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Friday, January 21, 2011

New Weird and Scifi Strange: Part Three -- The Existence of Unsure Things

(Read Part One and Part Two)

III.  The Strange is Coming?

When I initially began work on the series of which this is a part, I had always intended to end with a post about Scifi Strange.  I thought I would write a long, definition-based post about Scifi Strange and its problems.  But then it occurred to me that I've technically already done the definition thing elsewhere--i.e., for a conference.  Why rewrite the same basic information if you can simply update the language and add little bits where necessary?  With that in mind, below is an updated version of the Scifi Strange piece of a paper I wrote and presented in the Summer of 2010 (for a conference in England):

Whether Scifi Strange is actually a new movement or subgenre is probably not apparent at the
present moment. The problem with Scifi Strange as I see it is that Sanford has attempted too much of a catch-all with his definition, throwing in all manner of science fiction stories that, while certainly strange, have very little in common beyond their basic strangeness--a feature that can be said about most genre fiction.  But there are exceptions, such as a number of Sanford’s stories and the works of authors like Ted Chiang and Kij Johnson. And what those stories are doing is absolutely a development that is very unusual, somewhat experimental, and an extension or response to New Weird, whether intentional or otherwise. While New Weird places heavy focus on urban spaces with defined contours, familiar locations, and so on, many of the stories that I would label as Scifi Strange detail locations that are spatially disconnected. By this, I mean that the locations are often not named, given little context within the human spectrum of space exploration, and generally seem to exist in a bizarre vacuum that culturally separates the inhabitants from other species—usually humans—but doesn’t place the inhabitants in a local vacuum, which would make the environments alien to them. These spaces are detailed in similar fashion as what might be found in New Weird texts, though understandably less so due to the short form.

As a prime example of this, we can look at Jason Sanford’s “The Ships Like Clouds, Risen By Their Rain” and Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation.” Both stories occur on other planets, contain alien ecologies (to us, but not to the characters), and faint (or absent) implications for the existence of Earth exists.  Earth is not relevant to the stories, nor is the fact that humanity has moved to the stars; we, just like the characters, are disconnected from familiar locations. Sanford’s story takes place on a strange world of mud inhabited by humans who have lived there for centuries.  It is a world where ships in the shape of clouds appear and fly across the planet, often pouring rain on the human settlements on the planet, resulting in floods, which, in turn, require the residents to build upwards into the sky, continuously, else they be buried alive in the mud. Chiang’s story is told as a written historical account of the final days of the last sentient machine on a planet closed off from the universe by a massive metal sphere, within which they have discovered that the air pressure is equalizing, leading to the eventual cessation of brain activity for the humanoid beings that live there. Both stories lack the coordinates readers need to orient ourselves within their universes and privilege the "alien" spaces over the familiar space of Earth, and Earth itself (as we know or might recognize it) is marked by near-total absence. At best, we have human characters to identify with, but the cognitive dissonance of Scifi Strange is in the displacement of character and audience from familiarity, leaving no place to hold on to.  They are utterly alien experiences. This is the function of Scifi Strange and the authors who write it (assuming it actually exists).

But because Scifi Strange is a new development, it’s impossible to know whether this will develop into something centralizes--even partially--in the same why that New Weird seemed to be when it first began to gain attention in the early 2000s. If it does, and it can be identified, I suspect Scifi Strange will continue to embody the spatial disconnection that makes the works of Ted Chiang and Jason Sanford fascinating.  Perhaps in another few years, there will be nothing more than a handful more stories with similar narrative themes, or, if we're lucky, we'll see Scifi Strange become a "real" subgenre.  Then again, some people hate new subgenres more than they do the genre they claim to love.  Maybe a Scifi Strange hate-fest will do it some good.  Science fiction seems to be doing just fine considering it's been "dead" for decades...

Some other reading on Scifi Strange:

And there you go.  Feel free to lob your complaints in the comments!

P.S.:  I may have more to say about this, but I think leaving this post as is will be a good start to a discussion. Your comments might inspire me to throw out a few more things.

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  1. Anonymous8:25 PM

    Most of this seems to me to be fairly...meaningless. I mean, seriously. I could render this down to four one sentence bullet points. And they wouldn't be very interesting bullet points.

  2. Yet you deemed it worthy enough to spend time posting an un-constructive bit of criticism. Must not be so meaningless after all.

  3. I think you make a valid point about Sanford's catch all definition. I think that the actual number of stories that fit squarely in SF Strange, and that aren't better served as being called Hard SF, Space Opera, etc. is quite small. I do believe SF Strange is a legitimate subgenre, and the stories that qualify as SFS are truly unique of other subgenres. The Ships Like Clouds is definitely SFS, but Exhalation is almost secondary world clockpunk. A hate fest would be good, however, as it will keep SFS niche, where all good subgenres should be if they wish to produce revelatory stories.

  4. I think we will disagree on "Exhalation." I think it fits within the theme I'm seeing in potential Scifi Strange tales. But I should probably do a bit more reading to see where the lines might be.

    I don't think a hate fest would be such a good thing. I don't know if SFS should be too niche. Small? Sure, but not so small as to remain obscure. If it exists as a subgenre, then it needs to be one that neither floods, nor sinks back to obscurity.