2010/12/07

Ψ-yonara

How much do I rock? So much so that that title, aside from sounding like "sayonara", actually means "if it's psi." Yes, yes, I am that cool. No applause, just send money.

Before I kick this off I have to say I was a little hard on Arthur C. Clarke, though I generally favor mouth-shooting anyone who combines arrogance and ignorance like that (and I still love that post's title: zing, bitch). His jackass nominally atheist (but actually just quasi-Gnostic) bloviating is only a deal-breaker in Childhood's End. Otherwise it's a foible of a good writer, a thing like the rishathra, dolphins, or unworkable Kzin society, in Niven, or Cherryh's obsession with gender-reversing male-chauvinist tropes (she's an equality feminist, I think, one who never got the memo that some genders are more equal than others). You can tolerate it, though there's a few cases where it drowns out the plot. It's not like Asimov's systematic cultivation of blind, stinking pig-ignorance, or Brin's shrill doctrinaire-liberal harangues, or Iain M. Banks' puerile gutter-wallowing. Clarke's flaw is an annoying distraction from his writing; Asimov's, Brin's, and Banks' flaws are their writing.

Anyway, John C. Wright said, in his brilliant discussion of how much Childhood's End sucks, that in SF, you stick to a naturalistic worldview; any supernatural stuff has to be called psionics or something. My problem with that is, psychic phenomena have been demonstrated far more conclusively than Keynesianism or the Laffer curve; so, too, the pagan gods (if you disagree, try explaining it to the three men who are dead because they filmed the Navajo dance invoking Yé'ii Bichaii, the Maternal Grandfather of the Gods, all the way through). But the explanations "parapsychologists" always give are bunk. At best, you have to call that stuff "psi", which is a sciencey-sounding way of saying "hell if I know" (no really, the term comes from early ESP experiments, where the letter stood for "unknown factor").

Personally, in my own writing, the distinction between SF and fantasy is more subtle. My fantasy and dark fantasy have huge, improbable works of magic, fireballs and shape-shifting and vampires and Thor. But the science and tech are all real for the era they're set in. My SF book has fusion and antimatter rockets, space-folds, and inertia-control by stress-energy tensor metric patching, but the psychic powers are limited to the kinds of things Wolf Messing or Nina Kulagina could pull off. Basically, SF is where I'm being speculative with tech, while fantasy is where I'm being speculative with wonder-working.

The best example is onmyodo. Being the Nihonphile I am, I have onmyoji in both my SF and my dark fantasy. But in my SF book, it's subtle, and in doubt whether he's really doing anything at all—the main thing he does is use it to get around Lucas-Penrose. In my dark fantasy, the generating cycle of the five elements is used to blast zombies with fireballs by pointing twigs at them. See the difference?

Now, personally, I think anyone who calls that stuff "supernatural" or "miraculous" is quaint. There is, in real life, a distinction between the paranormal/marvelous, on one hand, and the supernatural/miraculous, on the other. And magic, ESP, telekinesis, ghosts, gods, and the rest of it, go firmly in the paranormal and the marvelous. So, actually, I guess I stand with Wright: I just have a vastly broader conception of "natural" than him. The only things I consider supernatural/miraculous are the things that involve contradictions of sacrificial economy ("equivalent exchange").

The resurrection of the dead is a miracle (it breaks a rule of magic; onmyodo's Taizanfukunsai or "Invocation of the Minister of Mt. Tai" is actually a technique for exchanging one person's bad omens for another person's good ones, and in any event would've required a human sacrifice for every person brought back to life). Indeed, resurrection breaks a metaphysical rule: ordinarily, form and matter, essence and accidents—what you skin-clad savages call soul and body—can't be reunited once separated. Creation ex nihilo is a miracle, as is a change in form/essence/soul without changing matter/accidents/body. Do you detect a pattern? Yeah, basically only God with a big G, the Subsistent Act of Being, can get you miracles. All of them involve existence, in some way, because no mere form can affect that (one might call it, in relation to the Four Causes, the Zeroth Cause). That's why they're violations of sacrificial economy.

Where exactly devils and angels go on this continuum is anyone's guess, I'm afraid. But I err on the side of caution; there aren't any in my SF book. There's two, possibly three miraculous apparitions, far back in history, but it's necessary to the plot. Meanwhile in my fantasy book the religion (the direct worship of existence) has clerics who can raise the dead and heal huge wounds (the gods, who are called elves and trolls when they're at home, can only speed up the body's own healing process, and regenerate their own wounds); my dark fantasy has three devils, one of whom is variously called Satan, Lucifer, or Shemyazah, an exorcism (of a possessed vampire no less!), a stigmata, and an intervention by the Guadalupana.

Holy shit. Did I just actually come up with a working definition of the difference between SF and fantasy, that can actually address mixed cases? I think I did. How do I patent this? Hell, while I'm at it, watch this: "pornography is those works whose sole or chief artistic merit is the excitation of the prurient interest." Ta-dah: gets around the question of whether it's "art" or not, and also represents more of a standard than "I know it when I see it."

I'd just like to say I rock and roll, all of the time.

1 comment:

penny farthing said...

I love that you wrote a super-smart and insightful blog about weighty matters, and then ended it with a quote from Kung-pow Enter the Fist. It' made me very happy.