Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Thinking about horror

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

I’ve been thinking about the genre of horror lately (hence the clever title of this post), and more particularly why it’s so poorly defined in most dictionaries. I defined horror in BNW as “a genre of fiction, film, etc in which the object is to instill a feeling of fear in the reader or viewer”. One could probably quibble about whether or not fear is the only feeling involved, but I think it’s pretty good, as far as it goes. But most dictionaries fail to define “horror” as a genre at all, which I find puzzling, since it’s been used in this way since at least the early 20th Century. (BNW includes a 1900 citation for “tales of horror”, which could be interpreted as being simply descriptive and not referring to a genre or category, and a 1917 citation reading in part, “those who enjoy horror, tales overflowing with blood and black mystery”, which is pretty clearly referring to a category of fiction.) I should also note that I’m limiting my criticism to dictionaries aimed at native speakers; learners’ dictionaries obviously have different inclusion criteria.

What they do (usually) include is either an adjective (i.e., “calculated to inspire feelings of dread or horror : bloodcurdling <a ~ movie>” [Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition]) or compound form (i.e., “horror film”, “horror comic”, etc.). Either way is a perfectly fine way to treat this usage, but neither choice correctly treats horror as a genre. It’s like having an entry for “science fiction novel” but not “science fiction”. (It’s worth mentioning here that the American Heritage Dictionary is the only major dictionary I checked that doesn’t define horror as a literary mode in any manner, although I haven’t looked at the latest version of the 4th ed.) The exceptions to this sad state of affairs are the Oxford dictionaries. The New Oxford Dictionary of English and New Oxford American Dictionary both define horror thus (example sentences and irrelevant subsenses elided): “1. an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. […] a literary or film genre concerned with arousing such feelings.” And the Shorter OED, 5th Ed., which defines it as “a genre of literature etc. designed to excite pleasurable feelings of horror by the depiction of the supernatural, violence, etc.” (This def. was first used in the New Shorter OED, aka the 4th edition, in 1993.) The other exception is Wiktionary, the dictionary sibling of Wikipedia (their definition is “A literary genre, generally of a gothic character”, which I don’t think quite captures the essence).

So why is this? I don’t know. One possibility that occurs to me is that the word “horror” is used in this way primarily within SF/F/H circles, although I’m pretty sure it’s also used this way by publishers and booksellers, but maybe the generic sense is perceived as being too confined to certain realms of discourse to meet most dictionaries’ requirements for inclusion. But because some of the best-selling authors in the world write horror (not to even get into films and video games), and therefore get notice in the mainstream press, I would be surprised if this were really true. (That 1917 quote I gave above is from the New York Times Book Review, for example.) It would be interesting to see how other genres are treated, and whether there’s a pattern of omitting genres in general, or whether it’s just horror that’s being slighted thus. But that’s another project for another day.

New SF in the OED

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

The OED’s quarterly update of new and updated entries always makes for entertaining reading (especially if you can get access to the online version; I get it through the San Francisco public library’s website — it’s free to anyone with a library card, and all California residents are eligible; if you’re a CA resident and happen to be visiting SF, it’s well worth your time to get a card!). I always scan it for SFnal words, and the latest batch has some interesting ones.

First off is fembot, which is defined as “A robot resembling a woman in appearance. Also in extended use: a woman characterized as a robot.” This is probably most familiar from the Austin Powers movies, but the first citation is from the Oct. 24, 1976 Fresno Bee, regarding an episode of The Bionic Woman. Somewhere, there must still be a Steve Austin/Jaimie Sommers fandom which would be able to tell us whether the word was used in an episode, or whether it was the reporter or somebody in marketing who came up with the term.

Next is the venerable FTL, which they list as an adjective (and “also as adv.”), and which I decided was an abbreviation. They only go back to 1964, even though both BNW and the SF Citations Project take it back to 1950.

Less directly SFnal, but interesting nonetheless is galactically. The primary sense (“With regard to a galaxy or galaxies; in galactic terms.”) goes back to 1903 in a non-SF use. The entry for the second sense (“To a vast extent or degree; hugely, immensely.”) strikes me as odd because the first citation they give for it is from an Ursula K. Le Guin novel (The Dispossessed), and to my eye looks like a strictly literal use in the first sense. But you decide: “After all you’re a world-famous—a galactically famous scientist!”  It  does, I suppose,  mean ” to a vast extent” in this context, but mostly it means that the scientist is actually famous throughout the galaxy, or “in galactic terms.”

