seven (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054047/) and Battle Beyond the Stars (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080421/).

By contrast, you'd be hard put to place Emma in Ringworld, because Emma's a comedy of manners -- you'd need a familiar SF culture to place it in. But you might place Emma on Vulcan because the culture is so well known. (Okay, that sounds like a fanfic idea: Live long and matchmake. :e2hammer:You still won't produce classic SF or a classic comedy of manners out of it, I predict, because a comedy of manners works best when it's about ourselves)

Ruv Draba
01-14-2008, 02:10 AM
I'll be talking about the opening of Ian MacDonald's story "The Djinn's Wife" and look at how this establishes genre. In this case, I'll ignore the title, because the first sentence pretty much elaborates on the title. Normally, the title is the place to start.

I really enjoyed your "what's this story about" step by step analysis, Dawnstorm.

If you take a conventional three act structure in story treatment, the audience should have a fair idea of what the story's about by the end of the first act. Until the first act ends though, it's all suspicion and guesswork. Typically in Act I the audience has no idea how the story will unfold, but has a fair understanding of the domain of concern and what's at issue.

But this occurs not through plot or setting -- because the plot doesn't really take off until Act II, and the setting could support anything. It's actually from the through-lines: what does this character want? what sorts of things oppose it? how does the character hope to deal with that?

Since I haven't read the work, here are my fresh impressions from a through-line perspective...

Once there was a woman in Delhi who married a Djinn.Because she wanted to, or was forced to? Why did living in Delhi have bearing on what she wanted to do or was made to do? And why was marrying a Djinn difficult for her?

Before the water war, that was not such a strange thing:
Ah. Here's the objective through-line coming out. I'm guessing that she was forced to marry this Djinn because of her circumstance.

Delhi, split in two like a brain, has been the city of djinns from time before time.
Ah again. It's hard for her because of segregation perhaps. Oh, and this isn't our Delhi. It's a Delhi-like place which happens to also be called "Delhi". And "Djinn" is an arabic term. And "time before time" says "don't look too closely at the whys and wherefores of Djinni occupation here".

So we're well into the space of symbols by line three. At this stage I'm guessing that it's a fantasy tale about competing moralities and/or psychologies from a social perspective. I'm further guessing that water -- a symbol of emotion, creativity and abundance -- may nucleate the tension, and that the story will present us with two competing moralities for how to manage it, and place those moralities at conflict in the same household.

(This is still guesswork though, because Act I isn't over.)

Having written this, I now note that the story appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction and is listed in full here (http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0704/thedjinnswife.shtml). A quick skim tells me that the setting is futuristic, and that probably explains why it appeared in Asimov's, but the interplay seems romantic and highly symbolic. It looks like fantasy to me.

Dawnstorm
01-14-2008, 04:31 AM
When I first enjoyed genre fiction I used to look for "a similar experience to the last genre book I enjoyed". That's almost tantamount to "please tell me the same story again, but different" -- the sort of thing a kid might ask a parent reading to him in bed. :D

Nowadays, I'd phrase it differently: "Please tell me another story about a similar thing, and tell it a similar way." In other words: I liked what this story was about, and I liked how you told it.

(Of course, it's also good to have stories about different things, told in different ways. :) One can't just eat sausage in every meal.)

Although the response is interesting (I started reading SF because the genre still managed to surprise me from time to time; the more you read the harder it gets to be surprised), that wasn't really what I meant to ask. Let me put it in concrete terms.

If you knew "The Djinn's Wife" to be Fantasy what attributes would you expect the Djinn to have? What would change if you knew it was SF?


I think that doesn't matter. A good storyteller picks a good treatment for the concern, based on the audience. If you share culture with that storyteller then the chances are that the treatment will either make sense to you instantly, or in very short order. All that remains then is whether you share that concern - and the views of that concern that the storyteller seeks to share.

For you, the question would be: how do you identify the concern. For me the question would be: How do I determine a setting is a SF-setting? (And I tried to answer the question in above post)


So you don't need to know that a good story is genre to appreciate it. And if it's not a good story then I question whether "knowing it's genre" makes it more appreciable.

Well, of course, to read a story you don't need a critical attitude. So I do agree.


I'd agree with that, but say that this is true because SF through-lines shape plot and build on key elements of the SF setting, thereby anchoring them in the story. Those plot and setting elements that don't affect through-lines are mere ornamentation.

I can't disagree, and yet something seems intuitively off. It may be a case of being too new to the concept of throughlines; I can't fine tune it enough yet.

In my concept, a unique SF plot emerges when a story puts emphasis on a SF setting and takes the plot from some other genre, but subjugates it to the SF setting. That's because I think that the only real domain of SF is setting; and rather than a yes no attribution, I'd argue that stories exhibit degrees of genreness.


(Have you ever read a SF story where the premise was just too big for the story? You often see these in mediocre SF shorts.)

Not sure. My initial reaction was "those are the best ones!" (without even thinking of a specific story, so don't ask. ;) ) Which made me think I don't quite get what you're saying. Have an example?


Moreover, I'd argue that the setting alone is not sufficient to interpret the story "appropriately".

I agree. But to me this means that genre alone doesn't suffice to interpret a story "appropriately". (Except perhaps for the most formulaic, where genre attribution is the appropriate interpretation.)


It's actually the through-lines that guide this interpretation. It's our appreciation of consequence and reason in the through-lines that determines whether we appreciate the SF story as a whole.

It still looks like chicken-egg to me. Do the through-lines guide interpretion? Does the interpretation "discover" the through-lines? Does extra-textual information about the story push a "through-line" onto the story (i.e. do we place too much emphasis on stories we read before)?


("Yes, because it's in the through-lines", chimes in Ruv.)

Hehe.


I certainly don't object to the notion of a "Jane Eyre in space". We have a whole sub-genre devoted to romance in space: it's called Space Opera and it's pure fantasy. The "SF setting" works well in this sub-genre because it creates a colourful, adventuresome environment; but it's equally true that you could transplant it into a magical or pseudohistorical adventure setting and all you'd need to change in the characters would be costuming, makeup and period lines. This is why, for instance, Kurasawa's Seven Samurai (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047478/) transplants so readily into The Magnificent Seven (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054047/) and Battle Beyond the Stars (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080421/).

But mere compatibility doesn't let me make any prediction on how much the story focusses on the SF-setting. And what effect the interaction has.


By contrast, you'd be hard put to place Emma in Ringworld, because Emma's a comedy of manners -- you'd need a familiar SF culture to place it in. But you might place Emma on Vulcan because the culture is so well known. (Okay, that sounds like a fanfic idea: Live long and matchmake. :e2hammer:You still won't produce classic SF or a classic comedy of manners out of it, I predict, because a comedy of manners works best when it's about ourselves)

Jane Austen with Vulcans. :roll:


Having written this, I now note that the story appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction and is listed in full here (http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0704/thedjinnswife.shtml). A quick skim tells me that the setting is futuristic, and that probably explains why it appeared in Asimov's, but the interplay seems romantic and highly symbolic. It looks like fantasy to me.

It's online? Great!

Perhaps, you'd still think it's fantasy after reading it, but I suspect your reasons would be different. ;)

Ruv Draba
01-15-2008, 12:55 AM
If you knew "The Djinn's Wife" to be Fantasy what attributes would you expect the Djinn to have? What would change if you knew it was SF?

For you, the question would be: how do you identify the concern. For me the question would be: How do I determine a setting is a SF-setting? (And I tried to answer the question in above post)

(Spoiler warning - if you want to read the story first, you can find it here (http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0704/thedjinnswife.shtml).)

I've now read the story in full. The story takes as its inspiration the classic fantasy storyline of "tragic love between human and fae". It's a very ornamented tale too, taking its adornments from both mythic and technological imagery, and serving them up in an Indian culture and setting, with a feel somewhere between Gibsonian Cyberpunk and Zelazny's Lord of Light. It's very cunningly crafted.

As you rightly predicted, my first question was "what is the concern of this story?" In a three-act view of the plot, it took me until the beginning of Act 3 to satisfy myself that I knew, and even then I was rechecking until the end.

The story presents several concerns, including: a future India in which technology melds with religion and superstition; in which water is scarce enough to war over; and a future in humanity must deal with intelligent cynernetic servants who are grown intelligent enough to become a sentient race in their own right.

The treatment of these concerns is to explore these questions through the vehicle of a 'human and faerie lover' story, but that's just the treatment - it's not the central concern. Of course, early in a story you can't necessarily separate treatment from concern, which is why it misled me (as you likely wanted it to, DS :)).

Its concerns make it look SFish to me, but concerns alone are not enough. My remaining question is: is it a rationalistic treatment - does rationality, logical cause and effect, progress the story and drive the conclusion; or does it rely on emotion, sense or symbol to put the connections together?

Because this story is heavily ornamented with both mythic and technological symbol it took me a bit of chewing. But many of the symbols are ornamentation, as marzipan sculpture can conceal a cake. Underneath this story it's the regular SF fruitcake - AI getting too powerful; humanity trying to curb it. This is a 'near miss' story about dangerous technology, and the technology operates on an entirely rational basis.

Here are what I found as the major through-lines:

As tensions mount over international water negotiations, humanity's use of AIs is also thrown into question
Driven by vanity and a desire for glamour, Esha seeks a marriage commensurate to her ego.
Driven by a desire to protect its own existence and that of its species, and intrigued by the human condition the AI called A.J. Rao grows increasingly attracted to a human vision of itself
When Esha meets Rao she seeks a fairytale love affair with him, and Rao seeks intimacy and recognition in a reality that Esha cannot appreciateI used a "Grand Argument (http://www.writebetweenthelines.com/ws_home/theory/dramatica_theory.htm)" approach to through-lines here. There's a main character through-line (#2), and Overall story through-line (#1), an Impact character through-line (#3) and a Main vs Impact relationship through-line (#4). We can add others too, like Thacker's - but it's largely subsumed by the through-lines above.

I consider the objective storylines to be 1) and 3); the subjective storylines are 2) and 4). Since this tale is told from Esha's perspective we are immersed in the subjectivity - and it's this subjectivity that brings in the mythic symbols. However it's actually the objective storylines that dominate how events unfold and how they finally resolve, and they are very rationally put together. So between this and the domain of concern I've recanted my former, tentative view. I'm convinced that it's a SF story that just happens to be covered in some very attractive mythic marzipan.

I should also mention something about the first person narrative encapsulating the tale. You may notice that the narrator has no direct stake in the story. He's used just to restate existing themes, but he also has another very important job. MacDonald needs an unreliable narrator to properly blend the mythic and technological appreciations of the story and confuse the genres. An objective narrator could never get away with so rich a blend -- e.g. to say that Djinni are sucking their gums at the events of Delhi. So he puts the story into the mouth of a dancer, in a smoke-and-mirrors narrative trick.

(End of spoiler warning)





Have you ever read a SF story where the premise was just too big for the story? You often see these in mediocre SF shorts.)
Not sure. My initial reaction was "those are the best ones!" (without even thinking of a specific story, so don't ask. ;) ) Which made me think I don't quite get what you're saying. Have an example?
Oh, there are tons of these, but they're of the form of "inventing a time-machine so you can go back and catch the bus you missed that got you late to your job interview". I'd argue that once you have a time-machine, there are so many questions and issues to resolve that the job interview becomes unimportant.

Or "first man to another galaxy crash-lands on a planet inhabited by dinosaurs and fur-clad nubile women". Why park the guy in another galaxy for pity's sake?



It still looks like chicken-egg to me. Do the through-lines guide interpretion? Does the interpretation "discover" the through-lines?
Yes, through-lines guide interpretation. And our cultural reading of the text discovers the key through-lines.



Does extra-textual information about the story push a "through-line" onto the story (i.e. do we place too much emphasis on stories we read before)?
No - I think it's sufficient to look at the story from a common cultural perspective and a disciplined critical frame. Hopefully, you will find the same through-lines in the story that I do (though we might haggle over minor detail, since I've only read the story in full once), and agree which are the major ones.

Dawnstorm
01-15-2008, 04:08 AM
***


Spoilers follow, regarding the story

***



which is why it misled me (as you likely wanted it to, DS :)).

It didn't occur to me that the story was online. I wasn't counting on talking about more than the opening lines. But I did choose this story on purpose, for the way it modulates genre expections in just the two opening sentences.

A story that establishes its genre early and un-ambiguously wouldn't have served my purpose at all. Analysis wouldn't have been enlightning at all.

That the story is available online is a stroke of luck, enabling us to talk about genre interplay on various levels.

I found your analysis very lucid and easy to follow. Another step towards telling concerns from treatments, for example.


This is a 'near miss' story about dangerous technology, and the technology operates on an entirely rational basis.
...
So he puts the story into the mouth of a dancer, in a smoke-and-mirrors narrative trick.

Actually, he puts the story into the mouth of the dancer's almost-twelve-year-old daughter, who most of the time takes her mother's perspective. Now, does the language sound like the language of your avarage 11 1/2 year old? She does sound a bit precocious, doesn't she?

I'd argue that this as much a story about the failure of diplomacy, as it is one of dangerous technology (which is the human side, only). There's a communication topic in the subtext, I think. How would the aliens, the AIs, try to communicate, if not through story-as-structure (they're in charge of a soap, aren't they?)

The AIs aren't only technology, they're also aliens. And the ending suggests to me they haven't given up communicating. In my terms: the setting includes the alien trope, in the guise of technology. "What does individuality mean when you're not refined to a single space-time-unit, when you can back up and duplicate parts of yourself, when you can upgrade yourself or use plug-ins?"

My suspicion is that "AJ Rao" is as fictional as Djinns or soaps.


***

End of spoilers

***




Oh, there are tons of these, but they're of the form of "inventing a time-machine so you can go back and catch the bus you missed that got you late to your job interview". I'd argue that once you have a time-machine, there are so many questions and issues to resolve that the job interview becomes unimportant.

Ah, I see. Like the We-destoryed-the-prototype-now-we're-safe delusion so popular in action flicks.


No - I think it's sufficient to look at the story from a common cultural perspective and a disciplined critical frame. Hopefully, you will find the same through-lines in the story that I do (though we might haggle over minor detail, since I've only read the story in full once), and agree which are the major ones.

It's so easy for me to forget it's about stories when talking theory. Hehe.

Ruv Draba
01-15-2008, 04:42 AM
More spoiler alerts below


It didn't occur to me that the story was online. I wasn't counting on talking about more than the opening lines. But I did choose this story on purpose, for the way it modulates genre expections in just the two opening sentences.
It certainly does that. Really, its central value to me is that it's an interesting exercise in genre deceit. From a purely story perspective though, it's not saying much new. The most interesting part of the story for me was the Indian culture - it's nice to see it turn up so well-presented in SF.


A story that establishes its genre early and un-ambiguously wouldn't have served my purpose at all. Analysis wouldn't have been enlightning at all.

That the story is available online is a stroke of luck, enabling us to talk about genre interplay on various levels.
It's a great example - I couldn't have picked a better one on the SF/Fantasy axis. The story was deliberately set up to blur boundaries, and approached that attempt very skillfully. But that doesn't mean you get to hand back your Macchiavelli badge! :wag:


Actually, he puts the story into the mouth of the dancer's almost-twelve-year-old daughter, who most of the time takes her mother's perspective. Now, does the language sound like the language of your avarage 11 1/2 year old? She does sound a bit precocious, doesn't she?
The 1P narrator didn't work too well for me. In a sense it should be the real MC, but there's no objective or tension there. Really, I think it's just an auctorial construct to do the genre blurring. The fact that it's needed tells us that the genres don't blur so easily as he's trying to make out.



I'd argue that this as much a story about the failure of diplomacy, as it is one of dangerous technology (which is the human side, only).
That's a theme of the 'human loves fae' story and also appears in the 'human loves gods' story that you see in Greek mythology for instance. Psychologically, it puts us in our place: we're not gods, these stories tell us, and although our ideals make us yearn to be godlike at times, that way lies madness and tragedy.

In this case, we don't really see the diplomacy at work -- just a bit of espionage. Rao, I think, must know that its attempt is either doomed or very risky. It's well ahead of what Esha is thinking and doing. Esha meanwhile thinks herself awfully clever, pushing the suffering onto Rao rather than suffering herself -- but in fact is well behind. It makes a nice twist on the usual Man and Selkie/Poet and Faerie Queen sort of story.


There's a communication topic in the subtext, I think. How would the aliens, the AIs, try to communicate, if not through story-as-structure (they're in charge of a soap, aren't they?)
That seems posed more as a question than answered as a theme -- in that we don't really have an assessment for how well it works. If you did want to explore this thoroughly you could design a new story in which gods/aliens/AIs try to reach us through parable. That's another one that you could take on as either SF or Fantasy.



