The discussion of the New Weird and it's relation to genre keeps spilling over into hard sf and space opera, both topics I'm very interested in, so I'm inviting long digressions beyond the limits of social acceptability over to my place. As soon as I can put Elizabeth down, I'll add extracts.
So, what do we think is happening with regard to genre boundaries in the new hard sf and the new space opera that is too long to say (or really not relevant) in the context of the discussion of the New Weird?
Here are selected quotes about Space Opera and as discussed in context of the New Weird:
Jonathan Strahan (April 30, 2003):
Much like the new space opera (a term invented by a bunch of critics to cover the fact that they got distracted by cyberpunk and didn't notice that no-one had stopped writing the other stuff), the new weird/new wave fabulist/slipstream whatever seems to be a pretty happy and healthy outgrowth of some things that came before which would probably be much better of if left unlabeled and left to grow in the dark where they belong.
M. John Harrison (May 03, 2003):
My increasing sense is that both the New Weird & the New Space Opera, although they have clear and acknowledged roots, are a response to *now*, rather than a kind of inturned, in-genre historical development, or just a development from an alternative but equally historical root. Those writers are writing about the world now. That's why I like what's going on so much, that's why it's all so invigorating: that's also why I want to be careful who defines it.
Alastair Reynolds (May 07, 2003):
One thing I think worth adding is that - judging by remarks in interviews and so on - a lot of the new writers have a very ambiguous relationship with the genre they're most likely to be associated with. China clearly has a bit of a love/hate thing going with fantasy (I loved his remark about consolatory fantasy making him "puke"!!!!). I feel a bit the same about space opera/ hard SF etc. A lot of it I can't stand, but it's still the area that I'm most interested in working in.
Jonathan Strahan (May 08, 2003):
. . . it seems fair to say that the New Weird is secular; politically-informed and culturally-aware; incorporates action and detail; and is intensely visual. It also is aware of its genre antecedents without being bound by them. I'd add that it is pretty clear that the New Weird and the New Space Opera are at least sibs, if not actually the same thing. And it seems to be more UK-based, for some reason (though it certainly is coming to the fore in the US).
Paul J. McAuley (June 04, 2003):
Alternate cultural frameworks is something I've been banging on about for some time, ever since I was outed as a ringer bending space opera to my own fell ends; that is, trying to make space opera do something that didn't reinforce the hegemony of American capitalist democracy. I don't make any extraordinary claims about this; it's an attitude that Brits are likely to assume as a matter of course, since they're outsiders in a genre that's characteristically American. Brian Aldiss was Third Worlding it long before most everyone else in a genre which is supposed to be open to all kinds of ideas and weird points of view, but is too often open only to those which reinforce American triumphalism.
Alastair Reynolds (June 10, 2003):
I think the New Weird/New Space Opera discussion is very interesting because it forces us to take a good hard look at what we're doing, ask why we're doing it and if it's what we want to keep on doing. The problem (*if* it's a problem) with the New Space Opera (or the New Radical Hard SF, or whatever we want to call it) is that, by its nature, it can't ever be as weird as the NW unless it becomes the NW itself. This is because the New Space Opera will always exclude anything it can't rationalise. If I have a ghost walk on in chapter five of my new book, there will be a vast weight of expectation for that ghost to be susceptible to rational explanation within the framework of the story because I have a rap as a hard SF writer. I don't think the New Weird has this problem - the grab-bag is open and it's a given that anything goes. It's like that fantastic bit in (sorry) PSS, where the authorities reluctantly contact Hell to see if it can help them out with the moth problem (which of course sets up the utter awfulness of dealing with the Weaver, my favorite of all China's characters).
(I do suggest reading them in context and encourage further New Weird discussion. I don't want to interrupt Mike's party.)
IN THE COMMENTS: Charles Stross makes a radical suggestion.
FURTHER TO THE TOPIC OF GENRE BOUNDARIES:
A piece on Samuel R. Delany in LA Weekly:
Delany views science fiction as not a literary but a "para-literary" genre. "Many people think of it as a kind of disposable text that doesn't have any stylistic, intellectual or aesthetic merit -- and I think it does," he explains. "I think the fact it's been considered this way for a long time has had a great effect on how the genre writes itself, thinks itself, puts itself together. Obliterating the distinction between para-literature and literature is probably not a good thing, because it obliterates a great deal of the history of the genre."
Why is psychology so all important that it displaces all else in consideration of what constitutes "Literature" with a capital L?
Don't get me wrong--if you don't do the characterization right, everything else starts to crumble. But there is more to art than one lens. And more than one thing on which to focus those lenses.
What Birkerts criticizes Atwood's novel for is a sacrifice of deeper character study for the sake of examining the social and technological concepts she's deploying. So what? This seems to me a question of degree--how much of what do you put in to make the story work and work well? A little less character so the consequences of the human will as worked on the world at large can be examined? The deeper reactions should then take place within the reader's imagination. Rather than prescribing an emotional content, it evokes it. That's how fiction should work anyway.
But lyrical writing, deep description, and serious examination of concept can be every bit as eloquent and evocative as study of character. To the extent that humans are part of the world--and the world both acts upon and responds to humans--where comes this idea that applying the same artful gaze to the landscape as we might to the personality of the characters renders the book less?
Because that's what Birkerts suggests. That, ultimately, in spite of the fact that he likes Atwood's book, it is necessarily less than her non SF work, because she's paying attention to externalities.
Well. Henry James--and obviously Sven Birkerts--was obsessed with psychology. And not everyone's, but a narrowly-defined type, exemplified by upper middle-class to upper class Victorian white people of the 19th Century. Other issues simply didn't attract his attention, not to the same degree. He took his own highly refined sensibilities--and considerable gifts as a writer--and handed down the pronouncement that this was the only worthwhile endeavor of the serious novel.