10 August 2008

Labels, and other romances

Reading JSBlog's piece on H G Wells adaptations sent me back last night to reread (yet again) a book which, as it happens, JSB's Ray Girvan originally recommended to me: A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright (which I've previously mentioned briefly).

Then, this morning, I return to the read the rest of the JSBlog post – which I had left halfway through to go in search of the book – and discover that Ray already mentioned it himself ... which somewhat deflates my intentions for an early morning spark off post of my own!

Reminder to self: finish reading things before following them up...

I don't know whether A Scientific Romance would be described as "steampunk"; I'm not an enthusiastic fan of genre labels (this is an old and well worn discussion between Ray and me). It posits a world where Wells' The Time Machine was a fiction, but one based upon a device which Wells had actually built. When tested, neither the machine nor its pilot returned; all knowledge of the device was then lost, so history since is unaffected by it (so, this is probably not steampunk so far as I understand). Wright's first person narrator, an industrial archæologist, through a chain of personal and professional events which you'll have to read the book to discover, comes into possession of the time machine when it returns one hundred years late...

Enough of that. Just time for a quick side track on genres, since it relates not only to this exchange with Ray but also another recent one.

Genres are labels – and labels are absolutely vital to human thought. We cannot think unless we classify.

But, labels are signifiers whose accuracy and precision (like most aspects of the world) dissolve into fuzzy uncertainties and disagreement as we examine them more closely. There is (to coin a hideously clumsy word) a sort of pseudoheisenbergian quality to them: the more precisely we define the meaning of a genre, the less certainly we will be able to agree on it.

So, I agree the necessity of terms such as "science fiction" and "thriller" and "Aga saga" and "steampunk" if discourse is to be possible. But am very sceptical of their value if examined. They are a bit like thin ice: keep moving and it supports you against the cold water below, but stop to look at it and it gives way.

The exchange between Ray and I about "contemporary literary novels" ran aground (to switch metaphors in mid flow) on exactly this. What, exactly, when you stop to look at it, is a contemporary literary novel?

There is another problem with labels; they are very often barricades between "us" and "them" – frequently between "us now" and "them then". As a one time hippy, I am uncomfortably aware of how rapidly "now" becomes "then" and a label which yesterday meant "exciting, caring, idealistic, forward thinking" suddenly today means "lazy and unwashed". Also how "us" and "them" can too easily elide into short hand for (to paraphrase words stolen from Peter Buckman's Playground) "let us beat the shit out of them".

So ... as I say, I acknowledge genres without being a great fan of them.


  • Peter Buckman, Playground: a game of fiction. 1971: London: Open Gate Books. 0333130073
  • H G Wells, The time machine. 2007, London: Penguin. [978]0141028958. (Originally 1895, Heinemann: London.)
  • Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance. 1997, London: Anchor. 1862300119

3 comments:

Poor Pothecary said...

Re the problem of labels, a case in point: Gibson & Sterling's The Difference Engine. It's readily classifiable as genre fiction - "steampunk" - by the general trappings (somewhat dystopian alternate-Victorian era with computers and high-tech weaponry). And yet the overall writing style and obvious erudition (for instance, the evident historical research and the allusion to other novels such as Disraeli's Sybil, or The Two Nations), and the authors' stated intention of using the genre as a vehicle for social commentary, take it distinctly into "literary" territory.

Sammy'sDot said...

"Literary" is one example of a genre label with an agenda ... it clearly (to my mind, at least) aims to implicitly define other fiction as "unliterary" and thus inferior.

I find myself asking ... isn't every "good" (oh dear: whatever good means!) novel, regardless of genre, automatically "literary"? Or is it literary only if it has the approval of arbitrarily established authority?

Genres overlap (as you are saying in the case of The Difference Engine) to such an extent that I genuinely don't see them as useful beyond internal mental cogitation and external conversational generalisation.

Steampunk, so far as I understand it, would in the past have been seen as a subset of or, at least, conjoint with, Science Fiction. Science Fiction in itself is subject to many disagreements, not least of which is whether or not "science" includes social sciences. You and I have chewed over in the past the relation of science fiction to magical realism (specific reference to Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Carter's Nights at the Circus), to some new age fiction (specific reference to Lessing's Canopus in Argus sequence), and others -all of which are widely included under that broad church "literary" label.

Where was I going with this? No idea ... so I'd stop there [grin]

Poor Pothecary said...

Steampunk, so far as I understand it, would in the past have been seen as a subset of or, at least, conjoint with, Science Fiction.

Oh, certainly (and it still is). But, like "cyberpunk" before it, it acquired a marketing sub-slot of its own.