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More on genre devices, or, the conditions of narrative - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2006-07-18 07:10
Subject: More on genre devices, or, the conditions of narrative
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
In my continuing contemplation of my recent question on mapping the genre device, I decided to try a new approach. I throw this idea into the wading pool for dissection and discussion.

Essentially, I'm making a rough, first-pass SFnal analysis of fiction in general. Start with naturalistic fiction, or perhaps more accurately, fiction without a consciously self-identified genre. (And taking firm note of the fact that genre is in a very real sense a marketing element rather than a story element.) I posit that all naturalistic fiction falls into one of four categories:

Secret History
Alternate History
Mythic History
Future History

Secret history is the default condition of contemporary narrative: things which might have happened or could have happened, but leave the world as it is. Most mainstream novels fall here. Holden Caulfield could have lived or not, the world wouldn't be noticeably different.

Alternate history (not in the technical sense that our field employs the term) is a close cousin of secret history: things which might have happened or could have happened, but would change the world in noticeable ways. If Jett Rink were real, we would be aware of him as an industrialist and something of a tragic figure, in the manner of Howard Hughes.

Mythic history is perhaps the earliest condition of narrative: things which never actually happened, or could have happened in a literal reading, but encapsulate important truths for the tellers of the tale. Gilgamesh was (probably) a real king in Uruk, but the story which was told around him describes the cosmology, aspirations and experience of his people.

Future history is also a very early condition of narrative: things which have not yet happened but might. This ranges from prophetic writings in virtually any literate cultural tradition to cautionary tales such as 1984.

So, setting aside the need for self-conscious marketing categorization, what sets our genre apart from this model? I propose a fifth category which applies to SF/F, arising naturally from the above:

Fantastic history

Fantastic history is a fusion of the other categories, most especially mythic and future history, but with self-conscious intent. To simplify, naturalistic fiction tells stories in the present about the present (a highly arguable position, I know -- historical fiction, anyone?), while fantastic history changes the entire purpose of narrative by shifting the focus from currency of topic to some deliberate remove from consensus reality with a transformation in time, space, technology or noumenality.

I need to pull this string some more, and synthesize it with the excellent discussion thread on the last post on genre devices. Maybe I'm reinventing the wheel here (fjm, truepenny or one of our other fine academics can put me in my place if so), but this is a useful thought process to me. I hope it's useful to you as well.
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S-47/19-J
User: shsilver
Date: 2006-07-18 14:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So, does future history, like 1984 become alternate history (or secret history) after its expiry date passes?
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User: pauljessup
Date: 2006-07-19 10:12 (UTC)
Subject: The whole point of 1984
Is that the date wasn't really 1984. The point was that the year never changed. I think the narrator mentions how Big Brother controls even there concept of time this way, how it's been 1984 for several decades. I haven't read it about 15 years though, so I'm just going by memory.
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Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2006-07-18 14:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I would propose the term "private history" in place of "secret history." Secret has connotations that don't line up with your definition, whereas I think private does.
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Bob
User: yourbob
Date: 2006-07-18 20:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I want to second this for the same reasons.
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Jenn Reese
User: jennreese
Date: 2006-07-18 15:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Do you actually need the word "history" in all of those cases? That word leaves me a bit cold in this context, and brings with it all sorts of baggage.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-07-18 15:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmm. I completely take your point. What would you suggest? "Narrative"?
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Jenn Reese
User: jennreese
Date: 2006-07-18 15:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Narrative" is what I was thinking, but "Secret Narrative" seems a bit odd, too. Troublesome!
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Damon Kaswell
User: gooddamon
Date: 2006-07-18 16:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As the_flea_king said above, perhaps "secret" ought to be replaced with "private." In that case, you would end up with "Private Narrative," which I believe very accurately describes what Jay was trying to convey.

You end up with:

Private Narrative
Alternate Narrative
Mythic Narrative
Future Narrative (Maybe "Cautionary" Narrative?)
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2006-07-18 17:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Cautionary really only needs apply in dystopian settings, however. (?)

