Monday, December 8, 2014

Science Fiction or Fantasy in the Southern Reach

The following contains limited spoilers about Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy.  It does not discuss details or plot points, but does discuss basic approach and possible themes.

For about a decade, I read SF (aka science fiction aka speculative fiction) at high speed and nearly constantly.   This would have been before, during and after college, when I was productively employed at the RAND Corporation and had a future.  That is, before I destroyed my life by going into the bogus field of computer graphics / animation.   At some point, I decided it was time to move on to the related fields of historical linguistics, computational biology and so forth and so stopped reading much fiction at all.

But I was very fond of the field that SF came from and so recently, the last year or two, I have started reading selected works in the field of SF and came across Greg VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, a work I reviewed here) and which I think very highly of.   

So I recommended this work to a friend who currently does read nearly everything in SF and he read it and told me how much he hated it.   The reason was because he felt strongly that it was not SF but was fantasy.  I on the other hand had no doubt and have no doubt that it is SF and not fantasy.

The reader of this blog may or may not know that the distinction between SF and fantasy is a hotly debated topic in the field, by which I mean the authors, readers, editors, and publishers who deal with Fantasy and SF.   This discussion has been going on since before I started reading in this area, and it goes on today.

The fundamental distinction between the two fields is to what extent one violates the laws of physics and of what we know about reality and with what consistency one does so.   In classic SF one is allowed to make certain assumptions up front, for example faster-than-light travel or alien races with certain characteristics, but having made those assumptions then write a story that takes place in that world without taking additional liberties.   Fantasy, on the other hand, so someone from the world of SF would maintain, is permitted to not only take more liberties at the beginning, but is allowed to use magical belief systems at any time later in the work.    Thus, according to one school of thought, SF is a sub-genre of fantasy but with more constraints on what is and is not allowed.

A landscape in the Southern Reach 

The classic or canonical work of fantasy might be Tolkien's Lord of the Rings whereas the canonical work of SF might be Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Both are certainly works of fiction, and both are fantasy, but the latter has a more concise set of assumptions.

But another school of thought says that this distinction is perhaps not so clear as fantasy also has to abide by the rules and constraints of the assumptions that are made just as any good work of fiction must.   The difference between them may lie in the conventions of the specific topics that are chosen as assumptions.  In SF one may more properly assume technologies to go under water, but in fantasy one may assume the existence of a magical system available only to adepts, but in both cases one has constraints to live by in the execution of the story.

A metaphor-rich lighthouse lens plays a central role in the novels

But I think that the perception my friend had that the Southern Reach trilogy was fantasy did not come from that classic distinction between the two genres described above, but on another criteria sometimes discussed: what is the allowable amount of unexplained phenomena that is permitted?  If one exceeds this loosely defined limit would that make a piece of fiction fantasy and not SF?   

It is a premise of the Southern Reach trilogy that something very strange has happened to a part of the fictional, possibly parallel, world that the story is set in.   This region of the coast in a place very reminiscent of parts of Florida, is exhibiting a tremendous number of phenomena that are outside our normal understanding of how the world works.  It started to do so suddenly, with very little warning, and when it began, it put up a wall, or barrier, to separate the normal world from this very different place.   The plot and action of the story is for people from outside the area to try and figure out what is going on, what has happened, and what is the fate of the people who were in the area when the barrier came down, or who enter the area afterwards, or who remain outside the barrier in the normal world. 

Rampant ambiguity, or unexplained mysteries,  in the Southern Reach are part of the charm of the work. When the work is finished, many of these issues are still left unresolved although most of them, at least many of the important ones, are either somewhat resolved or we have a good working theory for what may be going on here.  But even at the end of the work there are still a lot of unexplained issues.  Some of this ambiguity is personal: what is the fate of this character or that one?  And some of the ambiguity is at a much larger level that involves the fate of many people, or the explanation for phenomena on a macro level.

The answer that is implied, but never conclusively pinned down in detail, is that we are seeing the work of an artifact or artifacts created by a very advanced and very different intelligence, one that is going about its work without much concern about us and may not even realize in some sense of the word that we are here.  But Arthur Clarke has famously pointed out that any truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.   So when we are through with this book one does not have everything explained, and one can choose to believe that what one is seeing is magic and not technology if one wants to.   The author is by design not going to tell you for certain what is going on, it is up to you to make your own judgment.

So on top of all the other ambiguity inherent in the Southern Reach trilogy, we have the potential of a new one, whether or not the works are properly categorized as science fiction or fantasy.

At the end of the day, when you reach the light at the top of lighthouse, it is up to you to decide whether there is magic or unexplained and advanced technology that is behind some of what you have just read about.

Which leads us to another question.  Can readers of classical science fiction accept work that has a high degree of ambiguity?

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