The AIs aren't only technology, they're also aliens.
I agree. Just as gods are in a SF treatment.

"What does individuality mean when you're not refined to a single space-time-unit, when you can back up and duplicate parts of yourself, when you can upgrade yourself or use plug-ins?"
Yep - that's a cultural design question. We're not presented with it directly in this story because the subjective through-lines all belong to Esha's viewpoint.


My suspicion is that "AJ Rao" is as fictional as Djinns or soaps.Agreed!

But at least McDonald does a credible job of this (as Gibson does not). Gibson makes the leap that the symbol is the AI, while McDonald suggests that the symbol is simply the AI communicating. This is a key reason that I see Gibson as a fantasist -- and why, even though McDonald has borrowed a bunch of story and setting ideas, I consider his work to be solid SF.

Spoilers end here


Ah, I see. Like the We-destoryed-the-prototype-now-we're-safe delusion so popular in action flicks.
Ha! Yes! Or "We killed the Big Boss, and now his servants all vanish into vapour and his citadel explodes into ruins" that happens in Fantasy all the time.


It's so easy for me to forget it's about stories when talking theory. Hehe.
Examples are very grounding things.

Dawnstorm
01-15-2008, 05:07 PM
***

On with the spoilers

***




It certainly does that. Really, its central value to me is that it's an interesting exercise in genre deceit. From a purely story perspective though, it's not saying much new. The most interesting part of the story for me was the Indian culture - it's nice to see it turn up so well-presented in SF.

Ian MacDonald is one of my favourite contemporary genre authors, but it's rarely for the story as much as for the prose and the narrative technique. This guy can breathe life into the most worn out trope.


It's a great example - I couldn't have picked a better one on the SF/Fantasy axis. The story was deliberately set up to blur boundaries, and approached that attempt very skillfully. But that doesn't mean you get to hand back your Macchiavelli badge! :wag:

Tee hehe.


The 1P narrator didn't work too well for me. In a sense it should be the real MC, but there's no objective or tension there. Really, I think it's just an auctorial construct to do the genre blurring. The fact that it's needed tells us that the genres don't blur so easily as he's trying to make out.

I'm not sure what to make of the voice-person relationship; that could be a flaw (but one I'd forgive in a hearbeat for the beautiful language), or it could be integral. Apart from that I think there's more to the narrator than just a genre-blurring tool.

On the objective level, we have Esha's daughter, turning twelve, narrating the story. At the time she does so, she's thinking of going back to Delhi, to learn to dance. Her mother isn't exactly happy about this but doesn't prevent it either. Part of Delhi's attraction for her are the djinni. This much is in the text.

In the meta-narrative, this characterises the narrator, though, and opens up a whole slew of questions.

1. Does the term "djinn" mean the same thing to mother and daughter?

To Esha, "djinn" must have been a metaphor from the get go. She'd have heared the stories from childhood on, and she would have tried to understand highlevel AIs in the terms of those stories. What else does she have to cling to? The reality of it is new.

The narrator, her daughter, however has been born into the world that contains "djinns". They may be incomprehensible, but they exist: they are hunted, feared, idealised, etc. To her, an AI would be the primary meaning of "djinn", and the stories that feed the way Esha thinks of the AI would make sense in terms to her in turn through the AIs and how they are treated.

Real world analogy: In a let's-teach-apes-to-use-language project a set of researchers tried to teach a female bonobo to use sign language. They were not successful. The bonobo, however, had a son, who eventually did pick up the sign language. There are many ways to interpret this, but the most obvious, to me, is that the mother already had made sense of the world around her, while the child was still learning. I think we may have a similar situation in the story's meta-narrative.

2. If the analogy to the human researchers in above analogy are the djinni/AIs, then I can ask: how closely does the analogy apply. Do the djinni still play a role in the narrators life?

Because the narrator idealises the djinni, this is hard to verify. But there are hints in the very last section that the AIs are communicating with her ("...I hear a voice. It calls my name. Always, I suppose, it comes from the japa-softs ... but it seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere, from another world, another universe entirely.") This may just be imagination, but it could also be real. In a fantasy setting our narrator might be a "changeling"; in the story's setting the daughter could have one of those protein-chips (perhaps acquired at birth if she was born in a hospital and if the chips are compatible with infant brains?) She could be growing up with a portal to the djinni world, without knowing. Communication could work through other methods, too; what I've omitted from above quote is a reference to seasons and "still nights", maybe this is relevant?

3. If we accept that there is communication, then that opens up questions of "who" and "why" in addition to "how"? The question, then, translates into: "Who or what did the Krishna Cops 'excommunicate'?" There's this cryptic line near the end, attributed by the narrator to the djinns: "the creatures of word and fire are different from the creatures of clay and water, but one thing is true: love endures".

Now, if we take the story as SF, we won't take this line at face value. But there's one thing that remains if we strip away the metaphors: there's a continuty of some sort between AJ Rao and these communications. This can take all sorts of forms:

- AJ Rao has managed to back himself up (and probably set lowlevel AIs to run him again)
- AJ Rao was only part of a "bigger" entity; perhaps a "level 3" (or even beyond?)
- Other AIs have been following the events and have a vested interest/shared obsession.

And so on. (Personally, I consider the second one the most satisfying; the first one depends too much on what I don't know about how the Krishna cops operate and the third one depends too much on a human conception of agency and individuality. I suppose the truth may be a bit weirder.)


In this case, we don't really see the diplomacy at work -- just a bit of espionage.

I agree. We don't see much of the diplomacy in the same way we don't see much of Town and Country, the soap. They're in the background, as model. If we're to take hints from the soap as to what "story" means in terms of alien communication-modes, we may take hints from "diplomacy" as to the impetus behind communication.

The assumption I'm making here is that the AIs no more understand humans than humans understand AIs, and the communication attempt has failed. On the one hand we have the water war as failed diplomacy, but there's also no communication between AIs and humans, which is sort of like the encapsulated failed attempt. See, because the micro-diplomacy failed governments gave in to foreign fear mongering, cutting short the time (unacknowledged and informal) human-AI diplomatic relationships have to come to some sort of preliminary understanding.

We cannot of course assume any sort of intention on the side of the AIs, and we certainly haven't seen much interest in diplomacy from the human side (getting mostly the Krishna cop perspective). If there's any diplomatic effort at all (or something that could be metaphorically viewed as such) it's the soap. Remember that the final communication between Esha and Rao takes place via an AI controlled soap?

I do agree with the "dangerous tech" through-line. This goes back to Frankenstein; we create a consciousness and then get scared. The AIs reaction, unlike the Monster's, is very alien, though.

The last scene, IMO, plays the meta-narrative in a way that at least sheds doubt on a "near miss" interpretation.


That seems posed more as a question than answered as a theme -- in that we don't really have an assessment for how well it works. If you did want to explore this thoroughly you could design a new story in which gods/aliens/AIs try to reach us through parable. That's another one that you could take on as either SF or Fantasy.

I agree. I'd argue that to provide a definite answer wouldn't work in this story. But I do think that this is a story about "gods/aliens/AIs" trying to reach us. And they failed. (But perhaps the new generation of humans will be more successful?)

I always found the SF stories I liked most left me with more questions than answers. This may also be why I prefer SF short forms to novels, as these tend to be more explorative than interpretative. (I certainly prefer MacDonald's short stories to his novels.)

Ruv Draba
01-16-2008, 05:25 AM
Ian MacDonald is one of my favourite contemporary genre authors, but it's rarely for the story as much as for the prose and the narrative technique. This guy can breathe life into the most worn out trope.Agree. He's mighty good at it! I was very impressed with his narrative ability.


Some nice explorations of ambiguous concluding narrative.
These are very thoughtful explorations, Dawnstorm. I feel that the credit for them goes to you more than the author though. Ambiguity always provokes insight in smart minds -- but doesn't necessarily reflect the smarts in the story.


The assumption I'm making here is that the AIs no more understand humans than humans understand AIs, and the communication attempt has failed.
That hinges on the meaning of understand. If you can simulate something, do you understand it? Clearly the AIs just about can simulate a person -- they can probably even simulate people that they've met.

But knowing how something behaves is not always knowing why it behaves that way. A model of phenomena is not an appreciation of them. Core values may be hidden in the model, and even if they're visible, that doesn't mean you can necessarily work with them. (Consider fundamentalist extremism for instance, in our own world). That's perhaps one reason the 'don't marry a fae' story keeps reappearing. Maybe even if gods are knowable, we wouldn't want to know them.

Apropos of the broader genre conversation abou, I posted something to my blog that may be of interest. It's a little "trainer wheels" recipe for writing shorts, targeted at somewhere between beginning and intermediate writing. It includes some comments on genre concerns and treatments, and provides a frame in which you can quickly design a short in various genres for comparison. As you'd probably expect from me, it's very "structury", and I've chunked it down even further into a by-the-numbers sort of recipe. The blog link's here (http://ruvdraba.blogspot.com/2008/01/ruvs-trainer-wheel-recipe-for-short.html), and I posted a cut down version to the Short Story studio (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showpost.php?p=1967703&postcount=16) forum too.

Dawnstorm
01-16-2008, 06:10 PM
These are very thoughtful explorations, Dawnstorm. I feel that the credit for them goes to you more than the author though. Ambiguity always provokes insight in smart minds -- but doesn't necessarily reflect the smarts in the story.

There are so many issues in this paragraph that I'm not sure where to start.

1. While I tried to interpret the story on the strength of the story alone, I doubt I'm entirely successful. You must remember that this isn't the first Ian MacDonald story I've read, and that I've also read River of Gods a novel that shares this setting (I've mentioned it once in an off-comment, I think - let me flip my badge behind my back...). I'm not saying this now to bring intertextuality into this discussion; I think we should go on treating the story as if it was all there is (for pragmatic reasons). But my interpretation must be influenced by what I've read before (as I said early, we can't un-know things).

2. The identity of the narrator does pose a problem for both readers and critics. You can treat it as a flaw, a mystery or a puzzle (or a mystery-as-puzzle, as I have done above, hehe). What it is, depends on the reading, and on what you expect from a story.

(One problem I find with message-board critics is the prevalent idea that to improve a text you need to find flaws and irradicate them. Wrong approach, IMO. It's easy to destroy a text that way.)

3. About ambiguity:


That hinges on the meaning of understand. If you can simulate something, do you understand it? Clearly the AIs just about can simulate a person -- they can probably even simulate people that they've met.

But knowing how something behaves is not always knowing why it behaves that way. A model of phenomena is not an appreciation of them. Core values may be hidden in the model, and even if they're visible, that doesn't mean you can necessarily work with them. (Consider fundamentalist extremism for instance, in our own world). That's perhaps one reason the 'don't marry a fae' story keeps reappearing. Maybe even if gods are knowable, we wouldn't want to know them.

I argue that SF - not all SF, but much of the SF I enjoy - operates on just that principle. That is: the author writes about a sbuject matter he doesn't understand while being aware of not understanding it ("the margins of science", for example - is that (part of) what you'd refer to as a frontier-concern?). There are two possibilities to approach this: provide an interpretation (the answer approach) or dramatise the ambiguity and invite the reader to join in with the exploration (the question approach).

So, from this perspective, of course my interpretation is my own rather then a "necessity" coming from the text. But the trigger to interpret is in the story, and - as I think - not in the form of a coincidence but as an integral property. When I watch car chase scenes in action movies, I don't go around talking about the film-makers want to make a statement about the respective values of "law" and "passenger safety". I don't think the film induces me to imagine the story of the vegetable monger who has just lost his stall. That's because these things aren't topicalised. Topicalising them would make for a twist (and I'm sure someone somewhere has done that).

In contrast, I think, my observations are exemplary (not definitive) of what readers are supposed to do with the ending. I'd argue that one of the things that make SF interesting is that the bulk of what's interesting lies outside the text and isn't (necessarily) determined.

This may not apply to all (or even to most) SF. And the phenomenon at hand isn't even unique to SF. But within secondary-world (whether future, alternate history, different planet...) SF this has a domino effect: There are plenty of speculations I could add that I would argue have nothing to do with the story, even though they follow from the setting.

That's why one of the important skills of a SF writer lies in judging what not to reveal. Reveal too much and you're taking away from the effect.

Take my reaction to the Matrix:

The first movie was a style fest of little substance. Enjoyable to watch and little more.

The second movie was a stylistic desaster. Boring to watch. But they did interesting and evocative things with the setting in this one.

Which they then ruined by closure in the third. (Non of the speculations that made the second film interesting story-wise are impossible to keep up, but the way the story was handled I have no reason to keep asking these questions.) I'd like to unwatch the third film if possible.


As you'd probably expect from me, it's very "structury", and I've chunked it down even further into a by-the-numbers sort of recipe. The blog link's here (http://ruvdraba.blogspot.com/2008/01/ruvs-trainer-wheel-recipe-for-short.html), and I posted a cut down version to the Short Story studio (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showpost.php?p=1967703&postcount=16) forum too.

I like that. If I had the time, I might even try it out. (I've always loved to work to exercises.)

I also think your sample story design points at a key difference between our approaches. I would stop the story (follow the link to the blog) at the climax, before the resolution, or expand it for a more detailed exploration. The thing is that the ending as it is counters my "primacy of the setting" approach. It's not, as a story, implausible. But having two people have the same reaction to a set of circumstances is a missed opportunity to explore the setting. Which, to my mind, pushes the text away from SF. (It's still clearly SF, since "Glass" sits firmly at the centre.)

So, when you said above about human-AI communication in "The Djinn's Wife": "That seems posed more as a question than answered as a theme" we were pretty much dancing around that question. To me "posing questions" is a way of exploring setting and at the very heart of SF. Providing answers is possible, but it smacks of data-manipulation via selective attention. (There's probably a world-view descrepancy somewhere in there, too, but I'm not quite ready to talk about that yet.)

Ruv Draba
01-16-2008, 11:43 PM
There are so many issues in this paragraph that I'm not sure where to start.
I was surprised! I thought I'd just made passing comments. So digging through your comments now to see what I'd inadvertantly stirred up... :)


1. While I tried to interpret the story on the strength of the story alone, I doubt I'm entirely successful. You must remember that this isn't the first Ian MacDonald story I've read,
Yes - I'd forgotten that. Having not read any of his other stories in this world, I don't have that context and forgot that you did! Putting the work in its series context is valid critique of course -- looking at how it adds to the themes of other works and has been influenced by them. Alas, I can't do that for Macdonald so it seemed to me that your inferences had strayed off the text. (Which perhaps they had, but they'd presumably jumped onto broader text)

2. The identity of the narrator does pose a problem for both readers and critics. You can treat it as a flaw, a mystery or a puzzle (or a mystery-as-puzzle, as I have done above, hehe). What it is, depends on the reading, and on what you expect from a story.A test I habitually apply to narration is to subtract any narrative idiosyncracies from the story and see what's left, then add them back in to see what they bring. Doing that, I observed that our narrator added very little to theme (just restating it, in fact), no additional perspective to the subject (at least, not within the work, on my first reading), nothing to the tension, but did justify a certain approach to the storytelling (towit, blurring genre divisions). But that's marzipan rather than cake. There's a fine line between making your storytelling fit the story, and making the story fit the storytelling. I don't believe that MacDonald crossed it, but I think he skirted riiiiiight up to the edge. :) And I'm with you, DS, the aesthetics were very beautiful.


(One problem I find with message-board critics is the prevalent idea that to improve a text you need to find flaws and irradicate them. Wrong approach, IMO. It's easy to destroy a text that way.)
I agree wholeheartedly. It's irritating as an author because it doesn't give you clear reflection, and it creates dangerous habits in our minds as critics. To reground the critique, I try to keep my comments aligned to the direction of the work. Here your perspectives are likely to be broader than mine because you know the author better.

For me, for instance, the water wars are largely unimportant to this particular story. They're interesting background, but you could replace them with any other excuse for negotiation without change to this particular tale. (Energy negotiations anyone? Carbon emissions trading? Building rights on the moon?) I discounted that from my interpretation, but in the corpus of that world it might be critical and an appreciation for many of his regular readers.


3. About ambiguity:I argue that SF - not all SF, but much of the SF I enjoy - operates on just that principle. That is: the author writes about a sbuject matter he doesn't understand while being aware of not understanding it ("the margins of science", for example - is that (part of) what you'd refer to as a frontier-concern?). There are two possibilities to approach this: provide an interpretation (the answer approach) or dramatise the ambiguity and invite the reader to join in with the exploration (the question approach).
Yes indeed. I think that SF is some of our most provocative fiction exactly because it works with frontiers and is not required to supply all the answers. Ambiguity sits well with me -- when it's intentional and focused, at least. (Focused ambiguity? I think you know what I mean: Motivate the question. Frame the question. Present evidence then let the reader work it through.)

