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[personal profile] ashnistrike
Sarah and I were talking in the car today, on our way to the "visit a place that's too expensive" step of furniture-buying.  (This was not an intentional step, just a necessary one.) We started by arguing about the appropriate box for Charlie Stross's Laundry books, and moved on to the more interesting question of why it's worth putting them in boxes at all.  We came up with two ways of looking at genre that are useful for something other than organizing a book store. I hasten to add that these are not the definitions in common use, and I'm not claiming they are.

1) Genre as conversation.  A genre or subgenre consists of a set of stories in conversation with each other, or with the same set of tropes.  The Laundry books are in conversation with Lovecraftian horror, but also with a particular set of spy novels, and also with Dilbert et al.  They are mostly not in conversation with, say, urban fantasy, even though they involve supernatural/extradimensional beings living in modern London.  Anita Blake sees the Laundry and crosses quietly to the other side of the street.  Marla Mason, in conversation with both urban fantasy and Lovecraftian horror, gets along with it splendidly.  (Crap.  I just thought about one particular Laundry character getting ahold of that cloak, and I'm going to cross the street and keep right on going as fast as I can.)

2) Genre as shared reading protocols.  This gets a lot more discussion, and actually is a useful way of thinking about genre--it explains why people who normally read SF are more likely to enjoy, say, Gillian Bradshaw's historical fiction than The Road.  Or at least it explains why I am--Bradshaw's worldbuilding rewards exploration and investigation much as a good SF novel does, while McCarthy frustrates it.  The people who enjoy McCarthy are reading for the language and the mood and the allegorical familial relationships, and don't care what caused the apocalypse and why the characters can breathe with no plants.  I love a story that plays with language and mood, but my reading protocols won't leave those questions alone.

([livejournal.com profile] papersky does something amazing with this--she goes ahead and reads books with protocols that the author never intended, and then writes books of her own with the results.  Among Others is about someone doing this--about someone with science fiction protocols trying to deal with living in a fantasy.)

This is also relevant to a particular reflex of mine that I'm trying to make more nuanced.  When I read that a new book or story "breaks down the walls of genre," "is groundbreaking and genre-bending," or similar, I tend to put it as far from my reading list as possible.  And I think it's because many books described in this way are not in conversation with other books and not amenable to any existing set of reading protocols.  But there's another kind of genre-breaking that's really interesting--books like the Laundry books that are in conversation with more than one genre and amenable to more than one reading protocol.  Instead of a guy sitting in a room talking about how awesome this party would be if anyone else was cool enough to come, it's a gorgeous shindig where you invite your knitting friends and your writing friends and your filk-singing friends and your work-snark friends and at 2 AM everyone is sitting around the living room arguing about medieval Spanish convents while playing Cards Against Humanity.

I want to read more books that are like that party--books that combine protocols and conversations to give you new and wonderful perspective on everyone in the room.

Date: 2014-07-06 06:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com
"Genre as conversation" tends to be the most useful way for me to view it, most of the time, but I also think I have a lot of overlap between that approach and the "genre as reading protocols" approach -- call it "genre as conversational protocols," maybe. Because to be properly in conversation with Lovecraftian horror or historical romance or whatever, then you're often using many of the same protocols: you can't really do Lovecraftian horror with a hard SF mindset, I think, because hard SF is predicated on the assumption that the secrets of the world can be understood, while Lovecraft is predicated on the assumption that the secrets of the world world are beyond human comprehension and will shatter your sanity into a thousand little pieces if you try. Similarly, genre romance + Lovecraft can't really work unless you find some middle ground like comedy where they can have a watered-down detente, because they're trying to evoke utterly antithetical moods. You'll end up doing either your genre romance or your Lovecraft badly, by the standards of that type on its own.

As for groundbreaking, genre-bending books -- I'm cynical about those, too, but for different reasons. I most often see those descriptions applied to books that are actually literary works playing with the furniture of genre, but with no interest in the genre conversation and using the protocols of their own homeland. They're not sitting in a room alone; they're getting admiration from their friends for slumming it by having a genre-themed party. There are works of the sort that is totally sui generis, but they're a lot rarer in my experience -- though I react much as you do, by walking very quickly in the other direction.

