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Friday, August 27, 2010

New Weird and Scifi Strange: Part One -- Placing New Weird in the Aesthetic Moment

Adam Callaway has been talking about New Weird and Scifi Strange lately in response to Jason Sanford's recent fictive table of contents for an anthology of Scifi Strange stories.  One of the things that I find most interesting about discussions of genres, specifically subgenres, is how often readers and writers quickly dismantle the genre by spreading it thin.  While I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, it does have a tendency to destroy genres or reduce them to vague descriptions and definitions.  Two primary examples of this are science fiction (in general) and cyberpunk.  The former has always been too large to accommodate everyone with a definition, resulting in the continued debate over what defines science fiction (conventional wisdom would suggest that the assumed, but unofficial definition, is a catch-all for pretty much anything that
resembles science fiction, but isn't necessarily of that category).  The latter is an obvious result of the dispersion of crucial generic themes (in the literary sense) into aesthetic elements (i.e. the reduction of cyberpunk to stories with cyberpunk furniture, such as computer hacking, cyberspace, and so on).  I've discussed the "what it is" aspect of cyberpunk before, which you can start reading about here (it begins with the general issue of the "punk" suffix and develops into a detailed explanation of cyberpunk after a couple of posts), so I won't tread into that field again.

The problem now, I think, is that the same thing that happened to cyberpunk could happen to New Weird and, to a lesser extent, Scifi Strange.  The former was an "established" subgenre from the early 2000s (the quotes are intentional, since there are still some debate over it, as there always is in issues of genre) and the latter developed out of an association with New Weird, though any actual connection is thin at best.  I think it's important to establish from the start a foundation for defining texts, not necessarily for the economic purposes, but for the purpose of maintaining some semblance of order and the potential for explanation, while also allowing for the presence of outliers and cross-genre affairs (New Weird being a cross-genre-genre).

For these posts (yes, there will be more than one), I want to address Callaway's views on New Weird and Scifi Strange; particularly, I want to critique his definitional elements and his ideas about these two genres.  My hope is to open up the dialogue on New Weird, Scifi Strange, and, more generally, genre studies.

Now for part one:

I.  Horror:  Placing New Weird in the Aesthetic Moment

Callaway begins his discussion by suggesting that New Weird has more in common with horror than science fiction.  Knowing Callaway personally, this is a very curious position for him to take, particularly since he takes the word "science" in SF quite seriously.  To suggest that New Weird is built in this way is ignoring a crucial element of almost all New Weird stories:  the science-ing of fantasy.  As a prime example of this, we can look to Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, considered to be the principal text of the New Weird genre.  The story is set in a world population by fantastic creatures and magic, to a certain degree, but it is also a world in which scientists are actively engaged in the understanding of their world in a way that reflects the approaches of scientists in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a moderate dose of pseudoscience.  There is a deliberate attempt on Miéville's part to evoke the past without compromising the fantastic, meaning that the stories feel real because of its adherence to a proto-scientific vision.  That Callaway has neglected to take this into account in his post is odd.  I wouldn't say that science is a constitutive element of New Weird, but it certainly is an important one to acknowledge.

More importantly, New Weird has been rightly suggested as a response, critique, or attack on Tolkien-derivative fantasy, something that should perhaps be obvious when one reads Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer, both authors who I would consider to be foundational writers in the two schools of New Weird (British and American).  What New Weird texts tend to do is diverge significantly from what many would call the "epic narrative" (chosen ones, impending societal collapse by a generic evil, massive wars, excessive or lightly-controlled magic attached to heroes, generic and otherwise, and a host of derivative figures who we have seen before, such as the bearded wizard, and so on).  They approach fantasy from an altogether unusual angle that suggests that there might very well be an appropriate divergent path from Tolkien's masterpiece (The Lord of the Rings); i.e. that one can design worlds with as much detail and precision, but with an eye on modern concerns and alternative originary points (Tolkien and Tolkien-derivative works look toward medieval England, while Miéville and VanderMeer draw heavily from the present and earlier periods in colonial-era England or America).

The idea that New Weird is defined by the aesthetics of the horror genre (or, perhaps, the gothic genre, since that seems to apply more effectively here), then, is suspect.  Horror elements absolutely exist in New Weird texts, but they are superficial to the science and the critical response the texts evoke.  In fact, I would argue that much of what Callaway perceives as aesthetic elements of horror are not actually horror elements at all, but representations of the grotesque, which does not belong to horror (though it is often found there).  Taken further, I see New Weird as imagining the grotesque within the aesthetic scope of "beauty."

Miéville is a master of this aesthetic.  Perdido Street Station combines grotesque imagery with narrative in a way that recreates the grotesque as an almost appealing object.  Isaac and Lin, for example, are two individuals who are, by most modern accounts, disgusting (Issac an overweight, "juicy" human, and Lin a parasite-infested woman with a large insect head instead of a human one); yet, as their relationship is made clear to the reader, they suddenly become strangely sympathetic characters, if not downright beautiful in how they react to one another.  We still might be slightly put off by the detailed descriptions of their eccentricities, but we're also able to look on in awe as their devotion to one another is made clear and the beauty of their relationship is allowed to shine through.  I think to call the grotesque in this context "horror" or "grotesque body horror" is to cheapen what is being created in the moment, to dampen the impact of the relationship between Isaac and Lin, or between the various other characters and settings that exist in other New Weird texts.