Finally, we come to silver surfer, a term which is perhaps only marginally SFnal. It refers to “an elderly or retired person who uses the Internet,” and is a reference in part to the Marvel comic book character, Silver Surfer, and in part to the sense of “silver” referring to the color of hair “when white with age”.

I read bad SF so you don’t have to

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

Following up on revelations about paranormal romance (which is a fast-growing subgenre), I decided that as a scientiphilologist it was my bounden duty to make sure I wasn’t neglecting it as a source of citations. As a consequence, I have before me a novella titled “In the End” by one S. L. Carpenter. It’s a romance (or, more precisely, as it turns out, an erotic story*) set on Uranus. (Get it? “In the End“, “Uranus“? The whole story is like that.) I was half-hoping to find a cite for “Uranian,” one of the least-commonly used names for aliens from Earth’s solar system. About its only redeeming quality is that every once-in-a-while, one of the Uranus puns is actually funny. That, and the fact that it supplied me with only the second non–Star Trek use of the word “transporter” (to mean matter transmitter) I’ve ever seen. Now, before you Trek-haters get your knickers in a twist about the woeful effect that ST has had on the language of SF (you know who you are), let me just point out that the other instance was in a Poul Anderson story, so it’s not just people who only know SF from TV and the World Weekly News who are using it.


The fix-up is in

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Michael Swanwick has it in for the fix-up, or rather, for the term itself. A fix-up is, historically anyway, a novel composed of (usually) previously-published stories, often with additional linking material or minor rewriting to ease the transitions. And while the term is not exactly derogatory, it doesn’t generally imply stellar work. Swanwick’s complaint is that

What was once a modest descriptive for a very specific type of novel has long since metastasized, swelling to many times its original meaning and in the process doing a great deal of harm to many works of fiction that did not deserve to be so mistreated.

If you’re interested, and/or have some time to kill, his longer article on his crusade makes for good reading. One of the reasons for his ire is that, apparently, some novels from which excerpts have been taken and published prior to the novel’s publication, have been called fix-ups by reviewers (and presumably others). He argues, essentially, that this is evidence of semantic drift, and that the meaning of fix-up is changing to something more nebulous than its original. I wonder, however, if this isn’t so much semantic drift as it is poor research. I.e., reviewer reads novel; notices that stories were published earlier; assumes novel is fix-up of stories rather than that stories are excerpts of novel. But possibly some of both is going on.

Prescriptivists of future past

Monday, October 8th, 2007

Theodore Sturgeon’s story “How to Forget Baseball” (collected in the 11th volume of his complete stories, The Nail and the Oracle) includes a brilliant throw-away line that speaks volumes about attitudes toward language change. The story is set in a future America (where baseball has been supplanted with the extremely unlikely sport of “quoit”, the rules of which I will not even begin to attempt to reproduce, except to say that science fiction sports almost always sound hideously lame). The speaker is a “Primitive” — someone who lives in the sticks and hews to the “old ways” (in this case, those of the early 1960s); he is responding to a barrage of future slang:

“I,” said Mr. Ourser, “am a scholar, and among other things I am devoted to the purity of the tongue. I do not dig you one bit, man.”

A Challenge

Monday, October 8th, 2007

I’ve been reading in Gene Wolfe’s Shadows of the New Sun, a collection of interviews and some writings on writing. (This is a delightful book for me — I’ve spent years trying to track down some of these interviews in various fanzines and whatnot.) In a 1981 interview, Wolfe muses on the decline of the popularity of poetry:

Poetry is mankind’s oldest literature to retain popularity with a bulldog grip for about 5000 years and the grip has suddenly slipped.

He goes on to say: “I’ll bet you could go through this hotel and not find a person who could name five major living poets.” So, I rose to his challenge, and while it did take me a little while, I did manage to come up with five. (This was a couple days ago, and I keep thinking of more, in what must be the trivia equivalent of esprit d’escalier.) I’m curious to know how others do with this. No time limits, and I leave the notion of “major” to your own discretion.