Where does, for example, currently-defined genre fantasy slot in this continuum? Under Jay's arbitrary "Fantastic Narrative"?

I've gotta stop reading this meta-writing about writing. I've got enough problems with the fourth wall in my own fiction already without looking for more excuses/devices to overthink it.
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awritersweekend
User: awritersweekend
Date: 2006-07-18 16:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you're trying to map a culture, not make a list of their devices. It's more complex than a list of discrete identifiers.

It's a subtle flagging system. Why do I think of Margaret Atwood or Marge Piercy in the same headspace as Ray Vukovic (sp?)? It's because I'm not part of the subculture of SF fandom that makes the flagging system instinctive to me. For some reason, I've clung to the overculture in many ways, so I don't have the discernment to tell you the minute details of what makes Babylon Five great and Voyager suck. But it's that thing...the thing that lets a drug dealer know when he's in the same room as an addict. Flagging so subtle that most of us can't pick up on it, let alone tell you what we spotted and how.
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Rafe: bitter
User: etcet
Date: 2006-07-18 17:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bitter
"Literary Gaydar."

We have a winner. :-)
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2006-07-18 17:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
...but most historical fiction IS about the present, though the characters are playing masquerade-games with the furnishings, the clothing, possibly some of the slang, certainly with the events of the past.

I have trouble with these distinctions, not just because of the exceptions, but because you are presuming a book read now. How are you going to incorporate how books change over time? For example, so many of the great writers of the 18oos were doing very subtle future-behavior extrapolations. "What would happen if women did this? Men did that?" Social or cultural syntonics that were not in fact general but became so. Readers now might call them private histories, and they are for modern readers, but were not at the time they were written.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-07-18 17:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
have trouble with these distinctions

Point taken. You are right. Even so, I'm willing to wrestle with them a little longer, mostly because I'm trying to back into a look at our genre, rather than at literature as a whole. Do you have a better suggestion, or do you think the model as a whole is too limited or flawed?
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2006-07-18 18:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think I need to know what you are doing with it before I answer that.

(And I need to get rid of this smog headache so that I have a chance of regaining a modicum of brain function.)
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Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2006-07-18 17:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
fantastic history changes the entire purpose of narrative by shifting the focus from currency of topic to some deliberate remove from consensus reality with a transformation in time, space, technology or noumenality.
I keep reading this sentence, which I think is an important point, but I can't seem to make sense of it. Can you (or anyone else) elaborate on this, please?

So are you discussing Speculative or Slipstream in this fifth genre? I'm still uncomfortable with both terms because I don't know exactly what they mean. Science Fiction extrapolates possiblilities from known or possible sciences and industry. Fantasy ranges from pre-industrial worlds to the modern world with non-technological basis for its components (demons and fairies in the modern world, for example). I suppose the distinction in setting depends on the level of technology used in the narrative.

Both "Speculative" and "Slipstream" seem to exist to shrug off the suggestion that Science Fiction and Fantasy are somehow juvenalia.
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Bob
User: yourbob
Date: 2006-07-18 20:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Picking up with these:
Private Narrative
Alternate Narrative
Mythic Narrative
Future Narrative

I'd argue that all fiction is Alternate. By its very nature it didn't (or won't) happen exactly as told (or even as closely as academic historical treatment will allow for). But I'm a quibbler.

I'd also argue, perhaps, that much Speculative Fiction (as generally defined) is part of what you've defined as Alternate (History) Narrative, ...things which might have happened or could have happened, but would change the world in noticeable ways.

For example, it would have changed the world rather significantly if late Victorian England were invaded by Martians.

Perhaps some Fantasy could be thrown in the Mythic pot - what's an "important truth" can be debated.

The rest of Speculative Fiction (genre) would be covered by Future Narrative as you've defined it, things which have not yet happened but might.

