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Obversity.

There’s every now and then the occasional moment you can look back at, point to, a specific slice of spacetime where you can say there, that’s where the science dropped. —A while ago Felicia Day went and said this about a book by M.K. Hobson, friend of the pier:

For those urban fantasy fans out there, just read a really fun fantasy-steampunk-western-romance called “The Native Star” by M.K. Hobson.

And when I saw that I said to myself now waitaminute what on earth is she doing calling out a steampunk novel to urban fantasy fans? Because I mean on the one hand, goths who just discovered brown. On the other, leather trousers half-undone. But there came a tapping on my shoulder and a light was glaring in the corners of my eyes and when I turned to look I was struck dumb at that very instant by the insight:

Steampunk is the fantasy to urban fantasy’s SF.

You remember what I told you about how we were gonna abstract it up and out? How you shouldn’t get distracted by the furniture of swords and rings and rocketships, or zeppelins and tramp stamps? —Yeah. Like that.

In this book I argue that there are essentially four categories within the fantastic: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive, and the liminal. These categories are determined by the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world. In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic; in the intrusion fantasy, the fantastic enters the fictional world; in the liminal fantasy, the magic hovers in the corner of our eye; while in the immersive fantasy we are allowed no escape. Each category has as profound an influence on the rhetorical structures of the fantastic as does its taproot text or genre. Each category is a mode susceptible to the quadripartite template or grammar—wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing/return—that John Clute suggests in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (338-339).4

—Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy

4. Clute and I have had a number of discussions over which formulation of the grammar of Full Fantasy to use here. Clute being Clute, the formulation has gone through several revisions, rethinkings, and renamings. In the end, and knowing this is not his preference, I have chosen to go for the most physically accessible formula; that is, the version in the Encyclopedia.

So I was working my way through Mendlesohn—remember Medlesohn? This all started as a sequence of posts about Mendlesohn—and hit that passage right there in the introduction and had to stop. A grammar? Of fantasy? Qua fantasy? What on earth was this thing, with its talk of stages, categories, wrongness and thinning, recognition and return? I didn’t (and don’t) have a copy of the Encyclopedia myself; Clute I knew only vaguely as a critic (and spoiler) of some renown; Mendlesohn doesn’t spell it out much beyond the above, and some tantalizing hints throughout the chapters on her own quartered circle—but she did pick the most physically accessible of the possible formulæ, right?

Well, at $150 a pop, not so much. —And yes the library has a reference copy, but easy trumps free every time: a Google or three, and there we were: a talk given in 2007, making this if not the vision or thinking or naming close to that which Clute might rather Mendlesohn have used, at least a candidate rather close in time to the composition of the above.

Go on then, read it. —Even though I’ll be summarizing (in my own idiom and for my own purposes), you’ll want it under your belt so you can see for yourself where my model of her model of his model gangs agley.

Just—remember, okay? All models are wrong—but some are useful.

Clute’s model—at least as presented in this talk—isn’t just a quadripartite template for fantasy, but a triskelion encompassing, well, everything: the fantastika, which is another way of saying /fantasy/ or «fantasy» (or «smoke», or /mirrors/): “that wide range of fictional works whose contents are understood to be fantastic.” —This fantastika is posited as a Dionysian return of that which had been repressed by the cool, composed Appollonian excesses of the Enlightenment; by 1700, Clute notes, (at least within English literature),

a fault line was drawn between mimetic work, which accorded with the rational Enlightenment values then beginning to dominate, and the great cauldron of irrational myth and story, which we now claimed to have outgrown, and which was now primarily suitable for children (the concept of childhood having been invented around this time as a disposal unit to dump abandoned versions of human nature into).

This stuff, this fantastika, “the irrational, the impossible, the nightmare, the inevitable, the haunted, the storyable, the magic walking stick, the curse,” (the rocket, the ring, the sword, the goggles, the guitar) are then pressed into service as a means of dealing with those world-changes wrought by the aforementioned Enlightenment, the geist haunting the Zeit, the “World Storm” in the title of his talk: the unchanging state of constant change brought on by the onrushing Industrial Revolution, the Singularity that has always already been happening for some time now. —Clute identifies three main modes of this fantastika as of the twenty-first century, and bemoans their names: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror—modes, mind, not genera, not idioms, not category fictions, not rigorously defined academic exercises, but modes, each passing through or touching on four basic stages of story, each differentiable by the skew it brings to those stages, the way they roll through the fingers and trip from the tongue:

Or, if I might boil it all down to a grotesquely simplified reduction: a rejection, a celebration, a surrender.

Are there problems with this model? Oh yes. How could there not be? Setting aside for a moment how easily and even treacherously the one mode can slip to another within the same story, passage, sentence, you start squinting too closely at the details; who among us has not celebrated their surrender to something rejected? (We are Legion; we contain multitudes.) —No, I’m looking at the kernel of it all, the bedrock assumed beneath our collective feet:

—given the obvious fact that only bad worlds are storyable—

And oh, but this is Crisis-continuity, this is someone always insisting the stakes must be higher, this is someone just stopping in the face of the problem of Utopia, this is why movies suck and television doesn’t and the difference between Marvel and DC and this is much too much to go into right now but most of all it’s wrong, I mean let them be mindful of death and disinclined to long journeys, yes, but for fuck’s sake they will still be storyable, will still have stories, stories I at least want to hear and see and read—

Oh but that’s a tangent. Excuse me a moment. Ahem and all that. —What I meant to say was problems aside the simple clarity that triskelion brings to any discussion of the phantastick (to use my own preferred bumbershoot) is a powerful explanatory tool: one can easily see now why Star Wars is fantasy, and Star Trek is science fiction, and how delightful it is to consider Last Night as a gentle, whimsical, Canadian horror film.

And steampunk, well: but here’s another place the model starts to break. —Oh it’s fantasy, all right, whether there’s zombies or not; it is a nigh-desperate attempt to return, to reject, to recognize, but look at what’s being recognized, look where we’re returning: we don’t want the world-storm not to have happened. We want to go back to when it all began and try to do it over again. To ride it out better this time. To restart that Singularity, to make sure we get the zeppelins, dammit, and the goggles, and all the adventurous history this thinned mean world of ours won’t let us have. —Steampunk wants a mulligan on the Industrial Revolution, because what if? What if we had?

(—But that also requires a mulligan on imperialism. Oh what if. What if we hadn’t.)

So it isn’t as simple as all that, this celebration of something rejected, this adamant attempt once again to duck some awful, ugly truths. Still I think the triskelion helps us catch a glimpse of why it is the Great Steampunk Novel’s an asymptote no Icarus has yet managed to brush.

As for why urban fantasy’s really SF, well—

  1. Char    Jan 3, 04:08 PM    #

    — “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”?


  2. Kip Manley    Jan 3, 04:11 PM    #

    Not quite as such. It’s not the size of the wand or even the presence or absence of a wand at all. It’s what you do with it.


  3. Alain    Jan 3, 07:10 PM    #

    But this means that she’s not the one who divided writing into three branches: non-fiction, fiction, and science fiction. Pray tell me who did that three part split.


  4. Kip Manley    Jan 3, 07:37 PM    #

    No fair referencing Twitter conversations the rest of the studio audience might not have caught! And anyway I can’t for the life of me remember. It was a comment somewhere? I was feeling uncharitable? —So.


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