I felt that the AI questions were motivated very well in this story. The framing gave us a few choices to pick from (1. they're djinni; 2. they're people like us; 3. they're people, but alien; 4. they're just very smart, machines which sometimes develop their own dangerous agendas). I felt that the cases for these though -- the evidentiary material -- was frequently missing or obscured by the treatment. Esha's view swung between 1. and 2. - but was based just on how she felt in her role as 'jilted lover'. Thacker's view seemed to sit strongly on 4, but wasn't argued. The narrator didn't really have anything to add to the question. The idea of 3. (which appeals to both of us as a plausible account) wasn't actually covered by the text.


So, from this perspective, of course my interpretation is my own rather then a "necessity" coming from the text. But the trigger to interpret is in the story, and - as I think - not in the form of a coincidence but as an integral property.
I think we're in accord to this point: the story motivates the question; the reader supplies the answer. I'd also argue that to do its job fiction should also frame the question and supply some support to the reader. Otherwise, it's doing the same job as a graffito on the wall: "Who framed Roger Rabbit?"


When I watch car chase scenes in action movies, I don't go around talking about the film-makers want to make a statement about the respective values of "law" and "passenger safety". I don't think the film induces me to imagine the story of the vegetable monger who has just lost his stall.I confess to a certain perversity here. My eye is always drawn to the stressed O-mouths of the greengrocers who are to me, the most sympathetic characters in the average Hollywood car-chase scene. Also, being a fan of fresh produce I get a younger brother to the same flinch that folk might get to watching horses being slaughtered by machine-gun fire in WWI.

I'm probably oversensitive, but surely if road rules, passenger safety and respect for watermelons and grapefruit were not audience concerns, then flouting them in a Hollywood car chase trope would have no impact?

Largely because I'm bored by them, I tend to see Hollywood car chases in purely thematic terms. The lead car races frantically through crowds saying "I'm more important than you, Society; my end justifies my means." The chase car follows frantically after, saying "Yes - we're both more important than you, Society; our ends justify our means" Meanwhile, Society (as represented by greengrocers, street vendors and headlong-diving pedestrians) cry back "Oh god! Our world is gone mad with cars and guns! Our protectors are just as much psychopathic phallus-fetishists as the people they're protecting us from!"

And if that isn't acerbic (if unintentional) social satire, then what is? :e2dance:

That's because these things aren't topicalised. Topicalising them would make for a twist (and I'm sure someone somewhere has done that).If they haven't, I want to. It's been a suppressed ambition of mine to write a story from the perspective of a green-grocer watching car-chases scream through his alley every hour.


That's why one of the important skills of a SF writer lies in judging what not to reveal. Reveal too much and you're taking away from the effect.Wholly agree. But I'd argue that the same is true for horror, fantasy, romance and mystery. In each case 'the effect' differs - both in how it operates and what it operates on, but I'd argue that a well- primed and provoked audience is an author's best genre storytelling device.



Take my reaction to the Matrix:

The first movie was a style fest of little substance. Enjoyable to watch and little more.

The second movie was a stylistic desaster. Boring to watch. But they did interesting and evocative things with the setting in this one

Which they then ruined by closure in the third. .I agree on all three counts! One movie of fantasy escapism (and not terribly good story at that) followed by two MTV clips.



I also think your sample story design points at a key difference between our approaches. I would stop the story (follow the link to the blog) at the climax, before the resolution, or expand it for a more detailed exploration.Many good short writers do the same. Especially, shorts with strong subjective story-lines tend to bring the climax forward and sit on it. By contrast, the more 'actiony', physical shorts tend to move the climax back.

A year or so ago, I wrote an historical story about bigotry and institutionalised prejudice between the Saxons and the Welsh in Britain. It's a story that sinks or swims on its subjective through-lines, and the climax hung and hung and hung across maybe three of my ten or so scenes. As I mentioned in the blog, there are some shorts you can't really write with that formula. It's a starting point only.


The thing is that the ending as it is counters my "primacy of the setting" approach. It's not, as a story, implausible. But having two people have the same reaction to a set of circumstances is a missed opportunity to explore the setting. Which, to my mind, pushes the text away from SF. (It's still clearly SF, since "Glass" sits firmly at the centre.)As I think I mentioned in the blog article, this sort of story is unlikely to win awards, and I think you nailed one reason why. The 'thinkier' SF pieces (which do win awards) give you a lot to chew on -- and their structures reflect this.

I believe that a better treatment for my initial 'Glass' premise 'If we could read one anothers' minds we'd go mad from the evil' would use reflection on its MC: give the MC a machine that logged all his thoughts, including the ones he suppressed from his own memory. This 'Dorian Grey' kind of machine would then open a pandora's box for the MC - in becoming aware of such thoughts, he then has to deal with them rather than denying them. This might create a 'Jekyll and Hyde' story, or something more existential but either way it'd live on its subjective through-lines and ambiguity rather than the objective through-lines implicit in the approach I listed in the blog.


So, when you said above about human-AI communication in "The Djinn's Wife": "That seems posed more as a question than answered as a theme" we were pretty much dancing around that question.Based on that comment I think you've made a fair response. Hopefully my clarification above (about framing and evidence) provides a more accurate picture of what I meant (but didn't convey) by 'answer'. (I should probably have written 'address' instead.)


Providing answers is possible, but it smacks of data-manipulation via selective attention.Well, at best it's glib storytelling (again, like your average Hollywood action movie, or the House of Usher slipping into the swamp), but at worse it's trope turned propaganda and implicit disrespect for the audience, which offends me just as much as I think it offends you. :)

Dawnstorm
01-17-2008, 04:29 PM
Yes - I'd forgotten that. Having not read any of his other stories in this world, I don't have that context and forgot that you did! Putting the work in its series context is valid critique of course -- looking at how it adds to the themes of other works and has been influenced by them. Alas, I can't do that for Macdonald so it seemed to me that your inferences had strayed off the text. (Which perhaps they had, but they'd presumably jumped onto broader text)

And that's my ultimate problem with genre right there. If my (pre-conscious) interpretation of "Djinn's Wife" is different from yours on account of my MacDonald's reading history, then how do readings differ on a larger scale, when thinking not so much of individual authors, but of the entire genre.

One can make an effort to study genre, but the sequence in which one reads books (classics, side-cults or otherwise) may build up different habits.

I do think, but that's still not a worked out thought, that the "inability to unknow things" is what both creates a genre and makes it hard to communicate about it.

I chose not to talk about detective stories because apart from lots of Sherlock Holmes, some Agatha Christie (short stories), a bit of Perry Mason and one modern book about a cellist set in Bath I've barely read any. (Oh, and Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next/Jurisfiction stories if they count at all, hehe.) Most of my encounter with noir comes from films such as Chinatown.

That's why I find the signature approach so fascinating; it's limitations are both helpful and enlightening and endangering tunnel vision (for me, because that's how I work).


A test I habitually apply to narration is to subtract any narrative idiosyncracies from the story and see what's left, then add them back in to see what they bring. Doing that, I observed that our narrator added very little to theme (just restating it, in fact), no additional perspective to the subject (at least, not within the work, on my first reading), nothing to the tension, but did justify a certain approach to the storytelling (towit, blurring genre divisions). But that's marzipan rather than cake. There's a fine line between making your storytelling fit the story, and making the story fit the storytelling. I don't believe that MacDonald crossed it, but I think he skirted riiiiiight up to the edge.

But I do think that the genre-blurring is integral to "understanding AIs in the stories setting":


I felt that the AI questions were motivated very well in this story. The framing gave us a few choices to pick from (1. they're djinni; 2. they're people like us; 3. they're people, but alien; 4. they're just very smart, machines which sometimes develop their own dangerous agendas). I felt that the cases for these though -- the evidentiary material -- was frequently missing or obscured by the treatment. Esha's view swung between 1. and 2. - but was based just on how she felt in her role as 'jilted lover'. Thacker's view seemed to sit strongly on 4, but wasn't argued. The narrator didn't really have anything to add to the question. The idea of 3. (which appeals to both of us as a plausible account) wasn't actually covered by the text.

See, I would argue that "They're djinni" and "they're people, but alien" is - in Esha's PoV - the same thing. She cannot articulate it in any other way, because she doesn't reflect on it much. Remember that the only time Esha shows any reference to AJ Rao is in the beginning, and then because he's a famous and a diplomat. The "Wrath of Djinns" throughline belongs to the narrator and makes Esha look naive.

Remember that the conversation between Thacker and Esha near the end involved debating the sanity. Humouring her? I think it's more likely that they don't question sentience. "Insane" translates to "thought dangerous to society" (which Esha's reaction supports).

4, if at all, may come in at the political level as a rationlised legitimisation, when US use the water war to pressure (I forgot the side) them into making AIs beyon 2.7 illegal. This one's framed in purely objective term ("may become indistinguishable from humans"), which doesn't lean one way or another, but does suggest that this is a "loss of control".

This segues into discussions that have always accompanied AI-research, of sentience as emergent or inherent. (John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_room)). This invariably leads people to question human sentience, which is why - depending on your cultural context - you're more likely to take the presence or absence of sentience for granted.

Because there's no objectively compelling evidence for sentience.



For me, for instance, the water wars are largely unimportant to this particular story. They're interesting background, but you could replace them with any other excuse for negotiation without change to this particular tale. (Energy negotiations anyone? Carbon emissions trading? Building rights on the moon?) I discounted that from my interpretation, but in the corpus of that world it might be critical and an appreciation for many of his regular readers.

It doesn't change much. It's part of the non-genre setting, though. It grounds the SF part in the real world though the River Ganges as symbol. It's not directly relevant to the genre, but it does illuminate the positions people take through imagery.


I think we're in accord to this point: the story motivates the question; the reader supplies the answer. I'd also argue that to do its job fiction should also frame the question and supply some support to the reader. Otherwise, it's doing the same job as a graffito on the wall: "Who framed Roger Rabbit?"

Yes, but how do we figure out whether a story does it or not? (I fully accept that my reading isn't "innocent", but I can't unread MacDonald to see. It's impossible. And - of course - it's not only genre, it's a broader cultural context. When Thacker says he's exterminating AIs for the good of country I get an adverse reaction, mostly because I'm Austrian and Hitler looms large. It's an instinctive reaction that's very hard to purge. All expressions of nationalism are suspect (among Austrians I'm extreme; I feel uncomfortable with singing the national anthem, for example - there's more to that than just Hitler, though; I think it segues into being uncomfortable in crowds - as I mentioned above - and disliking ritualised showings-up of community). This means that I immediately summon up a concreat threat from the official forces (in the face of unkown danger, shoot first) to counter-balance the potential threat an AI may pose (which to me is no worse than any natural disaster, but unlike natural distaters may have benefits as well). All this goes into how read the text.

The thing with fiction is that once you go to it from a purely objective point-of-view, it stops to work. Fiction relies on subjectivity. And my intuition is that once we encounter a potentialy sentient entity with which we can communite on practical grounds and on our own terms, but which are never the less quite alien, we have to re-negotiate the very term sentience. The thing to remember is that an AI is software (the mind - whatever that is - boggles).


Largely because I'm bored by them, I tend to see Hollywood car chases in purely thematic terms. The lead car races frantically through crowds saying "I'm more important than you, Society; my end justifies my means." The chase car follows frantically after, saying "Yes - we're both more important than you, Society; our ends justify our means" Meanwhile, Society (as represented by greengrocers, street vendors and headlong-diving pedestrians) cry back "Oh god! Our world is gone mad with cars and guns! Our protectors are just as much psychopathic phallus-fetishists as the people they're protecting us from!"

And if that isn't acerbic (if unintentional) social satire, then what is? :e2dance:

Hehe. I pretty much watch these scenes the same way. There's this story of the man who's car they've just confiscated with nothing but a badge, and who in consequence can't deliver life-saving medication...


If they haven't, I want to. It's been a suppressed ambition of mine to write a story from the perspective of a green-grocer watching car-chases scream through his alley every hour.

It should be themed anthology!


Wholly agree. But I'd argue that the same is true for horror, fantasy, romance and mystery. In each case 'the effect' differs - both in how it operates and what it operates on, but I'd argue that a well- primed and provoked audience is an author's best genre storytelling device.

Agreed. It's not SF-specific really. It's just that in the case of SF - by virtue of being grounded in a "realistic view of things" - the unarticulated is far more unpredictable by the author.


I believe that a better treatment for my initial 'Glass' premise 'If we could read one anothers' minds we'd go mad from the evil' would use reflection on its MC: give the MC a machine that logged all his thoughts, including the ones he suppressed from his own memory. This 'Dorian Grey' kind of machine would then open a pandora's box for the MC - in becoming aware of such thoughts, he then has to deal with them rather than denying them. This might create a 'Jekyll and Hyde' story, or something more existential but either way it'd live on its subjective through-lines and ambiguity rather than the objective through-lines implicit in the approach I listed in the blog.

Warning: genre politics rather than discription:

This is one of the things about SF:

Approach 1: The protagonist as example.
Approach 2: The protagonist as focus.

To me, the "science" in SF is probably part of how you treat a theme. If you set up the story to prove the theme, you've short-changed SF. You need to confirm the theme a little, negate it a little, then declare it irrelevant altogether... A bit like jazz improvisation really.



Based on that comment I think you've made a fair response. Hopefully my clarification above (about framing and evidence) provides a more accurate picture of what I meant (but didn't convey) by 'answer'. (I should probably have written 'address' instead.)

Yup, I see now. Hehe.


Well, at best it's glib storytelling (again, like your average Hollywood action movie, or the House of Usher slipping into the swamp), but at worse it's trope turned propaganda and implicit disrespect for the audience, which offends me just as much as I think it offends you. :)

I'm hard to offend, but easy to bore. ;)

Ruv Draba
01-17-2008, 11:26 PM
And that's my ultimate problem with genre right there. If my (pre-conscious) interpretation of "Djinn's Wife" is different from yours on account of my MacDonald's reading history, then how do readings differ on a larger scale, when thinking not so much of individual authors, but of the entire genre.
I'm still optimistic here, DS... We can 'know' all kinds of things, but what we use or don't comes down to discipline. The technique of adding and subtracting knowledge while we interpret is a powerful one (e.g. story with narrator; story without narrator). Also, shifting viewpoint as a reader ('what might I make of this as a scientist?' 'what might it say to me if I were a detective?' 'if I were a love-sick 14 year old?' 'if I were the grizzled sergeant of a local militia'...).

Two critiques can differ on what they've seen in a story -- that's not a function of genre, but of emphasis of interpretation against cultural background. But what's good about critique is that when you line a couple of critiques up, you can ask questions about them through the add/subtract and shift viewpoint methods. Eventually you can arrive at something approximating consistency -- if not precisely consensus.

One can make an effort to study genre, but the sequence in which one reads books (classics, side-cults or otherwise) may build up different habits.
Surely, but our disciplines can unbuild them again. :) Otherwise twenty-somethings who've read little would make the best editors, while we'd have to sack the grizzled fiftysomethings because they've read and thought too much. :D



That's why I find the signature approach so fascinating; it's limitations are both helpful and enlightening and endangering tunnel vision (for me, because that's how I work).Well, I can't work out whether you think I'm being imprecise or too precise then. Early on, I thought it was imprecise... so for a lot of the discussion I've been refining definition and intent: what's a concern? what's a treatment? what's a valid through-line? how do I recognise them? how do I know it's in the text and not in my head?

But if your chief concern is that precision leads to over-familiarity, unquestioned assumptions and a sense of seeing the model and not the work then maybe I should be thinking about discipline rather than model.

For my own part I've taken the approach of 'precise enough to use', which I suppose has really been 'precise enough for me to use'. :) Unsurprisingly, it needs more precision if someone else wants to use it too. So this conversation is helping to shake that out for me, and also turning up some interesting perspectives on how literature works, and literary effect.

But the discipline question is almost a whole new discussion, as it's bigger than genre or signatures or even writing. It's a discussion about knowledge and teleology. How do you accumulate knowledge and refine intent without letting it get in the way of perception? Surely, this is a core professional question for every writer - but scientists and police and doctors and teachers and parents and fish-keepers encounter it too

But I do think that the genre-blurring is integral to "understanding AIs in the stories setting":I agree, but I may have a different view of which is the horse and which is the cart.

To jump outside the story and into the literary culture for a minute, a lot has been written about AIs -- and unsurprisingly, most of it has explored whether they might be people/aliens/gods/just smart machines. Forget genre for a moment; this is our common cultural context when we think about smart cybernetics. It's the audience MacDonald's writing for and presumably the cultural context from which he's writing too.

So what, if anything, do you think he's added to this discussion through the 'Djinn's wife'? In other words, what might he be saying that hasn't been said before?