So, I guess, rather than Fantastic history [being] a fusion of the other categories, I'd argue that it could be easily fit into the other categories without much allowance.
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hal_duncan
User: hal_duncan
Date: 2006-07-19 14:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It sounds like you're in the same territory as Delany's "About 5750 Words" when he talks about subjunctivity -- whether events "could have", "could not have" or "have not (yet)" happened... and so on. I like this model because it ditches the tiresome content-based definitions --

Geek 1: "It has Magic, so it's Fantasy!"
Geek 2: "It's not Magic, it's Science!"
Geek 1: "It's not rigorous Science."
Geek 2: "Yes it is. Just cause the aliens look like dragons -"
Me: "SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU BORING LITTLE ARSEWIPES!"

-- for actual analysis of literary modes. I'd also argue that fiction can set up a tension between multiple subjunctivities. Essentially, I reckon SF/F/H is all strange fiction, fiction which (like the normal stuff) starts from a base-point of suspension of disbelief (the pretence that "this really happened", the acceptance that "this could have happened") but then (unlike other forms which stay in that mode) adds something which "could NOT have happened". That's the tension underpinning all strange fiction. Add wonder or fear ("Oh God, this should happen!" / "this must never happen, oh God!") and you have fantasy and horror. Add qualifiers of "yet", "here", "now", "unless..." and you get all the future / alternate history stuff.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-07-19 18:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Al--

What I think or understand that Jay is tring to do (and Jay do correct me if I'm wrong!) is that he's trying to map out a definition of genre that is as objective as possible.

Now, from this viewpoint trying to describe and analyse the literary mode is a *very* subjective way of doing it (caveat: I'm not saying it's a wrong way of doing it, but a one that is strongly coloured by personal perception).


The --

Private Narrative
Alternate Narrative
Mythic Narrative
Future Narrative

-- subdivision (and initialy "History" replaced "Narrative") is strongly subject to personal interpretation: one man's private narrative is another man's mythic narrative; one woman's alternate narrative is another woman's future narrative and so forth.

The advantage of the 'three axes-of-story viewpoint is that the definition I cobbled up (in reaction to Mikal Trimm's excellent suggestion, and the discussion preceding it) is very strongly *objective*:

>>>>Axis 3: Deviation of Base Reality<<<<

>>>>In the axis viewpoint SF would be the 'real' part, as it still relates to base reality by way of the physical laws, that is, reality has changed, but according to the rules of the possible.

Fantasy, on the other hand, would then be the 'imaginary' part of the axis, where reality changes according to impossible rules, in an analogous manner like the square root of minus one being the base of the imaginary numbers (excuse my mixed metaphors, here).
Thus, for fantasy (part of) base reality changes, as well, but in ways that ignore the rules of the possible. And, as such, fantasy can indeed transcend base reality, as it need not, and in case of indeed transcending reality cannot be part of base reality, almost by definition.<<<<

Yes, it does harken back to the Geek discussion of the distinction between what is "science" and what is "magic". But we already have a whole class of people that can decide that, and they're called scientists (if they have the time and willingness to spend their precious time on defining subdivisions of genre is another question). And in the end, repeatable experiments are the cornerstone of scientific proof, and these are *independent* from personal observation (with the possible exception of events on the quantum scale, which do not manifest on an everyday scale because of of process called decoherence, but I digress).

Simply phrased, SF is the (narrative) deviation of reality by the laws of the possible, and fantasy is the deviation of reality by the laws of the impossible. And the difference between the law of the possible and impossible can be drawn for the utmost majority of cases. *Objectively*.

This way of viewing effectuates a mostly objective mapping of realistic fiction, SF and fantasy (and keep in mind that it only defines them, but does not give a quality assessment).

Horror is the indefinable one in this scheme of things, *because* horror is a highly subjective POV. Roughly speaking, horror is what scares us, and that scare can take place in both a realistic, a fantastic, or an SFnal environment. And what person A finds scary may very well not scare person B at all. Horror is more the *personal* colour that the genres can attain.

