some thoughts on sf, horror, fantasy, genre, technology, magic, and other made up stuff

No time to write today as I have been prepping for the coming term, taking notes on The Natural and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Thinking about the latter in the context of my class on the Nigh Fantastic brought me back to some thoughts I have had on the connections amongst the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror. I had been discussing these connections with a colleague last year and wrote up the following explanation. I don’t pretend that these are perfect definitions–all definitions of genre are fraught with inconsistencies. They are just speculations, useful for my current project on genre, media, and history in which I am thinking about the ways that these three genres allow us to imagine the future. Specifically, I am thinking about Stiegler’s notions of disbelief and discredit and how sf creates each and how fantasy might, if read according to terms other than those that derive from sf, foster belief rather than merely suspending its opposite. In any case, in lieu of actual writing for the day, here are some thoughts. I was specifically addressing my colleague’s concerns about the unreality of magic and therefore the problematic and unuseful nature of fantasy.

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Bataille cites Breton (this is in The Accursed Share vol 2) on the need of some men to create an authentic humanity that overcomes the inauthentic humanity that precedes it. keep this in mind.

so, my thinking on these three genres (which i won’t claim to be perfect, nor is it total given how slippery genre is) goes like this:

  • sf is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world but plausibly could (with the recognition that this plausibility derives from a certain episteme, probably related to a Hegelian notion of progress).
  • fantasy is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and doesn’t. that is, the reader *knows* it cannot happen (again, where this knowledge is conditioned by an epistemological ground).
  • horror is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and shouldn’t. i think for this reason we see more slasher/torture porn now than Lovecraft-style horror. the latter does not frighten us because we have no strong understanding of knowledge and it’s practices, thus we cannot be frightened by the revelation that we know nothing (which is the primary horror of At the Mountains of Madness). thus what “should not* happen in the reader’s world is reduced to the gruesome, rather than the existential. this may be why Prometheus fails–too much of the former with little of the latter. the existential fear is what is great about the first and even the second Alien film.

the three are thus connected by this “cannot happen” and disconnected by way of our understanding of possibility. further, we can also consider the genres with regard to the attitudes of characters in the narratives. in sf, characters tend to accept the existence of whatever technology (which we accept with them as possible, if not actual). in fantasy, characters tend to accept the reality of magic (although often this acceptance is not primary; in many fantasy texts, magic has only reappeared for the main characters, who then struggle with this reappearance). in horror, characters do not accept what happens in much the manner that we do not accept it as possible in our world, for the simple fact that it *should not* be possible. i can’t push much harder here without these neat distinctions falling apart, but i will mention a couple of things.

  • first, fantasy and sf have a connection insofar as characters accept as real what is for us impossible, although there are differences in how long this acceptance takes.
  • horror and fantasy connect insofar as they both deal with things that cannot happen for us. the difference between them seems to be in the way they deal with the past. whereas fantasy has the wizard, who may be a crank but tends to be respected, horror has the gypsy or similar character, who is not so much a crank as shunned altogether. both characters warn the present about the supernatural (Gandalf warns Middle Earth about Sauron, the gypsy about the werewolf or whatever). more on this in a second.
  • horror and sf connect in that they both posit a rational world to begin with. sf deals with an extrapolation of the rational into a superrational, whereas horror deals with the revelation that the rational was only ever a mask for something else. the stripping away of the rational is horror.

so this all leads to a few more points that might begin to address concerns about magic, in the context of the Breton above. all three genres, it seems to me, deal in some way with questions of knowledge, history, and humanity–which are terms that are, in some sense, closely connected with one another. so try on this alternative explanation of what the three genres do:

  • sf deals with the forward movement of history and the possibility of an authentic humanity in the future. the path to this humanity is knowledge. of course, much sf finds that knowledge is problematic and that too much an lead to decadence or destruction or something equally bad.
  • in fantasy, the authentic humanity is in the past. much fantasy takes as its starting point a present that can no longer accomplish the great works of the past (Gondor cannot do magic to counter Sauron, whereas 3000 years earlier the Last Alliance of Men and Elves could defeat him in open battle; Aragorn is the descendant of Men, but is perhaps the last of them; etc.). the past is a time when magic was understood, when it was useful and could do things. in the present, magic, if there is magic, is poorly understood, or understood only by anomalous mystics who seem to be utterly ahistorical. thus magic becomes magic through decadence. in this way, fantasy can be understood as the *future* of science fiction, a time in the future after the decadence that sf posits as the outcome of rationality in which technology is no longer understood and therefore becomes magic.
  • horror, finally, is about the present. authentic humanity has been achieved and the rational world rules all. however, that authenticity is then challenged by a discovery (as in At the Mountains of Madness or, for that matter, Prometheus) that reveals rationality for a facade. whereas sf would deal with the same sort of thing as the outcome of a rational project (even if that project leads towards irrationality at some point), horror posits something completely unexpected, to the point of being impossible. that discovery is not subject to falsifiability, is not a failed experiment so much as something that happens outside of the context of failure/success (a binary of science, both terms of which are equally scientific and rational).

so, sf is about the future becoming a kind of past–insofar as knowledge can lead to decadence. fantasy is about the past becoming a sort of future–in which rationality is lost due to exactly that sort of decadence. horror is about the present opening onto both a past (the return of the repressed, what rationality had to always ignore and obfuscate) and a future (in which what might be repressed is humanity itself). it seems then, to me, that magic and technology are not so far away from one another. in sf tech might become magic; in fantasy, tech *has* become magic (and note here that for Mieville tech and magic are very close to one another insofar as he situates them both within political economy, rather than positing magic as a force that is always outside and forever unexplained). horror might not deal with this binary at all, but rather might be about a challenge to knowledge in any form. for a world more comfortable with sf, horror is the disruption of rational knowledge, the introduction of that which cannot be known into knowledge. for a magical world, horror is less this epistemological problem than an ontological one. the character in fantasy knows that what we would call the supernatural exists, but that knowledge is hardly comforting as all it provides is the knowledge of what might happen to that character (she could lose her soul, be enslaved, etc.). these sorts of horror do bleed over (fear of the bomb in sf; coming to know of a darker magic heretofore unknown in fantasy).

so, in short, magic is the past and future of technology and thus fantasy is the past and future of sf. horror is the generic element necessary to introduce this pastness or futurity.

to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

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