Maybe he's saying 'actually, if you try to understand something that's so absolutely different' (a central intelligence trying to understand distributed intelligence), you just can't. All views are contradictory; all are ambiguous.'

I'd accept that he might be saying this - and using an aesthetic argument to say it. But then I'd go on to ask: to what extent am I persuaded of this point by an aesthetic argument? My honest answer would be: not very. I'd find a rational or emotional argument (in which both parties were trying to predict one another and getting into trouble) far more persuasive.

Or maybe he's not trying to address the question, but merely trying to provoke us to address it. 'What do you think, Ruv?' I'd be fine with that too but again I'd ask - to what extent does an aesthetic argument provoke me? Answer: not much. Aesthetics are a bit like exotic food - you either swallow what you're fed, or you spit it out. A rational or emotional approach would provoke me more.

So if method follows purpose, I'd have to propose a counter-position: What if he's just written this for its cool aesthetics -- in other words the "genre blurring" is really for no other purpose than to say he's blurred genre? He's used familiar story tropes and a familiar concern but really isn't seeking to add anything this time around -- in other words, he's simply experimenting with style?

That's a legitimate thing to play with too, and I find this account very plausible given what's in the story and what's not. To critique it I'd then go on to look at how he's done it and what it says about genre and literature. And in this context my chief conclusion is to agree is that yes, using an unreliable narrator on a SF story can make it look a bit like fantasy, can't it? But I'd also go back and acknowledge Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh_the_king) for doing the reverse in 1984: giving a fantasy story laden with symbolism a smart, sensate narrator and making it look like realism.


Remember that the conversation between Thacker and Esha near the end involved debating the sanity. Humouring her? I think it's more likely that they don't question sentience.Well, dogs are considered mad if they don't behave sufficiently 'doglike'. 'Mind' may not always imply 'person'. One's a philosophical question 'can it think?'; the other's cultural: 'can I treat it as a member of some tribe, and should I accord it tribal rights'? In much contemporary thought 'mind' automatically implies 'person', but historically it hasn't always.


Yes, but how do we figure out whether a story does it or not? (I fully accept that my reading isn't "innocent", but I can't unread MacDonald to see. It's impossible. And - of course - it's not only genre, it's a broader cultural context. When Thacker says he's exterminating AIs for the good of country I get an adverse reaction mostly because I'm Austrian
I think most people would get a twinge about this. Genocide and its kissing cousin, population displacement, are older than human history. The more you dig, the more of it you find. I suspect that there isn't a culture on earth that doesn't have genocide and population displacement rooted in its history or prehistory. My own country, which clucks about genocide as much as any developed nation, was poisoning indigenes a generation before WWII, and abducting their children a generation later. Meanwhile, one of our largest mining companies was convicted in this generation of poisoning tribal lands in Papua New Guinea through deliberate neglect. We're far dirtier than we acknowledge, and if this shows anything I think it's that cultures look after themselves very well, and after other cultures badly -- often not even recognising that they're doing it.

The thing with fiction is that once you go to it from a purely objective point-of-view, it stops to work. Fiction relies on subjectivity.Writers operate in many different modes. We're prospectors, surveyors, miners, salesmen, oracles, diplomats, interpreters, charlatans, sleuths, scientists, historians, clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers, healers, psychologists, artillery gunners, human sacrifices and forensic examiners... But only some of these modes are principally subjective. Mental agility - the ability to shift standpoint, to pick up and discard tools and methods - and to know which to use when, is key to success.

And my intuition is that once we encounter a potentialy sentient entity with which we can communite on practical grounds and on our own terms, but which are never the less quite alien, we have to re-negotiate the very term sentience.Culturally, it's hard to separate "this thinks" from "this thinks as I do". What do you do when another mind can clearly perform the same thinking functions that you can, but performs them for entirely different purposes? I don't know if you've ever had the shock of living or working in a culture very different from your own, but the same sort of thing can occur. You establish common words with common meanings, but the purpose of those meanings is entirely different.

For instance, 'I'm sorry' is an expression of regret in many countries. But in a country like the US 'I'm sorry' means 'I have some regrets but it's done; forget about it' or even 'I've paid lip-service to your hurt, now don't hold this over me'. In Japan it more often means 'I have outstanding obligation to you which I have yet to discharge.'


Hehe. I pretty much watch these scenes the same way. There's this story of the man who's car they've just confiscated with nothing but a badge, and who in consequence can't deliver life-saving medication...You're right! There should be an anthology of stories about Action Movie Victims.



Warning: genre politics rather than discription:

This is one of the things about SF:

Approach 1: The protagonist as example.
Approach 2: The protagonist as focus.

To me, the "science" in SF is probably part of how you treat a theme. If you set up the story to prove the theme, you've short-changed SF.I don't entirely agree. Some of the best SF keeps things ambiguous or transcends its own question, but...

A lot of good SF works just by providing counter-examples to well-worn truisms. Other good SF works by applying an accepted viewpoint far outside its regular context. In each case the treatment can be quite one-sided -- the audience's appreciation fills in the other side. What makes it 'good' is that it provokes thought, enhances perception and appreciation of the concern -- and does so effectively.

So I certainly don't object to SF that answers all its own questions -- as long as the questions have been framed and explored. I also don't object to SF that provokes but doesn't answer. The critical issues for me are whether it adds anything new in doing so, and whether the treatment suits the concern.

Dawnstorm
01-18-2008, 01:47 PM
I'm still optimistic here, DS... We can 'know' all kinds of things, but what we use or don't comes down to discipline. The technique of adding and subtracting knowledge while we interpret is a powerful one (e.g. story with narrator; story without narrator). Also, shifting viewpoint as a reader ('what might I make of this as a scientist?' 'what might it say to me if I were a detective?' 'if I were a love-sick 14 year old?' 'if I were the grizzled sergeant of a local militia'...).

Two critiques can differ on what they've seen in a story -- that's not a function of genre, but of emphasis of interpretation against cultural background. But what's good about critique is that when you line a couple of critiques up, you can ask questions about them through the add/subtract and shift viewpoint methods. Eventually you can arrive at something approximating consistency -- if not precisely consensus.

I should learn to stop worrying and love the bomb. Hehe.


Surely, but our disciplines can unbuild them again. :) Otherwise twenty-somethings who've read little would make the best editors, while we'd have to sack the grizzled fiftysomethings because they've read and thought too much. :D

We can make hypotheses about what it would look like to us if we had a different reading history. We do this all the time. Talking to other people helps. But that's not unbuilding; you'd be left with nothing, no foundation of understanding.

And I also disagree with what follows from your "otherwise". What matters most for edits isn't objectivity, anyway, but critic-author compatibility. (Fiction relies on subjectivities for effect; that's why even the best aren't universally liked.)


Well, I can't work out whether you think I'm being imprecise or too precise then. Early on, I thought it was imprecise... so for a lot of the discussion I've been refining definition and intent: what's a concern? what's a treatment? what's a valid through-line? how do I recognise them? how do I know it's in the text and not in my head?

But if your chief concern is that precision leads to over-familiarity, unquestioned assumptions and a sense of seeing the model and not the work then maybe I should be thinking about discipline rather than model.

Well, it's a blance issue. If I don't understand what you're on about, I can't use it at all. Once I understand enough to use, there's a danger of overshooting the mark, because it's new, partly, but mostly because it's not my own.

I've seen lots of criticism, some more disciplined than other. And I found that approach is an expression of something; whether it's culture or personality I can't tell. This is why critics group into theories.

I find them all interesting, but I also find some more difficult than others. My own preoccupations (and I'll go into that when I come to culture below) are chiefly epistemological, so I tend towards phenomenological/reader response approaches on the one hand, and surface-structure approaches on the other.

What this means is that - this far into the thread - my relation to the topic at hand has changed.


For my own part I've taken the approach of 'precise enough to use', which I suppose has really been 'precise enough for me to use'. :) Unsurprisingly, it needs more precision if someone else wants to use it too. So this conversation is helping to shake that out for me, and also turning up some interesting perspectives on how literature works, and literary effect.

Well, I had problems understanding in the beginning, and while I still have problems understanding, they're a lot fewer and more peripheral than in the beginning. So, as far as I'm concerned, you're on the right track.


But the discipline question is almost a whole new discussion, as it's bigger than genre or signatures or even writing. It's a discussion about knowledge and teleology. How do you accumulate knowledge and refine intent without letting it get in the way of perception? Surely, this is a core professional question for every writer - but scientists and police and doctors and teachers and parents and fish-keepers encounter it too
I agree, but I may have a different view of which is the horse and which is the cart.

It's a perpetual problem for me. Less so with science, since the method establishes rules to correct for our subjectivities, and they seem to work. But writing fiction wouldn't profit from a similar model.

What I'm struggling with, I suppose, is when does discipline become harmful to what makes writing interesting? (And because people are different, there's no one answer to this. I've seen writers who apply themselves and improve the text, and I've seen writers who apply themselves and lose the text. I'm pretty much split - editing needs discipline, writing must avoid it.

****

Out of time. More later. (Rushed post, sorry)

Dawnstorm
01-18-2008, 05:02 PM
Or maybe he's not trying to address the question, but merely trying to provoke us to address it. 'What do you think, Ruv?' I'd be fine with that too but again I'd ask - to what extent does an aesthetic argument provoke me? Answer: not much. Aesthetics are a bit like exotic food - you either swallow what you're fed, or you spit it out. A rational or emotional approach would provoke me more.

This is where I come from, but now I'm confused about the emotional-rational-aesthetic triangle. (I had something huge typed up, but it didn't make much sense, so I'd rather leave it at this sentence.)


So if method follows purpose, I'd have to propose a counter-position: What if he's just written this for its cool aesthetics -- in other words the "genre blurring" is really for no other purpose than to say he's blurred genre? He's used familiar story tropes and a familiar concern but really isn't seeking to add anything this time around -- in other words, he's simply experimenting with style?

That's a legitimate thing to play with too, and I find this account very plausible given what's in the story and what's not. To critique it I'd then go on to look at how he's done it and what it says about genre and literature. And in this context my chief conclusion is to agree is that yes, using an unreliable narrator on a SF story can make it look a bit like fantasy, can't it? But I'd also go back and acknowledge Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh_the_king) for doing the reverse in 1984: giving a fantasy story laden with symbolism a smart, sensate narrator and making it look like realism.

Silverberg's good at that (I'm thinking Dying Inside, as I haven't read "Gilgamesh").

Btw, I'm focussing on genre blurring because it's the topic of this thread; if I step back, I don't think the genre blurring is particularly dominant. The terms "djinn" and "aeai" are pretty much examples for the emergence of a new semantics, rational discourse as much as folk poetry. (And scientists do talk about "charm quarks" and "strange quarks", hehe.)

The thing is that what we call "genre blurring" here, is really an empirical issue in the fictional world. How people talk. Linguistics would be the discipline, in particular sociolinguistics.

Actually, that we're talking about it so much in terms of genre blurring (and that's how I framed it when bringing it up) examplifies the pitfalls of genre. I do think the genre blurring is secondary, an effect.


Well, dogs are considered mad if they don't behave sufficiently 'doglike'. 'Mind' may not always imply 'person'. One's a philosophical question 'can it think?'; the other's cultural: 'can I treat it as a member of some tribe, and should I accord it tribal rights'? In much contemporary thought 'mind' automatically implies 'person', but historically it hasn't always.

You're very right there. But historically nothing automatically implied "person".


I think most people would get a twinge about this. Genocide and its kissing cousin, population displacement, are older than human history. The more you dig, the more of it you find. I suspect that there isn't a culture on earth that doesn't have genocide and population displacement rooted in its history or prehistory. My own country, which clucks about genocide as much as any developed nation, was poisoning indigenes a generation before WWII, and abducting their children a generation later. Meanwhile, one of our largest mining companies was convicted in this generation of poisoning tribal lands in Papua New Guinea through deliberate neglect. We're far dirtier than we acknowledge, and if this shows anything I think it's that cultures look after themselves very well, and after other cultures badly -- often not even recognising that they're doing it.

But some cultures topicalise it. Germany and Austria after World War II have a two-layered approach; in international comparison we get away with far less. Then there are torn populations like Northern Ireland or Isreal. (I know little about the situation between North and South Korea, but there may be similar issues.)

As a child, it took me a long time to realise that the patriotism in American war films was serious. The same methods applied to Austria amount to parody.


Writers operate in many different modes. We're prospectors, surveyors, miners, salesmen, oracles, diplomats, interpreters, charlatans, sleuths, scientists, historians, clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers, healers, psychologists, artillery gunners, human sacrifices and forensic examiners... But only some of these modes are principally subjective. Mental agility - the ability to shift standpoint, to pick up and discard tools and methods - and to know which to use when, is key to success.

Agreed. Blanket statements rarely work well. Heh.


Culturally, it's hard to separate "this thinks" from "this thinks as I do". What do you do when another mind can clearly perform the same thinking functions that you can, but performs them for entirely different purposes? I don't know if you've ever had the shock of living or working in a culture very different from your own, but the same sort of thing can occur. You establish common words with common meanings, but the purpose of those meanings is entirely different.

Well, I've never managed to integrate very well. I'm not having problems to function (and I've often made a good arbiter in situations where two sides talk past each other), but I've never managed to associate closely with any culture. I do realise that my behaviour is shaped by the culture I grew into. I think one of my problems with the pragmatics of taking a shared context for granted is that I'm highly sensitive to cultural expectations as outside influence rather than something I feel. Often they don't make sense and I play along.

Misunderstandings, such as the "I'm sorry" thing you mention below aren't much of a shock to me. I'm used to that kind embarassment within my own culture.


I don't entirely agree. Some of the best SF keeps things ambiguous or transcends its own question, but...

A lot of good SF works just by providing counter-examples to well-worn truisms. Other good SF works by applying an accepted viewpoint far outside its regular context. In each case the treatment can be quite one-sided -- the audience's appreciation fills in the other side. What makes it 'good' is that it provokes thought, enhances perception and appreciation of the concern -- and does so effectively.

That happens when you go genre-politicking. If I'm ever going to be known for my fiction, remind me to be silent on such issues. The last thing I want is to be caught up in a movement.

I don't entirely agree with myself, either. It certainly doesn't work out if I look at my reading history.


So I certainly don't object to SF that answers all its own questions -- as long as the questions have been framed and explored. I also don't object to SF that provokes but doesn't answer. The critical issues for me are whether it adds anything new in doing so, and whether the treatment suits the concern.

If you think a story adds anything new you haven't read enough. (I don't really believe that either, but the "adds new stuff" has been building up, and I haven't yet thought it through properly.)

Ruv Draba
01-19-2008, 06:28 AM
If you think a story adds anything new you haven't read enough. (I don't really believe that either, but the "adds new stuff" has been building up, and I haven't yet thought it through properly.)
Yes, it has been building up and that's my doing. So while you're deciding what to think, let me furnish some background and rationale -- as much as I have presently. Actually, it's a little manifesto.

What draws us to read a story is its promise of resonance with ourselves. While I've never been transformed into a cockroach, I might certainly feel on some days that I'm treated like one. While I've never been a nineteen year old regency English girl, I've certainly speculated idly who would make a good match among my friends. Though I'm unlikely to travel to other planets, I do wonder what's there.

The word "novel" has been around since 1566 (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=novel&searchmode=none) and comes from the Italian novella originally meaning "new story". While I enjoy reading familiar stories and translations, I think that we actually don't need too many of those before they become so familiar as to be stultifying. Moreover, the familiar does not provoke thought and imagination so well as novelty.

But is novelty really exhausted by the profusion of literature? I don't think so. What has been exhausted is sensation, which is where many writers lose themselves trying to out-do one another. This is nowhere more visible than in blockbuster movies with their big budget effects and small budget thought. And those values (or non-values) have permeated to novels too.

While our imagery is drawn from common cultural stock, and while there aren't an infinite number of plots you can fit into 5,000, 50,000 or 500,000 words, our characters, themes and treatments are free to vary as widely as we like. It doesn't take any longer to write an original story than a cliché -- but the writer must invest in smarts and perspicacity, and not just word-craft. The original writer strives to be worth reading and not simply readable.

Fiction carries the soul of the culture. If the fiction is readable but not worth reading then our soul is comfortable but not worth having. We cannot be both comfortable and innovate. We cannot both be self-satisfied and curious. And we don't gain self-knowledge by staring at the same image in the same mirror every day.

ColoradoGuy
01-19-2008, 07:25 AM
Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, eh?

