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Vive la différence.

Trouble with Ted Chiang’s seemingly pat differentiation is most stories by construction must take their protagonists personally, and see them as special snowflakes: they are, after all, the people whose story is being told, without whom the very universe would not exist. (Think a moment how so much SF ends up as fantasies of political agency. There’s the storyable, world-shaking stuff!) —I like Jo Walton’s better: fantasy’s the stuff we know, in our bones, very much because it isn’t real; SF is that much harder because every jot and tittle you set down must always be checked, and checked again: like anything else that’s solid, science never stops melting into air…

  1. Charles S    Jan 21, 01:45 AM    #

    But is it the same thing to say that the author, the reader, the story itself must care about the protagonist (which is what you seem to be saying), and to say that the fictional universe within the story (not some people within that fictional universe, not a society within that fictional universe, the universe itself) cares about a character (which is what Ted Chiang is saying)?

    The quote from Ted Chiang comes down to the difference between magic and science, and the way in which they are not indistinguishable.

    I think much of LeGuin’s science fiction falls closer to what Jo Walton describes as fantasy, based in how people behave, how societies and history are shaped, than to Walton’s description of science fiction.


  2. Kip Manley    Jan 21, 05:53 AM    #

    Ordinarily I might retreat under a cloud of ironic amusement; oh, no, I’d say, you mistook performance for argument; it’s all much more murky and ambiguous and littoral than that. But not this morning. This morning I’m gonna double down: yes. That’s precisely what I mean.

    I probably should have added a couple of links: here’s Jo Walton (again) on protagonismos; also, one of the stories I wrote for Thaumatrope. (If I were in sheets-of-sound kitchen-sink attach-everything-you’ve-been-reading-howsomever-tangentially-to-the-current-argument mode, I’d throw in this link on The Wire and try to dredge up one of those older critical arguments claiming Whedon’s necessarily a misogynist because bad things happen to Buffy, but Christ talk about muddying the waters.)

    Any story that has a protagonist occurs in a universe inevitably shaped by a concern for that protagonist. Certainly, that concern comes in shades and degrees and hardly always (sometimes, O Job, hardly ever) redounds to that protagonist’s benefit, but there you go; we can try to split hairs about whether it’s that the universe overtly cares about the protagonist, or it’s all merely subtext; whichever: Chiang’s bright line’s gone all wuzzy. He may very well create stories without protagonists, stories that do precisely what he says, and his line works well for him, but I think it’s much too limiting for general use. There’d be way too many fantasies out there.

    (And I like Walton’s better. I do not find it any more correct. Your example neatly pierces its soft underbelly. —I hope it’s clear to longtime listeners I’m firmly in the Damon Knight camp whenever questions of definition come up: it’s whatever I’m pointing to when I say it? La différence must vive, even though we cannot adequately articulate it! —But I should maybe not [further] muddy the waters when I’m playing a longform game with something like the Cluthian triskelion by leaping magpie-fashion on every other shiny new lens that comes along, holding them up to the light in turn, saying, see, there’s a flaw!)


  3. Charles S    Jan 21, 07:35 PM    #

    But neither you nor Walton are going to be valid examples for showing that the fictional universe always personally cares about the protagonist, since you are both writing works that would fall within Chiang’s category of works in which the universe personally cares about the protagonist. You would have to show that something that we would trivially agree is not fantasy has a fictional universe that cares personally about the protagonist. Say, Triton, for example.

    Of course, if we are purely talking about which you (or I) like better, then my argument becomes irrelevant, and we are immediately brought to the question of like better for what…

    The main distinction to my mind between Walton’s categorizing move and Chiang’s categorizing move is that Walton’s relates to the process of creation (both in your original categorizing link, and also in the protagonismos piece), while Chiang’s relates to the finished work.


  4. Kip Manley    Jan 21, 08:29 PM    #

    Hmm. I’m not insisting a fictional universe must always personally care about its protagonist(s), not quite; certainly stories could be written in the mode Chiang describes, and almost certainly are. But the vast vast majority are not, because literary conventions demand the privileging of the protagonist(s) to an extent that makes it impossible for the universe of the story to truly be considered “scientific” in that sense. (Oh, and I don’t think we have to rise to the level of “care” to cross the line. Merely to not be impartial is sufficient.)

    So while the bright line exists, and may even be useful, it sequesters a tiny tiny set on the science end of things, and that set would be considered by most readers highly experimental and of dubious entertainment value.


  5. Charles S    Jan 22, 03:46 AM    #

    The other interesting distinction to me between Walton’s division and Chiang’s is that Walton puts most fiction into her category, and science fiction into its own little category, the stuff where it matters whether or not you get the science wrong. Ann Tyler’s works are in the same category as what Jo Walton writes by Walton’s categorization move.

    Chiang’s categorization move does the opposite. It puts works with magic in them off in a side category, as opposed to all the stuff where a scientific world view governs the fictional universe. To my mind, the fictional Universe of Ann Tyler’s novels is one in which the Universe doesn’t care about individuals. Not that that is a significant feature of the novels, it just isn’t ever suggested that the universe is biased in relation to the characters.


  6. Kip Manley    Jan 22, 09:09 AM    #

    Yes, if you can take Chiang’s distinction at face value, you can start to do that sort of thing. But if so, if you start poking it, and prodding it, eventually what’s left in the category of the fantastic, the magical universes, are those stories that depend on destiny ex machina—and even then bets can be hedged by handwaving in the general direction of genetics and of race: Gandalf is not treated any differently by the universe because he is Gandalf, after all; any of the Maiar might have done what he did, and to claim it is the universe noticing him and caring about him and treating him differently is no different than claiming the universe noticed Boromir and treated him differently because he had the strength and experience, the power, to fight those orcs when Sam and Frodo did not. —Paul Atreides is the Kwisatz Haderach not because the universe noticed him particularly and treats him any differently than anyone else; anyone might have had access to those insights, had they themselves been the result of a millennia-long breeding program: destiny as biology.

    But I don’t think literary or genre conventions allow you to take Chiang’s distinction at face value. If you pretend that a fictional universe truly is objective, and takes no more notice, cares not one whit more about this person than that, then questions such as Qlipoth’s about The Wire or my hideously unfair composite of old message-board posts about Buffy become at once more understandable: absent the distortive demands of story, why do these things happen to these people, and why are we shown them happening, why do we demand that they happen, and not those other things over there? To those other people? Why would we, charged with this dreadful responsibility, not all create little countries with many people, all of them mindful of death and disinclined to long journeys? —All else being objective and equal.

    I mean I don’t take it as far as Clute does, and insist that only bad worlds are storyable, but nontheless.

    And Walton’s distinction(s) can be terribly useful in reading works, and Chiang’s can be a fascinating stricture to set in place before constructing something, whichever level you choose to read it at. —Nah, to my mind the main distinction between Chiang’s distinction and Walton’s, or Clute’s, is that Walton’s or Clute’s can be applied in whole or in part, to this technique or effect, or that; they allow for fugue and interplay within a work. Chiang’s would judge a work entire as THIS or THAT based not on techniques or direct effects on the reader, but on the emergent properties of the secondary world in which the story’s set (to accept for a moment that our various overlapping realities here in the “real” world comprise a primary world, and no fiction as such ever actually occurs therein). —As admirably clean and simple as it might appear at first glance, his bright line becomes more squirrely and less useful the more I squint at it.


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