Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Line In-Between

I was reading Clive Thompson's article in Wired (link from kyu) on Why Sci-Fi is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing and this particular idea struck me:
Alter reality — and see what new results you get. Which is precisely what sci-fi does. Its authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves.
(The main gist of Thompson's article actually reminded me of Michael Chabon's introduction in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales/The Best American Short Stories of which a later, fuller version appeared in his collection of essays, Maps and Legends. In this essay, Chabon says he tired of "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story". This is similar to what Thompson says in the above link in that after "reading novel after novel about the real world," there are "only so many ways to describe reality.")

Thompson's above quote stuck with me such that I started thinking about the implications. Due to serendipitous coagulation-- especially when Thompson cites and Chabon reviews Cormac McCarthy's The Road-- I couldn't help but wonder if literary and genre fiction have more in common than people think.

I'm not sure if anyone else has come up with this (someone probably has) but the realization that came to me is the delineating line between the Character of Humanity and the Humanity of Character. In literary fiction (pardon the term, their use, not mine), importance is placed on character development or the Humanity of Character. Both Chabon and Thompson note that literary fiction is concerned with the development of the character of the protagonist, i.e. microscopic investigation. In other words, literary fiction focuses on what makes the protagonist human.

On the other hand, the best writers of genre fiction-- specifically science-fiction, fantasy or horror (yes, I know literary fiction is also a genre, work with me here)-- try to come up with an abnormal situation to determine the Character of Humanity. What would people do? How would they react? More importantly, would they still be human afterwards?

As a way to encapsulate this idea, take John Shirley's Demons. In his opening scene, Shirley details how people would adapt (people are adaptable; it's what they do) to the idea of demons invading our world:
This morning I saw a choleric-looking, pop-eyed sort of a middle-aged man in a threadbare suit stop his huffing old Volvo at a street corner, look about for cross traffic, accelerate slowly to creep across the intersection -- the traffic lights, of course, not having worked for a long time, not through the whole north of the state. And one of the demons turned the street to soft hot tar, the demon rising up, howling, from the stuff of the street itself, rows of fangs in the creature's absurdly big jaws gleaming and dripping. The demon was one of the Grindum clan -- giant grasshopper legs, insectile heads with just enough human about them to sicken: curling horns, big grinding jaws that move sideways or at an angle or revolve on their skulls like an owl's head on its shoulders. The Grindum swam in the hot asphalt with a conventional freestroke, humming some tune.

The Volvo began to sink in the steaming asphalt. The driver merely got a good grip on his briefcase, opened the car door, used the door handle for a ladder rung, ran along the roof of the car to the hood, and jumped to the curb. Landing rather neatly, he continued on his way, not even looking back, hurrying only a little. He didn't even turn around as the demon, chattering in Tartaran, snapped the door off the car and sailed it through the window of a bank. The bank was long closed, as most of them are now.
It is this macroscopic study of people that genre fiction is concerned about, from the horrific events as described Shirley and Stephen King to the kingdom-spanning wars in epic fantasies of George R. R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien to the advent of new technologies in science-fiction like Cory Doctorow and Isaac Asimov.

Based on Chabon's review, it seems like McCarthy has managed both in his book: he tries to develop a character (how does a father take care of his son in a dangerous world) and ups the ante by envisioning a certain situation (wherein life in the world is, as Hobbes says, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"). Or to put it succinctly, how do you raise a child in a situation when you're liable die today-- and you know he's liable to die tomorrow?

What the above means is that just because there is a delineation or a categorization between the two doesn't mean that the twain shall never meet. A number of literary fictionists use genre tropes while some of the best genre writers do characters as well. On one hand you have McCarthy, Margaret Atwood , and Steven Milhauser while on the other you have Graham Joyce, Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Shepard, and Jonathan Caroll.

(The idea that you brush aside a whole genre--in the truest sense of the word-- because of one lack or another is laughably absurd: after all, there are good and there bad books. I'm sure there are some literary fiction books that are almost as bad as the worst genre books but the former isn't taken to task for the whole-- um, genre-- as much as the worst of the latter. But I digress.)

You could say that literary fiction is really writing about you whereas genre fiction is writing about us or we. So the idea of a dividing line between the two isn't so much of 'dividing' but rather a 'line' between the two.

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