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Ted Chiang responds to this post by Sarah Monette and suggests a way of looking at the differences between sf and fantasy:
I submit that what distinguishes magic from science--even imaginary science--is the role of consciousness. Magic has a subjective component--the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner--that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation.

[...]

This perspective helps illustrate why, even though fantasy doesn't have to be pre-industrial, fantasy works so well with a pre-industrial setting. Before industrialization, it was easier to believe that we lived in a universe that recognized persons. And even though fantasy doesn't have to be nostalgic, it's easy to romanticize the days when an individual's labor mattered, and you couldn't be replaced by a machine.

Similarly, this perspective illustrates why, even though science fiction doesn't have to be about technological advancement, it is so often concerned with the notion of progress. Once conscious intention was removed from the creation of devices, inventions could spread so rapidly that you could see society change within a single lifetime. And even though SF doesn't have to be cautionary, it's easy to worry about the dehumanization that can result when conscious intention is removed from too many aspects of life.
EDIT: Jeff Vandermeer (and Evil Monkey) respond here.

EDIT: And [livejournal.com profile] truepenny completes the circle here by arguing that definitions are useful after all.
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Crooked Timber have a virtual seminar up that focuses on Susanna Clarke's wonderful, Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. There are a variety of essays, all linked to from the introduction, and then a response from Clarke, including a thoughtful response to the oft-voiced question, 'where did the female magicians go?', as well as this on the possibilities of fantasy:
Firstly fantasy can be about giving power, strength, importance to the small and weak. Thus the smallest, weakest person—Frodo Baggins to take an example entirely at random—goes off to fulfil the Most Important Task. And turns out to be the only person who could have done it. Ditto Stephen Black.

Secondly Fantasy (and SF) can be the opposite of this. Instead of Giving Importance to People, it can Humble People. It can be about turning our view, however briefly, away from ourselves; it can be about glimpsing that human beings are not always, forever, and irrevocably, the centre of the universe. If you are C.S. Lewis, writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you turn our view away from ourselves to God. (The children become kings and queens —which looks a bit like giving power to the weak, but as they are self-confident, middle-class English children, they never seem that weak or small.) If you are Alan Garner, writing Thursbitch, you turn our view away from ourselves to an actual, historical valley in northern England which stands for all the places in northern England resonating with their own, not-human placeness. I’m with Alan Garner: the landscape of England (particularly Northern England) is the bit of magic we can actually see and touch for ourselves.

I rather like this use of fantasy, partly because is that it’s something we do so much better than the literary fiction people. Literary fiction sticks resolutely to the human. But the world seems to me so much bigger than that.
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Day 1 (pp1-15): First Impressions

It's a big book, but beautiful with it. Clean typesetting, good binding (incorporating a ribbon bookmark), and I like my edition's blackened page-edges.

I've stopped at the end of chapter one only because there's such a lot to assimilate. It never feels like heavy going, but a lot of information is conveyed in those first fifteen pages, and I want to have a clear picture in my head before I go further. Not all of it comes from the narrative, either--there are illustrations, and also a sprinkling of footnotes to fictional scholarly works. Clarke seems to write with the sort of formal, precise language that I, accurately or not, mentally associate with 19th-century Literature. This matches neatly with her treatment of magic as a dry, dead thing, its time passed, its study only dusty scholarship, never practice.

there will be spoilers )
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(Some spoilers)

This is something I chatted briefly with [livejournal.com profile] tinyjo about at the weekend, and I apologise for going on about the same book again, but: I'd been considering writing a response to this piece by Matthew Cheney, which is partly about the actual merits of Ian R Macleod's novel The Light Ages and partly about how it was received. Before I got around to it, however, Trent Walters said much of what I was going to say at s1ngularity.

For instance, I don't disagree that in-genre hype is a problem - I don't see that anyone credibly can - but there were a couple of things in Cheney's specific criticisms that I could take issue with. Some of them are, admittedly, entirely subjective. I found the writing to be both lucid and immersive, and I thought the characters were interesting, if in many cases not exactly likeable. And in one case, I even agree with him - it is a slow book, and arguably too slow. Still, I'd be very reluctant to ascribe grammatical errors to Macleod rather than to his (somewhat uneducated) first-person narrator; and although he does single the novel's ending out for praise, I think it's perhaps more significant than he gives it credit for. However, see also Cheney's response to Walters, in the comment on the s1ngularity post.

Actually, Cheney also followed up with this fresh post on his own blog, whose comments in turn inspired this discussion from Walters (you'll have to scroll down a bit) of Cheryl Morgan's review. Her style is almost the polar opposite of Cheney's - his concern is primarily with the technical merit of the writing, and whether or not it was unjustly lauded; hers is with the broader argument of the novel - and in considering it I agree with Walters less; where he finds her final assessment of The Light Ages 'intriguing and profound', I find it mistaken.

Leaving aside the (to me, somewhat tenuous) Mieville/Macleod/cover art/politics theory that opens the review, her central argument is this: 'Macleod's message that all political revolutions are dangerous is trite and insulting to anyone who bothers to think deeply about politics. You always have to weigh the costs and benefits. The further message that proponents of revolution are naive dreamers who end up selling out is also simplistic and unsubtle.'

To the first point, I say that I think the novel is offering a model of social progression based on evolution rather than revolution; it's suggesting not simply that revolutions are dangerous, but that they don't often succeed, and that progress more commonly comes only in the smallest of increments, and those hard-won. To the second, I say that it's presenting the dangers of a revolution headed by naive dreamers, rather than suggesting that all revolutionaries are such. That's the key, I think; I see The Light Ages as being about what happens when fantasy meets reality. I think it offers one possible honest answer to that question and I think that's why, for me, it's such a fascinating novel.

EDIT: Note to [livejournal.com profile] flyingsauce - the mumpsimus is the blog I was talking about this evening. The lj account is [livejournal.com profile] mumpsimus_feed.
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Somewhat late to the party on this one, but what the hey: Over at the message boards for The Third Alternative, and specifically on M John Harrison's board, there's an astounding discussion about the state of SF, the future of the genre, and all the sorts of things that make me a happy little geek. It's similar to the sort of thing Norman Spinrad suggested in Asimov's - the breakdown (or mutation) of genre - but it's taking it a step or ten further.

It's a discussion about current SF; the fact that in the past five years there have been incredibly exciting developments all over the place, what they represent, who's writing this stuff, and what it should be called. The suggestion (although by no means consensus) is 'The New Weird', and as a movement it's more about attitude than content - a shameless pilfering of styles and ideas from the whole spectrum of fiction, and the wider world. It'll take hours to read it all, but it's definitely worthwhile; I'm about half-way through and so far have come across contributions from M John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, Justina Robson, China Mieville, Paul McAuley, Colin Greenland, Charlie Stross, Richard Morgan, Adam Roberts, Cory Doctorow, and many others. This is the sort of discussion you imagine the neophyte cyberpunks having back in the day, but it's taking place in the open, for all to see. If this 'New Weird' thing takes off, this'll be one hell of a historical document.

The discussion starts here, and continues here, here and here. I'm sure I'm going to have to come back and pull some specific quotes out later, but the bare links will do for now.

Edit: Oh, just the one quote, then.
"You can make similar (and similarly inflated) analogies with the gay movement. We can be the Log Cabin movement of genre - I'm a writer just like you, and if I happen to write about the odd monster or two, well, it's all behind closed doors, we're all fiction under the skin aren't we, what does it matter, why can't we all just get along... or we can be Outrage!. We're Here! We're Weird! Get Used To It! I know which I'd rather be."
-- China Mieville

Always good for a quote, Mr Mieville. :-)

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