New Weird, thus, is a gloriously complicated genre.  It can be defined, perhaps with some limitations and vague-ries, and it is and probably always will be a mixture of elements.  But it isn't a horror-derivative subgenre.  The elements are there, but it has more in-tune with science fiction and fantasy than it is being given credit for.

More to come in the future.

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8 comments:

  1. "I see New Weird as imagining the grotesque within the aesthetic scope of "beauty." I totally said that! I get what you're saying about what I was saying, but the "science" the New Weird employs is more in tune with the "science" steampunk employs, and I don't consider steampunk to be a true SF subgenre either. New Weird, as far as a subgenre such as itself can be defined, is fantasy.

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  2. Anonymous5:12 PM

    I would say that the line between horror and the grotesque is a thin one, and one that you're negotiating mostly so you can put the emphasis on the SF-ification of fantasy.

    I've said it before and I'll say it one more time: "New Weird" is basically the scienti-fantasy literary approach of the New Wave wedded to the body horror approach of writers like Clive Barker, with dollops of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure.

    I don't believe New Weird exists with some aspect of the horrific, whether it manifests as the grotesque or something else.

    But...I honestly don't care anymore, either.

    JeffV

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  3. Adam: I think you implied it in one of your sentences, but you didn't directly state it as a wedding of the grotesque and the beautiful.

    I agree that New Weird employs the same kind of science as steampunk, but I also think that the difference is in the "how." A lot of New Weird stories go a step further than the typical steampunk story by trying to literally scientificate (I made that up) the fantastic. Particularly, Mieville does this, but others do too, which might explain why Justina Robson's Natural History gets called New Weird and hasn't yet been pegged as a Scifi Strange novel.

    And New Weird absolutely isn't a true SF genre anymore than it is a true fantasy genre. One of the constitutive elements of New Weird is that it blends genres. It's an amalgam, which makes it very difficult to define by general definitions of SF/F, but fairly easy within rigid systems (such as my own, which would likely place New Weird very clearly in the fantasy realm; but I like to think of New Weird as a blend, rather than as a fantasy genre with bits and pieces of everything else).

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  4. JeffV: I'm not negotiating it just so I can fudge things into my argument, but I probably should have made clear that I think the grotesque and horror are separate things, but also things that go quite well together, which explains why they are often found in the same space (used in conjunction). I do think New Weird divorces itself from horror as a genre, though, and simply steals little bits and pieces, which you seem to agree with in a way. The grotesque, however, I think is one of those things that can come from many places at once, since it is present in all manner of genres, from the "literary" to the science fictional to the generally fantastic.

    I also don't quite know what you mean by the last sentence. Are you disagreeing with me about New Weird having aspects of horror, or are you saying that you think horror is a necessary element by way of a clever sentence? I just want to be clear, because it threw me for a loop when I read it.

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  5. "I don't believe New Weird exists with[out?] some aspect of the horrific, whether it manifests as the grotesque or something else."

    That makes more sense to me.

    Love the discussion if for no other reason to get the wheels turning.

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  6. Great post, Shaun. And great discussion.

    Well, JeffV said everything. New Weird is New Wave + Old Weird (Lovecraft) + New Horror (Barker). I'd add a cyberpunkish approach to traditional/Fat Fantasy. As in: cyberpunk is to space opera what New Weird is to trad Fantasy. A breakthrough.

    But I think you're right about the science-ing of fantasy in NW. That, I believe, is connected to the tendency of NW novels to be in touch with "reality". To make magic a social and political element in the worldbuilding. But maybe I'm over-theorizing.

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  7. Anonymous9:04 AM

    I guess what I'm saying is I'm very tired of having to have the same discussion over and over again just to establish the basics about what New Weird is, was, or might be. I don't argue that it may mutate and that in conversation with "SF Strange"--which I'm still dubious about--it may be seen in a different light. But I don't see you as having

    Yes, grotesque and horror are obviously not the same thing. But they communicate with one another and at times form subsets of each other. Blah-bitty-blah. So sick of this discussion.

    I also guess I might say, have you read the New Weird antho? Because if you haven't you really should before you continue...

    JeffV

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  8. Jonathan: That would make more sense to me, and I agree that the horrific exists to some degree in New Weird. It's impossible to ignore in Perdido Street Station and City of Saints and Madmen.

    Jacques: I'll have to rethink the New Wave connection. I don't doubt it, but it's one that I haven't put much thought into.

    JeffV: I think it cut off one of your sentences. I'm not sure if that's blogger or some other glitch unrelated to it.

    In any case, there's no requirement on your part to get involved in the discussion if you're not interested in it. I certainly wouldn't demand your attention or intentionally create stress for you if it's not something you want to do.

    And we're in agreement that they communicate with one another, and I've said earlier that they go well together, but they don't necessarily *have* to be together. The grotesque is one of those elements that gets used quite frequently in other literary forms. But I'm also coming from a position in which I don't think the Saw films are horror movies, since the purpose of those films isn't so much to scare you as to make you incredibly uncomfortable.

    And I have read the New Weird antho. It's a very interesting book and I appreciated all of the discussions and what not in the non-fiction section.

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