And that's why I think strange fiction does not work as an *objective* assessment, either: what one person thinks is strange, might very well be considered normal by another person (or culture), and then the discussion never ends (maybe it's not meant to be, but that's another point).

I haven't read Delany's article, so maybe this is a rehash of the "subjunctivity" model.
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hal_duncan
User: hal_duncan
Date: 2006-07-20 19:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually I'm with you in terms of objectivity to some extent. I just think you can talk about techniques designed to cause certain affective responses in objective terms; and I think how and why (or whether) those techniques work can be analysed in objective terms. I mean, I agree with that four-part structuring to a large extent and it is, I think, to do with deviation from "base reality". You start with suspension of disbelief -- this could have happened -- which is founded in a sense of exactly that.

In private narrative this subjunctivity is never breached, because the events could have taken place without your knowledge. The limitation of our knowledge means the fiction does not contradict it.

In alternative narrative there is a breach but it's minimal; the events are on a scale where we would notice, but with Jett Rink, for example, we're not asked to accept sweeping historic changes. However what we could say is that here, a counterfactual has been introduced.

The way I'd put it is that a subjunctivity of "could not happen" is introduced here, but it's one that's immediately rationalised as "could not happen here" -- i.e. in an alternative world, another "here", there could be a Jett Rink, so there it could happen. The counterfactual is not sufficient to stretch the suspension of disbelief.

In future narrative, the counterfactual becomes a hypothetical -- "could not happen" is rationalised into "could not happen now" -- i.e. in a future world, another "now", there could be a Big Brother, so then it could happen. Unlike straight counterfactuals, hypotheticals do stretch the suspension of disbelief. This is where the "laws of the possible", as you put it, come into play, the sciences -- hard and soft -- providing a base of theory on which hypotheticals can be grounded.

However, I would suggest "plausible" as a substitute for "possible". The jaunting in Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, for example, is a hypothetical with no real theoretical base other than the classic SFnal handwaving of "the next stage in human evolution". You might try and justify it by muttering something vague about quantum physics, but it's got sod-all foundation in real science. Arguably Bester is totally breaching the laws of physics here. But, objectively speaking, I think this is how the technique of the hypothetical works. The hypothetical can be rendered plausible by a base of theory, but it can also be excused implausibility for the sake of the conceit. Because that's what we're talking about here: conceits. Counterfactual or hypothetical, rationalised with theory or simply excused as acceptable implausibility, it's the way in which a work's conceits challenge suspension of disbelief that positions the work in this taxonomy.

In fact, my argument is that it's the very implausibility of the conceit that is at the heart of SF's "sense of wonder". This may sound like I'm making the definition of SF subjective, but what I'm trying to reach for here is something quite the opposite, a definition of SF where it deals as much with the incredible as it does with the credible, utilising the tension between credible theorisation and incredible conceit.

This leads on to the next form...

In mythic narrative there is no rationalisation at all. Rather than counterfactuals or hypotheticals, where the conceit(s) can be rendered plausible with theory (i.e extrapolated from that theory), the element that challenges suspension of disbelief is metaphysical. Rather than resolve the "could not happen" by displacement in space or time ("could not happen here" or "could not happen now"), we take a jump outside rationality entirely, and rationalise it as concrete metaphor: "could not happen literally".
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hal_duncan
User: hal_duncan
Date: 2006-07-20 19:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So... fitting this into the three-axes-of-story idea, what I'm positing is this:

1. Story elements
character
setting
problem
try/fail cycle
resolution
validation.

2. Craft techniques
voice
style
POV
structure
person/tense
punctuation
paragraphing

3. Estrangement techniques
conceits
--counterfactual
--hypothetical
--metaphysical
theoretical rationalisation
concrete metaphor

Where that third axis is about elements which actively challenge and/or exploit suspension of disbelief, which play with subjunctivity.
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User: ex_paulskem
Date: 2006-07-19 19:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hal,

That is well put.

Paul
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