Date: 2014-07-06 04:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashnistrike.livejournal.com
Huh, the Zones of Thought novels are sort of Lovecraftian hard SF, aren't they? The Beyond and the Slow Zone are hard SF and the Unthinking Depths and the Transcend are cosmic horror.

I've also heard genres described as varying in how much they depend on mood versus content, and the suggestion that genres heavily dependent on mood (like romance and cosmic horror) are particularly hard to cross.

And I think you may be right about genre-bending 'literary' books--maybe the party looks empty to me because I don't know any of the people there. I will admit to not much liking literary fiction as a genre--even authors like Michael Chabon who successfully cross literary fiction with the actual SF conversation tend to leave me cold.

Date: 2014-07-06 06:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com
Huh, the Zones of Thought novels are sort of Lovecraftian hard SF, aren't they? The Beyond and the Slow Zone are hard SF and the Unthinking Depths and the Transcend are cosmic horror.

Have not even heard of those, I'm afraid, so I can't evaluate. I guess I would say that from my own perspective, you can have rigorous science and also cosmic horror, but then what you're saying ultimately undermines the hard-SF part of your story, because you're telling a story in which there's a point beyond which science fundamentally cannot go. It isn't quite a mood thing (and yes, I think those are vastly harder to cross than content-based genres), but it's close. It gets at something I think Ted Chiang said once, which I very much like as a way of viewing the speculative fiction genres: in fantasy the cosmos is benevolent, in horror it's malevolent, and in science fiction it's indifferent. This doesn't necessarily map to the bookshelf categories, but I find it a good way of distinguishing things, particularly when you're in the muddy zone where the content is fantasy but the mood is horror. So to me, hard SF operates in a cosmos that is not aware and is utterly indifferent to your existence, whereas Lovecraft operates in a cosmos that is aware and is out to get you. When you combine those two genres, one or the other of them has to give way to the other down at the bedrock, because you just can't have both of those kinds of cake at once.

And I think you may be right about genre-bending 'literary' books--maybe the party looks empty to me because I don't know any of the people there. I will admit to not much liking literary fiction as a genre--even authors like Michael Chabon who successfully cross literary fiction with the actual SF conversation tend to leave me cold.

Likewise. But I just had a recent experience that made it very clear there's a party somewhere else: somebody wrote me a very impassioned email taking me to task for an essay I wrote on the movie Stranger than Fiction, telling me the story was obviously drawing on Camus and I forget what all else, and I had totally misread it and should take down my post and apologize, yadda yadda yadda -- when, if you look at that essay, you can see that I already acknowledged it's not trying to participate in the genre conversation. I just didn't know the names of the people who were on the guest list.

Date: 2014-07-06 10:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashnistrike.livejournal.com
Ooh! The best recommendation I can give for Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought novels is [livejournal.com profile] papersky's review of A Fire Upon the Deep (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/09/all-right-one-quest-but-never-another-vernor-vinges-a-fire-upon-the-deep). Moodwise it is definitely SF, but the antagonist is basically an elder god and the central world-building is all about SFnal reasons for science to be limited.

I think Chiang may be right about most horror, but I often think of Lovecraftian cosmic horror as being about a universe that is utterly indifferent--and that indifference is a deadly, sanity-destroying thing. While in SF, the fundamental indifference may be something that gives you room to thrive. Some of that seems to be worldbuilding choice and some seems to be the author's inherent assumptions about how well people do without outside help. (And yet another dial on the worldbuilding dashboard is the Murphy's Law level--very high in CJ Cherryh, for example, but very low in Star Trek.)

Thanks for sharing the essay! Stranger Than Fiction sounds like it would seriously frustrate me, for exactly the reasons we're discussing here. Because when I read a story like that, I always feel like the character is dying because of the (real-life) author's poor world-building. Which is a very SF/fantasy way to look at it.

Date: 2014-07-06 11:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com
"The Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn't answer back!" Patrick in Pamela Dean's Secret Country trilogy, I forget which book.

Date: 2014-07-07 12:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com
"Indifferent" may not be quite the right word. The key is that fantasy and (supernatural) horror both posit the existence of cosmic entities, things we might as well call deities whether they're given that moniker or not. The universe is not wholly mechanistic, and whether it's benevolent or malevolent depends on things like whether your morality has the metaphysical power to help you or not. In SF, on the other hand, morality can still be meaningful, but it isn't metaphysical.

