Is it fantasy or science fiction?

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Interestingly, there are theorists who think there’s not that much difference between fantasy and science fiction. For example, in 1976 Todorov and Berrong classified science fiction as a subset of the fantasy genre. In 1979 Suvin argued that it had become common to call anything science fiction that included themes of “novelty, estrangement and cognitive dissonance,” and that science fiction should be the overarching term. The only real difference between the genres, according to Suvin, is that science fiction has to conform to a logical framework. So, presumably this argument was the reason for developing the term “speculative fiction” to describe a particular type of literature that can actually be hard to sort out.

Then, Menadue (2017) conducted a study that found readers actually have fairly strict definitions of fantasy and science fiction, and that the two bodies of literature are seen as contrasting instead of one being a subset of the other. Presumably this has to do with the logic requirement for science fiction, which means it has to follow more rules for causation and world building than fantasy does. In other words, we have to justify the events in science fiction according to real world physics, for example, while in fantasy we can just call it magic and go on with the story.

So, it turns out that the main way readers sort stories into one genre or the other is whether they include “magic” or “science/technology.” There are a few other differences, too. For example, science fiction is generally seen as more future oriented than fantasy, and may address social change more directly. Science fiction is about the possible futures, after all, and not especially the venue for tradition.

Comments? Does this suit your definition?

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Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

Review of The Changeling by Victor LaValle 

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s dark fantasy, published by Spiegel & Grau and runs 431 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Apollo Kagwa lives in Manhattan and works as a vintage book dealer. He finds his true love Emma Valentine and becomes the doting father of baby Brian, named after Apollo’s father, a white man who disappeared mysteriously when Apollo was a child. Emma develops postpartum depression, and when Brian is about 6 months old, she starts to insist the boy isn’t her baby. She chains Apollo to the steam pipes, cooks the baby with boiling water and then disappears. Apollo serves a stint in Rikers for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage, and when he’s released, he starts a search for his missing wife. He finds a coven of witches living in the East River, minions of a troll living in Queens, and finally locates his wife, who has staked out the troll’s cave. Can the two of them destroy the troll and rescue the real baby Brian?

So, this is a pretty impressive novel, including multiple themes and motifs. It’s a post-modern work and also feels slightly surreal. The story is apparently based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Outside Over There, which makes recurring appearances in the novel. In the Sendak book, Ida’s little sister is stolen away by goblins. Her parents don’t notice, so Ida enters the magical world herself to bring her sister back.

Accordingly, the first hundred pages of The Changeling are a pretty normal, positive story set in New York City, covering themes of marriage and family, work and missing and present fatherhood. Then it suddenly plunges into an alternate reality and we start to see the underlying currents of magic. This is socially and technologically up-to-date, with the troll’s minions hacking through Facebook into the private lives of families, watching their children. The troll’s minions have a contract to provide children to the troll in return for prosperity and white privilege. They make alt-right noises and oppose the witches, symbols of female power. There are also themes of living while black, and how parents damage their children. LeValle makes a few casual comments in the book that are really cutting. One that really struck me was how magical glamours hide the suffering of the weak. Apollo’s name is symbolic. He is the involved father, the sun god against the forces of darkness.

On the not so great side, LeValle doesn’t employ much in the way of style here, meaning we don’t feel a lot of foreboding, threat or suspense. The prose is fairly straight-forward and matter-of-fact, as are the descriptions and narrative. Some of the detail seems really unnecessary, like a section on breast-feeding. Touches of humor are very mild, mostly associated with being black in the wrong place. The post-modern approach is sort of scattered (as always), and takes away from the power of the story.

Final impression: Smooth, easy read. The social commentary here is first rate. Best for lovers of horror.

Five stars.

WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

Review of Third Flatiron Galileo’s Theme Park (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 23)

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This is Anthology #23, a collection of thirteen speculative fiction short stories edited by Juliana Rew and Alex Zalben. It was issued June 15, 2018, and is offered as both an ebook and a paperback. There are 20 stories that range from space opera to SF to fantasy to horror, and there’s a flash humor section at the end.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is a pretty reliable series for smooth, touch-of-wonder stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. These offerings follow that standard, including everything from the quirky to the serious. Because Galileo is the theme this time around, the volume includes stories including space exploration, adventure, religion, and cosmology.

