Friday, July 14, 2006

Robots and Rayguns and Defining Sci-Fi

So, over on Thor's blog, I (off-topically) made the comment that "Games with Sci-Fi color = Sci-Fi games". Joshua A.C. Newman (designer of the upcoming and eagerly awaited by me Sci-Fi RPG Shock: Social Science Fiction) disagreed and suggested we take up the discussion someplace else to avoid clogging up Thor's thread with internet craziness.

Here's my basic thinking:

If you ask the man/woman on the street to name some works of sci-fi. Responses might include Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, Aliens, Terminator, The Matrix. Depending on when they were born and whether or not they read books, maybe they'll mention Asimov or Bradbury or L. Ron Hubbard or Philip K. Dick, too.

So, most people identify Sci-Fi based on its color: robots, aliens, spaceships, clones, super-duper gadgets, etc.

Why pay attention to these average Joes and Janes? Why not go to the experts?

Well, genres aren't top-down affairs: they're created through the interplay between authors and audiences (made up of those average Joes and Janes as well as more dedicated fans).

I think it can be very useful to differentiate between various sub-genres of Sci-Fi - as in, Star Wars is Space Opera and Orbitsville is Hard Sci-Fi and A Voyage to Arcturus is Philosophical Sci-Fi. Especially if you are editing a short-story collection, writing an essay, trying to effectively market a story, or designing a super-focused narrativist RPG.

But I think it might be more useful (or at least, it's been more useful for me) to be able to look at the genre in the way it is commonly understood. (FWIW, I'm not alone in this: Tom Disch's interesting look at Sci-Fi, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, takes a very catholic approach to what makes up sci-fi: Star Wars, Heinlein, Stapledon, John Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, and Star Trek.)

And I think it is definitely useful (for anyone who's interested in the genre at least) to be able to consider the reasons behind this common understanding.

Take Star Wars and Asimov's Foundation Series: one focuses on pulpy adventure and the other focuses on social commentary. But both feature robots, galaxy spanning civilizations, and spaceships. (From an old-fashioned, Northrop Frye-ish lit-crit standpoint Star Wars and most of the Foundation novels are actually Romances).

Like I said, I get why people want to say that Star Wars and the Foundation novels are different beasts. But they do have shared features and it just makes the most sense to me that we acknowledge these shared features by lumping them both into the basic genre of Sci-Fi.

This is kind of an Occam's Razor thing: stories with spaceships and robots and other kinds of hi-tech, futuristic color certainly have something in common. Why come up with some other term/concept to describe what they have in common when we already have a perfectly good term/concept in Sci-Fi (as the genre is commonly understood)?

And I think Sci-Fi in this general sense is truer to the history of the writing/publishing/reading of these kinds of stories. Taking a more restrictive definition of Sci-Fi tends to retroactively un-Sci-Fi a lot of stories that were considered to be Sci-Fi when they were originally written/published/read. But we're dealing with a living genre, so I think things are too tangled together for this to work. For instance, there are a lot of books that, it seems to be, belong in the Sci-Fi genre, but that don't live up to the restrictive definition that guys like Heinlein (perhaps self-servingly?) proposed: like - Charles Harness's The Paradox Men or Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books.

(Another way to look at it: most people have no trouble lumping the Hopalong Cassidy movies together with Deadwood by calling them all Westerns, but they're certainly as different from each other in theme/focus/intent as Star Wars is to the Foundation novels).

The spaceship and raygun and robot part of these stories is supremely important for firing up the imaginations of the members of their audience, regardless of whatever else the story is up to. That is, there's a reason spaceships and robots show up in both "Star Wars" and the Foundation novels, despite the fact that these stories have different goals/themes/concerns.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Hazard of New Fortunes

At one time, William Dean Howells was considered one of the big guns of 19th C American Lit - up there with Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, etc. But (based on my research, i.e. reading the afterword to A Hazard of New Fortunes) his reputation seems to have taken a serious hit sometime after the rise of modernism and the kind of novels he wrote aren't that fashionable in lit-fic circles. I don't think too many people nowadays are familiar with his work, which is too bad, IMHO.

Anyway, here are some things I liked about the book, along with some half-assed speculations/generalizations about why Howells's star has faded:

1. The "Journalistic" Aspect - Probably the most striking/coolest thing about the book from the perspective of a resident of 21st C New York City is the picture it paints of late 19th C New York City life. For instance, there's a relatively large section in the early part of the book that is all about the problems of finding a suitable NYC apartment - it was very neat to compare what has changed (which neighborhoods were considered good) with what hasn't (finding an apartment is a pain in the ass). There's also lots of great stuff about how the relatively new Elevated Train changed the way people lived their lives (not to mention another chunk of the book that deals with early transit worker strikes).

One of my big beefs with modernist & post-modernist novelists is that, for the most part, they've given up on this journalistic/documentarian aspect of the novel. "A Hazard of New Fortunes" tries to convey a sense of what day-to-day life was like, in a very matter-of-fact, laid-back manner.

I think the journalistic aspect has faded for two major reasons: One, modernist and post-modernist novels seem to be much more focused on issues of Identity. Take Philip Roth's "Zuckerman Unbound" (chosen because this is one of my favorite novels, so I feel that I am allowed to pick on it a little): lots of stuff about what it means to be Jewish (of a contempo, secular bent) and what it means to be a writer who has taken his Jewishness as a subject but virtually nothing on what it is like to live in NYC during the 1960s. Not that Roth is under any obligation to provide any "documentary details", but when every novel becomes, essentially, What It Means to Be Me, lit-fic (as a whole) becomes dangerously close to being swallowed up by solipsistic quicksand. Two, I wonder if narrative film & TV have somewhat displaced the novel in this regard. That's a bigger, sociological question that I am completely unprepared to answer, though.

2. The Characters - Of course I enjoy reading about characters that I can "identify with", but I also really like it when I'm reading an older novel and come across characters I can identify from my life. For instance, one of the main characters in the book is an artist living the NYC bohemian lifestyle while being supported by his father (a laborer from Upstate): I can easily imagine a lot of the parent-supported bohemians that I know making the same kind of rationalizations that Howells's artist character does.

3. No Big Deal - Compared to the other 19th C American Lit I've read, Howells's books are pretty low key: they aren't epics or huge tragedies or searing indictments of anything. They're much more modest and operate on a very down-to-earth level. "A Hazard of New Fortunes" doesn't go after a Big Theme and, if it can be honestly said to be "About" anything (in the sense that students write papers about
how a novel is "about" something) it's about what life was like in NYC at the end of the 19th C and, somewhat more specifically, about how the economic realities of 19th C America shaped NYC society. But it goes about its business in a fairly unfocused manner. Howells isn't interested in the Great Capitalized Themes: Love, Death, Honor, Revolution, Evil, Progress, etc. Or rather, he's not interested in capitalizing any of these themes - they're all there, floating around, but none ever threatens to take over the book.

I think, to a certain extent, we overvalue Big, Searing, Great Novels and undervalue novels that might be just as good, but keep a much lower profile. Not that there's anything wrong with Big, Searing, Great Novels, but variety being the spice of life and all that. (By "we" here, I might mean "Americans", as it seems the Brits, for
example, have done a pretty good job of honoring lower-key, "domestic" authors, like Trollope, for instance).