Two things of scientiphilological note

Monday, September 24th, 2007

First, Michael Swanwick (who hath a blog) wrote a good piece about some of the current movements/subgenres in imaginative fiction, namely new weird, interstitial fiction, and mundane sf. It’s not quite “A User’s Guide to the Postmoderns” but then the SF dialog isn’t quite so fraught right now as it was back in the days of cyberpunk, and it’s as good a summation of these movements as I’ve seen. For whatever reason, we seem to be at a movement-y place in the genre, right now. From a lexicographic standpoint (he says with his eyes cast hopefully toward a 2nd edition of BNW), new weird seems to have the most traction, but I haven’t looked into this deeply yet.

The other thing is an interview with John Clute, regarding his recent book Darkening Garden, which is billed as a lexicon of horror. I haven’t seen it yet, but based on the interview I think I’m going to have to check it out. (Not that I’m not already generally interested in his writing as a matter of course, mind you.) The vocabulary of horror and fantasy criticism seems to be just coming into its own now. (Besides Mr. Clute, Farah Mendlesohn has also done work in this area, although I only know her work second-hand.) Apart from some terms created by J.R.R. Tolkien (subcreation, primary and secondary world), there doesn’t seem to have been much interest in this. I don’t know whether it’s because critics were content with using the standard lit. crit. terminology of myth and romance (a la Northrop Frye) or whether it’s taken this long for fantasy and horror to get any respect in the academy. In the late 60’s – early 70’s, there was a fair amount of interest in pinning down SF (as distinct from fantasy — and often with an air of superiority), and we got some very nice terminology out of it. My favorite might be novum, which was coined by Darko Suvin and which refers to what he calls a “strange newness” — that thing in a story which is different from the reader’s world and which indicates to the reader that the story is science fiction and not mimetic realism. I have my fingers crossed that Mr. Clute’s use of “polder” will catch on — it’s a beautiful term for a central idea in fantasy.

The Joys of Lexicography

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

One of the great joys of lexicographic research is coming upon an unlooked-for citation; antedatings can be especially exciting, but novel usages and just plain good quotations are also fun. I mention this because I stumbled upon what might well be the first use of “sci-fi” (pronounced “skiffy”) to mean bad science fiction in Damon Knight’s critical anthology “Turning Points”; it’s mostly reprints, some of which I’ve read elsewhere, but it contains two original essays by Knight. I found it at a used bookstore, and being a complete sucker for books of essays about science fiction (sometimes I enjoy reading about SF more than actually reading it — does this make me some kind of a fakefan?), I grabbed it. The relevant quote is in one of Knight’s essays, “What Is Science Fiction” in which he makes a valiant attempt to define SF (without resorting to pointing to it) based on a descriptive model, which is pretty rare for genre writers — most of them have an axe to grind or ideology to promote. The quote is below the jump:


Best of the Year Anthologies

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

Rich Horton has published the contents of his virtual best-of-the-year anthologies, which will actually be published as books this year. Two things strike me about this. Not the selections, mind you — I seem to have read almost no contemporary short SF last year, so I haven’t even read most of his selections, although I expect that they’re good, since I usually enjoy his reviews. It’s the books/lists themselves that interest me. One is that he a has a volume of space operas. I think this is a new idea — the best subgenre works of the year — and I think it’s very interesting and could do quite well. It’s also fun to think of other potential such volumes — best (worst?) dystopias, singular singularity stories, best erotic vampire fiction…. (I’m actually a bit surprised there isn’t a best erotic vampire anthology already.) The other thing that struck me was a comment he made regarding his list of best online SF, which he says is not being published as a book because “it wasn’t clear it would sell.” What’s remarkable to me is that there’s apparently enough market for the others to sell. I would have thought the best-of-the-year anthology market was pretty well  saturated by now, what with the venerable Dozois (SF) and Datlow/Link/Grant (fantasy & horror) anthologies, Hartwell & Cramer’s SF and fantasy volumes, two more by Jonathan Strahan, plus the Nebula anthology, and who knows how many horror volumes. I assume the publishers know more or less what they’re doing, but I am surprised at the sheer numbers. It also makes me wonder why the Best American Series hasn’t tried to crack the SF/F/H markets. It can’t just be genre-prejudice, since they’ve introduced a comics volume this year, and have done mysteries for some years.