Ruv Draba
01-20-2008, 12:59 AM
Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, eh?
FP Dunne meant that ironically, I think. The original quote is:

"Th newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward".
I don't think that fiction has such extensive aspirations, though the burying and roasting has a fine tradition too. :)

I think our fiction spends more and more effort comforting the comfortable, satisfying the satisfied. Where's the literature that holds up a hard mirror to obesity? Or absentee parenting? Or our presupposition that youth and old age are meant to be holidays of growing length, sandwiching a brief period of cursory work and wealth acquisition?

Too hard, too uncomfortable. Let's watch car chases, romantic comedies and vengeance flicks instead.

Dawnstorm
01-20-2008, 01:00 AM
Interesting manifesto you have, there. But how do we frame "worth reading"?

Co-incidentally, I've come via Language Log (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005323.html#more) across an open letter (http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/seven_sacred_words_an_open_letter_to_seven_pinker) to linguist Steven Pinker, basically about a cultural approach to literature. One concept especially, the one Pinker picked up in his reply (see also the link above), seemed rather relevant to genre:

The transformation from "shared knowledge" to "mutual knowledge". This was explained through the story "The Emperor's New Clothes". Everybody knew the Emperor was naked, but nobody dared comment, whisper to the neighbour etc. They had shared knowledge, they could guess, but they couldn't be sure. The little boy's statement transformed "shared knowledge" into "mutual knowledge", by confronting them with what they already knew. (Unacknowledged shared knowledge would be an interesting field of study.)

Now, in the context of this discussion, I thought I might frame "new" as a transition from "shared knowledge" to "mutual knowledge": finding a way to state the obvious.

This is a cultural-production approach. What works for you, might not work for me. And so we may disagree about what's new, because what results in an epiphany for me, may be restating the same old thing for you. And vice versa.

Just a thought.

Ruv Draba
01-20-2008, 04:11 AM
Interesting manifesto you have, there. But how do we frame "worth reading"?
Here I might incur the ire of moral relativists, but I'd start with the assumption that humans need similar things and if you put them in similar environments under similar circumstances, they will have similar concerns. From this I conclude that while cultural concerns change, they change with the culture's environment and circumstances -- they're not just arbitrary fads.

So with that stipulated one question you can ask critically is "Does this work address a real concern?" The operative word here is not concern, but address. We'll read whatever piques our interest of course, and if our interests are concern-driven as I suggest then we'll seek literature that appears to address our concerns. But that's not the same thing as addressing them - and of course we can't tell until we've read a book what it's really about.

Here I'd suggest that thematic analysis rather than simply analysis of setting or situation or plot, tells you whether a concern is being addressed or merely used to "sell interest" in the story. I'd argue that you can do this from a common cultural perspective if you use disciplined structural analyses of how a story works. (And recognising that this assertion may annoy certain postmodern deconstructionists who like the liberty of interpreting texts however they want.)

But if you believe you can do that, then you can then ask whether a work is asking new questions, or helping to answer old questions by providing interesting new perspectives. If it's doing neither then you'd have to consider that it's recycling and reassembling old perspectives on old questions -- in other words it's just recycling and rebranding other folks' stories. That can still be legitimate (e.g. to reach new markets, or breathe new life into old tales), but it's propagation rather than stimulation of culture, and I think that the distinction is worth highlighting in book reviews and considering as a consumer: "Drawing on influences from X, Y and Z, and with its themes of P, Q and R, this book tells a familiar story in a new setting." Fine. If this were a F/SF genre review we'd know exactly what we were getting. Music album reviews can do this; there's no reason that lit reviews can't either.


Co-incidentally, I've come via Language Log (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005323.html#more) across an open letter (http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/seven_sacred_words_an_open_letter_to_seven_pinker) to linguist Steven Pinker, basically about a cultural approach to literature.Thank you for this link. I read Benzon's open letter and Pinker's reply. There's a lot there of potential interest.


The transformation from "shared knowledge" to "mutual knowledge". This was explained through the story "The Emperor's New Clothes". Everybody knew the Emperor was naked, but nobody dared comment, whisper to the neighbour etc. They had shared knowledge, they could guess, but they couldn't be sure. The little boy's statement transformed "shared knowledge" into "mutual knowledge", by confronting them with what they already knew. (Unacknowledged shared knowledge would be an interesting field of study.)This has resonance with an area of Information Science called Knowledge Management, in particular distinctions between tacit and explicit knowledge.

One of the great things that literature can do is help make tacit knowledge explicit. We can't talk about tacit knowledge -- it's only after we explicate it that we can discuss it. If you look at the ideas in Nineteen Eighty-Four or Catch-22, many of them were not new ideas for their day. But these works explicated the knowledge -- condensing it, materialising it and presenting it in language that people could then use to discuss their concerns. This is one benefit that makes literature "worth reading".

Now, in the context of this discussion, I thought I might frame "new" as a transition from "shared knowledge" to "mutual knowledge": finding a way to state the obvious.I think it can be either tacit knowledge (really: perception and opinion) made explicit, or else a new perception shared. (Because authors are sometimes visionaries and not just observers).

This is a cultural-production approach.Yes it is.

What works for you, might not work for me.Yes, but if we're both in the same culture then it's not about what works for you or me; it's what works for the broader "us".


And so we may disagree about what's new, because what results in an epiphany for me, may be restating the same old thing for you. And vice versa. That already happens of course. If I come across a "new" idea, I might not encounter it in its original form - because ideas are restated and restated as part of propagation. But if I do my research against the culture's history I can see whether the idea is new to the culture, or just new to me.

I would like to hope that our culture actually does value new thought to the point that it's willing to elbow aside some shelf-space among the formula works, and promote such stories as "a bit uncomfortable, but interesting". I'd also like to hope that we're not shallow enough to confuse new thought with simply changing styling on old thought. (As per many "cross-genre" pieces, for instance)

Dawnstorm
01-20-2008, 05:55 PM
But if you believe you can do that, then you can then ask whether a work is asking new questions, or helping to answer old questions by providing interesting new perspectives. If it's doing neither then you'd have to consider that it's recycling and reassembling old perspectives on old questions -- in other words it's just recycling and rebranding other folks' stories. That can still be legitimate (e.g. to reach new markets, or breathe new life into old tales), but it's propagation rather than stimulation of culture, and I think that the distinction is worth highlighting in book reviews and considering as a consumer: "Drawing on influences from X, Y and Z, and with its themes of P, Q and R, this book tells a familiar story in a new setting." Fine. If this were a F/SF genre review we'd know exactly what we were getting. Music album reviews can do this; there's no reason that lit reviews can't either.

Actually, I think we'd know approximately what we're getting. And I do think that re-views can, in terms of self-fulfilling prophecy, influence what you're getting.


Thank you for this link. I read Benzon's open letter and Pinker's reply. There's a lot there of potential interest.

There are quite a lot of interesting links in there, too. I haven't followed a single one, so far. I plan to, once I find the time.


I think it can be either tacit knowledge (really: perception and opinion) made explicit, or else a new perception shared. (Because authors are sometimes visionaries and not just observers).

Actually, that would be three concepts, then - if the first is valid at all as far as "new" comes into play (I now suspect it's merely a "new form of propagation" in your terms above):

1. Knwoledge is tacit and finds expression.

2. Knowledge is uncertain and finds legitimisation.

3. New perception.

(And I'm still not sure about "new", but I don't want to side-track too much, either. Dilemma.)


Yes, but if we're both in the same culture then it's not about what works for you or me; it's what works for the broader "us".

But very often the broader "us" involves a predictable conflict between what works for me and what works for you.

Or in other words, some conflict may be neither a power struggle nor a problem solving technique, but a social institution to tie together mutually incomprehensive points of view in non-destructive and potentially productive (through misunderstandings) interaction.


That already happens of course. If I come across a "new" idea, I might not encounter it in its original form - because ideas are restated and restated as part of propagation. But if I do my research against the culture's history I can see whether the idea is new to the culture, or just new to me.

It's why "classics" are often re-appropriated to genres, once genre expectations exist. (In the way that the magic realist movement flaunts Kafka, and Gernsback [who popularised the term SF] flaunted Wells and Verne.)


I would like to hope that our culture actually does value new thought to the point that it's willing to elbow aside some shelf-space among the formula works, and promote such stories as "a bit uncomfortable, but interesting". I'd also like to hope that we're not shallow enough to confuse new thought with simply changing styling on old thought. (As per many "cross-genre" pieces, for instance)

Hehe. How do you know what you're not getting, when you're not getting it? Our concepts of "new" are based on what we do get, after all.

***

Another link (http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/). Here, Hal Duncan (genre author whom I haven't read yet) is talking about the genre confusion between SF - Fantasy - Horror and uses an approach quite compatible with what I'm proposing. It's not that relevant to genresignatures, I feel, other than to show up an alternative. (Lots of words and jargon though.)

Ruv Draba
01-21-2008, 06:05 AM
Actually, that would be three concepts, then - if the first is valid at all as far as "new" comes into play (I now suspect it's merely a "new form of propagation" in your terms above):

1. Knwoledge is tacit and finds expression.

2. Knowledge is uncertain and finds legitimisation.

3. New perception.
Actually, I suspect that it may divide further than that. For instance, delegitimisation is also a form of knowlege ('we think we were wrong on this, and here's why'). [Let's not worry too much about the epistemological implications of knowledge being delegitimised -- I feel that it's a philosophical/psychological question rather than a literary one]

Regarding your concerns about 1), from a Knowledge Management perspective, tacit knowledge has a very different character to explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge isn't always where it needs to be; it's hard to discuss it, make decisions with it, connect it with other knowledge or predict with it. Functionally, explicating tacit knowledge operates as innovation because a group can do new things, and operate/communicate in ways that it couldn't before. Explicating knowledge is tool-building -- even if the 'idea' for the tool was already present.

And I'm still not sure about "new", but I don't want to side-track too much, either. Dilemma.I'm not sure if that's an epistemological, psychological or existential bother. :) Let me steal from the behaviourists a little and try to resolve part of the problem. If a group is able to demonstrate new or changed function, then we can infer new knowledge. It's reasonable to look in the concerns, metaphors, questions and models used to communicate new thinking to find that knowledge. That's half of our problem solved.

A portion of the other half is that if you see no change to the thinking then it's a safe bet that there isn't any new knowledge here.

That just leaves us to ask: if you do see new thinking, but no new behaviour or function then what's that? Is it knowledge or something less?

For the purposes of this dicussion, I'd be willing to give it marks for trying, and call it 'new but not yet practical' knowledge. (And of course, literature has plenty of that.)

(I realise that I've borrowed the term 'knowledge' but not defined it. Please poke me if that's a bother.)


But very often the broader "us" involves a predictable conflict between what works for me and what works for you.I'd argue that what works for me vs you is not a cultural concern; it's interpersonal. What works for 'us' is a cultural concern, and of course there's conflict over that too.

I'd further suggest that most genre disagreements are not about 'what works for us' but merely 'what works for me'. As we've seen, they're most often political arguments, in that individuals try to promote views by misrepresenting individual benefit (or preference or prejudice) as group benefit.

To look at it as a cultural concern I feel we need to think about what 'group' and 'benefit' mean. That way, even if we have different views at least we pull in the same direction. I can't say that a signature approach offers more benefit than all other approaches, but I can point out what I think that the benefits are likely to be, who the beneficiaries are, what the costs and limitations are, and invite comment that either improves the benefits, broadens the beneficiaries or reduces costs/limitations. And of course if I care about benefits more than my own preferences then I should be receptive to improvements and alternatives -- if there's a case for better benefit.


It's why "classics" are often re-appropriated to genres, once genre expectations exist. (In the way that the magic realist movement flaunts Kafka, and Gernsback [who popularised the term SF] flaunted Wells and Verne.)Taxonomies naturally undergo overhauls from time to time - just because things change. Even taxonomies in the natural sciences change as our knowledge increases, so of course they'll change in the humanities too.

Some of those changes are politically-motivated; some are just sensible. I think that the core problem is that "ism" refers to technique as well as politics. Really, I think it would make more sense for us to use "istics" for technique, and "isms" for the politics. :D E.g.: "Magical Realistics" - his story used this particular technique, for whatever reason; "Magical Realism" - the self-interested squabbles about who's "in", who's "out", who's leading, who's following and who's "just pretending". :P
How do you know what you're not getting, when you're not getting it? Our concepts of "new" are based on what we do get, after all.Hopefully my 'behaviouristic' attempt above helps with this.


Another link (http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/). Here, Hal Duncan (genre author whom I haven't read yet) is talking about the genre confusion between SF - Fantasy - Horror and uses an approach quite compatible with what I'm proposing.
Wow! A long piece... On first read it looked like a patch and bandaid job to me, of the form: their setting, plot, character-based taxonomies are flawed, but if I just add a few more rules and definitions it's fixable. (There are an awful lot of arguments like that around, each chewing at the tail of another.) There's certainly a lot of thought in it and some nice references, but the more I read the more he seemed to move away from what makes horror scary, or fantasy fantastic or science fiction sciency. I think that the further you move from that, the less practical and useful the taxonomy will be.

(Duncan has a several blogs, and I dug into his poetry too. Very interesting, very passionate guy.)

Dawnstorm
01-21-2008, 03:14 PM
Regarding your concerns about 1), from a Knowledge Management perspective, tacit knowledge has a very different character to explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge isn't always where it needs to be; it's hard to discuss it, make decisions with it, connect it with other knowledge or predict with it. Functionally, explicating tacit knowledge operates as innovation because a group can do new things, and operate/communicate in ways that it couldn't before. Explicating knowledge is tool-building -- even if the 'idea' for the tool was already present.

Oops, my mistake. My concerns were about 2. The effects of legitimisation are purely social. (Although they do have facilitating effects, these effects tend to enfranchise conflict rather than development.)


I'm not sure if that's an epistemological, psychological or existential bother. :) Let me steal from the behaviourists a little and try to resolve part of the problem. If a group is able to demonstrate new or changed function, then we can infer new knowledge. It's reasonable to look in the concerns, metaphors, questions and models used to communicate new thinking to find that knowledge. That's half of our problem solved.

Wait a minute. A step back. (I said I didn't want to side track; is it too late? ;) ) It's a bit confusing if you try to explain "new" by displacing it from knowledge onto function. (The behavioural take would be "new behaviour", with fuction and knowledge being both inferences from there, actual. But that doesn't exactly help, either, because then I'll just ask how do we classify "new behaviour" as new?)

"New behaviour" can be put in old, fuzzy categories (quirks, madness...), or perceived as the closest similar behaviour. In neither of these instances we would actually be aware of new behaviour.


A portion of the other half is that if you see no change to the thinking then it's a safe bet that there isn't any new knowledge here.

But the thinking you see is a construction in your head. The text doesn't think.


That just leaves us to ask: if you do see new thinking, but no new behaviour or function then what's that? Is it knowledge or something less?

For the purposes of this dicussion, I'd be willing to give it marks for trying, and call it 'new but not yet practical' knowledge. (And of course, literature has plenty of that.)

(I realise that I've borrowed the term 'knowledge' but not defined it. Please poke me if that's a bother.)

Well, if you do see new thinking, chances are it's there (but it may not be in the text; it may be in your head).


I'd argue that what works for me vs you is not a cultural concern; it's interpersonal. What works for 'us' is a cultural concern, and of course there's conflict over that too.

Well, to me culture is interpersonal. There's nothing beyond the interpersonal.

Also, what I was saying isn't that there's conflict about what works for 'us', but that conflict is what works for us. The conflict itself is a cultural concern (or perhaps it is a meta-cultural concern, after all?)


I'd further suggest that most genre disagreements are not about 'what works for us' but merely 'what works for me'. As we've seen, they're most often political arguments, in that individuals try to promote views by misrepresenting individual benefit (or preference or prejudice) as group benefit.

Actually, I'd amend that to: not about 'what works for US' but 'what works for us'. People who stand on their own and try to define stuff aren't often well received (Atwood, Goodkind...). What I'm doubting is that there is an ultimate US. I'm not sure, when it comes to genre politics, that there's a blanket grouping, a mother genre, so to speak.


To look at it as a cultural concern I feel we need to think about what 'group' and 'benefit' mean. That way, even if we have different views at least we pull in the same direction.

Well, to me a possible starting point to defining group would be in-group/out-group structures:

How do I know I'm part of the group? There are new and established members, as well as outsiders. There are guests and intruders. (All differentiated by how they are treated.)

Benefit, to me would focus first on the individual. Why do I want to stay in the group? Why do I want to leave? Why do I want to join?

From there we can generalise onto "group benefit" under the assumption that a group whose members all want to leave do not have "group benefit" at its organisational centre.

There are complications, like balancing cost against benefit, and how to treat people for whom being part of any group is a benefit in itself. But that's my basic model. Bottom up.


