Saturday, 13 December 2008

Some publications from the British Science Fiction Association

A bit of catching up needed, plus an apology. The last time I mentioned the first publication described below, I attributed it to the British Fantasy Society: I'll try to keep my organisations in order in future! Anyway, I've finally got around to reading it, along with some more recent publications from the BSFA.

The earlier one is Fantasy & SF: The Roots of Genre, which consists of two long articles taken from two books on SFF criticism: Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid. Both articles are concerned with analysing their respective genres. Mendelsohn identifies four different types of fantasy: Portal-Quest (e.g. 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'), Immersive (the Gormenghast trilogy), Intrusion (when the supernatural affects our own world), and Liminal (which regards fantastic intrusions as normal). Kincaid devotes his article to trying to define science fiction, concluding that the term includes such a broad range of works that one neat definition isn't possible.

I have to confess that I am rather sceptical about intense academic analyses of this type. My reaction tends to be along the lines of "well, that's mildly interesting, but it adds nothing to my appreciation of a story." However, coming up with definitions and arguing about them can be fun, so naturally I can't resist putting up a conceptual coconut for others to shy at. I should say that I've not read much about this, so my thoughts are no doubt treading a well-worn path.

Rather than start by trying to define SF or fantasy, I'll take a step back and consider both, plus other related genres, which can all be encompassed by a term like "fantastical fiction" (I have seen "fantasy" used to cover all of this, but I think that's confusing). The definition of fantastical fiction, or FF, could be something like this: "Fiction in which a principal plot element is not of this world." I think that's fairly comprehensive if somewhat loose, although it's obviously open to debate; I suspect that any definition would be disputed by the majority of SFF readers!

The different elements, or sub-genres, of FF can then be defined in terms of FF, for example: Science Fiction is FF in which an attempt is made to convince the reader that it might possibly happen. A further subset of SF is Mundane SF, which is limited to the science we know now. Alternative History is FF set in the past, in which a change at some point leads to a different history. Fantasy is, well, everything else within FF…but it includes its own subsets, in the form of fairy tales, horror, and vampire stories.

Obviously, not all stories fall neatly into one particular category. There are lots of grey areas, and also lots which contain elements of more than one type of FF – or from outside the FF genre altogether (e.g. crime fiction set in the future), as Kincaid observes. One genre which usually contains elements of SF is the techno-thriller, which involves technologies which are not yet available, although they might well be in the near future. I was thinking of this when watching the hair-raising (well, it would be if I had any) BBCTV spy thriller Spooks, which has just finished its latest series. Some of their technological tricks are not available, but most may be soon (although some look to be impossible for the foreseeable future). The James Bond movies have often included SF elements, with spacecraft and invisible cars, although the latest incarnation has been dragged firmly back into the mainstream thriller category. However, I would not describe Spooks or the earlier Bond movies as SF, because that is not their primary focus; the SF bits are peripheral, not "principal plot elements".

The issue of what is, or is not, SF is also raised in the latest issue of Vector, the BSFA's "Critical Journal". It includes an article by Adam Roberts on the works of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, who has been writing FF for years without describing it as such, or being accepted by the SFF world as one of its own. Roberts' explanation for this is that her stories don't really fit comfortably into our concept of SFF, being more concerned with mysticism. There are several other articles. Jonathan McCalmont considers SF and the laws of physics, difficult to summarise as it provides a general tour of the environs, looking at how various authors have dealt with the laws of nature in their works. Frank Ludlow writes on the "art" of reviewing, discussing the responsibility of the reviewer to produce informative and constructive reviews but also, having done so, to ignore the occasional angry reactions. Saxon Bullock discusses the TV series Lost, while Andy Sawyer examines the contents of the very first edition of Vector from 1958 (and discovers some perennial topics, such as a guide to writing SF and a discussion on the importance of characterisation). Stephen Baxter considers our fear of apocalyptic doom and our constant tendency to assume that major threats are going to turn out to be worse than they actually prove (let's hope that continues to be the case, given some of the predictions about the consequences of climate change). Graham Sleight writes about the Interzone magazine film reviews by Nick Lowe, who has been beavering away at the task for 23 years. Finally, there are no fewer than 48 substantial book reviews, which I will be studying carefully with a view to drawing up a post-Christmas purchasing list.

The third publication is Elastic Press: a Sampler, a booklet about the work of a small press which focuses on publishing single-author mixed-genre short-story anthologies and favours new authors and writing. It starts with an interview by Ian Whates of Andrew Hook, originator and owner of the Elastic Press, and includes stories from three of their books: Love in the Time of Connectivity, from Binding Energy by Daniel Marcus (the strange nature of future relationships in virtual worlds); La Macchina from The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (a new take on the old trope of robots developing sentience); and A Necklace of Ivy from The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell (a rather surreal view of an alien invasion). The purpose of the Elastic Press is unusual and worthy of support and, judging by the quality of the stories included, the books are worth buying on their merits anyway.

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