The anthology starts off strong with Alex Zaiben’s “And Yet They Move,” where a star surveyor finds herself lost in an ancient model. Ginger Strivelli’s gives us a memorable turn of phrase when she describes quantum physics as “a brick wall of sciency stuff” in “For the Love of Money,” a tongue-in-cheek look at colonization. “Vincenzo, the Starry Messenger” takes us to Florence in 1633, when Vincenzo, Galileo’s assistant, has a otherworldly experience with the telescope his master called the “starry messenger.” In “Signals” by Erica Ruppert, a woman is haunted by elusive music. Justin Short gives us a surreal and horrific image of a family marooned on a distant world in “Dispatches from the Eye of the Clown.” “And the Universe Waited” by Jo Miles is a heart-warming vision of mentorship and waiting.

On the less positive side, there are no hugely important ideas here. There is a variety of stories included, but they’re pretty much low-key and meant for light reading rather than deep thought.

Three and a half stars.

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Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2018 Hugo finalists

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If you’ve followed the last couple of blogs, you’ll know that I’ve developed an Ideation Scale to rate SFF stories as “the literature of ideas.” In this post, I’m going to have a look at the Hugo finalists. Since we have no winners at this date, I’ll just have to pick out the works I think stand out for their ideas. Here’s the scale:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Best Novel
The clear heavyweight here is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. If I could squish this into the mold, I’d call it hard SF because Robinson has analyzed social, environmental and economic problems and offered real world solutions. It does lack engineers and clanking technology, though, so it’s a tough fit for what’s normally called hard SF. Still, the concepts are first rate, so this is the five star world-shaking-idea winner. None of the other finalists really stand out for ideas. I have to give Scalzi a mention for doing his homework on plausible science for The Collapsing Empire, but the story is a political intrigue without much in the way of different ideas. It scores an average 3.

Best Novella
We’re looking at the same list here as in the Nebula with only a couple of differences. I’ve already awarded “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker a three and a half. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor gets a mention for being about racism and dealing with change. Again, three and a half. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire gets a mention for framing the conflict between good and evil as a battle between death by vampirism and life via STEM. Nothing earth-shaking but worth three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
More repeats of the Nebula list here. Again, I have to mention “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker, which was about whether or not we need history and how we can be frozen by tradition into refusing innovation. It gets 4 stars.

Best Short Story
This is again very similar to the Nebula finalists. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” is a political message, so it gets 2 stars. “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon turns the usual epic fantasy message upside down, where the farmer refuses his chance to become a heroic warrior in order to tend to his crops. Three and a half stars.

Next, a wrap up of the ratings.

Rating the Literature of Ideas

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One reason given as to why fiction written by women is suddenly so much more popular in the awards is that tastes in fiction have radically changed over the last few years. In the bad old days when men dominated the market, hard SF was the in thing. This term “hard science fiction” was apparently originated in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller, book reviewer for Astounding/Analog, who was looking for a way to describe stories with a strong science base. This caught on, and Miller’s legacy term is still broadly used. A while back, I wrote some posts on how to rate SF on the “hardness scale” to determine how well based it is on real science.

However, since the 1950s, the popularity of hard science stories seems to have dropped off considerably, and it’s getting harder and harder to find this kind of story. I’ve written some posts on the decline, and I notice these were joined by various others suggesting the obsolescence of hard SF. Here’s Jasyn Jones, for example, at Castalia House blog who calls it a “delusion.” Tor.com also published a discussion by various authors. I recall there was one publisher (Somebody help me—Superversive? Amazing?) which announced they would no longer even use the term.

So, if we’re not going to rate SF stories on the science content any longer, then what remains to help us pick out which are really the important stories? For one thing, the notion is still hanging out there that science fiction should be the literature of ideas. So, maybe we need to come up with a scale for this? Maybe the Ideation Scale? That would work for fantasy, too, or actually any kind of speculative fiction.

Using the new Ideation Scale, we could rate stories from 5-1 based on what kind of ideas they present:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Next, having a look at the 2018 award finalists on the Ideation Scale.

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