I can't say that a signature approach offers more benefit than all other approaches, but I can point out what I think that the benefits are likely to be, who the beneficiaries are, what the costs and limitations are, and invite comment that either improves the benefits, broadens the beneficiaries or reduces costs/limitations. And of course if I care about benefits more than my own preferences then I should be receptive to improvements and alternatives -- if there's a case for better benefit.

To be honest, for the last couple of posts I don't feel like I have contributed much (except perhaps the Pinker-link). Instead I appear to be going off on tangents.

I never felt like you were pushing your approach. I mean, it's hardly surprising that we're talking about it in a thread about genre signatures. ;)


Taxonomies naturally undergo overhauls from time to time - just because things change. Even taxonomies in the natural sciences change as our knowledge increases, so of course they'll change in the humanities too.

Some of those changes are politically-motivated; some are just sensible. I think that the core problem is that "ism" refers to technique as well as politics. Really, I think it would make more sense for us to use "istics" for technique, and "isms" for the politics. :D E.g.: "Magical Realistics" - his story used this particular technique, for whatever reason; "Magical Realism" - the self-interested squabbles about who's "in", who's "out", who's leading, who's following and who's "just pretending". :P Hopefully my 'behaviouristic' attempt above helps with this.

Yes, but, say, the biology of the various animals referred to as "panda" doesn't change whether we stuff them together into a family or distribute them across the carnivores. Texts do change, depending on who reads them.

I'm pretty sure the magical realists didn't read the same "Metamorphosis" that I read. I'd also say the two of us didn't read the same text (literally, too, since I never read an English translation ;) ). Now, whose readings have more in common?


Wow! A long piece... On first read it looked like a patch and bandaid job to me, of the form: their setting, plot, character-based taxonomies are flawed, but if I just add a few more rules and definitions it's fixable. (There are an awful lot of arguments like that around, each chewing at the tail of another.) There's certainly a lot of thought in it and some nice references, but the more I read the more he seemed to move away from what makes horror scary, or fantasy fantastic or science fiction sciency. I think that the further you move from that, the less practical and useful the taxonomy will be.

Well, yes, it moved away from that. That's the whole point. I'm sympathetic to that, because rather than "genre" as a startingpoint, we then a have a grid of variables to probe fiction with. Duncan has coulds and shoulds (with negation), so we get:

1. Could not but should
2. Could and should
3. Could not and should not
4. Could (neutral)
5. Could not (neutral)
6. Should (neutral)
7. Should not (neutral)

Now you could apply this grid to any sort of genre-definition, to any story element, etc. and you'd have a tool to compare definitions. It's a purely descriptive tool. [Of course the coulds and shoulds themselves are highly problematic; but the problem is out in the open. A very detailled analysis would use an if-then approach with probabibilities. Some texts may inherently blur the lines, though; especially those focalised through madmen.]

A mapping of genres onto this grid is not practible, I agree, but that's not the point.


(Duncan has a several blogs, and I dug into his poetry too. Very interesting, very passionate guy.)

He's been on my to-read list for quite some time now. I'll read him one day (I keep saying...)

Ruv Draba
01-22-2008, 02:41 AM
Oops, my mistake. My concerns were about 2. The effects of legitimisation are purely social. (Although they do have facilitating effects, these effects tend to enfranchise conflict rather than development.)They're definitely social, but purely? I don't think so. As thought gets culturally legitimised, individual behaviours may change. Consider for instance the impact of Kinsey's research into sex, gender and reproduction on modern sexual behaviour, or the impact of feminist thought on workplace practices and family law, or the impact of recent climate change discussion on sales of the Toyota Prius.

One might argue that it's just individuals making individual decisions, but I'd suggest that in many cases what's informing those decisions are shifts in other peoples' opinions. Those shifts are both propagating and being reflected in literature (and they're also propagating orally too of course - but frequently, literature is what gets people talking).


Wait a minute. A step back. (I said I didn't want to side track; is it too late? ;) )My fault - you hinted at a qualm. I interpreted it and then responded to it. :D


It's a bit confusing if you try to explain "new" by displacing it from knowledge onto function. (The behavioural take would be "new behaviour", with fuction and knowledge being both inferences from there, actual. But that doesn't exactly help, either, because then I'll just ask how do we classify "new behaviour" as new?)Well, it's easy to record behaviours and if you can record and analyse them then you can identify new. 'New' in this instance doesn't mean 'never been seen before'. Really it means 'new trend'.

E.g. 'Women in paid work - that's new' It's not really new of course. Cottage industries gave women paid work with their families for most of human history (though they didn't always get to keep the pay). What's new is the trend of women leaving their children to go elsewhere for paid work as a matter of choice rather than necessity.

But the thinking you see is a construction in your head. The text doesn't think.Agree, but it didn't appear spontaneously - someone wrote it. If you share culture with the author then you gain a lot of insight into the thought. One reason that writers write is to communicate. What keeps such writers encouraged is that the communication works reasonably well.

Well, if you do see new thinking, chances are it's there (but it may not be in the text; it may be in your head).Yes, but you can check and renormalise it. Shift viewpoints, add and subtract assumptions and (here's a thought!) talk to other people! Whether this gives you an absolute truth or simply a culturally legitimised view it will still be bigger and more robust than your own individual perceptions.


Well, to me culture is interpersonal. There's nothing beyond the interpersonal.In the same reductionist vein there's nothing beyond atoms or energy... Except that we don't just make decisions based on atoms or energy.

I can't speak for your life, DS, but if you've ever obeyed road rules when it's safe to break them and there's nobody else on the road, or handed in lost property when you don't know who owns it, or taken your litter away from a park you'll never revisit then I reckon it's likely that you have a sense of group, a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation to the collective rather than just the personal. (One could create an animist abstraction I suppose and give the road, the property and the park each a personal face, but I'd suggest that's sophistic evasion. :tongue)

The folk who don't understand, value or can support group are the often dangerous dysfunctionals that we call sociopaths. They have a very particular pathology that's built around genuinely dealing with people on a case-by-case basis and from purely self-interest. I'm guessing that's not you. :eek:


Also, what I was saying isn't that there's conflict about what works for 'us', but that conflict is what works for us. The conflict itself is a cultural concern (or perhaps it is a meta-cultural concern, after all?)Sure, conflict can be legitimate cultural activity. If it's framed by a common purpose, shared values and a sense of belonging then it's functional (political debates, protests and family squabbles); if it's not then it's dysfunctional (civil wars, riots and divorces).



Actually, I'd amend that to: not about 'what works for US' but 'what works for us'. People who stand on their own and try to define stuff aren't often well received (Atwood, Goodkind...). What I'm doubting is that there is an ultimate US. I'm not sure, when it comes to genre politics, that there's a blanket grouping, a mother genre, so to speak.I'm not sure what 'ultimate' means, but I'll happily acknowledge groups and super-groups and sub-groups and sub-sub-groups. But there's a consistency in this - it's not arbitrary. All humans have a lot in common, but humans in the same culture typically have more in common with one another than with humans in a different culture. Humans in a family tend to have even more in common with each other than with humans in another family of the same culture. There are differences and disagreements at every level, and sometimes there's more affinity between an individual and some other group than their own group. And of course, we have people who belong to more than one culture, or to a transplanted culture and so on... but still there's more sense than chaos in this -- or so it feels to me. Most people seem quite good at knowing their tribe.

To the extent that groups make sense, I think concerns and treatments in groups make sense. And because I've linked concerns and treatments to literature, I think it flows through there. My only stipulation here is that genre is principally a cultural construct -- not a human or sub-cultural or communty or family construct or personal construct.

(That said, I believe that every culture has its equivalent of Fantasy and Horror though the details may vary - but that's because I think that dreams and nightmares are human concerns and not just cultural concerns)


Well, to me a possible starting point to defining group would be in-group/out-group structures:

How do I know I'm part of the group? There are new and established members, as well as outsiders. There are guests and intruders. (All differentiated by how they are treated.)I'd start simply: Do you generally hold the values of the group, even when they're sometimes against your interests? Do you share language and customs? Do the group recognise you? Do you recognise them? Answer yes to all of these and I think that the chances are that you're 'in' the group. Answer 'no' to any of these questions and you're out.

The fine detail of 'where' in the group you are, I'd save for another day. :D


Benefit, to me would focus first on the individual. Why do I want to stay in the group? Why do I want to leave? Why do I want to join?I don't think that group membership is necessarily a matter of conscious choice. Bear in mind that we're raised from infancy in groups. We're educated to work with groups. Aside from ferals and sociopaths, most of us are extremely facile at working with and in groups - and we frequently do it on a preconscious level.

Joining new groups takes effort, as does leaving existing groups, and it's stressful for many people. A lot of our sense of safety, comfort and purpose may be invested in our groups, even if we don't like them much. So
I think it's very common that we don't stay in groups because of benefit alone, but from some combination of benefit, cost and opportunity.


From there we can generalise onto "group benefit" under the assumption that a group whose members all want to leave do not have "group benefit" at its organisational centre.I'd actually start on group benefit and then work to individual benefits. I'd suggest that most modern societies are engineered largely to benefit themselves. (Consider laws, taxes, social obligations, institutions, globalisation, deregulation, economic rationalism, conscription, property redevelopment, stock speculation etc...). Individuals then have to work out (morally, ethically, strategically, economically) how they can arrange things so that a frequently indifferent society can benefit them too. Often what keeps people participating in such an indifferent society (I feel) are cost and opportunity rather than direct benefit.


To be honest, for the last couple of posts I don't feel like I have contributed much (except perhaps the Pinker-link). Instead I appear to be going off on tangents.Well, I've been ranting more on my side to compensate. Hopefully it's still been fairly on-topic and useful. If it's not we should either switch topics, or excise the bits that aren't and see what's left. Or if it's stopped being AWWC-worthy and is just email-worthy, then PM or email it.


I never felt like you were pushing your approach. I mean, it's hardly surprising that we're talking about it in a thread about genre signatures. ;)My stakes are pretty simple. From a writer's perspective, all insight is good - no matter who invented it. Challenges are good too, because they can provoke insight or highlight ignorance at least. Context is good because it deepens appreciation. Polemics and rants are good too as long as they're funny. Care for fellow writers - especially those struggling to understand stuff - that's good too.

What's not good? Blame, denial, self-justification. Self-interest masquerading as common good. Seeing disagreement as threat. Rhetoric rather than thinking. All the muddy stuff, which I think we're still managing to avoid. :tongue:tongue:tongue


Yes, but, say, the biology of the various animals referred to as "panda" doesn't change whether we stuff them together into a family or distribute them across the carnivores. Texts do change, depending on who reads them.Granted, but equally, with common purpose and common thought, groups tend to read things the same way. And since literature operates at a cultural level and not just a personal level, I'd argue that what we get from texts - the "collective meaning" as opposed to the "individual significance" - is vested culturally.

(Can you feel my briny claws around your ankle? I'm trying to ease you off your 'all men are islands' platform. )

I'm pretty sure the magical realists didn't read the same "Metamorphosis" that I read.Actually, I think that there are a bunch of fantasists who've gotten themselves confused and are calling themselves Magical Realists - even though they don't share the same concerns or even use the same techniques, and probably haven't actually read The Metamorphosis.

But... I certainly see enough commonality between The Tin Drum, Perfume, Like Water for Chocolate and The Metamorphosis, say. Comparable concerns (e.g. belonging), comparable treatments (something weird or wonderful happens and nobody questions it; objective/subjective or cause/effect are confused). They're fantasy because things don't happen that way in our world (and because they still fit my broad signature), but unlike the more pageant-driven fantasy traditions they use the least amounts of fantastical needed to highlight the themes. Also (in general) European and South American writers do a much better job of it than the North Americans or Brits.


Well, yes, it moved away from that. That's the whole point. I'm sympathetic to that, because rather than "genre" as a startingpoint, we then a have a grid of variables to probe fiction with. Duncan has coulds and shoulds (with negation), so we get:

1. Could not but should
2. Could and should
3. Could not and should not
4. Could (neutral)
5. Could not (neutral)
6. Should (neutral)
7. Should not (neutral)A great summary! Duncan should adopt it in his introduction. :Thumbs:

I'm going to think about it more from that context. Key I think is what the coulds/shoulds apply to. Characters? Events? Setting? Consequences? Outcomes? Duncan talks about fantastika and so forth, but the "shoulds" and "coulds" feel moral, psychological and social to me and not just metaphysical.

Dawnstorm
01-22-2008, 07:02 PM
They're definitely social, but purely? I don't think so. As thought gets culturally legitimised, individual behaviours may change. Consider for instance the impact of Kinsey's research into sex, gender and reproduction on modern sexual behaviour, or the impact of feminist thought on workplace practices and family law, or the impact of recent climate change discussion on sales of the Toyota Prius.

One might argue that it's just individuals making individual decisions, but I'd suggest that in many cases what's informing those decisions are shifts in other peoples' opinions. Those shifts are both propagating and being reflected in literature (and they're also propagating orally too of course - but frequently, literature is what gets people talking).

Heh. You know what "purely" expresses? It expresses a desire to live in an epistemologically simple world. If I use a word such as "purely" or "ultimate", it slipped past my radar and you can take for granted that I don't mean it. "Take for granted" is such a phrase, btw. ;)

But I do think that in the case of legitimisation changed behaviour is due to a change in normativity rather than due to a change in the knowledge base. Of course, there will be people who witness the legitimisation process as a source of new information ("It's necessary to cut down the rain forrest? Wait a minute! They're cutting down the rain-forrest?") And, of course, there's new information about who thinks what about what. But that's meta-topical rather than topical, so to speak (the topic of the information is opinion not subject matter).


Well, it's easy to record behaviours and if you can record and analyse them then you can identify new. 'New' in this instance doesn't mean 'never been seen before'. Really it means 'new trend'.

E.g. 'Women in paid work - that's new' It's not really new of course. Cottage industries gave women paid work with their families for most of human history (though they didn't always get to keep the pay). What's new is the trend of women leaving their children to go elsewhere for paid work as a matter of choice rather than necessity.

Check.


Agree, but it didn't appear spontaneously - someone wrote it. If you share culture with the author then you gain a lot of insight into the thought. One reason that writers write is to communicate. What keeps such writers encouraged is that the communication works reasonably well.

I'm not disagreeing. I can read books in German and English, but not in Chinese. There.

But I still argue that human coding/decoding is not the same thing as machine coding/decoding. It's not a formal system. Which is why culture changes in the firstplace. Or in other words, I think that misunderstandings are crucial to keep the world recognisable. And I think that misunderstandings are an important epistemic motor in fiction. (They do play a role in scientific papers, too, but it's much more limited.)

Discovery of those misunderstandings is possible, but it's not necessary to be productive. Misunderstandings can produce new meaning:

A says X.
B tries to make sense of X and comes up with X', or even Y.
B checks back whether X' or Y are what A meant.

After that, the misunderstanding can be cleared, or A may read X'/Y as X (not conceiving of X' and Y as different, because knowledge of X shades perception of X' and Y).

Now it's quite possible that X'/Y are ideas that B has not held before. What then but interpersonal (and potentially unacknowledged) process is the origin of idea X' or Y?



I'd argue that certain pieces of fiction (as opposed to opinion pieces) may rely on this process. Some SF, for example, may deliberately apply "black box models" to spark response. An interpersonal idea factory, rather than a process of coding/decoding. This works because fiction doesn't require immediate clarity.


Yes, but you can check and renormalise it. Shift viewpoints, add and subtract assumptions and (here's a thought!) [I]talk to other people! Whether this gives you an absolute truth or simply a culturally legitimised view it will still be bigger and more robust than your own individual perceptions.

Talking to people? Real ones? Not just those in my head? I'm scared...

Actually, in my experience the more people I talk to the less robust my view becomes. That's me being myself. Does that mean that I shouldn't talk to people? Well, no, to me it means that robust views don't work for me. Social animal before rational animal. See?


In the same reductionist vein there's nothing beyond atoms or energy... Except that we don't just make decisions based on atoms or energy.

Not really. The reductionist model would deny the interpersonal. The interpersonal is so vague already to posit another layer beyond that isn't really practical. Nor for me, in any case.


I can't speak for your life, DS, but if you've ever obeyed road rules when it's safe to break them and there's nobody else on the road, or handed in lost property when you don't know who owns it, or taken your litter away from a park you'll never revisit then I reckon it's likely that you have a sense of group, a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation to the collective rather than just the personal. (One could create an animist abstraction I suppose and give the road, the property and the park each a personal face, but I'd suggest that's sophistic evasion. :tongue)

Yes, but all that's memory (personal) formed in interaction (interpersonal). It's a chicken and egg thing. If you wish to name the spiral "bigger than interpersonal", then I'm with you. If not, I'm not sure what you're even talking about.