(Because it bears repeating: this is not a lens that maps to the shelf categories. There is stuff we call SF that has plenty of metaphysical components and doesn't operate in a wholly mechanistic universe.)

And yes, re: Stranger than Fiction -- it felt like a worldbuilding failure to me that the story made zero attempt to address the question of how this was happening. And from a fantasy standpoint, it was. But it isn't a fantasy story, no matter how central its genre conceit is to the narrative.

Date: 2014-07-09 11:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashnistrike.livejournal.com
That makes a great deal of sense as a distinction. And it *is* one of the markers that makes me say, "Oh, this story isn't *really* science fiction." I suspect a lot of authors (and other people) have trouble separating their morality from natural law.

Date: 2014-07-06 11:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mrissa.livejournal.com
One of [livejournal.com profile] alecaustin's best exhausted-airport-transport moments was the time he suggested genre as tag cloud. And I really like that because it does not require "breaking." It makes clear that breaking is the wrong metaphor. You can tag the Laundry novels with "Lovecraftian" and simply evaluate: is this tag correct? Yes. Yes it is. But then you evaluate several other tags for whether they are also correct, you don't have to do the "is it more Lovecraftian than science fictional" argument. It is the thing that Jo is doing where she keeps saying yes to things and building on, not breaking anything.

Date: 2014-07-06 12:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com
I'm not interested in breaking anything, I'm interested in playing with all the toys.

Date: 2014-07-06 04:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashnistrike.livejournal.com
Yes, exactly. And I like the tag cloud concept, too.

Date: 2014-07-06 12:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com
You're right that that's what I do and what I'm doing in AO. I hadn't entirely noticed that, so thank you.

I like looking at how genres are supposed to do it. One of my criticisms of Pattterson's _Heinlein Up a Tree_ is that it breaks the conventions of genre biography and to no good purpose.

Date: 2014-07-06 04:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashnistrike.livejournal.com
I haven't read the Heinlein bio--having read everyone's reviews of it instead--but love your alternate title. How do you see it breaking genre conventions?

I got the impression, from some of the aforementioned reviews, that it was following conventions from libertarian hagiography, which seems like an actual category even if a small one. But it's not a category that I read on purpose, so this is a pretty uninformed impression.

Date: 2014-07-06 07:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com
Pacing.

More and more I think everything about genre is to do with expectations of pacing.

Because I've read biographies where the biographer has fallen in love with the subject and accepted their view uncritically, and they're not good biographies but they still fit in the genre, in the same way _Eye of Argon_ is a bad book but a bad fantasy nonetheless.

And I have some interesting examples of this in SF -- have you read Jack Womack's _Elvissey_? Because it's about some people from a dystopian future who go into an alternate world to rescue Elvis, who is worshipped as a god in their future, except that that's what it would be about if it were an SF novel. And if you and I thought about that story, dystopian future, visiting alternate world, rescuing Elvis, we could see not the plot but where the beats would fall. How far along they'd go into the other world, how long before they found Elvis, when they'd come back, where the twists would be. The SF novel version of _Elvissey_ is quite clear in my mind -- and it's so very not what Womack wrote. The shape and the pacing of _Elvissey_ is that of a divorce novel, of a marriage coming apart while the characters do stuff, doing stuff in this case being rescuing Elvis etc. And another example is the completely broken pacing of Lessing's _Shikasta_, because Lessing gets that genre is pacing, Lessing is a really good writer, and yet that book is a giant mess. I have learned a lot about these things by considering why it is.

Date: 2014-07-09 11:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashnistrike.livejournal.com
That makes a great deal of sense. Pacing is one of the things I'm still trying to figure out. Maybe I should read a couple of the oddly paced books you suggest and see if that helps... or try to write a story off an Elise necklace instead of a pendant.

I love the rise-and-fall pacing of the Lord of the Rings books, completely different from modern genre conventions and yet somehow it still works for many readers. And one of the things I hated about the movies was that they replaced that rhythm with modern genre pacing.

Date: 2014-07-10 01:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com
You especially have to think about it when you're doing something that's in two genres, because you have to use the pacing of both of them, or not -- and not just pacing of the book, but pacing of revelation.

It's an interesting issue.

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