Monday, December 17, 2007


Discussion #1: Genre and the List

"Anonymous" brought up some good points about the canon, so I decided to open up the discussion by presenting his comment and addressing things and asking my own questions. This is for discussion, and he raises very important questions about the canon. (His suggestions for the list were also added).

Are y'all still talking about this, or am I trying to bring a dead conversation back to life?
It's still alive as far as I know, but one of the key issues is getting people involved, which is already a problem within the blogging community anyway. I am not really qualified to make the canon all by myself and I think an SF & F canon should be represented by readers rather than by some small sect of individuals, such as is the case with the Western Canon.
Couple of questions...
I am curious why you have included the Odyssey in the Fantasy list. I have always read Homer as Mythology (a genre in its own right). I think his writing has had greater effect on epic poetry than science fiction and fantasy, and I'm wondering if we really need the power of his name to validate the SF&F canon.
That was a piece I put up of my own accord because I felt that it had significant influence on fantasy, even if it doesn't seem so. Many of the things that have sort of become tropes of fantasy were alive in Homer's works first. What also makes it fantasy is that we know now that most likely much of what is written never really happened. It's sort of like one of the first great fantasies if you will.
On the subject of it being in the canon. Nothing on the current list is actually "in" the canon. The list is only a list of works suggested and added, all of which are up for discussion. So, actually if you have good arguments against a work that is there, bring them up, just as you did about the Odyssey.
Does anyone else agree with the quoted blurb about Homer? I can see what he/she is saying, so perhaps I am somewhat wrong in putting it on the list for discussion. Any other thoughts?
Also, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream... I can understand why you might consider it for the Fantasy canon; however, I think there is more to High Fantasy than faries and pixies and imps getting themselves and gullible humans into trouble.
Props to Shakespeare for getting Western Literature started, but I don't think he belongs in a canon of speculative fiction literature. I think Midsummer Night's Dream would be more comfortable in folklore, or comedic drama (where it is traditionally slotted).
Well, the fantasy side of the canon is just fantasy in general. It doesn't pertain to only high or epic fantasy, but to any form of fantasy that is clearly marked as 'fantasy'. So this could even mean children's fairy tales if such stories were significantly influential.
However, I would like to hear more of what you have to say about Shakespeare. I agree that he is not, in any sense of the word, a fantasist as we would see it today. He might have written some fantasies, but perhaps that had more to do with the world he lived in. Does anyone have anything to say about this too?

In the interests of full disclosure, I am against tradition, form, and any other expectations a board of "scholars" might have for a piece of writing under consideration for admission to the literary canon.
Have I enabled a reader to escape from the ordinary?
Then I am happy.
Have I allowed my audience to grow beyond the expectations and limitations of their world?
Then I am happy.
I agree! This is why I wanted this project to be open to the public. I don't want a canon devised by a bunch of people sitting in a University some place deciding what is considered canon worthy. They are often too narrow-minded and pay far too much attention to trivial things like whether it won the Nobel. Awards are not a prime component of selections for this project, but if the award is worthy of note it can help a work be pushed higher on the list. Generally, though, works that receive speculative fiction based awards are voted on by fellow specfic writers or by readers themselves (such as the Hugos). The works for this project have to be works that influence the genre and have some impact on the people that read them.

Perhaps building a canon will result in a philosophical discussion of what science fiction and fantasy is, but I wonder if it would be more useful first to define what we mean when we say "science fiction" or "fantasy" so that we recognize what we're looking for when it passes us on the street.
This is a very good point. I have personal opinions of what I think SF and F are, and I suppose I'll share mine. I would appreciate feedback on this too. This point is very valid. If we have differing opinions of what SF or F is, then we should really consider trying to find a middle ground.
Science fiction, to me, must involve the future, or in the case of books in which the future no longer works, a prior future, in which technology has advanced in some way, or the date itself is advanced. Space ships, computers, cybernetics, time travel, aliens, etc. may be present. Near-future is still science fiction, even if the technology is very close to today. Alternate history, I think, only applies if something very science fiction-ish appears in the work.
Fantasy may be in the real past, or in an imaginary world, and must involve some aspect of magic or the medieval, or both. Or it may be set in a world of today where magic exists. This is sort of more vague because fantasy to me is really very wide. I think magical realism, however, doesn't really apply because it doesn't attempt to bring that magic out. It's more like odd phenomenon.
Thoughts on this? Perhaps my wording is off, or you have a different opinion.


Imelda said...

I think agree with the Homer thing, actually. Mythology is stuff that never happened too, silly. :p Now I don't know too much about this, so I'm going to pose some questions:

Is there a lot of ancient epic mythology writing about, or is it mostly verbal, and text-book-tual? If it's the former, then I don't think we can include The Odyssey because, as Anon said, it's a thing in its own right. If however, it's one of the few that were actually written down as literature, then I think perhaps we can include it. From what I remember, it's pretty fantastical, and though I can't say I know of anything that's directly drawn from it as inspiration, I'm sure a lot of people have.

Ye play is definitely not High Fantasy, it's more like a fairytale kind of thing. But I still don't think it belongs in the canon.