The folk who don't understand, value or can support group are the often dangerous dysfunctionals that we call sociopaths. They have a very particular pathology that's built around genuinely dealing with people on a case-by-case basis and from purely self-interest. I'm guessing that's not you. :eek:

No, I'm not a sociapath. (Isn't that just the thing that a sociopath would say? ;) ) But being a sociopath is a personal condition typologised on the intersection of individual and group. I don't think a sociopath is a separate case; I think it's an extreme case.


Sure, conflict can be legitimate cultural activity. If it's framed by a common purpose, shared values and a sense of belonging then it's functional (political debates, protests and family squabbles); if it's not then it's dysfunctional (civil wars, riots and divorces).

Agreed.


I'm not sure what 'ultimate' means,

See above.


but I'll happily acknowledge groups and super-groups and sub-groups and sub-sub-groups. But there's a consistency in this - it's not arbitrary. All humans have a lot in common, but humans in the same culture typically have more in common with one another than with humans in a different culture. Humans in a family tend to have even more in common with each other than with humans in another family of the same culture. There are differences and disagreements at every level, and sometimes there's more affinity between an individual and some other group than their own group. And of course, we have people who belong to more than one culture, or to a transplanted culture and so on... but still there's more sense than chaos in this -- or so it feels to me. Most people seem quite good at knowing their tribe.

Yup.


To the extent that groups make sense, I think concerns and treatments in groups make sense. And because I've linked concerns and treatments to literature, I think it flows through there. My only stipulation here is that genre is principally a cultural construct -- not a human or sub-cultural or communty or family construct or personal construct.

Whereas I'm saying that genre, as it intersects with culture, can be at the centre of subculture. In short: genres don't resonate with everyone; they may provide the impetus for people who have things in common to gather.


(That said, I believe that every culture has its equivalent of Fantasy and Horror though the details may vary - but that's because I think that dreams and nightmares are human concerns and not just cultural concerns)

Whereas I think that genre is an epistemic category: a cultural way of looking at things that tells us where to look. The more we leave our comfort zoens the more problematic this gets. But it's also potential for contact.


I'd start simply: Do you generally hold the values of the group, even when they're sometimes against your interests? Do you share language and customs? Do the group recognise you? Do you recognise them? Answer yes to all of these and I think that the chances are that you're 'in' the group. Answer 'no' to any of these questions and you're out.

Yes, but generally you take values for granted until you experience dissent. My take is that shared values becoming visible is a direct result of shared values becoming problematic. In other words, I think the experience of being 'in' or 'out' is more primal than the experience of sharing values.

Of course, we've all started as "out" and were drawn "in" (socialisation, enculturisation). But, and that's crucial, the process changes memory. Or differently put: to the extent that you reflect on values that are against your self interest, you're out, not in.

I guess that means I agree in general, but:


The fine detail of 'where' in the group you are, I'd save for another day. :D

Disagree on this.

Chicken-egg again. One of us cries "chicken", the other "egg". The metaphor isn't easy to map onto this discussion though.


I don't think that group membership is necessarily a matter of conscious choice. Bear in mind that we're raised from infancy in groups. We're educated to work with groups. Aside from ferals and sociopaths, most of us are extremely facile at working with and in groups - and we frequently do it on a preconscious level.

I was vague. Actually, I wasn't talking so much about initiation/alienation, or choice, as I was talking about reference groups. Benefits become visible through psychological reactions of members. Example: "Grass is always greener over there," shows up a disparity between what you see that others have and that you don't. It's very versatile, and can be applied to in-group roles as well as compartive roles in the reference group. The reality rarely works out; but that's where you start. (Of course, the line itself "Grass is always greener over there" is therapy for the perceived lack.)


Joining new groups takes effort, as does leaving existing groups, and it's stressful for many people. A lot of our sense of safety, comfort and purpose may be invested in our groups, even if we don't like them much. So I think it's very common that we don't stay in groups because of benefit alone, but from some combination of benefit, cost and opportunity.

Yes, but the fantasy is free, and that's what matters for purposes of discovery. Both bottom up (telling yourself "grass is always greener") and top down (pass ports etc.).


I'd actually start on group benefit and then work to individual benefits. I'd suggest that most modern societies are engineered largely to benefit themselves. (Consider laws, taxes, social obligations, institutions, globalisation, deregulation, economic rationalism, conscription, property redevelopment, stock speculation etc...). Individuals then have to work out (morally, ethically, strategically, economically) how they can arrange things so that a frequently indifferent society can benefit them too. Often what keeps people participating in such an indifferent society (I feel) are cost and opportunity rather than direct benefit.

Well, groups are all sorts of things from informal regular gatherings (Sunday's bridge club) to societies. What is the organisational group benefit of a ghetto? Self-pity?

Personally, I find bottom-up more comprehensible, and also more comprehensive.


My stakes are pretty simple. From a writer's perspective, all insight is good - no matter who invented it. Challenges are good too, because they can provoke insight or highlight ignorance at least. Context is good because it deepens appreciation. Polemics and rants are good too as long as they're funny. Care for fellow writers - especially those struggling to understand stuff - that's good too.

Yes.


What's not good? Blame, denial, self-justification. Self-interest masquerading as common good. Seeing disagreement as threat. Rhetoric rather than thinking. All the muddy stuff, which I think we're still managing to avoid. :tongue:tongue:tongue

I hope so. Hehe.


Granted, but equally, with common purpose and common thought, groups tend to read things the same way.

And we conclude that from what position?


And since literature operates at a cultural level and not just a personal level, I'd argue that what we get from texts - the "collective meaning" as opposed to the "individual significance" - is vested culturally.

"Collective meaning" is a sort of consus. It's not the meaning of the text, but a context of the text which you may choose not to seek out before reading the book itself (see spoilers on boards), but which you can't avoid in full with "classics" (lots of 1984-references in pop-culture; you don't have to read the book to get them. Sometimes I wonder whether such references are easier to get if you don't read the book.)


(Can you feel my briny claws around your ankle? I'm trying to ease you off your 'all men are islands' platform. )

Ankles? Us isnalnds have no ankles. Us islan... Bah! There you go.

;)


Actually, I think that there are a bunch of fantasists who've gotten themselves confused and are calling themselves Magical Realists - even though they don't share the same concerns or even use the same techniques, and probably haven't actually read The Metamorphosis.

Well, since currently there's the original movement (South American - Marquez etc.) and the expanded movement (international folk-sensibilities - Rushdie etc.) and the critical term (an abstraction, most likely from the second, but I'm still reading) and the snobby term (people use because "fantasy" sounds so camp), I wouldn't be surprised...


But... I certainly see enough commonality between The Tin Drum, Perfume, Like Water for Chocolate and The Metamorphosis, say. Comparable concerns (e.g. belonging), comparable treatments (something weird or wonderful happens and nobody questions it; objective/subjective or cause/effect are confused). They're fantasy because things don't happen that way in our world (and because they still fit my broad signature), but unlike the more pageant-driven fantasy traditions they use the least amounts of fantastical needed to highlight the themes. Also (in general) European and South American writers do a much better job of it than the North Americans or Brits.

Yep, that's the extended movement/critical term I talked about above. And that's also an interesting inter-cultural observation, tying in with the anglo-centricity of SF (with a counter weight in eastern Europe).


Key I think is what the coulds/shoulds apply to. Characters? Events? Setting? Consequences? Outcomes? Duncan talks about fantastika and so forth, but the "shoulds" and "coulds" feel moral, psychological and social to me and not just metaphysical.

"Narrative grammars"? Rather vague. Hehe.

Also important is the emphasis on subjectivity: both could and should have subjective and objective components.

Ruv Draba
01-23-2008, 01:19 AM
I still argue that human coding/decoding is not the same thing as machine coding/decoding. It's not a formal system.I agree that it's not, except in very particular cases where it comes close (like science publications and some legal documents). The informality and changing phenomena themselves lead to ambiguity -- some desireable, some merely acceptable and some neither.

Which is why culture changes in the firstplace. Or in other words, I think that misunderstandings are crucial to keep the world recognisable.I think culture changes for many reasons, and I wouldn't put the vagaries of language high among them. Changing environment and circumstance would be high; changing politics (who has the power to shape paradigm) would also be high. With 'misunderstandings are crucial to keep the world recognisable' I think that it may be worth distinguishing deliberate ambiguity (e.g. as in advertising, job applications, election promises and other forms of deception) with deferred specificity (e.g. as in conversation and news headlines).

And I think that misunderstandings are an important epistemic motor in fiction. (They do play a role in scientific papers, too, but it's much more limited.)We use misunderstandings in plotting all the time, but that's a phenomenon to be observed, rather than the communication itself. I'd say that the creation of deliberate misunderstanding in the reader (so that the reader is deceived) is pretty rare -- confined to jokes and such. More often, I think fiction uses ambiguity not to create misunderstanding but so that the reader must think or read more to resolve it, or to create aesthetic resonances.



Discovery of those misunderstandings is possible, but it's not necessary to be productive. Misunderstandings can produce new meaning:
That struck me as a little like saying that disease can produce new kinds of lifestyles. :) Granted that poetry works this way, but for prose I think it's generally better for writers to say exactly what they mean as clearly as possible. I can't think of many misunderstandings that actually improve the quality of an idea.



I'd argue that certain pieces of fiction (as opposed to opinion pieces) may rely on this process. Some SF, for example, may deliberately apply "black box models" to spark response.Capturing ignorance, conflict, chaos and imprecision in text is fine if that's the observed situation. But muddying the communication itself generally isn't fine. If I write some synaesthetic prose about a fever dream or an alien intelligence or an AI transplanted into a human body then I might get applause from the prose-writer's corner. But if I write synaesthesia about a regular adult eating ice-cream then they'll send me over to sit on the beanbags with the poets, and make me hand back my prosodic story-writer's badge.


Actually, in my experience the more people I talk to the less robust my view becomes.I find it's fine as long as I don't let them talk back. :D


Yes, but all that's memory (personal) formed in interaction (interpersonal).Originally, yes. But somehow that gets abstracted to group and tribe eventually. Otherwise our morality and ethics would be entirely situational.

I was chewing on this the other day and came up with the following thought: All tribes sometimes do evil and outrageous things to folk not their own (and even to folk who are). Being creatures of conscience, this causes us a terrible dilemma. On the one hand we need to belong to some tribe. On the other hand, all tribes do evil. So what's the solution? One solution is to deny that tribes exist or ever existed. To assert that all tribal evil is localised personal, transactional evil, and therefore no evil of ours if we weren't party to the transaction.

Except that when we see large numbers of people act in concert to do something truly heinous we can't really hold that view either. Because if evil exists in large concentrations in lots of people then it's not localised -- it's there in us too. And in our hearts we know that if we benefit from a transaction and know of it, we're party to it.

Let me propose an alternative view. We are of tribes whether we like it or not, and our tribes sometimes go mad with fear or greed or anger. When they do so they shift our frame and can make us go mad too. When they return to sanity, we return to sanity too.

The strongest, most conscientious of us help to keep our tribes sane. It requires great bravery to do this because a mad tribe is known to turn upon its dissenting voices. And our tribe can hurt us far worse than anyone else ever can.


No, I'm not a sociapath. (Isn't that just the thing that a sociopath would say? ;) ) But being a sociopath is a personal condition typologised on the intersection of individual and group. I don't think a sociopath is a separate case; I think it's an extreme case.I think it's hard to be from the tribe and in the tribe but not of the tribe. Some writers and scientists build a sort of detachment to achieve this -- but the effective ones speak from within the tribe, rather than from without. For example, last year's Australian of the Year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Flannery) was an environmental activist who has written a celebrated book on climate change (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Weather_Makers). For a long time, his views have been at odds with popular tribal views. It must be extremely tempting for him to yell 'You IDIOTS! Don't you realise what you're DOING!" Instead, he manages to stay inside his tribe and speak from there.

I'm saying that genre, as it intersects with culture, can be at the centre of subculture. In short: genres don't resonate with everyone; they may provide the impetus for people who have things in common to gather.I think we've covered this one already. I've agreed that genre can be appropriated for tribal colours. I think it's more than that though.

Yes, but generally you take values for granted until you experience dissent. My take is that shared values becoming visible is a direct result of shared values becoming problematic.I don't agree. Many values are captured in ceremony and inculcated in that way. The ceremonies aren't created because the values are problematic, but because they're core. I think you're talking about the tacit values -- the ones we only see when we trip over them -- or when some dissenting thinker holds a mirror up for us.

In other words, I think the experience of being 'in' or 'out' is more primal than the experience of sharing values.I agree with this part. The 'in-ness' can renormalise values.

Of course, we've all started as "out" and were drawn "in" (socialisation, enculturisation). But, and that's crucial, the process changes memory. Or differently put: to the extent that you reflect on values that are against your self interest, you're out, not in.I think that a lot of cultural values run against our self-interest. I think that's true for factory workers as well as philosophers. Consider cultural values like 'don't complain', 'be punctual', 'submit to authority', 'your family first'. Such values can bite anyone some of the time, though philosophers and other independent thinkers frequently seek such sore spots.

But I'd suggest that 'dissent' and 'belonging' are not necessarily conflicted. You can belong even if you dissent, just as you can love a family member even if you hate what they do.


Well, groups are all sorts of things from informal regular gatherings (Sunday's bridge club) to societies. What is the organisational group benefit of a ghetto? Self-pity?I'm not sure the thrust of this question, but historically, ghettoes have often provided a lot of communal support for their members, so regardless of whether they were created for benefit members frequently create benefit from them.

The chief issue with gettoes is the external support provided (which translates to opportunity). In cases where ghettoes become entirely dysfunctional, it's typically due to prolonged lack of opportunity, which then breeds vice and crime. (Actually I've been interested for some time in 'gated communities' - which are self-created ghettoes - and why anyone would choose that).


Ankles? Us isnalnds have no ankles. Us islan... Bah! There you go. *snicker*

Dawnstorm
01-23-2008, 07:15 PM
Well, the misunderstanding-part of my post isn't exactly well thought out, but I do think that there's a pretty basic difference between us that's prone to give rise to - heh - misunderstandings.

For example:


I can't think of many misunderstandings that actually improve the quality of an idea.

This goes back to things beyond 'interpersonal'. You think that there is an idea that can be misunderstood. I don't think so. (And that's not a statement ideas so much as it is a statement about how we approach thinking - I think.) I think that an idea is a personal thing, and that it's located in space-time, so that the idea you had five minutes ago isn't the same idea you have now, even if you recognise it. This is terribly difficult to think through because it triggers infinite regress.

What we call a misunderstanding in actual situations is actually a social hiccup. A misunderstanding that surfaced as disruption. Thus a real misunderstanding isn't reducible to cognitive malfunction, but must include situational cues, especially the need "to keep face" and things like that. I think it's quite normal to adapt ideas you had to suit what you think your opposite has understood. This, I think, is a pretty normal process.

In academic discourse I've sometimes been in situations where a professor has attributed a brilliant idea to me which I didn't have. In a discussion in a seminar I would point out the misunderstanding and acknowledge the brilliant idea. In an intellectual property context I would attribute the idea to the professor, not to me.

If it was an exam, I'd remain silent and switch track.

I'm convinced that such situations arrise all the time in everyday situations, but that self-monitoring is less reflective and automated, and that the imparatives of the social situation (having fun, giving comfort) take precedence in such a way, that misunderstandings are not even acknowledged - as long as they're automatically taken care of in one way or another and thus don't disrupt the interaction. Memory will smooth over things.

My second idea is that the process of understanding (in the sense of meaning-creation) is potentionally productive, no matter the polarity.

The underlying idea is that the advantage of abstraction is versatility rather than precision.


But muddying the communication itself generally isn't fine. If I write some synaesthetic prose about a fever dream or an alien intelligence or an AI transplanted into a human body then I might get applause from the prose-writer's corner. But if I write synaesthesia about a regular adult eating ice-cream then they'll send me over to sit on the beanbags with the poets, and make me hand back my prosodic story-writer's badge.

And if you write about a man eating ice-cream in regular language, they'll hand you the Andy Warhol Memorial badge and ignore you. It's a continuum. (Now if you were writing about a man-eating ice cream...)


I find it's fine as long as I don't let them talk back. :D

Than that's the difference between us right there. I tend to lose sight of what I'm saying by the mere presence of a listener. ;)


Originally, yes. But somehow that gets abstracted to group and tribe eventually. Otherwise our morality and ethics would be entirely situational.

I think they are. But what people forget is that situations that contain agents (people who do things on purpose) typically also contain their sets of memories. Situations have both diachronous and synchronous aspects.


I was chewing on this the other day and came up with the following thought: All tribes sometimes do evil and outrageous things to folk not their own (and even to folk who are). Being creatures of conscience, this causes us a terrible dilemma. On the one hand we need to belong to some tribe. On the other hand, all tribes do evil. So what's the solution? One solution is to deny that tribes exist or ever existed. To assert that all tribal evil is localised personal, transactional evil, and therefore no evil of ours if we weren't party to the transaction.

