The Impossible Factor

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-05-09 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

Matt Buscemi has a really good insight here, about the longstanding snobbism of straight fiction over SF&F:

When viewed on the other side of multiple decades, all of my conversations with individuals who believed in the superiority of realism over the fantastic came down to a relatively simple idea, whose logic goes like this:

  1. Literature exists in order to provide the reader with access to novel perspectives on the human experience.
  2. The events of fiction are, by definition, never “real;” they have never actually happened anywhere on Earth.
  3. If an author crafts a work of fiction depicting events that are not only unreal, but also impossible in reality, then such events have no power to teach the reader anything about the human condition.

I accept positions 1 and 2. I disagree with position 3.

The word impossible was emphasized in Matt's original, too, but it stood out for me even without the itals. By "impossible" it seems most people would go with physically impossible, and not psychologically implausible.

We read a story because there's a person there, and even if they're in the middle of something that "can't" happen (and not just something that "doesn't" or "didn't") — maybe especially if they're in the middle of such a thing — we respond to their plight because of their humanity. Most bad SF&F is not bad because it uses a clichéd conceit or a shopworn setting, but because there's nobody worth caring about in it.

People who insist on realism as a condition of successful literature are operating under a marginal notion of what it means for something to be realistic. How "realistic" would anything happening to us right now be if someone read about it in a novel five years ago? Not remotely realistic, right? But if it was all happening to someone whose plight they could connect to, it wouldn't matter: it wouldn't be the what, but the who that the story was about, and in the end that's what matters.

Zen teachers talk about how teachers are everywhere — that the annoying guy in front of you at the supermarket is your teacher, whether you want him to be or not. That person in the middle of "impossible" fictional circumstances, whoever it might be, is our teacher to give us "access to novel perspectives on the human experience."

Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human wasn't just a speculation about how the next phase of human evolution might be about the creation of a collective consciousness (although it definitely was that). It was also about the very immediate problem of how alienated, atomized modern humanity has tremendous power at its disposal, and no idea what to do with it because its heart is broken. You could have told a story about the same subject without using science fiction, but would it have had the same fearlessness and daring to it? Probably not, and that's why such things cry out to be SF&F: they know the world as we have it is not enough, and implore us to follow along and find out why.

That said, I don't think today most attacks on SF or fantasy for being unliterary are about it being unable to be that way, but because the vast majority of it is created in the shadow and in the image of its predecessors or its immediate peers for the sake of marketability. But that's true of most anything where you can apply a label to it anyway, and I've argued for a long time that self-consciously "literary" fiction can be just as clichéd and limited in its own way as anything affixed with a genre stamp. It's hard to tell a good story about someone worth caring about, period, and it always will be. It would scarcely be worth it if it wasn't.

Once again, Defoe, by way of Camus: "It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not."

Tags: Theodore Sturgeon criticism fantasy science fiction writing