Your SF definition I'd agree with. Your fantasy, however, I totally disagree with. You can't just have a medieval setting and call it fantasy, silly. That's historical fiction. :p Fantasy, for me, is a tale that involves something out-of-this-world. Magic, overt use of spirits, stuff with gods and goddesses, and creatures that don't, and never have existed on Earth. It can be in any setting, really, including one that's supposed to be our world--with extras.

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by 'magical realism', but that's mainly because I think the term is stupid. All fantasy (all stories full-stop) should be realistic, so that term just means it's a story that isn't totally off the wall, that has magic in it. Which means it's fantasy and people should just deal with it. :p I think the 'magical realism' thing is fairly new, though, so it's probably not a problem in this case.

S.M.D. said...

The Odyssey was written by Homer to tell the story of Odysseus, who was believed to be a real man and whose journey was believed to be real. But so much of what happens within the Odyssey never happened. He takes to bed a goddess, he battles a cyclops, etc. It was written as a story, so it's literature.
The "hero's quest", the structure of it at least, takes a lot of influence from The Odyssey, hence why I thought it should be included.

Why don't you agree with Shakespeare's play?

You have to read the whole definition. Fantasy is open to just about any time provided something magical exists. I didn't mention creatures though because what's the difference between a fantasy story with little green men with antennae and a science fiction story with the same? I gave room for urban fantasy by the way :P. Perhaps we could spruce up my definition then?

Magical realism is this sort of genre where the magic isn't really pronounced. There aren't sorcerers or anything like that, but something happens in the story that just seems sort of odd, like a phenomenon. Magical realism would be like what we sometimes witness in life where something happens that we can't really explain.

Anonymous said...

Mythology vs Fantasy
Okay, I see why you nominated Homer. And, in the interest of fair play, I'll nominate Gilgamesh, the Baghavad-ghita, and Beowulf. :) Oh, and Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol.
As I'm sitting here, thinking about it, it seems that all the trappings of fantasy spring from mythology. Myths, legends, and fairy tales have given us fairies, unicorns, shape-changers, dragons, talking animals, even Tolkien's elves and orcs. The line between mythology and fantasy has always been gray and blurry to me. I feel like we need a distinction between the two, but it seems impossible to pull them apart.

As for Shakespeare...
I suppose my reluctance to consider the likes of Homer and Shakespeare for an SF & F canon is their mass appeal. Not that SF & F can't have mass appeal (look at J.K. Rowling), I just don't see a need to canonize authors who are already in a canon.
Fantasy is now widely accepted. Harry Potter is already taught, along with Tolkien, in college classrooms. You can earn a doctorate in Shakespeare. Science Fiction, however, is still seen as that distant relative from the other side of the tracks. You know, the one no one likes to talk about or mention by name. Maybe that's just my skewed perception.
To get back to the point, I am not a scholar of Shakespeare, so I cannot tell you how greatly the folktales of his time influenced Midsummer Night's Dream. If I were to nominate Shakespeare for a fantasy canon, I would nominate him for The Tempest. If we consider one we must consider the other.

Science Fiction, Defined?
You bring up good points, and I agree. Science Fiction means the world we know plus an added element. That element can be anything from artificial life to a new version of the cell phone that allows nearly telepathic communication.
I think "extrapolation" is a key term. The Matrix didn't simply add advanced AI technology to a future world, it extrapolated on our current perception of AI, and asked what that artificial intelligence might think of humanity if it became self aware.
Perhaps that is the key difference between genre science fiction and "good" science fiction; the ability to extrapolate current situations and conflicts into the future.

But then, what do you do with writers like Isaac Asimov, when the future he was writing about has become the present?
And what do we do with Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles when we have discovered that Mars will not support human life?
What does Science Fiction become when it becomes history?

There are many questions we must discuss and answer. Defining our terms for this discussion will not be easy, but the challenge is certainly worth it.

F*** my opinion. What's yours?

S.M.D. said...

Well I think we have to make a distinction between mythology and fantasy in this manner: we can't include mythology that exists alone in a non-literary format. Meaning, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf would be acceptable inclusions only because they are designed to tell a story.
I didn't think about A Christmas Carol...I'll add all those suggestions to the list!

I can understand your reluctance to include Shakespeare or Homer. The only reason I included Homer was simply because his influence is really undeniable. Perhaps we have very good arguments against Shakespeare though. Has his work had any real influence on fantasy or science fiction as a genre? Certainly he has had an influence on literature in general, but is there influence on genre?

"But then, what do you do with writers like Isaac Asimov, when the future he was writing about has become the present?
And what do we do with Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles when we have discovered that Mars will not support human life?
What does Science Fiction become when it becomes history?"

This is a very good question. I think one thing we have to, by default, ignore is any mention of a time period. If a story was written in 1948 and talks about a future in 1984 that never existed, it would still be science fiction simply because it was a story of 'what ifs'. But, can we do that for everything? I would still consider Asimov and Bradbury SF writers because they often wrote about things that are clearly SF. Asimov wrote about robots and galactic empires, so we have elements there that are clearly SF.

Maybe opening up a new post trying to find a balance that allows for older works to still be included...would that be a good idea?