Except that when we see large numbers of people act in concert to do something truly heinous we can't really hold that view either. Because if evil exists in large concentrations in lots of people then it's not localised -- it's there in us too. And in our hearts we know that if we benefit from a transaction and know of it, we're party to it.

Let me propose an alternative view. We are of tribes whether we like it or not, and our tribes sometimes go mad with fear or greed or anger. When they do so they shift our frame and can make us go mad too. When they return to sanity, we return to sanity too.

The strongest, most conscientious of us help to keep our tribes sane. It requires great bravery to do this because a mad tribe is known to turn upon its dissenting voices. And our tribe can hurt us far worse than anyone else ever can.

Some people want everybody to be happy. For some people it's enough to be happy themselves (though some humanists and anthopologists would argue against the very possiblity). And some people have no idea how happy is supposed to feel like, so they'll leave it to those who they think know how. And lots of variation I can't think of right now.

To be honest, I dislike the word "evil", though in many contexts my reaction to certain deeds won't be different from yours. I agree we are of tribes whether we like it or not. But beyond that it's simply to complicated for me to make any sense.


I think it's hard to be from the tribe and in the tribe but not of the tribe. Some writers and scientists build a sort of detachment to achieve this -- but the effective ones speak from within the tribe, rather than from without. For example, last year's Australian of the Year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Flannery) was an environmental activist who has written a celebrated book on climate change (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Weather_Makers). For a long time, his views have been at odds with popular tribal views. It must be extremely tempting for him to yell 'You IDIOTS! Don't you realise what you're DOING!" Instead, he manages to stay inside his tribe and speak from there.

Not being of the tribe and disagreeing with the main-strand in your tribe on a couple of issues isn't the same thing. If you're not of the tribe, your best bet is to inspire someone who is. And that's risky, too.

Whether you're inclined to yell and call people idiots is more a question of temperament, I think, than of group integration. You might as well start to have doubts about your position.


I think we've covered this one already. I've agreed that genre can be appropriated for tribal colours. I think it's more than that though.

Yes, we have. I forgot. And I do agree it's more than that. But I think we may need a more discerning terminology than "genre" for that. It's just a hunch, though, so I can't really articulate it; it may come up again. ;)


I don't agree. Many values are captured in ceremony and inculcated in that way. The ceremonies aren't created because the values are problematic, but because they're core. I think you're talking about the tacit values -- the ones we only see when we trip over them -- or when some dissenting thinker holds a mirror up for us.

I'm very aware of rituals and ceremonies. I'm uncomfortable with them. I have three different sort of reactions to them:

- boredom
- a desire (mild to strong) to run
- a sense of embarrassment

This includes anything from birthdays, to clerical service, to demonstrations, to uniforms... That may be one experientieal substratus of what makes me think of such things as problematic.

Tacit values I actually view as less problematic than core values. We can afford not to pay attention to them, because they either take care of themselves, or their disappearance wouldn't be very disrupting.


I think that a lot of cultural values run against our self-interest. I think that's true for factory workers as well as philosophers. Consider cultural values like 'don't complain', 'be punctual', 'submit to authority', 'your family first'. Such values can bite anyone some of the time, though philosophers and other independent thinkers frequently seek such sore spots.

But I'd suggest that 'dissent' and 'belonging' are not necessarily conflicted. You can belong even if you dissent, just as you can love a family member even if you hate what they do.

As so often with social terminology, I think the confusion lies between words as analytical terms and their political use. When I said "to the extent that..." I meant just that. You're only "out" to an extent. (And how complicated this can get lies within my own dictum that a culture is an interpersonal construct with which you can disagree only by proxy. I do think that cultural ideologies are defined by conflict rather than stance.)


I'm not sure the thrust of this question, but historically, ghettoes have often provided a lot of communal support for their members, so regardless of whether they were created for benefit members frequently create benefit from them.

The thrust of the question is rather obscure, isn't it? It's that I don't think it makes sense to compare group benefit to individual benefit in a direct line. You can compare the group benefits with those of other groups, and individual benefits with those of other individuals. But comparing group benefits with individual benefits involves a rather convoluted metaphor. (We'd have to talk about identity and identification, for example, but I'm losing the plot already. I'm not sure I could handle that.)


The chief issue with gettoes is the external support provided (which translates to opportunity). In cases where ghettoes become entirely dysfunctional, it's typically due to prolonged lack of opportunity, which then breeds vice and crime. (Actually I've been interested for some time in 'gated communities' - which are self-created ghettoes - and why anyone would choose that).

Reminds me of some of the more recent Ballards, Super Cannes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super-Cannes), and, to a lesser degree, Millenium People (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_People). Interesting reads. As you'd expect from Ballard, he's exploring the violence-potential.

Concern and treatment, huh? Notice how I'm flailing about for some grounding?

Ruv Draba
01-27-2008, 01:34 PM
(Hi DS - I've been away for a few days for some recreation. Back again with more melanin and lots of sore muscles from various vigorous outdoor activities - and hopefully enough context to reply sensibly, still. :D)

You think that there is an idea that can be misunderstood. I don't think so. [...] I think that an idea is a personal thing, and that it's located in space-time, so that the idea you had five minutes ago isn't the same idea you have now, even if you recognise it. I gather that you're thinking of mind in terms of computation rather than the semantics being considered. That seems a bit like studying a car's running engine without considering where it's going.

Since information can be educated, reproduced, communicated and even traded, that suggests that there's an operational basis to the notion of 'idea'. The semantics of 'idea' seem sound just from world observation - even if we don't understand the computational basis in which it's rooted. (If ideas don't transmit perfectly or get stored and fetched exactly the same then that's okay - neither do bananas. They don't cease to be bananas just because they go a bit brown during shipping)


What we call a misunderstanding in actual situations is actually a social hiccup.While that's true I think it's a longer stretch to insist that every social interaction is riddled with undetected misunderstanding. While that might be true, even if it is, is it important? Most people get out of the way of an oncoming bus. The story they tell themselves about why the driver didn't stop might vary, but the nett outcome generally doesn't.


In academic discourse I've sometimes been in situations where a professor has attributed a brilliant idea to me which I didn't have. In a discussion in a seminar I would point out the misunderstanding and acknowledge the brilliant idea. In an intellectual property context I would attribute the idea to the professor, not to me.You're lucky! I usually get blamed for other peoples' stupid ideas! I work in a profession where I'm required to offer advice. My clients then take the advice out of context, apply it in some bizarre way and then blame me for the outcome. If blame were housebricks I'd have a warehouse by now. As a writer I'd love to do something creative with my clients' excuses -- they seem to be a free source of entertainment. Just wish I knew what! :tongue


I'm convinced that such situations arrise all the time in everyday situations, but that self-monitoring is less reflective and automatedI've noticed that our reasons sometimes change faster than our decision-making, but since we often lie to ourselves about our motives anyway, that's not too surprising. I wonder whether the stories we tell ourselves have much bearing on what we decide to do. Maybe our decision-making does not make much use of our reasoning?



My second idea is that the process of understanding (in the sense of meaning-creation) is potentionally productive, no matter the polarity.

The underlying idea is that the advantage of abstraction is versatility rather than precision.I find that talking nonsense can be just as productive as talking sense. I think that it's because so much of our thought is creative rather than simply analytic - we can produce solutions to problems from almost anything.


Than that's the difference between us right there. I tend to lose sight of what I'm saying by the mere presence of a listener.I pay no attention to them! They never pay attention to me!!

To be honest, I dislike the word "evil", though in many contexts my reaction to certain deeds won't be different from yours. I agree we are of tribes whether we like it or not. But beyond that it's simply to complicated for me to make any sense.I guessed that, and used 'evil' to be evil.


I'm very aware of rituals and ceremonies. I'm uncomfortable with them. I have three different sort of reactions to them:

- boredom
- a desire (mild to strong) to run
- a sense of embarrassment
Ha! I know what you mean (barring any undetectable misunderstandings :tongue). If you take them literally and interpersonally then they can make you barking mad. Most of them only make sense from a symbolic and transpersonal perspective.

Example: Most people I know have birthday parties; I don't. I think they're stupid. I think that the reasons people give me to have birthday parties are stupid too. But they do make a kind of sense at the symbolic, tribal level -- or at least, here's the sense I've made of them:

Most people are permanently disposed to take their tribe for granted
A birthday party forces such people to stop their self-absorption and think of others for a while
The use of colours, candles and cake helps revert people to an infancy of delight; it disarms them and helps them act like bonded people and not just independent functions
Birthday parties don't necessarily create nor demonstrate love, affection, generosity, loyalty or anything of lasting value. However in extremity the ritual may help remind people to act more kindly to their tribe.
Anchoring the event to a recurrent date and a pserson helps ensure the continuity of the ritual, and therefore the continuity of whatever social benefit may accrue.In consequence, while I don't celebrate birthdays or various festive days myself, I will sometimes make an appearance at such functions for others.


Concern and treatment, huh? Notice how I'm flailing about for some grounding?Ah! My hypnotic, repetitive marketing is irresitible!! :sleepy: (I learned all I know from 4am infomercials!)

Dawnstorm
01-28-2008, 05:35 PM
Short vacation, huh?

Anyway, here goes:


I gather that you're thinking of mind in terms of computation rather than the semantics being considered. That seems a bit like studying a car's running engine without considering where it's going.

Key difference: you don't need the car to tell which way the car is going. You need a mind. With concepts...

But I'm not only thinking in terms of computation. It's - at least to my convoluted self - a bit more practical than that. The computation part is an end-of-the-line assumption; it's starting with self-observation, and realising that "being understood" is quite important in, say, threads such as this one, but less so in fiction.

I may, as writers tend to, over-genralise from myself. But there's a second layer, and that's social and linguistic theory. What I'm talking about here is rather idiosyncratic, but it is also based on a reading history in academic discourse.

I'm talking about "misunderstandings" because that's what they would look like if were topicalising them (probably), and because they're a nice recognisable label. But, again, they may be too powerful an image and cause - er - misunderstandings (the original term, not the concept at hand).

I'm pretty sure we don't always know what we're doing on a personal level (unconscious motives), and that social effects transcend the personal (non thingly phenomena), and that ideas about social effects are what keep the effects going, because they inform what we're doing. This is, I suppose, heavily influenced by Anthony Gidden's theory of structuration (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structuration_theory).

So: a misunderstanding is a complex thing. It may involve:

1. diverging theories on social effect (ideology - often invisible because foundational)
2. confusions on which social effect is referred to by a term ("love")

and so on. Science tends to try and correct for all of those through operational defitions.

So how does this influence semantics?

Here I'm rather mired in the structural schools, such as the Sausseurian triangle of signifier (sign), signified (concept) and referent. This ties into Jakobson's theory of the functions of language (http://courses.essex.ac.uk/lt/lt204/lingpoetics.htm).

There are the more commonly talked about functions: referential (message), expressive (addresser), conative (sometimes called appellative; addressee). Then there's the poetic function (message), which is still fairly popular (especially with poetry). There's the metalingual function (grown popular in post-structural discourse; the code itself.)

But what interests me the most, however, especially when talking about culture (via genre) is the function that relates to contact: the phatic function. ("Testing one two one two"; um, er...). But this is - so far - a purely linguistic typology, a way to look at words, not at actions. To do his I'll have to transform words into action.

The linguistic field that deals with that is pragmatics, in which I'm immensly interested, but also shamefully under-read. Instead, I take my cue from John Searle's speech act theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_act). This is displacing the function of words onto the function of utterances.

So for example, on the language level the imperative is modeled to satify the conative (addressee) function of language. But if you're car doesn't start, you might utter "come on!" under your breath. How do we look at this? Personified car and conative utterance? Expressive utterance, disguised as conative -> car? How much does this analysis depend on the psychology of the driver? What if it's initially expressive, but then the car starts? The personalisation of the car may be topicalised and a situational shift may occur - pushing it over into conative (a re-definition of the situation, proably also retrospective - depends on how you store this; people don't tend to pay attention to definition shifts, I think, but I'd have to read up on this.)

So, basically, I have a structural model of social dynamics, and tend towards interpretative methodologies. Which means that I have to relativise concepts to the structural positions on the one hand, and place them - as they're thingly representation - into actual minds (which is a shoddy afair, since I'm not up to date in neuroscience).

As such, "misunderstanding" is a misnomer, really; it's more a process of eternal uncertainty to be overcome by negotiation. The substratus of meaning - as far as social effects are referred to - is ever shifting, and the getting hold of this process is part of this process. Keeping track of this process is rarely practical. So why is this relevant at all?


even if it is, is it important? Most people get out of the way of an oncoming bus. The story they tell themselves about why the driver didn't stop might vary, but the nett outcome generally doesn't.

That's because the pending bus-body collision is a pre-social affair to be avoided. I think that people have methodologies to "repair" social situations to avoid awkwardness. This is institutionalised to differeing degrees. And differing situations have different requirements.

My argument is broadly: in science the communication tends to get rid of uncertainties, because progress demands the lowest common denominator.

Fiction is different. Jane Austen isn't out-dated the way Charles Darwin is. Both are relevant, but in different ways. (I view the current conflicts between ID and Evolutionism more as literature than science, as actual discovery doesn't seem to be high on the agenda, so Darwin is somewhat more prominent there, not just in the form of an ancestor.)

But that is not to say that "misunderstandings" take up equal time in all fiction? The romantics would be high on it (expressive-poetic mostly), while Brechtian epic theatre would be low on it (referential-metalingual, pared-down poetics).

I think that language in genre also often has phatic function. It's most obvious in simplistic stories. For example, there are many fantasy stories that have elves where just another tribe of humans would do just as well. These could be a read as a phatic reminder of what channel is currently open. SF-gimmicks would work like that.

Another theory I have - that way - would be that "new genre tropes" start out as referential, expressive etc. but through familiarity turn over to phatic (to be infused with life). For example, I think that the iambic pentameter in sonnets may have started out as a poetic judgement, but right now they're mostly phatic: "This is a sonnet; read it like one." (Iambic pentameter isn't enough to define a poem as a sonnet, of course, which is why it's possible to have sonnets in non-iambic pentameter. The new meter would be highly poetic, of course, while at the same time you would reduce the recognition value of the sonnet. say something (to the extent that "concerns" are central).


You're lucky! I usually get blamed for other peoples' stupid ideas! I work in a profession where I'm required to offer advice. My clients then take the advice out of context, apply it in some bizarre way and then blame me for the outcome. If blame were housebricks I'd have a warehouse by now. As a writer I'd love to do something creative with my clients' excuses -- they seem to be a free source of entertainment. Just wish I knew what! :tongue

My sympathies. Giving advice is bad enough if you give it away for free. With disclaimers.

I'm out of the academic circuits quite some time now. I'm mostly talking to myself (and to cats) these days. Hehe.


I've noticed that our reasons sometimes change faster than our decision-making, but since we often lie to ourselves about our motives anyway, that's not too surprising. I wonder whether the stories we tell ourselves have much bearing on what we decide to do. Maybe our decision-making does not make much use of our reasoning?

You should hear some of the discussions on consciousness that surround current neuro-science. Some think we're solving old problems; others think we're hunting old spectres. All agree that "rational thought" can go into "rationalisation" as much as decisions.

Personally, I have a hunch that "rational thought" is like medicine. You have to keep at it and hope you don't develope an allergy. ;) More precisely, "rational thought" doesn't influence the decisions much, but it influences the instincts we're always forming. We're looking back and say "these were our reasons", but it would be more honest to say "Who knows? Perhaps this will be our reasons next time a similar decision comes up."


I find that talking nonsense can be just as productive as talking sense. I think that it's because so much of our thought is creative rather than simply analytic - we can produce solutions to problems from almost anything.

Dream logic again?


I guessed that, and used 'evil' to be evil.

And I managed to ignore it for quite some time, heh.


In consequence, while I don't celebrate birthdays or various festive days myself, I will sometimes make an appearance at such functions for others.

As if there's much of a choice! ;)

Ah! My hypnotic, repetitive marketing is irresitible!! :sleepy: (I learned all I know from 4am infomercials!)

Maybe I should try it?

More anteaters in fantasy! More anteaters in fantasy!

Why do I think it's not subtle enough. (But then 4am infomercials aren't exactly subtle.)

Gee, Bob, just the other day wondered why there aren't any anteaters in fantasy.

Yes, Jim. Here's a novel, all fantasy, and it contains not one mention, not two mentions, but three - I repeat THREE - mentions of anteaters.

Three mentions of anteaters, Bob? Wow! This must cost at least, I don't know, $ 500.--?

...